William Shawcross is renowned for his controversial Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (1979). His latest book, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience, is a study of the use and abuse of aid in one emergency situation—that of Cambodia after the fall of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (dk) regime in early 1979, following a Vietnamese invasion on Christmas Day 1978. footnote1 It has already stirred considerable controversy. Sideshow was given a hostile reception from the right and welcomed by the left for its severe criticisms of Kissinger’s and Nixon’s policies in Indochina. The Quality of Mercy, however, has drawn fire from radicals while being received with relief by conservatives. The Spectator’s Richard West noted with satisfaction that Shawcross had moderated his Sideshow claim that American bombing in 1970–73 explained the ‘murderousness of the Khmer Rouge’ after 1975. ‘Friends of Vietnam and the enemies of the United States will not enjoy The Quality of Mercy,’ he wrote. footnote2 John Pilger, writing in the New Statesman, criticized Shawcross for his unwillingness to continue his critique of US policy and alleges that Shawcross is a ‘born-again cold warrior’. footnote3 There is little doubt that the new Cold War atmosphere in the West accounts for the shift in tone between the two books. But is there such a drastic discontinuity between them, and can it be said that Shawcross has ‘changed his mind’? I don’t think so.

Shawcross sets out several objectives for The Quality of Mercy. One purpose is to ask how people whose lives are not threatened can tolerate the simultaneous incarceration and murder of humans elsewhere. A second is to evaluate the workings of humanitarian relief organizations. A third ‘is to explore a little the extent to which the memory of the inaptly named Holocaust has affected our perception and our imagination when hearing distant cries for help’ (p. 14). It is not until Chapter Five, almost a quarter of the way into the text, that the issue of humanitarian aid to Cambodia is taken up. Rather than simply setting the scene, the preceding chapters address themselves to the major political questions surrounding the Cambodian crisis, including one chapter devoted to the allegedly apologetic role of the Western Left, which is held responsible for obscuring the full scale of the slaughter under Pol Pot. This emphasis reveals a fourth unstated aim for the book—to write a polemical narrative of Cambodian politics from 1979 to 1983, a sequel to Sideshow.

When he does focus on aid his account is engrossing. Shawcross has lost none of the flair for narrative he displayed in the earlier book and he at times paints powerful pictures of the plight of tens of thousands of Khmer refugees stranded on the Thai–Cambodian border, sandwiched between trigger-happy national armies and at the mercy of unscrupulous Thai and Khmer gangsters. Yet the basic subject matter of The Quality of Mercy does not have the natural drama of Sideshow. Squabbles between international aid organizations, such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the private British-based oxfam, do not have the same impact or import as the scheming of Nixon and Kissinger in the White House. Shawcross overwhelms his readers with details of bureaucratic infighting, leaving them somewhat exhausted and bewildered, much like the well-intentioned aid workers he describes. All this hard work, however, yields up to no major revelations in the manner of Sideshow.

The book contains a thoughtful summary chapter on the problems of dispensing international aid. Nevertheless, his discussion of aid is dogged by a peculiar ambivalence. On the one hand Shawcross shows some understanding of the internal and external constraints imposed on the conduct of the aid organizations: ‘The aid business is probably no more competitive than any other, but it is sometimes a shock to outsiders that it seems no less’ (p. 149). On the other he is regularly shocked and outraged when their humanitarian characters are compromised and distorted by politics. That the quality of mercy displayed in Cambodia was dictated by politics is not surprising. However, Shawcross premises his discussion of Western aid on the assumption that it was motivated by a transcendent humanism, and he tends to judge it according to whether it lapses from this ideal. Extraordinarily, he gives no detailed account of the intentions of the Western donor states, and a major weakness of the book is its refusal to tackle head-on the fact that these states do use aid to achieve political ends. This is not the case when he turns to Vietnam and its allies. They are condemned for letting ‘politics’ thwart Western ‘humanitarianism’.

