Pol Pot Anatomy of a Nightmare

Philip Short

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

576 Pages


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Nominated for the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize

Philip Short observed Pol Pot at close quarters during the one and only official visit he ever made abroad. It was China, 1977, two years after the reclusive Cambodian had seized power. Short was struck with Pol Pot's charm and charisma, his detachment and self-abnegation, which seemed more appropriate to a Buddhist monk than to the leader of a feudal nation-state.

Yet Pol was the architect of one of the most radical and ruthless experiments in social engineering ever undertaken. His egalitarian utopia released a reign of terror whose purpose was nothing less than to obliterate old thoughts and old ideas where necessary—by exterminating all those who held them. The country descended into madness; in three years one in every five Cambodians—more than a million people—had perished in the killing fields or from hunger.

Why did it happen? How did an idealistic dream of justice and prosperity mutate into one of humanity's worst nightmares? To answer these and other questions about one of the most terrifying regimes of modern times, the author traveled the length and breadth of Cambodia. Short interviewed former Khmer Rouge leaders and, working with Khmer and Vietnamese assistants, sifted through previously closed archives in Beijing, Moscow, Hanoi, Paris, and elsewhere in the West. He spent months in Khmer Rouge fiefdoms along the Thai-Cambodian border, talking with Khien Samphan and Ieng Sary, Pol's brother-in-law and foreign minister, and other principals of the movement. These and other key figures speak here for the first time about their beliefs and motives. One especially revealing voice is that of Keng Vannsak, who introduced Pol Pot to politics as a student in Paris in 1950.

The author traces Pol Pot's life from altruistic youth to Khmer Rouge messiah whose peculiarly abominable form of rule had its roots in the feudalism of Angkor. Philip Short's masterly narrative reveals how Pol Pot became the supreme architect of his country's desolation. But he did not act alone, as Short maintains here. Without Vietnam, and without the war that America waged there, there would have been no Pol Pot and no killing fields. Along with the thousands of Cambodian intellectuals who shared Pol's vision of the future, the West—the United States above all—must share responsibility for a disaster whose horrors continue to reverberate in today's troubling events.


Praise for Pol Pot

"Short ingeniously teases out the various strands of revolutionary thought that influenced the young Sar . . . [This is a] superb, authoritative account of the man and the madness that transformed Cambodia . . . Drawing on interviews with former members of the Khmer Rouge movement and archival material in France, Russia, China, Cambodia and Vietnam, Short carries the reader along in a remarkably lucid exposition of the political events that brought Pol Pot to power, kept him there briefly, and then brought him down . . . The forces that shaped [Pol Pot], and his thinking, come into focus, and Short chronicles the stages of the Cambodian revolution with admirable clarity."—William Grimes, The New York Times

"One of the most important—and thoroughly readable—works on Pol Pot and modern Cambodian history . . . The riveting chapter on the fall of Phnom Penh alone makes Philip Short's [book] worth reading . . . The reader of Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare will quickly recognize the author's expertise on Chinese politics, and the book benefits greatly from his knowledge on the subject."—Michael O'Donnell, Bookforum

"Short's Pot possesses a detailed reality whenever he appears . . . Short is no apologist of the Khmer Rouge, but an honest researcher who tries . . . to keep everything in perspective."—William T. Vollmann, The New York Times Book Review

"[Short does] a spectacularly efficient job of describing what happened, and how. He has spent [years interviewing] survivors of the killing fields [as well as] perpetrators. He has dug up piles of revealing documents [to assemble] a chillingly clear portrait of Saloth Sar, the man who became Pol Pot."—The Economist

"Pot once remarked that the Cambodian authorities in the 1950s 'knew who I was; but they did not know what I was.' Short, in his attempt to explain how a young man known for his bland amiability came to preside over the deaths of a million and a half people, follows the dictator from a childhood spent partly among palace concubines through his student days in Paris (where he read Stalin because Marx was over his head) to his imposition of a 'slave state.' Short does a good job on the political context of Pol Pot's rise, on his Buddhist influences, and on his gift for subterfuge. He remained almost invisible until the moment he took power. Later, busy killing his aides, he hid a Vietnamese invasion from his Army—then lived on for two decades, drinking whiskey and reading Paris-Match at his jungle base, before dying peacefully in his own bed."—The New Yorker

"Philip Short's Pol Pot is an almanac of extermination that achieves the near impossible feat of translating madness into logic. This biography is a tour de force."—David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of W.E.B. DuBois

