The Khmer Rouge came to power as a result of its strategic location and the decisions made by both its rulers and those of the United States. Those decisions had great consequences for Cambodia, as Pol Pot’s regime imposed its bizarre ideology on the country.
Cambodia became involved in the Vietnam War because the North Vietnamese used it as a conduit for men and supplies to South Vietnam. Its leader, Norodom Sihanouk, did not intervene, for fear his country might be dragged into the war. However, following the Tet Offensive, the VC’s presence in Cambodia increased, and President Nixon decided to clear the so-called ‘sanctuaries’. At first, this took the form of bombing, but when that proved ineffective Nixon ordered a ground offensive. Sihanouk refused to accede, so the US encouraged a coup against him in March 1970. His replacement, Lon Nol, declared war on the VC, and invited the US to invade.
The operation was a minor success for the US, but had catastrophic consequences for Cambodia. The incursion drove the VC/NVA deeper inland, giving them control of about half the country by the middle of 1970. The North Vietnamese sought local allies to fight the war for them, and chose the Khmer Rouge (KR) – an obscure guerrilla group numbering about 3,000 men. The KR now found themselves armed with Chinese and Russian weapons, supplied via the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Sihanouk too acted to intensify the conflict, by urging his people to join the KR and fight Lon Nol. This gave the KR legitimacy, allowing them to grow to 60,000.
As the war turned against the Cambodian army, the US stepped up the bombing campaign, but this only played into the KR’s hands. Thousands joined the guerrillas, allowing the VC/NVA to withdraw in 1973, as part of the Paris Peace Agreement.
With American troops now out of Vietnam, Congress ordered a halt to the bombing in August, 1973, leaving the Khmer Rouge in control of most of the country. By April 1975, their forces had taken the capital, becoming the undisputed rulers of Cambodia. Pol Pot and his henchmen now transformed almost every aspect of Cambodian life, building the kind of classless society they had advocated for years.
Politically, they replaced all…