Shawcross is reluctant to recognize the United States’ aid wheeling and dealing in pursuit of its policy objectives in Cambodia. ‘The American View’, he writes, ‘was confused and confusing’ (p. 98). He does not acknowledge that American opposition was a key obstacle to the dispatch of Western aid to Cambodia for most of 1979, preferring instead to blame Hanoi and Phnom Penh, and he obscures the fact that the basic thrust of US policy was dictated by its desire to reverse the political situation in Cambodia. footnote4 He does this by focusing on the figure of Morton Abramowitz, the US Ambassador to Thailand (recognized by reviewers as the book’s ‘hero’), whose opinions on some matters were less hardline than Washington’s, and who was later removed from his post for this very reason. In this way the conduct of US policy is made to look less single-minded than it was. Instead the impression is given that American and Western policy was a bit of a muddle conducted by nice guys, and the harshest thing Shawcross can bring himself to say about Western de facto support for Pol Pot’s forces on the Thai–Cambodian border, and in the international diplomatic arena, is that it was a ‘failure of imagination’!

Much of The Quality of Mercy is taken up with the prickly relations between the Western aid organizations and the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea (prk), as well as Hanoi. In this interaction Shawcross is quick to condemn any restrictions or conditions placed on aid by either government as politically cynical. He expends considerable energy, in his chapter ‘Fears of Famine’, arguing that the ‘most important factor’ influencing the failure of Western supplies to reach Cambodia in early 1979 ‘was that neither the Vietnamese government nor its client in Phnom Penh was urgently or effectively seeking’ them (p. 98). ‘Indeed Hanoi and Phnom Penh maintained through early 1979 that little or nothing was amiss with food supplies inside Cambodia’ (p. 99). This demonstrates for Shawcross the callousness of the communists. Yet, having taken Hanoi and Phnom Penh to task for understating the plight of the country, he then criticizes them for exaggerating fears of famine in the second half of 1979 in order to attract aid with which to bolster the new regime in Cambodia. Shawcross’s claim that the ‘threat of famine was exaggerated in 1979’ (p. 370) comes closest to being the major ‘revelation’ of The Quality of Mercy, and it has attracted widespread comment. This assertion is the key to his argument that Vietnam manipulated Western ‘conscience’ in order to bolster its hold on Cambodia. Shawcross quotes a statement by oxfam’s Malcolm Harper who toured Cambodia in November 1979: ‘We were looking everywhere for the famine, and yet we found no trace of it. People were poor, they were malnourished, they were badly clothed, but they were not dying of hunger’ (pp. 212–3). This certainly disproves sensationalist claims made at the time by Shawcross, among others, of ‘two million dead by Christmas’ (Shawcross was gloomily warning of the ‘end of Cambodia’ as a result of ‘subtle genocide’ by the Vietnamese). Harper’s statement does not, of course, show that there was no emergency. People were still gathering what there was of a harvest, so it is not surprising that they were not ‘dying of hunger’. The real crisis would come when these stocks ran out. Thus, having overstated the crisis in his original reporting, Shawcross continues to misunderstand the nature of the emergency in his book—but still with the intention of attacking the Vietnamese.

By standing aloof from the actual politics of aid, Shawcross wilfully misunderstands the straightforward reasons for the actions of Hanoi and the prk. It seems clear that they both wished to keep international aid organizations at arms length until they had at least some sort of rudimentary administration formed—that is, until around June 1979. They were obviously worried that the fledgling government could be swamped by the superior resources and organization of the large aid institutions. If this had happened the West would have been able to secure considerable political leverage in Phnom Penh. Given that the United Nations continued to recognize the former dk regime and condemned the Vietnamese invasion, the srv and the prk had every reason to believe that they would use any leverage gained in Phnom Penh to try to ensure the return of the ‘legitimate government’ of Pol Pot. Other large Western-funded organizations were also viewed with suspicion for similar reasons. Unlike Shawcross, Hanoi and Phnom Penh are realistic enough to know that Western aid can be used politically, and in this context much of the stalling and hedging by these governments, which so inflames Shawcross’s ire, becomes intelligible.