The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Henry Kissinger is not telling the truth about his past. Again.

He is letting himself off the hook for the U.S. bombing of tens of thousands of civilians.

Kissinger’s new book, World Order, has just been published. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Henry Kissinger is back. With this new book, World Order, he attempts to explain the chaotic state of the world through the lens of history. But in the interviews he is giving to promote his book, he rewrites history and obfuscates facts—about U.S. war policy and his own bloody legacy—to make himself look good. He has done this before. Here are some of Kissinger’s biggest distortions.

(1) On NPR’s Weekend Edition, Kissinger told host Scott Simon that the ISIS problem could be fixed by thwarting the group’s goals with “superior air power.” Sound familiar? That was the plan President Nixon undertook—in Southeast Asia more than 40 years ago—with the help of Kissinger, his then-national security adviser. The policy not only failed, it left tens of thousands of civilians dead. And that’s a conservative estimate. Nevertheless, he asserted: “I bet if one did an honest account, there were fewer civilian casualties in Cambodia than there have been from American drone attacks.”

It’s a clever argument but disingenuous on two counts. One, the drone strikes are nearly impossible to tally, because the U.S. government won’t release the information. But on Cambodia, Kissinger already has numbers. He writes in his own 2003 book, Ending the Vietnam War, that he was in “no position to make an accurate estimate” of civilian casualties in Cambodia. So he requested one from the Historical Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. The answer, noted in his own book: “an estimate of 50,000 based on the tonnage of bombs delivered over a period of four and a half years.”

Furthermore, Cambodia wasn’t the only country that U.S. forces bombed without the public’s knowledge during the Vietnam War. American forces also conducted more than 580,000 bombing missions in Laos over nine years. They failed in their two missions—to stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to keep the Communists from power—but they left a tragic trail of casualties. As we reported in our book Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, that nation has, to the best extent possible, created an “honest account” of its casualties from the U.S. bombings: more than 50,000 people killed and injured by accidents with unexploded ordnance, more than 20,000 of them since the end of war. This is the most accurate account we have of Kissinger’s “superior air power.”

Meanwhile, deaths from drone strikes remain nearly impossible to tally accurately because the U.S. government won’t release the information. Still, several organizations track specific elements of the ongoing drone wars across the Middle East and Central Asia. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism tracks drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, estimating up to nearly 600 total strikes since 2002, with as many as 1089 civilian casualties. While these may not be hard numbers, they are orders of magnitude less than the numbers we do have from Cambodia and Laos.

(2) In the same interview, Kissinger contended that Drones are far more deadly because they are much more accurate.” False. Ordnance dropped by American airstrikes in Southeast Asia continue to be deadly—40 years later—precisely because those strikes were inaccurate, indiscriminate, overwhelming, and had a high failure rate. Hundreds of unguided bombs were dropped at a time from B-52s at 30,000 feet. At the end of the bombings, an estimated 80 million unexploded bombs remained in the ground just in Laos. There is nothing more deadly—or terrifying—than a weapon that kills decades after it fell. (This is not to condone President Obama’s drone program or to trivialize the civilian deaths caused by American drone strikes. Every casualty is a tragedy, but proportionality matters, and no civilian killed by an American bomb should remain a state secret.)

(3) Kissinger continued his campaign against facts on “The Takeaway.” In Cambodia, he said, “We bombed these areas that were largely uninhabited…. The bombing that people are talking about, that they’re criticizing the White House, was a 10-mile strip in which very few people were killed—if any.”

False. U.S. bombs landed on populated areas of Cambodia, too. As Kissinger himself reports in an endnote in his 2003 book, “The worst error occurred at Neak Luong, when more than a hundred civilians were killed” by a B-52 strike on the banks of the Mekong River on Aug. 6, 1973. Furthermore, an overlay of U.S. bombing coordinates onto historical maps of Cambodia clearly shows that U.S. planes targeted populated areas, again and again and again, as reported by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan in an October 2006 article in The Walrus.

(4) On the same show, Kissinger said: “And really, for 50 years after, an interview that would spend this much time on this is outrageous.” Kissinger asks Americans to assume their leaders are doing what’s best for the country and for peace, saying, “National debate would be helped if we assumed that serious people were trying to achieve serious objectives.” He advises us not to question 50-year-old history. Particularly his own.

But his own past is evidence of how wrong he is, and why we must always scrutinize our political leaders’ actions. If we listen to him carefully, we can hear that Kissinger is in fact serving the American public once again—although not in the way he thinks. He shows us precisely why his advice is tainted and his views unreliable. They are, in fact, outrageous.