Malcolm Caldwell: Death of a Useful Stooge

We’re posting these photos in lieu of those famous pictures of piles of skulls from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields

On Friday we began the story of Malcolm Caldwell, the British academic and activist who vigorously defended Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia – and ended up meeting the great man himself on December 22, 1978. Following his interview with the dictator, Caldwell and his tour companions, Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post and Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, dined together. Then Becker and Caldwell stayed up for a while and debated Pol Pot’s revolution, which Becker deplored (believing, as she did, refugees’ innumerable accounts of unspeakable atrocities) and which Caldwell tried to argue her into supporting. Becker eventually went to bed, and some hours later was awakened by gunfire. Andrew Anthony, in a 2010 piece, told what happened next:

killingfields2She opened her bedroom door to see a young man pointing a pistol at her. He was wearing two bands of ammunition and carrying an automatic rifle over his shoulder. She begged him not to shoot and locked herself in her bathroom.

Meanwhile Dudman had woken up and, looking out of his window, saw a file of men running along the street. He knocked on Caldwell’s door. The two men spoke briefly and then a heavily armed man approached. The man shot at the floor and Dudman ran into his room. Two shots were fired through his door. The two Americans remained hiding in their rooms for the next hour before an aide arrived and told Becker to stay where she was. Almost another hour passed before she was allowed to come out. Caldwell, she was told, had been shot. He was dead.

killingfields3She later recounted what happened next: she and Dudman were taken to Caldwell’s room. “Malcolm was lying next to his bed. His face was ashen and there was blood on his chest and leg. He was dressed, as if he had been awake for a while before being shot.” Also lying dead in the room was an Asian man. What had happened? The Khmer Rouge put out at least two stories. According to one of them, three men, apparently working for Vietnam, had come to murder Caldwell; one of them had committed suicide, while a second escaped and a third was captured by the Khmer Rouge. According to another official account, however, two of the guards who’d been protecting the three foreigners had committed the murder, and had confessed afterwards to being part of an anti-revolutionary conspiracy. 

killingfields5People who understood Pol Pot weren’t convinced by any of these explanations. To them, it seemed clear that the murderer of a million people had claimed yet another victim. Never mind that he’d supposedly just had a friendly meeting with Caldwell: Anthony quotes a Pol Pot deputy as noting that the dictator, in meetings with any number of persons who thought they were on good terms with him, “would smile his unruffled smile, and then they would be taken away and executed.” Journalist Wilfred Burchett later claimed to have seen an official Cambodian report affirming that Caldwell had been “murdered by members of the National Security Force personnel on the instructions of the Pol Pot government.” British intelligence, too, concluded that Pol Pot had ordered the murder.

But what was the motive? There have been various theories: Pol Pot and Caldwell had argued; Caldwell, during their conversation, had lost his faith in the revolution; Pol Pot had revealed secrets to Caldwell that he didn’t want getting out; Pol Pot wanted to give the Vietnamese bad PR by murdering Caldwell and then blaming it on them.

killingfields4None of these theories is particularly convincing; surely one can’t easily imagine Caldwell arguing with Pol Pot or coming to his senses about the Khmer Rouge over the course of a single conversation. Becker, for her part, was sure Pol Pot had ordered Caldwell’s death, but she didn’t feel the need to seek out a rational motive. After all, pretty much everything Pol Pot had done was irrational. He’d executed a million of his own people for no reason whatsoever. Why should the murder of Caldwell make sense? “Malcolm Caldwell’s death,” as she memorably put it, “was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired.”

Precisely. We may not know all the details of what happened that night, but the point is clear: this was one useful stooge who was the fatal victim of his own ideological folly. The story of Caldwell’s life and death is one that should be widely disseminated as a cautionary tale for anyone prone to getting starry-eyed over bloodthirsty totalitarians. 

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