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A Special Supplement: Cambodia

You must understand that we in Saigon are desperate men. We are a government of desperadoes.51

An accurate description, which applies with equal force to those who design American policy. These men have enormous power at their command and can do very much as they wish, with few restrictions. As recent events once more reveal, the Constitution and unorganized public opinion serve as no serious constraint, and international law and our “solemn treaty obligations”—to the UN Charter, for example, which remains, if anyone cares, “the supreme law of the land”52—have long faded from consciousness. Reference to them has become “moralistic” or “naïve,” as it no doubt is.

More seriously, the victims have absolutely no way of striking back at the United States, the source of aggression, and it is unlikely that their allies will risk the fury of American nuclear attack by threatening the United States with retaliation. Therefore, the American government can “experiment” with one technique of destruction after another—“population control methods” and other police state tactics, assassination teams to destroy the enemy “infrastructure,” defoliation, forced evacuation, concentration of the population in camps and urban slums, bombardment on a scale unknown in human history,53 invasion of other countries, and whatever other ideas happen to occur to them. The disparity of force between the American government and its victims is so enormous that American planners can pretty much do as they wish, without fear of serious retaliation. In such a situation, it is quite pointless to try to explain the actions of these frightened and limited men on rational grounds. They have the force at their command, and can use it with impunity. Further explanations are in a sense superfluous.

President Nixon wishes us to believe that after a right-wing coup in Cambodia, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese have become a more serious military threat to South Vietnam. This is as convincing as his fantasies about North Vietnam surrounding the South with its awesome military might. He also alluded ominously to the sanctuaries in Svay Rieng province (“Parrot’s Beak”), “as close to Saigon as Baltimore is to Washington,” and spoke of the rapid NVA build-up in Cambodia in April. As to the latter, military sources in Saigon report that they know of no Communist build-up in Cambodia.54 What of the prior situation in the densely populated flat riceland of Svay Rieng province? The province was visited by T. D. Allman a few months ago. 55 Four things, he wrote, seem evident as a result of his investigation. I quote:

  1. The Vietcong use Cambodian territory much less than the Americans in Saigon claim.

  2. US aircraft violate Cambodian air space and bomb and strafe Cambodian territory in violation of the US guidelines, frequently with no cause at all, and much more often than the US admits.

  3. In fairness to all sides, it is obvious that the Americans, South Vietnamese, Vietcong and North Vietnamese are all making some degree of effort to keep the war out of Cambodia.

  4. The Cambodian effort to hold ground against all comers belies any reports that they have an “agreement” with the communists—or for that matter with the Americans.

He describes this dangerous “sanctuary” as “an absolutely flat country—rice paddies, villages, occasionally a small grove of trees…scanning the open horizon, broken only by Cambodian villages and mango groves, there seemed no place the Vietcong could hide, let alone establish a permanent sanctuary.” Allman spent a day in the isolated district of Chantrea. The evening before, American planes had bombed and strafed a village “2300 metres inside Cambodia and clearly visible across a rice field,” killing two farmers and destroying a hectare of paddy. The district officer stated:

There are no Vietcong in Chantrea district. They never enter our territory more than 500 metres, even at night. Mostly they are passing. There are no camps here. No sanctuaries.

During 1969 [the district officer added], in this one district of Svay Rieng province, nine Cambodians were killed by American bombs or guns; 20 Cambodians were wounded; 100 hectares of rice paddy was damaged; and more than 100 farm animals were killed; no Vietcong were killed by Americans, and no Cambodians were killed by Vietcong.

As they spoke, a policeman entered to report bombing and strafing 200 meters inside Cambodia: “Incidentally, there is no one there [the policeman reported]. No Vietcong, no Cambodian. But one rice field and a grove of mango trees are being destroyed.”

