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Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

4.5 32
by Philip Short

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A gripping and definitive portrait of the man who headed one of the most enigmatic and terrifying regimes of modern times

In the three and a half years of Pol Pot's rule, more than a million Cambodians, a fifth of the country's population, were executed or died from hunger. An idealistic and reclusive figure, Pol Pot sought to instill in his people


A gripping and definitive portrait of the man who headed one of the most enigmatic and terrifying regimes of modern times

In the three and a half years of Pol Pot's rule, more than a million Cambodians, a fifth of the country's population, were executed or died from hunger. An idealistic and reclusive figure, Pol Pot sought to instill in his people values of moral purity and self-abnegation through a revolution of radical egalitarianism. In the process his country descended into madness, becoming a concentration camp of the mind, a slave state in which obedience was enforced on the killing fields.

How did a utopian dream of shared prosperity mutate into one of the worst nightmares humanity has ever known? To understand this almost inconceivable mystery, Philip Short explores Pol Pot's life from his early years to his death. Short spent four years traveling throughout Cambodia interviewing the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement, many of whom have never spoken before, including Pol Pot's brother-in-law and the former Khmer Rouge head of state. He also sifted through the previously closed archives of China, Russia, Vietnam, and Cambodia itself to trace the fate of one man and the nation that he led into ruin.

This powerful biography reveals that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were not a one-off aberration but instead grew out of a darkness of the soul common to all peoples. Cambodian history and culture combined with intervention from the United States and other nations to set the stage for a disaster whose horrors echo loudly in the troubling events of our world today.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
One and a half million Cambodians died at the hands of Pol Pot during his brief rule. More than a biography of the Cambodian leader, this work provides an informative political history of Cambodia over the past 50 years. A journalist with 25 years of reporting experience with the BBC, Short (Mao: A Life) has crafted a well-written narrative possessing both shocking detail and thoughtful analysis. The incredible history of murder and death by starvation and disease is widely known, but its origins are not. Short points to the influence of Cambodia's medieval past, the interplay of the tenets of Theravada Buddhism, and the insidious political roles played by the West. For example, he outlines how the United States helped maintain Pol Pot in office as a pawn to be used against the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Short extends his interpretation to demonstrate parallels in the breakdown of the Cambodian civilization with that of Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, and Mao's China. At times, the horrible nature of the subject elicits a haunting feeling when one contemplates the future of civilization. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/04.]-John F. Riddick, Central Michigan Univ. Lib., Mt. Pleasant Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"He was very likeable, a really nice person. He was friendly, and everything he said seemed very sensible." But he was also one of history's most accomplished mass murderers, as this portrait shows. The man born Saloth Sar in 1925 was something of an accidental communist, suggests former Beijing BBC correspondent Short (Mao: A Life, 2000). As a young foreign-exchange student in 1950 Paris, Sar had the chance to go camping for a month in Switzerland but, unable to afford the $70 fee, instead took a free work-study trip to Yugoslavia. A revolutionary was thus born, though it appears that Sar was pushed hard to the left by the intransigent, newly installed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who suppressed the democratic reform movements of the time. As a guerrilla living among the Montagnard people in Cambodia's eastern highlands, Sar slowly elaborated a city-dweller-hating ideology that, Short writes, would form the basis of a modern slave state: farmers outside the zone of urban corruption were the vanguard of a nativist revolutionary movement; urbanites were first in line to be imprisoned and executed. He adopted his new name (the Pols had been royal slaves) in 1970, the year the American invasion of Cambodia swelled the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's peasant cadres drove the Americans away and, once the foreigners were gone, turned their weapons on their own people-often, Short writes, cannibalizing their victims. As many as 1.5 million Cambodians died from 1975 to 1978, when a Vietnamese invasion ended the terror. (Pol fled, dying 20 years later, still "chillingly unrepentant.") Yet, Short argues, recent attempts to try the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership for genocide are legally inexactand in all events seem intended to disguise America's role in the bloodbath, as well as the involvement of still-powerful figures like Sihanouk, who only recently abdicated. A superbly wrought, richly nuanced study in evil, though more likely to attract discussion for its controversial conclusion than its careful rendering of its murderous subject. Agent: Jacqueline Korn/David Higham Associates
From the Publisher

“A superb, authoritative account of the man and the madness that transformed Cambodia, almost overnight, into hell on earth” —William Grimes, New York Times

“Readable and capacious...the most thorough-going, most closely argued study of the Khmer Rouge to appear to date.” —David Chandler, Far Eastern Economic Review

“Vividly drawn . . . Short's text sparkles with shrewdly plausible inferences mortared into a compelling narrative.” —William T. Vollman, New York Times Book Review

