Accessed 01 August 2001
The Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979:
The Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia
[The footnotes were incorrectly coded and I have not had time to correct them all. If you are reading the whole of this thesis it would be best to print out the footnote page.] Footnotes
The Genesis of the Controversy
The February 1977 edition of Reader's Digest published a condensed version of John Barron and Anthony Paul's Murder of a Gentle Land. This book, like Ponchaud's Cambodia: Year Zero, became a favorite resource for the Western media in their effort to shed light on the mysterious Pol Pot-Ieng Sary regime. The Barron-Paul book, which followed some months later, told of harrowing tales of hope and despair in the new Kampuchea. These lucid anecdotes, gathered from interviews with Cambodian refugees in Thailand, painted a picture of misery for those still living in the country. Self-described, it "is an account of the monstrous dark age that has engulfed the people of Cambodia." Barron and Paul criticized the mass media for not publicizing the mayhem and murder taking place in Cambodia. Barron and Paul write, "[The] world largely has remained silent. No outraged student protest on campuses. There is no great outcry in Congress. No one demonstrates on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Champs Elysee or Trafalgar Square about what "peace" has brought to Cambodia." The 1970 Kent State University student protest against Nixon's "secret" bombing of Cambodia was replaced by utter silence in the year 1977. The Australian News from Kampuchea described the Barron-Paul book as "full of untruths and exaggerations because it is based on unreliable second-hand sources." In the preface to Murder of a Gentle Land, Barron and Paul underline their endeavor:
We believe that the documentation conclusively shows that cataclysmic events have occurred in Cambodia and that their occurrence is not subject to rational dispute. We hope that upon learning of these events, people in all parts of the world will act to halt the ongoing annihilation of the Cambodian people and to spare the world a repetition of their tragedy.
Indeed, because of the paucity of coverage, Barron and Paul were the first to publish an English-language study unfavorable to the Khmer revolution. This was almost two years after the fact, and in the mean time Summers, Porter, and Hildebrand had already published their works upholding the STAV on Cambodia. The Barron-Paul book instantly antagonized the STAV. "Indeed," write Gunn and Lee "it would almost seem that the Reader's Digest article [of February, 1977] was the catalyst for the emergence of News [from Kampuchea]." There were, however, some erratas in the book from which that article was based. Chomsky and Herman found two citations which were non-existent. The citations were for important quotations--and thus proof enough to gloat that the book was "third rate propaganda." The Barron-Paul book was predictably dismissed by Chomsky, Herman, and the STAV. Chomsky and Herman would question even the "Acknowledgments" section of the Barron-Paul book because they incriminated themselves by thanking experts in U.S. State Department and Thai officials. And, like Hering and Utrecht in their "Introductory Note" to Malcolm Caldwell's South-East Asia, Chomsky and Herman attempted guilt by association on Barron and Paul because the publisher, Reader's Digest, has an anti-Communist bias.
The second broadside came when Jean Lacouture, an academic and supporter of the antiwar movement and the FUNK, reviewed Ponchaud's Cambodia: Year Zero (French edition published in January 1977) in the French periodical, Le Nouvel Observateur. Lacouture, whose namesake I use as part of the Controversy, took on the difficult task of fighting Chomsky. Lacouture's review, "The Bloodiest Revolution," was translated and published in the March 31, 1977 edition of the New York Review of Books. The review had a number of mistakes which were corrected in "Cambodia: Corrections" (NYRB, 05/26/77). These corrections were prompted by Noam Chomsky, who brought these errors to the attention of Robert Silvers, editor of the NYRB. At about the same time, Chomsky wrote a letter to the Christian Science Monitor regarding an editorial titled "Cambodia in the year zero" (CSM, 04/26/77) which he correctly surmised was based on Lacouture's review of the Ponchaud book. Chomsky's objections were, as usual, methodical and blunt. He writes, "I judge from the editorial that the author had not read the book, but relied on a review that appeared in the New York Review of Books. That is rather dubious practice at best."
The Bloodiest Revolution
Jean Lacouture's eloquence comes across well even when translated. His review of Ponchaud's book in the NYRB became a lightning rod for opinion page editors. Soon, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Star, and the Economist issued opinion page editorials admonishing the Khmer revolution. This no doubt caused significant alarm, if not distress, on the part of those who opposed American intervention in Southeast Asia. They were, in essence, being told that their struggle against the War had resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people in Indochina. The Chomskian line was to attack and discredit the Western media for basing its stories and editorials on third-hand accounts. Chomsky's personal complaint with CSM stated that, "The editorial is based on the third-hand source: the review of a book which transmits (and interprets) reports of refugees. We are unable to check the accuracy of the first link, but can check the second, since both the book and the review are available." Chomsky is correct in his assertion, but he offers no better alternative. To be sure, there is no way that one can check the story of a refugee, just as there is no way one can check the story of a suspect if he has no alibi. However, refugees and suspects are not one and the same, though Chomsky and friends might confuse the two. Painfully aware, the News from Kampuchea agreed, noting "Obviously, the way most refugees see the revolution is not the same way Kampuchean working people might see it." The distinction of "working" as opposed to "not used to working" escapes the current author, but it has the same aftertaste that Caldwell and Summers left behind in chapter 2: romanticizing the Khmer revolution (or its peasants).
Lacouture's review was perceived by his ex-colleagues in the STAV as an indictment from one of their own. It became a personal affair for some, like Chomsky and Herman, who had prided themselves with the idea of never being wrong. Lacouture was implying that something hideous was happening in the new Kampuchea, an idea the STAV did not want to believe. Far detached from a mealy-mouthed accusation, Lacouture compared modern-day Kampuchea to Auschwitz. He writes:
The new masters of Phnom Penh have invented something original, auto-genocide. After Auschwitz and the Gulag, we might have thought this century had produced the ultimate in horror, but we are now seeing the suicide of a people in the name of revolution; worse: in the name of socialism... Here the leaders of a popular resistance movement, having defeated a regime whose corruption by compradors and foreign agents had reached the point of caricature, are killing people in the name of a visions of a green paradise. A group of modern intellectuals, formed by Western thought, primarily Marxist thought, claim to seek to return to a rustic Golden Age, to an ideal rural and national civilization. And proclaiming these ideas, they are systematically massacring, isolating, and starving city and village populations whose crime was to have been born when they were, the inheritors of a century of historical contradictions...
Few have spoken so eloquently yet been so slandered for doing so much good to so many, as was Lacouture. He was not meek about calling Cambodia's ordeal a socialist experiment gone awry--an experiment which he initially supported. He was among the first to undergo one side of a "two-sided switch" to use Gunn and Lee's typology. From an ardent supporter of the FUNK he switched sides to become one of its most formidable critics. Lacouture's timing, too, is significant. Few Western academics had realized their own "historical contradictions" in explaining why, if Vietnam had been bombed many more times than Cambodia, its new rulers were not practicing anywhere near the same degree of brutality as those of the new Kampuchea. Lacouture's legitimacy within the antiwar circle, from having been an antiwar activist himself and scholar on Vietnam, meant that he could not be contemptuously dismissed as a "right-winger."
The Chomsky-Lacouture Controversy had only begun. Chomsky's personal letters to Lacouture and Silvers resulted in corrections that appeared the New York Review of Books some weeks later. This would prove useful for Chomsky and Herman since they could underscore their points with proof. Lacouture made errors which he corrected in "Cambodia: Corrections" (NYRB, 05/26/77). But to their dismay, Lacouture's corrections article was even more articulate than his original review. It is a mea culpa of the sincerest form, one that is made in public. Lacouture writes:
The pseudo revolutionaries in Cambodia have locked their country away from the eyes of the world, have turned many of their people into cadavers or mere cattle; they have not only killed Lon Nol's officials but have also murdered their women and children, maintaining order with clubs and guns. I think that the problem that presents itself today is that of the life of a people. And it is not only because I once argued for the victory of this regime [RGNU], and feel myself partially guilty for what is happening under it, that I believe I can say: there is a time, when a great crime is taking place, when it is better to speak out in whatever company, than to remain silent.
Far distanced from Summers' proud, but naive assertion in her December, 1975 Current History article, "Cambodia: Consolidating the Revolution" that there had been "no war crimes trials," Khmer Rouge "justice" was swift and merciless. Lacouture drew even more blood by implicating the entire antiwar movement and all the scholars who upheld the STAV on Cambodia. Not to be outdone, Chomsky and Herman counter-attacked with their own tour de force in "Distortions at Fourth Hand."
Distortions at Fourth Hand
Chomsky's and Herman's "Distortions at Fourth Hand" published in the Nation, and republished in the Indochina Chronicle, was an editorial cloaked in a book review of the Hildebrand-Porter, Barron-Paul, and Ponchaud books. They were positively rambunctious with Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, dismissive of Murder of a Gentle Land, and weary of Cambodia: Year Zero. In order to understand in what context After the Cataclysm was published in 1979, a cursory analysis of Chomsky's and Herman's 1977 article is necessary. "Distortions at Fourth Hand" begins with a review of the post-liberation Vietnamese literature and weans cynical conclusions regarding how an author or journalist may get published. "The technical name for this farce," write Chomsky and Herman, "is `freedom of the press.'" Indeed, the paltry "media analysis" which they perform is itself nothing short of a farce. They pick a few stories here and there, turn them into representative samples, and suddenly they have a theory of how the press supposedly works. This practice is at best heuristic, though far from compelling. From these such weakly formed theories, Chomsky and Herman assert, "If dictators were smarter, they would surely use the American system of thought control and indoctrination."
The baseline for their reasoning can be found in the first few paragraphs of the article. They show a dual motive for historical revisionism (standard practice today for some historians): (1) discrediting those opposed to the war, (2) serving American foreign policy interests. Resigned, Chomsky and Herman write:
It was inevitable with the failure of the American effort to subdue South Vietnam and to crush the mass movements elsewhere in Indochina, that there would be a campaign to reconstruct the history of these years so as to place the role of the United States in a more favorable light ... Well suited for these aims are tales of Communist atrocities, which not only prove evils of communism but undermine the credibility of those who opposed the war and might interfere with future crusades for freedom.
What was more inevitable, perhaps, was that Chomsky and Herman would fall into their own trap. Reversing, for a moment, their statement, one can conclude that they were themselves busy hoping for and practicing historical revisionism on Cambodia. Theirs is a warped history of media coverage, as Shawcross will show in chapter 4. Uncovering distortion and bias in the press became an obsession which fed on itself and convinced Chomsky and Herman of the righteousness of their cause and theory. For instance, to support their theory of censorship in the press, they bemoan the low circulation level of the New England Peacework (an antiwar journal) and News from Kampuchea (circulation less than 500).
