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COMMENTARY: No, Henry Kissinger was not a war criminal

Henry Kissinger, the great American statesman who died last week at age 100, stands accused of many things, but perhaps the most outlandish is that he bears responsibility for the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Implementing a radical communist vision drawn from Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot and his comrades killed roughly a quarter of the country’s population through execution and starvation resulting from forced collectivization and population transfers. This Red Guard-like ideological frenzy is somehow attributed to Kissinger.

The Nixon administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia and a brief invasion notoriously known as the “incursion,” are often called war crimes. They supposedly destabilized Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge mad — otherwise, we are assured, Cambodia would have escaped the chaos that engulfed the region in a decadeslong military conflict and the Khmer Rouge would have been moderate reformers.

Much is made, in the anti-Kissinger case, of Cambodian neutrality. But the country’s neutral status had already been flagrantly violated by North Vietnam, which ran fighters and materiel through Cambodia on the Ho Chi Minh trail. It’s not illegal under international law, let alone a war crime, to attack belligerents across a border.

It is also presumed to be a terrible thing that the bombing campaign, begun in March 1969, was initially secret. It wasn’t publicly announced to avoid embarrassing the Cambodian government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. He went along with the operation targeting North Vietnamese bases on the border to placate sentiment in his country against the foreign presence. When Sihanouk was toppled by a pro-U.S. general, Lon Nol, he threw himself into the arms of the Khmer Rouge.

Although they eventually had a break, the Khmer Rouge was a North Vietnamese project. The United States held off the Khmer Rouge with a further bombing campaign in 1973, but Congress cut off support and the group swept to power. While the left prettied up the Khmer Rouge, the Nixon administration issued prescient warnings. In urging Congress to continue support, an assistant secretary of state warned that there “would be an unbelievable transformation of that society against the wishes of its general population and through the use of great force.” Whose fault was that?

Kissinger enemies Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman aver, “When poor peasants are driven into the jungle from villages destroyed by bombing, they may seek revenge.” Oh, really? Genocidal revenge against their countrymen who weren’t piloting the B-52s? Laos was the most heavily bombed country during the war, and yet it didn’t descend into killing fields.

The Khmer Rouge were implementing their lunatic vision in territory they controlled prior to taking over. In his book, “Cambodia: Year Zero,” Francois Ponchaud wrote the catastrophic emptying of the capital, Phnom Penh, followed “traditional revolutionary practice” — indeed, “the guerrilla fighters had been sending all inhabitants of the villages and towns they occupied into the forests to live, often burning their homes so they would have nothing to come back for.”

They did it out of a profound ideological commitment, not in reaction to Henry Kissinger. The former secretary of state has a complicated legacy, understandably for someone so influential for so long, but he’s not responsible for the unspeakable enormities of fanatics he fought to keep out of power.

Rich Lowry is on X @RichLowry.

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