“A well-written narrative possessing both shocking detail and thoughtful analysis. Highly recommended.” —starred Library Journal

“A superbly wrought, richly nuanced study in evil.” —starred Kirkus Reviews

“Broaden[s} the inquiry to the point where serious history begins, and serious judgments can be made.” —Justin Wintle, Financial Times

“Philip Short's Pol Pot is an almanac of extermination that achieves the near impossible feat of translating madness into logic. This biography is a tour de force.” —David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of W. E. B. DuBois

“An intelligent and compassionate account of the Cambodian nightmare.” —The Spectator

“Extraordinary and brilliant... This hugely impressive book is more than just the life story of an individual. It is also the biography of a nation... Short has exposed secrets, knitting together a story which it once seemed would never be told. The result is horrific, but it must be read.” —The Scotsman

“Unerringly broadens the enquiry to the point where serious history begins and serious judgments can be made.” —Financial Times

“A comprehensive and eloquent biography...This is a long, dark and necessary book..” —Literary Review, London

“Short is a gifted biographer who knows his communists. [His account] is the most definitive yet.” —Time [Asian edition]

“Short's most valuable contribution is to bring clear thinking to the question of blame... He is brisk about the cynical policy of Vietnam... and also indicts the Chinese, who have largely escaped censure for their complicity with the Khmer Rouge.” —Sunday Times, London

“A brilliantly detailed account and a salutary one.” —Sunday Herald, Glasgow

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

From Pol Pot:
There were many causes of the egregious tragedy that befell Cambodia in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and many actors amongst whom responsibility must be shared. The over-confidence of the country's new leaders, above all of its principal leader, the man who would become Pol Pot, was but one element among them, and at the time of the Khmer Rouge victory, one that was skillfully dissembled.

Another full year would pass before the reclusive figure who had directed the war on the communist side would emerge from clandestinity and take the name by which his compatriots, and the rest of the world, would remember him.

Even then, he did so reluctantly. For two decades he had operated under multiple aliases: Phouk, Hay, Pol, "87," Grand-Uncle, Elder Brother-to be followed in later years by "99" and Phem. "It is good to change your name," he once told one of his secretaries. "The more often you change your name the better. It confuses the enemy." Then he added, in a phrase which would become a Khmer Rouge mantra: "If you preserve secrecy, half the battle is already won." The architect of the Cambodian nightmare was not a man who liked working out in the open.

Meet the Author

Philip Short has been a foreign correspondent for The Times (London), The Economist, and the BBC in Uganda, Moscow, China, and Washington, D.C. He is the author of the definitive biography of Mao Tse-tung, and lived in China and Cambodia in the 1970s and early 1980s, where he has returned regularly ever since. He now lives in southern France with his Chinese wife.

Philip Short is the author of several books, among them the definitive biographies Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. He has been a foreign correspondent for The Times (London), The Economist, and the BBC in Uganda, Moscow, China, and Washington, D.C.

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Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
dgfern More than 1 year ago
What I hoped was going to be a page turner in the same vein as Jung Chang's biography of Mao turned out to be a slow moving tome that is more about the history of Cambodia in the 20th century than it is about Saloth Sar (Pol Pot). Page after page of unpronounceable names and places, with more emphasis on the people around Sar than with Sar himself, makes reading this book like trying to swim in peanut butter. A true disappointment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author really knows his stuff, which means he can sort of write most of it from the heart and head (rather than relying on just dry research). However, that also becomes a problem at times as the essence gets lost in fact after fact. I also think that the author should have explained more clearly his argument that US involvement in SE Asia led to the installation of the Khmer Rouge government. As stated, the argument is weak, but not completely undeniable. While this book took some time to read, and at times was boring, I now want to read his book about Mao as I feel like I have not only gained a better understanding of Cambodia in the last 60 years, but it helped develop my learning of Maoism as a philosophy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book offers unmatched insight into the events leading up to Khmer Rouge Revolution and the Revolution itself. It offers much information and analysis on Cambodian History through the 20th century and is a necessity to any collection of books on South-East Asia. READ IT!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book documents Cambodia¿s struggle for independence, and then the disastrous implications that ensued. The book¿s subject instills an unwarranted stigma, as it accounts to an accurate portrayal of events. I was unfamiliar about this topic and I felt the author did a tremendous job outlining, in detail, the succession of events. It was very informative, easy to comprehend, and most of all very interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have only just started reviewing stories you people wrote today and this is my second 4.5 stars rating! You are a great writer, and I want to keep reading. Literally the only thing I want to see is for you to develop your characters more. Otherwise it was grreat!!!!
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