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Is Kissinger to blame for the Khmer Rouge?
The question is whether U.S. intervention in Cambodia paved the way for the genocide, and whether the U.S. helped protect the Khmer Rouge after it was over.
Today’s topic is grim. This blog has covered a lot of dark topics for the past week or so. That was not a planned shift in tone; a lot of the news or general discourse has been related to some awful history. I promise that there will be a lot of lighter topics in the near future.
A few months ago, I started writing a post about accountability and the Cambodian genocide. The special tribunal on the genocide had concluded in December 2022, which was an opportunity to reflect on the history and the moral questions it raises. Other things happened, the tribunal was out of the news cycle, and this essay went on the backburner.
Nothing about this article is groundbreaking or new scholarship. I just thought it was worth going over the facts that are known and the debates that have been had about foreign involvement in Cambodia.
Two things have put Cambodia back in the English-language headlines. First, a lot of historic coverage has come out ahead of Henry Kissinger’s hundredth birthday. Second, the Cambodian government of Hun Sen has banned the main opposition party from upcoming elections.
The essay does not include photos from the genocide or its aftermath. There is one graphic description of killing methods, and I warn the reader in bold beforehand. Even so, if you feel like you need a break, here’s a nice recipe for Cambodian street food. Or, better yet, watch Anthony Bourdain’s travel documentary there.
It’s Henry Kissinger’s 100th birthday. The Intercept recently published “Kissinger’s Killing Fields,” a breathtaking new series on the U.S. intervention in Cambodia during the 1970s. Based on interviews with survivors and documents from the archives, the series concludes that the United States “was responsible for even more civilian deaths in Cambodia than was previously known,” with Kissinger playing a star role as national security adviser and later Secretary of State.
That reporting is about U.S. military raids from 1969 to 1973, during the Cambodian civil war. However, the term “killing fields” usually invokes the Khmer Rouge regime that took power after the war. The Khmer Rouge’s attempt to build a racially-pure socialist paradise killed up to 2 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, from 1975 to 1979.
Very few Khmer Rouge leaders were ever put on trial or otherwise held accountable. The magnitude of the atrocities and the lack of justice are jarring next to each other. They’re especially jarring given how much of Cambodia’s fate has been in foreigners’ hands. The United States was heavily involved in the country before the genocide, China and Thailand backed the Khmer Rouge for decades, Vietnam overthrew that regime, and the United Nations tried to manage Cambodia’s transition to democracy.
U.S. complicity with the Khmer Rouge is a very controversial topic. I first learned about the debate as a teenager, when I read a quote from the travel journalist Anthony Bourdain: “once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”1
The claim is not that the United States supported the Khmer Rouge while it was in power. Rather, the question is whether U.S. intervention in the Cambodian civil war paved the way for the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, and whether the United States helped protect the Khmer Rouge leadership after it was overthrown.
The debate touches on the way we think about moral culpability and indirect warfare. Critics have accused the United States of midwifing al-Qaeda and ISIS based on U.S. support for Afghan and Syrian rebels with ties to those groups. Similarly, clandestine U.S. support for Nicaraguan rebels allied with drug dealers gave rise to the idea that the CIA caused the crack epidemic.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, the United States funneled support to the Khmer Rouge’s monarchist and nationalist allies in exile. That fact, coupled with the U.S. role in Cambodia leading up the genocide, is what Bourdain meant when he referred to Cambodia’s tragedy as “the fruits of [Kissinger’s] genius for statesmanship.”2
Cambodia in the 1960s had been a former French colony ruled by a monarchy. Prince Sihanouk Norodom was unexpectedly tolerant of Communists, and turned a blind eye to the presence of guerrillas on Cambodian soil. (The local Communists were called the Khmer Rouge, the “Red Khmer,” after Cambodia’s dominant Khmer ethnic group.) The United States, of course, saw that presence as a threat to the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam.
