Before The Killing Fields: Witness to Cambodia & the Vietnam War

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A gripping portrait of a country poised between peace and war.

This (largely autobiographical, eye-witness) book is about the Vietnam war and its destructive impact on neutral Cambodia. US and British policy towards Cambodia diverged; London gave way to Washington; the unintended end result was chaos and the Pol Pot genocide. The narrative is that of a protagonist, then in charge of the British Embassy in Phnom Penh, of which the inner workings and day-to-day life are described, as well as the wider political and military setting.

The author, now Sir Leslie Fielding, latterly a University Vice-Chancellor and top Eurocrat, then a Diplomatic Service 'First Secretary', was put in charge of the British Embassy to Cambodia in 1964. But as an expendable 'fall guy', following riots and the emergency evacuation of women and children. He sets the scene with an overview of the history and traditions of a little known country, through the eyes of Chinese emissaries at the Court of Angkor, and of the later European explorers; then, with an update on where Cambodia had got to, by the 1960s, and on the dangers which lay ahead. He describes the acute difficulties facing the British Embassy (put 'in Coventry'; threatened by government controlled mobs; occasionally shot at); how it was re-organised and re-staffed; what it was like to work there.

The book opens with five cameos, to give the exotic flavour of the locale; evoke its menacing aspects; and illustrate the prevailing atmosphere of tension and intrigue. These are (i) a mob attack on the British Embassy; (ii) a Ball at the Royal Palace, at which the King awarded the author the title of 'The Number One Twister of Cambodia' - curiously, as a positive political signal to the British Government; (iii) a visit to a high society opium den, under the protection of the Cambodian Queen Mother, for discreet political contacts with jumpy Cabinet Big Wigs; (iv) a US air attack on a group of international observers on neutral territory; (v) a dialogue with the spirit of a "Crocodile Princess" at a remote shrine (to enlist the assistance of the supernatural).

We come, next, to the 'action': British attempts at peace-making (with the belated and reluctant assent of the US); the failure of the Harold Wilson/Patrick Gordon-Walker initiative (including the latter's rescue from a Cambodian street mob, disguised as a Norwegian sea captain); and the growing clandestine grip of the Viet Cong on the Cambodian frontier areas - the prelude to full scale war and (thereafter) the Pol Pot horror.

There is a critical, 'warts and all', account of Chinese, American, Gaullist French, and guileless Australian, policy towards, and activity in, Cambodia. Also, of how the author was taken by the French and Chinese secret services to be a British deep-cover 'spy master'.

Finally, a level-headed look-back on events, at a distance of forty years. There is a not entirely 'diplomatic' assessment of the paranoid and mercurial King Sihanouk; an account of the tragedy which eventually engulfed Cambodia; a reflection on the huge mistake which the Americans made in allowing themselves to be drawn into a war in Vietnam which they could not win (and on the implications for the UK today).

Praise for "Before The Killing Fields"

"A wonderfully entertaining read and hugely germane to many of our present preoccupations in international relations." Christopher Patten

"Fielding… cuts a dash in the drawing rooms and opium dens of Phnom Penh… As 'Number One Twister', he developed a better relationship with Sihanouk than his US counterparts… He is proud of a time when Britain stood up to America and did not go to war." Daily Telegraph

"A vivid picture of the life of a diplomat abroad; usually arduous, sometimes uncomfortable and dangerous; pompous routine varied by passages of the comical and wildly unexpected." Philip Zeigler

"Fielding's book matches that other outstanding account of duty done on a far frontier - John Masters's 'Bugles and a Tiger'." Dr Milton A. Osborne

"Leslie Fielding was one of Britain's more unorthodox and original diplomats… For all students of diplomacy and of Cambodia, this book provides a vivid and colourful picture of life at the sharp end." International Affairs

"Written with panache and verve… a joy to read… reminds us of a seemingly lost world of good fun but also serious thought and action." Asian Affairs

"Fielding gives a gripping account of Cambodia under the mercurial Sihanouk, as the shadows closed in." Literary Review

"Fielding describes Britain's woefully inept attempts at peace-making and how the British failure touched off a chain of events that propelled Cambodia to the horrors of Pol Pot." The Canadian Post

"There is an important lesson to be learned from Leslie Fielding's thought-provoking book. Today, the sad reality is that we in Britain have rubber-stamped a prospectus for military action in Iraq which earlier British Prime Ministers would have challenged and probably refused." Bookdealer