"We can't get Washington to listen. There's going to be a famine in Cambodia and Washington won't believe it." U.S. Embassy official Bangkok, May 1979

"This so-called famine is a trap, a Chinese plot . . . the West is playing it up to supply food and ammunition to the Pol Pot forces." Vietnamese spokesman United Nations, Ocotber 1979

There are precedents for the survival of a people being pinned to the political goals of warring nations. But the catastrophe facing Cambodians today is especially deplorable because those earlier tragedies -- the Holocaust, in particular -- were to have taught the world a lesson.

As so often in the recent and distant past, the Cambodian people hav become pawns of geopolitics, victims of the conflicting motives of their neighbors and the great powers. For months, as the Cambodian tragedy took shape, the nations involved took turns raising the issue and denying it existed, as it suited their political purposes.

What is at stake here is the control of Indochina. It is not simply a surrogate war between the Chinese and Russians fought out by the resistance troops of Pol Pot's regime and the Vietmanese army. Although Peking and Moscow are these rivals' chief supporters, both major Communist powers have remained in the background during much of the international debate. In many ways, the debate has become an extension of the last Indochina war, with the United States and Vietnam emerging as the rival voices.

Washington and Hanoi have exchanged accusations, each viewing the other as the supporter of genocide. The suspicions both hold of the other are so deep that whenever one country has taken a stand, the other has opposed it. When prospective aid for the Khmer people did not coincide with military or political plans, the famine itself ws disputed, first, by the United States, now by Vietnam.

At one crucial juncture, the Geneva Conference on Indochinese Refugees in July, United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim brokered a deal that removed any discussion of Cambodia from the agenda because it was inconvenient for all interested parties.

At issue for Washington was U.S. policy to thwart Vietnamese dominance over Cambodia all of Indochina. Immediately after the Vietnamese overthrew the Pol Pot regime and installed the Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh, Washington began a campaign to punish Hanoi. Any nation giving aid to Vietnam was asked to suspend or cut assistance. By June, when the stream of Vietnamese boat people horrified the world, Washington had achieved success. The most important western aid projects, save those of Sweden, had ground to a halt.

When the question of aid for Cambodia arose, Washington was dubious. According to well informed sources in Washington and Bangkok, key U.S. officials in Washington were reluctant to believe the mounting evidence of a famine because it would mean that the United States would have to feed people under Vietnamese control. That could strengthen the Vietnamese-controlled government of Heng Samrin, in the process granting it defacto recognition, and perhaps ensure Hanoi's sway over the region where the United States suffered defeat.

"It was easier for policy reasons to wait to see if the 'worst case' scenario was accurate," said one source who attended several policy meetings. "In July the CIA and some members of State were still talking about the famine as if it were a propaganda tool of Hanoi to get the United States to feed and recognize the Heng Samrin government."

As a result, the Carter administration did not lead the world in relief efforts, despite recent assertions to the contrary. There were serious divisions within the government over the veracity of evidence and the effect relief would have on the area's political balance. The earliest warnings came at the end of February, yet it was not until July 2 that Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance made a public appeal for famine relief, the first high-ranking official to do so. President Carter then let more than three months elapse before he addressed the nation on Oct. 24 TO ANNOUNCE THE U.S. commitment of $69 million in famine relief. Debating the evidence

The debate over the evidence pitted the American Embassy in Bangkok against Washington, particularly intelligence analysts in State and the CIA.

It was clear by March that the food supply in Cambodia had been drawn down seriously, and Bangkok duly reported the problem to Washington. Immediately after the Vietnamese invasion, the Cambodians celebrated the end of Pol Pot's bloody and tyrannical rule by eating up the available stocks. "We broke into the warehouses and ate until we were full," said Han Tao, a Cambodian refugee interviewed at a Thai camp. "We slaughtered chickens and made a feast. When the Vietnamese came they told us to go back to our villages."

Most did not reach their homes. Pol Pot's forces were proving stronger than predicted and the Vietnamese army could not provide peasants with security or an administration to put the country back on its feet. By April, the American embassy made the prognosis that Cambodia faced severe famine. U.S. officials in Bangkok argued that it was unlikely that Vietnam could or would provide enough seed rice for Cambodians to plant the summer crop and that the competing armies were more intent on winning amilitary victory than feeding the population.

