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Cambodian Americans in Mass. remember Henry Kissinger as man who destroyed their country

Vesna Nuon, a Lowell city councilor, said that as a child in Cambodia he heard his father discussing how Henry Kissinger and others who planned the US bombing of the country "got away with it."Erin Clark/Globe Staff

He has been described since his death Wednesday as a “noted statesman,” a “scholar-turned-diplomat,” and a giant of American foreign policy who helped avert nuclear war.

But to some Cambodian Americans in Massachusetts and across the country, Henry Kissinger was something else entirely: the man who directed the secret US bombing of their home country and paved the way for the rise of a genocidal regime.

For many his death has resurrected painful stories of a homeland wracked by decades of civil war. And the United States’ deadly legacy continues to this day as Cambodia labors to demine and clear the countryside of tons of unexploded ordnance.

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“People are posting [on social media] that he’s evil or that they’re surprised he lived to 100 [considering] the acts he was involved with,” said Sovanna Pouv, a longtime leader in the Cambodian American community in Lowell, the city with the second-biggest Cambodian American population in the country, after Long Beach, Calif.

Pouv, like so many Cambodian Americans, came to the United States as a refugee after the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group, took over the country and killed at least 1.5 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. The personal tragedies of that brutal period were vividly rendered in the 1984 movie “The Killing Fields.” Some historians and Cambodian Americans believe Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia during the Vietnam War created the circumstances for the rise of the regime.

During that war, Kissinger, serving under President Richard Nixon first as national security adviser and then secretary of state, directed the carpet bombing of broad swaths of Cambodian territory where, he said, Vietnamese communist soldiers were hiding out.

In a now-infamous excerpt from a transcript of phone calls in 1970, Kissinger relays Nixon’s order for an expanded bombing to his assistant, General Alexander Haig.

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“He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done,” Kissinger said. “Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?”

The bombing began as a covert operation against a neighboring state. It killed at least 50,000 civilians, but likely many, many more, and destabilized the country.

“That really laid the foundation for the Khmer Rouge genocide,” said Vesna Nuon, one of Lowell’s three Cambodian American city councilors. “They used [the bombing] as propaganda and a tool for recruiting a large group of Cambodians to join them.”

The 60-year-old Nuon recalled that as a child in Cambodia, he sometimes overheard his father and his father’s friends discussing Kissinger in the early 1970s. “My father would talk about how bitter he was and how Kissinger and the others who planned [the bombing] got away with it for a long time,” he said.

“Have you ever once heard [Kissinger] say that what he did to Cambodia was wrong?” Nuon said. “I don’t think he ever once said that.”

A foremost practitioner of realpolitik, Kissinger largely dismissed criticisms of his record in Cambodia , sometimes defending himself as a man making pragmatic choices among terrible options. Critics have alleged his decisions in Cambodia amounted to war crimes.

State Representative Vanna Howard, whose district includes Lowell, said her uncle was killed in the US bombing of Cambodia. Her father, both maternal grandparents, and her three younger siblings were killed in the civil war that followed. “Only my mom and I survived,” she said.

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“It’s unfortunate [Kissinger] was never brought to justice,” she added.

Pouv, 43, said that not all Cambodian Americans are aware of Kissinger. “I didn’t know about him until I was in my 30s,” he said.

Pouv was born in a refugee camp near the Thai border and came to the United States with his family as a toddler. The family moved to Lowell in the mid-1980s, he said. His mother never talked about the bombing or the civil war preceding the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of the country.

“She lost her parents in the war and was separated from her sister,” he said. Once they reached the United States, “she was trying to survive in this new country and … she kind of brushed a lot of it under the rug.”

At Lowell High School, Pouv said, “they barely talked about the Cambodian genocide.” He graduated in 1999 and, later, educated himself about Kissinger, the bombing, and the civil war. (Pouv was the executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell from 2014 to 2021 and then moved to Long Beach.)

Sokhary Chau, 50, the mayor of Lowell, said many older Cambodians, including his elder siblings, came to the United States as young adults and were too old to enroll in school. “They started working right away,” he said, and may never have caught up on details of Cambodia’s history.

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Kissinger’s death, Pouv said, “is a big opportunity to educate the community about what he did.”

Chau said his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. He was just a young boy when his mother managed to bring all seven children out of Cambodia in 1979.

But Chau said he only learned of Kissinger “after many years in school in the US.” Over the years, he has come to take a more expansive view of Kissinger’s legacy that acknowledges his record beyond Cambodia.

“I laud Mr. Kissinger for many valuable and successful foreign policies around the world,” Chau said.

Kissinger is credited with brokering China’s opening to the United States and with remaking the US-Soviet relationship during the Cold War. He was also jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 with his communist counterpart Le Duc Tho for negotiating the armistice in Vietnam. Two members of the Nobel Committee quit the committee in protest and Le Duc Tho refused to accept the prize.

But Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under two presidents and advised many more, was also accused of being the architect of other US foreign policy outrages, including supporting the coup that toppled Chilean president Salvador Allende and ushered in the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

US Representative Lori Trahan, whose district includes Lowell, is the chair of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus. She said on Thursday: “Secretary Kissinger will undoubtedly be celebrated for the diplomatic breakthroughs he negotiated… At the same time, many Cambodian and Vietnamese families here in Massachusetts and across our nation will remember him for the dark legacy he left in their home countries.”

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Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.