From these accounts, it is not difficult to predict the character of the invasion of Svay Rieng province, now in its initial stages. It will lead to the destruction of villages and the displacement of population, but probably little else. Early reports indicate that this is exactly what is being achieved. James Sterba reports that “few people were to be seen in the Parrot’s Beak…but animals were everywhere,” water buffalo and herds of cattle near abandoned houses. 56 The ARVN soldiers as usual were stealing chickens. “Dozens of houses were burned by South Vietnamese troops in the Parrot’s Beak. Their charred frames dotted the landscape.”

American troops will be unable to match the ARVN accomplishments, since the “Fishhook” area that they are invading is more thinly settled. But at least they are trying:

…troops of the US 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment burned down at least five villages, each with 30 to 40 houses. Officers said they were told to burn the villages because they could be of use to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. The Americans met no resistance. Villagers fled. 57

Peter Arnett is quoted as reporting that American troops entering Snoul were ordered to “blow the town away.”58

Returning to our comrades in arms, Gloria Emerson reports from Prasaut, totally abandoned before the South Vietnamese troops entered. French-speaking General Do Cao Tri (“smoking a pipe and holding a swaggerstick”) did not discourage his troops from writing anti-Cambodian slogans on the walls of buildings, for example: “Now is the time for the killers to pay in blood,” a reference to the Cambodian massacre of eighty-nine Vietnamese in Prasaut on April 10, when the Lon Nol government was desperately attempting to hold its authority by brutally fanning ethnic hostilities:

If this was a triumphant day for the South Vietnamese, it was a bewildering, frightening one for the Cambodians who hid inside their houses near Route 1 or fled their homes. Close to the Vietnamese border at Godauha, only a few men watched the South Vietnamese troops pass. They stared with tight, sullen faces. Just outside Prasaut, the doors of the wooden houses that stand on stilts were empty and silent. There were thick locks on the doors of the better houses, and portraits of Prince Sihanouk, the deposed Chief of State of Cambodia, still hung on the walls of one porch.59

The Observer (London), May 3, cites

…reports that seem to carry a grimmer significance. Apart from the Viet Cong casualties, the Americans have announced that scores of “persons” have been detained by the allied forces. They have been led out of the area under guard, blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs, suspected of being North Vietnamese soldiers. The area is inhabited by many civilians, both Vietnamese and Cambodians, families of rubber plantation workers and woodcutters.

This lends a fearful emphasis to the remarks of American officers on the spot that American observation and gunship helicopters have been given clearance “to fire on anything that moves” in an area extending about three miles north and west of the ground operations.

What of the Cambodian troops? Jack Foisie, reporting from Svay Rieng, describes “the churlishness of Cambodian army troopers who appeared dismayed that the Saigon government army was occupying their town, even though at the moment they were allies”60—a fact too subtle, apparently, for the simple peasant mind to comprehend.

And so we proceed to save the people of Cambodia from Vietnamese aggression, just as we have been saving the Lao and the Vietnamese themselves.

It is difficult to believe that American strategists expect to find the highly mobile Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops sitting and waiting after several days of obvious preparations for an invasion, any more than they expect to find Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops strolling through the market place when they wipe out a Lao village from the air. The experience of earlier sweeps within South Vietnam has been that there was little contact with Communist forces, and virtually no correlation between contact and prior intelligence. This is a story in itself, still largely untold. For example, a map of Operation Junction City in the 1966-67 Yearbook of the 25th Infantry Division shows extensive “objective” areas that were devastated prior to the sweep, but virtually no “contact”—sniper fire or soldiers, dead or alive—within the objective areas, several of which were heavily settled.61

It is a virtual certainty that great victories will be claimed in the Cambodian invasion, and that the military will release reports of arms caches and rice destroyed, military bases demolished, and much killing of “North Vietnamese,” i.e., people who find themselves in the way of an American tank or in an area bombed or strafed. So many reputations and careers are at stake that glorious victories are guaranteed.

