on July 19, 2003
While I've read this book many times over the years, my most recent reading struck me hard. The description of the May 8, 1970 meeting between Henry Kissinger and a number of his friends and personal advisors from Harvard did not seem especially interesting in past years, but jumped off the page this time around. Thomas Schelling told Kissinger that after the invasion of Cambodia the group no longer had faith in Henry or the Nixon administration's ability to conduct foreign policy, and would have nothing further to do with Kissinger. The group pointed out that the invasion could be "used by anyone else in the world as a precedent for invading another country, in order, for example, to clear out terrorists." Another section recounts Arthur Schlesinger Jr. quoting a historian's recollection of the Romans -- "There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, the allies would be invented." Shawcross also notes that in 1964 the US condemned Britain for assaulting a Yemeni town used as a base by insurgents attacking Aden. Another chilling touch is the mention of Lincoln's reaction when he was advised that the President could invade a neighbor if necessary to repel invasion -- Lincoln replied, "Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you give him as much as you propose." Lincoln's famous speech given as a young man in the 1830s in which he remarked that all the armies of Europe could not forcibly take a drink of water from the Ohio River and therefore "... if this great nation is to ever die, it will be from suicide" rings more true than the words of today's politicians proclaiming the right to declare preemptive war.
An excellent summary of the events that overtook Cambodia, "Sideshow" has much more to offer to us today as we try to figure out how we reached this turning point in our history and recall how badly things can go wrong whenever we deviate from the principles upon which our nation was founded.
Really bad decisions made by the Nixon administration toward Indochina and the Vietnam War are now fairly obvious. However, we must remember how difficult this type of investigation would have been back when Shawcross did his intensive research back in the late 70s. Here Shawcross builds a very hard-to-dismiss case against Nixon and Henry Kissinger, in terms of how their problematic military and diplomatic strategies at least indirectly led to the hideous destruction of Cambodia (in fact, one of Nixon's documented strategies was to make the Communists think he was a madman, assuming they'd get scared and give up).
During the earlier years of the war, Cambodia was a relatively tranquil nation that was trying to remain neutral. But the country was being used as a hideout by North Vietnamese soldiers, leading to bombing by the Americans. Here Shawcross shows how Nixon and Kissinger made use of political trickery and overhyped threats to keep the bombing going to an extent that was far more destructive than necessary. As a bonus, this book also documents the wire-tapping paranoia and unconstitutional shenanigans in the Nixon White House. Shawcross is especially tough on Kissinger, finding that he disregarded the integrity and safety of Cambodia (which he had only ever visited for four hours), in favor of short-term political advantages and unyielding ideology. The relentless bombing destabilized Cambodian society, leading indirectly to the hideous genocide and societal destruction enacted by the Khmer Rouge a few years later. It is difficult to argue with Shawcross' heavily researched conclusions, and the hellish wholesale collapse of Cambodia (of a type never before seen in modern history) becomes all the more poignant as a result.
Be sure to get an edition of this book from 1986 or after, in which Shawcross adds materials from the political firefight that the book ignited. Kissinger was obviously upset and went to great lengths, through articles written by his lackey Peter Rodman, to try and disprove Shawcross' assertions. If your copy of this book contains these articles, you'll be quite bemused by Rodman's evasive, dissembling, and downright condescending rebuttal attempts, which are easily shot down by Shawcross. This war of words in itself proves that Kissinger had, and always will have, a lot to answer for. [~doomsdayer520~]
on September 16, 2006
This book has managed to live on, which is perhaps unfortunate - historically speaking, it's far more relevant to contemporary geopolitics than it should be.
In any case, SIDESHOW has managed to stand as one of the better books on Cambodia, and America's involvement in Cambodia (Elizabeth Becker's WHEN THE WAR WAS OVER is a must-read as well). One could debate Shawcross' perspectives, but his research is meticulous and has withstood many attacks, and his depiction of the machiavellian darkness that can creep into foreign policy is chilling and ruthless, and - for better of worse - makes for hypnotic reading, all the more frightening as it's drawn straight from history, research, the Freedom of Information act.
Now more than ever, this is essential reading.
on November 24, 1999
This book is about the war in Cambodia that occurred during, and which was largely caused by, America's intervention in Vietnam. Hence the title "Sideshow," although as the book makes clear this was no minor conflict but rapidly turned into a large scale conflagration. This book should be read all those who saw the movie "The Killing Fields" as it fleshes out the US role in the development of that tragedy. Shawcross does this by documenting the actions of the CIA and the US military under the direction of the Nixon administration in setting the stage for that calamity by first overthrowing Prince Sihanouk and then intervening in Cambodia on a massive scale first through land invasion in April 1970 and continuing with a massive bombing campaign which did not cease even after Congress expressly prohibited it, but went on secretly on a wide scale. This policy created a chain reaction of events that propelled the Khmer Rouge from the margins of society to center stage as millions were disclocated from the land and agricultural production collapsed. Nixon's role in these events was the subject of one of the impeachment articles against him that was not passed by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 although it received over a dozen votes in its favor.