"[Short] probes deeply into the background of a man who launched the world's most radical modern revolution by taking the tiny nation of Cambodia where 'no country in history has ever gone before' . . . Short's contribution is in describing Pol Pot's Cambodia as a modern slave state, as North Korea still is. Even today, Cambodia is ruled autocratically by former minor Khmer Rouge leaders, despite the efforts of the United Nations to bring democracy there . . . Like other tyrants of his century, we may never know enough about [Pol Pot] to draw the right conclusions. Short's book, however, takes us more than halfway there."—Clayton Jones, The Christian Science Monitor

"One and a half million Cambodians died at the hands of Pol Pot during his brief rule. More than a biography of the Cambodian leader, this work provides an informative political history of Cambodia over the past 50 years. A journalist with 25 years of reporting experience with the BBC, Short has crafted a well-written narrative possessing both shocking detail and thoughtful analysis. The incredible history of murder and death by starvation and disease is widely known, but its origins are not. Short points to the influence of Cambodia's medieval past, the interplay of the tenets of Theravada Buddhism, and the insidious political roles played by the West. For example, he outlines how the United States helped maintain Pol Pot in office as a pawn to be used against the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Short extends his interpretation to demonstrate parallels in the breakdown of the Cambodian civilization with that of Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, and Mao's China. At times, the horrible nature of the subject elicits a haunting feeling when one contemplates the future of civilization. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"As the evil genius who presided over the political maelstrom that, from 1975 through 1979, killed 1.5 million of Cambodia's 7 million inhabitants, Pol Pot well deserves his place—alongside Hitler and Stalin—in the bloody modern pantheon of ideological monsters. With this harrowingly detailed biography, readers come to understand how a once-obscure schoolteacher earned that spot in infamy. Surprisingly, the man who oversaw the torture and bloodletting on his country's notorious Killing Fields enters Short's narrative quite innocently—just one more Khmer village boy, playing with siblings and friends. But during the course of his education, first in Phnom Penh and then in Paris, Pot first changes his name (originally Saloth Sar) and then resolves to radically change his native land by pouring the grim amorality of Khmer mythology into the grimmer doctrines of radical egalitarianism. Thus, the boy once entranced by tales of menacing wizards and sorcerers becomes the man enamored of the edicts of Robespierre and Stalin. The chronicle becomes truly horrifying when Cambodia—long a pawn of Vietnam and France, China and the U.S.—falls under the sway of this metamorphosed fanatic. With the willing assistance of a black-clad, communist army, Pot turns the entire country into a huge slave camp—and cemetery. Deeply unsettling, Short's probing analysis reveals how the loftiest of political ideals can become the justification for the cruelest brutality. A chilling portrait."—Booklist (starred review)

"'He was very likeable, a really nice person. He was friendly, and everything he said seemed very sensible.' But he was also one of history's most accomplished mass murderers, as this portrait shows. The man born Saloth Sar in 1925 was something of an accidental communist, suggests former Beijing BBC correspondent Short. As a young foreign-exchange student in 1950 Paris, Sar had the chance to go camping for a month in Switzerland but, unable to afford the $70 fee, instead took a free work-study trip to Yugoslavia. A revolutionary was thus born, though it appears that Sar was pushed hard to the left by the intransigent, newly installed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who suppressed the democratic reform movements of the time. As a guerrilla living among the Montagnard people in Cambodia's eastern highlands, Sar slowly elaborated a city-dweller-hating ideology that, Short writes, would form the basis of a modern slave state: farmers outside the zone of urban corruption were the vanguard of a nativist revolutionary movement; urbanites were first in line to be imprisoned and executed. He adopted his new name (the Pols had been royal slaves) in 1970, the year the American invasion of Cambodia swelled the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's peasant cadres drove the Americans away and, once the foreigners were gone, turned their weapons on their own people—often, Short writes, cannibalizing their victims. As many as 1.5 million Cambodians died from 1975 to 1978, when a Vietnamese invasion ended the terror. (Pol fled, dying 20 years later, still 'chillingly unrepentant.') Yet, Short argues, recent attempts to try the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership for genocide are legally inexact and in all events seem intended to disguise America's role in the bloodbath, as well as the involvement of still-powerful figures like Sihanouk, who only recently abdicated. A superbly wrought, richly nuanced study in evil, though more likely to attract discussion for its controversial conclusion than its careful rendering of its murderous subject."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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There were many causes of the egregious tragedy that befell Cambodia in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and many actors amongst whom responsibility must be shared. The over-confidence of the country's new leaders, above all of its principal...

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  • Philip Short

  • Philip Short has been a foreign correspondent for The Times (London), The Economist, and the BBC in Uganda, Moscow, China, and Washington, D.C. He is the author of the definitive biography of Mao Tse-tung, and lived in China and Cambodia in the 1970s and early 1980s, where he has returned regularly ever since. Short now lives in southern France.

  • Philip Short Monika Charvatova