The Denial of Genocide: U.S. Policy Before and During the Cambodian Massacre
April 15, 2010
The United States played a significant role in the Cambodian civil war from 1970 to 1975. The U.S. bombed, invaded, and installed an oppressive regime during the civil war, all of which motivated the Khmer Rouge (KR) to commit revenge killings and genocide against thirty percent of its population from 1975 to 1979. Yet after the civil war, the U.S. government abandoned Cambodia. The genocide1 occurred during the Cold War at the height of non-interventionism and post-Vietnam syndrome.1 The Cambodian genocide was denied both by members of the U.S. government and by anti-war and humanitarian activists.2 The U.S. government followed a policy of non-acknowledgement, non-engagement, and non-interventionism, which was successful because of the lack of effective opposition against U.S. policy in Cambodia. The following factors allowed for this success: the U.S. government’s control over information (such as disseminating information that would frame the situation to support U.S. policy), the lack of information outside of U.S. intelligence (e.g., firsthand accounts), and the way in which the Cold War environment influenced both the left and right wings conclusion that the U.S. should not become involved with Cambodia.3
U.S. Involvement in the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975)
The civil war in Cambodia started during April 1970. Prince Norodom Sihanouk had become king of Cambodia in 1941 when the French appointed him. Sihanouk negotiated independence from France and remained a very popular leader to many Cambodians despite his authoritarian style of ruling. In 1965, he severed relations with the U.S. in response to the Vietnam War.4 When the Viet Congo’s presence increased on Cambodia’s eastern border, Sihanouk reestablished relations with the U.S. in 1969. Sihanouk’s pro-American military chief Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak took advantage of Sihanouk’s absence on an overseas trip and overthrew him on March 20, 1970.5 The civil war started with the coup d’etat.
The civil war consisted of the Nol government and the U.S. on one side and the North Vietnamese (Viet Cong) and Cambodian communist revolutionaries (the Red Khmer) on the other. The Red Khmer later became the Khmer Rouge (KR) and was led by Saloth Sar (Pol Pot). The KR was educated in Paris and studied Maoist thought. China provided extensive military and political support to the KR.6 Cambodia is one of the only countries in mainland Southeast Asia that has not been invaded or suppressed by China since the third century AD.7 Although the KR originally formed in opposition to Sihanouk’s authoritarian rule, they later formed an alliance with Sihanouk against the Nol regime and his pro-American allies. The U.S. government supported Nol financially (with $1.85 billion) and militarily.8 U.S. policy of supporting the Nol government during the civil war motivated the KR to commit genocide in 1975.
The U.S. supported the Nol government despite the fact that he practiced corrupt, repressive, and brutal policies. In 1972, he declared that he was president, prime minister, defense minister, and marshal of armed forces.9 As typical of the U.S. Cold War policy, the U.S. continued to support ABC governments (Anything But Communist) despite the fact that many of the governments practiced policies that went against American principles (e.g., freedom and democracy).10 President Richard Nixon’s policy after his inauguration in 1969 became even more directly involved in supporting the Nol government, which was a continuation of supporting pro-U.S. and ABC governments.
Nixon, believing that the North Vietnamese were using the Ho Chi Minh trail to transport supplies, extended the war to Vietnam in eastern Cambodia. While the Ho Chi Minh trail did exist,11 Nixon’s strategy was ineffective. He led a secret bombing campaign (Operation Menu: Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Dinner, Dessert, and Supper) in 1969 without Congressional approval.12 On April 30, 1970, Nixon led a ground invasion of 31,000 American and 43,000 South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia. During the 200 nights of bombing from February to July in 1970, Peter Maguire reports that 15,000 pounds of explosives were released for every square mile of the Cambodian territory,13 totaling 540,000 tons.14 The estimated amount of casualties “are difficult to estimate” and range from 5,000 to 500,000.15 In 2000 President Bill Clinton released an extensive Air Force database on the American bombings of Indochina from 1964 to 1975. This database (which is still incomplete) revealed that from October 4, 1965 to August 15, 1973, approximately 2,756,941 tons of bombs were dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites in Cambodia. This reveals that the bombing began four years earlier than what is popularly believed. The amount of civilian casualties are most likely higher given the fivefold increase in the amount of bombs dropped.16 Yet the bombing campaign and invasion forced the North Vietnamese further into Cambodia, in the process turning “uprooted Cambodian peasants into zealous revolutionaries.”17 The end of the bombings and U.S. military and political support to Nol’s side of the civil war ended only with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1973 and with Nixon’s resignation.18 U.S. involvement provoked the KR.
The civil war ended on April 17, 1975 when the KR captured the capital Phnom Penh. The estimated death toll is disputed and ranges from half a million to 1.7 million total.19 During the civil war, the Nol regime committed mass atrocities (e.g. executions and cannibalism) against the KR and others.20 The types of violence that the Nol forces employed motivated peasants to join the KR and to commit revenge killings.21 The KR utilized similar techniques that the Nol government employed during the civil war (e.g. cannibalism against perceived enemies), which became even more severe during the genocide.22 The animosity between the Nol government and the KR was due to clashing ideologies and their motivation to obtain power. The KR was anti-U.S. and communist; the Nol government was pro-U.S. and adhered to U.S. principles (e.g., capitalism). Both sides were authoritarian and committed human rights violations against one another. U.S. support of the Nol government during the civil war largely influenced the KR’s motivations to kill American allies and bystanders during the Cambodian genocide.23
How U.S. Involvement in the Civil War Affected Access to Information
The active involvement of the U.S. in the Cambodian civil war provided unique and extensive U.S. government access to information and press coverage. The dissemination of information allowed the U.S. public to survey the situation and decide whether U.S. policy in Cambodia was morally right. Although the U.S. knew very little about Cambodia in 1971, the access to information increased throughout the war. When Central Intelligence Analyst Sam Adams began to study the situation, he concluded that Cambodian communist troops were stronger than the official U.S. estimate and that the KR was not simply an extension of the Viet Cong. Adams identified the “ancient hatred” between Cambodia and Vietnam and correctly predicted that it could reemerge.24 U.S. involvement and access to information enabled the press to cover the civil war.
The press coverage on the Cambodian civil war was extensive. In April 1975 alone, 272 stories were published in two papers as the KR approached Phnom Penh.25 Extensive information was provided to the American public. Anti-war activists protested at Kent State University when they learned about the U.S. invasion in Cambodia. At the protest, the National Guard killed four students.26 These activists risked their lives to protest the U.S. human rights violations in Cambodia. Their access to information regarding the civil war enabled them to protest U.S. involvement in Cambodia. Yet information was lacking during the genocide. After the KR took power, the access to information, the activism of the American public, and U.S. policy changed significantly.
The Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979) and the Response of the U.S.
In April 1975, the KR played on the emotions of the Cambodians and announced that the Americans were going to bomb the capital again and that all citizens needed to evacuate the capital (which was a lie that enabled the KR to kill their ‘perceived enemies’). All citizens and twenty thousand of Phnom Penh’s hospital patients were evacuated. The KR set up checkpoints in numerous zones in order to kill soldiers and government officials of the Nol government.27 Despite the fact that many hospital patients were wheeled out, half naked, with IVs attached to them without anywhere to go, Gareth Porter, a scholar of the Institute of Policy Studies at the time, went as far to justify the evacuation of hospitals as “a reasonable alternative to move the patients as fast as possible to locations outside the cities where there were in fact other facilities.”28 Porter justified this action so that the U.S. would not have to engage or condemn the KR.
President Gerald Ford, who took office in 1974, was more vocal about the human
rights situation than Nixon. In 1975, Ford had correctly predicted that a “massacre” and “bloodbath” would follow if Phnom Penh came under the rule of the KR.29 The National Security Fact sheet supported this prediction and estimated the scale of possible deaths to equal the Holocaust. The NSC fact sheet was distributed to Congress and the media. Although the American public was provided information about the Cambodian genocide, the public was hesitant to believe the Ford administration due to widespread American distrust of the government as a result of Nixon’s dishonesty and the demonstration of “anti-Communist paranoia” of past administrations.30 Thus, the history of U.S. Cold War policy influenced the way in which scholars and the American public reacted to the refugee accounts of the Cambodian genocide.
