“Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime.” This is what William Shawcross demonstrates in his careful, detailed, and incisive book. Sideshow is both masterly and horrifying. It lays bare the fallacies and the shame of the Vietnam war with so much evidence and force that recent attempts at rewriting this tragic story in order to vindicate American policy appear as ludicrous as the policy itself. For those who, ever since the debacle of 1975, keep worrying that American diplomacy’s resolve, will, or position in the world will be permanently impaired by the motto, “No more Vietnams,” Shawcross’s account of the pointless destruction of Cambodia should be compulsory reading. All those who, somehow, believe that the sufferings inflicted on the Cambodian people, first by the Pol Pot regime, and now by the Vietnamese, retrospectively justify America’s attempt to save Phnom Penh from the Reds must read this book, for it presents hard and irrefutable documentary evidence showing that the monsters who decimated the Cambodian people were brought to power by Washington’s policies.

Shawcross explains how Norodom Sihanouk had, until 1969, succeeded in protecting most of his country from the effects of the war which was devastating Vietnam and Laos. The Prince was, to be sure, “vain, a petulant showman,” whose idiosyncrasies had estranged both the leftists who later became the leaders of the Khmer Rouge and a part of his nation’s small bourgeoisie and army. But he had skillfully played off the Americans against the Vietnamese, and thus preserved Cambodia’s independence; “he alone had seen how the Cambodian people could be protected, and he alone had accomplished it.” By early 1969, the North Vietnamese “sanctuaries,” which Sihanouk tolerated as the price he had to pay to his troublesome neighbors in exchange for preserving Cambodia from the conflict, were still small. Lyndon Johnson had respected Sihanouk’s neutrality, dented though it had to be.

Obviously, America’s interest ought to have been to maintain Phnom Penh’s independence and neutrality. This in turn required a quick end to the Vietnam war, for its prolongation was likely to strengthen Hanoi’s grip on its neighbor. Any other course meant, at best, one more front, a wider unwinnable war, and, at worst, the realization, thanks to America’s folly, of Sihanouk’s worst nightmare: the imposition of a Vietnamese protectorate, or of some other form of communist rule, in Phnom Penh. The course adopted by the Nixon Administration achieved both. In March 1969, the bombing of the sanctuaries, requested by the US commander in South Vietnam, was approved by the president.

Sihanouk, still eager to save what he could of his country, did not protest; the bombing remained a secret—from the American people and Congress only. It failed to destroy the mythical Central Headquarters of the North Vietnamese which was supposed to be in one of the sanctuaries. It succeeded in driving the North Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia. This, in turn, destroyed Sihanouk’s exercise in acrobatic diplomacy: he himself began to denounce Hanoi’s growing encroachments, and his domestic opponents overthrew him in March 1970 while he was away in France. The new leader, General Lon Nol, had been his last prime minister.

Shawcross has found no evidence of high-level American participation in the coup, although various American agencies had encouraged and armed opponents to Sihanouk for some time. It would still have been in America’s interest to reinstate Sihanouk, who had flown to Peking. In Cambodia, Lon Nol incited his people to massacre Vietnamese residents. Nixon at once decided to support Lon Nol’s army covertly. Then he launched his famous “incursion” against the sanctuaries—a decision that horrified Lon Nol and added pillage by the South Vietnamese to the burdens imposed on Cambodia by the North Vietnamese. After the end of the “incursion,” the defense of Cambodia became America’s responsibility.

As Shawcross puts it, Cambodia became a repetition of Vietnam. Kissinger chose the most ambitious and expensive strategy. We tried to help Lon Nol raise a huge army and we equipped it, but our effort proved wholly inadequate, both because of Lon Nol’s utter incompetence, and because America’s huge bombings destroyed the countryside, filled the cities with refugees, provided the small Khmer Rouge movement with recruits, while American economic aid produced graft and more social disintegration. Our advice on improving the economy was compared by one official to “picking fleas off a dog that has cancer.” Just as we stuck to Thieu in Vietnam, we kept Lon Nol in power in Phnom Penh. After the Paris ceasefire agreement between Washington and Hanoi, in January 1973, the bombing, which had stopped in Vietnam, concentrated on what William Colby called “the only game in town.” Cambodia—until, in August of 1973, Congress put an end to it. By that time, we had dropped on that small country 50 percent more tons of bombs than we had dropped on Japan during the Second World War.


