Cambodia 1955-1973

Prince Sihanouk walks the high-wire of neutralism

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


John Foster Dulles had called on me in his capacity as Secretary of State, and he had exhausted every argument to persuade me to place Cambodia under the protection of the South East Asia Treaty Organization. I refused ... I considered SEATO an aggressive military alliance directed against neighbors whose ideology I did not share but with whom Cambodia had no quarrel. I had made all this quite clear to John Foster, an acidy, arrogant man, but his brother [CIA Director Allen Dulles] soon turned up with a briefcase full of documents "proving" that Cambodia was about to fall victim to "communist aggression" and that the only way to save the country, the monarchy and myself was to accept the protection of SEATO. The "proofs' did not coincide with my own information, and I replied to Allen Dulles as I had replied to John Foster: Cambodia wanted no part of SEATO. We would look after ourselves as neutrals and Buddhists. There was nothing for the secret service chief to do but pack up his dubious documents and leave.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk, in his memoirs


The visits of the Brothers Dulles in 1955 appear to have been the opening salvos in a campaign of extraordinary measures aimed at pressuring the charismatic Cambodian leader into aligning his nation with the West and joining The Holy War Against Communism. The coercion continued intermittently until 1970 when Sihanouk was finally overthrown in an American-backed coup and the United States invaded Cambodia.


Despite all the impulsiveness of his personality and policies, Sihanouk's neutralist high-wire balancing act did successfully shield his country from the worst of the devastation that was sweeping through the land and people of Vietnam and Laos. Cambodia had its own Communist insurgents, the Khmer Rouge, who surely would have unleashed a full-scale civil war if faced with a Cambodian government nestled comfortably in the American camp. This is precisely what later came to pass following the overthrow of Sihanouk and his replacement by Lon Nol who was closely tied to the United States.

In March 1969, the situation began to change dramatically. Under the new American president, Richard Nixon, and National Security Affairs adviser Henry Kissinger, the isolated and limited attacks across the Cambodian border became sustained, large-scale B-52 bombings-"carpet bombings", in the euphemistic language so dear to the hearts of military men.

Over the next 14 months, no less than 3,630 B-52 bombing raids were flown over Cambodia. To escape the onslaught, the Vietnamese Communists moved their bases further inside the country. The B-52s of course followed, with a concomitant increase in civilian casualties.

The Nixon administration artfully played down the nature and extent of these bombings, going so far as to falsify military records, and was largely successful in keeping it all a secret from the American public, the press and Congress. Not until 1973, in the midst of the Watergate revelations, did a fuller story begin to emerge.

It was frequently argued that the United States had every right to attack Cambodia because of its use as a sanctuary by America's foes in Vietnam. Apropos of this claim, William Shawcross has pointed out that:

"During the Algerian war of independence the United States rejected France's claimed right to attack a Tunisian town inhabited by Algerian guerrillas, and in 1964 Adlai Stevenson, at the U.N., condemned Britain for assaulting a Yemeni town used as a base by insurgents attacking Aden. Even Israel had frequently been criticized by the United States for attacks on enemy bases outside its territory.

On 18 March 1970, Sihanouk, while on a trip abroad, was deposed as Head of state by two of his leading ministers, Lon Nol and Sirik Matak. To what extent, if any, the United States played a direct role in the coup has not been established, but there are circumstances and testimony pointing to American complicity...


With Sihanouk and his irritating neutralism no longer an obstacle, American military wheels began to spin. Within hours of the coup, US and South Vietnam forces stationed in border districts were directed to establish communication with Cambodian commanders on the other side and take steps toward military co-operation. The next day, the Cambodian army called in an American spotter plane and South Vietnamese artillery during a sweep of a Vietcong sanctuary by a battalion of Cambodian troops inside Cambodia. The New York Times declared that "The battle appeared to be the most determined Cambodian effort yet to drive the Vietcong out of border areas." The Great Cambodian War had begun. It was to persist for five terrible years.

The enemy confronting the United States and its Saigon and Phnom Penh allies was now not simply the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. The Cambodian Communists-the Khmer Rouge-under the leadership of Pol Pot, had entered the conflict, as had sundry Cambodian supporters of Prince Sihanouk.

On 30 April 1970, the first full-scale American invasion of the new war was launched It produced a vast outcry of protest in the United States, rocking university campuses from coast to coast. Perhaps the most extraordinary reaction was the angry resignations of four men from Henry Kissinger's National Security Council staff, including Roger Morris. Kissinger labeled the resignations as "the cowardice of the Eastern establishment".

By the end of May, scores of villages had been reduced to rubble and ashes by US air power; the long train of Cambodian refugees had begun their march.

Three years and more than a hundred thousand tons of bombs later, 27 January 1973 to be precise, an agreement was signed in Paris putting an end to a decade of American warfare in Vietnam. The bombing of Cambodia, however, continued.

Prior to the Paris agreement, the official position of the Nixon administration, repeatedly asserted, was that the sole purpose of bombing Cambodia was to protect American lives in Vietnam. Yet now, the US not only did not cease the bombing, it increased it, in a last desperate attempt to keep the Khmer Rouge from coming to power. During March, April and May, the tonnage of bombs unloosed over Cambodia was more than double that of the entire previous year. The society's traditional economy had vanished. The old Cambodia was being destroyed forever.

Under increasing pressure from Congress, the Nixon administration finally ended the bombing in August. More than two million Cambodians had been made homeless.

"It does appear rather ludicrous, in the light of this application of brute force, that the CIA was at the same time carrying out the most subtle of psychological tactics. To spread dissatisfaction about the exiled Sihanouk amongst the Cambodian peasantry who revered him, a CIA sound engineer, using sophisticated electronics, fashioned an excellent counterfeit of the Prince's distinctive voice and manner of speaking-breathless, high-pitched, and full of giggles. This voice was beamed from a clandestine radio station in Laos with messages artfully designed to offend any good Cambodian. In one of the broadcasts, "Sihanouk" exhorted young women to aid the cause by sleeping with the valiant Vietcong."

In a farewell press conference in September 1973, the American Ambassador to Cambodia, Emory Swank, called what had taken place there "Indochina's most useless war".

Later, California Congressman Pete McClosky, following a visit to Cambodia, had harsher words. He was moved to declare that what the United States had "done to the country is greater evil than we have done to any country in the world, and wholly without reason, except for our own benefit to fight against the Vietnamese."

Killing Hope