It has been nearly 70 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention on December 9, 1948. Significantly, the U.S. may have been responsible for one of the first cases of genocide after the treaty’s adoption. Beginning in 1950, as Bruce Cumings puts it in his history of the Korean War, the U.S. “carpet-bombed” North Korea “for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties.”
The U.S. dropped more bombs and used more napalm on the Korean Peninsula than was used against Japan during World War II. Upwards of three million civilians were killed, most of them residing in the North. Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command during the war, recalled, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure?”
One month ago, President Trump threatened North Korea with a more complete genocide, declaring that if the U.S. is forced to “defend” itself, it “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
In between the actualization and the threat of genocidal war, the U.S. has committed and shared responsibility for genocide numerous times. Yet, there exists a dominant narrative that defines the U.S. relationship with genocide through what the U.S. has failed to do to prevent genocide—i.e. intervene militarily. As Greg Grandin aptly describes, according to Samantha Power and others, “the problem is not what the United States does…but what it doesn’t do; act to stop genocide.”
In the bystander to genocide narrative, the U.S. greatly benefits from the role it played in ensuring the crime of cultural genocide was omitted from the Genocide Convention. Though cultural genocide was central to Raphael Lemkin’s original conception of genocide—Lemkin being the individual who coined the term genocide—the U.S. threatened to undermine adoption of the Genocide Convention if it were included.
While the U.S. was arguing for the omission of cultural genocide, it was enforcing policies that would have implicated it in genocide had cultural genocide been retained. Indigenous youth were removed from their families and placed in residential boarding schools. They were prohibited from practicing their religion and speaking their language. They were also forced to relinquish their given names; taught English; and made to dress like white children. As Captain Richard Henry Pratt put it, the goal of such policies was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Destroying a group as such without killing the members is central to the concept of cultural genocide, which the U.S. practiced as a matter of law until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978, and has continued de facto ever since.
There was another important omission from the Genocide Convention—the exclusion of political groups from the treaty’s protection. Interestingly, while the Soviet Union actively opposed the inclusion of political groups and greatly benefited from their exclusion, the U.S. would also reap the benefits of this omission. During its war of aggression against Vietnam, the U.S. perpetrated a massively destructive and widespread military campaign to destroy the Communist political group.
Around the same time the U.S. was committing genocide against communists in Vietnam, the U.S. was also conspiring with the Indonesian Army. Between late 1965 and early 1966, Indonesia committed a clear-cut case of genocide against a political group. Over a six-month period, more than 500,000 real and perceived members of Indonesia’s Communist Party were murdered.
Prior to and during Indonesia’s genocide of communists, the US provided Indonesia with material and diplomatic support. The US also systematically compiled a list of as many as 5,000 names of alleged Indonesian Communist leaders, which it delivered to Indonesian officials. Declassified documents show that the U.S. did so not only with knowledge of Indonesia’s intent to kill communists, but specifically because of Indonesia’s genocidal intentions. A telegram dated October 20, 1965, and signed by Ambassador Green, states that the Indonesian Army was “working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organization in carrying out this crucial assignment.”
U.S. responsibility for genocide is not limited to cases that do not fit neatly in genocide’s legal definition. In 1971, following contentious elections from the year before, Pakistan committed genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Over a nine-month period, as many as one million people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of women and girls were raped. Beginning in 1981, the Guatemalan military committed genocide against members of Guatemala’s Mayan population. At its peak, 80,000 people were killed over an 18-month period. From 1987 to 1988, Iraq committed genocide against is Kurdish population. The majority of the 50,000-100,000 victims were killed between February and August 1988.
Prior to and during the above cases of genocide, the US provided Pakistan, Guatemala and Iraq with material and diplomatic support with knowledge of their intent to commit genocide. The continued provision of aid that facilitated the commission of genocide constitutes complicity in it.
U.S. participation in the commission of genocide did not stop with the end of the so-called Cold War. From 1990-2003, the U.S. was primarily responsible for the genocidal sanctions that caused the deaths of upwards of 500,000 children in Iraq. The sanctions caused a precipitous decline in public health, even as compared to public health in Iraq during its brutal war with Iran. Infant mortality and mortality rates for children under the age of five more than doubled. The International Child Health Group concluded, “The reasons for the excess deaths are clear—economic collapse with plummeting wages, soaring food prices, poor sanitation, lack of safe water, and inadequate provision of healthcare.”
The U.S. intent to commit genocide is implicit in the fact that it knew exactly what would happen if it implemented the sanctions. A classified Defense Intelligence Agency memorandum from 1991 shows that the U.S. was fully aware that the sanctions would have disastrous consequences for Iraqis. According to the memo, if Iraq was impeded from acquiring the supplies it needed, Iraqis would suffer from a shortage of potable water, and a shortage of clean water could lead to epidemics of disease. Despite the manifestation of the predicted outcome, the U.S. fought to maintain the sanctions straight through to its illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Though Trump is the latest to threaten a population with genocide, the above examples make clear that the U.S. relationship with genocide is bipartisan. This is especially evident in the Obama and Trump administrations’ shared support for Saudi Arabia as it bombs Yemen and enforces a naval blockade of Yemeni ports, contributing to a humanitarian crisis.
U.S. policy has significant, often deadly consequences for people all over the world. In rejecting the International Court of Justice’s and International Criminal Court’s jurisdictions, the U.S. has ensured that it can act with impunity, and that its officials can do so with practical immunity. We must challenge those who enable U.S. foreign and domestic crimes, whether politicians, media, or academics. If accountability cannot and will not come from anywhere else, it must come from the people.
Jeff Bachman is Professorial Lecturer in Human Rights and Co-Director of the Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs MA Program at American University’s School of International Service. He is also the author of the forthcoming book The United States and Genocide: (Re)Defining the Relationship. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_bachman.