Every year I review the best-seller list and after prayer and meditation lob the garland toward that writer who, by virtue of bad character, tastelessness, artless stupidity or some other minor defect, has written the worst book of the year. I call it "The Harold Robbins Award," though I am sure that if our president wrote books I would be calling it "The Jimmy Carter Award."
This year, as in the past, the competition has been furious. Savorless prose alone, incidentally, will not earn one this award. Nor will weak conception, a drunken public-relations agent or an implausible or asinine subject. These attributes help, but to win the worst-book-of-the-year award one must rise above the flotsam and jetsam and produce a book that states unclearly and unmemorably a thesis that ranges from the untenable to the imbecilic. In 1979 William Shawcross' "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia" fulfilled these high standards. Not only did the author fail to prove his thesis; he actually disproved it. This is art.
The thesis here is that the policies of Nixon and Kissinger directly led to the Cambodian holocaust. Based on Shawcross' own evidence, it is apparent that, of all those involved in Cambodia, these men were probably most benign in their intentions. They are about as responsible for the destruction of Cambodia as Roosevelt and Eisenhower were for the World War II damage to Holland. "Sideshow" is Shawcross' attempt to diabolize Kissinger. In the end, he leaves Kissinger looking intelligent and, as politicians go, humane.
This staggers me. I began the book harboring a profound and well-informed disrelish for the Georgetown Metternich. Upon ending it, I was reluctantly sympathizing with him. I pray Shawcross will write no more on Kissinger; another attempted assault and I will be raising funds for a Kissinger monument.
The book is a mere tract of laughable intensity and shoddiness. It would take a special kind of genius to prove Shawcross' case that the people who fought communism in Southeast Asia were responsible for its ravages, and Shawcross is no genius. Despite his earnest conjuring with documents and the bugaboos of his fellow believers, no intelligent reader will doubt that the party preeminently responsible for Cambodia's destruction is the party that invested eastern Cambodia with troops, coerced the the Cambodian army to truck supplies to them and then brought in hostile American fire by regularly attacking Americans from these enclaves.
Of course, I speak of the communist Vietnamese: ethnically an ancient Cambodian enemy, an enemy that launced an all-out attack against Cambodia beginning March 29, 1970, four weeks before the American incursion into Cambodia. The attack continues. The Vietnamese still slaughter and starve Cambodians. The Americans left the scene of the crime on March 29, 1973.
Contradictions abound. On page 109 Shawcross mentions a captured enemy document's references to a 1969 North Vietnamese spring offensive. On the next page he claims there was no North Vietnamese offensive eight months into Nixon's first term. Elsewhere he says that the American bombing gained Cambodian acceptance of the Khmer Rouge. At other points he says they gained their popular strength through their alliance with Sihanouk.
Moreover, I sense there is an overpowering impulse to bamboozle here. Shawcross claims the American "incursion" forced the Vietnamese to go deeper into Cambodia. Yet the historical record shows clearly that the 1970 incursion came four weeks after the North Vietnamese began their own offensive against the new Lon Nol regime. By the time of the American incursion, the North Vietnamese were already reported a mere 40 kilometers southeast of Phnom Penh. Surely Shawcross, with his thousands of Pentagon documents, knows this.
On page 130 he mentions that before the American incursion "the North Vietnamese moved westward into Cambodia with the apparent intention of securing their lines of communication." Ah, but what were North Vietnamese lines of communication doing lying across "neutral" Cambodia? Here is another of Shawcross' botched theses: Cambodia was neutral ground, not to be violated by the Americans who were being assaulted from it.
Throughout history timorous men have contrived to enter into alliance with the dark and horrifying forces they deem in control of the universe. Thus we see man, through prayer and ritual, forever attempting to placate the gods and thereby dissuade them from gobbling him up, raining fire on him, liberating him with a hammer and sickle, and so forth. All the invincible and inscrutable - forces that have clanked and goose-stepped through this century have at first been conjured with in this way. In the '20s many pols and profs attempted to sweeten the Fascisti with suave gestures and soothing rhetoric. More recently, the same kind of snivelers have tried to work such miracles on the Marxist bonecrushers.
This voodoo does not work, and Shawcrosss' attempt to poultice the conscience of those who tried it in Southeast Asia deserves the praise only of the faithful.