Today’s post was written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.
Noted journalist Sydney H. Schanberg died on July 9. While he is perhaps most famous for his reporting from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge takeover in the mid-1970s, his list of accomplishments and reporting is both long and distinguished. He won the Pulitzer Prize, the George Polk Award, and Overseas Press Club awards, among others.
The U.S. embassy in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh closed on April 12, 1975. When the Khmer Rouge conquered the city, Schanberg was among a group of journalists who chose to remain, despite the very hazardous conditions, to continue reporting. In Schanberg’s case, staying violated the orders of his employer at the time, The New York Times.
The group, which included Schanberg’s local interpreter and guide Dith Pran, eventually took refuge in the French embassy compound. After a period of about two weeks, during which Schanberg and Dith were accosted by Khmer Rouge and rumors of his execution circulated, Schanberg and the other foreigners were evacuated to Thailand.
The U.S. embassy in Thailand reported the arrival of the group at the border crossing in a sequence of telegrams. The initial report came in the following message:
“French embassy has informed us that the evacuees from the French embassy in Phnom Penh arrived at the Thai-Cambodian border at 1030 hours local time . . .”
The embassy reported more details several hours later in the following two telegrams:
“AMCITS Sidney Schanberg, Douglas Sapper and James Ost arrived at border town of Aranya Prathet, Thailand, May 3 at approximately 12:00 Noon… All have US passports and were given 7-day Thai entry visas…
“…According Schanberg, the two had to be literally smuggled out of Phnom Penh concealed under baggage because of their Khmer nationality…
“The refugee convoy travelled 16 to 18 hours a day for three days, most of the journey in open truck . . . Groups of Khmer Rouge soldiers turned out at various towns and villages to observe the convoy but no civilians were seen, even in the fields…“
“All information concerning the situation in Cambodia and the refugees’ journey was gotten in conversations with Schanberg, Sapper, and Ost…Their view of the situation inside Cambodia was at best extremely limited and their views of the journey certainly colored by the emotional strain of the last week”
“The Russian, East German and other East European Communist Bloc nationals were not given preferential treatment in Phnom Penh nor on the journey. . .”
The next day, the embassy reported on conditions in Phnom Penh in a long telegram based on discussions with Schanberg and another American evacuee, Douglas Sapper.
“Both Sapper and Schanberg said that their overall impression is that the Khmer Rouge are serious, disciplined and know what they want for Cambodia. . .”
“Life in the compound was difficult due to overcrowding; but KC did not physically mistreat or even search anyone. . . KC demands to have Khmer nationals returned to them caused anguish and heartbreak as men were separated from their common-law wives…”
“Neither Sapper nor Schanberg could confirm that executions occurred although both heard of them. Schanberg himself had a narrow escape in circumstances which he concluded meant that the Khmer held with him were killed…”
The story of Schanberg’s and Dith’s activities in Phnom Penh in 1975 and Dith’s experiences in Cambodia until his escape in 1979 are depicted in the 1984 Academy Award-winning motion picture The Killing Fields.
Sources: All documents come from the Electronic Telegrams file of the Department of State’s Central Foreign Policy File (NAID 654098), part of RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. Those records can be found online as part of the National Archives’ Access to Archival Databases under “Diplomatic Records.”