A terrifying synthesis of forces spawned Pol Pot's ugly regime

PARIS — PARIS -- The two million or so murders for which Pol Pot and his movement were responsible in Cambodia all were inspired by a desire to outstrip in revolutionary zeal the Chinese cultural revolution, so as to cleanse Cambodia of "all sorts of depraved cultures and social blemishes."

A naive ideological vision of agrarian utopia, stripped of urban and bourgeois influences, was responsible for this genocidal program. It had been worked up in student leftist circles in Paris after World War II, and adopted by the man who later renamed himself Pol Pot. The principal author of the ideology, which he developed in the thesis he presented at the Sorbonne in the 1950s, is still alive, in the Cambodian forest. He is Khieu Samphan.


The Communist group Pol Pot joined on his return to Cambodia was a negligible force in the country's politics. It did not begin to prosper until Cambodia was swept toward the Vietnam War by North Vietnam's exploitation of Cambodian military weakness and the country's policy of neutrality with respect to that war.

A secret mission


Hanoi developed routes inside Cambodia's frontiers to transport arms and supplies southward to the Viet Cong. In 1969 the United States began secretly to bomb those routes. The secret was kept from the U.S. public, and from all but two or three senators, trusted by President Richard M. Nixon.

Subsequently the Nixon administration lent its approval to a military coup, which overturned the neutralist government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and installed a military dictatorship. In 1970 the United States and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia.

That act of international illegality is described by William Bundy, who was at the time a supporter of the Vietnam War, as "indeed a black page in the history of American foreign policy." (This is in Mr. Bundy's forthcoming history of American policy under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, "A Tangled Web" (New York, Hill and Wang).

The invasion proved futile: The North Vietnamese shifted their supply trails even deeper into Cambodia, whose new rulers were as incapable of stopping them as Prince Sihanouk had been.

The U.S. bombing campaign in 1969 had not primarily been meant to affect the military situation. According to Mr. Bundy, who was a CIA and State Department official in the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the bombing was intended "above all as a demonstration to the Soviet Union that [President Nixon] was indeed capable of extreme and irrational response."

Mr. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, believed that international Communism was a structured and disciplined movement, and that the Vietnam War could be ended by intimidating Moscow and Beijing. The Cambodian victims of U.S. actions were killed for a purpose that had nothing directly to do with Cambodia.

In the subsequent struggle, China backed Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, while North Vietnam supported a less radical Communist faction. In the spring of 1972, North Vietnam launched a major offensive into South Vietnam, moving its forces out of frontier Cambodia, which left space for the Khmer Rouge to expand its influence. It went on to become the main threat to the U.S.-supported government.

American bombing of Cambodia was resumed in 1973, not because of anything the Cambodians had done, but as "punishment" for North Vietnamese violations of the peace agreement that had been signed by Mr. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in Paris in January. Eighty thousand tons of bombs were dropped on the country during four months, until Congress forced the Nixon administration to stop. All were meant as "messages" to Hanoi, Beijing or Moscow.


A bloody history

All this produced a terrifying synthesis of forces. Destruction delivered with impunity from abroad awakened a native capacity for suicidal catharsis and renewal, provided by the ideologues of the Khmer Rouge. What happened in Cambodia between the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975, and the Vietnamese invasion that stopped the Khmer Rouge terror in December 1978, had happened before.

From the 12th century forward -- after the immense temple complex of Angkor was built -- a series of cataclysmic defensive and civil wars occurred in Cambodia that ended in ruined cities and partition of the country between Thais and Vietnamese.

Norodom Sihanouk has himself said that "several times in the past, the Khmer people, who built Angkor, have demonstrated a morbid desire for mutual self-destruction." This time it was accomplished under the impulsion and with the complicity of the Vietnamese people, whom they have always hated and feared, under the influence of the Chinese, their overpowering neighbor, and under punishment from a U.S. government, which as Mr. Bundy makes plain, had among its members absolutely no one who knew anything about Cambodia's society or history -- or cared.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/23/98