In an attempt to scare off support for a military exit from Iraq, President Bush in a recent speech made the false claim that U.S. disengagement from Vietnam caused the killing fields in Cambodia. The price of American withdrawal, the president said, was paid in the agonies of millions of innocent people.
What actually happened in Cambodia was this: President Nixon spread the Vietnam War into Cambodia. He ordered the so-called “secret bombing” of Cambodia, in which U.S. B-52 bombers pounded the countryside for years. In March 1970 the U.S. supported the military overthrow of the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had tried to keep his country out of the war. In late April of that year Nixon ordered an “incursion” of U.S. troops into Cambodia, which touched off furious protests here in the U.S. (in which students were killed at Kent State and Jackson State universities).
The military coup and U.S. attacks in Cambodia resulted in widespread violence and chaos, especially in the countryside. Resistance to the military regime increased, which gave impetus to the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, who steadily built their power. By 1975 they controlled the entire country and overran the government. The Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh and instituted their reign of terror by claiming that the U.S. was going to bomb.
The killing fields were the tragic result of the Nixon administration’s misguided policies of military escalation. If the United States had not bombed and invaded Cambodia, and if we had let Sihanouk alone, Cambodia would not have suffered its horrible fate.
David Cortright is a board member of Sojourners/Call to Renewal. He is research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and president of the Fourth Freedom Forum.