Exchange on Cambodia

The Independent, UK,
November 2, 1990

Sir: Douglas Hurd (12 October) writes that as an “apologist” for the Khmer Rouge, I “condemned reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities” as fabrications. There is a particle of truth in his statement: I did expose fabrications as fabrications, as in many other cases, e.g. vast exaggerations of the death toll due to US bombing in Cambodia - an exposure which, for some reason, has never elicited any criticism. The rest is a recurrent fantasy that has regularly been refuted in detail, only to surface in some new version. It is noteworthy that despite the hysteria that these exposures have aroused, no error has ever been discovered in them, a fact noted in the scholarly literature. The facts are easily checked. In the sole relevant publications, my co-author Edward Herman and I condemned the Khmer Rouge for “major atrocities and oppression,” a “grisly” record of “barbarity.” We concluded further that their “gruesome” atrocities were comparable to those of Indonesia in Timor, apparently the worst slaughter relative to population since the Nazi Holocaust. See our Political Economy of Human Rights (1979), for extensive details.

What then is the source of Hurd’s fairy tales? The answer is simple. As part of a study of power and ideology, we compared the treatment of atrocities depending on source: them or us. As a case in point, we gave a detailed review of the simultaneous atrocities in Timor and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, showing that the evidence for huge massacres was comparable.

The reaction, however, was radically different: in one case, silence and denial, permitting the slaughter to continue with critically important Western aid; in the other, a show of outrage and more deceit, but in the opposite direction.

Yours faithfully,
Noam Chomsky,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


The Independent, UK,
November 6, 1990

Sir: Did Professor Noam Chomsky act as an apologist for the Khmer Rouge regime at the time, or did he not? The background is not in dispute. No one now seriously questions that terrible atrocities were committed on a vast scale during the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia (1975-78). Douglas Hurd (Report, 12 October) said that:

Some of those who are now loudest in denouncing the Khmer Rouge, at the time acted as their apologists. For example, the American Professor Noam Chomsky condemned reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities as Western anti-communist fabrications, designed to provide ex post facto justification for American involvement in the Vietnam war.

In reply (2 November), Professor Chomsky claims that “in the sole relevant publications my co-author Edward Herman and I condemned the Khmer Rouge for ‘major atrocities and oppression,’ a ‘grisly’ record of ‘barbarity.’” This claim is debatable.

Professor Chomsky does not specifically mention one relevant publication - an article he wrote with Herman, “Distortions at Fourth Hand,” published in The Nation, 25 June 1977. The article makes some serious points, including that the US actions against Cambodia up to 1975 contributed to the terrible events there. But it contains several passages which come close to justifying Mr Hurd’s accusation.

The 1977 article, reviewing several books on Cambodia, praised two authors for presenting “a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it...” (italics added). By contrast, an author who did describe Khmer Rouge atrocities, Francois Ponchaud, is treated less sympathetically. He is described as giving “a grisly account of what refugees have reported to him...” but then we are told that “the serious reader will find much to make him somewhat wary.”

In his letter Professor Chomsky implies that he had written in the Seventies that the Khmer Rouge atrocities “were comparable to those of Indonesia in Timor, apparently the worst slaughter relative to population since the Nazi Holocaust.” But in the 1977 article he and Herman in fact cast doubt on the comparison of postwar Cambodia with Nazi Germany, concluding that comparing Cambodia to France after liberation was “more nearly correct.”

Professor Chomsky and Herman said: “We do not pretend to know where the truth lies between these sharply conflicting assessments,” but they then went on to refer to “alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities.”

Whether or not all this adds up to acting as an apologist for the Khmer Rouge, as Mr Hurd alleges, may be debated. But Professor Chomsky’s record on this issue is not quite what he would now have us believe.

Yours sincerely,
Adam Roberts,
Balliol College, Oxford

The writer is Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford.