Document of the Week: Nixon’s Little-Known Crusade Against Genocide in Burundi

A 1972 memo downplaying the slaughter of Hutus in Burundi stirred an angry scrawled response from the president.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

For President Richard Nixon’s national security advisors, the genocidal slaughter of more than 100,000 ethnic Hutus by Burundi’s ethnic Tutsi government in the early 1970s was a matter of little strategic concern to the United States.

There is no evidence, according to a September 1972 White House memo to Nixon, that either of America’s great-power rivals, China or the Soviet Union, had played any role in the violence or sought to profit politically from it. The Burundian government meanwhile promised to guarantee the safety of some 150 Americans, mostly missionaries, in the country. “Our own interests in Burundi are microscopic (we buy some coffee),” according to the memo, which was attributed to Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, but bore the signature of his deputy, Alexander Haig.

The violence occurred more than 20 years before the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where extremists aligned with the Hutu-dominated army killed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis, Twas, and moderate Hutus. In Burundi, it was the majority Hutu who endured the greatest loss of life at the hands of the minority Tutsi-dominated government.

The killing began on April 29, 1972, when Hutu insurgents staged a revolt against the government, attacking Tutsis and seeking to seize the military garrison on the outskirts of Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. The revolt failed, precipitating the mass slaughter of Hutus.

“The Hutu rebels killed every Tutsi that they ran across during their initial rampage which triggered the Tutsi decision to exterminate all Hutus with any semblance of leadership, i.e., those who could read or write, or those who wore shoes,” according to the Kissinger memo.

The U.S. response, according to the memo, was limited to urging African states to take up the matter with the Organization of African Unity and pressing the United Nations to set up a humanitarian presence in Burundi. For its part, the U.S. policy consisted of offering humanitarian aid on the condition that it be distributed to Burundians on both sides of the ethnic divide and assisting refugees who had fled the country.

Kissinger’s memo reflected the view of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, which argued that the U.S. response should be largely limited to humanitarian aid and diplomatic outreach to African states, which had little interest in intervening.

Nixon reacted angrily to Kissinger’s memo, scrawling a response in its margins that denounced the U.S. bureaucracy’s tepid response while revealing some of his own obsession with the ability of Catholics, Jews, and progressives in the U.S. government to grab the public’s attention.

“This is one of the most cynical, callous reactions of a great government to a terrible human tragedy I have ever seen,” Nixon wrote. “Biafra stirs us because of Catholics; the Israeli Olympics because of Jews; the North Vietnam bombings because of Communist leanings in our establishment. But when 100,000 (one-third of all the people of a black country) are murdered, we say and do nothing because we must not make blacks look bad (except, of course, when Catholic blacks are killed).” (Actually, nowhere near a third of Burundians were killed in 1972.)

Nixon’s passionate response appears to have been motivated, in part, by his desire to highlight the hypocrisy of his perceived political enemies, who had sharply criticized his administration human rights record, including its prosecution of the Vietnam War. His greatest ire seemed to be reserved for the State Department, which he believed was unwilling to hold black-led African governments to account.

“I do not buy this double standard,” Nixon added. “Tell the weak sister[s] in the African Bureau of State to give a recommendation as to how we can at least show moral outrage. And let’s begin by calling back our Ambassador immediately for consultation. Under no circumstances will I appoint a new Ambassador to present credentials to these butchers.”

Days after receiving the memo, Nixon took another crack at the State Department for failing to keep him abreast of events unfolding in Burundi.

“I want State’s ass reamed out on that,” he told Kissinger in a tape recorded conversation in Camp David.


Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch