About those killing fields, Mr. President
From President Bush's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars today:
One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like "boat people," "re-education camps," and "killing fields."
The killing fields were not a "price of America's withdrawal." What brought the Khmer Rouge to power, and made the killing fields possible, was the secret bombing of Cambodia.
American forces, with the approval of Prince Norodom Sihanouk (who wanted the NLF out of his country), conducted a four-year-long strategic bombing campaign on the Ho Chi Minh trail and the NLF's southern headquarters. This operation, in which over 11,000 bombing missions were flown, killed something on the order of 100,000 Cambodian peasants, though given what happened in its wake it's hard to assess the accuracy of that number.
What's not hard to assess is the campaign's result: the bombing drove the rural farmers of Cambodia directly into the arms of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge's anti-urban ideology did not just come from the bits of Marx and Mao that Pol Pot picked up while he was at the Sorbonne, it came from the fact that urban Cambodia had, by proxy, declared war on rural Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge came to power because the Cambodian monarchy had delegitimized itself by allowing foreigners to kill tens of thousands of its subjects.
Not only did American withdrawal not cause the killing fields, it helped end them. When the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979, it was not by the freedom-loving West, but by Communist Vietnam, who, no longer engaged in driving a foreign enemy out of their country, had the resources to put an end to the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of Southeast Asia.
The "killing fields" that Bush cites were not a consequence of American withdrawal from Vietnam. They were a consequence of the American presidency circumventing Congress. The Nixon administration lied to the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees and falsified Air Force records to conceal the campaign from Congress.
It was, in fact, the secret bombing of Cambodia, and not the war in Vietnam, that motivated Congress to pass the War Powers Act. The War Powers Act is what galvanized young Republican staffers and attorneys like Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and David Addington. The guiding philosophy of the Bush administration, from before it even took office, has been to undo the constraints on the Presidency that this law imposed.
So it is deeply ironic that the President of the United States should make a speech justifying his actions in Iraq by pointing to the killing fields of Cambodia. The killing fields of Cambodia were a direct result of the central policy of his presidency.
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