The Cambodian Genocide and the naïve predictions of the U.S. press

One reason I plan to do more than one blog post on the book “Bad News” by Russ Braley, is that it has so much information that conflicts with what most American assume happened in the JFK and Johnson and Nixon eras. It turns out that the most influential newspaper, the New York Times, consistently misread the motives of major players in the world. The quotes that Mr. Braley includes in his chapter “The Fall of Saigon and the Scourging of Nixon” are very dramatic evidence of this.

Some background:

When President Nixon resigned, under the cloud of the Watergate scandal, a new liberal congress was sworn in. America had pulled out of South Vietnam, but South Vietnam was still holding on against the Communists. Its neighbor Cambodia was not in good shape, with two-thirds of the country occupied by North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge troops. At the end of 1974, President Gerald Ford, a Republican, asked for substantial aid for the Indochinese allies, but Congress set a ceiling on the amount of aid, and how it would be used. In early January 1975, North Vietnamese troops overran Phouc Binh, and Ford asked Congress for $300 million more in emergency aid.

Braley writes:

Thieu and the South Vietnamese military had been apprehensive since August 1973, when Congress barred any further U.S. bombing or naval support, and dismayed at Nixon’s fall. Still, Thieu could not believe that there was not a way around the bombing ban if it should become a life-or-death matter. He misjudged the strength of pacifist sentiment in Congress.


Times columnists began a sustained attack on Ford’s aid requests, on the theme sounded by Senator Mansfield: “Additional aid means more killing and fighting”…Times editorials [charged]…Ford with “blatant disregard” for human suffering in Cambodia…The Cambodian pawns had suffered long enough; aid would only prolong their misery”.

Correspondent Sydney H. Schanberg was reporting on half the nation [of Cambodia having become] refugees facing starvation, “coughing children, weeping children, silent children too weak to respond any more.” Columnist Tom Wicker said President Ford’s warning of a bloodbath was flawed: “..the trouble with that is the bloodbath now going on…bloodbath theories have been advanced so often to justify disastrous policies in Southeast Asia that some skepticism is in order…”

A Times editorial proposed phasing down aid to South Vietnam, with the aim of forcing Thieu into a political settlement. The Times believed, with the CIA, that the Communists wanted to negotiate. (The CIA did know, according to CIA analyst Frank Snepp, writing after the fall of Cambodia and the resulting huge bloodbath, that Khieu Samphan intended to raze the cities and make Cambodia a rural estate, which had been his theme since his student days.

Although the Time’s Schanberg did not believe in a bloodbath, he had become an expert in oriental corruption. His article, “Cambodia’s Regime: As Corrupt as People Say,” led the Week in Review section almost on the eve of the bloodbath.

Braley points out that “No one appeared to understand the toll that gradual abandonment had taken on the South Vietnamese since the Congressional cutoff of bombing in 1973, later translated into total abandonment by the stalling on aid….No one evaluated the stimulating effect it was having on the North Vietnamese”.

As South Vietnam’s army retreated, Secretary of State Kissinger said that “For 15 years we have been involved in encouraging the people of Vietnam to defend themselves against what we conceive as external danger. To abandon them now, therefore, would be tantamount to betraying a sacred trust.”

But his pleas, and President Ford’s as well, fell on deaf ears. In fact, as Ford spoke, a hiss was heard from the Democratic side of the house, and several Democrats walked out.

Then the remainder of Cambodia also began to fall to the Communists.

Rather than go over all the details, here are some quotes.

Former Premier Sisowath Sirik Matak wrote Ambassador John Guenther Dean:

Dear Excellency and Friend: I think you sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me to freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have the sentiment of abandoning people who have chosen liberty. You have refused us protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky….I have only committed the mistake of believing in the Americans.

Matak was refused asylum at the French embassy, and was executed a few days later.

Schanberg courageously stayed behind, and reported on the Comunist takeover. But three weeks later he was evacuated to Thailand, where he wrote an agonized report about the sudden mass evacuation of perhaps four million Cambodians from the cities…hospitals emptied, relatives carrying the dying wounded on their backs. Schanberg wrote that everyone had looked ahead with hopeful relief to the collapse of the city’s defenses and the end of the war, believing that the suffering would be largely over. “All of us were wrong” he said.

As Vietnam was falling, the Times kept arguing against aid to Saigon. It also gave half the op-ed page to Bernardine Dohrn, the fugitive Weather Underground leader who was on the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list. She wrote in this op-ed about “fabricated” and “unsubstantiated horror stories” of Communist bloodbaths.

After Saigon fell, according to Braley, “The American people stopped the world and got off…crawling back into the womb of isolationism they had left 34 years before….since America would not fight, its Ambassadors became targets for terrorists..” He also lists other negative effects, including that “the Soviet Politburo, confident that an isolationist Congress would restrict American defense spending, accelerated a vast strategic arms build-up.” The Americans abandoned allies such as the Shah of Iran as well, with consequences we are living with today.

One last fascinating item: In May 1977 the disgraced Nixon had been silent for almost three years. No American network was willing to carry Nixon interviews, but a British interloper, David Frost, wanted to interview Nixon for a Television series. The Times came out in an editorial against Frost, which closed down his opportunities for finding financing and required him to make a quick flight to London to secure short-term money to cover funds he had raised from reluctant bankers in New York. Since the networks would not show Nixon, Frost put together a network of independent stations. Despite having to bypass the networks, his show was watched by a large audience.

I’ve included a David Frost interview here.

As far as the mythical bloodbath in Cambodia, it turned out not to be mythical, with the purist ideologues in charge inflicting a population loss of between 1.671 and 1.871 million people from 1975 to 1979, or 21 to 24 percent of Cambodia ’s 1975 population.

The issue of abandoning countries after fighting endless wars keeps coming up, for instance, President Trump wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and an American Jewish woman who was once married to an Afghan there writes in a column in the New York Post that “America’s departure will be a monumental tragedy for Afghan girls and women. The moment the last boot-on-the-ground departs, the Taliban and assorted paramilitary groups will torch every existing shelter for battered women and school for girls. Unrelenting fear will become the order of the day.” I would assume that any Afghan who stuck his neck out to fight alongside American troops will have to flee or face some very nasty consequences, as well.

Bad News – by Russ Braley (1984)

The Afghanistan we’ll leave behind – Phyllis Chesler – New York Post 2/2/2019

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