In an interview in early May, one embassy officer complained that "we can't get Washington to listen" to requests that the United States openly campaign for international assistance to Cambodia. The United States had made discreet assurances of aid to international agncies but was holding back for more solid evidence of an impending catastrophe, the officer said.

Bangkok also jumped into the political debate, arguing that it was to America's advantage to press ahead. Thai officials were worried that the food crisis would send thousands of new Cambodian refugees to its already overflowing camps. Immediate aid would help that ally and improve the U.S. image in the region, the embassy argued.

Washington disagreed. Later that month, in Washington , three Asian analysts at the State Department explained why they took issue with their Bangkok counterparts. "The general conclusion is that the prospect is not very high that there will be anything like mass starvation in Cambodia," said one of these Indochina experts.

Another intelligence analyst in Washington added: "All Bangkok knows is dependent on refugee testimony from one section of Cambodia, from the West. The Phnom Penh government [of Heng Samrin] has said it is planting again and, well, the Soviet Union and Vietnam will feed the majority of the people. Politically, they have to."

During the Pol Pot era almost all of the accounts of that regime's policies of executions, hard labor and terrorism came from the western section, yet the United States prepared major dossiers based on that testimony attacking Pol Pot for human rights violations. Nor is it common for the United States to accept at face value the official statements of Vietnam or the good will and common sense of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Morton Abramowitz, journeyed to Washington last summer to convince policy makers that something had to be done or some 200,000 starving Cambodians would be straggling across into Thailand by October. That estimate was considered "alarmist" by State and CIA analysts, according to informed sources. It has proved to be conservative. A switch of positions

Now the administration claims it was waiting for satellite photographs of Cambodia to determine the extent of the food problem. Around the first of August these pictures brought back the gloomy news that only 10 percent of the land was under cultivation. It was far worse than the predictions from Bangkok.

Those photographs also raised new questions. In 1975, during the worst days of the civil war, when the United States was operating a massive airlift into Phnom Penh to feed the people under Lon Nol, more than one-third of the land was under cultivation, according to U.S. estimates of the time. If 90 percent of the land was fallow this summer, analysts reasoned, it could mean that the Vietnamese army was meeting greater resistance from Pol Pot and the Cambodian people. The political situation was in flux, it was decided.

The skeptics were converted and by September a Cambodian food task force had been formed at the State Department. Yet when members of Congress like Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) tried to find administration witnesses to testify in favor of appropriations for food relief, none could be found. The administration said it was still waiting for and agreement between Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese and international aid groups before announcing a major commitment. But by October, when the president went before the public, the politics of famine had changed and now it was the Vietnamese who found it convenient to deny the existence of a famine.

Earlier, from May through September, the Vietnamese had allowed several journalists and relief workers to travel through Cambodia and see for themselves the unbelievable horror of the country. Vietnam was still smarting from the international criticism following its invasion and the western aid cutoff. Hanoi and the Heng Samrin government needed to change world opinion.

The stories and photograhs that came out of those trips showed a country with few children under the age of 5, women sterile from malnutrition and 2 million people facing starvation.

Those reports also reflected the Vietnamese policy of laying the full blame for the famine on the Pol Pot regime rather than admitting that the civil war was deciding factor. The Heng Samrin government and Vietnam argued that aid should be sent to Phnom Penh only, not to people living in the sanctuaries of the murderous Pol Pot, and they asked that Heng Samrin be given official recognition as the new legitimate government.

Pol Pot was not considered a serious threat then. Almost 200,000 Vietnamese troops were fighting to eliminate a force of Pol Pot's soldiers that was estimated at less than 30,000. As late as August, in an interview in Hanoi, Nguyen Co Thach, one of Vietnam's leading foreign policy makers, predicted that Pol Pot would be defeated before the year's end. "You will see, there will be no war, no hostility in Kampuchea [Cambodia]," he said, "In Chicago you have a lot of gangsters. It is the same thing with Pol Pot in Kampuchea.His troops are like mosquitoes who can bite you but cannot kill you. The only problem in Kampuchea is a food problem."

Yet when western countries tried to respond to these appeals, they were rebuffed if certain conditions were not met.Sweden was one of the first nations to offer bilateral assistance to Cambodia, specifically to the more than 40,000 Cambodians who faced imminent death in western Cambodia after being pushed back across the border by the Thai military.