The U.S. launched massive bombing raids against alleged Communist bases in Cambodia, as well as a brief ground invasion. In 1970, a junta led by General Lon Nol overthrew the monarchy and installed an anticommunist republic. Cambodia’s internal conflict turned to civil war, and the United States significantly stepped up its military involvement.
By the early-mid 1970s, Kissinger understood that the anticommunist war in Southeast Asia was lost, and there was no military solution. But he was obsessed with “credibility and honor,” and believed that dragging out the war could force the Communists to grant some face-saving concessions. Those last-ditch military campaigns killed tens of thousands of people.
Thoun Cheng, a Cambodian refugee from a town called Banteay Chrey, told journalists in 1979:
Vietnamese Communist troops began making frequent visits to Banteay Chey. They paid for supplies that they needed and did not mistreat villagers. We first saw indigenous Khmer Rouge troops (who spoke like people from Kompong Cham) when they entered the village in 1972 and left again without causing upset. They lived in the forest and visited the village frequently over the next three years; life went on as before. The Khmer Rouge never stayed in or recruited from Banteay Chey and were busy fighting the Lon Nol troops all the time.
In 1973, the Vietnamese stopped coming; in the same year, the village had to withstand three months of intense bombardment by American B-52s. Bombs fell on Banteay Chrey three to six times a day, killing over 1000 people, or nearly a third of the village population. Several of my family were injured. After that, there were few people left to be seen around the village, and it was quiet. Food supplies remained adequate. Later, in 1973, the Khmer Rouge temporarily occupied most of Kompong Cham City and evacuated its population to the countryside. Seventy-four people from the town came to Banteay Chey and took up a normal life there. Some of the evacuees had died of starvation and bombardment by Lon Nol planes along the way.3
The mainstream estimate is that U.S. bombing killed 150,000 people during the entire Cambodian civil war. The Intercept has found previously-unreported evidence of U.S. raids that killed hundreds of people, with reckless disregard for civilian life. Kissinger personally signed off on each airstrike.
The Intercept also found that:
Decades later, survivors still had little understanding of why they were attacked and why so many loved ones were maimed or killed. They had no idea that their suffering was due in large part to a man named Henry Kissinger and his failed schemes to achieve his boss’s promised “honorable end to the war in Vietnam” by expanding, escalating, and prolonging that conflict…
Survivors say that living through a B-52 bombing is unimaginably terrifying, bordering on the apocalyptic. Even within the confines of a deep, well-built bomb shelter, the concussive force from a nearby strike might burst eardrums. For those more exposed, the earth-shaking strikes could be extraordinarily lethal.
Unexploded bombs killed 19,000 people after the war ended, and are still a major threat to farmers today.4
Despite massive U.S. firepower, the anticommunist regimes ended up collapsing in 1975 even faster than U.S. forces could leave the region. Cambodian rebels stormed Phnom Penh, their country’s capital, on April 17. Vietnamese Communists took Saigon on April 30. Laos’s anticommunist Secret Army fell apart in mid-May. The wars suddenly and frantically came to an end.
Well, for the most part — the last anticommunist holdouts in Laos only surrendered in 2006.5
South Vietnam ceased to exist, becoming part of a unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Cambodia was renamed Kampuchea, a more “authentic” spelling of the country’s name. Laos continued to be a nominal monarchy for a few months, before the victorious Communists declared a “people’s republic” in December 1975.
Kampuchea was different from the other Communist governments that came to power at the same time. First of all, the Khmer Rouge were allied with monarchists, because Prince Sihanouk had joined the left-wing rebels after losing the throne. The Khmer Rouge actually made Sihanouk their symbolic head of state — perhaps the only Communist monarch in history — before putting him under house arrest.
More significantly, the Khmer Rouge went beyond opposing capitalism, and wanted to destroy industrial civilization itself. Pol Pot, their leader, preached an idea called “Year Zero.” The cities would be evacuated and everyone in them would be put to work in the fields. The new society would be a nation of happy farmers, free of unnecessary luxuries like “hospitals” and “literacy.”
