Benedict F. Kiernan (born 1953 in Melbourne) is the Whitney Griswold Professor of History, Professor of International and Area Studies and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. He is a prolific writer on the Cambodian genocide. Kiernan has also published prize-winning work on the global history of genocide.
In his early twenties, Kiernan visited Cambodia but left before the Khmer Rouge expelled all foreigners in 1975. Though he initially doubted the scale of genocide then being perpetrated in Democratic Kampuchea, he changed his mind in 1978 after beginning a series of interviews with several hundred refugees from Cambodia. He learnt the Khmer language, carried out extensive research in Cambodia and among refugees abroad, and has since written many critically acclaimed books on the topic.
From 1980 onwards, Kiernan worked with Gregory Stanton to bring the Khmer Rouge to international justice. He obtained his PhD from Monash University, Australia in 1983 under the supervision of David P. Chandler. He joined the Yale History Department in 1990, and founded the award-winning Cambodian Genocide Program at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies in 1994, and the comparative Genocide Studies Program in 1998. He is the author of over 100 scholarly articles on Southeast Asia and genocide. Kiernan currently teaches history courses on Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War and genocides through the ages.
In 1995 a Khmer Rouge court indicted, tried and sentenced Kiernan in-absentia for "prosecuting and terrorizing the Cambodian resistance patriots".
Kiernan is married to the award winning historian of the American South Glenda Gilmore.
Select publications and awards
In an article in the Walrus Magazine, Kiernan and Taylor Owen wrote that recent evidence reveals that Cambodia was bombed by the US far more heavily than previously believed. They conclude that "the impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d'état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide."
His 2007 book, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale University Press), received the 2008 gold medal from the US Independent Publishers Association for the best work of History published in 2007, and the German Studies Association's biennial Sybil Halpern Milton Memorial Book Prize for the best book published in 2007 or 2008 dealing with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in its broadest context, covering the fields of history, political science, and other social sciences, literature, art, and photography.
In June 2009, the book's German translation, Erde und Blut: Völkermord und Vernichtung von der Antike bis heute, won first place in Germany’s Nonfiction Book of the Month Prize (Die Sachbücher des Monats). Kiernan's writings have appeared in fourteen languages. His books on Cambodian history include How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, 1930–1975 (first published in 1985), and Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia: Documentation, Denial and Justice in Cambodia and East Timor (Transaction, 2007). In 2008, Yale University Press published the third edition of his 1996 book, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979. Kiernan’s anthology Conflict and Change in Cambodia won the Critical Asian Studies Prize for 2002.
Criticism of Kiernan's scholarship
While Kiernan has become a fierce critic of Khmer Rouge behaviour, Peter Rodman states that "When Hanoi turned publicly against Phnom Penh, it suddenly became respectable for many on the Left to "discover" the murderous qualities of the Khmer Rouge-qualities that had been obvious to unbiased observers for years. Kiernan fits this pattern nicely. His book even displays an eagerness to absolve of genocidal responsibility those members of the Khmer Rouge who defected to Hanoi and were later reinstalled in power in Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978." Rodman himself was a prominent defender of the Reagan administration’s Third World policies, which involved active support for the Khmer Rouge-led coalition fighting against the post-genocide Cambodian government and its Vietnamese backers, including military aid.
