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

in these conditions, we think that the proposal of the French Government cannot contribute to the settlement of these problems.12

Neither of these quotations by itself suggests that peace was about to burst upon us, only that there were indications that diplomatic channels remained open to be further explored. This fact does not exclude the possibility, raised by Jean Lacouture and Noam Chomsky, that France’s failure to show support for Prince Sihanouk may have been “one of the results of M. Pompidou’s trip to the United States” (NYR, June 4, 1970, p. 45).

What is important in understanding the Cambodian escalation is not so much that the diplomatic prospects existed or were likely to be profitable as the fact that, by all accounts, the President seems to have taken them seriously enough to delay decisions being pressed on him by his Joint Chiefs. Furthermore, the French proposal for a conference was only one of the diplomatic options being explored at this time. Though the Paris talks on the subject of Vietnam itself had been at a standstill since the departure of Lodge, there had been talk for a year of a step-by-step disengagement in Laos, which if matched by the other side could be enlarged to include Vietnam as well. More recently in Washington there had been discussion (with bitter opposition from American military leaders) of

…halting the bombing of the [Ho Chi Minh] Trail in Laos—in return for which Hanoi and…the Pathet Lao have indicated their willingness to limit military operations in that country and to start political negotiations there.13

Since the NLF forces in Cambodia have been cut off from their coastal supply routes through Cambodian ports, they have predictably taken steps to increase their hold over southern portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos; and US and South Vietnamese operations (the former in violation of a Congressional budgetary prohibition) have also escalated there. Thus,

Unfortunately, whatever chances existed for halting the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail—even for a trial period—have been diminished as a result of our intervention in Cambodia. To stop the bombing now, the American military argue, would give the North Vietnamese total freedom to pour supplies and troops not only into Laos and South Vietnam but also into Cambodia.14

This talk of a peace initiative, like that of the French, was probably more significant as a symptom of widespread and well-sounded uncertainty about long-range US strategic intentions than as a likely harbinger of peace itself. Unlike earlier periods in the Indochina War, when similar proposals had emerged on the eve of US escalations, the world was now much more clearly threatened by a global increase of tensions, as a result of which any two of the world’s three great military powers might conceivably soon be drawn into conflict. Such desperate periods give new urgency to talk of peace as well as to talk of war, and there are signs in the major capitals of increasing polarization between hawks and doves. The Soviet Union has been talking to the US in Vienna and (since Mao’s surprise visit of May 1 to the Soviet chargé d’affaires) to the Chinese in Peking, while giving military assistance to Cairo. (One recalls that, in 1939, Stalin talked urgently to the Germans on the one hand and to the Western Allies on the other.)

On April 29, as talks were going on among all three powers, Undersecretary of State Elliot Richardson flew to a high-level meeting in New York of US and Soviet citizens with a major policy address appealing for geographic “spheres of mutual restraint” on the part of the great powers. The New York Times reported:

Ironically, Mr. Richardson’s carefully planned address came only one day after American intelligence analysts reached the long feared conclusion…that the Soviet Union had…[sent] trained Russian pilots to fly combat aircraft on operational missions over Egypt.15

Mr. Richardson’s “constructive speech” was amended at the last minute to include “ominous” warnings.16

The actual importance of this “detailed intelligence information” about Soviet fliers remains to be evaluated. It is interesting that news of this intelligence was not only received but given to the US press on April 28, the day of the Fishhook decision, and one day before the President ordered an “immediate and full” evaluation of it.17 There has since been speculation that the same intelligence was a significant factor in the President’s decision to escalate in Cambodia rather than pursue further his diplomatic options. The President reportedly “had finally gotten fed up with assaults on the country’s ‘will,’ not only in Cambodia [sic] and Vietnam but in the Middle East as well.”18

Also cut off by the Cambodian escalation was the prospect, announced April 27, of renewed US-Chinese ambassadorial talks at Warsaw on May 20. Even before the Chinese announced that they would not attend the talks, giving Cambodia as the reason, US journalists had reported that

…the American military operation in Cambodia has crushed any hope the United States may have had for a significant improvement in relations with Communist China.19

This diplomatic casualty may well prove the most serious of all, in view of General Gavin’s recent warning that the US “incursion” into Cambodia carries the risk of a war with Communist China, and his fear expressed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that some American generals may want such an “ultimate confrontation”:

There is always a military officer somewhere who wants to win a battle by taking one more hill or dropping one more bomb…. But what deeply concerns me now is that out of the…inability of our tactical commanders to realize victory, there may be those who would be tempted to the ultimate confrontation, the war with Red China.20

It is hard to escape the conclusion that for years some US generals and intelligence agencies in Southeast Asia have been working in collaboration with Nationalist Chinese to frustrate an improvement of relations between Peking and Washington. This alarming fear was raised in 1966, when US planes first bombed and strafed Chinese vessels in the Tonkin Gulf, both times within days of two important Warsaw meetings (the 130th and 131st) on May 25 and September 7, 1966. It was revived in early 1969, when the prospect of the first Warsaw meeting in thirteen months came to nought, after the CIA, for unexplained and probably inexplicable reasons, decided to give unusual publicity to the defection of a minor Chinese diplomat in The Hague.21 (The CIA’s publicity was abetted by that of the Free China Relief Association, a Taiwan affiliate of the Asian People’s Anti-Communist League which in the past has admitted chartering planes from Civil Air Transport—that is to say the Taiwan incarnation of the CIA-linked airline Air America—to drop supplies to KMT guerrillas on the Burma-Laos border.)

Last summer the United States cut back the Seventh Fleet’s patrol in the Taiwan straits to a single radar ship, after broadcasts from Peking hinted that withdrawal of the Fleet (without reference to a concomitant dismantling of US bases on Taiwan, as had previously been demanded) could lead to an improvement of US-Chinese relations. But soon after, in October 1969, the intelligence community resumed the flights of “drones,” or pilotless reconnaissance planes, over China, “at a time when the State Department was working to reopen the Warsaw channel.”22 The flights, which might seem redundant in the light of continued satellite surveillance, had been canceled by Johnson in March 1968 as part of his strategy to start Vietnam peace talks. Their resumption suggested to at least one Washington observer, cited by Joseph Goulden in the Nation, that

…military and intelligence commanders in the Far East wanted a quid pro quo for dropping the naval patrol—drones for destroyers.

In January, after Peking suddenly agreed to a new round of talks to be held on January 20, the US immediately halted the drone spy flights. The talks did take place, but only after a commando raid on January 18 by Nationalist Chinese troops against the mainland, the first such raid in several years. It is highly doubtful whether the US intelligence community is any closer than before to cooperating with the State Department’s search for rapprochement. On April 13, 1970, four months after the cancellation of the drone flights, and shortly before the announcement of the May 20 meeting scheduled in Warsaw, the Dallas Morning News reported an interview with a former Air America pilot, John Wiren:

American pilots working with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are making low-level, night-time flights over Communist China to further dissension and eventual revolution, the Dallas News has been told by a former government flier. “Our boys are doing quite a bit of flying into China,” said John Wiren in an interview. “They fly upriver at night in old PBYs. They drop (Chinese Nationalist) guerillas and supplies put in there to stir things up.” Wiren…who spent much of the 1960s flying for the CIA-sponsored airline “Air America” in Laos…said the clandestine flights are made into China as part of a long-range strategic plan. “The big plan is for revolution in China,” he said.

It is not necessary to believe that Mr. Wiren’s “long-range strategic plan” conforms to the officially arrived at strategic objectives of either the US Government or even the CIA. On the contrary, it seems to be a lingering survival of proposals and operations during the 1950s by Chennault and his private airline CAT Inc. (since renamed Air America) that failed to gain official approval. The cumulative record does however suggest that personnel within the executive branch, and the intelligence agencies in particular, have over the years participated in a continuous effort, which so far has always been successful, to prevent any significant US de-escalation in Southeast Asia, and above all any significant improvement of US-Chinese relations.