It was a weird mix of ultra-modernism and ultra-traditionalism. While they promised a society of equality and freedom, the Khmer Rouge also vowed to restore the ancient Angkor Empire, which included part of Thailand and Vietnam. There was no room for the Chinese, Cham, or Vietnamese minorities. Nor was there room for Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity, which were all seen as post-Angkor imports.
Here is testimony from Cham Muslim woman Nao Gha speaking to an Australian researcher after the fall of the Khmer Rouge:
No Cham women joined Pol Pot’s revolution. A few men had but the Pol Pot regime did not trust us. They did not let us do anything; they did not let us into their kitchens. When we went to eat [in the communal mess halls established in 1976] we could only go to the tables, we weren’t allowed to go into their kitchens or anything. They were afraid we would poison the food or something. They hated us…
1977 and 1978 were years of hard work and the greatest persecution. 1978 was the year of hardest work, night and day. We planted from 4 A.M. to 10 A.M., then ate a meal. At 1 P.M. we started again, and worked until 5 P.M., and then from 7 to 10 P.M. There was some education, for young children to learn the alphabet. It was about one hour per day, from 12 to 1 P.M. There was not enough food, and foraging was not allowed. Rations consisted of yams and trokuon [a leafy Cambodian water vine]. Twice a month in 1978 we were forced [against their religious beliefs] to eat pork on pain of execution. People vomited it up. My three brothers died of starvation in 1976, 1977, and 1978. My other relatives are still alive. Of the five families with whom I went to Kantuot village, one person died of illness. In four other villages, one or two others were killed for refusing to eat pork. They were accused of being holy men [sangkriech] in the old society. There was starvation in Samrong subdistrict, mostly in 1977, and one or two killings. In 1978 they killed four entire families of Chinese in my village. I don’t know why. Also in 1978, they killed our former Cham leaders who had joined the Khmer Rouge but had been dismissed in 1976.6
The rise of the Khmer Rouge was of course molded by the civil war, including the U.S. airstrikes. The chaos allowed Pol Pot to transform his party from a fringe guerrilla group to an opposition movement with roots across the countryside, many historians argue.7 Many Cambodians remembered the first few months of the new regime as a joyful time, simply because the war was over.8 When the Khmer Rouge began emptying cities, they claimed that the evacuations were a temporary measure protecting citizens from U.S. air raids.9
Had the Khmer Rouge not implemented such a murderous program — or had the full truth about their rule not been unearthed — the civil war may have been remembered as the worst thing that happened to Cambodia. And the truth may never have been unearthed if not for the Vietnamese-Kampuchean conflict.
Relations with Vietnam started to break down within a few days of the Khmer Rouge taking power. The new government of Vietnam wanted to dominate the Communist bloc in the region. That was obviously incompatible with the Khmer Rouge’s plans to conquer large parts of Vietnam and wage a race war against Vietnamese people.
The Vietnamese-Kampuchean conflict mirrored a global Soviet-Chinese split. Moscow and Beijing were fighting for leadership of the Communist bloc. Vietnam sided with the Soviet Union, and Kampuchea sided with China. Finally, if it hasn’t been emphasized enough, Pol Pot was a paranoid nutcase.
The United States quickly sensed and tried to play on this divide.
In a December 1975 meeting, Kissinger told Thai foreign minister Chatchai Chunhawan that the United States wanted Kampuchea and Laos in the Chinese orbit “as a counterweight to North Vietnam.” (Today, Washington supports Vietnam as a counterweight to China, ironically enough.) Kissinger came off as sarcastic as he pushed Chatchai on how many “tens of thousands” the Khmer Rouge had killed so far. Chatchai insisted that it was “only ten thousand.”10
The Khmer Rouge ended up executing about a million people, out of a prewar population of 7 million. Another million died as a result of starvation, disease, and the general breakdown of society. These numbers are just estimates by demographers, because the scale of the killing was simply too large to fully account for in detail.11
Many victims were murdered in prisons now known as “killing fields.” The most notorious one was Tuol Sleng, where condemned prisoners were reportedly (the rest of this paragraph is very graphic) beaten to death in order to save ammunition. In some cases, the Khmer Rouge stripped the condemned naked, cut them open while still alive, and cooked their livers. Needless to say, sexual abuse was rampant.12
Back in the 1975 meeting, Kissinger told Chunhawan to bring a message to the Khmer Rouge: “we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won't let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.” Then he joked that Chatchai should only transmit that last sentence.13 There is no evidence that the United States offered any material help at the time, or that the Khmer Rouge would have accepted it anyways.
