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The People Who Didn’t Matter to Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, who died today at the age of 100, was determined to write his own place in history. Richard Nixon’s and Gerald Ford’s former secretary of state and national security adviser burnished his own reputation through his memoirs and books, by cultivating the press and foreign-policy elites, and winning the adulation of politicians as varied as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. For his 100th birthday on May 27, he was celebrated at a closed-door black-tie gala at the New York Public Library attended by the likes of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns.

Yet for all the praise of Kissinger’s insights into global affairs and his role in establishing relations with Communist China, his policies are noteworthy for his callousness toward the most helpless people in the world. How many of his eulogists will grapple with his full record in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Chile, Argentina, East Timor, Cyprus, and elsewhere?

Dismissing the arguments of dovish White House staffers, he came to endorse a secret U.S. ground invasion of Cambodia, which began in May 1970. In December, after Nixon complained that American aerial bombardment up to that point was inadequate, Kissinger passed along an order for “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia.” Ignoring the distinction between civilian and military targets, Kissinger said, “Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?”

In November 1975, after the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and began its mass exterminations of civilians, Kissinger asked Thailand’s foreign minister to relay a message. “You should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them,” he said, referring to senior Khmer Rouge leaders. “They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.”

On another occasion, Kissinger expressed indifference toward the repression of Jews in the Soviet Union, telling Nixon in the Oval Office, “If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Perhaps the most revealing chapter opened in 1971, during a series of massacres in what is now Bangladesh, the world’s eighth-most-populous country, but was then the eastern section of Pakistan, an important American client state during the Cold War. Kissinger stood firmly behind Pakistan’s military dictatorship throughout one of the Cold War’s worst atrocities—a record that he subsequently sought to cover up. Some of the most sensitive parts of the White House tapes have for decades been bleeped out under bogus claims of national security. But in my own research on the crisis, I got several batches of tapes declassified over the course of 10 years of wrangling.

Pakistan, created by carving Muslim areas out of the former British India, was originally a bifurcated country. East Pakistan was predominantly Bengali, and many of its 75 million people resented the high-handed rule of Punjabi elites and a military dictatorship more than 1,000 miles away in West Pakistan. When Bengali nationalists won a democratic election in 1970, a crisis began. After constitutional negotiations stalled, Pakistan’s military junta launched a bloody crackdown on its Bengali population on the night of March 25, 1971, trying to shoot people into submission. Kissinger’s own White House staff told him it was “a reign of terror” from the start. By that June, the State Department publicly reckoned that at least 200,000 people had died; the CIA secretly came to a similar estimate in September, as the killing raged on. Some 10 million terrified Bengali refugees fled into India, where countless people died of disease in overcrowded camps. While an overwhelmed India sponsored Bengali guerrillas to resist the Pakistani onslaught, Pakistan attacked India, its much larger neighbor, in December 1971. The ensuing war, intense but short, ended with a humiliating drubbing for Pakistan and the creation of an independent Bangladesh—a crushing defeat for the United States in the Cold War.

The Nixon administration knew it had significant, although not unlimited, influence over Pakistan, which was fearful of India—an officially nonaligned democracy that was tilting toward the Soviet Union. Yet in the crucial weeks before the killing began, Kissinger, then the national security adviser, chose not to warn the Pakistani generals not to open fire on their own citizenry. He did not press them to accept in some rough form the results of the election, no urge them to cut a power-sharing deal with Bengali leaders to avoid an unwinnable civil war. He did not impose conditions to deter them from committing atrocities, nor threaten the loss of American support during the atrocities.

Despite warnings from his own staff about the potency of Bengali nationalism, Kissinger accepted the claims of Pakistan’s military rulers that the Bengalis were a cowardly people who would be easily subdued. He said to Nixon, “The Bengalis aren’t very good fighters I guess.” Referring to the number of Pakistani troops in East Pakistan, he told Nixon, “The use of power against seeming odds pays off. ’Cause all the experts were saying that 30,000 people can’t get control of 75 million. Well, this may still turn out to be true but as of this moment it seems to be quiet.”

In their attempt to hold on to East Pakistan, the Pakistani forces brutalized the Bengali enclave’s Hindu minority. Kenneth Keating, the U.S. ambassador to India and a former Republican senator from New York, warned Kissinger to his face in June 1971 that “it is almost entirely a matter of genocide killing the Hindus.” Yet on the White House tapes, Kissinger scorned those empathetic Americans who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.” Briefing the White House staff about how Pakistani General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan helped to get him into China during his secret July 1971 trip—which was an important reason for his unyielding support for Pakistan—he joked, “The cloak-and-dagger exercise in Pakistan arranging the trip was fascinating. Yahya hasn’t had such fun since the last Hindu massacre!”

Throughout the crisis, Kissinger scorned Indians as a people. On June 3, 1971, he said, “Of course they’re stimulating the refugees,” blaming the Indians for the Pakistani military crackdown. Then he castigated Indians as a nation, his voice oozing with contempt: “They are a scavenging people.” On June 17, speaking about the Indians, Kissinger told Nixon, “They are superb flatterers, Mr. President. They are masters at flattery. They are masters at subtle flattery. That’s how they survived 600 years. They suck up—their great skill is to suck up to people in key positions.” Although he concentrated his intolerance against the Indians, Kissinger expressed prejudices about Pakistanis too. On August 10, 1971, he told the president: “The Pakistanis are fine people, but they are primitive in their mental structure.”

Although Kissinger would later try to hold himself apart from Nixon’s lawbreaking in Watergate, he made his own contribution to the atmosphere of lawlessness in the administration. During the war that began when Pakistan attacked India in December 1971, Kissinger worked hard to rush American weapons to Pakistan, via Iran and Jordan—even though he knew that this violated a congressional arms embargo. As Kissinger secretly told a visiting Chinese delegation, he understood that he was breaking the law: “We are barred by law from giving equipment to Pakistan in this situation. And we also are barred by law from permitting friendly countries which have American equipment to give their equipment to Pakistan.” He brushed aside warnings from White House staffers and lawyers at the State Department and the Pentagon lawyers that it would be illegal to transfer weapons to Pakistan. In front of the attorney general, John Mitchell, Nixon asked Kissinger, “Is it really so much against our law?” Kissinger admitted that it was. Not bothering to concoct a legal theory about executive power, Nixon and Kissinger simply went ahead and did it anyway. Nixon said, “Hell, we’ve done worse.”

Rather than reckoning with the human consequences of his deeds, let alone apologizing for breaking the law, Kissinger assiduously tried to cover up his record in the South Asia crisis. As late as 2022, in his book Leadership, he was still trying to promote a sanitized view, in which he tactfully termed former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi “an irritant”—even though during her tenure he repeatedly called her “a bitch,” as well as calling the Indians “bastards” and “sons of bitches.”

Kissinger’s apologists today tend to breeze past such coarse stereotypes about foreign nations, extolling his pursuit of U.S. national interests while overlooking the toll on real human beings. Decades after the South Asia crisis, the bland version of Kissinger that now prevails bears scant relation to the historical record. The uncomfortable question is why much of American polite society was so willing to dote on him, rather than honestly confronting what he did.

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