John Gunther Dean, the U.S. Ambassador who was posted to Cambodia before Khmer Rouge’s takeover of Phnom Penh in 1975, died earlier this month. He was 93.
Dean reportedly died on June 6 at his retirement home in France, but the news came out Tuesday.
Spokesperson of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, Arend Zwartjes, confirmed Dean’s death on Wednesday, saying “we are saddened to hear of the passing of Ambassador Dean, and honor his service as Ambassador to Cambodia and four other countries.”
Dean served as the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia between 1974 to April 1975, during the rule of the embattled U.S.-backed Khmer Republic and emerging Khmer Rouge, supported by the Communist bloc.
On April 12, 1975, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh closed during the Eagle Pull operation to evacuate diplomats and staffers. Five days later, Phnom Penh and entire country fell under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which is blamed for the mass evacuation, forced labor, and extrajudicial massacres that resulted in the death of at least 1.7 million Cambodians.
The remarkable scene during the Eagle Pull operation took place when Dean carried the Embassy’s flag with him during the evacuation --a scene that symbolized America’s retreat at the end of the second Indochina war.
In an interview with the Associated Press to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh in 2015, Dean said the U.S. “abandoned Cambodia and handed it over to the butcher.”
“I failed,” he told AP in the 2015 interview on the evacuation. “I tried so hard. I took as many people as I could, hundreds of them, I took them out, but I couldn’t take the whole nation out.”
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan described the evacuation of the Embassy in 1975 as a “runaway”.
“We remember the time as a miserable memory and we agree with his remarks later over his disagreements with the U.S. policies toward Cambodia during 1970-1975 that brought wars into Cambodia,” Phay Siphan told VOA Khmer on Wednesday.
After Cambodia, Dean was posted as ambassador to Denmark, Lebanon, Thailand, and India. He was born into a Jewish family in Germany, before fleeing to the U.S. during the Second World War.
Dean’s Jewish background gave him the motivation to personally sympathize with Cambodia later on, contrasting with the U.S. foreign polices of his earlier time, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Youk said Dean would be remembered over his reception of a letter from the Khmer Republic’s key leader Sirik Matak, showing disappointment in the U.S.’s pullout and refusal to leave.
Sirik Matak, an architect of 1970 “coup” that brought in the Khmer Republic regime, was reportedly executed when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh.
“It might not be a one-sided decision. It was a matter of leaving your friends behind or your friends did not fight their own war hard enough to win,” Youk told VOA Khmer by phone.
But Dean’s efforts to assist Cambodian refugees living in camps on the Thai-Cambodian border during the 1980s were seen as an offset, said Ear Sophal, associate professor of diplomacy at the Los Angeles-based Occidental College.
“Ambassador Dean tried to make amends by helping Cambodian refugees and by promoting reconciliation,” Ear wrote in an email to VOA Khmer.
“Ambassador Dean will be remembered as an honorable man who tried valiantly. If Cambodia had a Mount Zion cemetery like Jerusalem where Oskar Schindler is buried, Ambassador Dean should be buried there.”