By mid 1978, the Vietnamese-Cambodian tensions turned to open war. The Khmer Rouge had been violently purging anyone with the vaguest connections to Vietnam, including anyone who came from a border region, and launching incursions into Vietnamese territory. Kampuchean forces massacred three thousand Vietnamese civilians in the town of Ba Chúc, with the same gruesome tactics that had been used to kill Cambodians.
The Vietnamese leadership decided that regime change was the only solution to the crisis on the border.
Vietnam’s army spent the last half of 1978 mobilizing for an invasion. Once the attack came, the starved and disorganized Kampuchean defenders rapidly collapsed. Vietnamese troops took two weeks to reach Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge was forced to go into hiding. Vietnam brought back Communists who who had been purged from the Khmer Rouge for pro-Vietnam sentiments to form a new government.
Kampuchea became another theater for the Chinese-Soviet media war. The Soviet Union endorsed the Vietnamese invasion and used the Khmer Rouge’s genocide to show how horrible the pro-Beijing bloc was. China trotted out Prince Sihanouk, whose hands were relatively clean, to condemn Soviet-Vietnamese imperialism.
Vietnam was very keen to expose Khmer Rouge atrocities. However much the occupation violated Kampuchean sovereignty, it could be justified as stopping a much larger crime. Vietnamese officials made public displays out of human remains, including a map made of skulls. Those monuments later became a controversial topic, with some Cambodians viewing them as garish and disrespectful to the dead, and others viewing them as a necessary reminder and the ultimate response to genocide denial.14
In February 1979, the Chinese military invaded northern Vietnam, hoping to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampuchea. After capturing a few Vietnamese cities, Chinese forces withdrew and both sides declared victory.
The United States got more public about its desire to have China counterbalance Vietnam in Kampuchea. While the U.S. government had condemned Pol Pot as “another Hitler” in the past, it now portrayed the Khmer Rouge as a less urgent problem than Vietnamese aggression.15 The Carter administration imposed sanctions on Vietnam and lobbied to ensure that the Khmer Rouge continued to hold Kampuchea’s seat at the United Nations.16
China began to cobble together a government-in-exile from Prince Sihanouk’s supporters, the Khmer Rouge remnants, and Buddhist nationalists led by Son Sann. (Those must have been some strange meetings.) The rebels set up shop in Cambodian refugee camps hosted by Thailand, a U.S. ally. The United States moved to get Kampuchea’s UN seat given to the coalition, with Prince Sihanouk as its public face.
Those facts are pretty much universally accepted. What happened next is a lot murkier and more controversial.
U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński said that “I encourage the Chinese to support Pol Pot. The question was how to help the Cambodian people. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.”17 He later recanted that quote, claiming that “we told the Chinese explicitly that in our view Pol Pot was an abomination and that the United States would have nothing to do with him.”18
Of course, both can be true. Brzeziński could have tacitly winked at Chinese support for Pol Pot while making it clear that the United States would not dirty its own hands with such a monster.
Britain and the United States also sent aid directly to the forces of Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann. Whether that aid included the Khmer Rouge became a controversy.
