In recent weeks, we’ve seen a furor arise over presidential candidates “associating with terrorists.” Surely this is an important issue and fully legitimate in a campaign. No one wants a president who tolerates attacks against innocent civilians, and we most certainly should not tolerate a president who would be influenced in his or her own decisions by those who support terrorism. But if we are going to have this conversation, let’s have it with some sense of seriousness, beginning with a modest comparison of two men, each of whom rose to fame in the Vietnam years.
From 1969 to 1976, Henry Kissinger was arguably the most important figure in U.S. foreign policy, serving the Nixon and Ford administrations in the role of both Secretary of State and national security adviser. The Vietnam War, which began as an effort to crush an indigenous uprising against the brutal Western-supported government, targeted civilians throughout South Vietnam from the early years of U.S. involvement. Later, North Vietnam entered the conflict and gradually took over a leading role from the peasant resistance. Under the leadership of Kissinger and Nixon, the war took a decidedly more violent turn, cleansing whole villages, defoliating large regions of forest with chemical poisons, covering great swaths of territory with napalm and destroying civilian infrastructure throughout areas supportive of the opposition.
Perhaps the most extreme aspect of this criminal policy was the “secret” bombing of Cambodia – it was secret in the sense that the administration lied about it repeatedly to both Congress and the American public, not because its victims were confused about what was going on. At one point, Kissinger passed on the following order to Alexander Haig: “[Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order; it’s to be done. Anything that flys [sic] on anything that moves. You got that?”
And what were the results of that explicitly genocidal order, reported in The New York Times after it was uncovered in the National Security Archives? The agricultural infrastructure of that non-industrial society was devastated, the government was left in shambles, social order had broken down and the number of deaths will never be accurately known. All of this made possible the takeover of the Khmer Rouge, arguably the most perverse regime in the history of the world, but one that could never have advanced beyond the sick dreams of its leaders without the U.S. bombing. Cambodia has still not recovered from the joint attacks of U.S. bombing and Khmer Rouge atrocities.
All in all, Nixon and Kissinger were responsible for the deaths of over a million innocent civilians in Southeast Asia. Some experts even estimate as many as three million deaths. And Kissinger’s crimes do not end there. He played a crucial role in the military coup that ousted elected President Salvador Allende of Chile, ushering in the military rule of Augusto Pinochet with its murders, disappearances, torture, etc.
Along with President Ford, Kissinger traveled to Indonesia to meet with the already murderous Suharto regime and both gave their blessing to the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian military. The Ford administration then supplied Indonesia with weapons, thereby supporting a genocide that killed roughly one-third of the population of that island. These are just the highlights, but from this alone it is clear that Kissinger was, at the very least, a key facilitator of terrorism on a massive scale, a war criminal with the blood of millions on his hands.
By comparison, Bill Ayers was a prominent member of Students for a Democratic Society, one of the key New Left organizations of the 1960s. SDS stood for direct democracy, racial integration, social welfare and anti-militarism. Ayers and others became frustrated with SDS’s lack of success at ending the war and broke away in favor of a more “radical” stance. They planted a number of bombs in public areas, targeting not people, but elements of the U.S. government and military infrastructure and symbols of state power. No one was hurt in any of these bombings, though more bombings were planned and three Weather Underground members died in an accidental explosion at a safe house.
In my view, these actions are all condemnable. Though they murdered no one, there is no doubt that Weather Underground bombings placed innocent people at risk. Further, these tactics were counterproductive. They had no chance of success, alienated large segments of the U.S. population and undercut the conscientious nonviolent organizing efforts of others.
But for all this – for all the macho posturing, immoral risks to civilians and foolishness of tactics – Ayers and his comrades were on the right side of every issue, and they did not, in fact, kill anyone. And since then, Ayers has, by all accounts, been a model citizen. Kissinger, by contrast, was consistently on the side of imperialism. As he famously summed up his attitude toward Chile: “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” He participated in the murder of millions, and has never shown an inclination to pursue a different course.
So, if we are concerned with our presidential candidates associating with terrorists, which is the bigger worry: Obama’s marginal connection to Ayers, or Kissinger’s direct influence with McCain? Nor is this a partisan issue: In the first national debate, we were greeted with the shameful spectacle of Obama invoking Kissinger in defense of his own foreign policy along with a sad tussle over which candidate Kissinger really supported. Both candidates in this presidential election embrace one of the great criminals of the 20th century, and they do so without public outcry.
If the lives of foreigners mattered as much as our own, if terrorism were rejected on principle rather than out of political convenience, would our talk focus on Bill Ayers? Why do we ignore Kissinger’s terrorist past? Is it because the innocent blood he spilled was foreign blood, mostly blood from brown people, blood drawn in the interests of the United States’ power projection? Does that mean it just doesn’t count as terrorism? Has our discourse become that hypocritical?
The question any non-hypocrite should be asking at this point is simple and pressing: Given their shared embrace of Kissinger, just what moral constraints will either candidate recognize in the course of defending U.S. power around the world?
ark Lance is a professor in the philosophy department and a professor and program director in the Program on Justice and Peace. He can be reached at lancethehoya.com. COGNITIVE DISSIDENT appears every other Friday.