Senator Bernie Sanders criticises Hillary Clinton for promoting the endorsement of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Sanders charged in a debate that Kissinger and his boss, President Richard Nixon, were responsible for the genocide of nearly two million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge after the American war in Vietnam, 1975-1979. I used to believe this myth, but when I visited Cambodia and started to read modern Cambodian history, I learned with relief it wasn't true that Americans caused the genocide.
The late Joel Brinkley, a classmate of mine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former New York Times reporter, addressed the question in his book, "Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land." He traces the myth back to a popular anti-Vietnam War book by British journalist William Shawcross in the 1970s: "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia." Shawcross alleged that Kissinger and crew staged a military coup of the Cambodian government of Prince Norodon Sihanouk that insisted on neutrality in the American war, and refused to give the Americans everything they wanted. Kissinger supposedly arranged to replace Sihanouk with what Shawcross believed was a puppet government led by Lon Nol, who he claimed had been bought off by the Americans. Shawcross "concluded that the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory," Brinkley wrote.
Both Brinkley and I were card-carrying members of the "liberal media," and we believed what Shawcross alleged.
"Thirty years later, with passions cooled, it is quite clear that his conclusion was wrong," Brinkley wrote. "The American bombing began a year before the Lon Nol coup. Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced, saying he wanted to be sure the Vietnam War did not spread to his own country. And in 1970, the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force."
Both Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge were supported by the Chinese, and Sihanouk in his tenure viewed the Khmer Rouge as an ally. "More recent scholarship has suggested that the American bombing, for all its wanton, deadly results, so disrupted the nation that it delayed the Khmer Rouge's ultimate victory until after the B-52 campaign ended in August 1973," Brinkley pointed out.
"If Lon Nol had not staged his mercenary coup, most likely the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power," Brinkley observed. But there is little evidence Kissinger and company staged the coup in Cambodia or pushed citizens into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Sanders' charge against Kissinger shows an unfamiliarity with the details of American action in foreign nations.