Nate Thayer, a journalist who spent time in the camps and interviewed Pol Pot the last time before his death, claimed that Washington “has scrupulously avoided any direct involvement in aiding the Khmer Rouge.”19 John Pilger, another journalist who spent time there and made the documentary Year Zero, argued that any separation between the Khmer Rouge and its coalition partners was “a master illusion.”20
Prince Sihanouk himself seemed to share Pilger’s view. In 1987, American reporter Debra Weiner told the prince that he came off as “an opportunist” who “would sleep with the Devil” in his critics’ eyes.
“As far as devils are concerned, the U.S.A. also supports the Khmer Rouge. Even before the forming of the Coalition Government in 1982, the U.S. each year voted in favor of the Khmer Rouge regime,” Prince Sihanouk replied. “The U.S.A. says that it is against the Khmer Rouge, that it is pro-Sihanouk, pro-Son Sann. But the devils, they are there [laughs] with Sihanouk and Son Sann.”21
Washington eventually got what it wanted, sort of. With the end of the Cold War, Vietnam was eager to patch up relations with the United States and get U.S. sanctions lifted. Vietnamese troops left Kampuchea in the 1990s and the United Nations brokered a peace agreement with the rebels. The country was renamed Cambodia again.
Elections were held, and the formerly Vietnamese-backed leader Hun Sen ended up back in power. That’s not to say that Cambodians just loved Hun Sen’s rule so much. The political process was marred by violence and corruption. Hun Sen was skilled at crushing his enemies while also putting on the sort of face that foreign liberal donors wanted to see.22 In other words, he reinvented himself as the classic Western-backed strongman.
One man came out an unambiguous winner: Sihanouk. The new government of Cambodia was a constitutional monarchy, with King Sihanouk as head of state. Sihanouk abdicated the throne in 2004, and died peacefully in 2012. His son Sihamoni is now King of Cambodia. The House of Norodom has outlived both French colonization and the Communist wave.
Some of the Khmer Rouge accepted the new system, some continued their insurgency, and some turned their guns on each other. Pol Pot himself died of a heart attack in 1998, after his own men arrested him in an internal coup. He was unrepentant.
The United Nations set up a special court to try the Khmer Rouge for genocide. However, Hun Sen granted amnesty to Khmer Rouge leaders who surrendered. In the end, only three people were ever convicted of genocide. Two others were jailed and died before a verdict could be reached.23
That is the classic “peace versus justice” problem: how do you get the enemy to lay down their arms if they know they’re going to face retribution afterwards?24 Of course, erring on the side of peace helped Hun Sen consolidate his own power, because he could dole out pardons as a bargaining chip. But peace and justice were only a tradeoff to begin with because external powers had kept the Khmer Rouge alive as a fighting force.
China and Thailand were directly responsible. The question of U.S. responsibility is more complicated. Although U.S. leaders seemed to know that the figures they backed were tied to the Khmer Rouge, the United States was only involved indirectly and limited in how much it could influence events on the ground.
The opposite is true for U.S. intervention before the genocide: there was heavy U.S. involvement in Cambodia without U.S. intent to help the Khmer Rouge take power. In fact, U.S. forces were fighting to prevent the Khmer Rouge from doing so. In hindsight, the intervention accelerated that outcome.
American law has a concept called “felony murder.” If someone commits a violent crime, they’re on the hook for anyone who dies in the process, even if the killings are unintentional or indirect. By that logic, it may be possible to pin some moral responsibility for the Cambodian genocide on people like Kissinger. Accepting that logic, however, has some pretty wide-ranging moral implications.
The question of Kissinger’s indirect responsibility should not overshadow the acts he directly ordered. The killing of 150,000 people with bombs was an massacre, no matter what came before or after.
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Joshua Keating, “Anthony Bourdain Really, Really Hated Henry Kissinger,” Slate, June 8, 2018, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/06/anthony-bourdain-really-really-hated-henry-kissinger.html.
Ben Kiernan, “The Cambodian Genocide 1975 - 1979,” in Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, ed. Samuel Totten and William Parsons, Third (Routledge, 2004): 302.
