Historian Stephen Morris Argues It Was North Vietnamese Sympathizers In the West Who Led the World to Ignore the Khmer Rouge

US-based historian and political commentator Stephen Morris visited Phnom Penh last week to discuss his latest book, “Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia” (Stanford University Press, 1999). He spoke to Cambodia Daily reporter Alex Devine. Q. You’re an Australian native and were a political science student at the University of Sydney in the late 1960s. What was the political climate on campus like at that time?

A. The Vietnam War was the big issue when I was there. I thought the US had a legitimate reason to be there. In fact I was a very strong public supporter of US and Australian involvement in Vietnam.

[But] I wasn’t really deeply involved in the Vietnam issue until I went there in 1970 as part of a student delegation….I was so astounded by what Vietnam was like compared to what I’d thought based on what I’d read when I was living in Australia that I thought it was something that had to be talked about, and I published articles.

Q. What did you see in Vietnam?

A. I traveled throughout the south. The two things that I saw that were very important: one, people were traveling the countryside, and two, there was a political opposition that was very vigorous. We were led to believe that South Vietnam was some terrible dictatorship. [But] there was an opposition press. I had a meeting with a group of important politicians who were very candid about the defects of South Vietnam, their own country, [and that outspokeness] contrasted very vividly with the north.

Q. When did you start to become interested in Cambodia?

A. I didn’t know much about Cambodia, never went there even though it was just next door. Cambodia never had the psychological appeal of Vietnam for anybody, and it still doesn’t. I realize that now. There’s always been a terrible lack of attention to the Cambodian question.

I became interested in Cambodia because I went to this conference [at Princeton University in the US in the early 1980s] about the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam’s invasion and all of these events. I was so outraged by the hypocrisy and the dishonesty of the academics who were talking about it, people like Ben Kiernan, who was a total servile propagandist for Hanoi and the Papa Doc government they installed here, and I began to write about it, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Nobody else in academia has been carrying the torch for non-communist Cambodia.

Q. But by the time reports were coming out about the killing fields in the late 1970s, weren’t people beginning to change their views?

A. No, because the people who were involved in the issue were hypocrites. They were basically toeing the Vietnamese line. The Khmer Rouge were in power and Vietnam was supporting them. They [most Western intellectuals] didn’t have a word to say about what was going on, even though everybody knew what was going on, one, because honest people like…Francois Ponchaud [author of “Cambodia Year Zero”] published books, and people like [linguist and political commentator Noam] Chomsky were trying to discredit them.

In those days all the left worshipped the Vietnamese communist party and assumed that the Khmer Rouge were simply fraternal comrades….Just as they refused to believe that the Vietnamese communists committed any atrocities, they refused to believe the Khmer Rouge did.

Then [later] they started to believe it. They had to choose which side they were on, and most people chose Vietnam. People like Kiernan went from being a denier of the holocaust to being an advocate of the Vietnamese line.

Q. You’re suggesting that all academics and all journalists were conspiring to bury the story about Khmer Rouge atrocities. But there were people here who reported on it from the beginning.

A. [Yes, there] were people who were open-minded about this [but] you wouldn’t find any such reports [by New York Times reporter Sydney] Schanberg, for instance. Schanberg only started to write negatively–file reports which cast negative images-in early 1975, and what he was reporting was the rocket attacks in Phnom Penh.

Q. And that was the only story at the time.

A. That was the story. There were atrocities on a big scale from 1973….Schanberg was only interested in reporting how terrible America was….America [later became] the scapegoat, but it always was. [Western leftists] were more anti-American than the Vietnamese-[that was their] only deviation from the party line.

This business about the bombing, it would be hard to argue that the Khmer Rouge acted because they were bombed. It was clear that they were like this before they started to be bombed by the US. [US Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger was opposed to the Khmer Rouge. The people who say Kissinger was responsible for the Khmer Rouge were not opposed to the Khmer Rouge when they were coming to power. I dare you to try to find somebody who today damns Kissinger who at the time was against the Khmer Rouge. They were all for them. All they wanted was for Americans to get out and, ‘let the Cambodian people solve their own problems.’ That was the standard line.

