Monday, August 05, 2013

Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia by William Shawcross



Why I Read This Book
            This book was originally published back in 1979, and was a huge deal back in its day.  (It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize at the time.).  It has since faded somewhat from public view, but it remains a classic in leftist circles.
            I first heard about this book years ago when I was hanging out with those crazy leftists at Media Mouse, and it’s been on my reading list ever since.
           
            Now that I’m actually living in Cambodia, I decided it was finally time to check this book off my reading list.
            Although this book is no longer in print back home, in Cambodia I see this book everywhere.  Cheap photocopied versions of the book are available in just about every tourist bookstore, and much of the expat population has already read this book, so it tends to come up in conversation a lot.  And so, if for no other reason than wanting to keep up with the conversation, I read the book.

The Review
          Right from the title of the book, you know you’re going to be in for some hard core polemics.  The author has an axe to grind, and grind it he does.

            But before I start to analyze the polemics of this book, it’s worth pausing for just a minute to highlight how well this book is written.

            In the pursuit of history, I often find myself reading a lot of dry, boring books.  (The 3 - previous - books I read on Cambodian history were all a chore.  I learned a lot from them, but they weren’t enjoyable reads.) 
            So when I come across a history book that is actually interesting to read, it’s always worth taking time to praise this.
           
            William Shawcross is a journalist by trade, and his ability to write a story shines through the book.  Parts of this book almost read like a novel.  (A cliché I know, but an apt one in this case.)
            There are all sorts of interesting characters in the story of the Cambodia War, both major and minor, and Shawcross does an excellent job of bringing all the colorful personalities to life.

            To show this, I’m going to copy-out a few short passages from the book.  For example, Shawcross does a good job of writing vivid portraits of the rivalries inside the White House itself, as evidenced from this passage.

            From page 145:           William Watts was chosen to coordinate the NSC [National Security Council] work on the invasion [of Cambodia], but he went to Kissinger’s office to tell him he objected to the policy and could not work on it.  Kissinger replied, “Your views represent the cowardice of the Eastern Establishment.” This, on top of the strain of recent weeks was too much for Watts.  He strode toward Kissinger, who retreated behind his desk. Watts stalked out to write a letter of resignation. In the White House Situation Room he was confronted by Alexander Haig, who, by contrast, was delighted by Nixon’s decision.  Haig barked at Watts that he could not resign: “You’ve just had an order from your commander in chief.” “Fuck you, Al,” Watts said, “I just did.”

            But Shawcross also has great portrayals of the Cambodian players as well.  See this portrait of King Sihanouk’s relationship with the Khmer Rouges.
            From page 255-256: In fact, his [Sihanouk’s] relationship with the Khmer Rouge was strained from the start, and he did nothing to improve it by his treatment of their representatives in Peking. In mid-1971 Ieng Sary, the Party’s principal liaison with the Vietnamese, was transferred from Hanoi to Peking as the “Special Representative of the Interior,” with the mission of controlling the Prince.  Sihanouk made no attempt to conceal his dislike of him. He considered Ieng Sary, wrongly, an agent of North Vietnam. “We all know that for you the maquis means central Hanoi,” he would say. “Why don’t you allow people to speak English? After all, your own wife is an English teacher.” One of his favorite jokes was to borrow whatever mildly pornographic or risqué film the French embassy might have and invite Ieng Sary to attend a soiree. Ieng Sary could not refuse his Prince’s summons, and he would sit stiffly, smiling when Sihanouk smiled, applauding when the Prince applauded, and obviously hating the experience.  When he had gone, Sihanouk would roar with laughter with his intimate aides—“Ieng Sary will have to go through self-criticism tomorrow,” he would say.
            For his part Ieng Sary tried to split Sihanouk’s entourage. He played upon the tensions between his wife, Monique, and other members of the royal family, who still resented the way she had broken up the relationship between Sihanouk and his first wife, Princess Norleak—who also came to Peking. Ieng Sary constantly told Monique that the Khmer Rouge had enormous regard for her, giving her to understand that this was because she was a commoner, not a member of the royal family.

            One more quote.  Here is Shawcross describing Congress’s reaction to the destruction of Cambodia, from page 352:
            Many of the legislators were genuinely unable to decide how best American moral responsibilities for the human disaster that Cambodia now constituted should be exercised. The dilemma was best summed up by Representative Pete McClosky, a liberal Republican from California who had consistently opposed both the war and Nixon, and who went to Phnom Penh determined to vote against emergency aid. After the trip he changed his mind and offered a compromise: the government should be helped through the rest of the dry season in the hope that this would force the Khmer Rouge to negotiate. “But then,” McCloskey said, “after June I, I don’t believe the United States ought to have one man, one dollar, or one ambassador in Cambodia.”
            The compromise had considerable support, but in the end the Congress took no definite action either way on the administration’s request. It was allowed to lapse, despite administration demands. McCloskey summarized his feelings with some bitterness: “I can only tell you my emotional reaction, getting into that country,” he said. “If I could have found the military or State Department leader who had been the architect of this policy, my instinct would be to string him up.  Why they are there and what they have done to the country is greater evil than we have done to any country in the world, and wholly without reason except for our own benefit to fight against the Vietnamese.”

            Hopefully those 3 quotes give a little taste of how interesting this book is to read.  There are many more similarly fascinating passages in the book.  Shawcross portrays the many colorful personalities who worked in the US embassy in Cambodia and their rivalries with each other.  He goes into fascinating detail of the paranoia that existed in the Nixon White House, and the illegal phone tapping that resulted from this paranoia.
            Admittedly, some parts of the book are more interesting than others.  Near the beginning of the book, there are some chapters describing the bureaucracy of the White House, and how Kissinger re-arranged the bureaucracy to outmaneuver the State Department and the Defense Department.  It’s necessary information, but unless you are a real policy wonk, the details of bureaucratic infighting can be a little dry (I’m glad I read it, but my attention flagged a little bit during these sections).  But a little patience here is rewarded, because once you get past the descriptions of bureaucratic maneuvering, the momentum of the story picks up again.

            Given the very somber nature of the subject material, it is probably wrong to say that this book is an “enjoyable” read.  But it is definitely a very interesting read.  And it’s worth tracking down just on readability alone.
            The political lessons that can be learned from this book, however, are just as worthwhile, which brings me to my next point….

The Politics
            William Shawcross argues that Kissinger and Nixon are responsible for the Khmer Rouge coming to power in Cambodia.
            At first sight, this appears to be a counter-intuitive argument, because Kissinger and Nixon always used the excuse of fighting communism as their reason for getting involved in Cambodia.

            Shawcross argues that before Nixon and Kissinger became involved in Cambodia, there was no Communist insurgency to speak of.  (There was a small Maquis out in the countryside, but it was politically and militarily insignificant).  If Nixon and Kissinger had stayed out of Cambodia, Shawcross believes those conditions would not have changed.  But it was precisely the US involvement in Cambodia which destabilized the existing regime, fueled the communist insurgency, and ultimately resulted in the 1975 victory for the Khmer Rouge forces.
           
            To get the full benefit of Shawcross’s analysis, you should really read the whole book.  But I’ll try and summarize some of his key arguments.

            Shawcross argues that for all his many faults, King Sihanouk had successfully performed a very difficult balancing act which kept all the various forces in Cambodia in check, and kept his country out of wider war in Vietnam.
            The secret (illegal) bombing of Cambodia in 1969 by Kissinger and Nixon destabilized Sihanouk, and probably helped lead to Lon Nol’s coup d’etat in 1970.
            Although Kissinger and Nixon created the circumstances which helped lead to the 1970 coup, it is unclear whether the US was directly involved in supporting the coup.  There are various hints of U.S. involvement (which Shawcross explores) but ultimately he concludes: “the extent of American complicity (if any) could probably only be uncovered by Congressional investigation.” (p. 122)
            Regardless of whether the U.S. was directly behind this coup, they could have reversed it by refusing to recognize Lon Nol, or by encouraging Sihanouk to conciliate with the new government.  They did the opposite in both cases, making the coup irreversible.
            This put in place a government in Cambodia which was unstable, and which would quickly fall apart despite all the US attempts to prop it up.  (The more money the US gave to Lon Nol’s government, the more it just encouraged corruption among his officers.)
            At the same time, it caused King Sihanouk to join forces with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge. Because the Cambodian countryside was still conservative and staunchly royalist, Sihanouk’s joining with the Khmer Rouge added great momentum to the Khmer Rouge insurgency.

            Another point is that the 1970 invasion of Cambodia caused the Vietnam War to spill over into Cambodia.  Prior to the invasion, the Vietnamese forces in Cambodia had been all concentrated on the border with Vietnam.  Because the US invaded from Vietnam, they pushed these forces back away from the border and deeper into Cambodia. 
            Page 163 of the book, in a conversation between Lon Nol and Security advisor Alexander Haig, illustrates this:
            His [Lon Nol’s] original spontaneous reaction to the invasion had been to protest. He told an Asian diplomat, who told the U.S. Embassy, that he greatly regretted that the United States had not consulted Cambodia first.  He wished that the Americans had blocked the Communists’ westward escape route before attacking, instead of spreading them across Cambodia.  (He did not seem to appreciate that Nixon was more interested in avoiding American casualties than in finding the North Vietnamese or that the invasion was actually intended to push the Communists away from South Vietnam’s border.) The Cambodian leader told Haig that there was no way his small force could stop them. His country was in danger. Only the American army could help.
            When he had finished talking, Haig began.  He informed Lon Nol that President Nixon intended to limit the involvement of American forces in Cambodia.  They would be withdrawn at the end of June.  Then the President hoped to introduce a program of restricted economic and military aid.
            As the implications of Haig’s words for the future of Cambodia became clear to Lon Nol, he began to weep.  Cambodia, he said, could never defend itself. Unable to control his emotions, he walked across to the window and stood there, his shoulders shaking, his face turned away from Haig.  (from page 163).

            The brutal and senseless bombing of the Cambodian countryside in the early 1970s further destabilized the country.  (Ultimately, more bombs were dropped on Cambodia by Nixon and Kissinger than were used by all sides during all of World War II.)
            One of the more bizarre facts Shawcross reveals was that the scale of the bombings in Indochina were never really determined by military necessity, but by inter-service rivalries within the Airforce.  Many of the sorties flown in Indochina, by both tactical aircraft and B-52s, were flown because the services responsible for the aircraft needed to justify their existence on the station.  One senior Pentagon analyst, Thomas Thayer, wrote a classified study in which he likened the use of air power in Indochina to a fire house ‘running under full pressure most of the time and pointed with the same intensity at whichever area is allowed, regardless of its relative importance in the scheme of things.’  When Lyndon Johnson decided to cut back the bombing of North Vietnam in November 1968, the Joint Chiefs reluctantly agreed after Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford assured them that the strikes could be redirected against Laos.” (p. 92-93).
            The firehouse principle had disastrous effects on Cambodia.
            When the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird tried to cut down on this needless brutal bombing of Cambodia, Shawcross describes the conflict between Kissinger and Laird.
           “[Nixon’s political use of the bombing] coincided with the Chiefs’ desire to keep their planes and pilots flying.  It aroused the concern of [Secretary of Defense] Melvin Laird.  He understood the ‘firehouse’ use of air power and accepted the arguments of his civilian staff that many sorties were flown only for reason and of interservice rivalry and for organizational purposes. He never publicly criticized the Chiefs as McNamara had done, but within the Pentagon he persistently attempted to counter their and the White House’s efforts to keep the level of bombing as high as possible….
            Laird’s representative, Warren Nutter, suggested at a meeting of the Senior Review Group that enemy activity did not justify the current sortie rates and that these could be made more flexible in future. Kissinger refused to hear of it and demanded that the number of tactical airstrikes and B-52 sorties that had already been approved for the next financial year be flown regardless of the military situation.  Laird was furious. “Anyone that addresses the problem starting with a set number of sorties doesn’t understand the problem and isn’t qualified to discuss it,” he said the next day.” (p. 212-213).
            Laird eventually lost this battle and had to give in to Kissinger and the Chiefs.  Shawcross concludes his chapter on bombing by quoting from the International Military Tribunal following World War II, which defined war crimes in part as “wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.” (p. 218)

            Not only did this massive bombing destroy any sense of normal life or infrastructure in the villages (and so caused the villagers to flock en masse to the Khmer Rouge) it also brutalized all who survived it, which Shawcross believes may well be responsible for why the Khmer Rouge acted so brutally when they finally came to power.
            There is a military rule of thumb, generally accepted by battle commanders, that units cannot sustain losses of more than 10 percent without suffering often irreversible psychological damage.
            That summer’s war provides a lasting image of peasant boys and girls clad in black, moving slowly through the mud, half-crazed with terror, as fighter bombers tore down at them by day, and night after night whole seas of 750-poud bombs smashed all around. Week after week they edged forward, forever digging in,, forever clambering slippery road banks to assault government outposts, forever losing comrades and going on in thinner ranks through a landscape that would have seemed lunar had it not been under water.  They pushed toward the enemy’s capital, urged on by their commanders, a small group of hardened zealous men who had lived up to ten years in the isolation of the jungles, whose only experience of alliance was betrayal, whose only knowledge of war was massive retaliation. (p. 298-999).

            During the war, Shawcross shows that there were several opportunities to negotiate a peace treaty with the insurgents.  It would have probably resulted in some sort of power sharing deal, but it would not have been the same as a total Khmer Rouge victory.  China and France were pushing for a negotiated settlement with Sihanouk’s return.
            However, the United States was interested in keeping up the bombing campaigns in Cambodia because it kept the US airforce active during negotiations with the North Vietnamese, and also let Nixon demonstrate his toughness during the same negotiations.  What happened in Cambodia was ultimately unimportant to the White House compared with negotiations in Vietnam, and so Cambodia was sacrificed.
           
            In fact the title of the book, Sideshow, comes from Shawcross’s notion that nobody really cared about what was happening in Cambodia, since all the attention was focused on Vietnam.  Everything that Nixon and Kissinger did in Cambodia, from the 1969 secret bombings to the 1970 invasion was to advance the war in Vietnam, and if their actions caused Cambodia to disintegrate as an unintended consequence, no one really gave too much thought to it.

            Or worse yet, hints that Cambodia was bombed into smithereens just to test military theories.  Unnamed officials told The New York Times that Cambodia was being used as a laboratory to test “public acceptances of the general process of gradually substituting helicopters and attack planes for foot soldiers, as American combat units are withdrawn from the Vietnam war.” (p. 214)

            Again, I’m just giving the barest of summaries of what is actually a quite detailed and sophisticated argument when you read Shawcross’s whole book.  For the full impact, I advise you to track down and read this book.

            Which brings me to my next point…
Why Everyone Should Read This Book
          I try and use some caution with the term “must-read”, because over the course of this blog I’ve already used that label on several books already, and there probably is a limit on the number of books someone is allowed to impose on their friends.

            But if I were in charge of the nation’s reading list, this book would be on it.  It’s one of those books everyone should really read.  (I know it’s no longer currently in print, but used copies should be easy enough to track down on amazon.com.  Trust me, it’s worth the effort.)
            Not only is it well-written and fascinating to read, but it shows so clearly how power operates in Washington, and how easily the will of the people can be thwarted by a few people in power without anyone even being the wiser. 
            Although it did come to light eventually, it is scary how easily Nixon and Kissinger were able to keep secret the bombing of Cambodia when it suited them.
            Even after the bombing of Cambodia was public, Kissinger and Nixon were able to easily avoid congressional restrictions on the scope of the bombing. 
            In an effort to limit bombing, Congress said bombing in Cambodia could only be used in situations where it was protecting US troops.  Nixon and Kissinger got around this by either very broadly interpreting the rule, or just flat out ignoring it.  Since Congress had no people on the ground observing to make sure their restrictions were being followed in Cambodia, there was no way they could enforce their own rules.
            All of this raises the obvious question: Do you know who your government is bombing now?

            Some people might argue the excesses of the Nixon White House aren’t relevant to politics today, but, I certainly thought I found a lot of parallels as I read the book.  Take this passage about the debate about the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, and see if it doesn’t sound eerily similar to the debate about the 2003 invasion of Iraq:
            Inevitably there was a price to be paid [for Kissinger as a result of the invasion]; total loyalty to the President on this issue was not compatible with the intimate relationship that Kissinger had hoped to maintain, and until now had largely succeeded at, with his liberal friends in Harvard. On May 8, a group of them, led by Thomas Schelling, descended upon him. (They discovered, to their embarrassment, that Kissinger had provided them all lunch at his expense; it was not a very convivial occasion). Schelling began by saying he should explain who they were.
            Kissinger interrupted, “I know who you are… You’re all good friends from Harvard University.”
            “No,” said Schelling, “we’re a group of people who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy, and we have come to tell you so. We are no longer at your disposal as personal advisers.*
            Each of the men around the table—among them, Richard Neustadt, author of Presidential Power; Adam Yarmolinsky, Professor of Law and advisor to both Kennedy and Johnson; Francis Bator, who had worked on Johnson’s National Security Staff—put his objections to Kissinger.  They pointed out that the invasion could be used by anyone else in the world as a precedent for invading another country in order, for example, to clear out terrorists. Schelling told him, “As we see it there are two possibilities.  Either, one, the President didn’t understand when he went into Cambodia that he was invading another country; or two, he did understand. We just don’t know which one is scarier.” (p. 156)

            Other parallels to today: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,  has pointed out that Nixon’s view of the world recalls that of the Romans, as Joseph Schumpeter described it. “There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, the allies would be invented.” (p. 148).

            Also relevant: “ [In rebutting Rehnquist’s justification for the invasion of Cambodia] Arthur Schlesinger noted that rather more relevant was Marshall’s rule that “an army marching into the domains of another sovereign may justly be considered as committing an act of hostility; and if not opposed by force, acquires no privilege by its irregular and improper conduct.” When Herndon advised Lincoln that the President could invade a neighbor if this were necessary to repel invasion, Lincoln had replied, “Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose.”

Nixon, Obama, and the Surveillance State
          It’s been interesting to read this book while all the revelations about domestic surveillance and phone hacking were coming out, because a lot of what the Obama administration is doing now seems to parallel the Nixon administration at its worse excesses.
            I know the Obama administration is keen to avoid the parallel with Nixon.  A White House spokesman said of Obama/Nixon comparisons  "I can tell you that people who make those kind of comparisons need to check their history."   But having read the history, I’ve got to say a lot of it does seem very similar.

            For example, in a move that I found eerily similar to the Obama administration’s obtaining the phone records (including home phone records) of AP journalists, Nixon and Kissinger ordered phone taps on reporters who were disclosing information they wanted to keep secret.  (This was still considered illegal at the time.) For example, Nixon and Kissinger put phone taps on reporter William Beecher of the New York Times, who aroused their anger by being the first to break the story of the secret illegal bombing of Cambodia.
            Nixon and Kissinger also put phone taps on their aids that they suspected of talking to the press.  (Again, at the time this was still considered illegal and an invasion of privacy.  When one of these aids, Morton Halperin, later brought a lawsuit against Kissinger because of this, the court ruled that the phone taps had indeed violated his rights under the 4th amendment.)

            And then there’s also this passage on the radical measures Nixon approved for domestic surveillance after Kent State.
            …the working group did produce recommendations for the removal of all restraints on intelligence gathering. Many of its suggestions involved breaking the law. The other agency directors did not object, but when Hoover saw the more extreme options, he refused to sign the report unless his objections were typed onto each page as footnotes. This infuriated his colleagues, but eventually, to Huston’s relief, they all signed the document and he carried it back to the White House.
            Huston had a few good days. He informed Richard Helms that from now on everything to do with domestic intelligence and internal security was to be sent to his own “exclusive attention” in the White House, adding, “Dr. Kissinger is aware of this new procedure.” He then selected the most radical options in the ad-hoc committee’s report and recommended their implementation to the President.  “The Huston Plan,” which Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, Chairman of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, later described as evidence of a “Gestapo mentality,” suggested that the intelligence community, with the authority of the President, should now be allowed to intercept and transcribe any international communication; read the mail; burgle homes; eavesdrop in any way on anyone considered a “threat to the internal security”; spy on student groups. Huston admitted to Nixon that “Covert [mail] coverage is illegal; it amounts to burglary. It is also highly risky and could result in great embarrassment if exposed.” But in both cases, he assured the President that the advantages outweighed the risks.
            Nixon approved the plan, and though Hoover quickly managed to have it rescinded, the fact of the President’s blessing was to be a key cause of his fall.  The discovery of the plan in the summer of 1973 helped enormously to build such Congressional outrage that the legislature was finally able to force the White House to end the massive bombing of Cambodia, which was just beginning to spread as Huston formulated the his proposals in summer 1970. It would become a crucial part of the impeachment proceedings.

