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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Pol Pot

Philip Short

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Pol Pot

Title: Pol Pot
Author: Philip Short
Genre: Biography
Written: 2004
Length: 449 pages
Availability: Pol Pot - US
Pol Pot - UK
Pol Pot - Canada
  • UK subtitle: The History of a Nightmare
  • US subtitle: Anatomy of a Nightmare
  • Includes numerous illustrations, maps, and a Dramatis Personae

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Our Assessment:

A- : solid, readable overview, though more history than biography

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 1/2/2005 Clayton Jones
The Economist . 4/11/2004 .
Harper's . 2/2005 John Leonard
The LA Times . 31/7/2005 Warren I. Cohen
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/6/2005 James Fenton
The NY Sun . 2/2/2005 John Derbyshire
The NY Times A 18/2/2005 William Grimes
The NY Times Book Rev. A 27/2/2005 William T. Vollmann
The New Yorker . 7/2/2005 .
Sunday Telegraph . 12/12/2004 William Shawcross
Sunday Times . 24/10/2004 Michael Sheridan
Times Higher Ed. Supp. . 25/2/2005 Ben Kiernan
TLS . 30/3/2005 Sophie Quinn-Judge
The Washington Post . 27/2/2005 Nayan Chanda

  Review Consensus:

  Some reservations, but generally impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Short's contribution is in describing Pol Pot's Cambodia as a modern slave state, as North Korea still is. (...) Like other tyrants of his century, we may never know enough about him to draw the right conclusions. Short's book, however, takes us more than half way there." - Clayton Jones, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Philip Short, who wrote a good book about Mao's China, has now done a spectacularly efficient job of describing what happened, and how. (...) The result is a chillingly clear portrait of Saloth Sar, the man who became Pol Pot" - The Economist

  • "Knowing better, Short still manages to blot his book by blaming the victim, by seeming almost to agree with the men in black" - John Leonard, Harper's

  • "Drawing from interviews and documents from Cambodia, China, France, Russia and Vietnam, Short provides rich detail on the minutiae of Cambodian politics. Regrettably, his prodigious research and the flood of his narrative overwhelm Short's portrait of Pol Pot and his effort to explain how the Communist party leader became such a monster." - Warren I. Cohen, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Short has done extremely well, I think, to put together as much information as there is here about Pol Pot. Nevertheless, we cannot help sometimes wondering how to use the evidence we are given -- or whether indeed a given piece of evidence is of any value at all." - James Fenton, The New York Review of Books

  • "What the reader of a Pol Pot biography mainly wants to know is whether the egregious savagery of Cambodian communism had its origins, or some of them, in the personality of the leader. On Philip Shortís account, the answer seems to be that it did not. (...) The overriding impression Philip Short gives of Pol, his comrades, and his government, is in fact one of slovenly incompetence." - John Derbyshire, The New York Sun

  • "(H)is superb, authoritative account of the man and the madness that transformed Cambodia, almost overnight, into hell on earth. (...) This was utopia as envisioned by Saloth Sar, better known by his party alias, Pol Pot, and Mr. Short goes a long way toward explaining how and why Cambodia got there" - William Grimes, The New York Times

  • "Short's book is ampler than Chandler's, and his footnotes contain evidence of an impressive diversity of sources, not to mention any number of thoughtful qualifications and interesting anecdotes. His text sparkles with shrewdly plausible inferences mortared into a compelling narrative." - William T. Vollmann, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Short does a good job on the political context of Pol Potís rise, on his Buddhist influences, and on his gift for subterfuge." - The New Yorker

  • "By assembling first-hand accounts of the killers and their aides, alongside the testimony of the victims, Short has created a terrifying narrative of destruction, which includes new detail about the paranoia, the unspeakable cruelty and the day-to-day banality of the lives of the Khmer Rouge leaders. Everyone comes out of this awful story badly" - William Shawcross, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Short has dug around assiduously for fresh material to illuminate the mind of the tyrant. At the end, though, we are still left groping for answers. (...) Shortís most valuable contribution to the debates that still swirl around the Cambodian fiasco is to bring clear thinking to the big questions of blame." - Michael Sheridan, Sunday Times

  • "There is a case for uncovering a tragedy's causes by looking through the eyes of its perpetrators. Short stretches that case by adopting much of their rewriting of history, dismissing evidence of their genocide and understating its human toll." - Ben Kiernan, Times Higher Education Supplement

  • "As a genre, the weighty biography presents itself as exhaustive and authoritative. Given this expectation, it is a pity that Short does not give more room to the debate on the origins of the border war between Vietnam and Cambodia. He might also have paid more attention to the charges of genocide against the Pol Pot regime, in particular to the case of the Cham minority, which has been documented by the UN and the Cambodia Genocide Program at Yale University, under Ben Kiernanís direction. Finally, Polís enforcer Mok, now in detention awaiting trial, deserves more than passing mentions." - Sophie Quinn-Judge, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Philip Short's 537-page book goes a long way toward telling us who Pol Pot was; unfortunately, it is marred by superficial generalizations about Cambodian culture and a bizarre attempt to exonerate the Khmer Rouge of genocide. (...) He is a talented writer, and he had truly unusual access to the perpetrators of the killing fields. It is a pity that this combination produced only an interesting but ultimately flawed history of one of history's great horrors." - Nayan Chanda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Philip Short titles his book Pol Pot, and many will approach the book wondering how he managed to write a 200,000-word text on the life of this famously reclusive and shadowy figure. The answer is fairly simple: Pol Pot may be the central figure in the book, but Short's text is a history book, not a biography. In fact, Pol Pot is absent from many of the pages, and though Short does provide a good deal of information and background about him, he remains a mystery-man.
       Pol Pot is a book about Cambodia during Pol Pot's lifetime, with Short providing a very good historical overview of so much that went wrong. Pol Pot's role, especially as leader of the Khmer Rouge, is a useful focal point, but Short is not fixated obsessively on him, and, when necessary (which is much of the time), leaves him behind and goes where the action is.
       Pol Pot -- born Saloth Sâr -- was exposed to much of Cambodian life in his youth, from traditional countryside life to the royal court. He eventually went to school in the capital, Phnom Penh, the one vaguely modern metropolis. The country (but especially the capital) was dominated by the French and an aristocratic elite, with Pol Pot growing up as anti-colonial feeling steadily rose -- though Cambodia (and Laos) always lagged behind dominant neighbour Viet Nam in this (and most) regards.
       Pol Pot got a scholarship to Paris -- though the best he could manage was to study radio-technology (and while such technical education might have been useful in Cambodia, he does not appear to have taken his studies very seriously). Arriving in the fall of 1949, he would remain several years, and Short provides a fascinating account of life abroad for the small group of Cambodians studying there -- and shows how the political future of Cambodia was also, in no small part, shaped there. Here as elsewhere, many details of Pol Pot's life remain elusive, but Short shows what he was exposed to and how he might have been influenced.
       Though politically active in Paris and then in Cambodia, Pol Pot (and his colleagues) played at best a very peripheral role in national politics. In the mid-1950s it was King Sihanouk who consolidated power after the French retreated, the democratic process subverted from the first by "blatant manipulation of the polls" (a trend that would continue with every new attempt at voting).
       The rise of the Khmer Rouge -- a communist party that wouldn't publicly reveal itself for decades, supported by those who were pursuing their own geo-political interests (first the Vietnamese, then the Chinese) -- was gradual, over many years. The Viet Nam war played an enormous role in destabilizing the country, and Short describes the effective campaign in the countryside that led to Khmer Rouge consolidating power there and slowly beginning to implement their apparently egalitarian ideas. Poor government in Phnom Penh -- first under Sihanouk, then US-supported Lon Nol -- and the mess next door (Viet Nam, and the collateral bombing the Americans visited upon Cambodia) made for ripe conditions for change even of the sort the Khmer Rouge offered, a tragi-comedy of errors and ineptness (and insensible overkill -- specifically the American mass-bombardment of the countryside) making any alternative look good.
       With few, other than the Vietnamese, truly concerned about what happened in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge ultimately had an easy time of it in finally taking over in 1975. Short's account of the take-over, and the frightful and fanciful notions put into practise -- the emptying of the cities, the abolition of currency -- make for perversely fascinating reading. Most surprising -- and terrifying -- is how easy it all was, a grim reminder of how easy it is to wield power, and how easy it is to do so phenomenally badly.
       Short's account of the short- (but far too long-) lived Khmer Rouge regime is, no matter how familiar, deeply disturbing. Its eventual fall couldn't come quickly enough -- but as Short shows, while rendered relatively toothless, there was no reckoning or bringing to justice, and the regime that replaced it, while comparatively benign, is also inept and corrupt. (Fascinating, too, is the role of Sihanouk throughout, the one publicly revered figure-head all parties liked to use for their purposes, who managed to claim some power under nearly every regime -- though that appears to have been his only talent, as he accomplished precious little for his subjects.)
       Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did not disappear after they were defeated, they merely retreated -- though for a while clinging only to the tiniest sliver of land (among the book's wilder (and more amusing) descriptions are the attempts by the Chinese to set up their embassy in the Khmer Rouge-controlled area at the time). Chinese support -- and the invaluable semi-official American stamp of approval -- allowed them, if not to prosper, at least to hang around -- and, indeed, once again consolidate some power.
       Pol Pot's role as architect and leader seems obvious, and yet in its details remains unclear, even through all these pages. The Khmer Rouge's secrecy and the lack of documentation and first-hand knowledge limit what is known about what happened behind the scenes. Short does an extraordinary job of collecting accounts and information (noting, also, that some must be treated with considerable care, i.e. that truthfulness was far from the norm), but Pol Pot remains a frustratingly shadowy figure.
       Pol Pot is a very good general history of Cambodia during Pol Pot's lifetime, and especially as a chronicle of the rise and crimes of the Khmer Rouge. The fact that simply not enough information is available about Pol Pot himself for him to stand front and centre throughout is understandable, but given the focus on the country as a whole Short could have devoted more space to the role of outside powers. While excellent on the roles of China and Viet Nam throughout most the 1970s, he focusses almost solely on Cambodia in the 1975-9 period (i.e. making little mention of how the outside world saw and dealt with the situation), and the roles of the US and France across the decades are also not discussed in much depth.
       Short also theorises how this almost incomprehensible situation came about, and sees peculiarly Cambodian characteristics as at least partly to blame: the particular strain of Buddhism found in the country, for example, and a love of extremes, as well as what he describes as Cambodian indolence. Some of these cultural traditions (including also the veneration of the royals, allowing Sihanouk to always (mis-)play a major role in events) certainly help explain aspects of what happened, but it's difficult to see the Cambodian experience as unique, at least in the way Short sees it. Given the right conditions -- as in Cambodia, where a spectacular run of bad luck and worse policies (domestic and foreign) made for the worst of conditions -- man always seems capable of almost anything.
       Pol Pot is a disturbing but fascinating read, a useful reminder of the ripple-effects of major geo-political decisions and tolerance of what appear to be (relatively) benignly corrupt regimes (as the Khmer Rouge predecessor-regimes were believed to be) -- well worth thinking about, given America's current foreign policy that embraces regimes that do not deserve support and that may well be making for conditions that can readily lead to future instability or catastrophe, on local, regional, or global levels.

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Pol Pot: Reviews: Cambodia: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Philip Short has worked as a foreign correspondent and written several books.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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