Cambodia and Vietnam
To the Editor:
In his review of William Shaw-cross’s Sideshow [Books in Review, August], . . . Charles Horner does not discuss the real problem of the book: namely, its failure to consider Cambodia’s role in the overall history of the Indochina conflict.
Under French colonial rule, Cambodia and Cochin China (later South Vietnam) were treated almost as one territorial unit. For example, Cambodian rice surpluses regularly made up an important part of the southern Vietnam exports shipped out of Saigon. There were extensive contacts between the two areas (Saigon was only three hours by car from Phnom Penh). . . .
The war against the French, 1948-54, by the so-called Vietminh . . . was waged in the south mostly from Cambodia. . . . And this did not change during the later struggle between the government of President Ngo Diem Dinh and the Communists. When I sought a visa to go to North Vietnam in 1959, I applied at the headquarters of Hanoi operations in Phnom Penh.
During the American war in Vietnam, that is after 1964, Cambodia continued to play a paramount role in the war in the southern reaches of the Republic of Vietnam. The 1968 Tet offensive would not have been possible without the use of Cambodian territory. Also, vast amounts of arms, materiel, and food passed through Cambodia to North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces. . . . It is important to note that U.S. officials throughout this period were eager, for the most part, to deny such activity, so that any record—such as Shawcross’s—which relies on U.S. government documents, would not reveal the extent of Cambodia’s involvement. A young U.S. diplomat . . . told me in 1964: “One day we may have to go into Cambodia (in order to fight the war effectively), and because we are not admitting what is actually going on there, there will be no rationale for it.” How prophetic he was!
Sihanouk’s role has always been much more complicated and opportunistic than his Western admirers would admit. Suffice it to say that it was Son Ngoc Than and not Sihanouk . . . who was the chief spokesman for Cambodian nationalism against the French, when he was puppet prime minister during the Japanese occupation. Son Ngoc Than was an ally of Sirik Matak, a descendant of the main line of the royal family which had been displaced by the French in favor of Sihanouk’s grandfather. Matak, then a general of the Lon Nol forces, refused asylum when the end came; he was finally expelled from the French embassy, and apparently killed by the Pol Pot Communists. His note to the U.S. ambassador which accused the U.S. of abandoning his country after making promises of support for so many years is a classic document—and one that makes some of us who have read it ashamed of our policy for reasons quite different from those of Shawcross. (Son Ngoc Than is reported fighting in the mountains against the present Vietnamese-supported Phnom Penh regime.)
There is something obscene in the writings of Shawcross and others who blame the excesses of the Communist regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia on the U.S. attempt to keep them from power. It reminds one of the argument of the 1930′s that Hitler was only the product of the unfairness of the Versailles treaty. The New York Times today prints accusations that those who are now being forced to die at sea because of their persecution in Vietnam are, after all, black marketeers and not willing to conform to the new policies of Hanoi. How cruelly reminiscent of the accusations against the Jews in Germany.
The Shawcrosses of this world are wrong because they simply do not understand the nature of Communist regimes. And they have used the incompetence and the twists and turns of American policy—all fully and officially documented—to try to convince a gullible and inexperienced American public.
I am afraid that Mr. Horner’s elaborate but overly sophisticated response to Sideshow simply plays into that tragic but total failure to understand the nature of our enemy.
Sol W. Sanders
New York City
To the Editor:
As a soldier anointed in the blood of his profession, I would like to commend Charles Horner for his insight into the way many Vietnam veterans view their wartime service. If the dead could talk to us from the grave, I believe that they too would thank Mr. Horner for speaking for them, perhaps to them. . . .
Neither I nor my professional associates have any remorse about serving in Vietnam, except to deplore the tragic—and avoidable-outcome. Nor will we express our grief to outsiders. But what is still not often understood is the anguish we felt over the final solution as it affected our Vietnamese friends of high and low station. Their sad fate, of course, was immediately foreseeable when South Vietnam was “liberated.”
These friends did not fit the media stereotype: they were fine human beings with a profound sense of compassion, nationalism, and purpose. Their principal failing was that their world view was influenced by the assurances of people like me.
[Lt. Col.] Charles A. Krohn
Charles Horner writes:
Sol W. Sanders is quite correct in observing that Sideshow is flawed by “its failure to consider Cambodia’s role in the overall history of the Indochina conflict.” This, of course, is a predictable defect in the work in that Shawcross, given his desire to defame American Indochina policies generally, would scarcely adduce any justification for the American effort in that region. However, the last sentence of Mr. Sanders’s letter seems not to follow from the rest of his discussion. I do not see how my review plays into a “total failure to understand the nature of our enemy.” I think, rather, that the review makes quite explicit my differences with Shawcross on these questions.
Charles A. Krohn expresses, I think, the sentiment of many Vietnam veterans, but the country as a whole must come ultimately to share this view if we are to recover a correct understanding of the American role in world affairs. The collapse of American-supported resistance to Soviet- and Chinese-supported North Vietnamese aggression has had horrible human consequences throughout Indochina. It is one thing to attribute that collapse to American and South Vietnamese inadequacies of thought and execution, another to go beyond this and mendaciously attribute the subsequent horrors to those who worked so hard to prevent them. We may have failed in Vietnam, but we did not deserve to fail. That makes all the difference.