U.S. Response


Limited Diplomatic Response 

United States Presidents

As the genocide occurred in Cambodia, the United States response remained limited. While the lack of military response could be justified by the aftermath of United States involvement in Vietnam and the ensuing climate of "Southeast Asia fatigue," Power finds striking the lack of even a 'soft response' to the genocide. "Neither President Ford nor President Carter, who took office in January in 1977, was going to consider  sending U.S. troops back to Southeast Asia. But it is still striking that so many Americans concluded that nothing at all could be done. Even the 'soft' response options that were available to the United States were passed up" (Power 123).

In A Problem from Hell, Power notes that the United States barely even denounced the massacres (Power 123). And in her article "Raising the Cost of Genocide," Power points out that President Ford initially denounced the Khmer Rouge's actions for a month only to then go largely silent on the matter, and that President Jimmy Carter, in his first two years as president, made no mention of the massacres taking place in Cambodia. According to Power, 
"Bilaterial denunciations of the United States may well have had little effect on the Khmer Rouge's internal practices. Unfortunately, because so few U.S. officials spoke out publicly against the genocide, we cannot know" (Power 126).

President Carter first publicly denounced the Khmer Rouge in April 1978. Carter sent a message to an independent commission examining the atrocity reports in Oslo:
America cannot avoid the responsibility to speak out in condemnation of the Cambodian government, the worst violator of human rights in the world today. Thousands of refugees have accused their government of inflicting death on hundreds of thousands of Cambodian people through the genocidal policies is has implemented over the past three years...It is in obligation of every member of the international community to protest the policies of this or any nation which cruelly and systematically violates the right of its people to enjoy life and basic human dignities.  


George McGovern

McGovern was a vocal advocate for intervention in Cambodia. He had been staunchly against American participation in the Vietnam War, but believed Cambodia was a different case. Many constituents and fellow politicians accuded McGovern of being a flip-flopper.



According to Samantha Power and several other researchers and scholars, the United States failed to intervene to the stop the Cambodian genocide because of a variety of factors, which we outline below. 

A Blunted Understanding of the Extent of the Atrocities

According to Power, "another factor that
 blunted understanding of the evil of the regime was that many Cambodians died of starvation and malnutrition, which outsiders associated with 'natural' economic and climatic forces" (Power 112). This observation illustrates the potential dangers of limiting our understanding of genocide to outright killings. As noted by the Genocide Prevention Task Force in their report Preventing Genocide, genocide can manifest in many different ways. 

In the case of Cambodia, a limited imagination "blunted understanding" of the situation.

Leftists Wanting to See Communism Succeed

According to Power, "Leading voices on the American left, a constituency that in other circumstances might have been the most prone to shame the U.S. government into at least denouncing the KR, ridiculed the early atrocity
claims as conservative "mythmaking" (Power 112). 

Power goes on to say, "A few leftists were so eager to see an egalitarian band of Communist revolutionaries taking control of yet another Southeast Asian state that they paid little attention to reports of terror. But many who in fact cared about the welfare of Cambodians were relieved that the corrupt, abusive Lon Nol had been deposed. Most had learned to doubt any claim that emerged from a U.S. government source. But above all, politics and recent history aside, they possessed a natural, human incapacity to take their imaginations where the refugees demanded they go" (Power 113).

This point illustrates how geopolitical ideological conflicts can hinder genocide prevention. Because groups within the United States had a vested interest in seeing the Khmer Rouge regime succeed, they hindered investigation and action. 

Mistrust of Refugees

According to Power, "An internal policy document sent in March 1977 from Amnesty's London headquarters to national chapters explained the organization's reticence. Amnesty was mistrustful of "conservative opinions" and refugee testimony alike" (Power 113).

Southeast Asia Fatigue                                
"But in the first three years of KR rule, even the Americans most concerned about Cambodia--Twining, Quinn, 
and Becker among them--internalized the constraints of the day and the system. they knew that drawing attention to the slaughter in Cambodia would have reminded Americans of its past sins, reopened wounds that had not yet healed at home, and invited questions about what the United States planned to do to curb the terror...Once U.S. troops had withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973, Americans deemed all of Southeast Asia unspeakable, unwatchable, and from a policy perspective, unfixable. 'There could have been two genocides in Cambodia nobody would have cared,' remembers Morton Abramowitz, who at the time was an Asia specialist at the Pentagon and in 1978 became U.S. ambassador to Thailand. During the Khmer Rouge period, he remembers, 'people just wanted to forget about the place. They wanted it off the radar (Power 122).' "