This April marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam, recalling the North Vietnamese Army’s capture of Saigon on April 30, 1975, and the conclusion of American involvement in that conflict.
That focus on South Vietnam is certainly understandable given the very large commitment of manpower and treasure by the United States. There is, however, a second less known anniversary in April that should be recalled because of the immense tragedy it portended: the April 17, 1975, capture of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by the Khmer Rouge.
Many Cambodians welcomed the Khmer Rouge thinking their victory was at least bringing peace to the country. What happened instead was the imposition of one of the worst mass-murdering regimes in human history, which over the next four years would cause the deaths of up to 2 million out of the total population of 7 million Cambodian people.
This program was led by the infamous Pol Pot, a mysterious communist leader whose goal was to return Cambodia to a primitive, totally restructured and purified society made up of a population of human automatons divided into work brigades all living in the jungle and working incessantly.
I had actually foreseen this outcome two years earlier while stationed as a young State Department officer along the Cambodian border in the remote Mekong Delta of Vietnam. In June 1973, while standing atop a mountain, as far as I could see every Cambodian village was ablaze as the Khmer Rouge began their effort to force every citizen of that small region from their homes and into the jungle to build a new, harsh existence. To ensure there could be no return, every home made of thatch and wood was burned to the ground.
I subsequently prepared a 40-page report, the first-ever report by anyone, which laid out in great detail the radical plans and ideology of the Khmer Rouge. The problem was that virtually no one within the U.S. government believed me. But two years later, the Khmer Rouge would foist this draconian model on the entire country.
Within just a few days of their takeover of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge began the process of emptying all cities and towns and marching the entire population of the country out into rural areas where they would be indiscriminately divided up and forced to live and work in totally communal arrangements.
Phnom Penh and all provincial capitals became ghost towns. All temples and religious structures were shuttered and monks defrocked. Schools closed and libraries were emptied and turned into livestock shelters. The Catholic Basilica, built by the French, was taken apart brick by brick so no evidence of it remained. The country was sealed off with almost no foreign visitors allowed. A thousand-year-old culture was being extinguished.
It was then that the segregating of the population took place with all individuals who had been part of the previous government, as well as anyone who had been a schoolteacher or a business owner or considered educated were singled out for execution. Not only were these persons killed, but also their spouses and children. Entire families and entire classes of people, who might resist the new order, were to be eliminated.
By the time the Khmer Rouge were deposed by the North Vietnamese army in 1979, there were only 62 people left in the entire country who had any post-high school education. One of those 62 survivors, whom I met years later, explained to me that he only survived by convincing the uneducated Khmer Rouge executioners that his glasses (a sign of an educated person) were needed because he was almost blind (which was not the case) and not because he had gone to school.
Every person was affected. Two decades later, when I served as ambassador to Cambodia, I had assembled the 150 Cambodian employees of my embassy. I asked how many of them had lived in a Khmer Rouge work camp during Pol Pot’s rule. Every hand in the room went up. I then asked how many of them had lost an immediate member of their family during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge. Once again, every hand in the room went up.
It would be difficult to imagine a more traumatized workforce anywhere in the world. What was worse was that everyone of them still lived in fear that the Khmer Rouge had spies within our embassy, and that there could be a day when Pol Pot would come back to power. I made a commitment to myself to do everything possible to ensure that this would never come to pass.
In 1990, there were still 25,000 Khmer Rouge fighters scattered all over the Cambodian countryside. To deal with them, I devised a new weapon, one that I had learned during the Vietnam war 20 years earlier. I had seen that by building roads into rural areas and bringing in new agricultural technology (in the same way that Norman Borlaug brought the Green Revolution to India) that the support for insurgents could be undercut and their fighters induced to defect or surrender.
Using U.S. aid to repair and upgrade roads, the flow of technology, education and human rights into areas controlled by the Khmer Rouge caused their organization to begin to wither and their control to weaken and eventually collapse. The roads were like the blood vessels carrying chemotherapy to a tumor.
Khmer Rouge soldiers defected and some commanders surrendered. In 1998, Pol Pot either committed suicide or was murdered by some of his followers. In March 1999, shortly before I would end my tour as ambassador, the last Khmer Rouge surrendered. As I concluded my career at the State Department and returned home to Iowa, it was with the satisfaction that we had eradicated the single worst, genocidal terrorist regime of the second half of the 20th century.
It is worth pausing for a moment on April 17 to reflect on the unimaginable horrors that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on their own people, and how fragile a society can be. It is also good to recall that in 1979, as the first 30,000 starving, emaciated refugees escaped from Cambodia into Thailand, Iowa Gov. Bob Ray led the Iowa SHARES effort, in partnership with the Des Moines Register and central Iowa’s religious leaders, to rush food and medicine and doctors and nurses to assist these suffering people.