Year Zero

The Khmer Rouge declared revolutionary Year Zero thirty-five years ago today, on April 17, 1975, the day Communist guerrillas in black pajamas and truck-tire sandals marched victoriously through the streets of Phnom Penh. An indication of the regime's brutality came within 24 hours, when the Khmer Rouge ordered the two million residents of Phnom Penh, including hospital patients, to evacuate the city.

Their reign of three years and eight months left Cambodia devastated, with the better part of an entire generation -- approximately 1.7 million Cambodians out of a population of 7.9 million -- annihilated by bullet, axe, shovel blow to the back of the head, plastic bag suffocation, unspeakable torture, or by starvation caused by ruinous economic policies.  

The Pol Pot clique set out to create history's most pure form of Communism in a single bound, striving to surpass even Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward. Their success was Cambodia's failure. Despite the legacy of another horror-filled Marxist experiment, the lessons of the Khmer Rouge remain shrouded in equivocation and myth.

Myth #1: Despite the example of the Khmer Rouge, Marxism remains a valid political philosophy. 

Marxist sympathizers like columnist James Carroll still argue in polite society that "Marxism has yet to be really tried." It's just that by strange happenstance, Communist governments have always been subverted by corrupt, brutal men.

Corruption and brutality, however, are not incidental to Communism; they are part of its essence. 

In order to redistribute wealth, the State must assign power to fallible humans. Our democracy has checks and balances that constrain (we hope) those who hold power. The Khmer Rouge leaders wielded absolute power, which corrupted absolutely, with predictable tragic consequences.

Every time it has been tried, Marxism leads to the charnel house, turning subject countries into giant concentration camps, each a "vast Belsen," as Robert Conquest described Stalin's Soviet Union. Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Che Guevara, Abimael Guzman, Mengistu, and Kim Jong-il are among history's most accomplished butchers. To argue that the Communist ideology that motivated them is incidental to their crimes devalues the deaths of the hundred million murdered by Communism in the 20th century.

Myth #2: The Khmer Rouge were not really Communists.

Like the Viet Cong, they were "rice paddy nationalists." Or freedom-fighters gone wrong battling French and American imperialism. Or Asian Nazis. Or some perverted Buddhist agrarian sect.

Evidence to the contrary is not difficult to find. As students in Paris, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary (Brothers Number One and Number Two) joined the Cercle Marxiste, where they imbibed Marx and Rousseau. To point out the obvious, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary named their army the "Red Khmer," red being the color of Communism. They were funded by Beijing, Moscow, and Hanoi.  Theirs was closer to a Maoist interpretation of Marxism than to Stalin's urban Communism with its Five-Year Plans, fetishizing steel mills and cement factories. Khmer Rouge terror techniques were drawn from Stalin and Mao: the brutality, the destruction of the family, the abolition of religion, the terror famines, and the internal purging that George Orwell described so accurately three decades earlier in the terrifying scenes of Napoleon forcing confessions in Animal Farm.

Myth #3: Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia was responsible for the Khmer Rouge victory.   

Blaming America for the Khmer Rouge began early on in William Shawcross's Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia (1979). Roland Joffe's 1984 movie The Killing Fields disseminated the narrative of American guilt to an entire generation, one that is repeated in many American history textbooks.

According to data released by the Clinton administration and reported by Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, from 1969 to 1973, American B-52s dropped "2,756,941 tons' worth [of explosives] in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites," more than was dropped by all parties in World War II. Innocent Cambodian villagers were surely killed, although estimates vary wildly, from 5,000 to 600,000.

Nevertheless, despite the rage of the antiwar movement, the tin soldiers, Nixon's coming, and four dead in Ohio, the bombing was not entirely unjustified. 

The bombing proceeded in two distinct phases, each with different objectives. President Nixon's Operation Menu began in March 1969, striking at North Vietnamese sanctuaries where the NVA delivered food and arms to supply depots less than one hundred miles from Saigon, protected by Cambodia's neutrality under the Geneva Convention. Although Prince Sihanouk agreed to the passage of NVA supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and through the Port of Sihanoukville, evidence shows that he grew fed up with North Vietnamese intrusions into his country and gave Nixon a green light to bomb NVA military targets. 

In the second phase, as the Vietnam War was winding down, American bombing continued at the request of the Lon Nol government to slow the advance of the Khmer Rouge.

History may judge Nixon and Kissinger harshly for the humanitarian costs of the bombing. It appears that the bombing assisted Khmer Rouge recruitment efforts, but overall, it delayed the Khmer Rouge takeover. Keep in mind the simple facts that Communist countries backed the Khmer Rouge with arms, materiel, money, and ideology, while the U.S. supported the pro-western Lon Nol government in an attempt to defeat the Khmer Rouge and stop the spread of Communism. As Peter Rodman writes in a 1981 American Spectator article on Sideshow: "By no stretch of moral logic can the crimes of mass murder be ascribed to those who struggled to prevent their coming into power."

Myth #4: "American ruthlessness turned Communists into totalitarian fanatics." [Via historian Philip Windsor, quoted by Noam Chomsky and Bernard Herman in Manufacturing Consent (1988).] 

In addition to bearing responsibility for bringing Pol Pot to power, the American bombing is also guilty of pushing the Khmer Rouge over the edge into insanity. Nixon and Kissinger are therefore guilty of war crimes, with the blood of 1.7 million Cambodians on their hands.

This myth is an international relations version of the "society made me do it" defense for the brutal criminal, akin to blaming mass murder on police brutality. It transforms the Khmer Rouge from aggressors to helpless victims reacting to aggression. 

The theory that violence generates violent retaliation may make sense on a psychological level, but it is implausible that the Khmer Rouge's "auto-genocide" -- the systematic campaign of destruction of their own people -- was motivated by desire for revenge against Americans. During the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975-79, Cambodia was isolated from the outside world; the last American bomb fell in August 1973.

Historical examples also contradict this theory: The ruthless Nazi blitzkrieg did not transform Londoners into totalitarian fanatics.  

This myth did, however, alleviate the antiwar Left of any responsibility it might have felt for pressuring Congress to withdraw the financial support for South Vietnam promised in the Paris Peace Talks, which certainly played a role in southeast Asian dominoes falling in 1975: Cambodia on April 17, South Vietnam on April 30, and Laos on November 28.


Today, the Khmer Rouge has few enthusiastic defenders. In Jean-François Revel's wry phrase, "One of the most richly enrolled clubs on the planet is the Enemies of Past Genocides." But it is not enough to condemn the Khmer Rouge; we must condemn the Marxist ideology that motivated them.

Peter Wilson has a large extended family of Khmer Rouge survivors and has worked on children's television in Cambodia. His blog is walkingdogcapitalist.
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