Furthermore, some of these reports may even be correct. On probabilistic grounds alone, one would expect that American military intelligence can’t always be wrong about everything. The headquarters of the Vietnamese resistance forces and the bases that they use for R-and-R must be somewhere, and they may well be found and destroyed during the American-Saigon sweep. Whether the invading troops will withdraw remains to be seen. That the countryside will be devastated and its population removed or destroyed is reasonably certain. Very probably, if these territories are abandoned by the invading forces, some, at least, will be joined to the area on the South Vietnamese side of the border as an extended free fire zone.


The amazing, unanticipated popular revulsion against the American invasion of Cambodia indicates that it will be very difficult, in the short run at least, for the government to make use of American ground troops to ensure its control of those who remain refractory. The Pentagon will therefore have to learn to rely more effectively on the technology of destruction. Chances are that a ring of fire and devastation will surround the outposts of the “free world” in South Vietnam, protecting the American army of a quarter of a million men and its permanent bases from attack. If Eastern Cambodia must be sacrificed to this end, neither General Thieu nor his employers can be expected to shed many tears.

As in Laos and Vietnam, the United States is intervening—whatever its immediate reasons—to support reactionary, even feudalistic elements, and to suppress an emerging peasant-based movement of national independence. As I have already noted, there is some evidence that the CIA had a finger, and perhaps a hand, in the March 18 coup. In any event, when Sihanouk refused to retire to France like a well-behaved Bao Dai, as the Viet Cong strategy of arming the peasants and encouraging the formation of a pro-Sihanouk Cambodian liberation army became evident, American intervention became essential. Tad Szulc reported from Washington that “The Khmer Rouges, the Cambodian equivalent of the South Vietnamese Vietcong guerrillas, may become an important political element in Cambodia, in the opinion of US Government experts on Indochina.”62 The Khmer liberation forces, if they continue to expand, can be expected to link up with the NLF (now the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam), the Pathet Lao, and the North Vietnamese in a general Indochina war against the rightwing elements backed by the United States.

It is widely admitted that the revolutionary groups we confront in Laos and Vietnam—and soon, very likely, in Cambodia—are the only indigenous forces that have any immediate prospect of mobilizing mass support in Indochina. For example, a recently published RAND Corporation study concedes that apart from the Neo Lao Hak Sat (the political party of the revolutionary movement in Laos), there is no “broadly based political organization” in Laos, a country run by an “extremely small elite,”63 to be more precise, hardly more than a façade for the Americans. Similarly, the Council of Vietnamese Studies of SEADAG (the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group) in its meetings of May 3, 1969, struggles with the fact that the NLF is the “best organized political group,” the “strongest political group in South Vietnam.”64 The same conclusions are reached in scholarly literature. For example, the Vietnam scholar Allen Goodman concludes:

Indeed, it would appear that the organization of a cadre structure and the nurturing of strong local governments will continue to be the forte of the Viet Cong as South Vietnam approaches peaceful conditions. The ultimate victor in South Vietnam will not be that party which necessarily wins the war, but rather that party which organizes for peace.65

Thus the United States is forced to resort to the Phoenix program to destroy the Viet Cong “infrastructure,” and to the other means of annihilation and population control with which it experiments throughout Indochina. In Cambodia too it is likely that the United States will have to undertake intensive bombardment of civilian targets, as in Laos, or direct occupation, as in South Vietnam, to maintain in power the right-wing elements to which it is committed.

Nor is this likely to be the end. The Far Eastern Economic Review comments editorially that there are grounds for “claiming that the revolutionary situation in the region is excellent.” Extending their “gloomy speculations” about Indochina, they proceed:

…to envisage a people’s war, supplied and supported from Laos, engulfing the northeast and north of Thailand, eventually linking up with dissidents in the south fomented by Ching Peng and the rump of the Malayan Communist Party, and spreading across the country to join hands with the numerous factions in open revolt within Burma. From here the revolutionary line leads via the Nagas and other minorities to the Naxalites and West Bengal.66

It is not difficult to imagine other reasons, in each of the countries named, for the expansion of “people’s war.” The American involvement alone is a contributing factor. The US can hardly expect to turn Thailand into a military base for its Southeast Asian wars without calling forth a response by “Communists” who refuse to follow the rules.67 Domestic reasons are also not difficult to conjure up. The editorial comment in the Far Eastern Economic Review also notes that “China would probably be much happier with a neutralist Laos and a neutralist Cambodia.” This is no doubt true. Sihanouk, for one, continually emphasized this point, as noted earlier. The United States, however, is unlikely to permit this option.

