Accessed 01 August 2001
The Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979:
The Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia
[The footnotes were incorrectly coded and I have not had time to correct them all. If you are reading the whole of this thesis it would be best to print out the footnote page.] Footnotes
By 1979, Laura Summers was not so openly doting the Khmer Rouge or their revolution, though she remained quite sympathetic to their cause. In a Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars article of that same year entitled, "In Matters of War and Socialism, Anthony Barnett Would Shame and Honor Kampuchea Too Much," she argues against her fellow socialist colleague Anthony Barnett who, like Kiernan, had switched to the PRK. Summer's wrath on American foreign policy in "Cambodia: Consolidating the Revolution" and "Defining the Revolutionary State in Cambodia" was replaced by a Hildebrand-style denunciation of Vietnam. In any event, Kampuchea was always the unwilling victim of foreign intrusion and intervention. In that sense, Summers falls in Vickery's third category of true believers. They "admit the STV [Ponchaud-Lacouture-Barron-Paul thesis] is partially true [but] continue to insist that 1975-79 brought positive achievements," and denounce the 1979-1980 invasion period as the genocide of a people. She writes,
The media image of Kampuchea as the most radical, heretical and murderous of socialisms probably bedevilled [sic] Vietnam's foreign policy thinking and sense of socialist and national superiority... By 1978, Vietnam took the bait. It exploited the Western image of Kampuchea to justify its armed and political intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbouring communist state in a manner suggesting nothing more or less than expediency.
The mind-boggling naïveté, exposed in her first Current History article, has been replaced by an unadorned anti-Vietnamese line. Having been unreservedly in support of the Khmer revolution, she could not allow Vietnam's foreign policy to interfere with Kampuchea's future. It is remarkable that Summers makes no mention of any atrocities in Democratic Kampuchea in the 1979 BCAS article. Perhaps it is not the purpose of her article, just as it was not Porter's in "Vietnamese Policy Towards Kampuchea, 1930-1970."
Instead, Summers engages Barnett in a debate over war and socialism, to be sure, more sophistry. Summers asks, "So did the Kampucheans start the war or not? In my opinion, we'll never know. Moreover, it is probably not important to know who fired the first the first shot. They are indicative of deep political conflict. In the absence of resolution by other means such conflicts find martial expression." She surmises that, "clashes occurred between the two neighboring states [Vietnam and Cambodia] in the aftermath of their extremely difficult liberation struggles is not at all surprising." Her syntactic use of "Kampucheans," presupposes that the Khmer Rouge legitimately represent all Cambodian. It is only a small change from her early adoption of "Khmer" for "Khmer Rouge" in "Cambodia: Consolidating the Revolution." Summers partially reveals her position, with respect to the STAV, when she writes, "These impressions and judgments [against Kampuchea and in favor of Vietnam] are apparently based on the consensus of opinion in the world media, excluding the serious press--the opinions of specialists hostile to Kampuchea--Vietnamese state propaganda and other forms of hearsay." She refers presumably to the momentum gained after the invasion of Cambodia, in which the 1979 media that, according to Shawcross, drew worldwide attention to the atrocities in Democratic Kampuchea. Summers mocks Vietnam's concurrence with the findings of an Oslo conference on "alleged atrocities" (a recurring marker in Caldwell, Chomsky, et al.) committed by the Khmer Rouge and is particularly critical of Reader's Digest for giving Vietnam ammunition to proselytize its own citizens against Kampuchea. In what must be a strange admission, she concludes that "It is difficult not to see the imperial "divide and rule" obstructing peace between warring communist neighbors." Wrapping-up her article with a tampered Hildebrand-style call-to-action, she writes:
The final task confronting anti-war activists should be the most obvious (though I fear, given the extraordinary confusion and partisanship alternately paralyzing or dividing international opinion, isn't). But if we are to lend meaningful support to the Kampuchean people and the Vietnamese people who pay the price for the undemocratic, martial adventures of their states as well as part of the high human cost of the criminal invasion to punish Vietnam launched by the Chinese authorities, then, it should be apparent that peace requires the withdrawal of the Vietnamese army from Kampuchea. To express disapproval of Vietnam's Kampuchea policy, to discuss it critically, is not to "attack" Vietnam or to be "hostile" to the Vietnamese revolution.
Her conciliatory remarks on behalf of the antiwar activists bears little resemblance to her fiery anti-American rhetoric of past articles. She concedes, by her own admission, that "martial adventures" are possible among socialist states and that these are "undemocratic." She still possesses, however, the same young, idealistic, romantic views of liberation a la peasant revolution, and anti-colonial struggles. Summers continues,
To the contrary, it is perhaps the best way to defend the visions of liberation from colonial tyranny and imperial subjection which inspired the Vietnamese revolution from its origins--visions which seem moreover worthy of liberation. In denying rights of sovereignty and independence to the Kampuchean nation, the Vietnamese state has simply lost its revolutionary way. In defense of peace between the Kampuchea and Vietnamese peoples, democrats everywhere are obliged to say so. [Emphasis added.]
Summers herself has not lost her "revolutionary way." Four years after the "monstrous dark age ... has engulfed the people of Cambodia," she wants more. Though she does not elaborate how democrats can be obliged to say anything of "visions of liberation," "colonial tyranny," "imperial subjection" that seem "worthy of liberation," her 1979 BCAS article sounds positively objective when compared to her earlier 1975 and 1976 essays in Current History. The irony of it is that she achieves this while attacking her socialist colleague, Anthony Barnett.
Whether Laura Summers would continue to defend the Khmer revolution to this day, no one can be sure. What it clear, though, is that she is still active in Cambodian studies. She currently teaches at the University of Hull and contributes frequently to the Internet list Seasia-L, though refrains from public debate through that channel. She is gratefully acknowledged for helping current scholars on Cambodia do research, myself included. Furthermore, Morris' parenthetical note on Summers states, "[She]...subsequently reevaluated [her] pro-Khmer Rouge views, and now discretely sympathizes with the Cambodian noncommunists. She is rumored to be the person in charge of writing for the Economist's Intelligence Unit reports on Cambodia. If that is correct, it would be ironic given the Economist's noncommunist proclivity. In sum, Summers would be classified in Vickery's typology as a type three (mostly rejects the Ponchaud-Lacouture-Barron-Paul thesis) moving slowly to a type two (where she mostly accepts the thesis). Next, we remember Malcolm Caldwell's contributions and surmise where he would stand with respect to the STAV on Cambodia today.
Malcolm Cadwell Remembered
Malcolm Caldwell never had the opportunity to look back at the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary regime after it was overturned by Vietnamese troops. He was killed only days before the invasion began, while in Phnom Penh. Caldwell, along with Richard Dudman and Elizabeth Becker were the first Western journalists (Caldwell's London Times curiously titled article, "Inside Cambodia: another side to the picture," qualified him as a journalist) to be invited into Cambodia in December 1978. Malcolm Caldwell's last conversation with Elizabeth Becker, a correspondent for the Washington Post, is our last entry for him. Becker recounts their conversation the evening of his death:
After dinner, Dudman went to his room to type up notes and Caldwell and I stayed at the table to have our last argument about Cambodia. Caldwell took what he considered the longer view and said the revolution was worth it. I said, on the contrary, I was more convinced of the truth of the refugee stories--which is what I eventually wrote. That night Caldwell tried once more to get me to change my mind. He compared Cambodia to Scotland--he was a Scottish nationalist--and said Cambodia feared Vietnam the way Scotland feared the English. I saw no relevance to such a remark, and he retired to his room with the prophecy that Scotland would be independent of England by the middle of the 1980s.
The Khmer Rouge Canon has seen many a comparison between the Khmer revolution and other revolutions. Summers compared it to the Puritan revolution in England. She thought it out of "cultural and historical context" when compared to the Russian experience. Here we see a comparison between the geopolitical status of Cambodia and that of Scotland. Many observers agree that Cambodia is like Poland, in between larger states, but like Scotland? We may ask too whether Scotland is anywhere closer to independence in the 1990s than it was in the 1980s? Predictive abilities aside, Caldwell was simply way off the mark in comparative politics.
Later that December night, Caldwell was murdered by a Khmer Rouge assassin in a "plot meant to embarrass the regime on the eve of war." Becker adds that, "Circumstantial evidence inside the confessions [of the assassins] suggests that Caldwell was selected because he was the "friend" of the revolution..." Becker surmises that the assassination was planned by someone in the "inner party circle" opposed to Pol Pot. Also from confessions exacted from two men who were tortured at Tuol Sleng for the murder of Caldwell, Becker concludes in her Epilogue that "Caldwell's death would show that the revolution could not even care for its friends, that it was fraught with chaos. The two Americans [Becker and Dudman] were saved so that they could write back about the attack."
The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars remembered Caldwell in a 1979 article entitled "Malcolm Caldwell, 1931-1978." The authors of the article, Peter F. Bell and Mark Selden, eulogize him. Like Summers' BCAS essay of that same year, Bell and Selden sound conciliatory if not positively dialectic:
[Caldwell's] death was tragically linked to the contradictions of socialist revolution in Southeast Asia; he was caught in the contradictory cross-fire of the very changes for which he had struggled so long. The subsequent Vietnamese overthrow of the Pol Pot regime underlines forcibly the need for a critical evaluation of the revolutionary regimes in Southeast Asia, to which many of us gave strong support in previous years.
On that apologetic note, which of the revolutions (Khmer or Vietnamese) Bell and Selden refer to is not self-evident. Caldwell is remembered as an "indefatigable activist" who was also "best known abroad for his books and articles and for his work as a founding editor and moving spirit of the Journal of Contemporary Asia, the only English journal explicitly committed to the revolutionary movements of Asia."
In Bell's and Selden's estimation, Malcolm Caldwell was not one to beat around the bush when it came to supporting the revolution in Kampuchea. As was clear in his own writings of the Khmer Rouge regime, published both before and after his death, Caldwell was among those who romanticized the Khmer revolution enormously. Bell and Selden write,
Malcolm, one of the staunchest defenders of the Pol Pot regime in the West, viewed that regime through the prism of agrarian revolution. His systematic attempt to deflate Western journalistic reports of mass executions in Kampuchea made him the object of attack from many quarters. He was accused by some of Stalinism for this type of reasoning: "How many people died in the French revolution? (His long essay on Kampuchea may be published in England as a book.) To the end he defended the right to national self-determination and to the charting of independent routes to socialism for Vietnam as well as for Kampuchea and all others.
From comparisons to Scotland's independence movement, the Puritan revolution, and Russian history, the Khmer revolution is now equivalent to the French revolution. Fittingly so, in remembering Caldwell, his colleagues compare him to the celebrated Noam Chomsky. They continue:
The British scholar and journalist, John Gittings, writing in the London Guardian, compared Caldwell's role to that of Noam Chomsky in the U.S.--"a lone heretic in the academic world, of enormous personal charm who was respected internationally for views which many colleagues failed to understand." Malcolm's writings did not spring from a consistent theoretical conception, and he was often eclectic. His major concern was to expose historical and contemporary exploitation. A brilliant critic of imperialism in general, and U.S. imperialism in particular, he sought to capture the human experience which led Asian people in country after country to rise in revolution.
Caldwell was a dye in the wool revolutionary. He had expressed concern to Utrecht (see chapter 2) before visiting the new Kampuchea, that if an innocent peasant had been killed it was a token of fascism. But we know from Becker that after interviewing Pol Pot, "[Caldwell] returned delighted with his time with Cambodia's leader. The two had spent most of the interview discussing revolutionary economic theory, the topic of choice for Caldwell throughout the trip." So much so that Caldwell was invited to return the following year by Pol Pot, "to measure how the revolution had prospered. [Caldwell] agreed as long as it would not coincide with the Christmas holiday, when he preferred to be with his family." Caldwell, if he were alive, would surely be in Vickery's third category, namely those who insist "1975-1979 brought positive achievements." Next we examine whether Edward Herman has moved beyond the STAV on Cambodia.
Edward S. Herman
Like many of the STAV scholars who found solidarity with the Khmer people and their revolution, Herman has not offered any explanation, excuse, or recantation for his position. It is true that because his work with Chomsky was cloaked in media analysis, he has had an easier time defending himself. He continues to maintain that his work with Chomsky, "was and remains on target." Given that position, he would likely fall, in Vickery's third type: those who remain believers in the Khmer Rouge mission even if it is not divorced from the violence they acknowledge took place, though on a smaller scale than is normally accepted. Herman likes to use Michael Vickery's estimate of 750,000 deaths resulting from 1975-1979 because it is among the lower estimates available (notwithstanding the Khmer Rouge's admission of having caused 20,000-30,000 deaths). In a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books, Herman had this to say, "Rod Nordland's assertion... that the Khmer Rouge `tried to exterminate or at least deliberately work to death a majority of the population' resuscitates an especially foolish propaganda claim of the 1970's that has been rejected by every serious student of the subject." Adding,
It also fails to explain why, if the Khmer Rouge aim was "autogenocide," it was unable to come anywhere near meeting its objective. The best overall survey of the period, by Michael Vickery, estimates 750,000 excess deaths in the Khmer Rouge era from all causes (including starvation and disease from the terrible early postwar conditions), on a population base of six to eight million.
Herman's assertion is a simple one: in order for the word autogenocide to be used, the majority of Cambodians would have to be dead. Since this was not the case, it cannot be called "autogenocide." What Herman would call it, nobody knows, since he does not call it anything at all. Herman writes, "Mr. Nordland's review is based on an implausible and ridiculous myth."
Herman would not take back anything, to say the least. He felt all the more vindicated in making his conclusions in light of these myths and attacks on his work with Chomsky. This use of the evidence appears quite circular. If the media objects to the theory of the Free Press, then it must be proof that the theory is right. Herman posits:
[Mr. Nordland's] further assertion that Noam Chomsky attributed the deaths of the Pol Pot era to "nothing but" war-induced famine [by the Americans] is an outright lie. Mr. Chomsky (and the present writer, who was co-author with Mr. Chomsky of his published works on Cambodia) went to great pains to stress that there were no doubt that the Khmer Rouge was committing serious crimes, although we took no position on their scale (which was very uncertain at the time).
Instead, Herman contends that his work with Chomsky was not about the Khmer Rouge per se, rather the media coverage and its distortions. He is at least partly correct, after all, the chapter on Cambodia in After the Cataclysm was mainly an analysis and critique of the media and the Ponchaud-Barron-Paul-Lacouture thesis. Hence, the cloak of "media analysis." Herman is vainglorious, when he asserts that, "These were perfectly legitimate subjects in themselves, justified even more by the fact that the West wasn't even proposing doing anything useful for the victims..." This final assertion which invites debate given the fact that the Left in which Chomsky and Herman were prominent members, along with the STAV, could have turned Cambodia into a cause celebre, as argue Ponchaud, Shawcross, and AIM, did nothing of the sort. Herman is indignant, and concludes:
But in the West, to focus on the distortions and hypocrisies of a propaganda campaign is to become an "apologist" for the villains of that campaign. Mr. Nordland's review, which rests on one of the myths of the Pol Pot era as well as a now institutionalized lie about our own work on the subject, show that our effort was and remains on target.
Herman's reaction is not unexpected. "Perhaps someday," to reverse Chomsky's phrase, the STAV scholars "will acknowledge their `honest errors' in their memoirs, speaking of the burdens" of academia and the "tragic irony of history. Their victims, the peasants of Indochina, will write no memoirs and will be forgotten. They will join the countless millions of earlier victims of tyrants and oppressors." This brings us finally to Noam Chomsky, linguiste extraordinaire.
Of all the STAV scholars who were involved in the debate on Cambodia, Chomsky was honored even by Jean Lacouture, as the most respectable among them. Bruce Sharp, editor of Cambodian Life, a Texan periodical on Cambodian issues, makes a number of excellent points, for which I am indebted. Sharp writes:
The mistake that I think Noam Chomsky makes is a pretty common one. He has formulated a theory about collusion between the government and the media, and he looks for evidence to support his theory ... To emphasize: he looks for evidence to support his theory. He doesn't simply examine evidence objectively. He seeks out evidence that supports his theory, and disregards evidence that tends to dispute it. And in the case of Cambodia, that has caused him to accept some very dubious conclusions ... Any attempt at honest scholarship would have revealed that the stories were true. But Chomsky never bothered to make that effort; because Hildebrand and Porter were saying what he wanted to hear, he did not subject their claims to the same rigorous critique that he applies to works which contradict his opinions. That is a pity... I think Chomsky has few peers when it comes to cutting through bullshit.
Sharp's critique of Chomsky underlines the academic mistake that caused scholars in the STAV to reject refugee stories with suspicion. They were so caught-up in the idea of a peasant revolution that they did not stop and ask the peasants themselves how they liked the ride. Sharp's assertion that Chomsky "has few peers" is especially true now, since he continues to maintain no one has successfully challenged his claims in After the Cataclysm. He and Herman do admit to having expressed "skepticism" in "Distortions at Fourth Hand," though that would be a "mild word in these circumstances" according to Shawcross. In 1988, Chomsky's and Herman's theory of the Free Press is still on target according to their latest book, though their scale of atrocities in Cambodia is quite a bit off.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman devote a paltry thirty-six pages and seventy-two endnotes to Cambodia (a far cry from their 159 pages and 427 endnotes in After the Cataclysm) in Manufacturing Consent (1988). Unfortunately, they offer little that is new. By the third page of their section on Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman continue their blame the U.S. game. Their righteous rhetoric is mildly tampered now, though still present. Chomsky and Herman clarify that they expressed "skepticism" in "Distortions at Fourth Hand" in reference to claims of atrocities. They write, "To be clear, in our one article, to which Ponchaud alludes, we did express some `skepticism,' not only about the claims that had already been withdrawn as fabrications but also about other that remained to be assessed." Notwithstanding this concession, they continue to insinuate that because the cessation of U.S. aid would have caused one million deaths in Cambodia after 1975, that America bears indirect responsibility for most of the deaths incurred under Pol Pot, hence "war-induced famine." In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman suggested that the Khmer Rouge were right to evacuate Phnom Penh, because it had saved lives. The flip side of it is that had the United States continued emergency aid to the Khmer Republic, and the Khmer Rouge been contained, no death march to the countryside would have taken place. For Chomsky and Herman, that scenario is out of the question.
Of course, they continue to argue that the war was mostly America's doing, notwithstanding the fact that the Khmer Rouge and Vietcong were on the other side fighting too. From this familiar baseline, Chomsky and Herman make an incredible comparison: "it seems fair to describe the responsibility of the United States and Pol Pot for atrocities during `the decade of the genocide' as being roughly in the same range." How is this done, or for that matter possible, the reader might wonder? Chomsky and Herman use an estimate of 500,000 casualties resulting from the 1970-1975 War in which the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the Khmer Republic, and the FUNK which was composed primarily of the Khmer Rouge, fought and bombed one another on Cambodian soil. In their calculus these half-million lives fall squarely on the shoulders of the Americans. As for the casualties during the Democratic Kampuchea period, Chomsky and Herman use Michael Vickery's figure of 750,000 deaths (recognized to be among the lowest available). This Chomskian comparison is not a parallel one: casualties of war versus revolution die for different reasons. While it might be plausible for both sides to sustain casualties during war, the Kampuchean revolution cost the lives of primarily non-revolutionaries and in 1978 began to take the lives of purged "Vietnamese agents" cum revolutionaries too.
The historical revisionism continues unabated when Chomsky and Herman shrink the STAV on Cambodia into "Maoist circles," while excluding themselves and their colleagues. The Khmer Rouge Canon shows that this was not the case. They write, "there was virtually no doubt from early on that the Khmer Rouge regime under the emerging leader Pol Pot was responsible for gruesome atrocities. But there were differing assessments of the scale and character of these crimes." Indeed, that scale ranged from the very truest believers in Pol Pot who thought that the atrocities were, to begin with, alleged, and those who did not, namely Ponchaud, Barron-Paul, Lacouture, Shawcross, and the media. Having successfully obfuscated the debate on the Khmer Rouge, while reiterating that they were careful to admit to the possibility of bloodbaths, Chomsky and Herman do some relevant handiwork on the image of Cambodians as a "not-so-gentle" people to begin with. With heuristic quotes, they suggest that Cambodians, especially peasants, "appear to have lived under conditions of extreme hatred for oppressors from outside the village," thus somehow excusing their use of violence against those they perceived to have been American cum Khmer Republic collaborators. There is but one problem with this abuse excuse, namely that half of the 1.5 million estimated to have perished during the Democratic Kampuchea period were peasants themselves.
Chomsky and Herman still uphold every argument forwarded in After the Cataclysm. They add that no one has yet been able to prove them wrong. On the face of it, this sounds ludicrous, but they are partly right. It is true that they adroitly peppered the chapter on Cambodia in After the Cataclysm with qualifications, but their motive was hardly in doubt. They caught a number of erratas in the media, Barron-Paul and Ponchaud books and magnified them, generalized on them, to make a model. As much as their pretext was to analyze the media, this cannot absolve them of liability for their own Khmer Rouge propaganda campaign. They accuse the media of "manufacturing consent," when it is they, along with their STAV friends, who manufactured dissent on the basis of feeble evidence and contrary objectives. The evidence used to crucify the Khmer Rouge, they contend,
was of a kind that would have been dismissed with derision had something of the sort been offered... [during the U.S. bombardments of 1968-1973] of the genocide or other U.S. atrocities, including faked interviews or photographs and fabricated statements attributed to Khmer Rouge officials, constantly repeated even after they had been conceded to be frauds; fabricated casualty estimates based on misquoted studies that became unquestionable doctrine even after they were publicly withdrawn as inventions; and highly selective refugee reports that ignored much refugee testimony, including detailed studies by Cambodia scholars, that could not be exploited for what soon became a propaganda campaign at a level of deceit of astonishing proportions.
