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Cambodia: Why the Generals Won

President Nixon’s ground operations in Cambodia with US troops will likely be over, as he promises, by June 30, 1970. The long-range strategy by which the Cambodian adventure was undertaken almost certainly will not be. For though the invasion itself was unprecedented, all of the prior elements in the scenario were often repeated clichés, from the initial military overthrow of a popular leader by a right-wing pro-American clique, to the announced response to an enemy “invasion” at a time when the prospects for ending the war seemed to be increasing. Most characteristic of all is the likelihood that Nixon was pressured by the Joint Chiefs to authorize the Cambodian adventure in great haste, and in such a way as to bypass or overrule most of his civilian advisers, as a response to an “emergency” for which US intelligence agencies and perhaps the Joint Chiefs themselves were largely responsible.

Even if terminated by June 30, the Cambodian adventure has confirmed yet again what some of us have been saying for years: that at present the US military apparatus in Southeast Asia will work to reject a new policy of de-escalation as certainly as the human organism will work to reject a transplanted heart. The formula to neutralize this rejection process has unfortunately not yet been discovered.

In other words one cannot understand what has happened recently in Cambodia without understanding the whole history of the Second Indochina War. One cannot for example appreciate Lon Nol’s expectations in overthrowing Prince Sihanouk on March 18 without recalling the anti-neutralist military coups of late 1960 and April 1964 in Laos, or of January 1964 and June 1965 in Saigon. US personnel were involved in (or at the very least cognizant of) every one of these coups.1

Each coup was followed by, and helped to facilitate, an escalation of the US military effort which the overthrown regime would not have tolerated. As my colleagues and I tried to demonstrate in our book, The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam, the result (if not the intention) of every one of these escalations was to nullify a real or apparent threat of peace at the time. (I would now add that we failed sufficiently to emphasize the role of our civilian and military intelligence services in bringing about all of the crises in question, as well as the present one.)

The second cliché of the scenario was Lon Nol’s deliberate breach of the accommodation hitherto established between the NLF troops in Cambodia and the troops of Pnompenh, followed by a precipitous retreat, in the face of what seem to have been only light enemy probes, back to the outskirts of Pnompenh itself. This gratuitous provocation of a much stronger enemy has been treated as irrational by several well-established American analysts, but it will be seen to have its own Machiavellian logic when compared to similar events in the Second Indochina War. By the same combination of absurd provocation and precipitous withdrawal in previous springs, Laotian troops (and/or their American advisers) secured the first commitment of US combat troops to Thailand—the first in Southeast Asia, for that matter—in May 1962, and the first bombings of Laos—which Aviation Week correctly reported to be “the first US offensive military action since Korea”—in May 1964.2

Thus Lon Nol’s actions, far from being irrational, followed a recipe for US support which by now has been tested many times and never known to fail. The exigent realities of the monsoon season and the US budgetary process encourage an annual cycle of escalation which by now can be not only analyzed but predicted.3

The third and most frightening cliché is the phenomenon of the artificially induced “crisis” used as a pretext for hasty executive actions which pre-empt the rights of Congress to declare wars and advise on foreign policy. The military pressure on Nixon to escalate hastily in Cambodia recalls the pressure on Kennedy to escalate in 1962 and on Johnson to escalate in 1964, first in response to Laos and later in response to the alleged Tonkin Gulf “incident” of August 1964. In all cases, including the present one, a key role was played by our intelligence agencies, who first helped to induce a crisis which they subsequently misreported to the President.

Furthermore, all but the most rudimentary forms of civilian review within the executive branch were suppressed. When the first US arms shipment to Cambodia was announced on April 22 by White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler, his counterpart Robert McCloskey at the State Department admitted that he “knew nothing about it” (New York Times, April 24, 1970, p. 3). On April 23, the very day that “emergency” meetings of the Special Action Group began to consider the Fishhook invasion, Secretary of State Rogers told a House Appropriations subcommittee that if US troops went into Cambodia “our whole (Vietnamization) program is defeated,” and that “we have no incentive to escalate into Cambodia” (Washington Post, May 6, 1970, A1). In the wake of the Fishhook decision (“Operation Prometheus”) it was suggested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had

…pulled an end run in their effort to get the attack against the border areas approved…. Some believed Mr. Laird found himself in the final stages of planning for the invasion without being fully consulted and informed during the preliminary planning stages [Christian Science Monitor, May 14, 1970].