By its insistence on imposing rightwing governments with virtually no popular support on the people of Indochina, the United States may ultimately succeed in bringing about a Pacific or even a global war. Though this may not appear likely at the moment, it is easy to imagine a sequence of events that would lead to this consequence. In any event, the future for the people of Southeast Asia is dim. The United States is using its incomparable technological resources and its internationally based military forces to occupy and destroy vast territories, to uproot and demoralize the population, to disrupt social life in the areas it cannot physically control. So long as the American people tolerate these atrocities, the people of Southeast Asia can look forward only to continued misery.

In an earlier essay, I noted that the American policy of conquest in Indochina has continued, without fundamental change in goals, for twenty years.68 It is important to reiterate that this policy has been seen, from the start, as a central component in global American strategy. In a perceptive article, Walter LaFeber observed several years ago69 that when Eisenhower announced his “falling dominoes” theory on April 7, 1954, he referred specifically to Japan:

[Communist success in Indochina] takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go—that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live. So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.

LaFeber added that “This thesis became a controlling assumption: the loss of Vietnam would mean the economic undermining and probable loss of Japan to Communist markets and ultimately to Communist influence if not control.”70 Although the Indochina war in part develops through its own dynamics—the President is hardly likely to be willing to face the domestic political consequences of an American defeat, even if the alternative is a possible global war—it seems to me, nevertheless, that LaFeber is correct in identifying this “controlling assumption,” and in arguing that it is an important factor in accounting for the persistence of our effort to control Southeast Asia.

One can, of course, trace the policy of expansion into Asia far back in American history. The postwar American effort to dominate Southeast Asia has an element of “rationality,” according to the perceived interests of many of those who manage American society—unfortunately for the people of Indochina and the United States, who will pay the price. It is not unlikely that the price will be that described by Professor Fairbank, in the remarks quoted earlier: a war against the people of Asia and a growing totalitarian menace in the United States.

None the less, the grim game is far from ended. So long as the war continues, it may be impossible to reduce inflation and unemployment to “tolerable” limits without imposing the kinds of controls that are unacceptable to the business community. If so, American workers may refuse to continue to sacrifice their jobs and livelihood in the cause of American domination of Southeast Asia. Perhaps much wider circles can be drawn into the movement against the war. There is no doubt that many, many people are confused and troubled. With serious work, they might be brought to join those great numbers who actively oppose the war. There is resistance in the military and continuing resistance to military conscription—according to a recent report,” “The Oakland induction center, which processes draftees for all of Northern California and a portion of Nevada, says more than half of the young men ordered to report fail to show up—and 11 percent of those who do show up refuse to serve.”71

Many more people are refusing to support criminal acts by payment of war taxes. As I write, there is an unprecedented student strike. Acts of sabotage directed against the military are on the increase. An underground is developing, as such “criminals” as Daniel Berrigan refuse to accept the legitimacy of the authority that has sentenced them to prison for trying to impede the war machine. Congress is seething, and state legislatures are registering opposition in surprisingly strong ways. In short, those who still hope to subdue and hold their Southeast Asian colonies have plenty of trouble in store for them, here as well as there.

To pursue the war, the government will have to subdue dissent and protest, which is sure to take more militant forms as the war expands and its character becomes continually more clear. It may have to make a choice between abandoning this war, with long-term and unforeseeable consequences for American imperial policy, and jettisoning what remains of the structure of American democracy. The choice might arise fairly soon. Consider, for example, the legislation introduced by Senators Hatfield, McGovern, and others to cut off funds for continuation of the war. This was a courageous move on their part. It establishes a sharp criterion by which it can be determined whether any congressman is for war or for peace in Indochina. Suppose that it becomes law. Then the choice will be posed quite clearly. I would hesitate to predict the outcome.


