The story of modern Cambodia is so tragic that it takes moral resolve to read about it. It also raises some perplexing puzzles. How could the gentle Buddhist Cambodians become so violent? What kind of evil genius was Pol Pot, who presided over the slaughter of more than a million of his compatriots? In writing his book, Chandler explored every bit of evidence about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but the more evidence he uncovered, the more bland and ordinary the Cambodian leader became. No traumatic experiences, social or economic difficulties, or psychological problems explain Pol Pot's brutal actions; the author found accounts only of a mild-mannered, pleasant personality who was a normal but mediocre student. Born into a family with close connections to the royal palace, Pol Pot was randomly selected as one of the first hundred Cambodian students after World War II to study in France, where he never took any examinations or received a degree. What did set him apart was joining the French Communist Party, which gave him instant high status among the local communists when he returned to Cambodia. Pol Pot then spent seven years fighting enemies and rising to the top with purge after purge. Chandler concludes that this experience in Cambodia is probably what turned him into a vicious killer.
The paranoid atmosphere that enveloped the leaders of both the Cambodian and Vietnamese communist parties also dominates Morris' vivid analysis. His systematic study delves into the causes of the only extended war between two communist states, seeking to explain the seemingly irrational decision of weak Cambodia to attack the much stronger Vietnam and the equally irrational Vietnamese provocation of China. As the first Southeast Asian specialist to gain access to the recently opened Moscow files on the Indochinese Communist Party, Morris ably documents the paranoid style of thinking that characterized these Marxist-Leninist leaders. Given the mindset that Morris describes, the behavior of both Pol Pot and the leaders in Hanoi becomes more understandable, if not forgivable.