The disintegration of the Cambodian economy, the failures of the Cambodian army, the radicalization of the opponents to the Lon Nol regime—all these factors should have led Washington to try once more to bring back Sihanouk. If this could not be done, the only alternative was the Khmer Rouge. The Prince, in Peking, had allied himself with them and with the North Vietnamese, under China’s auspices—an uneasy alliance. At first, Kissinger had thought that Hanoi could force the Khmer Rouge to negotiate. He soon realized that relations between them and the North Vietnamese were bad. Old national suspicions proved stronger than ideological solidarity and a common cause.

Despite the attempts of Chou En-lai and the French ambassador in Peking to restore Sihanouk, Kissinger continued to prop up Lon Nol. He either ignored Sihanouk or suggested—at a time when this had clearly become unacceptable to and probably impossible for him—that he negotiate with Lon Nol. Gradually, the Chinese switched their allegiance to the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk rightly predicted that after the fall of Phnom Penh Cambodia would be like Albania, not like Yugoslavia. Not until the eve of that fall did Kissinger offer to bring Sihanouk back. The Prince refused. He was, in any case, no longer in any position to accept. And so the US, having tried to keep Cambodia, like South Vietnam, noncommunist, and out of Hanoi’s reach, ensured the bloody triumph of the Khmer Rouge (who had gradually eliminated all pro-Sihanouk and pro-Vietnamese elements), and, later on, indirectly, the domination of Hanoi, after the North Vietnamese decided to settle their own accounts with Pol Pot.

It is an appalling story. “Whatever Nixon and Kissinger intended for Cambodia, their efforts created catastrophe.” The lessons are clear. First, we had the wrong hierarchy of ends: we gave priority to the destruction of the sanctuaries over the preservation of Cambodia’s fragile neutrality. In other words, our goal in Cambodia was to fight the North Vietnamese, not to limit North Vietnamese influence and control—and the goal we selected would have made sense only if disrupting North Vietnamese operations in Cambodia could have made a decisive difference to the outcome in South Vietnam, which it could not and did not.

Secondly, as in Vietnam, we gave ourselves ends that were both unreachable and contradictory. We could not prop up Lon Nol forever just as we could not perpetuate Thieu without staying fully in the war ad infinitum. On the contrary, we were at the same time aiming at “winding down” the war, through Vietnamization—i.e., the withdrawal of American troops. Thus, achieving the unachievable came to depend, in South Vietnam in 1971-1972, and in Cambodia until August 1973, on arming those very armies whose weaknesses had required our own military intervention in the first place, and on intensive bombing. After the bombing stopped, our policy was at the mercy of our enemies.

Thirdly, the means we used toward such ends were, as Shawcross puts it, “not merely disproportionate but counter-productive and destructive of the values they were meant to defend.” The “incursion” itself—which enlarged the war it aimed to bring to a faster end—delayed Vietnamization and negotiations with Hanoi. Our methodical destruction of Cambodia and the swelling of the cities (once called “forced draft urbanization”) prepared the ground for the savage execution, by the Pol Pot regime, of the anti-city policy that Khieu Samphan, the future chief of state of that regime, had recommended in his Paris thesis of 1959.

The Khmer Rouge, as Shawcross makes clear, are fully responsible for their terrible brutality and killings. But it was our bombings that caused first the North Vietnamese and later the Khmer Rouge to spread all over Cambodia. Those who argue that we “lost” because we stopped bombing in August 1973, or because Congress cut off all aid to Thieu and Lon Nol in the fatal spring of 1975, forget that more bombing and more aid would, at best, have postponed the victory of the “other side,” but could in no way have ensured our own. The “other side” was on its own native ground, it could count on our inability to remain stuck there forever. We could prolong the agony, and fulfill our own worst nightmares by using means that (in addition to producing bloodbaths themselves) created all the conditions for bloodbaths after our defeat.