It is in this twisted context that Chomsky and Herman's onslaught on the mass media began. They were meticulous, if not retentive, in pointing the minor faults of the Western press. They blew out of proportion a few erratas, which they latched onto and repeated in After the Cataclysm. They rebuked the media, along with Ponchaud and Barron-Paul, for shamelessly using refugees whom no objective person could trust. Why? Refugee stories could not be substantiated. Like Hildebrand, Porter, Summers, and Caldwell, Chomsky and Herman accuse the U.S. government of war-induced famine, but hypocritically assert that Khmer Rouge quick thinking in evacuating Phnom Penh served to rescue the population from starvation. Chomsky and Herman want to have their cake and eat it too. For instance, after dwelling on the several allegedly faked photographs of a man being murdered by the Khmer Rouge, and another pulling plows, they conclude that "Even if the photograph had been authentic, we might ask why people should be pulling plows in Cambodia, the reason is clear, if unmentioned. The savage American assault on Cambodia did not spare the animal population." Their logic is as appalling as Hildebrand and Porter's brazen defense of the Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh's hospitals, though Chomsky and Herman do that too.
While Chomsky and Herman review the Porter-Hildebrand book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, glowingly, they criticize and dismiss the Barron-Paul book in what must amount to nothing less than an ad hominem attack on the publisher, Reader's Digest. They use guilt by association in pointing out that Barron and Paul resorted to experts in the U.S. State Department as well as Thai authorities, all of whom had vested interest in excoriating the Khmer Rouge. They forget, or perhaps ignore, the source of much of the information for the Porter-Hildebrand book: propaganda photos and unadorned "official" explanations. In fact, Chomsky and Herman offer not one single criticism for the methods and evidence used in that book. As was shown in the previous chapter, Porter and Hildebrand naively quote Ieng Sary's claim that that "By going to the countryside, our peasants have potatoes, bananas, and all kinds of foods." To be sure, Chomsky and Herman contribute original ideas, but they are insufficient to balance their seething biases.
In 1978, Ponchaud's "Note for the English Translation" of Cambodia: Year Zero, discusses the "polemical exchange" between himself, Noam Chomsky, Robert Silvers, Edward Herman, and Jean Lacouture. He writes,
[Chomsky] drew my attention to the way it [Cambodia: Year Zero] was being misused by antirevolutionary propagandists. He has made it my duty to `stem the flood of lies' about Cambodia--particularly, according to him, those propagated by Authony Paul and John Barron in Murder of a Gentle Land.
Ponchaud, who was himself sympathetic to the peasant cause initially, did not want to appear outlandish in reporting the stories he had recorded from refugees in Thailand and France. Having lived in Cambodia from 1965 to 1975, longer, one might note, than anyone else mentioned in this entire thesis, Ponchaud could speak Khmer fluently and thus communicate with refugees without the need for a translator whose interest it might be to distort the refugee stories. Ponchaud took offense with Chomsky and Herman's suggestions that he could have been misled by bourgeois refugees, which he was careful to avoid. In describing the process, he writes:
The first precaution I took was to look for the context of the refugees' stories and to see how they should be interpreted. These people had been traumatized by the cyclone that had swept through their society, by loss of those closest to them, and, in some cases, by the loss of their privileges and by the new necessity of performing hard work with their hands ... In weighing the value of each refugee's testimony, his personality has been taken into account; I was instinctively suspicious of people who had "revelations" to make and came bearing sensational tidings. I also mistrusted those who spoke French and whose who came from wealthier classes, who had lost too much under the new regime. I was mainly interested in the ordinary people, army privates, peasants, laborers, who could neither read nor write nor analyze what they had seen but those illiterate memories could supply exact details.
Ponchaud took great care and caution with the refugees, some could say, he was even biased against those who had suffered the greatest loss, namely the wealthier individuals. The "ordinary people" who composed his sample were telling him awful things about the new Kampuchea, things which he felt obligated to report to the world. So what was the big problem with using these refugees? Randomness of sampling? Geographical parity? All good points that cannot, in any case, be controlled. Chomsky and Herman argued a little of that, but their number one concern was with refugees in general. Were they trustworthy? In other words, a refugee is the ultimate self-selector--he/she moves his/her body to another location.
Chomsky and Herman were, of course, quick to point out that they were not dismissing refugee accounts outright, merely that great "care and caution" had to be used whenever refugees were involved. After all, no independent observer could corroborate the horrid tales coming from refugees. Yet in a country where no one is allowed access unless by invitation, how could an independent observer gain such entry? They admitted that there were few objective onlookers, to be sure, but that did not mean that refugees could be objective sources. Notwithstanding this difficult situation, they maintain that,
Refugees are frightened and defenseless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocuters [sic] wish to hear. While their reports must be considered seriously, care and caution are necessary. Specifically, refugees questioned by Westerners or Thais have a vested interest in reporting atrocities on the part of Cambodian revolutionaries, an obvious fact that no serious reporter will fail to take into account.