Perhaps the most embarrassing plight was that of Senate Republican leader Hugh Scott, who was

…cut adrift with White House-inspired statements that renewed bombing of the North was a remote contingency at the very time a hundred American planes were dropping bombs across the demilitarized zone.4

Constitutional procedures under Nixon, professedly a “strict constructionist,” have clearly deteriorated a long way since 1954, when Dulles had to inform Bidault of France that even a single US air strike to relieve Dienbienphu (which they both desired) could not be authorized by the US President “without action by Congress because to do so was beyond the President’s Constitutional powers.”5 Here the Tonkin Gulf incidents have set an unfortunate precedent, not only for unilateral executive action before Congress is consulted, but above all for compressing the review procedures of the National Security Council into a few brief hours.

On April 20, in announcing his projected withdrawal of 150,000 US troops over the next twelve months, Nixon had assured his audience that “Vietnamization” was stabilizing the situation beyond anyone’s expectations: “We finally have in sight the just peace we are seeking.” Yet the April 28 decision to invade Cambodia was clearly reached by emergency procedures, through meetings of a “Special Action Group” which originally had been created after the US had failed to respond swiftly to the shooting down of an electronics intelligence spy plane by the North Koreans in 1969.6 Convened by a National Security Council meeting of Wednesday, April 22, the Special Action Group was chaired by Henry Kissinger, the man who as early as the spring of 1969 had “got Nixon to order bombing strikes against communist bases in Cambodia.”7

The Special Action Group met on April 23 to consider a range of options including the Fishhook invasion plans, of which Secretary Rogers was apparently still unaware, at a time when two of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apparently worried about the “imminent collapse” of the Lon Nol regime, were reported to

…contend that the President now controls the fate of the new Cambodia Government, and that the allies’ military success in South Vietnam depends on its survival [New York Times, April 25, 1970, p. 4; April 24, 1970, p. 1].

Nixon himself told the American people on April 30 that the enemy “is concentrating his main forces in these sanctuaries where they are building up to launch massive attacks on our forces” and that in these sanctuaries were concealed the Communist “head-quarters.”8

If the President was told this, he was not only misinformed but probably lied to. Robert Shaplen, among others, knew of “reliable reports” that the famous COSVN Headquarters had in fact been moved out of the sanctuaries area “at the time of the [March 18] coup against Sihanouk”;9 field reports soon confirmed that NLF forces, far from being concentrated, had fanned out westward. US military sources in Saigon are reported to have had no knowledge of a Communist build-up in Cambodia (despite Lon Nol’s public claims that their numbers had been trebled).10 Such evidence raises as many questions about the performance of our senior officers and intelligence agencies during this “emergency” as during the “emergencies” of Nam Tha in 1962 and the Tonkin Gulf incidents of 1964. At the very least, it illustrates yet again the old maxim that the objectivity of official intelligence tends to vary inversely with its relevance to impending strategic decisions.

The Special Action Group’s recommendations were expected to be discussed at the National Security Council meeting scheduled for Friday, April 24, the day that Ronald Ziegler (again bypassing the State Department) announced that the NLF and North Vietnamese presence in Cambodia constituted “a foreign invasion of a neutral country which cannot be considered in any way a pretense of civil war.” One indication of the haste in convening the Special Action Group is that the NSC Friday meeting did not originally list Cambodia on its agenda. (Similarly, the August 4, 1964, meeting, which authorized air strikes against North Vietnam less than two hours after flash reports of a most improbable “attack” had been received in Washington, had been convened to discuss not Southeast Asia but Cyprus.)

To his credit, Nixon waited four days before finally submitting to the pressure from the Joint Chiefs and (apparently) his own White House Staff. The National Security Council meeting was postponed to Saturday, April 25, and then took place on Sunday, Decisions at a third meeting on Monday were not made final until Tuesday, April 28, apparently after both Laird and Rogers had voiced their misgivings about an American invasion. According to Flora Lewis of Newsday (May 2, 1970) Nixon chose “what appeared to be the middle option” on Cambodia, rejecting a more ambitious proposal supported on April 27 by two of the Joint Chiefs (Chairman Wheeler and Admiral Moorer) for an amphibious invasion to take control of Sihanoukville.

