Commentary Magazine

Grantsmanship & the Killing Fields

In 1979, a journalist named William Shawcross vaulted to fame with Sideshow,1 a book that accused Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon of responsibility for the genocide conducted in Cambodia in the mid 70’s by the revolutionary Khmer Rouge regime. Fifteen years later, however, Shawcross came forth with a remarkable admission in the London Times (December 16, 1994):

[T]hose of us who opposed the American war in Indochina should be extremely humble in the face of the appalling aftermath: a form of genocide in Cambodia and horrific tyranny in both Vietnam and Laos. Looking back on my own coverage for the London Sunday Times of the South Vietnamese war effort of 1970-75, I think I concentrated too easily on the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese and their American allies, was too ignorant of the inhuman Hanoi regime, and far too willing to believe that a victory by the Communists would provide a better future.

But after the Communist victory came the refugees to Thailand and the floods of boat people desperately seeking to escape the Cambodian killing fields and the Vietnamese gulags. Their eloquent testimony should have put paid to all illusions.

As it happens, even in 1979 Shawcross had been a “moderate” in comparison with his more zealous colleagues on the Left. He at least acknowledged and condemned what was happening in Cambodia, even as he asserted it was the consequence of American policies. As for those further to his Left, they hailed the Khmer Rouge as progressives, asserted that no genocide was taking place at all, and dismissed the horrific reports emanating from Cambodia—final estimates exceeded 1.5 million, or 20 percent of the population, systematically murdered by Pol Pot and his Communist cadres—as Pentagon disinformation.

Shawcross has offered his mea culpa. But whatever happened to those who denied the atrocities in the first place? It seems they get half-million-dollar grants from the U.S. Department of State to do research on Cambodia. That, at least, is the good fortune that has befallen Ben Kiernan, an Australian academic and political activist now teaching at Yale.

In 1994, Congress passed the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act, creating an office in the State Department to help the Cambodians compile documentation of Khmer Rouge crimes against humanity, with an eye toward an eventual international tribunal like the one at Nuremberg after World War II. A Yale team, led by Kiernan, beat out several other applicants for a $499,000 contract to carry out the work.

The State Department grant, not surprisingly, triggered a controversy. The journalist Christopher Ogden, writing in Time‘s Asian edition, called on Secretary of State Warren Christopher to withdraw the contract. Stephen J. Morris, a Harvard-based researcher (and like Kiernan an Australian), wrote a long denunciation of the State Department decision in the Wall Street Journal, citing chapter and verse from Kiernan’s numerous apologias for the Khmer Rouge in the mid-70’s. A sampling:

• There is ample evidence in Cambodian and other sources that the Khmer Rouge movement is not the monster that the press have recently made it out to be. (“Cambodia in the News, 1975-76,” Melbourne Journal of Politics, 1976.)

• Did the new government [of Cambodia] plan and approve a systematic large-scale purge? There is little evidence that they did. Apart from the execution of high-ranking army officers and officials, the killing reported by refugees from the northwest since April 1975 was instigated by untrained and vengeful local Khmer Rouge soldiers, despite orders to the contrary from Phnom Penh. . . .

As a result of the Khmer Rouge immigration program, Cambodian agriculture will be modernized and peasant living standards increased. (“Social Cohesion in Revolutionary Cambodia,” Australian Outlook, December 1976.)

• Photographs of alleged atrocities [are] fake. . . . The Western press have more of an interest in a “bloodbath” in Cambodia than the Communists do because in the name of “preventing” such a bloodbath the West destroyed Cambodia with bombs and napalm. (Letter to The Age [Melbourne], March 2, 1977.)

• After interviewing many refugees I have found, as others have, that each one’s view of the revolution depends to a great extent on their class background. This is natural, since the revolution is decidedly biased in favor of the poor, in particular the peasantry. (Unpublished letter to the London Times, printed in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1977.)

Morris’s criticism was answered by a barrage of personal attacks on his credentials from academic allies of Kiernan, and by the argument that Kiernan had anyway gotten over his youthful indiscretions and was now determinedly anti-Khmer Rouge.

Indeed, Kiernan’s new book The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79,2 provides ample evidence that he has had something of a change of heart. He draws on more than 500 interviews with Cambodian survivors, refugees, and defectors, as well as on previously unpublished archival materials (such as secret speeches by Pol Pot) to document the nature and the scope of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. His publisher bills this as “the first comprehensive study of the Khmer Rouge revolution,” which it is not—Karl D. Jackson produced a more profound analysis, Rendezvous With Death, in 1989—but Kiernan’s account is voluminous and detailed.



The book has its uses, then. But it does not extinguish doubts about Kiernan’s fitness to do the work now assigned to him. For one thing, questions can be raised about the timing of his “conversion.” His defenders date it to 1978-80, when, they say, the full extent of Khmer Rouge atrocities became known. But accounts of the atrocities in Khmer Rouge-controlled areas were common even before April 1975, and were universal knowledge thereafter. What happened in 1978-80 was not an outpouring of new information but a shift in the politics of the Indochina controversy—and that, in turn, was due to the escalation of the conflict between Communist Cambodia and Communist Vietnam.

When Hanoi turned publicly against Phnom Penh, it suddenly became respectable for many on the Left to “discover” the murderous qualities of the Khmer Rouge—qualities that had been obvious to unbiased observers for years. Kiernan fits this pattern nicely. His book even displays an eagerness to absolve of genocidal responsibility those members of the Khmer Rouge who defected to Hanoi and were later reinstalled in power in Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

That is not the only example of this book’s skewed political analysis. Amid all the unexceptionable documentation of murder is a bizarre explanation of the Khmer Rouge genocide, to the effect that it was driven not simply by Communist revolutionary aims but by racial prejudice. Thus, Kiernan makes much of the Cambodian regime’s nationalist rhetoric, suppression of various ethnic minorities, virulent hatred of the neighboring Vietnamese, and frequent denunciation of recalcitrant Cambodians as no better than Vietnamese (“Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds”). To Kiernan this suggests that the regime’s ideology was an impure Marxism adulterated by racism.

The racial element in Khmer Rouge policy that Kiernan documents is indeed interesting, but to let Marxism-Leninism off the hook is absurd. As all accounts of the Cambodian horror demonstrate, it was a politically motivated auto-genocide—Cambodians murdering fellow Cambodians in the name of a Communist revolution.

When the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975, they emptied the city of its three million inhabitants. Schools, hospitals, factories, offices, temples, and homes were evacuated at gunpoint, the city’s structures razed and their occupants force-marched into the countryside. Typewriters, radios, televisions, phonographs, not to mention books, were destroyed as hated remnants of a culture to be eradicated. All officials and soldiers, even low-ranking ones, were murdered, and, for good measure, so were their families. Schoolteachers, students, doctors, indeed, all those known to wear eyeglasses or to be able to read and write were annihilated for being “intellectuals” and, therefore, members of the bourgeoisie.

What was the inspiration of this social revolution? Its own leading spokesman, Khieu Samphan, wrote in his 1959 doctoral thesis at the University of Paris about the need to uproot Cambodian society, to do away with its corrupt urban centers, and to rebuild the country on the basis of the “dormant energy in the peasant mass.” In June 1975, Kiernan published a gushing profile of Khieu Samphan, with his “unassuming manner, ready smile, and simple habits [which] endeared him to Khmer peasants.” This was the same Khieu Samphan who presided over the Khmer Communist-party session in February 1975 that decided upon the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and sent its inhabitants to the killing fields.



Kiernan’s own ideological groundings are not hard to discern. One of his mentors was Wilfred Burchett, the Australian Stalinist who was notorious for his anti-American activities during the Korean war—bullying U.S. prisoners in Chinese-run prisoner-of-war camps, spreading the lie that the U.S. had waged germ warfare. For such activities, North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il-Sung, awarded Burchett a medal. Yet Kiernan, in 1986, long after his supposed “conversion” on the Khmer Rouge, edited a Festschrift in Burchett’s honor, and Burchett is repeatedly cited in Kiernan’s new book as an authority on Southeast Asia.3

What Kiernan learned from Burchett goes beyond these citations. Take die book’s explanation of the Khmer Rouge ascension to power. Kiernan contends that between 1969 and 1975, U.S. military actions defending South Vietnam and Cambodia were “probably the most important single factor in Pol Pot’s rise,” and that Nixon and Kissinger “were largely responsible” for the radicalization of the Khmer Rouge. In other words, B-52 raids that ended in August 1973 explain Khmer Rouge brutality after April 1975—brutality which, as we have seen, was in plain fact the implementation of an ideological vision articulated in 1959. This is a crude parroting of the view propounded by William Shawcross in Sideshow, from which Shawcross himself has backed away. Kiernan may not still be pro-Khmer Rouge, but he is still profoundly anti-American.



A number of qualified research teams applied for the grant from the State Department. One was led by David Hawk, the founder of Amnesty International USA, another by Kassie Neou, a Cambodian human-rights advocate. Ironically, the Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, which awarded the grant, is now headed by Winston Lord—a former colleague of mine on Kissinger’s Indochina negotiating team and in the Nixon White House. Thus, Lord has presided over the hiring of an individual whose core belief is that the men for whom Lord himself loyally worked, and the policies he helped to shape, were responsible for genocide. Whoever made the decision, it must inevitably take its place on the roster of national embarrassments this administration has inflicted on our foreign policy.


1 Reviewed in the August 1979 COMMENTARY by Charles Horner.

2 Yale, 477 pp., $35.00.

3 For more on Wilfred Burchett, see “A Scandalous Journalistic Career” by Stephen J. Morris, COMMENTARY, November 1981.

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