Henry Kissinger: The Plight of South and Southeast Asia

Never has there been a figure in 20th-century history as divisive as Henry Kissinger. To the liberal establishment of the West, he was a geopolitical genius; to leftists, he was a war criminal who walked free without standing trial for his crimes against humanity.

Henry Kissinger: The Plight of South and Southeast Asia

Never has there been a figure in 20th-century history as divisive as Henry Kissinger. To the liberal establishment of the West, he was a geopolitical genius, creating a world order balancing the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. To leftists, he was a war criminal who walked free without standing trial for his crimes against humanity. As the National Security Advisor and, later, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, Kissinger was at the forefront of American foreign policy, devising plans to get out of Vietnam, which, ultimately, escalated violence rapidly.

President Ford, Kissinger and Ambassador of the Republic of South Vietnam, Tran Kim Phoung, meeting at the Oval Office in 1974.

South and Southeast Asia faced immense amounts of destruction because of his obsession with American power and ascendancy. A man driven by the notion of American exceptionalism, his realist outlook on international relations led him to do whatever it took to ensure the USA remained the dominant power. With his death, let us remember two of his victims in South and Southeast Asia: Cambodia and Bangladesh. December 16th 2023 marks 52 years since Bangladeshi Victory Day.

Cambodia: From Operation Menu to the Khmer Rouge

Even as a neutral state in Southeast Asia amidst the bloody and deeply unpopular Vietnam War, Cambodia became a victim of American imperialism. Both Nixon and Kissinger understood that any sort of plan had to be done in complete secrecy, away from the public eye and, especially, away from Congress. Thus, the duo came up with “Operation Menu”, a secret bombing operation which aimed to root out North Vietnamese sanctuaries within Cambodia and aid their South Vietnamese allies in the process.

Whilst Nixon is certainly to blame for the atrocities committed under Menu (each phase aptly named Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Dinner, Supper, and Dessert), Kissinger too is deserving of a considerable brunt of it. Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman himself called the first phase Kissinger’s ‘Operation Breakfast’, placing ownership upon the National Security Advisor. It was only five minutes after being given the order by Nixon to “hit everything” that Kissinger picked up the phone to General Alexander Haig and said to destroy “anything that flies, on anything that moves”. For a man who claimed no complicity in the bombing of Cambodia, Kissinger certainly enthusiastically carried out such orders.

“It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?”

Evidently, the very possibility of North Vietnamese militias’ presence within Cambodian borders gave Kissinger ample justification to relentlessly carpet bomb the nation. Indeed, between 1969 and 1973, over 500,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, with upwards of 150,000 Cambodians killed in these vicious bombings.

US bombs being dropped in Cambodia / Source: Official U.S. Marine Corps photograph in: U.S. Marines in Vietnam. The War that Would not End 1973-1975(part 2), p. 25.

Despite the mounting evidence against Kissinger, he rejected all forms of criticism of the bombings, even going so far as to defend his actions. But perhaps the bloodiest consequence of the Menu bombings was the rise of the Khmer Rouge as the national power in Cambodia. Whilst Menu in itself did not directly lead to the ascension of Pol Pot as the nation’s leader, it considerably destabilised the political order of Cambodia and provided the Khmer Rouge with ammunition to increase their recruitment drive. The Khmer Rouge would go on to conduct heinous acts of torture and murder across Cambodia, launching a genocide against their own people.

To this day, the scars of Operation Menu can be felt in Cambodia. The total number of casualties remains unclear and governments are still working to remove explosives; at least 4 people were killed in 2023 due to these unexploded mines and explosives from Menu. Many perpetrators within the Khmer Rouge were never punished for their complicity within genocide, but Cambodian arts have begun to explore the legacy left behind. There have even been allegations that the United States after Nixon and Kissinger began to collaborate with the Khmer Rouge. To quote the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain:

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.” 

Bangladesh: Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and Liberation

Before 1971, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, the most populous constituent wing of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In 1947, Pakistan was formed as a nation for the Muslims of South Asia. But the newborn nation was stricken with the wickedness of ethnonationalism which can be traced as far back as 1857 due to British rule in India; Britain introduced the idea of a “martial race”, the idea that certain races are superior in military action due to their physical prowess. For the former British India, this was a means of punishing the Bengalis for their insubordination and rebellion, in order to drastically cut down their numbers in the military. By 1947, Punjabis, despite representing 25% of the Pakistani population, made up 72% of the Pakistani military. Bengalis were practically unrepresented within the ranks despite making up 55% of the overall population. Pakistan would continue to be built on the oppression of Bengalis, whose language and culture would come under attack due to the obsession with making Urdu the lingua franca.

The scars of British divide and conquer continue to seep into the common consciousness of Pakistan even after the British left. But this is not a story about the dangers of ethnonationalism. Rather, it is about how Henry Kissinger exacerbated the genocide of Bengalis in 1971, provoking a war between Pakistan and India. Pakistan was at the core of Kissinger’s plans to open up the People’s Republic of China – it would act as a secret channel between Washington and Beijing, discreetly passing along messages between the two states. General Yahya Khan, a despot and dictator, was more than willing to oblige. One can infer it was a prestige boost for him due to his mutual friendship with the USA and China. Nixon, in fact, described Yahya Khan to be “a good friend”.

Yahya Khan (left) and then-President Nixon (right) in October 1970 / Image: Oliver F. Atkins via Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, calls for greater autonomy, and eventually independence, grew amongst the Bengalis, especially after the December 1970 election, in which the Awami League of Mujibur Rahman won a landslide victory. But a Bengali-run government was never meant to be. With Bengali independence movements expanding, Yahya Khan launched Operation Searchlight, a genocidal military plan which sought to crush Bengali nationalism and restore control. But when the American Consul to Dhaka, Archer Blood, sent a telegram detailing the horrors being conducted by the Pakistani military upon Bengalis, both Nixon and Kissinger ignored it. Blood himself wrote, “we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak military.” When this fell on deaf ears, Blood sent one more telegram titled “Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan”, providing a scathing critique of the Nixon Administration’s silence. Due to his insubordination, Blood was promptly removed; neither Nixon nor Kissinger were willing to speak out against Yahya Khan’s genocide due to his integral position as the mediator between the USA and China. Nixon and Kissinger willingly and knowingly chose to ignore what was happening on the ground in East Pakistan for the sake of geopolitical strategy. Human lives were worth considerably less.

Bengali refugees seeking shelter / Source: Kwplai (distributed via CC BY-SA 4.0)

The genocide eventually escalated into a full-blown war between Pakistan and India. India saw a flood of Bengali refugees entering through Assam, fleeing from the massacres being carried out by the Pakistani military. Furthermore, the increasing number of incursions between Indian and Pakistani soldiers at the East Pakistani borders, along with the Mukti Bahini (the Bengali freedom fighters) who were supported by India, meant that a war became increasingly likely. In light of this, Kissinger called upon his allies in Jordan and Iran to send arms in secret to the Pakistani military, an illegal act. It is perhaps a combination of these border skirmishes and an increasing amount of confidence due to the supply of Jordanian and Iranian arms which led to Pakistan launching “pre-emptive air strikes”. Kissinger was so desperate to see the victory of the Pakistanis that he had even ordered the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, armed with nuclear weapons, to enter the Bay of Bengal

Kissinger was no stranger to the threat of nuclear war in regional conflicts – one only needs to look to Operation Duck Hook to realise this, in which Kissinger suggested the use of nuclear strikes to force the North Vietnamese to the negotiation table. But, just like Duck Hook, sending the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal was ultimately a failure. It did not deter the Indian military nor did it inspire confidence in the Pakistanis. Ultimately, Pakistan surrendered on December 16th, 1971, and Bangladesh was born out of blood. Had he denounced the genocide of the Bengalis and held the Pakistani military accountable for their actions, many lives could have been saved. Instead, upwards of 3 million Bengali lives were lost throughout 1971, all of which were seen as cannon fodder by Kissinger due to his crazed desire to maintain the opening of China. For Kissinger, geopolitics mattered more than humanity.


On November 29th, 2023, Henry Kissinger passed away peacefully. He was never held accountable for his crimes. He was never put on trial. He was able to leave the world having been the architect of several massacres across the world, including Cambodia, Bangladesh, Chile, East Timor, and many more. Kissinger was the heart of American imperialism in South and Southeast Asia. Many of his victims still live, holding onto the pain and trauma they endured due to his inhumanity. The genocide of 1971 continues to be a scar upon all Bengalis, young and old. Let us not remember Kissinger as a misunderstood yet intelligent statesman, but instead as the war criminal he was.

By Anonymous

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of The PublicAsian.