Prince Sihanouk walks the high-wire of neutralism
excerpted from the book
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
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
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
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
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."