Cambodia June 18, 1970

  1. 51

    Field, op. cit.

  2. 52

    A fact that leads to some weird contortions. For example, Ambassador William Sullivan, now Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, makes the absurd claim that the Truman Doctrine is a “parsing” of the UN Charter (Symington Subcommittee Hearings).

  3. 53

    According to Pentagon sources, aerial bombardment of Indochina from 1965 through 1969 reached 4.5 million tons, nine times the total tonnage in the entire Pacific theater in World War II. This is about half of the total ordnance expended.

  4. 54

    Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post-Boston Globe, May 3.

  5. 55

    See Far Eastern Economic Review, Feb. 26, 1970.

  6. 56

    New York Times, May 3.

  7. 57

    AP, Boston Globe, May 4.

  8. 58

    CBS radio news, May 5. They did: “Front line reports said American tanks and aircraft strikes that included napalm drops against Communist defenders destroyed the town of Snoul inside Cambodia on Tuesday. UPI correspondent Leon Daniel reported some of the GIs looted goods from deserted shops Wednesday as they swept through the town of 10,000 in the heart of rubber plantation country.” Henry Huet reports from Snoul that it was reduced to rubble with tank guns and air attacks the day before it was assaulted. The French manager of a rubber plantation informed him that between fifty and sixty North Vietnamese had driven off a 500-man Cambodian garrison on April 22. They armed the 1600 workers, 95 percent of whom are Cambodians, and took them along as they fled from US tank and air attacks. “They gave guns to the people and now they are fighting with the Viet Cong,” the plantation manager reports. Boston Globe, May 7. Daniel reports that the only dead he saw were Cambodian civilians, including “a little girl horribly maimed by what must have been napalm.” The US Army claimed to have killed 88 Communist troops in the area. Daniel doubts it. Boston Globe, May 8, 1970.

  9. 59

    Gloria Emerson, New York Times, May 3.

  10. 60

    Los Angeles Times-Boston Globe, May 5.

  11. 61

    Further evidence of major war crimes, as hardly need be stressed. These facts were brought out at a press conference held in Boston, May 7, under the auspices of the National Committee for a Citizen’s Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes, 156 Fifth Avenue, Room 1005, New York 10010. I might add that they desperately need funds to continue the important work of permitting former soldiers, many of whom are eager to cooperate, to testify concerning their experiences. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of bringing out this kind of information about the nature of the war.

  12. 62

    New York Times, April 19.

  13. 63

    P. F. Langer and J. J. Zasloff, The North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao, RM-5935, September, 1969. They claim, however, that the Pathet Lao could not function without North Vietnamese control. Their evidence, and other evidence that is available, does not seem to me to support this conclusion.

  14. 64

    In a letter to The New York Review, Feb. 26, 1970, I naively accepted Samuel Huntington’s statement that the Council is primarily concerned with fund-raising for scholarly research on Vietnam. Having read the report of this meeting, which is concerned to find a proper strategy for ensuring control at the national level for “our side,” given the insistence of the public on scaling down the US military role, I would like to retract my acquiescence.

  15. 65

    South Vietnam: Neither War nor Peace.” Asian Survey, February, 1970.

  16. 66

    April 9, 1970.

  17. 67

    On the American role in creating guerrilla activity in Thailand, see some interesting comments by George Kahin in No More Vietnams?, Harper, 1968 (Pfeffer, ed.), with the assent of Chester Cooper of the State Department.

  18. 68

    After Pinkville,” New York Review, Jan. I, 1970. See the references there for much more extensive discussion.

  19. 69

    Our illusory affair with Japan,” Nation, March 11, 1968.

  20. 70

    A similar analysis has been developed by others since. See the references in “After Pinkville”; also, Peter Wiley. “Vietnam and the Pacific Rim Strategy,” Leviathan, June, 1969.

  21. 71

    New York Times, May 5.

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