Neither side accepted the offer. The political contest, Sweden discovered, was very real. Even thoughStockholm was the only western contry to continue major aid to Vietnam it, too, would have had to grant something like recognition to Heng Samrin before aid was accepted.

Soon other contries and agencies would stumble over the recognition hurdle. Only the International Red Cross and UNICEF could give aid to both sides of the civil war without breaking their charters or governmental statutes. The U.N. and most other countries continue to recognize Pol Pot as the leader of Cambodia because they opose foreign invasion and occupation. The Vietnamese argued then, as they do now, that Pol Pot was the Hitler of Southeast Asia -- a man President Carter described as the worst violator of human right -- and does not deserve international support. In august and September, after a summer of fits and starts, the Red Cross and UNICEF prematurely announced agreements to set up a $110 million aid program designed to send in at least 600 tons of rice daily. In early October, however, Phnom Penh denied that it had accepted this arrangement and made pointed criticicism of the "illegal entry" of UNICEF and Red Cross teams to Pol Pot's sanctuaries. It was a final attempt to steer all aid through Phnom Penh and it failed.

This followed a series of other defeats for Heng Samrin: At the Havana conference of nonaligned nations, neither delegation from Cambodia was seated; at the U.N., Pol Pot kept his seat. After these failures in the international arena, Hanoi turned back to the battlefield. The Vietnamese have begun a dry season offensive to wipe out Pol Pot and make the recognition question moot. Suddenly, Pol Pot became the number one problem facing Cambodia, not food. Hanoi's turnaround

Just as the United States began championing aid for famine victims, Hanoi changed it policy. Washington decried Hanoi for blocking western aid. Hanoi countered that Washington's newest friend, China, was arming the troops of the genocidal leader Pol Pot. Heng Samrin officials and Hanoi now said that Cambodia only faced a "food shortage" that could be solved with one good harvest.

"This so-called famine is a trap, a Chinese plot," said Cu Dinh Ba, counselor for the Vietnamese mission at the U.N. "The only problem facing Kampuchea is a return of Pol Pot . . . the West is playing up [the famine] to supply food and ammunition to the Pol Pot farces."

During an interview, Ba and Vietnamese Ambassador Ha Van Lau said aid could only be given to Phnom Penh, that the situation was not so severe to warrant aid to Pol Pot as well. War had become the paramount issue, war and the politics of control of Indochina. For if the resistance troops are not destroyed during this dry season, the Vietnamese could face continued guerrilla war that would drain their already burdened economy.

Apparently, the Chinese military aid to Pol Pot has been sufficient to allow his troops to continue damaging the Vietnamese forces. There are more guns in Cambodia now, visitors have said, than food. And because of the close friendship between the United States and China -- and American support of Pol Pot at the U.N. -- Hanoi is convinced that American policy is aimed directly at defeating Vietnam. Washington is equally convinced Vietnam would allow the people of Cambodia to die if it were necessary for Hanoi's control of Indochina.

Recently the Soviet Union claimed it contributed $85 million in aid for civilians in Cambodia. Vietnam said it had given another $50 million in food relief. Undoubtedly both nations have helped, but if their aid had been of such magnitude the eyewitness accounts of famine in Cambodia are wrong. When asked about such inconsistencies, Ba, the Vietnamese official, said the western reports of famine and holocaust were done by Chinese agents."

Throughout this political contest of wills over the existence of a famine and how to feed the people, tens of thousands of Cambodians have died and thousands more have been permanently damaged by illnesses. earlier, during Pol Pot's reign, at least one million died or were executed. Before that, during the civil war, at least half a million people were killed.

It is a record of war that has reduced a bountiful agricultural country to one whose existence is in question. Now, with the faces of starvation peering out of newspapers and television screens, U.S. officials are searching for culprits. but few countries and few American politicians can easily exculpate themselves. The regimes of Heng Samrin and Pol Pot, and their allies, Vietna m, the Soviet Union and China, can be directly blamed for fighting over the country with scant regard for the lives of the civilians.

But the continuing antagnoism between Hanoi and Washington is also crucial. Since the Sixties, Cambodia has borne the brunt of the rivalry between these two nations. If the two powers ever sat down and began to resolve their differences, there might be reason to believe a political solution for this strategically placed country could be found. Continued obstinacy can only spell more tragedy.