Nixon’s delaying action was consistent with his earlier resistance to pressure from two of the Joint Chiefs before he responded on April 22 to the April 11 request of the Lon Nol regime for aid. One reason for his delay, according to The New York Times, was

…the lingering hope that the Soviet Union might be able to persuade North Vietnam and possibly Communist China to participate in a broad peace conference on Indochina.11

This “lingering hope” of a peace conference had been rekindled during April by the obvious impasse which the war had reached. As in previous “critical periods” of the US military effort in Indochina, the inefficacy of its military strategies had led both hawks and doves to take more seriously the risk or hope of a diplomatic solution. In this context of uncertainty about the war, the idea of a peace conference had again been put forward by the French Foreign Minister, Maurice Schumann on April 1, and on April 16 the Soviet delegate to the United Nations, Yakov Malik, was quoted as saying he favored the idea of convening such a conference as the only way to bring a new solution of the Indochina conflict. The next night, in a radio interview, Malik appeared to reject the French idea, though in qualified terms, calling it “unrealistic at the present time.” This same qualification (suggesting that in the future a conference might be more propitious) was echoed and to some extent amplified by Madame Binh, the NLF delegate to the Paris talks. Attacking the recent massacre of Vietnamese citizens of Cambodia by Lon Nol’s army, Madame Binh went on to say that

  1. 1

    Robert Shaplen, a writer close to CIA sources, writes that “There is no evidence that the Americans participated in the [Cambodian] coup or that they were apprised of it until a few hours before it took place, although they were undoubtedly aware of what might happen and did nothing to try to prevent it (“Letter from Indo-China,” New Yorker, May 9, 1970, p. 139). This is disingenuous. Central in preparing for the March 18 coup were cadres of CIA-trained Khmer Serei guerrillas, who were infiltrated in from South Vietnam or Thailand at least ten days before the coup. They are said to have led the confrontations with the NLF on March 8 in the field (to which Shaplen alludes, p. 136), the assault on the embassies on March 11, and the subsequent slaughter of both Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians. Testimony in the Green Beret murder trial in December identified the Khmer Serei as “an organization which plans the political overthrow of the Cambodian Government in the future” (New York Times, January 28, 1970, p. 9).

  2. 2

    The most objective book in English on Laos (Laos, by the former British military attaché, Hugh Toye, Oxford, 1968, p. 182) says categorically that the 1962 withdrawal was deliberate: “…after a flurry of fire fights but no Pathet Lao attack, Nam Tha was abandoned. This time there could be no doubt about it; General Boun Leut is no poltroon; he had obeyed Phoumi’s orders.” Phoumi’s men in Nam Tha were accompanied by CIA-Special Forces “advisers.” Toye (p. 184) also recalls charges made at the time by the London Times that the CIA “had deliberately opposed the official American objective of trying to establish a neutral government, had encouraged Phoumi in his reinforcement of Nam Tha [against US official advice], and had negatived the heavy financial pressure brought by the Kennedy administration upon Phoumi by subventions from its own budget.”

  3. 3

    Cf. my warning against a similar escalation in The New York Review of Books (“Laos: The Story Nixon Won’t Tell,” April 9, 1970), p. 39: “The present period…offers disturbing parallels to the [Laotian] withdrawals of 1962 and 1964.”

  4. 4

    New York Times, May 4, 1970, p. 36.

  5. 5

    Chalmers Roberts, “The Day We Didn’t Go to War,” Reporter, September 14, 1954, p. 35; reprinted in Marvin E. Gettleman, Vietnam (New York: Fawcett, 1965), p. 104.

  6. 6

    New York Times, May 2, 1970, p. 7.

  7. 7

    Harold Munthe-Kaas, in Far Eastern Economic Review (December 25, 1969), p. 668.

  8. 8

    On April 28, the day of the Fishhook decision and two days before the public and Congress were informed, the President told a small group of visitors to the White House (including Admiral W. R. Smedberg III, president of the Retired Officers Association) that the action he was soon to order against the Cambodian sanctuaries “was imperative if we were to escape the probability of total and humiliating defeat in Vietnam.” (San Francisco Examiner, May 21, 1970, p. 1).

  9. 9

    Shaplen, op. cit., p. 146. New York Times, April 4, 1970.

  10. 10

    Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post, May 3, 1970, A18: “Pressed on this point, military analysts…could not point to any recent development of this kind.” However, the Wall Street Journal of April 28, 1970, p. 1, said “Allied intelligence sources” had predicted a “surge of Red attacks in Viet Nam, as violent as those of the 1968 Têt offensive,” especially “along the Cambodian border.”

  11. 11

    New York Times, April 27, 1970, p. 5.

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