Commentary Magazine


No More Vietnams (or Cambodias)

In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday, President Bush reminded us of the agony and genocide that followed the American retreat in Vietnam:

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea. Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. . . . Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.”

These words summon to mind a powerful passage from the third volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, Years of Renewal, about the horror that befell Cambodia in the wake of Congress’s decision to cut off funding to the governments of Cambodia and South Vietnam.

Kissinger writes that messages were sent to top-level Cambodians offering to evacuate them, but to the astonishment and shame of Americans, the vast majority refused. Responding to one such offer, the former Prime Minister Sirik Matak sent a handwritten note to John Gunther Dean, the U.S. Ambassador, while the evacuation was in progress:

Dear Excellency and Friend:

I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.

You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we all are born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you [the Americans].

Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.

S/Sirik Matak

Kissinger continues:

On April 13th, the New York Times correspondent [Sydney Schanberg] reported the American departure under the headline, “Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life.” The Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17th . . . . The 2 million citizens of Phnom Penh were ordered to evacuate the city for the countryside ravaged by war and incapable of supporting urban dwellers unused to fending for themselves. Between 1 and 2 million Khmer were murdered by the Khmer Rouge until Hanoi occupied the country at the end of 1978, after which a civil war raged for another decade. Sirik Matak was shot in the stomach and left without medical help. It took him three days to die.

This is a sober reminder that there are enormous human, as well as geopolitical, consequences when nations that fight for human rights and liberty grow weary and give way to barbaric and bloodthirsty enemies.

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