(This is the first part of a two-part story. I will post the second part next week.)
I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania when the Cambodian Holocaust took place, from 1975 to 1979, and the nightmare in that country filled me with an impotent outrage. I can’t explain why, even now. I’m not Cambodian myself; I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and two more distant cultures are difficult to imagine. I didn’t know any Cambodians. I scarcely knew what a Cambodian was. All I knew was what I had read: that the Khmer Rouge insurgents who had seized control of that country in April of 1975 had turned the entire nation into a huge concentration camp. They allowed no foreigner to enter the country, no Cambodian to leave. They’d emptied the cities, forcing everyone into subsistence agriculture in the countryside. Cambodia had no motor vehicles, no post office, no television or radio, no schools, no doctors or hospitals. Just endless days of backbreaking labor in the fields under the burning sun and the watchful eye of the Khmer Rouge soldiers with their AK-47 rifles.
If you were too weak to work, they killed you. If you complained, they killed you. If you tried to eat anything more than the starvation rations they allotted, they killed you. If you had worked for the former government, they killed you. If you had an education, they killed you. If you knew how to read and write, or wore glasses, or knew how to drive a car, they killed you. And many more who weren’t killed starved to death.
Estimates of the number of victims were in the millions. All this information was available in the U.S. in the 1970s, if you knew where to look for it. I felt outrage at what was surely the worst crime since the Allies had shut down the Nazi death camps. And I felt impotence because no one around me seemed to care. In the late 1970s, the last thing Americans wanted to think about was Indochina. We spent far more time and attention debating whether disco was the best thing that had ever happened to popular music or the worst. Whether Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind had overshadowed George Lucas’s Star Wars, or vice versa.
Meanwhile, then Senator George McGovern, noted for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, called for a United Nations force to invade Cambodia and oust the Khmer Rouge. Everyone laughed. “Now George McGovern wants to go to war in Indochina.” I thought he had a good idea.
In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. I remember trying to explain to one of my friends at Penn that this was a good thing. “But now the communists will be running the country,” she said.