Much of the scholarship on the Khmer Rouge was written in the first few years after their reign. And most of that was colored by the general disdain, endemic among journalists and authors, for Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and America’s misadventure in Vietnam. It’s hard to overstate the contempt so many people felt, especially Europeans. The more recent broad, scornful view of George W. Bush seems mild in comparison.
In this climate William Shawcross, a British journalist, wrote his seminal book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. It concluded that the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory. The liberal media (and I was a card-carrying member; I read and admired his book while flying to Cambodia in 1979) heaped adulation on Shawcross.
Now, thirty years later, with passions cooled, it is quite clear that his conclusion was wrong. The American bombing began a year before the Lon Nol coup. Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced, saying he wanted to be sure the Vietnam War did not spread into his own country. And in 1970 the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force.
At the same time, since the late 1950s Sihanouk had spent a decade cultivating the Chinese leadership, Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai. They grew to be Sihanouk admirers and friends—at a time when China had very few friends. Mao gave Sihanouk a magnificent mansion on Anti-Imperialist Street in Beijing and feted him every time he came to town—which was often. The Chinese also happened to be the Khmer Rouge’s primary patrons and advisers. Would Mao and Zhou have authorized Pol Pot to overthrow their very good friend, Prince Norodom Sihanouk?
Lon Nol was, of course, a different animal with different motivations. He gave the Americans carte blanche to bomb wherever they pleased. In 1970, shortly after Sihanouk was thrown from office, he told an American television interviewer why he thought Lon Nol was so eager to give the United States whatever it wanted: “Some officers in our army and many deputies and many members of government want to be your allies because they want your dollars. They don’t think about the destiny or the fate of our homeland.” Even angry and embittered, his words rang true. As before, he called them “more patriots for dollars than for Cambodia.”
When Lon Nol took power, the Khmer Rouge controlled little more than the areas around their jungle redoubts. More recent scholarship has suggested that the American bombing, for all its wanton, deadly results, so disrupted the nation that it delayed the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate victory until after the B-52 campaign had ended, in August 1973.
If Lon Nol had not staged his mercenary coup, most likely the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power. That is, of course, Sihanouk’s view, but other Cambodians hold it, too. Hem Heng, the Cambodian ambassador to Washington, said, “If not for the Lon Nol coup, there would be no Khmer Rouge.” But in his view, that did not let the United States off the hook. “They supported the coup,” he said. “They supported Lon Nol.” The available evidence suggests but does not necessarily prove that theory.
Years later Sihanouk told James Garrand, an Australian television documentary maker: “We cannot remake history,” but “I don’t think I made serious mistakes. You should see Mr. Lon Nol because if we have to go back to the starting point, would he still like to destroy his country by a coup d’état against Sihanouk? Or would he like to restore Sihanouk as head of state? I think your question should be put to Mr. Lon Nol.”
Sihanouk is partially correct: Lon Nol does share responsibility for what was to come. But it is beyond question that after the prince was thrown from office, by allying himself with the Khmer Rouge and urging his countrymen to join, Sihanouk condemned his people to damnation.
18 February 2015
Reassessing Blame for the Khmer Rouge
From Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 581-609: