Help me, please, I shouldn’t be wasting my time and energy on such a hopeless cause, but the spectacle of the President of this country uttering patent nonsense to justify our continued occupation of Iraq is more than I can bear to watch. So forgive me for venting a bit.
The latest misrepresentation of facts comes in his speech earlier today. As reported in the Financial Times:
George W. Bush on Wednesday said the consequences of a US withdrawal from Iraq could echo the “killing fields” genocide that destroyed Cambodia after the US pulled out from Vietnam in the mid-1970s….
“The price of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people”, “re-education camps” and “killing fields”, Mr Bush said. “Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. Withdrawal without getting the job done would be a disaster.”
While counterfactual history is a sticky enterprise, it’s likely that had the US withdrawn before 1970 (which was the path the US appeared to be on when Nixon came to office), Pol Pot’s agrarian revolt would have failed.
If you frame what happened in Cambodia narrowly, it is true that North Vietnam was primarily responsible for turning the Khymer Rouge into an effective fighting force, and that the withdrawal of the US from Vietnam enabled Pol Pot to redirect his forces from the war to establishing his nightmarish agrarian regime.
Widen the frame, however, and the more plausible story is the continued US involvement, which allowed South Vietnam to survive well past its sell-by date, set in motion the conditions that allowed Pol Pot to prevail.
North Vietnam had allied with the King Sihanouk, and had rebuffed repeated overtures by Pol Pot. However, in 1970, the Khmer Rouge began courting Sihanouk and painting the right as pro-US. Both sides probably recognized this as a marriage of convenience. Sihanouk did himself in politically by his botched attempt to discredit the right. From Wikipedia:
Up to 1969, the Khmer Rouge had been very anti-Sihanouk…. But it was decided….to shift the party’s propaganda to be against the right-wing parties of Cambodia and their supposed pro-American attitudes….
The road to power for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was opened by the events of January 1970 in Cambodia. Sihanouk, while out of the country, ordered the government to stage anti-Vietnamese protests in the capital. The protesters quickly went out of control and wrecked the embassies of both North Vietnam and the South Vietnam. Sihanouk, who had ordered the protests, then denounced them from Paris and blamed unnamed individuals in Cambodia for them. These actions, along with intrigues by Sihanouk’s followers in Cambodia, convinced the government that he should be removed as head of state. The National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from office. Afterward, the government closed Cambodia’s ports to Vietnamese weapons traffic and demanded that the Vietnamese leave Cambodia.
The North Vietnamese reacted to the political changes in Cambodia by sending Premier Pham Van Dong to meet Sihanouk in China and recruit him into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was also contacted by the Vietnamese who now offered him whatever resources he wanted for his insurgency against the Cambodian government. Pol Pot and Sihanouk were actually in Beijing at the same time but the Vietnamese and Chinese leaders never informed Sihanouk of the presence of Pol Pot or allowed the two men to meet. Shortly after, Sihanouk issued an appeal by radio to the people of Cambodia to rise up against the government and support the Khmer Rouge. In May 1970, Pol Pot finally returned to Cambodia and the pace of the insurgency greatly increased.
Earlier, on March 29, 1970, the Vietnamese had taken matters into their own hands and launched an offensive against the Cambodian army. A force of 40,000 Vietnamese quickly overran large parts of eastern Cambodia reaching to within 15 miles of Phnom Penh before being pushed back. In these battles the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot played a very small role….
Through 1971, the Vietnamese (North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) did most of the fighting against the Cambodian government while Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge functioned almost as auxiliaries to their forces. Pol Pot took advantage of the situation to gather in new recruits and to train them to a higher standard than previously was possible….
The critical bit is this: the North Vietnamese made Pol Pot. The only reason they did so was they needed supply lines through Cambodia to prosecute the war with the South. Had we withdrawn earlier, or better yet, never gotten involved in Vietnam, the South would have fallen and there would have been no reason for the North to provide the considerable resources it did to Pol Pot.
So the US support for South Vietnam played a large, probably determining, role in Pol Pot’s success and therefore the deaths of millions of Cambodians. The notion that we could continue indefinitely in Vietnam was a fantasy. Rand experts who had dealt with prisoner interrogation material from World War II, Korea, and Eastern Europe had never seen interviews like the ones of VC, and concluded that unlike other opponents, they could not be coerced. Conversely, not only was the American public at large tired of the war, but more important, the armed forces had come to recognize the futility of the exercise.
Pol Pot’s purges started in the countryside in 1973, when he took his army that had supported the Vietnamese effort and turned them to setting up cooperatives in the countryside by force. The Khmer Rouge seized control of the Cambodian government in April 1975, Vietnam deposed Pol Pot in December 1978. Can we honestly say the US would have done the job faster, or even taken it on?