How the West Missed the Horrors of Cambodia
Never was there a finer example of ideologues seeing what they wanted to see than the era of Cambodian genocide. Only Orwell, prescient as ever, got it right.
Sidney Schanberg, who died in July, was an award-winning journalist who covered the Vietnam War and genocides in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and Cambodia. Perhaps more than any other reporter, Schanberg made Western publics aware of the terrible suffering the people of Cambodia endured under the 3½-year reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). Disregarding the wishes of his editors at The New York Times, Schanberg stayed on after other Westerners had left Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge approached the city. He was forced out of Cambodia not long after the Khmer Rouge took power, but before departing he witnessed the forced evacuation of the capital and largest city in Cambodia as well as executions by officials of the deposed government.
Dith Pran, Schanberg’s Cambodian assistant, translator, and friend, was forced to remain in the country and endured the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge government. Dozens of members of his extended family including his four siblings were killed between 1975 and 1979. Dith survived the Khmer Rouge era and was eventually reunited with Schanberg, who wrote a book based on Dith’s experiences. The book was the basis for the 1984 Academy Award-winning film, The Killing Fields, which did much to make the broader U.S. public aware of the terrible atrocities that had occurred in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
While many Americans have some general knowledge of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge government, the extent of the genocide committed by the Cambodian Communists is worth recalling. Scholars estimate that between 1.5 and 2 million people—between a fifth and a quarter of the population—were killed or perished from starvation and disease that were a direct result of the severe privations that the Khmer Rouge imposed on the country. Among those especially targeted for persecution were Buddhist Monks, Cambodian Muslims, Cambodians of Chinese or Vietnamese ethnicity, people with foreign ties, and those associated with the regime of former American-backed dictator Lon Nol, who governed from 1970 to 1975.
In his much praised essay, Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell asserted that the nationalist “does not only not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity to not even hear about them.” Orwell employed an unusually broad definition of nationalism that included not only allegiance to country or race, but also religion and political ideology. He goes on to illustrate the point about the myopia of the nationalists by castigating the English admirers of the Nazis who had somehow remained unaware of Dachau and Buchenwald and those who sympathized with the Bolsheviks and managed not to know about the famine in Ukraine. Orwell’s insights explain much of the reaction to the reports of genocide in Cambodia that emerged during the years the Khmer Rouge was in power.
The fall of the Lon Nol regime to the communist Khmer Rouge and the reports of atrocities and incredible hardship that emerged from Cambodia shortly thereafter and continued until the Khmer Rouge was ousted by the invading Vietnamese army in January 1979, created difficult moral and even cognitive quandaries for those who had opposed the long war that the United States waged in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Supporters of U.S. military actions in the region had justified their position, in part, by arguing that if the communists took power in the region, horrific human-rights violations would occur.
In Cambodia horrific abuses of human rights were occurring and American hawks were claiming that they had been right all along. Scholars, activists, and politicians on the left in the U.S. had a variety of reactions to the tyrannical rule of the Khmer Rouge. Few shared the suggestion of former presidential candidate South Dakota Democratic Sen. George McGovern that international intervention was required to stop the genocide. By 1978 McGovern, long one of the leading anti-war voices in the mainstream of American politics, was calling for a military force to oust the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Few American politicians of either major had any desire to intervene in Cambodia just years after the wars there ended in defeat for the United States, and McGovern’s suggestion was never seriously considered by government officials.
The world famous MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky has, since the ’60s, been the most prolific radical critic of U.S. foreign policy. Chomsky was among the most influential left wing intellectual opponents of the U.S. military action in Southeast Asia in the ’60s and ’70s. Writing about the events in Cambodia in the latter half of the ’70s with co-author Edward Herman, Chomsky accused the American media and scholars who reported on the killings committed by the Khmer Rouge of producing atrocity propaganda. The authors claimed that the mainstream were all too eager to accept, without adequate evidence, claims about horrible deeds that were attributed to the Khmer Rouge. Chomsky and Herman made the indisputable claim that conservatives would use reports about abuses occurring in Cambodia to claim that they had been right all along about the Vietnam War. To this day, Chomsky claims he was simply assessing the evidence available at the time.
Chomsky later described Sidney Schanberg, for his reporting of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and for what Chomsky claims was his negligence in reporting the deadly impact of the massive U.S. bombing of Cambodia in the early ’70s, as a person of utter depravity. (Schanberg was criticized by some on the right for what they regarded as his overly critical reporting of the impact of American bombing and the corruption of the Lon Nol government). Chomsky and Herman were far less critical of accounts of post-1975 Cambodia that described an enlightened and humane polity. They praised George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter’s now discredited book, discussed below, as a carefully researched work that demonstrated the successes of the new regime in overcoming the devastating results American military action had on Cambodia as it became a sideshow in the Vietnam War.
Much of the early evidence for the human-rights abuses committed by the Khmer Rouge were from accounts gathered from refugees who had fled to Thailand. Like some other skeptics of the atrocity accounts about Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman were hesitant to rely on refugees because they are by nature dissatisfied people. Finally, Chomsky and Herman were sympathetic to the argument of Michael Vickery that many of those who fled wished to avoid the rigorous work routine imposed by the Khmer Rouge. Of course, no one could deny that there was a rigorous work regime imposed by the communists in Cambodia.
Among the most prominent defenders of the Khmer Rouge were George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter, scholars and activists known for their fierce opposition to the Vietnam war. In their book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, published a year after the Khmer Rouge came to power, Porter and Hildebrand defended the forced evacuation of the cities as an effort to bring the people closer to the food supply and the emptying of urban hospitals as an attempt to improve health care. Criticism of the human-rights record of the Khmer Rouge was dismissed as the standard knee jerk attacks that the capitalist press would launch on a socialist regime. Readers were informed that universal suffrage was in place for the elections held in March 1976, a technically true if highly misleading claim. In congressional testimony in 1977, Porter again claimed there was little evidence for the atrocity claims emerging from Cambodia and presented a generally positive view of life under the Khmer Rouge.
There were many more academic and activist supporters of the Khmer Rouge in the West during its years in power than can be mentioned in this essay. Many Marxists in the U.S. and Europe were enthused by the Cambodian Communists’ delinking of the nation from the global capitalist economy, its coerced egalitarianism, and its stated goal of a very direct path to communism. Under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had no currency, private property, or markets. Reports of human rights abuses were dismissed as imperialist propaganda. For some observers, it was a question of what was there not to like?
It would not be fair and balanced if I failed to mention that support for the Khmer Rouge became the position of Democratic and Republican politicians (including human-rights champion Jimmy Carter and staunch anti-Communist Ronald Reagan) for a dozen years after Vietnam won a brief war against Cambodia in January 1979 and sent the Khmer Rouge scurrying to outposts on the fringes of the country. Because Vietnam was allied with the Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge was allied with China, the Cambodian communists were considered preferable to the Vietnamese who had ended the genocide in Cambodia. The United States condemned the Vietnamese invasion and was one of the countries that enabled the Khmer Rouge to keep the country’s seat at the United Nations until the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Those academics and activists who defended the Khmer Rouge, or those like Chomsky who were skeptical and even scornful of those who reported on the killings committed by the regime in Cambodia, argued correctly that such reports would be used by those who had supported the American aerial bombardment of Cambodia that killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians to justify their position. Such an accurate claim is not inconsistent with the claim that the Khmer Rouge was engaged in genocide. The greatest challenge for any person with strongly held political views is to accept or at least be open to knowledge that contradicts our most deeply held views. Most of the time we fail.