“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” wrote the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in a 2001 memoir. That line was widely re-shared on social media amid jubilant reactions to Kissinger’s death on November 29th. Wrapped up in Bourdain’s vengeful quote is the commonly accepted idea that the US bombing of Cambodia during Kissinger’s tenure as National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State) led to the destabilization of a country described by its then-leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk as an “island of peace.” As a result, a neutral nation was forcefully sucked it into the maelstrom of the Vietnam war.
The conclusion that usually follows from this version of events is that the US bombing campaign killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and propelled the Khmer Rouge’s murderous regime to power. Therefore, Kissinger and Nixon bear significant responsibility for the crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge during their four-year regime (1975–79). But this reading of a long and complicated period neglects to tell most of the story. Picking a page near to the end of a book and saying, “I guess we will just start here” is not good way to evaluate history.
What follows is not an attempt to absolve the decisions and policies of the Nixon administration, nor to deny the destruction and death that befell Cambodia during that period. Nevertheless, the story of the Cambodian tragedy is more complicated than the morality play favored by some journalists, media outlets, scholars, and celebrity chefs allows. At a minimum, many of the accepted “facts” used to support a straightforward narrative of US culpability require an asterisk—because, as we shall see, there is plenty of blame to go around.