This ostensibly unprejudiced analysis is only too convenient for the purposes of undermining Ponchaud, Barron-Paul, and the media. One can only wonder whether Chomsky and Herman would have warned the same of Albert Einstein, a refugee himself. And what of Nicaraguan refugees from the days of Daniel Ortega as opposed to today's Guatemalans? Ponchaud's exhaustive study, based on the life-stories of fifty-six refugees from Thailand, is deemed "serious" and "worth reading" but "lacks the documentation provided in Hildebrand and Porter and its veracity is therefore difficult to assess." Chomsky and Herman's curious juxtaposition of Cambodia: Year Zero with Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, giving the latter the edge on "documentation," is nothing short of a farce.
"Distortions at Fourth Hand" gives a preview of what one can expect from Chomsky and Herman in After the Cataclysm. One of the points stressed in the introduction to this chapter was Chomsky's ability to keep things vague by offering token allowances to his critics. In the article, Chomsky and Herman end with the same qualifications they use in After the Cataclysm, which makes the latter a longer broken-record of "Distortions at Fourth Hand." In what sense are Chomsky and Herman careful to absolve themselves of any responsibility? For instance, Chomsky and Herman craftily hide their argument in the cloak of academic sophistry when they profess that they "do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments [Ponchaud versus Hildebrand and Porter, dismissing altogether Barron and Paul]..." If that were the case, then why would Chomsky and Herman sing the praises of Porter and Hildebrand? Chomsky and Herman say that all they want to do is to point out the imbalance of treatment that:
filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct or indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered. Evidence that focuses on the American role, like the Hildebrand and Porter volume, is ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship but because the message is unpalatable.
The mission is not, in itself, objectionable, since it deals with how the media "filters" news for mass consumption. At the same time, one might ask how Chomsky and Herman can judge that filter if they do not "pretend to know where the truth lies." Instead, they default to a position where, because there is, in their view, confusion on what is going on in Cambodia, utmost skepticism must be practiced with all information originating from Cambodian refugees.
In June 1978, Jean Lacouture published his own book on Cambodia, titled Survive le peuple cambodgien! (Cambodians Survive!). The book was never translated into English, but Lacouture's thesis is relevant to the Chomsky-Lacouture Controversy. Survive le peuple cambodgien! is practically the confession of an ex-FUNK supporter that begins with these passionate words:
La honte aurait suffi... La honte, a elle seule, jusifiait que l'on ecrivit ce petit livre--qui est d'abord un cri d'horreur. La honte d'avoir contribue, si peu que ce soit, si faible qu'ait pu etre en la matiere influence de la press, a l'instauration de l'un des pouvoirs les plus oppressifs que l'histoire ait connus. [trans. Shame would have sufficed... The shame, alone, would have justified that this book be written--which is firstly a cry of horror. The shame of having contributed, even as little as it was, as weak as its influence could have been on the mass media, to the establishment of one of the most oppressive powers history has ever known.]
Lacouture's shame is no doubt sincere. He admits that he mistakenly thought the Khmer revolution would bring peace to Cambodia, but that instead it brought to power one of the most totalitarian regimes in the history of the world. Following on his string of mea culpas, from "The Bloodiest Revolution" to "Cambodia: Corrections" to now Survive le peuple cambodgien!, Lacouture was further aggravating Chomsky and Herman in America. In the final chapter entitled "Un genocide plebecite [trans. A genocide of the common people]," he leaves not a scintilla of doubt that, based upon what he has observed whether from second or third hand accounts, a monstrous Age had enveloped Cambodia. He accuses Chomsky of complicity in light of the Cambodian genocide. This is the most severe blow to the Chomskian thesis because it unmasks all the layers of sophistry which protect it. In essence, Lacouture accuses Chomsky of being an accomplice to the "murder of a people." He writes:
Plus tristes, plus grave, l'attitude prise, face au genocide cambodgien, par un certain nombre d'intelectuels americains adversaires de la strategie asiatique de Washington, dont le plus notable, et respectable, est a coup sur Noam Chomsky. [Il] deploya toutes les ressources de son genie dialectique pour demontrer, a moi et a la communaute scientifique et progressiste americaine, qu'il n'etait pas possible de porter d'accusation precise contre un pays ou n'avait pu penetrer un enqueteur serieux et sur lequel de nonbreux temoignages jetaient en doute sur ceux, terribles, que nous citons... [trans. More unfortunate, more serious still, the position taken with respect to the Cambodian genocide by a certain number of American intellectuals opposed to the government's asian strategy, of whom the most notable and respectable is Noam Chomsky. [He] deployed all the resources of his dialectical genius to show me and the scientific and progressive American community that it was not possible to accuse a country where no serious inquirer had gained access in addition to the numerous testimonies that contradicted the ones we have cited here...]
