Mark D. Tooley: The Killing Fields of Honest History (Cambodia)

[Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.]

Jim Wallis' Sojourners reacted quickly to President Bush's comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. The Iraq-Vietnam comparison is in fact a frequent one for the Religious Left, but not the way Bush described it. For the Religious Left, every U.S. military involvement is "another Vietnam," i.e. a futile quagmire pitting enlightened Third World liberationists against clueless Western imperialists.

Bush challenged that narrative by pointing to Indochina's mass murder and oppression after the U.S. Congress of 1975 virtually cut off all aid to anti-communist resistance in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. After Indochina's "liberation" by Soviet-backed North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao in Laos, and the Chinese-backed Pol Pot in Cambodia, at least two million were murdered by these "liberators." Millions more endured imprisonment and persecution, while hundreds of thousands fled across the seas, thousands of whom would drown.

Cambodia's communist rulers were by far Indochina's most homocidal, conducting perhaps the most systematic, government-orchestrated genocide since the Nazis. (Mao's China and Sudan's current Islamist regime killed more victims, but their depravity was spread across more years and conducted among larger populations.)

Even more than the secular Left, the Religious Left is discomfitted by talk of genocide by Third World liberationists. For these left-wing religionists, the wars of Indochina were a spiritual catharsis. Previously moderate liberals who presided over America's most important religious institutions were radicalized by Vietnam, ultimately not only opposing the war but aligning rather openly with North Vietnam and the communist insurgencies. "Liberation Theology" freed these religionists from having to preach the old-time Gospel, with its conventional morality. Thanks to the war, the new Religious Left of the 1960's and 1970's was able to proclaim a new gospel of political and economic revolution.

To the extent the Religious Left will ever reference the horrors of Indochina after the U.S. withdrawal, it will fault the U.S. exclusively for causing what the U.S. expended 50,000 American lives in trying to prevent.

So, when Bush pointed to the killing fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia as one ugly fruit of the U.S. abandonment of Indochina, Sojourners board member David Cortright responded on the Sojourners website with a polemic ironically called "Distorting History."

"In an attempt to scare off support for a military exit from Iraq, President Bush in a recent speech made the false claim that U.S. disengagement from Vietnam caused the killing fields in Cambodia," noted Cortwright, who is also a fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and heads the Fourth Freedom Forum. "The price of American withdrawal, the president said, was paid in the agonies of millions of innocent people."

But Cortwright explained that the U.S. is really at fault for these agonies of so many millions of Indochinese, especially the suffering Cambodians.
"What actually happened in Cambodia was this: President Nixon spread the Vietnam War into Cambodia," Cortwright explained, in the routine narrative of the Left. "He ordered the so-called 'secret bombing' of Cambodia, in which U.S. B-52 bombers pounded the countryside for years."

Cortwright also allged that the U.S. supported the March 1970 overthrow of Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who, according to Cortwright, "had tried to keep his country out of the war." In April 1970, Nixon ordered an "incursion" by U.S. troops into Cambodia, which Cortwright described as resulting "in widespread violence and chaos, especially in the countryside." These U.S. actions fueled support for Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, which "overran the government" in 1975, he recounted. "The Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh and instituted their reign of terror by claiming that the U.S. was going to bomb."

It is all very simple. "The killing fields were the tragic result of the Nixon administration's misguided policies of military escalation," Cortwright wrote. "If the United States had not bombed and invaded Cambodia, and if we had let Sihanouk alone, Cambodia would not have suffered its horrible fate."

Perhaps in follow-up articles, Cortwright will describe how the brief U.S. intervention in the Russian Civil War provoked Joseph Stalin into murdering millions, and how U.S. support for Chiang Kai-shek's resistance to the Chinese Communists can be blamed for Mao Zedong's destruction of tens of millions of Chinese.

Religious Leftists like Cortwright and Sojourners do not like to admit that Communism is by definition prone to mass murder. But the Religious Left, to the extent it acknowledges history, does so only through the prism of its own personal experiences. Cortwright recalled the mass demonstrations that followed the U.S. incursion into Cambodia in 1970. How glorious those demonstrators were, standing up to the Nixon administration!