            Once you take into account how times have changed, and how most Americans (all Americans?) do their personal correspondence electronically these days, I don’t think it’s that big of a stretch to make analogies from the Nixon’s administration’s illegal plan to spy on mail, and how the NSA currently collects data on private e-mails.  [Update: Since I originally wrote my rough draft of this post, it’s come out that the government is tracking old fashioned snail mail as well--LINK HERE.]
            The big difference, of course, is that back in Nixon’s day this was all still illegal and unconstitutional.

1979 Versus 2013
          This book was originally published in 1979 before the dust had yet settled on the events Shawcross describes.  Shawcross is then a contemporary journalist, writing, as the saying goes, the first draft of history.
            Despite being a contemporary history, this book is surprisingly detailed.  Partly because Shawcross was able to gain interviews with an astonishing number of the actual participants—generals, diplomats, and even aids of Kissinger and Nixon.
            Shawcross has also made full use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain just about every government document that was available to him back in 1979.
            The book was also updated in 1986 (the version I have is the 1986 version.  It is updated, among other things, to include a new afterward from the author, and a reprint of a back and forth exchange over the accuracy of the book between Shawcross and one of Kissinger’s aids that appeared in The American Spectator.)
            However, despite the 1986 updates, I’m sure in the past 20 years new information about these events must have come out.
            Somebody better informed than me will have to give the definitive account of all the revelations that have come out since 1986, but I can think of one or two nuggets that have been revealed since this book was last updated.
           
          Many of the Nixon tapes have been released in the years since, and they have been quite revealing in showing the attitudes Nixon and Kissinger showed towards civilians in the Vietnam War.  I suspect that if Shawcross had had access to these tapes at the time, he would have been tempted to include exchanges like this:

            None of this was known at the time, but sources first began to go on the record about this in 1994, and the documents were finally officially declassified in 2008.
            Unfortunately, given the gravity of this revelation, it never received the media attention it deserved, but the ramifications are staggering to consider.  Although “what ifs” in history are dangerous, there is the suggestion here that the Vietnam War could have been ended in 1968, which means everything that happened to Cambodia (the secret bombing in 1969, the invasion in 1970, and the saturation bombing in the early 1970s) need never have occurred at all.  And presumably, according to Shawcross’s thesis, the conditions for the Khmer Rouge victory would never have occurred.  And then the killing fields would never have happened, and who knows how modern day Cambodia would be different now. 

            And one final note: this is brushed under the rug nowadays, but during the 1980s the United States actually diplomatically supported the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese backed government in Cambodia.  (This was a way to oppose Vietnam, and a way to further exploit the Sino-Soviet split since the Soviets supported Vietnam and the Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge).  After all the dreadful things the Khmer Rouge had done to the Cambodian people, they were allowed to retain the UN seat throughout the 1980s instead of the government actually in power in Phnom Penh.
            Had this book been published later, I imagine Shawcross would probably have written more about this hypocrisy.  Instead, he just mentions it briefly in his 1986 updated afterward.  I told him [the Khmer Rouge representative] …that despite the distasteful strategic game whereby the Khmer Rouge retained Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations there was not one Western or Third World government that wished to see their return to power in Phnom Penh.  (It’s worth remembering that the United States diplomatically supported the Khmer Rouge during the 1980s, because history is already being re-written to place all the blame for the post 1979 support of the Khmer Rouge on China—see this Economist article [LINK HERE].)

Corruption in Cambodia—Then and Now

          The current regime in Cambodia has a reputation for corruption.  When I first arrived in Cambodia, I thought this was unique to the current Cambodian government, but it’s interesting to read Shawcross and learn that all the same corruption issues existed under the Sihanouk and Lon Nol governments. 
            It’s interesting that even after a couple revolutions, and after the people in the Lon Nol government were completely purged from power, the old corruption practices just returned with a different government.

