THE BLOG
08/23/2007 01:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush's "Killing Fields" and the Real Lesson of Vietnam

George Bush's invocation of the "killing fields" in Cambodia to try to bolster his failing argument for an indefinite continuation of the Iraq occupation was a reference to the extreme right's decades-old rant that U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam caused the bloodbath in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

That argument makes a hash of the history of the Vietnam era, but maybe it's a good thing that he has brought it up now. The media and the blogosphere need to go back over how the killing fields actually came about. The fact is, more than three decades after the end of the U.S. military involvement in Indochina, there has still not been a real debate about the relationship between U.S. policy in Vietnam and the human consequences for Cambodia.

The heavy-breathing right-wing crowd has long blamed the anti-war movement, Congress and anyone else who supported the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam for the unnumbered dead in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime. That argument has been used as an ideological cudgel to keep intellectuals and the media in line, so the next time the United States goes to war and it turns sour, they would be afraid to demand an end to it. Now it's time to drive a stake through it once and for all.

What Bush and his extreme right-wing allies don't want Americans to remember is that it was the American war in Vietnam that made the Khmer Rouge such an irresistible power in Cambodia. Before the U.S. ground troops poured into Vietnam in 1965, there was no armed struggle by the Cambodian Communist movement. It was only because of the spillover of the U.S. war between 1965 and 1969 that they were given the opportunity to contest for power.

U.S. B-52 attacks and ground operations against the Viet Cong base areas in South Vietnam pushed the Viet Cong troops across the border into the jungles of Eastern Cambodia. That, in turn, destabilized Cambodia's economy, as the Viet Cong troops purchased an estimated 40 Cambodia's rice exports on the black market. That in turn led the Cambodian military to use force to get rice from peasants at artificially low prices. The Communists in Cambodia quickly took advantage of that situation to launch an armed uprising.

Even after four years of war in Vietnam, however, the Khmer Rouge were far from being able to contest for national power in Cambodia. In 1970, they had an estimated 2,400 to 4,000 guerrillas, few of whom had modern weapons.

This is where the story is full of bitter irony. Had Richard Nixon chosen to negotiate a quick end to the war, the Vietnamese troops would have left Cambodia, Sihanouk probably would have remained in power and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge would probably have remained a footnote to history. Instead, however, Nixon opted for four more years of war, and in order to gain time politically, he invoked the threat of a "bloodbath" in Vietnam if the United States were to withdraw prematurely.

That was a completely phony issue for which Nixon and Kissinger did not have a shred of evidence. But Nixon's decision against peace in Vietnam set in motion another new dynamic that made the postwar massacre in Cambodia inevitable.

When Sihanouk's right-wing opponents ousted him from power in March 1970, it may or may not have been with the explicit encouragement of the Nixon administration. The full story has yet to be written on that question. But Nixon did nothing to try to reverse a process that could only result in Cambodia being completely engulfed in war.

After just two years of extremely heavy bombing by the United States of the vast Khmer Rouge zone of Cambodia, that movement had exploded to some 50,000 troops and was able to go on the offensive. By then, nothing except a massive number of U.S. ground troops in Cambodia indefinitely could have stopped the Khmer Rouge victory.

It was the Nixon's geographical escalation of the Vietnam War itself -- not of the success of the antiwar movement or Congressional fatigue with war - that produced that outcome.

So the real lesson of the Vietnam-Cambodia war is that U.S. elective war is profoundly destabilizing, and that destabilization has a terrible human cost, which may spread beyond the country where the war began.

But there is a further lesson from that war. When Nixon began crying "bloodbath" in 1969 the Vietnam War was already four years old. It was his fateful decision to continue and escalate that war that brought about the Cambodian catastrophe. The longer American wars of occupation are continued, the worse the human and political consequences.

Now history appears to be repeating itself. Once again, after four years of war, a president is crying "bloodbath" even as he appears to be headed toward the geographical escalation of the war. Only this time the escalation will be far more dangerous than was the escalation into Cambodia in 1970.