Nixon and Mountbatten were worse
Dateline September 2018
In my younger and more voluble years, a BBC show about what the royal family ate for breakfast during WWII would have had me demanding equal time for the 1943 Bengal Famine.
Now, I freely join the ensuing “kedgeree v khichuri” conversation.
“Doesn’t he look well for a nonagenarian” was how talk flowed on seeing Henry Kissinger give a eulogy at John McCain’s funeral. Habit ensured a verbal eye-roll. “It’s like nobody ever protested against the Vietnam War.”
But the point was moot as George W Bush joined former POTUS’s in praising the late senator’s role as a former POW in supporting reconciliation.
The McCain family “nonvite” provided a tiny respite from 24/7 images of President Trump. Brief, but welcome. Director Spike Lee vividly illustrates one reason why in his film Blackkklansman, with an ending that makes Trump’s America feel like a horror film.
Although this film’s true story of Colorado police officers undermining white supremacist groups in the early 1970s pointedly contains Klansmen saying the most Trumpian phrases in front of posters of then President Nixon, the viewer is mostly bathed in the warm cinematic glow of a satisfying period police drama.
Abruptly, HD footage of contemporary neo-Nazis on the rampage in Charlottesville precedes today’s commander in chief saying there are “good people on both sides.” The very familiarity and normalization of Trump’s words makes the end truly eerie.
With Bob Woodward’s new book on Trump selling fast, opinion-mongers cannot resist listing ways in which Trump is worse than Nixon. Reading, keeping secrets, the Environmental Protection Agency, even getting his signature onto a plaque on the Moon. (Courtesy of JFK/Nasa, not Space Force.) It’s easy, even after ruling out peccadillos.
Call me picky though, but I regard efforts to minimize violence against innocent civilians in Asia as a fundamentally more important, albeit merely moral, not legal or electoral, metric of measurement.
Yes, Trump’s score is not helped by Saudi attacks in Yemen. But Cold War era conflicts routinely had much larger death tolls than today. By Trump’s present stage in his presidency, September 1970, President Nixon, and Secretary of State Kissinger had escalated the US war on Vietnam, despite promising to end it, and increased USAF covert bombing of targets in neutral Cambodia and Laos. Once their “secret” was out, “carpet bombing” only grew. Obscenely so.
By the end, the US had dropped many million more tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos than was used by all sides during the Second World War.
Slaughter from the sky, with side orders of Agent Orange and napalm. B52s helped make Laos the most bombed country in history and wreak the havoc that paved the way for Pol Pot’s genocidal Year Zero nutcases to seize power in Cambodia.
Chances are though, if you are not from the countries which endured the most deaths, you have heard and will continue to hear, far more about American victims of these wars.
Some lives are more equal than others, even in death. That is why Nixon was re-elected by a landslide in 1972 (and Kissinger won a Nobel Peace Prize in 73) after most of the above was widely known. Watergate was about covering up a break-in, not war crimes.
Bangladeshis know full well the human cost of this pair’s indulgence of Yahya Khan’s brutalities in 1971, as with Vietnam, independence for the people of Bangladesh was delayed by being outgunned in an unnecessarily bloody conflict.
Yet it is a certainty that come the day that comes to us all, many obituaries of Henry Kissinger will cite “opening up China” as his and Nixon’s great achievement.
Not all of course. But by enough for the world to carry on as today. Complicity and the “tilt” to Pakistan will be traded off for “hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty.”
Why be picky then? Every country involved has been friends for decades. Historians can still tell truths to power. The past always recedes.
How many people now ask if the British Empire could have prevented 30 years of war across Indochina? During WWII, Ho Chi Minh had led the liberation of all Vietnam from Japanese occupation with American OSS support. An alliance friendly enough for him to quote from the 1776 Declaration of Independence when proclaiming freedom from France.
Had colonial and Cold War interests not warped Allied priorities, Vietnam and the US could have been enjoying their present close commercial relations since 1945.
Lord Louis Mountbatten did not choose this policy but headed the chain of command under which orders were given for British-led troops to secure Saigon for France. His next job was to be last Viceroy of the Raj.
Might a different tenure in 1947 have helped people in Bangladesh two decades later? What if Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sarat Chandra Bose had more time available to develop their United Bengal proposal, or was it always destined to fall apart?
Historians may only speculate. But it is a matter of public record that, given 16 months to relinquish British rule in the sub-continent, Mountbatten chose to scuttle in six. The dead of Partition and Kashmir can, in part, be measured by days of undone preparation.
For the living, he is a figure from history, murdered along with his 14-year old grandson while on holiday in Ireland, the ultimate establishment victim of the IRA.
Time moves on. So, it’s no surprise Kissinger giving a speech barely registers in news coverage. It is right to be more concerned about who is in charge now and next.
I do not doubt Trump will continue to do most of the work needed to build the case for his own impeachment. But his core base is incorrigibly loyal. Trump’s most valuable enablers are Republican voters, not Russians.
Only the biggest of opposition surges can overcome the incumbency wall in November’s mid-terms. Should this not arrive, a sense of perspective may be needed to stay sane.
That recent “anonymous” New York Times op-ed about people in the White House calling Trump names behind his back, was not exactly the Pentagon Papers.
On January 1, 1974, the NYT published a 3,000-word excoriation of Richard Nixon and the Democratic and Republican leaderships, which was solemnly earnest about Vietnam and predicting Nixon’s resignation, while also suggesting Nixon contemplated an apocalyptic “long-term treaty with Russia, arranged by Henry Kissinger …” to seize Middle Eastern oil fields and attack China, as a way out of his troubles.
Hunter S Thompson makes clear in “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker” that his Nazi allusions are fully intended and rooted in observation of Nixon, not his own rich imagination.
Given Gary Bass’ Blood Telegram quotes Kissinger telling Nixon in August 1971, “Yahya hasn’t had so much fun since the last Hindu massacre,” I am minded to agree with HST.
If all human life is sacrosanct and everyone is created equal, Trump is not worse than Nixon. Dubious business and tax histories and consorting with porn actors may include many types of wrong, but are not complicit with atrocity. Compared to Nixon, Trump is not even Bush league.
(published Sept 2018 Dhaka Tribune)