THE DEATH OF POL POT, 23 years to the week after he and the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia, occasioned long backward glances at one of the 20th century's most horrific genocides. It was noted everywhere that the communist reign of terror in Cambodia lasted nearly four years and that at least 1 million human beings -- by some estimates as many as 2½ million -- were murdered in an orgy of executions, torture, and starvation.
Khmer Rouge fighters celebrate as they enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. "For Most, A Better Life," was The New York Times's forecast. In reality, a horrific bloodbath followed.
"In the name of a radical utopia," The New York Times recalled in its obituary, "the Khmer Rouge regime had turned most of the people into slaves. . . . Dictatorial village leaders and soldiers told the people whom to marry and how to live, and those who disobeyed were killed. [Those] who did not bend to the political mania were buried alive, or tossed into the air and speared on bayonets. Some were fed to crocodiles." Nearby was a photograph of human skulls -- emblem of the dreadful "killing fields" in which the communists butchered a quarter of Cambodia's people.
But nowhere in the Times story was there a reminder that the Khmer Rouge was able to seize power only after the US Congress in 1975 cut off all aid to the embattled pro-American government of Lon Nol -- and that it did so despite frantic warnings of the bloodbath that would ensue. President Ford warned of "horror and tragedy" if Cambodia was abandoned to the Khmer Rouge and pleaded with Congress to supply Lon Nol's army with the tools it needed to defend itself.
Ford's warning was to no avail. Though US troops had come home two years earlier, American antiwar activists were still intent on effecting the "liberation" of Southeast Asia. Radicals like Jane Fonda, David Dellinger, and Tom Hayden stormed the country, denouncing anyone who opposed communist victory in Cambodia and Vietnam. On the campuses, in the media, and in Congress, it was taken on faith that a Khmer Rouge victory would bring peace and enlightened leadership to Cambodia.
"The growing hysteria of the administration's posture on Cambodia," declared Senator George McGovern, "seems to me to reflect a determined refusal to consider what the fall of the existing government in Phnom Penh would actually mean. . . . We should be able to see that the kind of government which would succeed Lon Nol's forces would most likely be a government . . . run by some of the best-educated, most able intellectuals in Cambodia."
Stanley Karnow, hailed nowadays as an authoritative Indochina historian, was quite sure that "the 'loss' of Cambodia would . . . be the salvation of the Cambodians." There was no point helping the noncommunist government survive, he wrote, "since the rebels are unlikely to kill more innocent civilians than are being slaughtered by the rockets promiscuously hitting Phnom Penh."
The New Republic told its readers that the ouster of Lon Nol should be of minor concern to them, since "the Cambodian people will finally be rescued from the horrors of a war that never really had any meaning."
In Washington, then-Representative Christopher Dodd of Connecticut averred: "The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is peace, not guns. And the best way to accomplish that goal is by ending military aid now."
Was this willful blindness or mere stupidity? To believe that the Khmer Rouge would be good for Cambodia, one had to ignore everything the world had learned about communist brutality since 1917. How could intelligent Americans have said such things?
But they did, repeatedly.
In the news columns of The New York Times, the celebrated Sydney Schanberg wrote of Cambodians that "it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." He dismissed predictions of mass executions in the wake of a Khmer Rouge victory: "It would be tendentious to forecast such abnormal behavior as national policy under a Communist government once the war is over." On April 13, 1975, Schanberg's dispatch from Phnom Penh was headlined, "Indochina Without Americans: For Most, A Better Life."
On the op-ed page, Anthony Lewis was calling "the whole bloodbath debate unreal. What future could possibly be more terrible," he demanded, "than the reality of what is happening to Cambodia now?"
Even after the death marches out of Phnom Penh began, Lewis went on making excuses for the Khmer Rouge. He mused that the mass expulsions were "the only way to start on their vision of a new society." Americans who objected were guilty of "cultural arrogance, an imperial assumption, that ... our way of life" would be better.
Amazing, the lies that were told as Cambodia's holocaust roared on. The "scholars" were the worst. Gareth Porter and G.C. Hildebrand of the Indochina Resource Center insisted that Pol Pot's horrendous cruelties "saved the lives of tens of thousands of people." Ben Kiernan, who would eventually head the Cambodian Genocide Program, asserted that "the Khmer Rouge movement is not the monster that the press have recently made it out to be." Tell that to a million murdered Cambodians.
Twenty-three years ago, American leftists cheered, justified, and denied as the communists plunged Cambodia into a nightmare of atrocity. In the end, they failed to whitewash Pol Pot's record. They will not succeed in whitewashing their own.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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