It must be clearly understood that since 1950, the year of the Korean War and the China Lobby, there has never been a genuine US de-escalation in Southeast Asia. Every apparent de-escalation of the fighting, such as in Vietnam in 1954 and Laos in 1961-62, has been balanced by an escalation, either covert or structural, whose longrange result overshadowed America’s previous war effort. In 1954, for example, America’s direct involvement in the First Indochina War was limited to a few dozen USAF transport planes and pilots “on loan” to Chennault’s airline CAT, plus 200 USAF technicians to service them. Though Dulles, Radford, and Nixon failed to implement their proposals for US air strikes and/or troop intervention, Dulles was able to substitute for the discarded plan for immediate intervention a “proposal for creating a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.”23 SEATO soon became a cover for US “limited war” games in Southeast Asia, which in turn grew into the first covert US military involvement in Laos in 1959—the start of the Second Indochina War.

In early 1961 Kennedy resisted energetic pressures from his Joint Chiefs to invade Laos openly with up to 60,000 soldiers empowered, if necessary, to use tactical nuclear weapons (Nixon also conferred with Kennedy and again urged, at the least, “a commitment of American air power”).24 Unwilling with his limited reserves to initiate major operations simultaneously in both Laos and Cuba, Kennedy settled for a political solution in Laos, beginning with a cease-fire which went into effect on May 3, 1961. On May 4 and 5, 1961, Rusk and Kennedy announced the first of a series of measures to strengthen the US military commitment in South Vietnam. The timing suggests that the advocates of a showdown with China in one country had been placated by the quid pro quo of a build-up in another. In like manner the final conclusion of the 1962 Geneva Agreements on Laos came only after the United States had satisfied Asian and domestic hawks by its first commitment of US combat troops to the area, in Thailand.

In 1968, finally, we now know that the “de-escalation” announced by President Johnson in March and November, in the form of a cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam, was misleading. In fact the same planes were simply diverted from North Vietnam to Laos: the over-all level of bombing, far from decreasing, continued to increase.

One has, unhappily, to conclude that there is simply no precedent for a genuine US de-escalation in Southeast Asia, though there have been illusory appearances of de-escalation. This conclusion does not of itself prove that “Vietnamization” of the war is impossible, or a deception to delude the American electorate. It does however suggest that a twenty-year search for a successful war in Southeast Asia will not be easily converted into a search for the means to withdraw. The Cambodian adventure is only one more proof, for anyone who still needs it, that our current crisis in Southeast Asia is only the outward manifestation of a continuing crisis of government at home in America.

It is symptomatic of the deep division within our country that Nixon’s “Vietnamization” is in essence neither a simple escalation nor a simple de-escalation, but an effort, which in all likelihood is bound to fail, to pursue both courses simultaneously. Rather like Johnson during his first fourteen months in office, Nixon has tried to sound like an advocate of peace in Southeast Asia, while assuring us he will never let us lose there. In both cases this may be rather more self-deception than a conscious attempt to delude voters: Nixon, like Johnson before him, is still putting off the brutal choice between peace and “victory” through unprecedented escalation. Thus his “Vietnamization” policy is an attempt to balance certain partial withdrawals of US combat and support troops (which are probably too limited to lead to peace) with a real escalation of the air war (an escalation which, though murderous, is probably too limited to lead to victory).

The full extent of the expanded air war is a closely kept secret. Congressional inquiries into the Laotian war have indicated that in Laos alone the US is flying anywhere between 20,000 and 27,000 sorties a month, perhaps seven times the level of June 1968. For an indication of what this means, it is important to remember that in early 1968 there were roughly between 1,000 and 3,500 sorties over Laos a month, yet at that time we had already generated several hundred thousand refugees in a nation of some four million inhabitants, and almost all the Pathet Lao villages which Jacques DeCornoy of Le Monde visited at that time were already flattened. (As for Vietnam, the US intends to double the size of the South Vietnamese Air Force between early 1970 and late 1971, to some 40 squadrons or 800 planes; yet even after this expansion the US will continue to fly half the combat missions in South Vietnam.)25

Why do we thus escalate our punishment of a terrain already demolished? One answer, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, is the conclusion of theorists like Harvard government professor Samuel Huntington that the enemy’s base among the peasantry can be eradicated if there is “‘direct application of mechanical and conventional power’…on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city.”26 But we are also dropping strategic tonnages over sparsely inhabited areas as part of our tactical air support. The precedent for this lies in Air Force General Momyer’s tactics of saturation bombing around the isolated Marine outpost of Khe Sanh in early 1968, a bombing unprecedented in the history of warfare:

In about six weeks, US aircraft had dropped 100,000 tons of bombs [i.e., some five times the equivalent of the device exploded over Hiroshima] and fired 700,000 rounds of machine gun fire into a circular area roughly five miles in diameter…. An Air Force colonel…said, “The tonnage of ordnance placed in that circle is unbelievable. In mid-February, the area looked like the rest of Vietnam, mountainous and heavily jungled with very little visibility through the jungle canopy. Five weeks later, the jungle had become literally a desert—vast stretches of scarred, bare earth with hardly a tree standing, a landscape of splinters and bomb craters.”27

After this pounding the North Vietnamese withdrew, an enemy body count in the battlefield was put at 1,200 and the over-all number of enemy dead was estimated at more than 10,000.28

It is not clear that the North Vietnamese were defeated at Khe Sanh—the US was asking for a “sign” that Hanoi was ready for serious talks, and their withdrawal may well have been in reply. It is however clear that the Pentagon believes it won a decisive military victory. A senior Army general called Khe Sanh “probably the first major ground action won entirely or almost entirely by air power”; and even Townsend Hoopes, ostensibly an opponent of escalation, calls Khe Sanh “the one decisive victory for air power in the Vietnam war.”29 (Richard Barnet, a former State Department official, has charged in a recent speech that Johnson, under pressure from the military, considered using tactical nuclear weapons to relieve Khe Sanh. See footnote 38.)

To drop the equivalent of five Hiroshima atomic bombs around Khe Sanh took 24,200 sorties in six weeks, for a rate of a little over 16,000 a month. Comparisons can only be crude (there is a big difference between F-100s and B-52s) but these figures can still help us to understand what is implied by a reported Laotian sortie rate of 27,000 a month. It is uncertain whether the US can win by converting more and more of Indochina into “a landscape of splinters and bomb craters.” One result however has already been accomplished. The so-called “firebreak” distinction, which opponents of tactical nuclear weapons had attempted to establish between “conventional” and “limited nuclear war,” has been virtually obliterated, leaving the way open to an escalation that would be qualitative as well as quantitative.

As General Frederic H. Smith wrote in 1960 in the Air University Review:

Not only can the intelligent use of nuclear fire power in limited war give us the greatest possible opportunity to win such wars at minimum cost…it is highly probable that without the use of such weapons, our chances of winning in many areas are slim indeed.30

In other words, for the US Air Force, “Vietnamization” is only one more step in a long history of US escalation. It is evident from recent modifications in the conduct of our offensive operations in South Vietnam that the role of ground troops is now less to destroy the enemy than to locate him. Those who believe that major ground actions can be “won entirely or almost entirely by air power” can doubtless argue that Asian troops will suffice for this reduced role, while the US can continue its air actions from Vietnam enclaves, from Thailand, or conceivably even from aircraft carriers.

It was obvious however that this strategy of air power would put a severe and probably intolerable strain on Cambodian neutrality. On the one hand the NLF forces had little choice but to take shelter in this one part of Indochina which was relatively secure from our rain of death. On the other it was predictable that local US commanders would initiate or condone unauthorized operations against Cambodia, long before Nixon (on the urging of Kissinger) had ordered bombing strikes there in the spring of 1969. A US helicopter pilot boasted in a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, May 13, 1970, that

I’ve been to Cambodia many times in performing my missions—each time I might add at the risk of a court-martial if caught crossing the border.

It is also obvious that this modified ground strategy of “Vietnamization,” largely devised by civilians, has met with stubborn resistance from elements in the US Army. This has been evidenced in part by the Army’s foot-dragging on the actual withdrawals of US forces. Nixon’s original hope in the spring of 1969 was to have almost all 250,000 US combat troops out of Vietnam by the end of 1970,31 but actual reductions have averaged only 10,000 a month for the last eight months (in mid-May, as I write, there are now 428,750 troops, as against 509,800 on August 31, 1969),32 and Nixon’s April 20 announcement of a large but postponed reduction no longer refers specifically to combat troops at all. It is clear moreover that even this latest announcement was as disappointing to many Army generals as it was to the antiwar movement; it is above all by cutting back the Army that Nixon plans to achieve his “low profile.”

