Peace, if it really happens, has been a long time coming to Cambodia.
For more than 20 years before the signing of a peace agreement Wednesday in Paris, that unhappy country experienced an unbroken succession of violent upheavals that killed millions, uprooted millions more, and devastated Cambodia's land and spirit.
The Cambodians themselves, including the leaders of all four factions involved in the peace settlement, bear a heavy share of blame for the barbarism, death and misery their country has endured for so long. But so do the policies of other countries, including the United States.
From the beginning to the end of Cambodia's long ordeal (if present events do indeed represent the end), the United States and the other outside powers involved in the conflict invariably chose to pursue goals of their own, at a terrible cost in Cambodian lives, rather than acting in ways that might have stopped or slowed the bloodletting. The melancholy history of Cambodia since the 1960s is, among other things, a record of international cynicism and callousness.
The first violators of Cambodian neutrality were the Vietnamese Communists, who in the mid-1960s set up a string of base camps in eastern Cambodia to support their forces fighting in neighboring South Vietnam. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then Cambodia's ruler and well aware of his country's military weakness, tolerated the Vietnamese intrusion as the necessary price for keeping Cambodia out of the war.
Some of Prince Sihanouk's subordinates, though, were less realistic. Encouraged, almost certainly, by the secret U.S. bombing campaign that began in the early months of the Nixon administration, the Cambodian generals first launched a series of military operations against the Vietnamese bases in late 1969, and then, in March 1970, overthrew Prince Sihanouk while the prince was traveling to Moscow and Beijing seeking help in protecting Cambodia's neutrality.
The new leadership, under the inept Gen. Lon Nol, naively vowed to expel the Vietnamese. The United States, which might have advised them that Cambodia's best chance for national survival lay in finding a way back to neutrality, chose instead -- for the narrowest tactical reasons -- to encourage the new government as it plunged into a war it had no hope of winning.
In the five-year war that followed, neither American military aid, eventually totaling about $1 billion, nor devastating American bombing could make up for the failures of a monumentally incompetent and corrupt Cambodian leadership.
The entire U.S. humanitarian aid program in the first three years of the war amounted to less than a dollar for every Cambodian uprooted by the conflict, and funds in the last two years were only marginally more generous.
Prince Sihanouk, meanwhile, out of injured pride and a thirst for vengeance, joined forces with his mortal enemies -- the Vietnamese and a Cambodian communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge, which had a few thousand guerrillas in remote rural regions of the country. Sihanouk loyalists also joined the resistance, as did Cambodians trained and armed by the Vietnamese.
During the next five years, the Khmer Rouge, led by a small group of far-leftist Cambodian intellectuals, ruthlessly purged pro-Sihanouk and pro-Vietnamese elements and eventually seized complete control of the resistance. Its top leader was a failed engineering student named Saloth Sar, who would become known to history under his pseudonym, Pol Pot.
By the time the Lon Nol government fell in 1975, one out of every ten Cambodians had died from war-related causes and about half the population had become refugees. But even worse suffering was to come. After defeating the decrepit government army, the Khmer Rouge undertook one of the most brutal and fanatical revolutions in history.
Setting out to build a new society by destroying every trace of the old, the revolutionaries drove millions of city residents out into the countryside ("man has to know that he is born from a grain of rice," one officer explained) and thereafter, as one observer wrote, turned Cambodia into "a great slave-labor camp, guarded by teen-aged soldiers in whom every human impulse seemed stifled except a primitive violence and an unfathomable contempt for weakness."
The Khmer Rouge murdered anyone who was associated with the former government, or with foreigners, or who had enough education to be considered an intellectual. (Wearing eyeglasses, some cases, was enough to mark someone for execution.)
They also killed people for not working hard enough, or for complaining, or for trying to practice banned religious or folk customs. Even weeping was considered criticism of the regime, and informers crept through villages in the night listening outside houses so they could denounce anyone they heard sobbing in the dark.