Lacouture's indictment of Chomsky and friends for ignoring the Cambodian genocide fell on deaf ears. His description of the exchange as centering around the scale of atrocities is correct. Chomsky and Herman both maintained that since no objective observers were present, no one could be sure of the scale of atrocities. Furthermore, by so insisting, Chomsky thus rejects the 1977 statistic proposed by Ponchaud, namely 1.2 million deaths. He rejects it in part because it originated from the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, which was sure, according to him, not to know what it was talking about. Later, in After the Cataclysm, Chomsky insinuates that the scale is not hundred of thousands dead, but "hundreds or thousands." Lacouture's final words to Chomsky are perhaps his most severe, yet. Lacouture asserts, "Le Cambodge et les Cambodgiens sont en marge de cet univers ethique ... Si Noam Chomsky et ses amis [Herman, Caldwell ou Bragg] en doutent, qu'ils etudient les dossiers, les cultures, les faits. [trans. Cambodia and Cambodians are not part of this ethical debate ... If Noam Chomsky and his friends [Herman, Caldwell or Bragg] doubt it, they should study the papers, the cultures, the facts." Lacouture and his book were both dismissed in an endnote to the Chomsky-Herman book the following year (1979). In the main text of After the Cataclysm, Lacouture is found guilty by the righteous Chomsky and Herman court of an "incredible moral lapse." And what exactly is this "moral lapse"? That of ignoring the U.S. responsibility in all that has happened to Cambodia since liberation. Next, we examine the link between the Chomsky-Herman thesis and the standard total academic view on Cambodia.
Chomsky, Herman, and the STAV
Before delving into After the Cataclysm, we momentarily note Torben Retbøll's "Kampuchea and the Reader's Digest," an essay published in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, which was affiliated with Noam Chomsky. The article covered the much-maligned Barron-Paul Reader's Digest book, Ponchaud's book and Lacouture's review. Like other articles on Kampuchea in BCAS, Retbøll's was peppered with propaganda photos of workers "happily" at work. Such pictures could visualize Democratic Kampuchea in a normal light, a difficult task at best. The BCAS was itself a powerhouse for the STAV on Cambodia. Laura Summers and Ben Kiernan were both contributors in late 1979. Summers held that Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia months earlier meant, in the pejorative, that Vietnam had lost its "revolutionary way." Kiernan, on the other hand, made his side of a two-sided switch in that same BCAS issue, following Summers' article. He switched sides to support the "good Khmer Rouge" in the words of Stephen Morris. These were the pleasant Vietnamized Khmer Rouge of the eastern zone, not fanatical and always calm.
But returning now to Torben Retbøll's article, which preceded the Chomsky-Herman book, in it he forwards the same two falsified references Chomsky and Herman grasped out of the Barron-Paul book Murder of a Gentle Land. Retbøll's assertions are important because they represent support for the Chomsky-Herman thesis and a direct link to the STAV on Cambodia through the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. A point emphasized throughout Retbøll's essay is that Barron and Paul were committing something sinister and that ergo their whole book was up-to-no-good. The same Chomskian treatment for Ponchaud is in store. Retbøll vilifies him. He writes "The petty deceit which [Ponchaud] practices here and which is very easily exposed is not very likely to increase our confidence in those parts of his account which we are unable to verify." Like Chomsky and Herman, Retbøll's critique of refugees calls for "care and caution" but ultimately leads back to the bottom line: suspicion. He writes,
Those relatively few persons who have cared about the facts and who quite unjustly have been branded as apologists of the new Kampuchea--such as, for instance, the late Malcolm Caldwell, Noam Chomsky and Ben Kiernan--have all stressed that refugee accounts should be taken seriously and that there has been considerable suffering for the population. But they have also insisted that Kampuchea's isolation from the outside world is no excuse for believing everything, and that information about this country therefore should be treated with the utmost skepticism. [Emphasis is Retbøll's.]"
In an attempt to exculpate his colleagues, Caldwell, Chomsky, and Kiernan, Retbøll instead aggravates his own position and theirs. The few refugee accounts Chomsky and friends were taking seriously were ones that were favorable to the new Kampuchea. The bias against the majority of refugees is so severe that the only instance where a refugee critical of the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary regime is given equal treatment is when Chomsky taints him with CIA and drug-trafficking ties. Indeed, Retbøll's interpretation of the Chomskian position in the final sentence to his article corroborates Lacouture. Because no pure and "objective" viewers could be found, as the result of Khmer Rouge "self-reliance" foreign policy, the STAV defaulted to a position of "utmost skepticism" favorable to the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary regime. Next, we return to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman and the only work in the Khmer Rouge Canon to still be defended by its authors. As sufficient evidence, in 1988, Herman, writing for himself and Chomsky, told the editors of the New York Review of Books,
Mr. Nordland's review [of Haing Ngor's A Cambodian Odyssey], which rests on one of the myths of the Pol Pot Era [that the Khmer Rouge "tried to exterminate or at least deliberately work to death a majority of the population"] as well as a now institutionalized lie about our own work on the subject [that Noam Chomsky attributed the deaths of the Pol Pot era to "nothing but" a war-induced famine], shows that our effort was and remains on target.
As his evidence that the Khmer Rouge did not try to exterminate or work to death the majority of the Cambodian population, Herman points to the fact that the Khmer Rouge were "unable to come anywhere near meeting its objective." We now turn to the book Herman refers to as the victim of an "institutionalized lie": After the Cataclysm.
Dialectical Acrobats in After the Cataclysm
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in the last stand for the STAV on Cambodia, authored After the Cataclysm. It was the last stands because the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia had taken place in late December 1978, and the incontrovertible evidence to which Timothy Carney referred to in the footnote to his essay "Unexpected Victory" would pour down on the STAV shortly. At that point, the members of the STAV had to choose which side they were going to follow: the Vietnamese communists who maintained that atrocities and mass murder were taking place in neighboring Cambodia, or the Khmer Rouge who denied having committed such atrocities. The canonized scholars, in chapter 2, had quickly moved to counter the hysterical Western media and its bloodthirsty coverage of the new Kampuchea. The Chomsky-Lacouture Controversy had simmered for two years, and in 1979, the Chomsky-Herman book After the Cataclysm: "Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology," became the STAV's final stand.
