AT THE OPENING of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in April 1993, President Clinton alluded to the countless Jews who could have been saved if only the civilized world had acted once it realized what the Nazis were doing.
"For those of us here today representing the nations of the West," he said, "we must live forever with this knowledge: Even as our fragmentary awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little was done."
He had sounded a similar theme at a reception the night before. Americans built the Holocaust Museum, he suggested, "to help ensure that the Holocaust will remain a sharp thorn in every national memory, but especially the memory of the United States. . . . We do so to redeem in some small measure the deaths of millions whom our nations did not, or would not, or could not save."
Clinton's commendable words would be put to the test less than 12 months later, when the militant Hutu government of Rwanda would embark upon an immense slaughter of that country's Tutsi minority. The Rwandan genocide would kill more people in less time than any event since the dropping of the atom bomb -- at least 800,000 victims in about 100 days. It would prove, in the words of journalist Samantha Power, "the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the 20th century." And the United States government, under the leadership of President Clinton, would do nothing to stop it.
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"The US government," Power writes, "knew enough about the genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to intervene." The American response was so minimal that Clinton's Rwanda "apology" -- "we . . . did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred," he said during a trip to Africa in 1998 -- was actually a wild exaggeration.
"This implied that the United States had done a good deal but not quite enough," Power says. "In reality the United States . . . led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, US officials shunned the term 'genocide' for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing 'to try to limit what occurred.'"
American policymakers never for a moment contemplated sending US troops to stop the massacre. Eighteen US servicemen had been killed in Somalia six months earlier, and neither Congress nor the administration had the stomach for another humanitarian mission. Washington's only priority in Rwanda was to evacuate the few hundred Americans living there. Once that was accomplished, US policymakers lost all interest.
The extermination of the Tutsi never warranted a single high-level meeting at the White House or State Department. The administration issued exactly one statement naming Rwandan officials and demanding that they halt the violence. When a mid-level US diplomat took it upon herself to call Rwanda's military chief and warn him that Clinton would hold him accountable for the killings, he was amused. "Oh, how nice it is that your president is thinking of me."
Later would come the excuse that US officials never really knew how extensive or well-organized the killing was. But media coverage from the start made it clear that the bloodshed was massive and genocidal. Four days after the April 6 plane crash that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and triggered the violence, The Washington Post was reporting "tens of thousands" of deaths -- "bodies littering the streets and, outside the main hospital, a pile of corpses six feet high."
On April 18, the Los Angeles Times correspondent described how "Rwandan soldiers raped and hacked to death civilians while battles with rebels raged for an 11th day." Soon the papers were estimating the number of dead at 100,000. On April 22, the Washington Post quoted the International Committee of the Red Cross, which called the massacres a "human tragedy on a scale we have rarely witnessed." Two days later, the Post reported on the neat piles of severed heads and limbs that could be seen in Rwanda's capital, "a bone-chilling order in the midst of chaos that harked back to the Holocaust."
As Power observes, Clinton could have known that genocide was happening -- if he had wanted to know.
It would have taken so little to stop, or at least impede, the killers. The United States was unwilling to do even that little. Power's article illuminates the ways in which a superpower genuinely committed to human dignity and freedom chose to look the other way as 800,000 Africans were slaughtered. But then, hadn't Primo Levi already told us? "It happened," Levi wrote 41 years after his liberation from Auschwitz, "therefore it can happen again: This is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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