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The Cambodia Myth


I suppose it’s comforting to see the President continues to know fuck-all about the American war in Vietnam.

On Wednesday in Kansas City, Missouri, Bush will tell members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that “then, as now, people argued that the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end,” according to speech excerpts released Tuesday by the White House.

“Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left,” Bush will say.

“Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal 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,'” the president will say.

There’s an interesting history, it seems to me, to be written about the right-wing fable of “abandonment” that connects disparate 20th century events like the Yalta Conference, the “loss” of China, the collapse of South Vietnam, and so on. What unites these narratives is the stubborn insistence — in the face of all evidence to the contrary — that something could have been done to avert Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, Maoist victory in China, or the eradication of a South Vietnamese government that had never enjoyed the legitimacy granted to it by American officials, who invested two decades and 60,000 American lives in that awful chimera. Such fantasies are seldomly enlivened by plausible explanations of what the US might have done; rather, they are preoccupied with ferreting out domestic appeasers, traitors and defeatists who enabled the nation’s humiliation.

None of this is surprising, and the Bush administration’s reliance on false, right -wing historical narrative has been noticed before. Bush’s invocation of the Cambodian genocide, however, is both predictable and disgusting. Rather than simply wallowing in counter-factual satisfactions (e.g., what if FDR hadn’t simply “given away” a region of Europe his nation didn’t actually control?) it actually inverts history by pretending that the killing fields were a consequence of American weakness rather than an effect of American aggression. The history on this is pretty unambiguous. Without four years of American and South Vietnamese bombardment of eastern Cambodia, and without the illegal invasion of the country in 1970, the preconditions for the ascent of the Khmer Rouge would not have existed. More importantly, as the Khmer became embroiled in a xenophobic campaign against ethnic Vietnamese and sought — improbably — to regain lands lost to Vietnam centuries before, the United States had little to say in the way of official complaint against Pol Pot’s regime. Indeed, the “reasonable” position set forth by Kissinger (under Ford) and Brzezinski (under Carter) held that Pol Pot — though detestable — was at least useful so long as he threatened the Communists in Vietnam. And when the Khmer Rouge was deposed by a Vietnamese invasion and replaced by a Vietnamese puppet states, both Carter and Reagan continued to insist that the Khmer Rouge be acknowledged as the legitimate government of Cambodia.

Allow me to put it even more simply: to the extent that the United States abetted the Cambodian genocide, those contributions were made not by people who called for an end to the war in Vietnam but instead by those who insisted that the war be expanded into another nation; that the war could be brought under control with a massive, short-term escalation; and that domestic opposition to the war was irresponsible and meretricious.

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