War Crimes in Asia


Richard Nixon is informally on trial for his responsibility in the Watergate scandal. As witnesses parade before the Ervin Committee, spilling their tales of burglary, electronic eavesdropping, forgery and bribery, the public is judging how much Nixon is responsible for the crimes. If the judgement is harsh, he will most likely have to resign, pious pronouncements about the integrity of the presidency notwithstanding.

Crimes have most certainly been committed in the case. Yet they are laughably insignificant next to Nixon's other--and admitted--crimes. These crimes, defined by international tribunals after the end of World War II, are known as war crimes, and Nixon has not stopped committing them.

The liberal press has been notably deficient in its reporting of the Indochina War. Nguyen Van Thieu ruled South Vietnam for several years before his repressive laws and police-state apparatus were described in any detail. The war went on for almost a decade before the press hinted that the National Liberation Front drew its strength from sources other than coercive terror.

Reporting from Cambodia, with a handful of exceptions, has been much the same mixture of laziness and inaccuracy. The press gulped down Nixon's story that the American bombing was directed against North Vietnamese invaders who were attempting to overrun the country. It believed him also when he said that only military targets were being hit, and that the aerial onslaught was intended only to prop up the tottering January peace agreements.

These claims are all lies. The bombing, as some reporting has started to show, is directed against an indigenous revolutionary movement, the Khmer Rouge, a force numbering in the hundreds of thousands which is attempting to topple the Lon Nol regime, Nixon's two-year-old creation. The aerial war does not discriminate between military and civilian targets: indeed, there is no difference between the two in a people's war.


Nixon's bombing is a crime against peace. It is the biggest single obstacle to an end of the war in Southeast Asia. Thousands of people have died because of the bombing, and Cambodian roads are clogged with thousands of refugees.

Nazi and Japanese war criminals were hanged for crimes against peace. Burglary, electronic eavesdropping, forgery and bribery are not nice, but only an obscene, inverse moral standard would place them above genocide on its list of evils. Bombing villages, destroying crops, burning people alive: these acts outweigh in criminality phone taps and forged letters.

Harvard students for the past several years have dated their springs in reference to political events--the University Hall Spring, the Cambodia Spring and the Mass Hall Spring. Like high-schoolers who link their past romances with popular songs, each of those Springs evokes a certain mood, a sense of shared experiences, in the people who lived through them.

What will we remember about the Watergate Spring? Banner newspaper headlines daily, introducing new charges and personalities into the scandal. Another maudlin television speech from behind Presidential Seal. John Mitchell, once stern-faced on the ramparts, the hero of Mayday 1971, reduced to a petty criminal, a hang-dog and pathetic figure. The names, a new one every day: Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kliendienst, Krogh, Barker, Sturgis, Alch, McCord, Liddy, Hunt, Chapin, Caulfield. Piecing together the stories, the leaks and the testimony, waiting for that last link, the one piece of firm evidence: "The president ordered me to do this, I bugged them on the president's orders.'

We need no further evidence on Cambodia. American warplanes are hitting Cambodia heavily--that much is beyond dispute. The Administration can quibble over the number of screaming children and homeless villagers, but Nixon has not attempted to evade the central question. The extent of his war crimes awaits further documentation--the crimes themselves are indisputably becoming a part of Cambodia's history.

Watergate Spring had this aspect too.