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Sideshow by William Shawcross
When we consider Nixon, Kissinger and the destruction of Cambodia, William Shawcross’s Sideshow is perhaps the main event, if not the last word. Having completed the book, it is hard to imagine that the author has left a single document on the subject untouched, not researching a single actor in the saga. The level of detail here is forensic, perhaps, because the actors in the story never develop character, because they are always too busy, apparently, playing their obvious roles.
Perhaps, it’s easier at first to say what a sideshow isn’t, so that its focus can be very clear. Sideshow is not about the Vietnam War, although of course it figures almost constantly, sometimes on the border, sometimes just on this side. Sideshow is not even a description of the Khmer Rouge government, its genocidal attempts or atrocities, although of course it and its actions are covered in the book’s final chapters after the US-backed regime came to power after its fall. , if this is not an oxymoron.
The sideshow describes US policy toward Cambodia since the late 1960s, its effects on Cambodian society, attempts to manipulate Cambodian politics, and the logic, if that is a relevant word, that underpinned the involvement. The complete confusion described is perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening sequence where the first B-52 raids on targets in Cambodia are described. Not only were these missions secretive, but it appears that even the aircrew who flew them did not know in advance where they were going, and in the first instance the radio operator on board admitted that the mission had been completed and was still unaware of their status. In addition, all records relating to the completion of the task were falsified in an attempt to hide the location of the dropped bombs from the rest of the world. Not bad for a start.
A theme in Sideshow is how random the policy-making process was in Washington in the late 1960s. You have powerful personalities using the platform to promote yourself and only yourself. You have effective actors influenced more by Hollywood’s vision of reality than by anything they’ve experienced, either through reality or informational briefings. The world is always wrong if it doesn’t conform to how it should be. A quote survives about how not to let the socialists be so stupid as to elect them, as in Chile, and how to promote democracy as an overarching goal.
An instructive and memorable passage described the Houston Plan, which authorized wire-tapping, mail-meddling, and general surveillance of anyone deemed of interest, including anyone willing to question what was wrongly orthodox. William Shawcross writes: “Nixon approved the plan… (whose)… discovery in 1973 helped fuel such congressional outrage that the legislature finally forced the White House to end the heavy bombing of Cambodia, which was just that. In the summer of 1970, Huston It began to circulate as he drafted his proposal. It became an important part of the impeachment process. When, much later, Nixon was asked by David Frost to justify his actions, he clearly created a new version of presidential impropriety – ‘Well, when the president does that. That does not make it illegitimate then, which only shows that other, more recent authorities were not actually responsible for inventing the concept of accuracy.
And in another passage related to separate events, William Shawcross quotes Senator William J. Fulbright as saying, “I don’t think it’s legal or constitutional. But whether it’s right or not, he’s done it. He’s got the power. We’ll do it because our There is no easy way to stop him in the system.” Some things, it seems, don’t change no matter how pressing the need is or how many decades have passed in between.
Long before the end of the book, an ending that we now know has unfolded, a descent into chaos seemed inevitable for Cambodia. It is a small nation and like a thorn in an elephant’s foot it has been played with, scratched, pulled out and discarded. The elephant moved forward and the thorn was apparently left to its own devices, finally to impale itself.
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