Shawcross and Chomsky
            William Shawcross has a follow-up book on Cambodia, The Quality of Mercy in which he criticizes some Western intellectuals for defending the Khmer Rouge.  He mentions Noam Chomsky specifically.
            I’ve not yet read The Quality of Mercy, but if you get involved in the Chomksy/Khmer Rouge debate, the reference comes up.
            Since I’ve - often - praised - Chomsky on this blog, and since I’ve been praising Shawcross’s book in this post, in the interest of full disclosure I should note that at a certain point it is impossible to fully defend both men (assuming you believe that in order to agree with someone most of the time it’s necessary to defend every single comment they’ve ever said.)  Either Shawcross is right, and Chomsky was dishonest about his analyses of the Khmer Rouge, or Chomsky is right, and Shawcross was dishonest in his quoting of Chomsky.
            Christopher Hitchens, in his classic 1985 defense of Chomsky: Cassandra and the Chorus, [LINK HERE] asserts that Shawcross took Chomsky’s quote out of context.  This guy over here [LINK], asserts that Christopher Hitchens wrongly quoted Shawcross. And round and round the debate goes.
            At the very least, however, it can definitely be said that whatever anyone might think about Chomsky or Shawcross individually, no one can not argue that Chomsky and Shawcross are in cahoots with each other.  (When Sideshow first came out, it was popular in conservative circles to argue that Shawcross had written this book to rescue Chomsky’s analysis of Cambodia).  Both men argue that it was the US government that created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge to come to power, but each came to this conclusion completely independently of the other.

Other Notes
* A small thing to note, but interesting: reading this book, I became aware that French was the international language of communication in Indochina during the 1960s.  The Americans and the Cambodians communicated with each other through French.  (In fact one of the criticisms Shawcross has of the American government is they kept sending over diplomats who spoke little to no French, and so were unable to communicate with the locals).
            These days everything has completely changed, and even in former French colonies English is now the language of international communication.  (I have several French friends in Cambodia, and I notice that they always have to use their English whenever they want to talk to the local Cambodians.) 
            It’s worth a quick mention, because I was recently just discussing this phenomenon during my review of Robert McCrum’s book Globish.  (Despite the fact that I was unimpressed with McCrum’s analysis, he’s not wrong on his main idea.  English is now the main language of international communication in places where it was barely spoken 50 years ago—and Southeast Asia is a perfect example.)

* Apparently one of the reasons Nixon decided to invade Cambodia was that he became obsessed with the movie Patton, and self-identified with George C. Scott’s portrayal as Patton as a misunderstood but brilliant general who “defied conventional restraints” (p. 135)

* Yet another reason to repudiate the political legacy of William Rehnquist:  William Rehnquist (then an assistant attorney general) was given the task of writing the legal defense of how Nixon could bypass congressional authority in his invasion of Cambodia.  As Shawcross notes “His [Rehnquist’s] arguments are not impressive.” (p. 148)

* I’ve actually recommended this book on this blog twice previously (here and here).  I had not yet read the book at that time, but I thought this was justified because I was familiar with the general ideas of the book through my conversations with other people.
           Upon reflection, I’ve decided it was wrong of me to recommend a book I hadn’t yet read.  I apologize for that.
            However, having read this book, I can now fully recommend it without reservations.

* One final note: As I was reading this book, someone alerted me to an article recently published in The Atlantic entitled In Defense of Henry Kissinger by Robert D. Kaplan [LINK HERE ].  The article attempts to rehabilitate Henry Kissinger’s reputation, but it contains in it a number of points which Shawcross had rebutted 35 years earlier in Sideshow.  (Since Sideshow is currently out of print, I suspect Kaplan was counting on the fact that the average reader of The Atlantic had not recently read Shawcross’s book, and that he would be able to get away with making up his own version of history.)
            Since this article was just recently in print, and since it touches on a number of points covered in Sideshow, I’ll include a brief addendum on how a reading of Sideshow informs Kaplan’s article.  But as this review is already long enough, I’ll tackle this in my next post instead.  Stay tuned….

Link of the Day
Empty ‘Posturing’

1 comment:

Joel said...

"... more bombs were dropped on Cambodia by Nixon and Kissinger than were used by all sides during all of World War II"

I should probably mention that this information does not come from SIDESHOW. I got it out of the Lonely Planet, and I'm using it to supplement the information I got from Sideshow