How the U.S. Responded to Early Warnings at the Start of the Genocide: 1975
Another factor that influenced the denial or apathy towards the Cambodian genocide was the lack of firsthand information from Cambodia. On April 12, 1975, the U.S. embassy staff and American nationals were evacuated (Operation Eagle Pull). Nearly all American and European journalists left as well as other foreign embassies.31 Journalists were then barred from entering Democratic Kampuchea (DK, the state ruled by the KR) and those that did faced either death or torture.32 The evacuation of embassies and barring of journalists from DK restricted the access of firsthand information. However, there were forewarnings that genocide was going to occur.
Despite the fact that President Ford, U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and representatives like Bella Abzug (D-NY) warned that a bloodbath would ensue, the U.S. government did not act on the issue and even ignored the two warnings that indicated that genocide was going to occur. In May 1975, hard intelligence indicated that eighty to ninety Cambodian officials and their spouses were to be assassinated.33 A leaked translation of secret KR radio transmissions were published in the Washington Post, which said, “Eliminate all high-ranking military officials, governmental officials… Do this secretly. Also get provincial officers who owe the Communist Party a blood debt.”34 These two pieces of hard intelligence were one of the few accounts that indicated that genocide was going to occur; yet they were ignored. As the genocide escalated, numerous refugees also told their stories. Firsthand accounts were obtained but limited.
Nature of the Genocide and Revenge Killings
Charles Twining was able to interview Cambodian refugees on the Thai border while he was posted at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. Twining came to the conclusion that the KR was exterminating anyone who wore glasses, that had a high school education, and who was Buddhist. What Twining did not know was that the genocide also included the killing of the Vietnamese, Chinese, Muslim Chams, Buddhist monks, and anyone considered a traitor. Even the KR’s own supporters were killed if they showed any signs of disloyalty. Yet the majority of the population was miserable and felt disloyal to the genocidal regime and was therefore murdered. All intellectuals were slaughtered as well (since they were perceived as potential rivals to the KR) and included anyone who completed seventh grade.35 Over 200,000 of the Muslim Chams were killed, which constituted forty percent of their population in Cambodia. The Vietnamese were completely wiped out. Only a thousand out of the 60,000 Buddhist monks survived. Two million in total died from execution or starvation.36
The KR was mainly motivated to commit genocide because of their history of being oppressed first under the former Sihanouk regime and later by the Nol government. The KR leaders, “directly and indirectly called for their followers to take subaltern vengeance upon their ‘class enemies’ who had formerly oppressed them.”37 Pol Pot made a speech in 1977 that asserted that Cambodia remained a “semi-colony, in a situation of dependence,” which was still under the influence of U.S. imperialism. Classism existed between the workers/peasant, who made up 80 percent of the population, and the capitalists.38 The DK advocated for class revenge through propaganda, embedding and reinforcing this ideology within culture (e.g. songs), through educational seminars for KR followers, and various other means before, throughout, and after the civil war. The Nol regime and its “American lackeys” were portrayed as the corrupt enemy, but later this expanded to include those who were intelligent and/or an ethnic minority (who were perceived as foreigners). The KR played on the emotions of the peasants by increasing preexisting feelings of xenophobia, anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism, classism, and nationalism.39 As KR propaganda increased, so did the killings.
The killings first focused on the Nol regime and its American lackeys. On May 12, 1975, the Phnom Penh Domestic radio reinforced the KR propaganda by saying that the areas that had been controlled by the Nol government were overtaken with, “injustice, corruption… burglary, and prostitution… the rotten culture [of U.S. imperialism]… had poisoned [the urbanites].”40 The peasants already resented the Nol followers and American bombing, a feeling that was intensified by KR propaganda. The first wave of genocide began with the killing of high-ranking Lon Nol soldiers, police, government personnel, and their entire families. Over 200,000 were killed during the first wave. The KR continued to rally support for the genocide against American lackeys and the oppressor classes. In April 1976, the KR celebrated the anniversary of the Cambodian revolution by incorporating song, dance, and heightened annihilation of their perceived enemies.41 ‘Class enemies’ eventually included capitalists, intellectuals, professionals, and low ranking Nol soldiers, police, government employees, and often their entire families.42 The reason that ethnic minorities were killed (in addition to the presence of extreme xenophobia) was that many of the cities were home to local foreigners and contained a “disproportionately” large percentage of ethnic minorities: the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham Muslims, Buddhist monks, and others.43 Ethnic minorities were murdered not only because of preexisting feelings of xenophobia, but also killed because the ‘class enemy targets’ were embedded in communities where large percentages of ethnic minorities lived. Therefore, U.S. allies were mainly targeted for revenge killings, but countless bystanders were killed as well, which at times was done purposely to eliminate those perceived to be foreigners (e.g., minorities) or foreigner sympathists.
