Over the past weekend in “Killing fields then and now” I noted Saturday’s Times (London) column by William Shawcross and quoted from Gabriel Schoenfeld’s brilliant May 1999 Commentary review/essay “Was Kissinger Right?” I did not link to the essay because it was inaccessible to nonsusbcribers, but at Mr. Schoenfeld’s request Commentary has kindly afforded unrestricted access. Unfortunately, the essay could not be more timely. Consider, for example, the following passage on former Cambodian Prime Minister Sirik Matak:
With the United States reduced to the role of bystander [by congressional action prohibiting American military assistance in Indochina], the fall came swiftly. Cambodia succumbed first…Kissinger retells the riveting tale, recounting how, as the Khmer Rouge closed in on the capital city of Phnom Penh in early April 1975, the United States offered a number of Cambodian officials a chance to escape. The reply addressed to the U.S. ambassador by Sirik Matak, a former Cambodian prime minister, and reprinted by Kissinger in full, is one of the more important documents of the entire Vietnam-war era.
Dear Excellency and Friend:
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.
You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we are all born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you [the Americans].
Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.
Immediately after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, writes Kissinger, Sirik Matak was shot in the stomach and left to die over the course of three days from his untreated wounds.
In the beginning, middle, and end of this episode, Kissinger shows to telling effect, the barbaric nature of the Communist Khmer Rouge was painted over in soothing tones by much of the American press. The New York Times was the most flagrant offender. In one dispatch, its correspondent Sydney Schanberg described a ranking Khmer Rouge leader as a “French-educated intellectual” who wanted nothing more than “to fight against feudal privileges and social inequities.” A bloodbath was unlikely, Schanberg reported: “since all are Cambodians, an accommodation will be found.” As the last Americans were withdrawn, another upbeat article by Schanberg appeared under the headline, “Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life.” In short order, the Khmer Rouge proceeded to march nearly two million of their fellow Cambodians to their deaths in the killing fields. Also in short order, Schanberg went on to greater glory and a Pulitzer prize.
Thanks to Gabriel Schoenfeld and Commentary for making this important essay available to our readers.
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