PHNOM PENH — When President Obama’s motorcade wends its way through the clogged streets of Phnom Penh as planned this week, the first-ever visit to Cambodia by an American president, he will see remnants of America’s past and glimpses of its future.
Cambodia was collateral damage for much of the Vietnam War, the target of secret bombings designed to disrupt supply lines to communist North Vietnam. Political upheavals followed. The maniacal Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, played on bruised emotions: Its greatest genocidal act—the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, in 1975—was presented as an exercise to protect civilians from US bombing. Instead, almost 2 million ended up dead, some in urban death camps, others in the swamp-like “killing fields,” and still others in rural encampments, where they were left to starve.