Nonetheless, if he was as genuinely aloof from totalitarianism as his political principles proclaimed, the track record of communism in the USSR—which was by then widely known to have faked its statistics of agricultural and industrial output in the 1930s when its own population was also suffering crop failures and famine—should have left this anarchist a little more skeptical about the claims of the Russians’ counterparts in China.
In fact, Chomsky was well aware of the degree of violence that communist regimes had routinely directed at the people of their own countries. At the 1967 New York forum he acknowledged both “the mass slaughter of landlords in China” and “the slaughter of landlords in North Vietnam” that had taken place once the communists came to power. His main objective, however, was to provide a rationalization for this violence, especially that of the National Liberation Front then trying to take control of South Vietnam. Chomsky revealed he was no pacifist.
I don’t accept the view that we can just condemn the NLF terror, period, because it was so horrible. I think we really have to ask questions of comparative costs, ugly as that may sound. And if we are going to take a moral position on this—and I think we should—we have to ask both what the consequences were of using terror and not using terror. If it were true that the consequences of not using terror would be that the peasantry in Vietnam would continue to live in the state of the peasantry of the Philippines, then I think the use of terror would be justified.It was not only Chomsky who was sucked into supporting the maelstrom of violence that characterized the communist takeovers in South-East Asia. Almost the whole of the 1960s New Left followed. They opposed the American side and turned Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong into romantic heroes.
When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 both Chomsky and the New Left welcomed it. And when news emerged of the extraordinary event that immediately followed, the complete evacuation of the capital Phnom Penh accompanied by reports of widespread killings, Chomsky offered a rationalization similar to those he had provided for the terror in China and Vietnam: there might have been some violence, but this was understandable under conditions of regime change and social revolution.
Although information was hard to come by, Chomsky suggested in an article in 1977 that post-war Cambodia was probably similar to France after liberation at the end of World War II when thousands of enemy collaborators were massacred within a few months. This was to be expected, he said, and was a small price to pay for the positive outcomes of the new government of Pol Pot. Chomsky cited a book by two American left-wing authors, Gareth Porter and George Hildebrand, who had “presented a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very favorable picture of their programs and policies.”
By this time, however, there were two other books published on Cambodia that took a very different line. The American authors John Barron and Anthony Paul called their work Murder of a Gentle Land and accused the Pol Pot regime of mass killings that amounted to genocide. François Ponchaud’s Cambodia Year Zero repeated the charge.
Chomsky reviewed both books, together with a number of press articles, in The Nation in June 1977. He accused them of publishing little more than anti-communist propaganda. Articles in The New York Times Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor suggested that the death toll was between one and two million people out of a total population of 7.8 million. Chomsky mocked their total and picked at their sources, showing some were dubious and that a famous photograph of forced labor in the Cambodian countryside was actually a fake.
He dismissed the Barron and Paul book partly because it had been published by Reader’s Digest and publicized on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, both of them notorious anti-communist publications, and partly because they had omitted to report the views of journalists who had been to Cambodia but not witnessed any executions.
Ponchaud’s book was harder to ignore. It was based on the author’s personal experience in Cambodia from 1965 until the capture of Phnom Penh, extensive interviews with refugees and reports from Cambodian radio. Moreover, it had been favorably reviewed by a left-wing author in The New York Review of Books, a publication for which Chomsky himself had often written. Chomsky’s strategy was to undermine Ponchaud’s book by questioning the credibility of his refugee testimony. Acknowledging that Ponchaud “gives a grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge,” Chomsky said we should be wary of “the extreme unreliability of refugee reports”:
Refugees are frightened and defenseless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocutors wish to hear. While these reports must be considered seriously, care and caution are necessary. Specifically, refugees questioned by Westerners or Thais have a vested interest in reporting atrocities on the part of Cambodian revolutionaries, an obvious fact that no serious reporter will fail to take into account.In 1980, Chomsky expanded this critique into the book After the Cataclysm, co-authored with his long-time collaborator Edward S. Herman. Ostensibly about Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the great majority of its content was a defense of the position Chomsky took on the Pol Pot regime. By this time, Chomsky was well aware that something terrible had happened: “The record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome,” he wrote. “There can be little doubt that the war was followed by an outbreak of violence, massacre and repression.” He mocked the suggestion, however, that the death toll might have reached more than a million and attacked Senator George McGovern’s call for military intervention to halt what McGovern called “a clear case of genocide.”
Instead, Chomsky commended authors who apologized for the Pol Pot regime. He approvingly cited their analyses that the forced march of the population out of Phnom Penh was probably necessitated by the failure of the 1976 rice crop. If this was true, Chomsky wrote, “the evacuation of Phnom Penh, widely denounced at the time and since for its undoubted brutality, may actually have saved many lives.” Chomsky rejected the charge of genocide, suggesting that
the deaths in Cambodia were not the result of systematic slaughter and starvation organized by the state but rather attributable in large measure to peasant revenge, undisciplined military units out of government control, starvation and disease that are direct consequences of the US war, or other such factors.After the Cataclysm also presented a much more extended critique of refugee testimony. Chomsky revealed his original 1977 source for this had been Ben Kiernan, at the time an Australian graduate student and apologist for the Pol Pot regime, who wrote in the Maoist-inspired Melbourne Journal of Politics. What Chomsky avoided telling his readers, however, was that well before 1980, the year After the Cataclysm was published, Kiernan himself had recanted his position...
Kiernan argues for a total death toll between April 1975 and January 1979, when the Vietnamese invasion put an end to the regime, of 1.67 million out of 7.89 million, or 21 percent of the entire population. This is proportionally the greatest mass killing ever inflicted by a government on its own population in modern times, probably in all history.
Chomsky was this regime’s most prestigious and most persistent Western apologist. Even as late as 1988, when they were forced to admit in their book Manufacturing Consent that Pol Pot had committed genocide against his own people, Chomsky and Herman still insisted they had been right to reject the journalists and authors who had initially reported the story. The evidence that became available after the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, they maintained, did not retrospectively justify the reports they had criticized in 1977.
They were still adamant that the United States, who they claimed started it all, bore the brunt of the blame. In short, Chomsky still refused to admit how wrong he had been over Cambodia.
I'm afraid my conclusions are much harsher than Windschuttle's. He portrays Chomsky as first blinded by ideology and then driven by stubborn arrogance to continue denying all and deflecting blame on to others. I take a darker view. I think it is very likely that Chomsky knew that the charges against the Khmer Rouge were true. At the very least, he had to know there was a strong likelihood that they were true. Chomsky denied the Khmer Rouge's crimes for, I think, two reasons: The first is Chomsky's oft-repeated assertion that America's crimes were infinitely worse than anything a Third World liberation movement could come up with. As I have noted before, under Chomsky's theology, rebellious Third World Leftists simply cannot be guilty; whatever brutalities they may undertake in the cause of resisting the American imperium, which alone can be considered culpable in their crimes.
The second reason is unpleasant even to write. It is my own opinion, and need not be taken as anything more than that. It seems clear to me that Chomsky believes that those killed by the Khmer Rouge deserved to die. I don't see how one can conclude anything else from his comparisons of the Khmer to the French Resistance and other liberation movements. I think he considered those executed to be collaborators with imperialism and/or obstacles to the revolution who deserved their fate. Not pretty, but there it is.