Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia – the British television documentary that I produced in 1979 – showed how violent US administrations had helped to bring Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge to power. This story holds echoes of the Islamic State in the Middle East today.
Between 1969 and 1973, secretly and illegally, President Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger dropped the equivalent in bombs of five Hiroshimas on Cambodia, a country where most people lived beneath straw. In transmitting Nixon’s order for a “massive” bombing of Cambodia in 1969, Kissinger said, “Anything that flies on everything that moves.”
According to Pol Pot, his movement – beginning as a small sect – had consisted of “fewer than 5,000 poorly armed guerrillas uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty and leaders.” Once Nixon’s and Kissinger’s B52 bombers had gone to work, the West’s ultimate demon could not believe his luck. For what the White House began, Pol Pot completed; the tens of thousands they bombed to death were described in a Commission of Inquiry as “the first stage in a decade of genocide.”
When I arrived in Phnom Penh in 1979, the city was devastated and mostly deserted. The only civilians seemed to be orphaned children brought in from the forest by the liberating Vietnamese. All were starving. There was precious little food, no power, and no clean water. Millions of dollars worth of redundant bank notes washed through the streets in the afternoon monsoon as the National Bank of Cambodia, which the Khmer Rouge had blown up, spilled its worthless treasure into the poorest place on earth.
Cambodia Year Zero, as the documentary has become known, was credited with alerting the world to the suffering of the people of Cambodia under the fanatical regime of Pol Pot. It raised tens of millions of dollars for Cambodia’s children – mostly unsolicited – and became the most watched documentary throughout the world. The story behind the documentary is described in depth in Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs.
On the 60th anniversary of the founding of ITV, Britain’s and Europe’s biggest commercial broadcaster, this film has been named as one of the network’s 60 top programs.