Noam Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge

Noam Chomsky is perhaps the world’s most renowned public intellectual. However, his courage in exposing the war crimes and human rights violations engaged in by the US state has made him a leading target of guardians of the notion that the United States is a force for freedom and justice in the world. In retaliation for his arguments that the US is a force for evil in the world, these guardians, particularly those on the right side of the political spectrum, have lobbed numerous charges at Chomsky: for example, that he, and his frequent collaborator, the late Edward S. Herman, covered up atrocities by the communist Khmer Rouge government which ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Critics have charged Chomsky and Herman with attacking the credibility of accounts of those atrocities made by Cambodian refugees; that they pushed absurdly low estimates of Cambodians killed by the KR; all part of their sinister anti-American effort to cover up the crimes of Communists like the KR.

In reality, the writings of Chomsky and Herman on Cambodia under KR rule had significantly more nuanced arguments than those attributed to them by their fevered right wing and sometimes liberal critics. In a June 1977 article in The Nation and their 1979 book After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, they did not deny the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. For example, in The Nation article they wrote that Father Francois Ponchaud’s widely publicized book on Khmer Rouge terror was “serious and worth reading…He gives a grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.” In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman noted that in response to their extensive criticisms of many aspects of Ponchaud’s documentation of Khmer Rouge atrocities, the introduction to the American edition of Ponchaud’s book featured praise from Ponchaud of Chomsky for correcting the former’s mistakes. However, in the book’s British edition, Ponchaud referred to Chomsky somewhat tartly and falsely claimed that the latter and Herman denied that the Khmer Rouge committed any massacres.

Chomsky and Herman were not concerned about endorsing a particular estimate of how many Cambodians died under KR rule. They referenced US media coverage of the latter as part of their effort to show how the US media and political system covered up the war crimes and human rights violations of the US and the right wing third world dictatorships with which it allied while playing up the often real but sometimes exaggerated or fabricated crimes of official US government enemies—like the Soviet Union, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and similar states. However, because, like most Americans, Chomsky’s and Herman’s critics are indoctrinated with childish patriotic beliefs about America’s noble role in the world, they are unwilling to seriously consider the substantial evidence that Chomsky, Herman and other left-wing critics have gathered over the decades about the nefarious US role in the world. They have no interest in accepting the evidence that the US committed massive war crimes in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere–while backing genocidal third world dictatorships like the Suharto regime in Indonesia, the Stroessner regime in Paraguay and working through various means, including death squads, to prevent third world peasants from lifting themselves out of extreme poverty. Their reflexive childish reaction to such evidence is to call people like Chomsky Communist apologists.

Chomsky and Herman’s critics rarely even begin to address their compelling arguments about the problematic nature of certain KR atrocity stories that circulated in the US media during the mid and late 1970s. They use the fact those stories were even questioned by Chomsky and Herman as prima facie evidence of Chomsky’s and Herman’s denial of KR genocide.

In the most sophisticated variants of the attacks on the Chomsky/Herman position on the KR, there are several common misrepresentations about that position:

1) The attacks leave out the fact that the Chomsky/Herman call in After the Cataclysm for the use of caution in assessing the authenticity of refugee atrocity stories was based in part on wisdom from Charles Twinning, regarded in the late 70’s by the US State Department as the leading authority on Cambodian refugees. Twinning, along with Nayan Chanda of the Far Eastern Economic Review, noted that refugees have the tendency to exaggerate atrocity stories. Their stories should be taken seriously but analyzed with appropriate caution. In the case of refugees from Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, they likely had a strong impulse to tell anti-communist government officials and journalists from the United States, Thailand, and other nations stories of Communist barbarity which such persons were eager to hear for ideological reasons, not because the stories were necessarily reasonably verifiable. Many refugee stories about KR atrocities were at second and third hand and thus not completely verifiable.

2) The late Australian anti-Communist fanatic Stephen Morris attempted to address Chomsky’s and Herman’s claim in After The Cataclysm that substantial evidence existed that KR atrocities were not directed by the central KR leadership in Phnomh Penh. Contributing his own chapter to the 2004 book Anti-Chomsky Reader, Morris quoted Chomsky/Herman as claiming that KR atrocities were “as many close observers suspect, in significant measure the result of localized peasant revenge and the acts of undisciplined troops”—not the central KR leadership headed by Pol Pot.

Morris asked, “who were these ‘close observers’ that Chomsky preferred to believe” as backing for his assertion that KR terror was not to a large extent directed by the group’s leadership but based significantly on “localized peasant revenge and the acts of undisciplined troops?” Morris then proceeds to list as Chomsky’s and Herman’s sources for this claim a range of radical left southeast Asia scholars ranging from George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter to Michael Vickery and Ben Kiernan. Morris mislead his readers when he claimed that Chomsky and Herman used only radical left scholars as sources to back up the claim. For example, in After the Cataclysm, they quoted a July 1977 Washington Post article by Lewis Simons which stated that Cambodia analysts close to the State Department believed that the Angkor, the KR ruling body, had little ability to control most of the country and that policy was to a significant extent in the hands of local commanders.

Morris also did not mention that Chomsky and Herman, in After the Cataclysm, quoted Nayan Chanda in the Far Eastern Economic Review, whose article quoted a source to the effect that the rage felt by poor Cambodian peasants (who bore the brunt of near-genocidal US bombing in the years 1969-73) toward wealthier and privileged urban Cambodians was a definite factor in fueling KR atrocities after 1975.

3) Chomsky and Herman have been denounced for criticizing high estimates of deaths caused by the KR during the late 1970’s, for example the figure of 1.2 million given in 1977 by Francois Ponchaud. In 1997, Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, criticized them for comparing the situation in Cambodia in their 1977 Nation article to France in 1944 after liberation from Nazi occupation when thousands of alleged French Nazi collaborators were massacred. However, in After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman showed that as of mid-1977, credible sources indicated that thousands or tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands was a reasonable estimate for deaths occurring under KR rule. Chomsky and Herman reported that Lewis Simon’s article quoted State Department advisor Charles Twining as estimating total deaths under KR rule (as of July 1977) in the “thousands or hundreds of thousands” and stating “very honestly, I think we can’t accurately estimate a figure.” Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke estimated “tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths,” with much more death caused by disease and malnutrition than executions. Holbrooke of course did not mention the significant role the US bombing of 1969–73 played in creating conditions for that disease and starvation.

Jon Swain of the London Times was mentioned by Stephen Morris as one of the reporters who exposed KR atrocities while unconscionable pro-Communist leftists like Chomsky and Herman tried to cover them up. Morris did not mention that Chomsky and Herman quoted Swain in After the Cataclysm as expressing less than a month after the KR takeover of Cambodia his thoughts about the role of the near genocidal American bombing of Cambodia from 1969–73 in laying the groundwork for the harshness of Khmer Rouge rule:

“The United States has much to answer for here, not only in terms of human lives and massive material destruction; the rigidity and nastiness of the un-Cambodian like fellows in black who run this country now, or what is left of it, are as much a product of this wholesale American bombing which has hardened and honed their minds as they are a product of Marx and Mao…The war damage here, as everywhere else we saw, is total. Not a bridge is standing, hardly a house. I am told most villagers have spent the war years living semi-permanently underground in earth bunkers to escape the bombing. Little wonder that this peasant army is proud of its achievements. The entire countryside has been churned up by American B-52 bomb craters, whole towns and villages razed. So far I have not seen one pagoda intact….

In the last five years, Cambodia has lost upwards of half a million people, 10 percent of its population, in a war fueled and waged on its soil by outside powers for their own selfish reasons. The people who run, live in and try to reconstruct the heap of ruins they have inherited in Cambodia deserve the world’s compassion and understanding. It is their country, and it was their sacrifices. They have earned themselves the right to organize their society their own way….”

In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky/Herman quoted a number of sources which stressed the near famine like conditions in Cambodia on the eve of the KR takeover; for example, Nayan Chanda quoted a US government source as predicting — shortly before the KR takeover — up to a million deaths in Cambodia in the following twelve months as a consequence of the devastation caused by US bombing in the country.

Chomsky’s and Herman’s critics perhaps have ground to criticize two passages in After the Cataclysm where the authors endorsed the view that Cambodia under the KR was a “dual picture: on the one hand, oppression, regimentation and terror; on the other, constructive achievements for much of the population.” Stephen Morris feverishly compared this passage to a hypothetical statement which praised the Nazis for any social programs they might have carried out while occupying France. Chomsky suggested in 2013 that he and Herman would probably rephrase the sentence to eliminate any favorable reference to KR rule if they had the opportunity to rewrite After the Cataclysm. Regardless, the passage reflected sentiments similar to that of Jon Swain quoted above: a sympathy for the virtually impossible task that any group governing Cambodia faced at the time: achieving a modicum of reconstruction in the aftermath of apocalyptic US bombing. Being decent people concerned for the fate of Cambodians, Chomsky and Herman in After the Cataclysm presented a few cases of credible evidence—for example from the observations of Scandinavian diplomats–that — at least before the situation in Cambodia deteriorated during the growing conflict with Vietnam in 1978 — KR policies modestly ameliorated in some sections of the country for a short period the horrendous conditions faced by the majority of Cambodians in the wake of US bombing.

Chomsky and Herman performed a valuable service in exposing the extensive role US bombing played in exacerbating the horrors of life under the KR. In After the Cataclysm, they make a very compelling case that while KR rule may have been extremely brutal, the US media highlighted particular KR atrocity stories of dubious authenticity which were highly serviceable to the anti-leftist propaganda needs of the US ruling class. At the same time, the media suppressed clear evidence of such events as US backing for Indonesia’s genocide in East Timor. Chomsky and Herman were correct to note that there was much news about Cambodia in the late 1970’s that was of dubious authenticity. The evidence available since the 1970s suggests that they should have used harsher language in their analysis of KR rule. However, their critics, most of whom have supported US war crimes and backing for murderous third world dictatorships, have no moral leg to stand on.

Chris Green has a master’s degree in history from Western Washington University. He can be reached at, his twitter handle is @Del4163.