Benedict F. Kiernan (born 1953 in Melbourne, Australia) 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 Ph.D. from Monash University, Australia, in 1983. 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.
In 1995 a Khmer Rouge court indicted, tried and sentenced Kiernan in-absentia for "prosecuting and terrorizing the Cambodian resistance patriots".
Kiernan currently teaches history courses on South East Asia, the Vietnam War and genocides through the ages.
He is now married to acclaimed historian of the American South Glenda Gilmore
In an article in the Walrus Magazine, Kiernan and Taylor Owen wrote that recent evidence reveals that Cambodia was bombed by the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
While Kiernan has become a fierce critic of Khmer Rouge behavior, 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."
In 1994, Kiernan was awarded a $499,000 grant by Congress to help the Cambodian government document the Khmer Rouge's abuses. The grant sparked a controversy after several fellow academics and journalists lobbied Secretary of State Warren Christopher to withdraw the grant from Kiernan's team. 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."
That same Yale University alumni magazine article that contained that criticism also carried Kiernan's response to Morris:
Kiernan fired back publicly at Morris, questioning his credentials as a Southeast Asian scholar and saying in the Wall Street Journal that Morris had based his claims on "selective quotes" from Kiernan's early writings, while ignoring his 18 years of research exposing the atrocities of Pol Pot's regime. "It struck me as a hall of mirrors," Kiernan says. "On the one hand I was accused of being a Khmer Rouge sympathizer, while on the other the Khmer Rouge were sentencing me as an arch war criminal." Kiernan says he has long acknowledged, publicly and in print, "that there were things I got wrong about the Khmer Rouge." He says that "errors of interpretation" led him to believe initially that the Cambodian Communists might have been a positive force in an essentially feudal country. He adds that his early commentaries appeared at a time when random acts of "post-war revenge" were common, and not always easy to distinguish from what became an orchestrated plan of extermination.
Twenty-nine Cambodian scholars and specialists publicly sided with Kiernan. From across a political spectrum that included Cambodian genocide survivor Dith Pran, senior historians including David P. Chandler, Craig Etcheson, Nayan Chanda, Michael Vickery and Milton Osborne signed a petition disassociating themselves from Stephen Morris, and chiding him for invoking the names of other scholars without permission. They wrote: "We have full confidence in Prof. Kiernan's integrity, professional scholarship, and ability to carry out the important work of the Cambodian Genocide Program. He is a first-rate historian and an excellent choice for the State Department grant." Concluding that, "As Cambodia studies is a small field, and we and our students comprise the majority who publish in the field, we are at a loss to imagine which "scholars" Mr. Morris might mean. We are certainly not among them, although Mr. Morris has not been above invoking names without permission. We totally dissociate ourselves from Stephen J. Morris."