Killing fields - then and now
Powerline, August 23, 2007
This past March the Times (London) gave away a DVD of "The Killing Fields" to readers. It called on William Shawcross to comment on the film and published his column "Remember: For Cambodia, read Iraq." Shawcross referred to his own experience researching the events depicted in the film:
At the end of 1975 I went to the Thai-Cambodian border to talk to refugees. Their horrific stories of people with glasses being killed as �intellectuals� and of �bourgeois� babies being beaten to death against trees were being dismissed as CIA propaganda by the antiAmerican Western Left, but it seemed obvious to me that they were true. I wanted to discover how the Khmer Rouge had grown and come to power; I wrote a book called Sideshow, which was very critical of the way in which the United States had brought war to Cambodia while trying to extricate itself from Vietnam.
But horror had engulfed all of Indo-China as a result of the US defeat in 1975. In Vietnam and Laos there was no vast mass murder but the communists created cruel gulags and, from Vietnam in particular, millions of people fled, mostly by boat and mostly to the US. Given the catastrophe of the communist victories, I have always thought that those like myself who were opposed to the American efforts in Indochina should be very humble.
In Sideshow, Shawcross excoriated the United States for the Cambodian genocide. In the pages of the American Spectator, Peter Rodman memorably dissented from Shawcross's indictment. Shawcross responded, and the Spectator gave Rodman the last word. Shawcross's magnanimity is reflected in his inclusion of the entire Rodman/Shawcross exchange in the Appendix to the most recent edition of Sideshow.
The original Shawcross thesis is presented in undiluted form in "The Killing Fields." It is presented didactically by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), one of the film's two heroes. The film shows Schanberg accepting the Pulitzer he received for his reporting on Cambodia. In his acceptance speech, Schanberg blames the United States for the Cambodian genocide.
The ironies are manifold. The Times itself celebrated the assumption of power by the Khmer Rouge and Sydney Schanberg was among those who dismissed doubts about the benign intentions of the Khmer Rouge. Gabriel Schoenfeld writes in his Commentary review/essay ("Was Kissinger Right?") on the third volume of Kissinger's memoirs:
In the beginning, middle, and end of this episode, Kissinger shows to telling effect, the barbaric nature of the Communist Khmer Rouge was painted over in soothing tones by much of the American press. The New York Times was the most flagrant offender. In one dispatch, its correspondent Sydney Schanberg described a ranking Khmer Rouge leader as a "French-educated intellectual" who wanted nothing more than "to fight against feudal privileges and social inequities." A bloodbath was unlikely, Schanberg reported: "since all are Cambodians, an accommodation will be found." As the last Americans were withdrawn, another upbeat article by Schanberg appeared under the headline, "Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life." In short order, the Khmer Rouge proceeded to march nearly two million of their fellow Cambodians to their deaths in the killing fields. Also in short order, Schanberg went on to greater glory and a Pulitzer prize.
Shawcross's second thoughts about American foreign policy in southeast Asia were briefly intimated in his Times column, which applied lessons learned to the challenge before us in Iraq. In his Boston Globe column "Why we fought," Jeff Jacoby quoted from a 1994 Times column by Shawcross:
Those 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 Sunday Times...,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 Jeff commented in a message to us last year: "Whatever else he may believe or advocate, Shawcross seems clearly to be a man of intellectual integrity. That makes his thoughts on the current crisis all the more valuable."
Yesterday President Bush highlighted the column by Shawcross published this past June in the New York Times on the same subject -- this time co-authored with Peter Rodman: "Defeat's killing fields." Both the venue and (as President Bush noted) the joint byline were remarkable. Mr. Shawcross has been a friendly correspondent with us at Power Line over the years. At the time he wrote in response to my request for a few words on the column. His response addressed John Podhoretz's comment on the column at NRO's Corner. Podhoretz had commented:
Twenty-eight years ago, in the pages of the American Spectator, Rodman wrote one of the most authoritative takedowns I (or anybody else) has ever read or written. The subject? William Shawcross's Sideshow � a book that blamed the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia on the United States and on Henry Kissinger. Shawcross, then perhaps England's foremost leftist journalist, has undertaken a singular journey over the past two decades to the view that the United States is the key positive force for good in the world. Today's op-ed completes that journey, and it represents a degree of grace in transformation that is very, very rare.
In his message to us in June Mr. Shawcross wrote:
It's very gracious of him, though I am not sure I agree with everything he says! In particular, I would say that Sideshow did not blame Kissinger and the US for the Cambodian genocide but for creating the conditions in which the KR were able to come to power. But maybe that is splitting hairs after all these years!
I would add only that I have included the full text of my American Spectator exchange with Peter Rodman in every paperback edition of Sideshow that has been published since then.
I finally met Peter only recently, well after the overthrow of Saddam which, as you know, I still think was the proper course of action.
We were introduced by Devon Cross, whom you may know. She is a member of the Defence Policy Board and during the last four years she has been a magnificent unofficial representative of the US in Europe. She has done a terrific job in setting up meetings between US policymakers and European journalists and writers. (She has been far more effective than the State Department in making sure that US policies since 9/11 have been well explained.)
Amongst the many meetings she has arranged in London have been ones with Gen. Petraeus, Rumsfeld, Kissinger, Gen. Jim Jones, Eric Edelman, Gen. Jack Keane...and Peter Rodman. I liked him very much.
And there, I think, you have it.