My book helped to damn Kissinger – but his enemies were wrong

Then secretary of state Henry Kissinger testifying before a Senate committee in Washington DC in the 1970s
Henry Kissinger was a hugely influential figure in global politics in the 1970s - Wally McNamee/Corbis Historical

Henry Kissinger was one of the most brilliant, controversial and effective statesmen of the 20th and early 21st centuries. I am fortunate to have had an “interesting” relationship with him over the past four decades. We began on opposite sides and eventually reconciled.

In 1979 I published a robust book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. It was about the United States’ role in the war in Cambodia from 1970 to 1975, which ended with victory for the horrific communist Khmer Rouge, who then murdered more than two million of Cambodia’s seven million people.

My thesis was that Nixon and Kissinger, his closest foreign policy adviser, had dealt carelessly with Cambodia as they sought to extricate the US from the Vietnam war. In particular they had conducted massive bombing of Cambodia, which contributed to the destruction of traditional Cambodian society and helped the Khmer Rouge to victory.

My book was based on hundreds of interviews, mainly in the US, and extensive use of the US Freedom of Information Act, which had recently been strengthened.

Henry Kissinger with President Nixon on Air Force One in 1972
Kissinger was a national security adviser and then secretary of state under President Nixon in the 1970s, a period of conflict in Vietnam and Cambodia - Nixon Library/via Reuters

While writing the book, I wrote many times to Kissinger to ask for an interview, but my request was always refused. This was a mistake. Had he agreed, I would obviously have had to include all his responses to my criticisms in my book. It would have weakened my argument but would have made for a more balanced book.

After publication, his principal aide, Peter Rodman, requested from the Pentagon all “the Shawcross documents”, as he called them, that I had obtained, and published a 16-page denunciation in the American Spectator asserting that I had falsified the evidence. Sideshow, he asserted, was “a joke”, “obscene” and “a fraud”.

I responded robustly and I included the whole exchange in subsequent paperback editions of Sideshow so that readers could examine the arguments for themselves.

Rodman concluded his criticism in a way that particularly resonated with me as an Englishman: “If it were not for US power, Mr Shawcross would have grown up speaking German.”

He was absolutely right – and I greatly disliked the fact that my book was used on the extreme Left as proof that Kissinger and the US itself were war criminals. I believe by contrast that there have been many American mistakes, but without US power in the 20th century “Western civilisation” as we know it would not have survived.

After our hostile exchanges in print, Rodman and I became friends, and we surprised many people when together we wrote a New York Times op-ed in support of General Petraeus’s “surge” of troops in Iraq in 2007. I was saddened when Rodman died prematurely in 2008 and went to Washington for his memorial service.

In 2018, Kissinger was verbally attacked at New York University as he attempted to have a public conversation with Lord King, the former governor of the Bank of England. Some 30 student groups and Amnesty International denounced him as “the morally reprehensible poster child of US militarism and imperialism”.

“You have blood on your hands”; “You have enacted crimes against Chile, against Argentina, against Cambodia, against Vietnam”; “You are a war criminal and deserve to rot” were a few of the insults thrown at him as handcuffs were dangled under his face. Such abuse was not unusual and I was well aware that my book was at least partly responsible.

Bombs falling from a US Air Force plane during the Vietnam war
In 2018 Kissinger was called a 'war criminal' during a protest by student groups and Amnesty International, citing his influence on the US bombing of Cambodia - Pictures From History/Universal Images Group Editorial

Some years ago, I saw Kissinger at an event in London. He stopped to talk to me while his redoubtable wife Nancy strode past. He said, “Ah, Mr Shawcross, you see – for me it is the Thirty Years’ War, but for Nancy it will always be the Hundred Years’ War.”

I suspect that Mrs Kissinger thought that I had turned a policy disagreement over Cambodia into an enduring moral crusade, which went on to fuel the “war criminal” accusations that have been made since. That was not my intention, but I cannot blame her. I deeply regret the tone of the viciously anti-American, anti-Kissinger debate that my book helped engender.

In the interests of accuracy, I must report that recent researchers’ enquiries in the Cambodian countryside suggest that the civilian casualties from the US air strikes Nixon and Kissinger ordered may have been considerably less than appeared to be the case in the 1970s. If this turns out to be true, and if I had known it at the time, my Sideshow arguments would have been different.

In 2016 I had my first private conversation with Kissinger. When we sat down he said, “Forty years ago we had a serious disagreement. I have read things that you have written since then with which I agree. Let’s discuss those matters and not our long-ago disagreement.”

I thought this was extraordinarily gracious. I am grateful for the many conversations and insights that he gave me since.

William Shawcross
William Shawcross's book Sideshow was first published in 1979 - David Rose

We did not agree on everything, but I was well aware that he was an extraordinary man who deserved respect. He came to the US in 1938 as a 15-year-old exile from Nazi Germany, and returned there to fight the Nazis as a young GI in 1944. He wrote to his parents, “I feel proud and happy to be able to enter here as a free American soldier.”

After serving as secretary of state under Nixon, nine presidents and many other world leaders sought his advice – because he had an understanding of history and diplomacy that was unparalleled. Since fighting fascism, he always believed that the US is the last best hope of the world. He was right.

Perhaps especially relevant at this moment was his crucial role in securing peace between Israel and Egypt after the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Without him it seems unlikely that any such peace would have been reached at that time.

There are enemies of civilisation – Hitler, the Khmer Rouge, and now Hamas and other Islamist terrorists – who can never be appeased. Kissinger, the great diplomat, always understood that such groups must be fought and defeated, and that always involves agonising choices.

As his biographer Robert Kaplan explained on Thursday, Kissinger’s views were uncomfortable and easily caricatured, but “he thought more deeply about morality than many self-styled moralists”.

Henry Kissinger in his Manhattan office in 2011
William Shawcross first had a private conversation with Kissinger in 2015, in which the statesman told him he had agreed with much of his writing over the years - David Howells

For Kissinger, morality and power could never be disentangled. He believed that order was more important than freedom “since without order there is no freedom for anybody [and] the aim of policy is to reconcile what is just with what is possible.”

That is hard to argue with. At the same time, I think we should remember Reinhold Niebuhr’s warning that sometimes “we take and must continue to take morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilisation”.

Israel would well argue that they are doing just that in the face of the horrendous assault from Hamas, the murderous terrorist group whose covenant demands that Israel be obliterated by jihad and Muslims must kill all Jews “hiding behind rocks and trees”. All Jews.

No one could have advised Israel better how to fight such evil today than Henry Kissinger.

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