In my title sentence, I basically give a summary of Shawcross's contention that Cambodia was destroyed by the United States. I think Shawcross makes good points on why the United States must bear some responsibility in the destruction of this small country. What is lacking is an even review of all the characters in the history (Khymer Rouge, Viet Cong, NVA, ARVN,
and the Thais) of Cambodia. The Vietnamese Communists have as much a stake in why Cambodia turned out as it did. I think Shawcross purposely overlooks this and points the finger at what he percieves as the evil doers of American policy--Kissinger and Nixon.
I think Shawcross does a good job of relating how the USA tried to salvage the intervention in Vietnam at the cost of destroying a small country. I think he proves that point. I also enjoyed his portrayal of all the principal American and Cambodian players in this drama. As I said, a more critical look at the Vietnamese would give this book a more even outlook. After I read this book, I understoon why Presidential Administrations did not involve Kissinger in future policy. Henry comes off as arrogant in the least, evil at the most. For more information on what happened after this time in Cambodia, please read Brother Enemy.
... The world is diminished by the experience." William Shawcross concludes his excellent book with the previous succinct summation of his 400 plus page indictment of the policies and actions of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in regards to Cambodia. Of particular interest is the 50 or so pages of additions at the end, regarding Kissinger's reaction to the book - there is no real rebuttal, or listing of factual errors, it is all classic Kissinger dissembling. Sadly, the book remains achingly relevant today: one of the prime reasons stated for the invasion was to "save the lives of American troops," the same rationale President Obama just used in refusing to release photos of prisoner abuse at Gitmo.
In January, 1994 I walked through S-21, the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Aside from the caretakers, I was the only one there. The exhibits are mainly the haunting pictures of the torture victims. The nightmare of the Cambodian auto-genocide, in which a third of the population died within four years, was finally ended by the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. The agonizing question is why, in two countries with similar experiences in fighting a long war under the bombs, did this happen in Cambodia and not Vietnam. Shawcross gives some of the most likely reasons we'll ever have: "That summer's war provides a lasting image of peasant boys and girls, clad in black, moving slowly through the mud, half-crazed with terror, as fighter bombers tore down at them by day, and night after night whole seas of 750-pound bombs smashed all around (p 298). Even more telling, Shawcross latter says: "All wars are designed to arouse anger, and almost all soldiers are taught to hate and to dehumanize their enemy. Veterans of the combat zone are often possessed of a mad rage to destroy, and to avenge their fallen comrades. It does not always happen, however, that victorious armies have endured such punishment as was inflicted upon the Khmer Rouge. Nor does it always happen that such an immature and tiny force comes to power after its country's social order has been obliterated... then giving power to a little group of zealots sustained by Manichean fear." I remember some who thought of Cambodia, pre-war, as an idyllic paradise, with the priorities in the right place. The author wisely quoted a more cautionary note by quoting a French archaeologist, Bernard-Philippe Groslier: "beneath a carefree surface there slumber savage forces and disconcerting cruelties which may blaze up in outbreaks of passionate brutality."
A much younger and more morally astute Christopher Hitchens wrote an excellent book entitled "The Trial of Henry Kissinger." But it is Shawcross who has compiled the most damning evidence. Kissinger cynically used journalists (who were often all too accommodating) while behind their backs was contemptuous of them. Cambodia was just one of the many pawns on his chessboard. Shawcross reminds the reader of Kissinger's rationale behind his belief that he had the right to overthrown the democratically elected government of Chile: "I don't see why a country should be allowed to go Communist through the irresponsibility of its own people." (p 304). One of the disappoint revelations that Shawcross makes is that Theodore White, whose "Making of the President" books I have always admired considered the invasion of Cambodia to be one of the two major achievements of Nixon's rule. (p 171).
In the "Plus ca change..." category, on how history continues to repeat, consider that the author documents how it was John McCain's father, the Admiral who was Commander in Chief of Pacific forces would give energetic lectures about the "threats" to the United States that members of the press dubbed him the "Big Red Arrow Man." (p 136). General Abrams hyped, like Rumsfeld would a generation latter, that the Vietnamese communists had a headquarters that was a "reinforced concrete bunker, 29 feet underground, that housed about 5,000 officials and technicians. And recently Condi Rice defended George Bush with exactly the same rationale that Nixon told David Frost in an interview: "Well, when the President does it; that means that it is not illegal." (p 159). The "divine right" of Kings lives on!
Overall, Shawcross has written the sine qua non of books on the Cambodia tragedy. It is hard to be `judicious and balanced" when confronted with these events, but the author does provide the essential, measured account. A vital read, for then, and now.
on March 29, 2013
A lethal piece of very well written research on the operation of US foreign policy. As more recently seen in Iraq, the power of the executive branch in this country to engage in war while grossly misleading the public - and Congress - has horrendous consequences for those "freed by bombing." Whilst not particular to Cambodia as Vietnam received most of the B-52 tonnage during the war, the Ark Light raids flown out of either Guam or Thailand with the modified B-52B that had a design capacity to carry 30 tons of iron bombs were usually flown in arrowhead formations of three planes that could obliterate a "box" two miles long and over a half a mile wide. There is a graphic in the book showing the 1973 month-by-month B-52 raids over Cambodia as dots on the map of the country; by the end of the bombing campaign the country is pretty well covered with dots. Folks on the ground never saw it coming - the planes flew in the stratosphere beyond sight or sound. USAF statistics show 126,615 B-52 missions were flown in the war (Laos, Cambodia, South and North Vietnam) with an average bomb load of 14 tons. Since these bombs use RDX that's 1.5x as powerful as TNT per unit of weight the equivalent of 2,659 kilotons was dropped on these countries, 177x the explosive force of the nuke dropped on Hiroshima. However, the "B-52 only" number greatly understates to total dropped on these nations as other aircraft were employed; Laos alone received 2.5 million tons of bombs, more than dropped by the USA, Britain and Germany in Europe in WWII, one bomb load every eight minutes, 24/7 for eight years, including 270 million cluster bombs, about a quarter of which did not detonate - yet, a great testament to the lunatics that run the show in D.C.
on May 30, 2005
Shawcross gets into the minds of Kissinger and Nixon so well. His is a book to be read over and over again to see the working of the U.S. Government and how it can destroy a country. He talks about the 25 pound shark at the bottom of a swimming pool full of children -- and we understand how the USA's leaders destroyed a country. It is a lesson to be learned over and over again as we go about destroying other countries. This is one great read - worthy of the time it takes to understand it. A victory for the author over Mr. Kissinger.
on January 4, 2001
This is a book which describes the destruction of Cambodia. During the Vietnam war the Americans thought that a large portion of the supplies and infantry of the regular units of the North Vietnamese Army were moving into South Vietnam by the use of the Ho Chi Min trail. The trail was a series of roads which rang parallel to South Vietnam though neutral Laos and Cambodia. In reality it seemed that until the events of this book most supplies for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were actually shipped by the Soviet Union through Cambodia.
Both Loas and Cambodia were neutral in the conflict and the United States faced a problem in getting them to stop the movement of troops and supplies through their territory.
The United States used the CIA to fund a private army in Laos to fight against the Pathet Lao the indigenous communist movement. In Cambodia a coup was organised to remove the government of Shinouk and to replace it with Lon Nol. Once that was done Lon Nol gave permission for the United States to bomb Cambodian territory and later for the South Vietnamese Army to mount armed raids into Cambodia.
The air raids were immensely heavy and dropped bomb loads which were similar to the entire tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany in the Second World War. The combination of the bombing and the coup led to the collapse of Cambodia's social fabric. Large numbers of peasants moved off the land to escape the bombing and swelled the capital. The American actions strengthened the hand of the local communists the Kyhmer Rouge and they started to win the civil war. This in turn led to more refugees. Towards the end the Lon Nol government was reduced to total dependence on imported food supplies flown in by the United States. I the end the Kyhmer Rouge were victorious and turned out to be one of the most murderous regimes of the century. (Some claim that on a per capita basis they were the most vicious in the 20th Century a good century for murderous regimes)
This book is an expose of what is a serious blot on the foreign policy record of the United States. It was a significant book at the time as a range of the actions carried out against Cambodia were illegal. However unlike some of the other tragedies of the last century the tragedy of Cambodia seems to be fading into the background.
on July 2, 2007
I was living in Cambodia when I came across this book, following the recommendation of an English friend. I bought the book, opened it... and could no longer put it down! This book came as a complete eye-opener to me, on both how America had conducted its war across Indochina and on Cambodia's history which, for the better and the worse, has been so intimately intermixed with Sihanouk's.
If you are into learning the backside of "official history", then this book's for you. You will no longer look at Kissinger, Nixon or Westmoreland with the same candid, awe-filled, obedient eyes after reading it. Packed with previously unheard-of accounts, reports, testimonies, following a clean, highly intelligent argumentation methodology, Sideshow acts as a real bulldozer on the reader, repeatedly releasing and depicting loads of devastating illustrations of unsound decisions, hidden political actions, secret wars of influences etc. with the consequences that we all know now. It is certainly one of the punchiest, journalism-based historical accounts I have ever read, whatever the subject.
It shed a completely new and dramatic light onto the country I was a guest of then, and forever changed the way I looked at politics, diplomacy and intelligence.