The Cambodia Controversy
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, etc.
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, ridiculous.
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.
Labels: The Cambodia Controversy