The Crime of Cambodia

Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

by William Shawcross
Simon & Schuster, 467 pp., $13.95

“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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.