Paul Greenberg

There are some names in the obituary columns that say more than the voices of the living.

Such is the name of Dith Pran, who died in New Brunswick, N.J., last Sunday at the age of 65. He was the Cambodian photographer who somehow survived the collection of killing fields that his country became after the Americans abandoned it. And who somehow made his way to the United States to tell the world about it.

Millions of his countrymen would lose their lives after the Khmer Rouge swept into Phnom Penh and began rounding up unreliable types - i.e., just about anybody who could read and write. Literacy is dangerous. It gives people ideas, and the only ideas allowed in the Khmer Rouge's new Cambodia were the Party's. Holding any others could prove a capital offense.

The toll of the Khmer Rouge's brief but fatal reign of terror in Cambodia (1975-78) is uncertain - a million, two? Maybe a quarter, maybe a third of the country's pre-Communist population. The numbers can only be estimated, but the pictures of pyramids of skulls are well known. They've become emblematic of that bloody time.

Cambodia not only got a new name (Democratic Kampuchea) but a new calendar, beginning with the Year Zero. Not just hundreds of thousands of people were to be wiped out but the past itself. The Marxist dream of creating the New Man never got so close to awful reality.

It wasn't supposed to happen that way, not according to the sophisticates who were advocating an American withdrawal from Indochina in the 1970s. They blithely dismissed all the warnings that a bloodbath would follow once the United States abandoned its allies in Southeast Asia:

"Some will find the whole bloodbath debate unreal. What future possibility could be more terrible than the reality of what is happening in Cambodia now?" -Anthony Lewis in the New York Times, March 17, 1975.

"The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is not guns but peace. And the best way to accomplish that goal is by ending military aid now." -U.S. Rep. (now Sen.) Chris Dodd of Connecticut, March 12, 1975.

"The evidence is that in Cambodia the much heralded bloodbath that was supposed to follow the fall of Phnom Penh has not taken place." -The Nation, June 14, 1975, even as the bloodbath was taking place.

"Indochina Without Americans/For Most, A Better Life," -headline in the New York Times, April 13, 1975.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.