Published On: Thu, Nov 30th, 2023

Anthony Bourdain hated Henry Kissinger and wanted to punch him over Cambodia

Anthony Bourdain hated Henry Kissinger and wanted to punch him over Cambodia
Anthony Bourdain hated Henry Kissinger and wanted to punch him over Cambodia

“Henry Kissinger and a penguin walk into a bar …”

Anthony Bourdain had a joke for his guests while filming an episode of “Parts Unknown” in Indonesia. When the subject turned to the United States supporting the decades-long dictatorship of Indonesian President Suharto, who had the support of Kissinger when he was secretary of state, Bourdain loved the punchline in a joke that was more desire than jest. The punchline packed a literal punch.

“I’m not asking what you’d do, but would it displease you if I walked over and punched Henry Kissinger in the face? Would you find that entertaining?” he said in a 2018 episode that aired months after Bourdain, 61, died by suicide. “Would you feel that justice is, in some small way, served?”

When one of the men joining him at the bar said that Bourdain despised Kissinger — something the celebrity chef and travel documentarian regularly mentioned — Bourdain didn’t deny his disdain for the American diplomat.

“I hate him, yeah,” Bourdain said on “Parts Unknown,” using a four-letter word that was edited out on the broadcast. “Because in my travels, I’ve stumbled upon his good works everywhere I go.”

But perhaps no issue involving Kissinger irked Bourdain more than the 1969 “secret bombing” of neutral Cambodia and the American ground invasion of that country the following year. The bombing and invasion ended up expanding the conflict in Southeast Asia and led to a takeover of the country by the murderous Khmer Rouge.

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” Bourdain wrote in “A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines,” his 2001 memoir.

More than five years after Bourdain’s death, many on social media have resurfaced comments after Kissinger died Wednesday at the age of 100.

Henry Kissinger, who shaped world affairs under two presidents, dies at 100

Kissinger wielded unparalleled power over U.S. foreign policy throughout the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford, and Kissinger remains the only person ever to be White House national security adviser and secretary of state at the same time. He faced relentless blowback from critics who deemed him amoral and unprincipled for his foreign policy, namely the efforts in Vietnam and Cambodia that left countless dead and maimed. Kissinger and Ford also gave Indonesia’s Suharto the go-ahead for an invasion of East Timor that resulted in about 200,000 deaths, or roughly a quarter of the Timorese population.

In Cambodia, the airstrikes on the neutral country and the subsequent ground invasion by U.S. troops stirred fury across the United States and prompted the resignations of some of Kissinger’s most accomplished staff members. But Kissinger was unapologetic, arguing that Cambodia’s neutrality was first violated by North Vietnam and that the United States had no obligation to allow Hanoi to use Cambodia as a sanctuary for attacks on Americans.

Henry Kissinger’s central role in the U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia

Bourdain traveled to more than 80 countries during his run as one of the world’s most recognizable celebrity chefs, and he spent considerable time in Southeast Asia for his TV show. In his best-selling memoir, Bourdain reflected on the effect Kissinger’s foreign policy had on Cambodia.

“Witness what Henry did in Cambodia — the fruits of his genius for statesmanship — and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to [Slobodan] Milosevic,” wrote Bourdain, referencing the former Yugoslav and Serbian leader who was on trial for war crimes before he died in prison in 2006. “While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”

Kissinger never publicly acknowledged Bourdain’s criticism, but his name came up again in a 2017 New Yorker profile, in which Bourdain pushed back on the idea that his show leaning into more political and social issues made him a celebrity statesman. He joked that he wouldn’t be attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner because “I don’t need to be laughing it up with Henry Kissinger.” He then criticized any journalist who had ever been polite to Kissinger.

“I’m a big believer in moral gray areas, but when it comes to that guy, in my view he should not be able to eat at a restaurant in New York,” Bourdain told the magazine.

Tim Carman, a food reporter at The Washington Post, reflects on appearing on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” in 2009. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

When journalist Patrick Radden Keefe mentioned how Bourdain had buried the hatchet and had dinner with many people he had previously denounced, including Emeril Lagasse, Bourdain again referenced Kissinger.

“Emeril didn’t bomb Cambodia!” Bourdain exclaimed.

In early 2018, Bourdain was in Indonesia for CNN’s “Parts Unknown” when he mentioned how the West was culpable for the atrocities that unfolded decades earlier. Bourdain concluded that he would deliver a rabbit punch to Kissinger, and laughed about it before taking a shot with the group.

Months before his death, Bourdain shared the passage from his memoir criticizing Kissinger over Cambodia. Bourdain had regrets, he admitted — but none of them related to his thoughts on Kissinger.

“Frequently, I’ve come to regret things I’ve said,” Bourdain wrote on Twitter, now X. “This, from 2001, is not one of those times.”

Thomas W. Lippman contributed to this report

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