A Remedy for Guilt
War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia By Prince Norodom Schanouk Pantheon Books
THOUGH augmented by careful research and usually the product of intense scholarship, historical analysis is ultimately a subjective process. Despite the best attempts to root out conscious bias and to ferret through the meanings of facts and the inter-relations between them, subconscious influences affect the historian as he lays words to paper and makes the final decisions between facts, opinions and conclusions which will be included, and those that will remain behind.
This bias in written history, especially noticeable in the history of recent, controversial events, makes cogent analysis of complex issues quite difficult: Imagine reading John Reed's The Ten Days That Shook the World without knowing Reed's support for Lenin. Unfortunately the biases of some modern historians are not as well known as those of Reed. Wouldn't people read William Shawcross' book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia--and especially the section where he places the ultimate responsibility for the Cambodian tragedy directly upon the United States--more closely if they knew that he had stated, on the record, that he didn't think a leftist movement could be capable of comitting such atrocities?
Prompting massive national protests--including those at Jackson State and Kent State, where students died--the U.S. bombing and invasion of Cambodia in 1970 will never rank as a popular event in American history. Those leftover sentiments--right or wrong--have shaped the analysis of recent Cambodian history--especially regarding the brutality of Pol Pot--and prevented reasonable assessment. Most efforts to discuss the issues generally reduce to a guilty hysteria which places the blame for all atrocities upon the United States. Guilt may be a justifiable response to the Cambodian invasion but to label it a definitive history is a sham.
Sideshow, augmented by a substantial number of government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, carefully delineates the devious (and perhaps even unconstitutional) machinations of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. Shawcross traces the course of events which led to Cambodia's downfall in 1975, and concludes with his analysis of the reasons leading to the massive brutalities committed under Pol Pot.
By leading the reader along a carefully documented historical trail, he seduces the reader into accepting his undocumented conclusion that the United States ultimately bears responsibility for the Cambodian tragedy. To the otherwise uninformed reader, it comes as a shocking revelation to discover that Prince Sihanouk--with whom Shawcross heavily empathizes--provides evidence which thoroughly demolishes most of Shawcross' conclusions and substantially weakens his others.
War and Hope is not a well-written book. Even analyzing it for content, it has far too many gaping holes to pretend to serve as a definitive history of the events leading up to the Cambodian holocaust. Yet, what little new information Sihanouk does provide is so damaging to Shawcross' positions that one has to wonder if any of his conclusions will stand up under the light of serious scrutiny.
The unstated premise of Sideshow is that without the overthrow of Sihanouk and the concurrent U.S. support for Lon Nol's government, Cambodia today would not have witnessed one of the worst tragedies of this century. While any attempt to guess at the likely outcome had Sihanouk remained in power is speculative, War and Hope provides evidence that Cambodia's stability was threatened long before Lon Nol succeeded Sihanouk. Cambodia's aquiescence to North Vietnam's use of Cambodian border areas began to backfire as the North Vietnamese--who, contrary to popular belief, provided nearly all of the military might to topple Lon Nol's government in 1975--displayed their gratitude to Sihanouk's hospitality by supporting anti-government insurgencies in the border region.
TO RID HIMSELF of his now unwelcome guests, Sihanouk began to allow a limited U.S. entrance into Cambodia, sanctioning American "hot pursuit" ground raids and B-52 bombing missions to clear the sanctuaries. Apparently, Sihanouk now feels that action was inadequate; in War and Hope he accepts his denouement, admitting that he fell because his policy towards North Vietnam failed.
But merely allowing for the likelihood that Cambodia lasted longer under Lon No1 than it would have under Sihanouk does not answer Shawcross' most forceful charge: that the Khmer rouge created the massive holocaust only because they had been "brutalized" by incessant American bombings and the actions of the U.S.-supplied Cambodian Army. This unsupported assertion has probably been the cause of more bad sentiment towards American involvement in Cambodia--and, indeed, anywhere else in the world--than any other aspect of American foreign policy in many years. But Shawcross' claim is almost completely false.
Prince Sihanouk explains how the Khmer Rouge created their army only after "several years of persistent indoctrination" which dated back far before 1970. It was all part of an effort of the Khmer Rouge (whose central leadership consisted of only four members: Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and their wives) to create a fanatically dedicated--and extraordinarily ruthless--army to carry out a plan hatched in the minds of Pol Pot during his education at the Sorbonne. To further this goal, the Khmer Rouge recruited 12-year-olds for intensive training which emphasized forture, the "tantalizing prospect" of playing war, and "having the power of life and death over all categories of slaves" as a means of vanquishing their "seething, unquenchable hatred for the 'upper classes'."
To say that the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who Sihanouk says indocrinated innocent youngsters into committing one of the most heinous crimes of the century, were insanely fanatical is perhaps an understatement. Khieu Samphan (who claims to have repented for his past sins and to have come to tolerate capitalism) has explained how it was necessary to incite fanatical hatred against the North Vietnamese in order "to unite our compatriots through the party, to bring our workers up to their highest level of productivity, and to make the yotheas (young soldiers) ardor and valor in combat even greater..."
Yet, somehow, Shawcross was able to deduce from all of this that the Rouge was "brutalized" by U.S. actions. Nowhere have the Khmer Rouge gone on record explaining their actions as a necessary result of U.S. bombings and other military actions, and Shawcross has not demonstrated that Khmer Rouge words or actions changed after the United States entered the fray. Perhaps Shawcross should listen to Sihanouk, who upon a stay in a liberated zone in 1973, observed that U.S. bombings were "violent and profuse, but fortunately not particularly effective."