The events unfolded half a world away, but the last days of April 1975 were dark ones in American history. The United States had withdrawn its forces from Southeast Asia, leaving the Communist North Vietnamese army to overrun South Vietnam. On April 29, as North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon, American officials began a helicopter evacuation to get thousands of U.S. citizens, South Vietnamese allies, and others out of the capital city. On April 30, South Vietnam surrendered.
Just days earlier, a similar though smaller-scale evacuation had taken place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as forces of the Communist Khmer Rouge moved in on that capital. As U.S. officials fled the country, the American ambassador asked Prince Sirik Matak if he would like to leave. Matak’s response is difficult for Americans to read:
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we are all born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you.
When the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, they shot Matak in the stomach. Unattended, it took him three days to die. During the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror, some 1.5 million people died from execution, starvation, and forced labor.