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. 

Useful Stooge Hall of Fame: Malcolm Caldwell

Malcolm Caldwell

In a recent – and fascinating – piece for The Spectator, James Bartholemew bemoaned what he called the “socialist indoctrination” provided by British universities to foreign students who then return home, rise to positions of power, apply what they’ve learned, and as a result do a lot of damage to their nations’ economies. A current example: Yanis Varoufakis, who as Greece’s financial minister earlier this year turned what had actually been an expanding economy into a total disaster. In passing, Bartholemew noted that while most of the British professors responsible for converting foreign students to bad economics “remain comfortably” in the U.K., “uninvolved in the misery they have sown overseas,” there has been one striking example to the contrary: Malcolm Caldwell.

We have to admit that we were unfamiliar with the Caldwell case, so we looked into it. It turns out to be quite a story. In the 1970s Caldwell, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, was a prominent British voice against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. An open Communist, he chaired the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and despised America. Caldwell, Michael Ezra has written, “was most in his element when writing about ‘the demonstrated strengths of the communist system.’” Five years ago, in an article for a Guardian, Andrew Anthony provided a glimpse into Caldwell’s politics:

Kim Il-Sung

It’s not that Caldwell was lost in bookish abstraction, for he did visit the various communist regimes he extolled. It was more that when he got there he was all too willing to accept state propaganda as verified fact. For example, he praised the “magnitude of the economic achievements” of Kim Il-Sung’s impoverished North Korea and, returning from a trip to the highly secretive state, he wrote that the country was “an astonishing tribute not only to the energy, initiative and creativeness of the Korean people, but also to the essential correctness of the Juche line.”…About the totalitarian surveillance and ruthless political repression, Caldwell said nothing.

ca. September 1978, Phnom Penh, Cambodia --- Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot a few months before Vietnam installed a new government in Cambodia, in January 1979. Between 1976 and 1979, he was the Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea. --- Image by © Richard Dudman/Sygma/Corbis
Pol Pot

Caldwell wasn’t just a fan of the North Korean regime. He also admired Pol Pot, the Communist ruler of Cambodia whom he apparently viewed as having devised a new and wonderful form of totalitarianism. As Ezra puts it, Caldwell “shamelessly regurgitated the propaganda provided by Pol Pot’s regime.” Caldwell was, of course, far from alone in this enthusiasm. Most Western “experts” in southeast Asia cheered the rise of Pol Pot’s vicious and violent Khmer Rouge, which ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During those four years, about two million of that country’s seven million people died – a million in executions, and another million from starvation, forced labor, and other such causes. Yet most Western “experts,” Caldwell included, strenuously denied reports that Pol Pot was committing atrocities. What distinguished him from Pol Pot’s other defenders in the West was that he actually went to Cambodia and met his hero.

cambodiatrip (2)
In Cambodia, December 1978, left to right: Michael Dudman, Elizabeth Becker, a member of the Khmer Rouge, Malcolm Caldwell

This was in December 1978, less than a month before Pol Pot was driven from his capital by Vietnamese troops. For two weeks, Caldwell and a pair of American journalists, Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post and Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, were shown around Cambodia by Khmer Rouge handlers. It was a transparent Potemkin-village sideshow, but Caldwell fell for every bit of it; as Becker later recalled, Caldwell “didn’t want to know about problems with the Khmer Rouge.” Convinced that the world was on the verge of famine, he saw Pol Pot as having the answer: the use of forced collectivization and slave labor to increase rice production. As Anthony explains, however, “owing to the shortage of technicians and experts (who were killed as class enemies) and lack of peasant support, production fell well short of targets.” The result was – yes – famine, which Pol Pot blamed on “spies and counter revolutionaries” who soon found themselves in torture camps. Cambodian refugees had brought with them to the West these and other horrifying facts about Pol Pot’s regime. But Caldwell, the truest of true believers, didn’t buy any of it. 

Which brings us to the night of December 22, 1978. Caldwell, recounts Anthony, 

was taken in a Mercedes limousine to see Pol Pot. The setting for the meeting was the former Governor’s Palace on the waterfront, built during the French colonial period. In a grand reception room replete with fans and billowing white curtains, the two men sat down and discussed revolutionary economic theory….

The perennially shabby academic and the fastidious dictator must have made for an odd couple. In any case, Caldwell left the meeting a happy man. He returned to the guest house he was sharing with Becker and Dudman, full of praise for Pol Pot and his political outlook.

What happened next? We’ll get around to that on Monday.