Repeated allusions by civilian officials and advisers (from David Packard to Sir Robert Thompson) to the prospect of a “Korean” standoff in South Vietnam can only further alienate the Army generals whose recommendations for Asian strategy have for fifteen years been based on the slogan “Never another Korea.” By this the so-called “never again” school has not meant the avoidance of all Asian ground wars, as some columnists have suggested, but that US ground troops should never again be committed without a prior commitment to win with whatever weapons are necessary.

From the point of view of all strategy, the Cambodian adventure is indeed, as Senator Tower and others have argued, a logical extension of “Vietnamization,” for it aims to get rid of the major enemy refuge from US air power. The ground strategy of “Vietnamization” has just as clearly been negated: Westmoreland’s tactic of attempting to “bottle up” the enemy has at last been revived, two years after its author was relieved of his command and made the present Army Chief of Staff. Hitherto the largest single allied war effort (and the most spectacular such failure) had been Operation Junction City in February 1967, with some 25,000 US and South Vietnamese troops.33 The Fishhook operation alone required the same number of troops.34 Even as Nixon announced the Cambodian Fishhook operation, Administration spokesmen noted that the US troop withdrawals announced on April 20 “will probably be slowed down.” Although announcements of “future” withdrawals are likely to be escalated before the November elections, practice may be different: by May 14 there had actually been a troop increase, of 3,250 men, over the level of one month before.

On May 8 Nixon said he “would expect that the South Vietnamese would come out [of Cambodia] approximately at the same time that we do.” On May 21 General Ky bluntly rejected this suggestion (“We will continue to maintain our military presence in Cambodia”) in terms which prompted Senator Mansfield to recall that the South Vietnamese have long had territorial ambitions in this part of Cambodia.35 In this way an Indonesian-style massacre of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia by our reactionary protégés in Pnompenh is likely to be followed by a permanent invasion by our reactionary protégés in Saigon. These details are however not likely to deter the Nixon Administration from continuing to aver that its only goals in Indochina are to prevent a bloodbath and external aggression in South Vietnam.

Viewed in the context of previous US escalations, both the Cambodian adventure and the evolution of the “Vietnamization” strategy confirm an alarming thesis. There is not today, and indeed there has not been for some time, a civilian government in Washington with the will or power to enforce a cutback of our operations in Southeast Asia. On the contrary, those operations have in their intensity already reached the upper limits of what can reasonably be called a “limited war,” so that Washington’s increasing hints and rumors about tactical nuclear weapons no longer seem fantastic. Far from having reached a level of stability, this heightened and enlarged war threatens to expand still further outward. In the wake of the first announcement of US military advisers fighting in the Laotian panhandle, columnist Jack Anderson reported that “President Nixon had on his desk detailed contingency plans calling for US troops to cross into North Vietnam” (San Francisco Chronicle, May 14, 1970, p. 43).

In the face of this crisis, it is not enough to repeat Acheson’s observation to Johnson that “with all due respect…the Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t know what they’re talking about.”36 Even the Joint Chiefs realize the likelihood that any one of these escalations will sooner or later bring us into direct confrontation with Communist China. In their tendency to grasp at ever bigger solutions they do not seem to face serious opposition from the President,37 who on May 8 stressed that the Cambodian invasion was a “decisive move” and added that if the enemy escalated in the future “we will move decisively and not step by step.”

This is the man who on March 17, 1955, as Vice President, told the Executives Club of Chicago:

Our artillery and our tactical air force in the Pacific are now equipped with atomic explosives which can and will be used on military targets with precision and effectiveness. It is foolish to talk about the possibility that the weapons which might be used in the event war breaks out in the Pacific would be limited to the conventional Korean and World War II types of explosives. Our forces could not fight an effective war in the Pacific with those types of explosives if they wanted to. Tactical atomic explosives are now conventional and will be used against the military targets of any aggressive force.38

What should be studied closely in the next weeks is not the withdrawal of US ground troops from Cambodia, which may well be speeded up in response to dissent and the falling stock market (while the South Vietnamese dig in for an indefinite stay). Instead we should watch for the first signs of the next “decisive” escalation. For the crisis we face at present derives not from a single mistaken adventure, but from a settled strategy, a military effort that has twenty years of uninterrupted momentum behind it.

This Issue

June 18, 1970