Whistleblower website WikiLeaks’ recent trove of declassified US diplomatic cables from 1978 revealed an administration torn between growing humanitarian concerns about what was happening in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the tug of a tangled web of geopolitical considerations. Harriet Fitch Little this week asked historian Milton Osborne, who was a diplomat with the Australian Embassy in Cambodia prior to the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, for his thoughts on the release and the significance of WikiLeaks to historians.
Reading through the cables released last week, what impression emerges of international attitudes towards Cambodia in 1978?
What is fascinating about these documents is the extent to which they give a picture in 1978 of a whole range of unresolved positions on the part of all the principal players. To take the case of the US – on the one hand it is increasingly concerned about human rights in Cambodia, but at the same time it is very firmly opposed to normalising relations with the Vietnamese government. On the other hand, the US is anxious to have good relations with China, but at the same time, it is very much aware that it is dealing with China at a time when China is engaged in an antagonism with the Vietnamese. It is an amazing mosaic that existed in 1978, and looking at these cables, we’re looking at a whole series of unresolved issues that took a long time later to be resolved.
Do these cables tie in with the current historical consensus on what the major players were thinking in 1978?
I think they do. We’ve known the broad element of this set of relationships for a considerable period of time. One of the very interesting things about this situation, as revealed in the various WikiLeaks cables, is the extent to which there was great uncertainty on all sides about just what was going to happen. Another thing it does underline for a historian is the extent to which matters have changed so dramatically in a relatively short period of time – 1978 was a time when the Sino-Soviet dispute was very active, when the Soviet Union still existed, when there was no diplomatic relationship between the US and Vietnam.
Do the cables also correspond with what you suspected in 1978, when you were watching Cambodia from the outside?
I have to be careful here to not be too congratulatory to myself about [knowing] what was happening in that period. I became convinced by the end of 1975 that something terrible was happening in Cambodia, and I went into print to say that the following year. I didn’t know the actual size, the scope in detail, but I had no doubt that something terrible was happening. It wasn’t until after the regime was over that we were able to establish a clear picture of just how many people died. But I think what these cables do quite strikingly reveal is that there’s little doubt that the US was aware that something of a quite terrible nature was taking place in Cambodia.
What are your thoughts on Wikileaks as a phenomenon?
Wikileaks is remarkable for the extent to which it has been able to obtain material that would not have been available in the pre-digital age. If people want to keep secrets, they have to be very careful about how they guard their secrets. Quite clearly it has not been possible for governments to do that in the digital age.
Is that an endorsement?
As a historian, I like to have access to as much as possible, but as someone who once worked in the Australian government for a number of years, I find it difficult to think how governments can operate unless they are indeed able to keep secrets. So the historian’s position is at odds with the positions that governments try to maintain. The idea that everyone should have access to everything may sound wonderful in philosophic terms, but I don’t think you can run a country on that basis.