By 1979, to deny the existence of Khmer Rouge atrocities had become an untenable position given the mounting evidence pointing to unprecedented excesses. Chomsky and Herman were therefore very careful not to spread themselves too thinly when expressing "utmost skepticism." In other words, they used language that would be vague; After the Cataclysm was peppered with token allowances and qualifications. For instance, Chomsky and Herman state that: "When the facts are in, it may turn out that the more extreme condemnations were in fact correct." Unfortunately for them, the facts were already in years earlier, when terrified Cambodians began to escape across the Thai border even before April, 1975. Later, Chomsky and Herman add,
Perhaps evidence will be forthcoming to support the claim of the British Foreign Office that "many hundreds of thousands of people have perished in Cambodia directly or indirectly as result of the policies of the Communist government," evidence more credible than the material on which they uncritically relied.
How credible was the evidence Ponchaud, Barron-Paul, and Lacouture relied upon? How credible were terrified refugees? Not credible enough for Chomsky and Herman.
Chomsky and Herman's tone on Cambodia in After the Cataclysm is set, in the very first sentence of the chapter by that namesake: "The third victim of U.S. aggression and savagery in Indochina, Cambodia, falls into a different category than postwar Vietnam and Laos. [Emphasis added.]" After the Cataclysm is not and does not pretend to be a work of original research, no Cambodian refugees were interviewed or for that matter asked to be interviewed. After the Cataclysm is, if anything, a voluminously endnoted book. Chapter 6, on Cambodia, has 427 endnotes in 159 pages. Many of these endnotes are superfluous ad hominem attacks and commentary mixed with conniving cynicism. With no pretense to know where the truth lies, Chomsky and Herman attempt to undermine the credibility and validity of all sources critical of the Khmer Rouge. Their task, say the authors, "is not [to] establish the facts with regard to postwar Indochina but rather to investigate their refraction through the prism of Western ideology, a very different task." This convenient cloak allows its authors to legitimately attack the media's coverage of the new Kampuchea, while appearing not at all concerned with searching for "truth" in and of itself. Chomsky's defenders like to point out that he is performing "media analysis" not Khmer Rouge crimes analysis. That is why they object to categorizing the Chomskian thesis as a chapter in Cambodian studies.
Chomsky and Herman promote a theory of the Free Press which they engender from anecdotal evidence. That theory postulates that "the more severe the allegations of crimes committed by an enemy [of the American government], the greater (in general) the attention they receive." That tendency, they argue, appears only when communist countries are alleged to have committed these crimes. They juxtapose the case of East Timor's massacres against that of Cambodia's postwar regime and fervently maintain the hypocrisy of the media coverage when, on the one hand direct U.S. government cover-up of the massacres of Timor's citizens leads to media silence, and on the other, those crimes being alleged of the Khmer Rouge are turned into a media frenzy. These examples, if correct, would surely put a dent in the armor of the Western media. For one, the Chomsky-Herman thesis that "If dictators were smarter, they would surely use the American system of thought control and indoctrination," would sound positively plausible.
The Free Press, Chomsky and Herman point out, was "unable to conjure up the bloodbaths in Cambodia," (a sentence which mysteriously appears in one variant or another, sometimes with the word "exultant" in the work of Caldwell and that of Porter and Hildebrand). They rationalize that the widespread media use of three fake pictures and one To be sure, Chomsky and Herman contribute original ideas, but they are insufficient to balance their seething biases. Ponchaud's letter (08/17/77) to Chomsky makes clear that there were mistakes in Lacouture's review (which were acknowledged and corrected), and that some quotes were of dubious origin in Cambodia: Year Zero. But Ponchaud also makes clear he has grave concerns with Chomsky's dismissal of refugee testimonies, especially since they are so numerous and gruesome. In one memorable point in the letter, Ponchaud pointedly asks Chomsky "How many Khmer refugees have you interviewed, where, when, in which language?" manufactured interview with Khieu Samphan by Famiglia Christiana, in which when asked "what had happened to all these [1 million missing] people," Samphan was quoted "It's incredible how concerned you westerners are about war criminals." These instances of fraud were the tip of the counter-revolutionary propaganda iceberg. Chomsky and Herman are careful, however, not to deny the likelihood that atrocious crimes occurred in the new Kampuchea, though they doubt the scale is in the hundreds of thousands. By 1979, however, Chomsky and Herman had not cared to assess the new evidence, such as many more refugee reports, but then again, it was not their goal. "Media analysis" was their goal. But if that were the case, why did they feel compelled to suggest, contrary to Ponchaud and friends, that the Porter and Hildebrand book was on target when it had been but a bold-faced apologia for the Khmer Rouge? The Chomsky and Herman logic is simple enough: since no one can objectively assess the scale of atrocities in Cambodia, it would be wrong to speculate. "The record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome," say Chomsky and Herman, "but it has by no means satisfied the requirements of Western propagandists, who must labor to shift the blame for the torment of Indochina to the victims of France and the United States [namely, the Indochinese countries themselves]." Who would Chomsky and Herman rather blame for the "torment of Indochina"? Taking a cue from their younger colleagues in the STAV, Caldwell, Summers, Porter, and Hildebrand, Chomsky and Herman concur in blaming the United States. For instance, they argue that the media never takes into account the deplorable postwar conditions of the country (due mainly to "U.S. aggression and savagery") and the necessity of evacuating Phnom Penh to prevent impending starvation (again, due mainly to "U.S. aggression and savagery").
