Kenneth Quinn: From Cambodia's 'killing fields' to Iowa's Field of Dreams

World Food Prize president reflects on 'very unusual' career

Kenneth Quinn (right) speaks in March 2014 during the unveiling of a statue of Norman Borlaug (behind podium) at Statuar
Kenneth Quinn (right) speaks in March 2014 during the unveiling of a statue of Norman Borlaug (behind podium) at Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Borlaug was a humanitarian and Nobel laureate who founded the World Food Prize Foundation. Quinn took over as president of the foundation in 2000 after a long career with the U.S. State Department. Quinn, 76, plans to retire from his role with the foundation next year. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

DES MOINES — For many, a trip to the House of Lords in London to be honored with a rarely given international humanitarian award for working to prevent genocide would be the culmination of a career.

But for Kenneth Quinn, 76, being only the second person bestowed with the Steven Krulis Champion of Humanity Distinguished Service Award presented by the Aegis Trust of Great Britain took a back seat to being honored in 2014 as the 23rd recipient of the Iowa Award.

The state’s highest citizen honor was established in 1948, and Quinn described earning it as “the pinnacle of recognition.”

“Receiving the Iowa Medal I think is unparalleled,” he said in a recent interview. “To have my name associated with Norman Borlaug and George Washington Carver and Herbert Hoover, Henry Wallace — that’s an incomparable experience and an honor beyond anything that I ever could have imagined possible while going to Loras College in Dubuque in the 1960s.”

Quinn moved with his family from New York to Dubuque at age 10. He graduated from Wahlert High School and Loras College.

After a 32-year career as a State Department officer in the Foreign Service that included a stint as the 10th U.S. ambassador to Cambodia from December 1995 to July 1999, Quinn took the reins of the World Food Prize Foundation as its president.

The organization was founded by Iowa-born agronomist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug and annually issues a $250,000 award considered to be the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.”


In March, he announced plans to retire as the foundation’s president next Jan. 3 and end an illustrious — and what he calls “very unusual” — diplomatic career that took him from the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia to the Field of Dreams in Iowa.

Quinn was first to sound alarm about Khmer Rouge

It was his work as a Foreign Service officer in Southeast Asia that garnered him the international humanitarian award in London last March. He was honored for his role in confronting and preventing genocide in Cambodia along with promoting the values of humanity.

While assigned as an American Foreign Service officer on the remote Cambodian border in Vietnam in 1974, Quinn is widely acknowledged as the first person to report on the genocidal policies of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. His 40-page report likened Khmer Rouge policies to those of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia.

“I observed the genocidal Cambodian Communists known as the Khmer Rouge, and they were just beginning their very first day of imposing their radical rule on Cambodian people. And I wrote a 40-page report about it, which was submitted throughout the U.S. government, but no one believed me,” Quinn said. “The Khmer Rouge then did what I predicted and imposed their rule on the entire country with a population of 7 million people. And four years after they took power, about 2 million would be dead.”

In 1979, while serving on the staff of then-Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, the two men traveled to the Cambodian border with Thailand and witnessed thousands of victims who had escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide but were dying at the rate of 50 to 100 a day — their bodies bulldozed into mass graves. Upon their return to Iowa, Quinn said, “we started Iowa SHARES (Iowa Sends Help to Aid Refugees and End Starvation). We rushed food and medicine and volunteer Iowa doctors and nurses to the Cambodian border in a life-saving effort.”

Iowa’s Legacy: Using Agriculture to bring people together

During his time before and during his ambassadorship, Quinn said he worked to develop agricultural enhancements and improve rural roads, which led to the final eradication of the remaining 25,000 Khmer Rouge who still had controlled much of the Cambodian countryside.

“I had used a formula of building rural roads and bringing in new agricultural technology. There had been 25,000 Khmer Rouge when we started doing this and on March 6, 1999, the last one had surrendered. So we had eradicated the worst genocidal, mass-murdering terrorist organization of the second half of the 20th century,” Quinn said. “I had learned the power of agriculture, the transformative power of agriculture and rural roads, and I had used it to destroy this genocidal organization, to eradicate it completely. As a city kid who grew up in Dubuque with no connection to agriculture at all, that was a great lesson I learned and used it.

“I retired in 1999 after being ambassador to Cambodia and came home to Iowa to take over the World Food Prize and I brought with me the theme of peace through agriculture — that agriculture offers this opportunity, not only to eradicate terrorists, but also agriculture and confronting hunger have the potential to bring together people across very great differences, to bring people together across ethnic differences, religious differences, cultural differences, political differences, national differences, diplomatic differences — in fact that is the legacy of Iowa.”

Regarded as one of the most decorated Foreign Service officers of his generation, Quinn was recognized for the important role he played in humanitarian endeavors, as well as for his actions in dangerous and violent situations. He is the recipient of the State Department medal for heroism and valor, and was the only civilian to receive the U.S. Army Air Medal for participating in over 100 hours of helicopter combat operations in Vietnam during the war.

The impossible choice: Norman Borlaug or Robert Ray?

In a question-and-answer session, Quinn was asked who he thought left the bigger mark between two men he was closely associated with: Borlaug or Ray?

A: “Wow. You know when I get asked — of all the leaders I ever met, interacted with, observed — who do I most admire? It’s those two men and Corazon Aquino, the president of the Philippines, the heroine of democracy in the Philippines. I had the incomparable privilege of working for and being associated with Gov. Ray for over a decade’s time from when we first met. Normal Borlaug — in terms of the number of people affected, on the side of his statue it says the man who saved a billion lives — his impact, so global. Bob Ray, when nobody in the world would take the boat people refugees — the first governing leader to step forward and say Iowa will double the number of refugees and convince the president to reopen America’s doors. There are a million Vietnamese and Indochina refugees here in America today I think only because Bob Ray stepped forward at that time.


“You’re asking me the impossible choice. Bob Ray deserved the Nobel Peace Prize that Borlaug received. He was in the same pantheon of Iowa heroes as Norman Borlaug. I can’t bring myself to choose one over the other, they’re both incredibly inspiring.”

Q: Would they be on your Mount Rushmore of great Iowans?

A: “Absolutely.”

Q: Who would be the other two?

A: “Wow. I would have a place for George Washington Carver, who overcame so many obstacles and did such incredible things. I would think there’s got to be a place for Jessie Field Shambaugh, who started those after-school clubs for boys and girls at the beginning of the 20th century, which developed into 4-H with 6 million young Americans every year being impacted by what she did. I probably would try to find two other spots for Herbert Hoover and Henry Wallace. Hoover, the failed president, but I think arguably the single greatest humanitarian in the history of our country who took food to feed 600 (million) or 700 million people while working for a Democrat — (President) Woodrow Wilson. And Henry Wallace, a Republican who stepped across political lines to help FDR, was the first to advocate taking American agricultural know-how beyond our borders — going to South America, to Mexico, to China and then as vice president of the United States. Those are two iconic figures.”

Q: Would you need to have another mountain to fit all six?

A: “You know, Iowans are good, you could say just squeeze a little closer together.”

• Comments: (515) 243-7220;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.