The litany of erratas seems only to originate from the Chomskian opposition, notwithstanding, Chomsky and Herman made no attempt to seek the truth for themselves. They proudly restate their goal of examining the media in After the Cataclysm, in quotation, and use it to their benefit. It did not matter where the truth lay, simply that Chomsky and Herman had valid points that could be used against the media's "propaganda campaign" against the Khmer Rouge. Of course, we know from the first round of media analysis that, to the contrary, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the three television networks were doing little on Cambodia as opposed to Chile or South Korea in 1976. From round two, we examined the media in 1977, and determined that there were more fragmentary reports, but that these were mixed with simultaneous Porter/Hildebrand/Chomsky/Herman objections. In the third round, Shawcross nailed Chomsky's thesis by proving that the reporters did not all believe the refugees in the beginning, and that it was not until after the Vietnamese invasion that news stories on the Cambodian genocide picked up significantly.
Unfortunately for Chomsky, that invasion took place while he wrote After the Cataclysm in which he, along with Herman, forward their theory of gravitating propaganda machines against the "evils of communism." But that does not really matter, does it? Chomsky is a very, very intelligent man. To be sure, Chomsky is a genius, but this does not necessarily make him right all the time. Chomsky and Herman do not use statistical analysis to prove their propaganda thesis for Cambodia. They do this for the mass-media coverage of "worthy and unworthy victims" in Latin America versus Poland, perhaps because they know something can be shown from it, but for Cambodia, news anecdotes are sufficient. In any case, they argue, what could the U.S. have done anyway? What difference would it have made had they not criticized the media and the refugees? No difference whatsoever, hence no harm, no foul. But they are wrong again, says Shawcross. He writes, "The moral force of the left--Communist and non-Communist--was not exerted on behalf of the Cambodians until 1979." In the following chapter, which concludes this thesis, the common threads of chapter 2 and 3 are woven together to create an STAV quilt that shows how the "Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979" was the "Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia."
This [deceit] was apparent to anyone listening closely to his [Pol Pot's] speeches and press conferences in 1977 and 1978 and to the unsettling propaganda broadcast every day over Radio Phnom Penh by the Kampuchean Communist Party (meaning Pol Pot himself) from 1975 until January 7, 1979, when Vo Nguyen Giap's blitzkrieg brought down Phnom Penh. Never in the human memory has a leader (be he an emperor or dictator), government, or a political party in power sung its own praises in such a dithyrambic, insolent, deceitful, shameless, and immodest way as the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary regime did. As Radio Hanoi has since stated, Messers. Pol Pot and Ieng Sary outstripped even their guru, the late Joseph Goebbels, when it came to propaganda!
--King Norodom Sihanouk, 1980
For once, it seems, Sihanouk was right. "The Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979: The Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia," as this thesis is titled, represents more than anything a blunder on the part of academia. If we are to understand how the STAV developed, we must go back to the very beginning of our story. In the context of the Vietnam War, a common thread runs through the STAV: the vision of a struggle between two forces, good versus evil, socialism versus neo-colonialism. The deceptions which successive presidential administrations (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon) pressed on the American people could serve to mitigate why this generation of Cambodian scholars grew increasingly suspicious of everything the U.S. government said and did. But this does not explain how suspicion of the government turned into suspicion of the U.S. media and Cambodian refugees. This had been, after all, the same American press that almost single-handedly pushed public opinion away from further American intervention in Vietnam before Watergate. For the answer, we must go beyond the surface and venture into the very heart of the STAV.
As we have seen throughout this thesis, common threads in logic, arguments, and evidence have recurred. Among these threads, two stand out: (1) a pro-revolutionary prism through which these scholars saw themselves in a greater struggle against imperialism; (2) a romanticization of peasants and the Khmer revolution in an appallingly detached context. They were all scholars and professors who thought nothing strange of romanticizing peasants and revolutions from arms-length. We know that the scholars canonized in this thesis did not bother to walk the distance and ask the tough questions that would test their "solidarity with the peoples of Kampuchea" and the Khmer revolution. Others admitted they did not know where the truth lay, but made no pretense to search for it. This error was perhaps more egregious in retrospect.
In the next section, we briefly examine Ben Kiernan's 1979 Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars article entitled "Vietnam and the Governments and Peoples of Kampuchea" for the purpose of seeing an actual apology from an ex-STAV scholar. In chapter 4, Hildebrand sounded apologetic, but he was really very insincere. Caldwell never had a chance, but we concluded that he probably would not have thought it necessary. Summers and Porter were surmised to have recanted, but they made no public exhibition of it. As for Chomsky and Herman, all they concede is "skepticism," but insist they "remain on target."
The Two-Sided Switch: Benedict Kiernan and the Khmer Rouge
Ben Kiernan, noted academic and author of the serious and worth reading book How Pol Pot Came to Power (1985) and co-editor with David Chandler of such other notable works as Revolution and Its Aftermath (1983), will lead the U.S. State Department funded Yale University program that will create a database documenting Khmer Rouge genocidal crimes. We know from this thesis, however, that there is another story to Dr. Kiernan; the story of a young, idealistic graduate student, mesmerized by the idea of a people's revolution and socialism. Ben Kiernan was a leading Khmer Rouge defender during Democratic Kampuchea. With all due respect to him and the studied work he has done since 1979, he deserves to be canonized for being a leading proponent of the STAV on Cambodia.
In fact, it was not until Kiernan interviewed five hundred Cambodian refugees in the camps in 1978 or 1979 that he recognized that he had been "late in realizing the extent of the tragedy in Kampuchea." In what amounted to a mea culpa in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars in 1979, entitled "Vietnam and the Governments and People of Kampuchea," he writes,
I was wrong about ... the brutal authoritarian trend within the revolutionary movement after 1973 was not simply a grass-roots reaction, and expression of popular outrage at the killing and destruction of the countryside by U.S. bombs, although that helped it along decisively. There can be no doubting that the evidence also points clearly to a systematic use of violence against the population by that chauvinist section of the revolutionary movement that was led by Pol Pot. In my opinion this violence was employed in the service of a nationalist revivalism that had little concern for the living conditions of the Khmer people, or the humanitarian socialist ideals that had inspired the broader Kampuchean revolutionary movement. [Emphasis added.]
Kiernan was indeed very wrong about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and their "systematic use of violence." He also reveals one of the excuses which the STAV fondly dangled when critics questioned the draconian practices of the Khmer Rouge. The convenient "U.S. bombs" made them do it. To be sure, Khmer Rouge membership increased, but the bombing had already stopped by that time. Moreover, Kiernan reveals that it was the "humanitarian socialist ideals" of the Khmer Rouge that attracted him to them. His point about "nationalist revivalism" sounds familiar, because Caldwell confided to a friend that "If it is true that Pol Pot has also killed Khmer Peasants, [it] is a token of fascism." In fact, attempts to commit this senseless act of historical revisionism on Cambodia's contemporary history has succeeded. The debunked Pol Pot-Ieng Sary regime, it is now said, was more of a fascist cum Nazi regime than a Communist cum Maoist one! Truth may yet be stranger than fiction.
In April 1977, Kiernan and his Cambodian wife Chanthou Boua among many others, published the Australian News from Kampuchea. The goal of the newsletter, according to Gunn and Lee was "to keep Kampucheans in Australia informed of developments in their native country" and "to develop and foster close ties between the peoples of Australia and Kampuchea." By November 1978, its goal was amended to "also [lending] support to all progressive movements in the world trying to rid themselves of all forms of domination" and to refute the "imperialist media" (a mission shared by Chomsky and Herman). In November 1979, when News from Kampuchea was renamed to News of Democratic Kampuchea, "[it] revealed itself exclusively an Australian mouthpiece of Democratic Kampuchea." By that time, however, Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua had been expelled from News from Kampuchea, and "aligned themselves more closely with the Australian Vietnam Society."
It should be noted that Gunn and Lee themselves present a curiously uncritical view of this disturbing record, when, in other instances, they write:
Whatever else, the Tarr's description of the events surrounding the evacuation of foreigners from the French Embassy compound [contrary to the then prevailing media stereotype--a description of the orderly nature of the evacuation, the absence of executions and other atrocities, the degree of voluntarism and the absence of coercion on the part of cadres and the degree of understanding on the part of evacuees of the rationale for the uprooting] stands in studied contrast to the banalised "killing fields" which has since become the "definitive media interpretation" ... The "Killing Fields" was made in Thailand on a budget of fifteen million dollars around the theme of the sentimental rendez-vouz [sic] between a New York Times correspondent and his Cambodian offsider, a "miraculous" survivor of Democratic Kampuchea. [Emphasis added.]