Chomsky and Herman reject Ponchaud's assertion that there is a prima facie case against the Khmer Rouge. They question the credibility of refugees or what they are alleged to have said. They write:
Most of the well-publicized information concerning postwar Cambodia derives from reports of refugees--or to be more precise, from accounts by journalists and others of what refugees are alleged to have said. On the basis of such reports, these observers draw conclusions about the scale and character of atrocities committed, conclusions which are then circulated (often modified) in the press or the halls of Congress.
Refugees tend to exaggerate stories, over time, Chomsky and Herman argue, which makes them less than ideal "objective" sources of information. In addition, Chomsky and Herman discredit some refugees altogether with their singular example of Pin Yathay whom they taint with alleged ties to the CIA and drug-trafficking. Instead, they point to the experience of other expatriates (many of whom were not Cambodians, such as those found in Phnom Penh Libere) who saw no untoward behavior by the Khmer Rouge during the evacuation of Phnom Penh. According to them, the "censorship" of these favorable accounts by the mass media is additional fuel for counter-revolutionary bias. Chomsky and Herman perform what amounts to a defense of the Khmer Rouge cloaked in an attack on the media. They are high-minded when they demand documented evidence to point towards a "central direction and planning of atrocities," things which they know to be utterly impossible to find since no foreign observers are allowed entry unless invited.
"Serious inquiry" Chomsky and Herman declare, should examine the following issues: "(1) the nature of the evidence available; (2) the media selection from the evidence available; (3) the credibility of those who transmit their version of refugee reports and draw conclusions from them; (4) the further evidence they select and present." They establish that the evidence is at best to be taken under advisement, though that would be generous. Their observations on the trustworthiness of the evidence has been covered previously. They argue that the media's selection of the evidence is biased against the Khmer Rouge. They question the credibility of those who transmit the evidence, mocking the Barron-Paul book as they had done two years earlier in "Distortions at Fourth Hand." They facetiously call the publisher, Reader's Digest, "that noteworthy journal of cool and dispassionate political analysis."
Chomsky and Herman are themselves cool and dispassionate towards their old friend and colleague Jean Lacouture, when they write,
We disagree with Lacouture's judgment on the importance of accuracy on this question, particularly in the present historical context, when allegations of genocide are being used to whitewash Western imperialism, to distract attention from the `institutionalized violence' of the expanding system of subfascism and to lay the ideological basis for further intervention and oppression.
The "expanding system of subfascism" that is being whitewashed by allegations of "genocide" has little basis, but their jihad goes on. They assert that Lacouture is trying to apologize for imperialism, when in fact, it is they who, at every opportunity, whitewash Khmer Rouge atrocities by obfuscating the evidence. Why is it, then, that if they were so uncertain of where the truth lay, that they could be so sure America was to blame? No one knows for sure, but we can examine what they have to say on the American role in the evacuation of Phnom Penh.
Like Hildebrand and Porter, Chomsky and Herman argue that the deplorable war conditions made the evacuation of Phnom Penh's residents necessary. They write,
In the first place, is it proper to attribute deaths from malnutrition and disease to the Cambodian authorities?... It surely should occur to a journalist or the reader to ask how many of the deaths in Cambodia fall tot he U.S. account. There is evidence on this matter, but it is systematically excluded from the press.
The politics of food and starvation, a favorite topic of Caldwell, Porter, and Hildebrand, is not lost to Chomsky and Herman, when they postulate that if Phnom Penh had six to eight days of food after liberation, "the evacuation of Phnom Penh, widely denounced at the time and since for its undoubted brutality, may actually have saved many lives." They forget that it was because of the Khmer Rouge's two month long siege of Phnom Penh that made the city a living hell for the 2 million refugees who now flooded her streets. Having it both ways, Chomsky and Herman argue in a self-contradictory logic that: (1) had there been starvation, it was due to American aggression and savagery; (2) that there may not have been starvation, or at least not as much as there could have been thanks to the brilliant Khmer Rouge evacuation strategy.
Even when the issue of the evacuation of hospital patients is faced, Chomsky and Herman resort to the same justification offered by Hildebrand and Porter. They find a rationale for everything. They offer the same reasons as Porter and Hildebrand to justify the evacuation of all patients, namely that the conditions were deplorable, and that it was, in effect, an act of mercy. Lacouture, who objected to the evacuation and used it as an example of a gravely inhumane act, recalls a conversation he had with a Norwegian journalist who, like Chomsky, Herman, Porter, and Hildebrand, justified it this way:
[Il m'a dit] "Mais vous ne savez pas que sous le regime de Lon Nol, la medecine etait aux mains des Americans, corrompue et decadente. Il fallait a tout prix arracher ces malheureux a ce corps medicale aliene..." [je lui dit:] Un nouveau "complot des blouses blanches." [trans. [He said to me:] But didn't you know that under the Lon Nol regime, medical practice was in the hands of the Americans, corrupt and decadent. These poor souls had to be ripped out, at all cost, from this alienating medical facility. [To which I replied:] A new "conspiracy of white coats ."