The KR used various methods of extermination. Labor camps, such as Tuol Sleng (commonly referred to as S-21), were common practice; less than a dozen survived out of the 14,000 to 20,000 who lived there.44 In order to exert control over the population, families were broken up and children often were not allowed to call anyone ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ and Cambodians also did not have names themselves. Women were commonly raped. No one could pray or own property.45 Sex and marriage were a capital offense and those who were caught were sentenced to death. The KR soldiers publicly displayed killings by sticking severed heads onto poles, killing in front of labor workers and children, and by practicing cannibalism and forcing others to watch, all of which were done to discourage anyone from resisting the KR.46 In order to do all of this, the KR needed supplies. China supplied them with military advisers, arms, and ammunition, which increased dramatically in 1978.47 Despite the fact that many of the refugees spoke about the atrocities that they witnessed, it did not motivate the American public or its officials to intervene, engage, or condemn the KR.
Responses of Activists to Refugee Accounts of Genocide
Anti-war and humanitarian activists were against U.S. instigation and participation in proxy wars, as well as its covert or overt support of ABC governments. Past governments, like the Nixon administration, repeatedly lied to and manipulated public opinion through anti-communist propaganda. Therefore, the typical population that lobbies U.S. officials to intervene in situations of massive human rights violations (either through political, economic, or military influence) was in a mindset that was paranoid about the U.S. government engaging in anti-communist fear mongering and military action. Humanitarian organizations and scholars were set on opposing the government and therefore interpreted U.S. media coverage and refugee accounts from the Cambodian genocide as just another ploy by the American government to rally support for overthrowing another communist government.48 These activists could have influenced U.S. policy if they had been against the Cambodian genocide.
If these activist groups had protested against the genocide in Cambodia and for U.S. engagement and condemnation, it is possible that they could have made a difference and at least have raised awareness about the events in Cambodia. The anti-Vietnam war protests show that the public can influence policy (as shown by the withdrawal of troops). Present day anti-genocide movements have also been successful in many ways. STAND (a Student Anti-Genocide Coalition) succeeded in getting the U.S. government condemn the Sudanese government in regards the Darfur genocide, in sending a U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, in divestment, and by influencing crucial legislation.49 During the Cambodian genocide, activists missed the opportunity to do the same.
Noam Chomsky, an anti-war activist, researcher, and political analyst, said at the time that refugee accounts “were placed in circulation with the aim of discouraging trained Cambodians from assisting in the reconstruction of their devastated country.”50 He believed that refugee accounts were being used to motivate the public to support the U.S. ousting of another communist and anti-American government. Chomsky and his followers repeatedly questioned the truth of refugee ‘stories’ of KR atrocities by writing to magazines and press that published anything negative about the KR communists.51 Edward Herman (a media analyst who co-wrote Manufacturing Consent with Chomsky) also believed that refugee accounts, media coverage of the Cambodian genocide, and support for U.S. intervention were evidence of anti-communist propaganda. The State Department also shared this mentality, along with conservatives who wanted to avoid another Vietnam-esque engagement and embarrassment.52 Yet Chomsky and Herman had different concerns, which were that the U.S. would again show its imperialistic tendencies by promoting ABC governments that violate human rights. Human rights organizations also dismissed refugee accounts. Amnesty International, dismissed the evidence as “flimsy… secondhand accounts.”53 The Cold War environment tainted the judgment of traditional advocates of human rights.
The argument that secondhand accounts of genocide are inaccurate is a common excuse for non-intervention. However, the ability to obtain first-hand accounts is often limited when genocide is occurring. Most victims do not survive to tell their stories or do not make it outside of the country. Reporters and foreign officials are either evacuated or not allowed inside of the country. The US government often had to rely on statements of senior KR officials, who denied the genocide because they did not want to be held accountable for the crimes they committed.54 While limited intelligence existed about the Cambodian genocide, it was ignored by the Ford administration and was not made public.
