The Cambodia Controversy

Michael Albert


Back in June, Anthony Lewis
wrote a NYT column about Pol Pot and Cambodia including the
assertion: "A few Western intellectuals, notably Prof.
Noam Chomsky, refused to believe what was going on in
Cambodia. At first, at least, they put the reports of killing
down to a conspiratorial effort by American politicians and
press to destroy the Cambodian revolution." As is his
style, Lewis’s comment appeared with no supporting evidence
despite the fact that: (1) There is much documentation that
Chomsky endeavored to clarify the truth about events in
Cambodia both as relates to Pol Pot’s responsibility as well
as the (oft-ignored) responsibility of the U.S. And, (2)
Chomsky never made any allegations of a "conspiratorial
effort by American politicians and press to destroy the
Cambodian revolution," much less attributing all reports
of terror to it.

Lewis also omitted that the
context of Chomsky’s broader researches into the events in
Cambodia (with co-author Ed Herman) was a comparison of the
media coverage of Cambodia and East Timor. Chomsky and Herman
argued that mainstream reaction to the two cases supported
the principle that (1) the crimes of an official enemy
(Cambodia) are outrageous, and should be a focus of U.S.
public attention, even when such attention has no plausible
way to impact the outcomes, while (2) the comparable crimes
of an ally (Indonesia in Timor) that could easily be
terminated by withdrawing support, should be obscured as much
as possible.

So far, this is just business
as usual for Lewis, the Times, and the establishment
intelligentsia. However, in the September issue of the
Progressive, editor Matthew Rothschild ran an editorial
quoting Lewis favorably. Chomsky and Herman, Rothschild tells
us, in a 1977 Nation book review "tried to poke holes in
books that warned of Khmer Rouge atrocities,"
"cited repeated discoveries that massacre reports were
false," and cited the "extreme unreliability of
refugee reports." Chomsky and Herman "were wrong to
suggest that Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge may have been
‘more similar to France after liberation’ than to Germany
under the Nazis." And Chomsky and Herman equivocated:
"We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst
these sharply conflicting assessments." I re-read the
1977 Nation book review. It aims to document what is and is
not accorded U.S. media visibility, and what is and is not
subject to serious standards of scholarship. In the review,
Chomsky and Herman don’t take a position regarding the scale
of crimes in Cambodia per se, instead, debunking much of the
rhetoric then rampant by showing that its basis was suspect
or, more often, demonstrably false. They take a firm position
on what they could reliably argue: the baselessness of much
of the analysis at that time, the scale of U.S. involvement,
and the behavior of mainstream media regarding both. Chomsky
and Herman don’t need defending, but the principles in the
on-going debate need clarification.

Like Lewis, Rothschild failed
to identify passages where Chomsky and Herman "put the
reports of killing down to a conspiratorial effort by
American politicians and press to destroy the Cambodian
revolution," since, of course, no such passages exist.
Lewis also wrote that Chomsky and Herman "refused to
believe what was going on in Cambodia." But if someone
had said Pol Pot killed ten million peasants, Rothschild
would not have believed it, nor would Lewis, Chomsky or
Herman, or anyone else. One shouldn’t believe fabrication,
obviously, and the only thing Chomsky and Herman refused to
believe were demonstrably false claims about "what was
going on in Cambodia." Lewis’s artistry is to imply that
Chomsky and Herman doubted there were gross atrocities, which
is nonsense. Using the same standards, however, Lewis could
have charged Chomsky and Herman with having "refused to
believe what was going on in Cambodia" during the U.S.
assault since they criticized Ponchaud (the author of one of
the books reviewed) for multiplying the death toll from U.S.
bombing by three. That Lewis didn’t make this criticism
implements the principle that it is proper to scrupulously
challenge exaggerated claims about U.S. crimes, but not those
of the enemy.

Rothschild, going further,
says Chomsky and Herman "tried to poke holes in books
that warned of Khmer Rouge atrocities," implying that
they didn’t succeed and also that there is something wrong in
looking at atrocity reports to evaluate their accuracy. The
phrasing also makes it sound as though Chomsky and Herman
were nit-picking, rather than demonstrating the utter
baselessness of claims then being made.

