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Kissinger’s Lasting Impact on Southeast Asia: Long-term Effects of Cambodia’s Bombardment

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At age 100, former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger died on November 29, 2023 (Holland & Mohammed, 2023). As a German-born Jew, he had fled the Nazis to the United States, before pursuing a career in academia and ultimately becoming arguably one of the most famous diplomats in U.S. history. 

Kissinger has always been a controversial figure and is certain to be remembered in varying ways around the world. Many will remember him as a master diplomat who played a vital role in negotiating the end of the Vietnam War, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 (Holland & Mohammed, 2023). 

However, for some, Kissinger’s actions in Southeast Asia make him a war criminal who never faced trial. Particularly, his involvement in strategic decisions during the Vietnam War, such as the bombing of Cambodia, has been criticised (see, for example, Eisenberg, 2023; Hersh, 1983; Shawcross, 1979).

This article argues that Kissinger’s key role in the Nixon administration equipped him with the power to make certain decisions regarding the war that still impact Cambodia and its people to this day. 

The bombardment of Cambodia

In March 1969, the U.S. military began its bombardment of previously neutral Cambodia (Owen & Kiernan, 2006 pp. 66-67). The following attacks were primarily aimed at destroying sanctuaries in Cambodia, where members of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were thought to be hiding (Keefer & Yee, 2006). However, nearly no region of the country was spared from the bombs of the B-52 planes until 1973, according to Owen and Kiernan (2006, p. 67). As a result of the bombardment, between 50,000 and 150,000 civilians, as gross underestimates, have been killed (Owen and Kiernan, 2006, p. 67).

During the time of the bombing, another development took place in Cambodia. The radical Communist group of the Khmer Rouge (KR) increasingly gained power. From 1969 until 1973, the group’s number of fighters soared from less than 10,000 to over 200,000 (Owen & Kiernan, 2010, p. 2). The KR, under their leader Pol Pot, went on to overthrow the government of Cambodia after a civil war in 1975 (Owen & Kiernan, 2006, p. 67). During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge orchestrated a genocide, killing up to 1.9 million people, or 24 percent of Cambodia’s population in 1975 (Kiernan, 2003, p. 587).

Historian Ben Kiernan (1989, p. 6) argues that the KR leveraged the devastating effects of the U.S. attacks on the Cambodian people for their propaganda efforts to recruit more personnel, for instance by attracting surviving bombing victims. A testimony by former KR member Kaing Guek Eav underlines the assumption that the U.S. policies fuelled the KR’s rise to power. He said that he thinks “the Khmer Rouge would already have been demolished by 1970” if it wasn't for Kissinger’s and Nixon’s policies (NBC News, 2009).


The key role of Henry Kissinger 

What was now the part that Henry Kissinger played in the developments laid out in the previous paragraphs? First and foremost, it is important to note that Kissinger occupied a central role in the Nixon administration. Siniver (2008) describes that, as national security advisor, Kissinger transformed the system of the U.S. National Security Council in a manner for which he supervised broader competencies. Thus, the heads of departments would have to gain Kissinger’s approval in order to reach the president. Simultaneously, President Nixon increasingly relied on Kissinger’s information and advice for foreign policy decisions (Siniver, 2008, p. 70).  

Additionally, Kissinger participated in the development of scenarios for the Cambodia bombing. The planning took place “without full presidential participation” (Isaacson, 1992, p. 173), emphasizing Kissinger’s exceptional role in the decision-making process. Even though President Nixon took the ultimate decision to attack Cambodia by ordering a “massive bombing campaign” (Blanton & Burr, 2004), Kissinger had previously advised him to do so. In his own book, Kissinger wrote in regard to Cambodia: “I recommend that the President authorize B-52 strikes” (Kissinger, 1979, p. 452). A Pentagon report also reveals that Kissinger approved every single one of the Cambodian bombing raids in 1969 and 1970 (Gabriner & Chile, 2023). 

Kissinger’s main argument to justify the Cambodian bombing was that the North Vietnamese troops had set up the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia and Laos to supply their forces, irrespective of the countries’ neutrality. Moreover, the North Vietnamese had allegedly converted the Cambodian border region to Vietnam into a “military base area” from which they attacked American forces (Kissinger, 1999, pp. 496-497). It is, however, questionable if these reasons warranted a large-scale bombardment resulting in the death of thousands of civilians, which is also put forward by Feldstein (2004, p. 1706). 