In virtually every instance, the Chomsky-Herman thesis is parallel to the Porter-Hildebrand-STAV thesis. We may ask then, what were the differences? Chomsky and Herman simply added a media analysis cloak in addition to the aforementioned token allowances, to create a more palatable design. Their design, however, strays into reductio ad absurdia, when it compares the Khmer Rouge crimes to the "robbery and murder" committed by U.S. troops:
occupying Japan or their participation in mass murder of members of the anti-Japanese resistance in the Philippines, to take a case where the armed forces in question and the society from which they were recruited had not suffered anything remotely like the savagery that the Khmer Rouge had endured.
Chomsky and Herman taking pity on the Khmer Rouge for why they committed gruesome crimes can otherwise be seen as an apology on their behalf. Its impact is nothing short of the sine qua non of the Khmer Rouge Canon: Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution.
The similarities between the Chomsky-Herman thesis and the Porter-Hildebrand-STAV thesis have been elaborated, but little has been said on their differences. For instance, Chomsky and Herman are not, unlike Hildebrand, Porter, Caldwell, and Summers, so gullible as to use emissary testimonials without qualification. Anyone believing that the Khmer Rouge would allow the sight of starving people or dead bodies in view of visitors would clearly be less than objective, they warned. Yet they do not see the STAV scholars, with whom they agree and rely upon, as having been anything less than objective when these authors plastered, without qualification, the comments of emissaries favorable to the new Kampuchea. Chomsky and Herman are careful to say directly that they are not among those "defending the Khmer Rouge," a position that they maintain is highly unpopular even to them. But that is exactly what they do. They cite the Porter-Hildebrand book in the same glowing light as they did in "Distortions at Fourth Hand." In the span of two years, Chomsky and Herman had discovered nothing new.
Finally Chomsky and Herman play the old broken-record of exposing erratas in the Barron-Paul book, in Ponchaud's book, and in the media. It is much ado about nothing, in retrospect, given that to this day we still do not know whether the three photographs that were published in newspapers across the world were fake or real. Even to Chomsky and Herman, this did not seem to mater since, "Even if the photograph had been authentic, we might ask why people should be pulling plows in Cambodia, the reason is clear, if unmentioned. The savage American assault on Cambodia did not spare the animal population." They anticipate every contingency, as was alluded to earlier. But at the same time, this shows that they have their own preconceived version of truth, despite their claims of not pretending to know where the truth lies amidst these conflicting stories. They are resolute in concluding that:
There is no doubt that many hundred of thousands, if not millions of people have perished in other third world countries in the same period as a direct or indirect result of the policies of Western powers, victims of aggression, starvation, disease, hideous condition of work, death squads, etc. Furthermore, this will continue, with continuing Western responsibility but without government protest or media exposure. The conclusions from such a comparison seem obvious.
It is no wonder to the reader that having passed such historical judgment on "Western powers," Chomsky and Herman could not have been expected to look beyond the STAV on Cambodia. With such polemical conclusions, Chomsky and Herman's "heroic effort to deny the bloodbaths" is exposed for what it really is: a defense of the Khmer Rouge cloaked in sophisticated "media analysis." While it served them well to write a book of mostly unoriginal ideas, as seen from the standpoint of chapter 2, hundreds of thousands, not "hundreds or thousands" as Chomsky and Herman insinuated, would die in Cambodia.
The Chomsky-Lacouture Controversy has been described in different if not contradictory terms by its participants. Lacouture and Ponchaud called it a "polemical" exchange, while Chomsky and Herman took it quite seriously. They were all partly right. The Controversy was a polemical exchange, which is unfortunate, because it was also very serious. It added insult to injury for the thousands of refugees fleeing Cambodia, not to speak of those who never lived to read the Chomsky-Herman-STAV thesis. What is apparent in the Chomsky-Herman line of argument is the attempt to divorce seeking truth from establishing it positively. There can be no doubt that Chomsky and Herman, unlike Summers, Caldwell, Porter, and Hildebrand tried their best to put on an objective face. They qualify both the emissaries' and refugees' stories with warnings, but they quote only the emissaries, not the refugees.
The 1977 and 1979 works of Chomsky and Herman, and those of Summers, Caldwell, Retbøll, Kiernan, Hildebrand, and Porter, are today remembered only in a footnote. Though they may be a parenthesis in history, these scholars and the standard total academic view they shared cannot be forgotten. The mistake they made was fundamentally the same: they were so caught-up in the idea of a peasant revolution that they did not to stop and ask the peasants themselves how they liked the ride. Additionally for Chomsky and Herman, the elder statesmen of the Left, their mistake was perhaps most egregious: Chomsky and Herman rejected the very idea of searching for truth, which at least those canonized in chapter 2 had pretended to do. Instead, they embarked on a high-minded crusade against media, based on secondary and tertiary evidence which they themselves accused the media of having used. For Chomsky and Herman, their hypocrisy knows no bounds. In the following chapter, we look beyond the STAV on Cambodia.
Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences