George Bush and other Iraq War supporters have argued that if we withdraw from Iraq the result will be like the killing fields of Cambodia — an odd comparison considering that the US has direct responsibility for that holocaust.
Here are the facts:
- The killing fields were real. The genocide against their own people was committed by the Khmer Rouge.
- The Vietnamese — the Communist Vietnamese — were the people who went in and put a stop to it.
- The United States then supported the Khmer Rouge.
Here’s how that came to happen.
The United States got involved in the war in Vietnam in an attempt to keep South Vietnam from going communist. Which it would have if nationwide elections had been held as promised.
Cambodia is next to Vietnam. It was ruled by Prince Sihanouk. He attempted to be neutral. Both sides abused that neutrality.
The North Vietnamese send arms, support and men through Cambodia on the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” to go around South Vietnamese and American forces. They also used Cambodian ports.
The United States, which was not at war with Cambodia, officially or unofficially, secretly sent armed forces into Cambodia to interrupt North Vietnamese use of that route. In 1969, Nixon began a campaign of carpet bombing sections of Cambodia. Ultimately about 750,000 Cambodians were killed by the bombings (though the numbers are hard to verify.)
In 1970, while Sihanouk was out of the country, visiting Europe, the USSR and China, Lon Nol took over the country in a right wing coup.
There are two stories about American involvement. The first is that we supported the coup, the second (in Tom Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, The History of the CIA) is that it took the CIA and the United States by surprise. Recently declassified documents support Weiner’s view.
In either case, once Lon Nol took power, the US supported him. In return, Lon Nol ended the neutrality, closed the ports to the communists and demanded that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese leave the country, and let US forces openly, though secretly, operate in Cambodia.
There was resistance to Lon Nol. Some of it was certainly a spontaneous matter of national sentiment. Some of it was certainly fomented by various communist interests.
Sihanouk, in China, then allied himself with the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia communists, which conferred new legitimacy on them.
Civil War broke out. Lon Nol was both corrupt and inept. In spite of American financial and military support, he lost.
America left Vietnam in 1973.
The Khmer Rouge took the capital of Cambodia in 1975. They were one of the most horrendous regimes in history. They practiced a kind of class genocide, “re-educating” and murdering anyone who educated or Westernized, as well as minority groups.
In 1978, Vietnam, by then fully Communist, invaded Cambodia to put a stop to the Khmer Rouge and drive them out. They installed a more moderate and sane regime.
The United States, the UK, and China then supported the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. With their help the conflict continued for another ten years.
When George Bush, or anyone else, uses the Cambodian holocaust as a warning of what might happen if America withdraws from Iraq, remember the facts.
1. Part of the holocaust in Cambodia is directly attributable to American bombing. The 750,000 dead. (Comparable to the number of Iraqis killed by American forces in this war.)
2. The civil war that led to the victory of the Khmer Rouge came about, at least in part, because of America’s support of Lon Nol.
3. The “enemy,” the Vietnamese Communists, were the ones who put a stop to the Khmer Rouge.
4. The United States supported the Khmer Rouge — after their murders, after the genocide. That support helped a civil war continue for another decade. More death, more destruction.
Larry Beinhart is the author of Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin. His novels include Wag the Dog, on which the film was based, and The Librarian which Rolling Stone described as “John Grisham meets Jon Stewart.”