Granted, the "Killing Fields" became a cinematic symbol of despair and hope for many Cambodians, but that fact need not be mocked. Surely, nothing of the sort would be contemplated of "Schindler's List," for instance.
Returning to Kiernan's confession, it is useful to us since it brings an insider's perspective to understanding the STAV. In one particularly poignant reference to George Orwell, he eloquently states,
[The] many proven falsehoods spread in the Western Press led to preoccupation with the correction of specific lies or distortions (fake atrocity photographs, fake interview, etc.). While such correction is important to anyone sorting through the evidence, it does not by itself establish the truth about the actual situation in Kampuchea. As George Orwell pointed out in reference to atrocity stories about the Spanish Civil War, those whose interests are against social change will always spread disinformation about revolutions; but these stories are irrelevant to the truth, neither its identity nor its opposite. It is up to those interested in the truth to establish it positively.
Kiernan is correct in asserting that the correction of falsehoods became a substitute for truth. Indeed, if the STAV scholars were interested, they made little effort to establish it positively anywhere near Cambodia as we saw in chapter 4. Next, we speculate on how this community of academics became so consumed by the need to prove their theories supporting peasant revolutions to realize the consequences of their actions on Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979: The Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia
The goal of this thesis, reiterated, was to construct a Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979, while at the same time deconstruct the STAV on Cambodia. Having done this, more or less, the question remains: why Cambodia? The reasons seem clear now. To the STAV scholars, Democratic Kampuchea symbolized their wildest hopes and dreams. From the classroom to the politburo, the new Kampuchea was, to these scholars, theory becoming reality, from Chomsky's 1973 prediction for Cambodia of "a new era of economic development and social justice" to Caldwell's 1978 conclusion that:
[The] Kampuchean Revolution will appear more and more clearly as one of the most significant early indications of the great and necessary change beginning to convulse the world in the later 20th century and shifting from a disaster-bound course to one holding our promise of a better future for all. In the mean time we can surely rejoice that the people of Kampuchea are assured now steadily rising living standards while those of their still "free world" neighbors continue to deteriorate.
The standard total academic view on Cambodia hoped for, more than anything, a socialist success story with all the romantic ingredients of peasants, fighting imperialism, and revolution. A cursory examination of the titles to the articles they wrote on Cambodia during that period yields further evidence of their rapture for these elements: "Consolidating the Revolution," or "Defining the Revolutionary State," or "Social Cohesion in Revolutionary Cambodia," or "Rationale for a Rural Policy," and still, not be outdone, "Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology."
It would be facile to dismiss the authors of these works as outliers or exceptions, but for one problem: they were not the exception. In fact, these scholars were the norm, hence the title of STAV scholars. Their stance was not the result of some freak accident of nature, but an institutionalized revolutionary conditioning. Indoctrination, whether through academia or by other means, seems to be the only plausible explanation. In Australia, England, and America, Ben Kiernan, Malcolm Caldwell, and Noam Chomsky reached similar conclusions on Cambodian refugees. The only common denominator: a proclivity for revolutions in an academic backdrop. Seeking "truth wherever it may lead," in the words of Thomas Jefferson, had no place when it came to revolutions. For that purpose, the empirical process was turned upside down, first came theory, followed by evidence.
As Bruce Sharp asserts, Chomsky created his theory of the Free Press and from then on sought only evidence that would support it. Together with Herman, Chomsky painted all other contrary evidence with wide strokes of the same color: imperialist media propaganda and disinformation "that `liberation' by `Marxists' is the worst fate that can befall any people under Western dominance." Chomsky and Herman were professional sophists, whereas Caldwell, Summers, Hildebrand and Porter could only have considered themselves amateurs. The evidence leaves little doubt: "Consolidating the Revolution," "Defining the Revolutionary State," "Rationale for a Rural Policy," and Starvation and Revolution had virtually no cloaks or token allowances. Chomsky and Herman, on the other hand, submitted that the atrocities were true, but questioned their scale. They latched on to a few mistakes by the media, Ponchaud, Barron-Paul, and turned these into one hundred pages of text without appearing to even argue or pretend to know the facts on Cambodia.
Few people today remember the Chomsky-Lacouture Controversy, fewer people still, remember what Summers, Caldwell, Hildebrand, and Porter wrote between 1975 and 1979, and when they do, these are looked back upon as the utterances of idealistic scholars who were caught up in the revolutionary spirit of their decade. It is always easier to forget than to remember the past, but for this parenthesis in history, we may use the World War II phrase: "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for people."
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