WASHINGTON >> John Gunther Dean, a veteran American diplomat and five-time ambassador forever haunted by his role in the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia during the dying days of the Khmer Republic, has died. He was 93.
Dean, who later in his career fell out with the Washington foreign policy establishment over U.S. policy toward Israel and was forced to retire in the late 1980s, died June 6, his wife, Martine, and children announced in an online obituary.
The U.S. Embassy in India, Dean’s last post where he served as ambassador from 1985-89, confirmed his death in a tweet mourning his passing. “He was a skilled diplomat that championed strong US-India relations,” it said. “Rest in peace and you will be forever missed.”
Although Dean served as ambassador to Denmark, Lebanon, Thailand and India, he was perhaps best known for his 1974-75 tour as the top U.S. diplomat in Cambodia. Dean oversaw the evacuation of the embassy in Phnom Penh as the capital fell to the Khmer Rouge, trying desperately to secure passage out of the city for Cambodian officials and others who had battled against the communist insurgents even after the U.S. ended military assistance to the embattled government.
“We’d accepted responsibility for Cambodia and then walked out without fulfilling our promise,” Dean said in a 2015 interview to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh. “That’s the worst thing a country can do. And I cried because I knew what was going to happen.”
Many of those who could not get out, including one senior official who rebuffed Dean’s offer of escape, were killed in the months and years during the Khmer Rouge’s time in power memorialized in the Academy Award-winning film “The Killing Fields.” As many as 2 million Cambodians — or 1 in 4 — would die from executions, starvation and torture during the more than three years the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, ruled the country with what many saw as an experiment in radical Marxist agrarianism.
“I failed,” he told The Associated Press in the 2015 interview, which was conducted from his home in Paris, where he lived throughout most of his retirement. “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.”
One, however, declined Dean’s entreaties to leave. Prince Sirik Matak, a former deputy prime minister, wrote Dean a searing letter shortly before his death explaining why he would not accept and lamented that the United States was leaving its ally behind. “I never believed for a moment that you have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you the Americans,” the prince wrote.
Dean described the letter in the AP interview as the “greatest accusation ever made by foreigners. It is wrenching, no? And put yourself in the role of the American representative.”
His departure from Phnom Penh, carrying the embassy’s American flag in a plastic bag under his arm, was captured by a photographer as he sped toward a helicopter landing site and became one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War era.
After leaving Cambodia, Dean, a German-born Jew who spoke four languages, became ambassador to Denmark, followed by ambassadorial stints in Lebanon, Thailand and India.
While serving in Beirut, Dean became convinced that he had been the target of an Israeli-supported assassination attempt, a theory he wrote about in his 2009 memoir “Danger Zones: A Diplomat’s Fight for America’s Interests.” In it, he also recounted his suspicion of Israeli involvement in the 1986 plane crash that killed Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and his friend and colleague the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel.
Those allegations have never been proved, and his pursuit of the suspicions led Washington to bring his 30-year career to an abrupt halt in 1989.