Regarding the surge of the Khmer Rouge, Kissinger always rejected any responsibility. He argued that the U.S. had worked against the KR for 10 years in order to keep them away from power (NBC News, 2009). Nevertheless, the destabilization of Cambodia as a result of the U.S. bombings is regarded as one of the most important factors in the rise of Pol Pot (Kiernan, 2008, p. 16). Even though Kissinger might not have been completely aware of the extent of the KR’s influence at the time of their rise to power (Kiernan, 2008, p. 25), at least an indirect responsibility of Kissinger for this development elicited through the bombings can hardly be neglected. 

The decisions and actions at the time of the bombing of Cambodia not only resulted in the immediate death and suffering of a multitude of people, but also continue to have rippling effects on Cambodia, which will be outlined in the following paragraphs.  

The dangers of unexploded ordnance

To this day, Cambodia still deals with a large number of unexploded ordnance that are left over from the U.S. bombings, the civil war, and other conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s. The attacks by the U.S. military included the dropping of 80,000 cluster bombs, of which up to a quarter are estimated to have failed to explode (Martin et al., 2019, p. 6). Leftover landmines and other explosives repeatedly trigger deathly accidents. According to data from the Cambodian government, more than 65,000 people have been killed by such accidents from 1979 to August 2023. From January 2023 to August 2023, four people were killed, fourteen injured, and eight needed to undergo amputations as a result of unexploded ordnance (CMAA, 2023, p. 2).

Furthermore, undetonated bombs have continuing economic ramifications for farmers. Lin (2022, pp. 227-228) found that on highly fertile ground, bombs have a higher likelihood of failing to detonate immediately due to the soil’s softer nature. This places farming activities on soil that would normally be expected to yield the highest results at risk given the possibility of finding unexploded ordnance. Hence, farmers of high-fertility grounds that were bombed by U.S. forces in Cambodia now produce 50 percent less rice and gain 60 percent less income than those who did not suffer from bombing (Lin, 2022, p. 235). This is disadvantageous not only on an individual but also on a macroeconomic level, considering the importance of the agricultural sector for Cambodia’s economy, which made up 22 percent of the total GDP in 2022 (The World Bank, 2023).

The intergenerational effects on health

Unexploded ordnance is not the only undesirable inheritance of the policy decisions of Kissinger. The U.S. bombardment of Cambodia also elicited intergenerational health effects, which Cambodians suffer from. Moyano (2017) analysed the health effects on children, born to mothers who themselves were still embryonic or in an early stage of life at the time of the U.S. bombings. The results show that the weight and height of the children are on average significantly lower than normally expected for their respective ages if their mother was exposed to bombing in her early life (Moyano, 2017, pp. 14-15). Moyano (2017, p. 21) concludes that the U.S. bombing campaign has weakened the health capital of Cambodia for several generations born after the conflict, which also negatively influences the country’s labour productivity.

In addition to ramifications on physical health, the mass violence in Cambodia has impacted the mental health of the population. Seponski et al. (2019) found that even forty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge genocide, depression and anxiety rates in Cambodian adults remain high, globally compared. The rates were sitting at 16.7 percent and 27.4 percent, respectively (Seponski et al., 2019, p. 179). Data from a survey from the 1990s also suggests that depression rates in traumatized civilian communities in Cambodia were still at a comparatively high level (Mollica et al., 2014, p. 8).  


As a further escalation of the Vietnam War, the U.S. launched a bombing campaign on Cambodia. Kissinger’s part in the decision to bomb the formerly neutral country was integral. The attacks resulted in the death of thousands of innocent people and facilitated the emergence of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. Up until today, undetonated bombs and intergenerational health effects continue to plague the lives of Cambodian people. Ultimately, these issues inhibit labour productivity and economic development of one of the poorest countries of Southeast Asia. As one embarks upon a critical lens on US foreign policy, Kissinger’s decisions have thus left a long shadow over Cambodia. 

This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.



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