Predictably, Cortwright did not explain why there was a U.S. incursion into Cambodia. North Vietnamese and its Viet Cong allies were attacking South Vietnamese and U.S. forces from base camps in Cambodia. The North Vietnamese also hoped to establish North Vietnam's control over Cambodia with the rest of Indochina.

Powerless to move against the North Vietnamese troops occupying his own country, Prince Sihanouk in fact had quietly acquiesced to the U.S. "secret" bombing of these communist camps. Sihanouk publicly denounced the North Vietnamese "aggression" on his country, which included 35,000 to 40,000 troops. But he refused to enlarge Cambodia's military, fearing it would overthrow him.

Meanwhile, Cambodia's rage over North Vietnam's unwelcome military presence increased. Thousands of Cambodians trashed North Vietnam's embassy. Exasperated by Sihanouk's inaction against the North Vietnamese, who had ignored an ultimatum to leave Cambodia, the Cambodian National Assembly voted unanimously in March 1970 to remove Sihanouk from power. Sihanouk's own prime minister, Lon Nol, continued to govern Cambodia, but with Sihanouk now in exile.

The U.S. had in fact preferred a continuation of Sihanouk's rule, believing that his "neutral" regime would have more staying power against the communists than a more aggressive successor regime. But with little advance warning, the U.S. learned of Sihanouk's peaceful overthrow, and slowly began backing the new Lon Nol government's struggle against both the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese. Thereafter, an indignant Sihanouk publicly aligned himself with the communists from his exile in China.

North Vietnamese forces began leaving their "sanctuaries" in eastern Cambodia and plunged more deeply into Cambodia to overthrow the Lon Nol government. Fearful of Cambodia's falling completely to North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese urged a more united front with anti-communist government in Cambodia and Laos. In May 1970, determined to stabilize both Cambodia and South Vietnam, U.S. forces accompanied South Vietnamese forces in attacking North Vietnam's sanctuaries in Cambodia.

The U.S.-South Vietnamese incursion of 1970, which lasted only a few months, was largely successful. North Vietnamese operations in Cambodia were crippled, and U.S. casulaties were reduced. The Cambodian government was bolstered, and the gradual U.S. military withdrawal from South Vietnam was able to proceed. The Lon Nol regime survived until 1975, when the U.S. Congress refused to grant additional military aid to either it or the South Vietnamese.

After the Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia in April 1975, they began the systematic destruction of at least 1.5 million Cambodians and perhaps as many as 3 million through executions, forced starvation and slave labor. Its tyranny and mass murder continued until 1979, when communist Vietnam invaded and installed its own puppet government.

The Religious Left never expressed much interest in one of the worst holocausts of the 20th century. In 1976, a World Council of Churches official infamously remarked about Pol Pot's genocidal rule: "We are all sinners." The National Council of Churches (NCC) waited until 1978 to acknowledge the Khmer Rouge's "extermination of large segments" of Cambodia. But naturally the NCC faulted the U.S., whose support for a "reactionary government" had helped empower the Khmer Rouge.
"Even as we deplored the actions of our government during the Vietnam War, which extended the war to Cambodia, we now deplore the deliberate tragedy forced on the people of [Cambodia] by its government," the NCC intoned, unable to morally differentiate between the U.S. and the Cambodian genocidalists whom the U.S. had faught to oppose.

Cambodia's horrors began with communist North Vietnam's invasion, not the U.S. and South Vietnamese response to that violation of Cambodia's neutrality. But too often, the Religious Left prefers, in Sojourners spokesman David Cortwright's apt phrase, the expedient of "Distorting History."

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More Comments:

Charles S Young - 9/6/2007

For a contrast to Tooley's polemic, read an account by specialists in the field.

Arnold Shcherban - 9/5/2007

Both polarities, i.e. (pure capitalist and pure socialist ideologies) are wrong and anti-humane in certain aspects.
But civilization process (?!), in general, still continues by means of direct and indirect violence.

Mike Schoenberg - 9/1/2007

To say that it is just communism that is responsible for massacres is too simplistic to be passed up. Let's see there were the Nazi's, the U.S. verses the Indians, the British and other European powers with their empires. Go back several hundred years and in Europe there were the wars between the Catholics and the Protestants.
Go back even further and there were massacres when there was the Inquisition, the fall of the Byzantine Empire withe the population either being forced to flee or sold into slavery. The list could go on....

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