U.S. Access to Information and Press Coverage on Cambodia: 1974-1978
As early as 1974, numerous U.S. press outlets reported on the Cambodian human rights atrocities. Kenneth Quinn, who was stationed as a U.S. Foreign Service officer on the border of Cambodia, recorded that mass killings and the burning of villages were occurring increasingly. However, the U.S. officially looked at the situation as the KR clashing with the Viet Cong, which was the way the American press framed it as well.55 In May of 1976, the State Department released “Life Inside Cambodia,” a report that explained the forced labor, separating of families, and execution of America’s former allies and the educated.56 Yet the Ford administration did not respond. On June 8, 1976, a confidential policy paper was sent from the State Department to embassy posts and indicated that U.S. intelligence was:
… not significantly different from the obtained journalists and comes primarily from refugees… these reports are too numerous to ignore and sufficient information certainly exists for further inquiry by appropriate international or humanitarian organizations.57
Despite the qualitative information on the subject, Congressional hearings on the human rights abuses in Cambodia were not conducted until 1976.58 Although the Ford administration acknowledged the fact that atrocities were being committed, action was not taken. Congress did not remain entirely silent but its representatives were ineffective in their advocacy for U.S. condemnation and intervention in the Cambodian genocide.
Several representatives made speeches about the Cambodian genocide. Representative John Ashcroft (R-OH) was disgusted by the dearth of information about the Cambodian genocide as covered by the “liberal media.” Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) was also critical of U.S. policy in Cambodia and credited the reports that came out about the thousands of deaths in Cambodia. Despite the fact that journalists were barred from entering Cambodia in 1976, representatives like John P. Murtha (D-PA), Claiborne Pell (D-RI), and others spoke out public against the KR regime.59 Stories published about the genocide largely decreased after the civil war. In 1976, only 126 articles were published within two papers. In 1977, 118 were published. There was little information on televised news. Francois Ponchaud, a priest from France, evacuated the French embassy in 1975 but continued to cover the story from the Thai border in the French newspaper Le Monde. He translated refugee accounts and Cambodian radio reports and was one of the first persons to share firsthand accounts that were from a foreigner, which had a greater affect on the public. American citizens read Ponchaud’s stories and some asked President Ford to speak out about the horrors.60 When Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, U.S. policy of non-condemnation and non-interventionism continued.
The Carter Administration’s Response and Congressional Hearings: 1977-1979
Carter ran for president in 1976 on a human rights platform and stated that situations like Cambodia and Vietnam would not occur again. Yet when he became president in January 1977, Carter did not follow through on the promises he had made about Cambodia.61 He only condemned the situation after Congressional Hearings. In May 1977, Stephan Solarz (D-NY) succeeded in generating a discussion about the Cambodian genocide by organizing a hearing at the Subcommittee on International Organization of the House of International Affairs Committee. Solarz and historian David Chandler believed that a “bloodbath” was occurring in DK. Chandler emphasized the important role that the U.S. played during the civil war, which he believed helped motivate the genocide in Cambodia.62 Four witnesses (including Chandler) discussed the situation. All four witnesses agreed that humanitarian aid was needed but did not have any suggestions on how to change the situation in Cambodia. 63 Yet possible solutions existed: confronting and/or condemning the KR publicly, talking to China about their support to the KR, enforcing an embargo on arms trades with Cambodia, imposing economic sanctions on Cambodia and/or its supporters, and/or armed intervention.
Donald Fraser (D-MN), who had been one of the most vocal human rights advocates for Cambodia, was greatly frustrated by the inability of the witnesses to come up with a solution.64 In June, the committee again heard from Twining and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Holbrooke about the DK human rights violations that they had been documenting.65 In response, the committee passed a resolution protesting the KR’s brutality and urged the Carter administration to take action to end the human rights violations in Cambodia.66 Carter’s first denunciation of the Cambodian genocide occurred shortly after in April 1978, when he stated that the KR was, “the worst violator of human rights in the world today.”67 The Congressional hearings may have influenced his decision to make this statement. Although he condemned the KR, he did not take any action to stop the genocide.
Carter’s first (yet late) acknowledgment of the human rights abuses did not precipitate a change in U.S. policy with regard to intervention or condemnation. Activism and condemnation by human rights advocates and government representatives continued and increased after Carter’s statement and in response to his inaction. The United People for Human Rights in Cambodia protested and fasted outside of the White House in June of 1978 regarding the genocide. By October 1978, Senator George McGovern (D-SD) and William Buckley Jr. banded together to rally support from fellow senators to sign onto a letter to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance urging him to support international action to stop the Cambodian genocide. McGovern and Buckley obtained eighty senators’ signatures onto the letter. A 667-page report on the atrocities was released that included refugee testimonies.68 Yet the increase in public outrage was delayed and came three years after the start of the genocide and only months before the genocide ended in 1979.
China’s Role in the Cambodian Genocide and U.S. Response
In 1978, the U.S. attempted to establish diplomatic relations with China. At the same time (from April to October), an NSC report was released that included updates on the mass atrocities taking place in Cambodia and recommended taking action. Congress had just passed the Dole-Solarz bill that allowed 15,000 Cambodian refugees from Thailand into the U.S. Representatives like McGovern advocated for armed intervention and insisted that condemning the KR be brought up with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).69 Others, like Twining, believed that even the Chinese could not influence the KR’s behavior.70 Eighteen representatives demanded that Carter make Cambodia a part of the bilateral negotiations with China. Assistant Secretary of State Douglas J. Bennet replied it would be a “serious mistake” that would, “seriously complicate this process without significant positive impact on the situation in Cambodia.”71 Therefore, the U.S. government did not confront China about Cambodia.
National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was the main advocate for normalizing the U.S. relationship with China. Brzezinski continued the policy of non-condemnation of the KR when negotiating with the PRC, despite the fact that the PRC was the main military, economic, and political backer of the KR government. The disconsensus between Brzezinski and Carter’s opinions about the bilateral negotiations with China was documented through confidential papers and not revealed to the public.72 Therefore, the public did not see the disagreement between them, which could have led to a reassessment of the way the public viewed U.S. policy. If any of the U.S. officials disagreed on the U.S. response to the Cambodian genocide, the disconsensus could have caused the public to question the government’s policies.73 Yet the officials appeared to be in agreement. Jeopardizing the U.S.’s burgeoning relationship with China was to be avoided at all costs. All three administrations made clear geopolitical calculations of what was more important: ending the Cambodian genocide or expanding U.S. power (by avoiding intervention, which could led to humiliation and economic/military costs as well as the endangering the U.S. alliances with China and Thailand).
During December of 1977, Pol Pot led numerous attacks on the Cambodian-Vietnam border. Although the Soviet Union had previously restricted investigations into the human rights atrocities in Cambodia due to its partnership with the KR, the Soviet Union changed their policy after Cambodian attacks on the Vietnam border. Vietnam began to document the KR massacres and increased their security on the border.74 At the same time, the KR took measures to improve their public image in 1978 along with the support of China; Chinese leaders started a public relations campaign and produced propaganda films that showed the KR in a positive light. Foreigners were also welcomed back into the country.75 The Chinese did this because they wanted to avoid condemnation from the international community because of the PRC’s support of the KR. In order to do this, the PRC led a campaign to make it appear as though the genocide never occurred.
The KR encouraged Asian and European countries to travel to Cambodia (in selective locations where genocide would not be witnessed). Elizabeth Becker, the correspondent in Cambodia for The Washington Post, and other reporters were allowed to interview Pol Pot. Yet the reporters were constricted to certain areas of Cambodia so that the story would be framed the way that the KR wanted it to be (as a non-genocidal regime). Malcolm Caldwell, one of the journalists that came with Becker and who believed that the KR was committing genocide, was murdered by the KR during his stay.76 Almost every journalist that was discovered in the restricted press areas by the KR was killed or tortured during the genocide (as was done during the civil war).77 The KR eliminated critical access to press coverage. Although the death of foreigners and journalists often receive special attention from the international community and the country of origin, the death of Caldwell did not draw mass attention to the genocide nor did it prompt a change in the international community or U.S.’s policy towards the KR.
