Henry Kissinger and the Mayaguez ‘Incident’

The scandal of the Mayaguez rescue…

As the humiliation of American involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia came to its inevitable conclusion in 1975 there was one last incident for the administration to cover up before it could close its sordid diary on a war which costs thousands of lives and continues to afflict countless more to this day.

Within weeks of the Khmer Rouge taking control of the Cambodian capitol from the U.S. backed Khmer Republic the Americans were committed to one final act of war before the ten year conflict finally came to an end. Look at the heart-wrenching memorial for American soldiers killed in Vietnam in Washington D.C. and the last names are those of the U.S. Marines who, alongside American merchant seamen lost their lives in this unforgivable affair are forever etched.

It was whilst reading the late Christopher Hitchens book on Henry Kissinger that I was reminded of the so-called Mayaguez Incident, owning, as I do, the trilogy of Kissinger memoirs I was interested to compare the two versions of events even if I was already minded of which one to believe.

On May 12th 1975, a U.S. container ship, the SS Mayaguez was confronted by a Khmer Rouge ‘swift boat’, shots were fired and the Mayaguez and her crew were detained in disputed territorial waters close to Thailand. Whilst the contents of the cargo were never disclosed, nor indeed examined by the captors, it is known that the ship was loaded with containers from the U.S. embassy in Saigon nine days before its fall to the NVA. The Khmer Rouge ordered Captain Miller to navigate the Mayaguez to Poulo Wai island and anchor there before going on to Ream on the Cambodian mainland. Miller told the captors that the ship’s radar wasn’t working and feared hitting rocks so the Cambodian authorities ordered them to stay at Poulo Wai.

President Gerald Ford was outraged by the capture, declaring it an act of piracy and was determined to show all of those countries across the South Asian peninsula that such actions would not go unpunished. With no contact between the administration and the Khmer Rouge, Ford instructed Henry Kissinger to contact the Chinese government and urge them to intervene. But the chief of the Liaison Office refused to accept Kissinger’s letter leaving Kissinger to send future president George H. W. Bush, then in charge of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, to deliver the letter to the Chinese Foreign Ministry in person whilst warning of the consequences for Phnom Penh should they persist in the capture of its vessel and citizens.

During the initial meetings at the White House Kissinger insisted on the use of B-52s, Hitchens writes: ‘(Kissinger) arguing at the onset of the crisis that B-52 bombers should at once (and again) be launched against Cambodia and arguing too, for the dropping of the BLU-82 bomb, a 15,000-pound device-on the centre of Koh Tang Island’. In his memoir Years of Renewal Kissinger dismisses then reports of his advocating indiscriminate bombings but does show excerpts from a conversation with President Ford in which he suggests Ford uses the B-52s as a way of stamping his presidential authority on both the region and the world at large; ‘This is a good way to get at the problem. The price will be the same. If you use force it should be ferociously’

As the Americans swiftly amassed a retaliatory response including an aircraft carrier, two destroyers and a thousand Marines, the Khmer Rouge used a number of fishing boats to take the Mayaguez crew off the vessel and onto Kampong Som. By then, however, the US had seized total control of the airspace with orders to shoot any Cambodian vessels. One of the smaller boats sunk would reveal that a fishing boat was carrying forty Caucasians which headed for Kampong Song only to be refused landing by the Cambodian officer in charge for fear of American retribution. The boat carrying the crew headed to Koh Rong Sanloem leaving the Americans convinced they had instead landed on the island of Koh Tang. Kissinger relates how the Marines successfully seized back control of the Mayaguez which, given that it was by then empty of all its crew would prove to be the first in a serious of bad judgements.

As Marines stormed the empty boat with tear gas so the assault on Koh Tang commenced. Hitchens: ‘In spite of reports that the crew had been released, Kissinger pressed for an immediate face-saving and “credibility” -enhancing strike…Out of a Marine force of 110 , 18 were killed and 50 wounded. Some 23 Air Force men were killed in a crash. The United States used a 15,000-pound bomb on the island , the most powerful non-nuclear device it possessed. Nobody has the figures for Cambodian deaths. The casualties were pointless because the ship’s company of the Mayaguez were nowhere on Koh Tang, having been released some hours earlier. A subsequent congressional enquiry found that Kissinger could have known this by listening to Cambodian Broadcasting or paying attention to a third party government which had been negotiating a deal for the restitution of the ship and the crew’

The Americans had severely underestimated the Khmer Rouge presence on Koh Tang. Fearing attack by the Vietnamese rather than the Americans, the Khmer’s had significantly increased their troop numbers far greater than the twenty or thirty the US believed were waiting for them. As the crew of the Mayaguez were released so the intense fighting carried on until Hu Nim, the propaganda minister for the Khmer Rouge called for a cessation of the fighting, insisting their intention was only ever to defend their territorial waters. In his memoirs Kissinger makes no mention of the huge bomb dropped on the island, instead he serves a lesson in glossing over key facts and records an unemotional entry for the Americans killed and subsequently missing in action (later murdered) whilst blaming the ‘fog of war’ for not acting on the intelligence over the release of the crew.

Kissinger’s role in the chaotic and deadly assault was clear, he pushed Ford to wield the might of the military to teach a lesson, to prove a point so soon after the fiasco of the Vietnam War. Their credibility in pieces, Kissinger could not stomach another humiliation at the hands of a third world country and the result was a rushed, strategically inept ‘rescue’ which proved fatal for many young American Marines and countless Cambodians. But for the Marines it was the disappearance of three of its own and the failure to go back and rescue them which haunts them to this day. Lance Corporal Joseph Hargrove, Pfc Gary Hall and Pvt Danny Marshall were left to fend for themselves, I have read reports of Hargrove being shot in the leg following an attempted escape and then executed whilst Hall and Marshall, once handed over to the Khmer authorities were beaten to death. Christopher Hitchens makes the sombre point that their names do not appear on any memorial including the Vietnam Veteran’s Wall and it took a number of years before their names had any official existence.

The two books obviously could not be further apart in every way but Kissinger’s lack of empathy for those lost and suffered is hard to read. The ‘incident’ reads as little more than another power play between himself and Secretary Schlessinger, Hitchens was right to question Kissinger’s profile as global statesman and the Mayaguez Incident is yet another mostly forgotten battle where lives were lost when testosterone trumped reason.

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