Chomsky’s Cambodian Chutzpah Continues

The Phnom Penh Post carries an interview with Noam Chomsky. Ostensibly the interview is about the Khmer Rouge. Those that have followed Chomsky’s writings on Cambodia and elsewhere will not be surprised that he blames the United States for the genocide in Cambodia.

One hardly knows where to begin with the distortion of the historical record that is contained in the article.  Perhaps, it is worthwhile beginning with the first sentence. In his preamble to the interview, Stuart Alan Backer states:

PHILOSOPHER and linguist Noam Chomsky says the United States owes Cambodia not only an apology but massive reparations for the B-52 bombing campaign called Operation Menu that killed up to a million people.[1]

In their 1993 study, modelling “the highest mortality [they] can justify,” Judith Banister and Paige Johnson estimated 275,000 deaths during the 1970-1975 period.[2] Marek Sliwinski carried out a demographic study where he arrives at a comparable estimate of 240,000 war deaths out of which there were 40,000 deaths as a result of American bombings.[3]  To claim that “up to a million people” died as a result of the US bombing is an obscene exaggeration of the truth.

Chomsky cites Henry Kissinger as passing President Nixon’s order to General Haig with the following words: “massive bombing of Cambodia, anything that flies on anything that moves.”  Chomsy views this as a declaration with “clear genocidal intent.” What Chomsky does not say, but the transcript  of the conversation does, is that in response to Kissinger’s words there was an unintelligible comment that “sounded like Haig laughing.” As can be seen from reading the 2004 article in The Washington Post that discussed the released tape transcripts, Nixon had also joked about threatening to bomb Capitol Hill. The laughing by Haig shows that the instruction about Cambodia was not taken seriously at the time.[4]  What is no surprise is that in order to attempt to score a political point and demonise Nixon and Kissinger, Chomsky claims that Nixon intended genocide.

Chomsky argues that in the chapter on Cambodia in the two volumes of Political Economy of Human Rights which he had jointly written with Edward Herman, “no one has found even a misplaced comma, let alone any substantive error.” That is what Chomsky claims. In the relevant chapter, Chomsky and Herman state: “the evacuation of Phnom Penh [by the Khmer Rouge], widely denounced at the time and since for its undoubted brutality, may actually have saved many lives.”[5] This is simply an outrageous comment. Paul Bogdanor has written, and made accessible on his website for some years, in relation to this insult to the Cambodians who lost their lives in the evacuation: “At least 30,000 very young children died as a direct result of the Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh. In total, at least 870,000 men, women and children from Phnom Penh died under the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.”[6]

When asked about what was responsible “for creating the conditions that brought Pol Pot to power,” Chomsky provided a one hundred word response. Of these 92 words were to used to blame the US bombing and 8 words to say that this was surely not the only factor. While it is true that the Khmer Rouge did manage to recruit members as a result of the bombing, Chomsky’s claim is an inversion of the truth. As scholar of Cambodia and Pol Pot’s biographer points out, the bombing campaign “had the effect the Americans wanted – it broke the Communist encirclement of Phnom Penh. The war was to drag on for two more years.”[7] Had the bombing campaign not have occurred, Pol Pot would gained power earlier than he had done. A more accurate answer as to what was responsible for bringing the Khmer Rouge to power was provided by Timothy Carney and published in Karl D. Jackson’s superb book on the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia under Pol Pot. He provides five reasons why the Communist Party of Kampuchea (PKK), headed by Pol Pot won the war. Not one of them is the U.S. bombing:

(a) Norodom Sihanouk provided an enormous popular drawing card to recruit troops into the (NUFK), which the party came to control. The prince also helped to islolate the Khmer Republic diplomatically and have the PKK-dominated front credibility among opinion makers in the West;

(b) the North Vietnamese army, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), formed a two-year shield in eastern Cambodia behind which the party developed its infrastructure and the army trained its troops;

(c) the adversary Khmer Republic was generally afflicted with an unimaginative set of political and military leaders whose personal corruption undercut the genuine enthusiasm among the elite that had followed the prince’s March 18, 1970, desposition;

(d) the PKK and its army had the toughness, resolution, and discipline to prevail, and their vision of a new society attracted a dedicated core of followers;

(e) China and the North Vietnam backed the PKK to the finish, but the United States ended its massive assistance to the Khmer Republic.[8]

It is ridiculous to blame the U.S. bombing that ended 20 months before the Khmer Rouge came to power [9] for the tragedy that befell Cambodia when they took power in April1975. Philip Short, a further biographer of Pol Pot, makes this clear:

A far greater quantity of high explosives fell on Vietnam, yet the Vietnamese did not establish a system like that of the Khmers Rouges. The bombing may have helped create a climate conducive to extremism. But the ground war would have done that anyway. The Khmers Rouges were not “bombed back into the stone age.” Even had there been no B-52 strikes at all, it is unlikely that Democratic Kampuchea would have been a significantly place.[10]

Michael Lind, in his book on the Vietnam War, concurs with this view:

The U.S bombing of Cambodia may well have helped the Khmer Rouge recruit Cambodian peasants to their cause. But the argument that the massacres and famines in Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule were to be blamed, not on Marxist-Leninist ideology, but on the frenzy that U.S. bombing allegedly triggered in Cambodian peasants, was nonsense. Laos, not Cambodia, was the most heavily bombed country during the Vietnam War. The single greatest bombing campaign during the war took place in South Vietnam following the Tet offensive, when 1.2 million bombs were dropped, a far greater amount than fell on Cambodia.[11]

Noam Chomsky was involved in a group called the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS). This group had formed in 1968 “to protest against American imperialism in Asia.” Lind notes: “In 1970, the CCAS complained that the U.S. military effort was preventing the Khmer Rouge, with Sihanouk as a figurehead, from coming to power; after 1974-1975, most on the left floated a new story – the U.S. military effort had caused the Khmer Rouge to come to power.”[12]

Chomsky says that the United States owes Cambodia an apology. In 1977 while the Khmer Rouge was still in power, Chomsky and Herman published an article in The Nation where they dismissed reports as unreliable from refugees who were commenting upon the murder and brutality of those that ran the regime.[13] David Hawk, director of the Cambodian Documentation Commission believes that Chomsky’s monstrous effort had “a chilling effect on the mobilization of opinion against the Cambodian genocide.”[14] It is therefore not surprising that Sophal Ear, a scholar of the period and someone whose father died of malnutrition and disease in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, has made a comment to the online version of Chomsky’s interview where he declared, “It is Chomsky who owes Cambodians an apology!” I wholeheartedly concur.


Backer, Stuart Alan 2010, “Noam Chomsky Maintains the Rage,” The Phnom Penh Post (online edition at http://www.phnompenhpost.com/index.php/2010100543793/National-news/noam-chomsky-maintains-the-rage.html, 5 October.

Bogdanor, Paul 2007, The Top 200 Chomsky Lies, available at


Carney, Timothy 1989, “The Unexpected Victory,” in Cambodia 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death, edited by Karl D. Jackson, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press:13-35.

Chandler, David 2000, Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, Revised Edition, Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman 1977, “Distortions at Fourth Hand,” The Nation, June 6. Available on line at


Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman 1979, After the cataclysm: postwar Indochina and the reconstruction of imperial ideology, (The political economy of human rights: Volume II) Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press.

Collier, Peter and David Horowitz 2006, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties, San Francisco: Encounter Books.

Dobbs, Michael 2004, “Haig Said Nixon Joked of Nuking Hill,” The Washington Post, 27 May: A29. Available on line at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58802-2004May26.html.

Ezra, Michael 2009, “Malcolm Caldwell: Pol Pot’s Apologist,” Democratiya, Issue 16, Spring-Summer:155-178. (Available on line at http://dissentmagazine.org/democratiya/docs/d16Whole.pdf )

Heuveline, Patrick 1998, ‘”Between One and Three Million”: Towards the Demographic Reconstruction of a Decade of Cambodian History (1970-79),’ Population Studies, Vol. 52, Number 1: 49-65.

Lind, Michael 1999, Vietnam The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, New York: The Free Press.

Rodman, Peter W. 1981, “Rodman Responds: Sideshow: Still fraudulent after all these words,” The American Spectator, July: 14-17. (This article is also available as an addition to the new edition of Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, by William Shawcross, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986: 450-56.)

Short, Philip 2006, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, New York: Owl Books.


[1] Backer 2010.

[2] Cited by Heuveline 1998, p.59.

[3] Cited by Ezra 2009, p.162.

[4] Dobbs 2004.

[5] Chomsky and Herman 1979, p.160.

[6] Bogdanor 2007, p.6.

[7] Chandler 2000, pp.96-7.

[8] Carney 1989, pp.13-14.

[9] Rodman 1981, p.16.

[10] Short 2006, p.218.

[11] Lind 1999, p.172.

[12] Lind 1999, p.170. (Emphasis in original).

[13] Chomsky and Herman 1977.

[14] Collier and Horowitz 2006, p.275.