The End of the Genocide
The genocide in Cambodia ended when Vietnam intervened unilaterally. On January 8, 1978, Vietnam announced that it had successfully captured Phnom Penh. In October of 1978, Vietnam charged that the KR had killed over two million Cambodians and by the second week of January in 1979, Cambodia was completely under Vietnamese control.78 The Vietnamese installed Heng Samrin as the prime minister for the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Although the Vietnamese may not have been solely motivated by humanitarian intentions and may have acted to extend their sphere of power, the action nonetheless stopped the genocide. The U.S. responded, once again, in favor of the KR. Bringing up the genocide in Cambodia during the bilateral negotiations with China in 1978 was deemed inappropriate, yet Carter brought up Vietnam’s intervention (which he characterized as an invasion) when he met with Chinese Vice Chairman Deng Xioping in January of 1970. The Chinese responded by sending 170,000 troops and many combat aircrafts to invade Vietnam on February 16, 1979.79 The Carter administration framed Vietnam’s intervention as an invasion to the U.S. public in order to gain support for his policy of returning the KR to power. Carter did not take into account the repercussions that would occur if the Vietnamese left.
U.S. Relief Efforts and Post-Genocide Cambodia
On February 22, 1979, Solarz and eight other members of Congress wrote to Carter stating that the “genocidal Pol Pot regime” would come to power again in Phnom Penh if the Vietnamese left, which would once again create regional instability.80 The Carter administration did little in response. The administration claimed that it would find a solution and listed Cambodia as a possible talking point with China. Yet there was no concerted effort made to change the situation in Cambodia. The forced withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia was again mentioned to the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs without mention of its repercussions.81 The Carter administration’s goal was to get the Vietnamese to leave Cambodia, yet this would have serious repressions to the KR’s victims. As efforts to get the Vietnamese to leave Cambodia continued, 45,000 refugees in Thailand were forced to return to Cambodia, who faced great violence upon reentry. The U.S. did not condemn the KR, blaming the situation instead on the Vietnamese troops. Many Cambodians and refugees were starving.82 The public pushed for further action in Cambodia.
The public’s outrage in response to lack of relief efforts influenced Carter’s policies as reelections drew closer in 1980. This shows that the public can influence U.S. policy when provided with information on the subject. Carter was forced to respond to the public outcry from citizens and representatives like Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Seven million dollars were given to the Commission on World Hunger and an additional $3 million to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In total, $30 million was given to Cambodian relief with another $9 million to the Catholic Relief Services and UN programs for refugees in Thailand. An additional $30 million was also given after Senator C. Danforth (R-MO) testified before Congress about what he had witnessed in Phnom Penh. At the same time, the Carter administration was secretly supporting (politically and financially with a total of $85 million) the Chinese and Thai military assistance to the KR long before 1980.83 Relief efforts to help the victims were supported; intervening to stop the problem that it originated from was not. Carter again demonstrated that geopolitics surpassed the importance of genocide and human rights.
During the genocide, the KR continued to have a seat in the UN. The UN did little to stop the genocide and saw the problem as consisting solely of the Vietnamese occupation, not the KR.84 The UN General Assembly refused to allow the Cambodian “puppet regime” installed by the Vietnamese to have a seat at the UN.85 Thus, the KR continued to hold a seat at the UN under a joint coalition in 1982 until the U.S. voted against the KR coalition in 1990. The KR flag continued to fly outside the UN.86 In addition to giving legitimacy to the genocidal regime, the UN also pardoned the KR.
The UN and its member states never used the word genocide to describe the KR’s actions. The investigation into the situation in Cambodia was released in a report in 1985, which concluded that it was not genocide, although it was the worst thing to have happened since the Holocaust. U.S. officials did not consult the Genocide Convention* to see if it fit the atrocities in Cambodia.87 The Paris peace accords (the agreement that ended the war in Vietnam) and the Paris Peace Agreements (which specified the duties of the United Transitional Authority in Cambodia, UNTAC, in 1991) did not include the words genocide either, but instead, “the universally condemned policies and practices of the past.”88 Although Cambodia had ratified the Genocide Convention in 1950, the KR was not held accountable to the convention it had signed. Gregory H. Stanton writes that the evidence is clear that the KR intended to destroy a group (such as the Cham, Buddhist monks, Vietnamese, Chinese, American lackeys, and other foreigners or foreigner sympathists) in whole and in part.89 Thus, the evidence that Stanton and others have collected proves that the KR committed genocide.