Q. Why did the Khmer Rouge leadership start border incursions into Vietnam when they must have known the Vietnamese out-gunned them?

A. Pol Pot imagined he was under attack from Thailand and Vietnam. He thought he was going to destroy Vietnam….I mean he had eliminationist fantasies about Vietnam. I don’t know how far he believed all of [what he broadcast on Khmer Rouge radio] but he certainly thought he could defeat Vietnam because [he had a] purer Marxist-Leninist army than Vietnam.

It was such a lunatic kind of statement. It was so mad. How could they think anyone would believe it? That the Cambodians were going to destroy the Vietnamese?

It was feeding on racist fantasies of Cambodians….[The Khmer Rouge] always talked about the inferiority of the Vietnamese. They wanted to get over the humiliation they’d suffered. Marxist-Leninism provided a formula for exacting that revenge.

Q. King Norodom Sihanouk was more rational in his approach to the Vietnamese, wasn’t he?

A. He was motivated by vindictiveness. He was rational up to a point, but when he was overthrown [in Lon Nol’s 1970 coup d’etat], he became obsessed with revenge against Lon Nol, and that’s what drove him to align himself with the Khmer Rouge. But he wasn’t anti-Vietnamese. He’s very cosmopolitan. He’s not a racist at all.

Q. Why didn’t the Vietnamese act earlier to repel the Khmer Rouge?

A. The Vietnamese didn’t know anything that was going on in the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge and imagined that [Democratic Kampuchea Deputy Prime Minister for Defense] Son Sen and [Brother No 2] Nuon Chea were friends of Vietnam because they were trained in Vietnam. They thought this was what created bonds of solidarity. There was ignorance of what was going on in the leadership-not ignorance of what was going on in the country, but in the leadership-and that’s part of the reason why they restrained the anger of the local cadre over the atrocities that were being committed by the Cambodians against the Vietnamese. They thought they could settle things by a coup within the Cambodian communist party. When Pol Pot apparently resigned in 1976, they thought this was a sign of his political weakness.

Q. But there were a lot of senior cadres to fill Pol Pot’s shoes. Were the Vietnamese realistic in thinking the Khmer Rouge leadership was vulnerable?

A. Vietnam could have supported an uprising, and as Pol Pot became more fanatical in his bloodletting, he would have created a sizeable opposition army-a mix of Khmer Rouge defectors and others. Vietnam could have provided a lot of support, and they could have cut off a lot of the eastern provinces, too, and created a liberated eastern zone.

[And] there could have been pressure on the US and the rest of the world to do something about it. They did it in 1978 because the Vietnamese turned against the Khmer Rouge and started blasting them, and all the pro-Hanoi people started denouncing the Khmer Rouge. Those people are very core organizationally in the West-the French communist party and the American left. Between them they would have created a shift in public opinion, which may have encouraged some kind of Western intervention, not by troops but by arming a resistance, as they did in Afghanistan.

I raised the question with [then assistant US Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific] Richard Holbrooke [at the end of] ’78 when I was a visiting student at Harvard. He was giving a talk on this area, and I raised the question of the Khmer Rouge. I said, ‘Why doesn’t the US support a rebellion against the Khmer Rouge?’ And he said, ‘Because we don’t know what would come afterwards’ And I said, ‘We know it coudn’t be anything worse than the Khmer Rouge.’ And [a professor] said, ‘That’s not true.’ And Holbrooke responded to him, ‘Yes it is.’ Then he said, ‘We don’t know what we’d be getting ourselves into to do something like that.’

[Later Holbrooke said,] ‘We’ve been down that road before. We’ve been down that road before.’

Basically there would have been no popular support for it, [but] eventually, with the stuff that was coming out on the Khmer Rouge, public opinion might have changed. If it was today I think there would be no question, but at that time it was probably too close to the Vietnam War.

Q. In light of that, isn’t it a good thing the Vietnamese invaded?

A. I didn’t oppose Vietnam invading; I opposed them staying. I thought it was a good idea that they invaded, but they should have handed it over to the UN or some kind of international body. They could have, but they didn’t want to because they wanted to control the place.

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