In 1994, Kiernan was awarded a $499,000 grant by Congress to help the Cambodian government document the Khmer Rouge's abuses. Stephen J. Morris, at the time a research associate in the department of government at Harvard University cited statements Kiernan had made regarding the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal Morris claimed that Kiernan's earlier opinions made him a poor choice to study Khmer Rouge abuses. Gerard Henderson, executive director of Australia's Sydney Institute stated that Kiernan had "barracked for the Khmer Rouge when the Cambodian killing fields were choked with corpses." The Morris article was strongly challenged by a letter that was signed by 29 leading Cambodia specialists, including the academic historians Michael Vickery and David Chandler and the journalist Nayan Chanda. The 29 signatories praised Kiernan as “a first-rate historian and an excellent choice for the State Department grant.” They argued that “like many anti-war activists and observers seared by the experience of misleading propaganda during the Vietnam War, Kiernan in his early twenties initially saw the guerrillas as offering hope for positive change, though even then he was hardly uncritical of the Khmer Rouge. But in 1978 he realized his error and had the courage to acknowledge it in print. Since 1978, Kiernan has devoted his career to documenting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Far from being an apologist for Pol Pot, Prof. Kiernan has been an outspoken and untiring opponent of the Khmer Rouge for seventeen years.” Furthermore, the signatories noted that Morris himself “supported a coalition government-in-exile which was dominated by the Khmer Rouge” throughout the 1980s. Kiernan himself responded by accusing Morris and Henderson of spreading deliberate falsehoods: “It is always reassuring when one’s critics need to rewrite evidence to make their case. I recall Henderson’s invention of my alleged ‘visit’ to Pol Pot’s closed regime (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 1990). And his poor memory: ‘I am not aware of one Cambodian specialist who opposed Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge before Vietnam’s conquest of Phnom Penh’, in 1979. The fact is that I did. In a 1978 article, ‘Why’s Kampuchea Gone to Pot ?’, I stated that ‘refugees report widespread purges’ and executions, and that the strength of ‘domestic opposition’ had led to ‘more wide ranging purges’. I added that ‘Pol Pot is after unchallenged authority’, pursuing ‘a chauvinism that demands big continuing sacrifices from the people to build a powerful state’, while ‘many peasants and peasant cadres have been repressed.’ I also noted: ‘Nearly all public positions are now held by the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary group, their wives, or people unknown to outsiders’ . . . Obviously, such assertions are easy to refute. The question is why these people with no credibility are taken seriously by anyone. Morris, for instance, has no scholarly publications, and an impressive track record of seeing his accusations exposed as groundless (WSJ, 5 June 1990 and 28 April 1995). It is not surprising that despite his trumpeted Harvard affiliation, he has never held a faculty position.”
- Kiernan, Ben (December 1976). "Social Cohesion in Revolutionary Cambodia". Australian Outlook.
- Kiernan, Ben (October–December 1979). "Vietnam and the Governments and People of Kampuchea". Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars.
- Kiernan, Ben and Boua, Chanthou (1981). Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942–1981. Zed Books Ltd.
- Kiernan, Ben (2004) . How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism in Cambodia, 1930–1975. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10262-3.
- Kiernan, Ben (1986). Cambodia: The Eastern zone Massacres.
- Kiernan, Ben (1986). Cambodge: Histoire et enjeux.
- Kiernan, Ben (2002) . The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09649-6.
- Kiernan, Ben (1998). Le Génocide au Cambodge, 1975–1979: Race, idéologie, et pouvoir.
- Kiernan, Ben (2007). Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10098-3.
- Kiernan, Ben (2007). Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia: Documentation, Denial, and Justice in Cambodia and East Timor. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-4128-0668-2.
- Kiernan, Benedict (17 November 1978). "Why's Kampuchea Gone to Pot?". Nation Review (Melbourne).
- Kiernan, Benedict (October–December 1979). "Vietnam and the Governments and People of Kampuchea". Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars.
- Shawcross, William (1984). The Quality of Mercy – Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience. Simon and Schuster, New York. ISBN 0-671-44022-5.
- Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan (October 2006). "Bombs Over Cambodia". The Walrus. Retrieved 19 February 2011.
- "2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards Results". Retrieved 7 December 2009.
- "2009 Sybil Halpern Milton Prize Winner". Retrieved 7 December 2009.
- "Sachbücher des Monats Juni 2009". Retrieved 7 December 2009.
- Morris, Stephen (17 April 1995). "The Wrong Man to Investigate Cambodia". Wall Street Journal.[dead link]
- Gunn, Geoffrey (1991). Cambodia Watching Down Under. Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University. ISBN 974-579-532-1.
- Grantsmanship & the Killing Fields; Peter W. Rodman; Commentary Magazine; March 1996
- Patrick Dilger; Back to the "Killing Fields" Yale Alumni Magazine, April 1996
- Kiernan's bio at Yale
- Cambodian Genocide Program
- Genocide Studies Program
- Behind the Peace Agreement in Cambodia
- PBS interview with Kiernan
- Aztag interview with Kiernan
- Interview with Kiernan on "New Books in History"