Fourth, among the casualties of the disaster we must count not only the Cambodians but America’s own constitutional order. Shawcross reminds us that the original bombing was not merely concealed but falsified in the official records. Efforts by journalists to “leak” the truth led to the wiretapping of top officials. Spying or dissimulation between government agencies became routine. Attempts by the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate in Cambodia were sabotaged. And yet the House Judiciary Committee refused to include Cambodia among the articles of Nixon’s impeachment.


Fifth, at the root of this tree of evils one finds an extraordinary arrogance. The people of Cambodia were not merely treated as strategic pawns, in what Henry Kissinger now calls the “geopolitical” design of the United States. They were treated as the wrong strategic pawns: as a mere appendage to Vietnam, a sideshow to the real one—an attitude that itself contributed to making Cambodia an appendage, even though our interest was to keep the pieces separate. This inability to discriminate, this Olympian but distorted view, was accompanied by another form of hubris: a self-intoxicating confidence in our capacity to manipulate other societies. Shawcross quotes from a 471-page report, “Psychological Operations: Cambodia,” commissioned by the Pentagon in 1959. It recommended ways to disrupt Cambodian society, and listed 207 “appeal ideas” to be aimed at different groups of Cambodians; it is hard to know whether to laugh or to cry at the combination of stupidity and nastiness they reveal. Similar studies, Shawcross tells us, were made of many Third World countries.

Shawcross’s book is the most thorough account of the Cambodian debacle published so far. He has used documents and interviews widely and wisely. Writing only a few years after the events, he has been able to collect memories that are still fresh (and to draw sharp, often devastating sketches of the top American diplomatic and military representatives in the field). But there are, inevitably, two drawbacks. One is special pleading by certain witnesses. It is clear that Nixon’s secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, spoke at length to Shawcross; but (as he states in his foreword) Kissinger refused to talk at all. It is not surprising that the book stresses either Laird’s opposition to, or his exclusion from, US policy, although the truth might have been a bit different, and that Kissinger emerges as the chief villain.

Second, not all documents are available. This affects in particular the story of the attempts to achieve a negotiated outcome. Shawcross reports that he found few traces of the contacts and negotiations with Sihanouk, or the Chinese, or others hinted at by Kissinger; but such talks may have been known to very few. He is probably right in his conviction that the attempts were half-hearted, belated, contradictory, and doomed by our commitment to Lon Nol. But there may have been a little more to the story than we find here.

Those who lament recent American inhibitions and restrictions on the use of force, in internal or in interstate conflicts, and itch for opportunities to display toughness again, should reflect upon the lessons of this sinister episode. But the fact that the ordeal inflicted on the Cambodian people by its rulers since April 1975 was not merely preceded but prepared by America’s own atrocious policy should have made American opponents of our Vietnam adventure less hesitant to denounce (as, for instance, Jean Lacouture has done) the terrible violations of elementary human rights by the Pol Pot regime, or the imposition of Hanoi’s totalitarian rule on Phnom Penh and on southern Vietnam.

Many of those who denounced the American course did so without having any illusions about the repressiveness of the Vietnamese or the Cambodian communists. But they believed that Washington could “save” the people of South Vietnam and Cambodia from communism only at a cost that made mockery of the word “save”: the total destruction of North Vietnam and, in the process, the devastation of most of what was to be protected, plus the risk of an even wider war. They believed as well that military efforts that fell short of such a monstrously disproportionate and self-destructive campaign would only add to the crimes and degradation of eventual communist victory those of the American war itself. As Frances FitzGerald put it, our mistake was in creating and building up “the wrong side,” and we were led by that mistake to a course of devastation and defeat.

This is no reason not to protest the massacres, arbitrary arrests, and persecutions perpetrated by the regimes that have taken over after our exit, and that years of fighting had not exactly predisposed to greater humaneness. Indeed, those who approved the Vietnam war, or would have liked us to spill even more blood and blast even more villages in order to “win,” are in no position to protest what has been happening since 1975. But those who condemned the war have an obligation both to remember and defend the values on behalf of which they denounced it—the same values that are being crushed in Cambodia and Vietnam today—and to resist all attempts to make them feel guilty for the stand they took against the war.

This Issue

June 28, 1979