In the 1977 review, the first
of two books criticized, Murder of a Gentle Land, is by John
Barron and Anthony Paul who reported that Cambodia was a
"gentle land" during the years when, in fact,
according to the CIA, 600,000 people were killed by the U.S.
war. The first hole Chomsky and Herman tried to poke related
to Baron and Paul’s assertion that "virtually
everybody" saw summary executions as Phnom Penh was
evacuated. Baron and Paul’s sources were journalists Cazaux
and Schanberg, both of whom flatly denied the claim. The
second hole Chomsky and Herman tried to poke had to do with
the Barron-Paul claim that people "fled to the
cities" as a result of the "harsh regimen" of
the Communists, not the American bombing (as was, of course,
widely known to be the case). Other holes poked included
indicating atrocity photographs that were admittedly faked,

The second book in which
Chomsky and Herman "tried to poke holes" was
Ponchaud’s Cambodge Annee Zero. Like Lewis, Rothschild raises
no objections to Chomsky and Herman’s "poking
holes" in Ponchaud’s exaggeration of U.S. crimes. That
was okay. It would take too much space to run through all the
other holes poked, but it isn’t necessary, because Ponchaud
himself agreed that every question raised was not only apt,
but understated, and in Cambodge Annee Zero’s American
translation all the errors are revised, as documented in
Chomsky and Herman’s Political Economy of Human Rights (SEP).

Rothschild also says Chomsky
and Herman gave short shrift to accounts from Cambodians who
fled, failing to add that in this they were paraphrasing
Ponchaud and Charles Twining, the State Department’s main
"Cambodia watcher," recognized by everyone to be
the leading analyst of refugee reports. Rothschild was
actually saying, therefore, that the two primary
investigators of Cambodian refugees at the time gave short
shrift to accounts of Cambodians who fled. More, why would it
be wrong to treat refugee reports with the care that Twining
and Ponchaud recommend?

Rothschild’s last charge is
that Chomsky and Herman "were wrong to suggest that
Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge may have been ‘more similar to
France after liberation’ than to Germany under the
Nazis." At the time, however, this was a perfectly
reasonable formulation, and consistent with the then expert
estimates. Lacouture had earlier claimed that the Khmer Rouge
"boasted" of killing two million people by 1976.
After Chomsky pointed out to Lacouture in a personal letter
that his references to Ponchaud’s book were incorrect,
Lacouture published "corrections," in which he said
that it didn’t matter whether the Khmer Rouge had killed
thousands or millions. Chomsky and Herman wrote, in turn,
that they thought a factor of 100 or 1,000 did matter, noting
also that other sources (including the U.S. State Department)
were suggesting estimates toward the low end of Lacoutoure’s
wide range. Chomsky and Herman then stated, in words
criticized by Rothschild: "If, indeed, postwar Cambodia
is, as [Lacouture] believes, similar to Nazi Germany, then
his comment [about the unimportance of the scale of the
deaths] is perhaps just, though we may add that he has
produced no evidence to support his judgment. But if postwar
Cambodia is more similar to France after liberation, where
many thousands of people were massacred within a few months
under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the
American war, then perhaps a rather different judgment is in
order. That the latter conclusion may be more nearly correct
is suggested by the analyses mentioned earlier….We do not
pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply
conflicting assessments…" Chomsky and Herman’s concern
in this review, remember, was to consider how the facts
available at the time were filtered through the media’s
ideological prism to better understand that prism. They had
no basis for taking any further stand regarding the history,
and didn’t (which is what Rothschild calls
"equivocating"). By what principles is this
behavior wrong?

There is vastly more
information available today about events in Cambodia under
the Khmer Rouge than in 1977, especially since Khmer Rouge
rule lasted from 1975 to 1979 and the most respected
historiography indicates that the main barbarism was after
the review was written. To be sure, we still don’t know how
many people died of unnatural causes at the hands of the U.S.
war and its aftermath or Pol Pot’s terror policies. But, in
the last few years, some fairly convincing evidence has
emerged showing centralized control of Khmer Rouge terror.
Suppose Rothschild had offered a quotation showing that
Chomsky and Herman doubted centralized control in a 1977
essay, as I believe they did. Would this be a fair criticism?
No, because quite obviously nothing learned after 1977 has a
logical bearing on how we judge assessments made in 1977.
Those assessments can only be judged on the basis of the
information available then, which is exactly what Chomsky and
Herman were scrupulously evaluating.

The significance of
Rothschild’s argument transcends Chomsky and Herman. When the
U.S. State Department issued its White Paper of 1965 claiming
aggression by North Vietnam, I. F. Stone showed that almost
all of the enemy soldiers reported as captured had been born
in the south. Years later it was purportedly discovered that
there was a unit of northern soldiers in the south in 1964,
unbeknownst to the U.S government. If so, was Stone therefore
an apologist for Hanoi? Neither Z nor the Progressive would
have much to publish if we refrained from analyzing the world
until all evidence was completely in.

It seems to me that Cambodia
debate is peculiar and often confused. (1) Whether Pol Pot
was the worst criminal in all history has no bearing on the
heinous nature of the U.S. role in the region—save
insofar as we consider later periods of U.S. support for Pol
Pot, of course. (2) Using Pol Pot’s crimes to retroactively
justify our invasion of Vietnam or as an argument for our
crimes in Central America or U.S. interventions generally, as
if U.S intervention has some higher motive, is just another
method in the madness of imperialism. (3) The scale of U.S.
crimes and the ensuing travail in Cambodia, however immense,
does not remove Pol Pot from culpability for his actions. (4)
The idea that Pol Pot should be judged in terms of all
unnecessary deaths that took place as a result of his
policies has merit. The same idea has merit as well, however,
regarding responsibility for deaths by starvation and
preventable disease in zones of the world the U.S. dominates,
such as Central America. (5) The media and scholarly
treatment of Pol Pot and the events more broadly, then and
since, reveal, as usual, the principles behind mainstream
U.S. opinion about international relations, as indicated
throughout this article.

What are the important lessons
for a periodical to draw from the period and ensuing debates?
My answer would be the five points above. Rothschild thinks
the important lessons are: "the United States does not
commit every evil in the world," "the horrific
potential of violent revolutions followed by vanguard
dictatorships," "our anti-interventionism and
pacificism can blind us to the grossest human-rights
violations abroad," and "a renewed sense of caution
about issuing pronouncements." While concurring that not
all evils stem from the U.S. (does anyone deny this?) and
that vanguard dictatorship is horrific (a lesson rather
widely held in the West and certainly by Chomsky and Herman),
I have to wonder precisely how it is that
anti-interventionist and pacifist sentiments "blind
us" to human rights violations. Yes, pacifists and
anti-interventionists would oppose Washington’s mounting a
military rescue to save Cambodian lives; but so did just
about everyone else, from right to left at every level, not
unreasonably, given that U.S. bombing and troops had not
notably benefited the Cambodian people up to that point. Is
Rothschild saying that the Left should have pushed for a U.S.
intervention? When? In 1975? In 1977? Is he saying that
intervention should have been advocated on the information
then available? That intervention by the U.S. in Indochina
would have been to save lives? If not, then his point makes
no sense. One can recognize "human rights
violations" but feel, rightly, that U.S intervention is
not a means to reduce them. In any event, the implication
that Chomsky or Herman or the anti-war left,
anti-interventionist left, or pacifist left of the period was
blind to human rights violations in Indochina is, well,

Finally, regarding
Rothschild’s call for a "renewed sense of caution about
issuing pronouncements," while I think this advice makes
little sense applied to what Chomsky and Herman wrote in
their 1977 review, given the cautious scholarship they
employed, I think the advice makes quite a lot of sense
regarding what Rothschild wrote in his September editorial.