“American Bombing 50 Years Ago Still Shapes Cambodian Agriculture,” The Economist, accessed May 25, 2023, https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/03/20/american-bombing-50-years-ago-still-shapes-cambodian-agriculture.
“405 Hmong Holdouts From Vietnam War Era Surrender in Laos,” The New York Times, December 14, 2006, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/14/world/asia/405-hmong-holdouts-from-vietnam-war-era-surrender-in-laos.html.
James Tyner et al., “The Evacuation of Phnom Penh during the Cambodian Genocide: Applying Spatial Video Geonarratives to the Study of Genocide,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 12, no. 3 (December 2018): 163–76, https://doi.org/10.5038/1911-99184.108.40.2067.
Teeda Butt Mam, “Worms from Our Skin,” in Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, ed. Dith Pran, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/p/pran-cambodia.html.
See also Kiernan’s survivor accounts.
Memorandum of Conversation, Henry Kissinger, Chatchai Chunhawan, et al., November 26, 1975. National Security Archive, George Washington University. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB193/HAK-11-26-75.pdf
Patrick Heuveline, “The Boundaries of Genocide: Quantifying the Uncertainty of the Death Toll During the Pol Pot Regime (1975-1979),” Population Studies 69, no. 2 (July 2015): 201–18, https://doi.org/10.1080/00324728.2015.1045546.
Teeda Butt Mam.
Kissinger, Chunhawan, et al.
Wynne Cougill, “Buddhist Cremation Traditions for the Dead and the Need to Preserve Forensic Evidence in Cambodia,” Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), accessed May 25, 2023, https://www.d.dccam.org/Projects/Maps/Buddhist_Cremation_Traditions.htm.
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. (London: The Bodley Head, 2008). 40 - 44.
Charles P. Wallace, “15 Years After War’s End, the U.S. Still Fights to Keep Vietnam Isolated : Diplomacy: Washington Has Linked Normalization to Help on MIAs and Cambodia. But Support for Ignoring the War-Ravaged Nation May Be Fading.,” Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1990, sec. World & Nation, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-04-29-mn-551-story.html
Don Oberdorfer, “U.S. to Support Pol Pot Regime For U.N. Seat,” Washington Post, September 16, 1980, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/09/16/us-to-support-pol-pot-regime-for-un-seat/58b8b124-7dd7-448f-b4f7-80231683ec57/.
Elizabeth Becker, “Death of Pol Pot: The Diplomacy; Pol Pot’s End Won’t Stop U.S. Pursuit of His Circle,” The New York Times, April 17, 1998, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/17/world/death-of-pol-pot-the-diplomacy-pol-pot-s-end-won-t-stop-us-pursuit-of-his-circle.html.
Zbigniew Brzeziński, “Pol Pot’s Evil Had Many Faces; China Acted Alone,” The New York Times, April 22, 1998, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/22/opinion/l-pol-pot-s-evil-had-many-faces-china-acted-alone-605387.html.
Nate Thayer, “Cambodia: Misperceptions and Peace,” The Washington Quarterly 14, no. 2 (June 1, 1991): 179–91, https://doi.org/10.1080/01636609109477687.
John Pilger, “How Thatcher Gave Pol Pot a Hand,” New Statesman, April 17, 2000, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2000/04/how-thatcher-gave-pol-pot-a-hand.
Debra Weiner, “Playboy Interview: Norodom Sihanouk,” Playboy, May 1, 1987, http://sihanouk-archives-inachevees.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Sihanouk_Playboy.pdf.
Tanner Greer, “The Forgotten UN Intervention to Build Democracy in Cambodia,” Palladium, January 20, 2021, https://www.palladiummag.com/2021/01/20/the-forgotten-un-intervention-to-build-democracy-in-cambodia/.
Ellen Emilie Stensrud, “The Politics of the ECCC: Lessons from Cambodia’s Unique and Troubled Accountability Effort,” Just Security, October 13, 2022, https://www.justsecurity.org/83534/the-politics-of-eccc-lessons-from-cambodias-accountability-effort/.