excerpted from the book
Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia
by William Shawcross
Simon and Schuster, 1979
Ever since the First World War, air power has held political
allure, seeming to offer the promise of almost painless victory.
The promise has not always been fulfilled, but it is part of the
nature of air power that its real effects are often difficult
to separate from those claimed; it is often distant if not invisible,
and a pattern of organizational mis-reporting has, from the start,
Strategic bombing of the enemy's war-making capacity and attacks
upon civilian areas to destroy his morale were first attempted
during the Sino-Japanese war in the middle thirties. In the Second
World War the British and American air forces pursued radically
different approaches to the concepts; the British made much greater
use of massive bombing of German cities than the Americans. Some
of the reasons were technical: the Americans developed more effective
bomb sights, which enabled them to hit critical industrial targets
on daytime raids. Without such mechanical efficiency, the British
had to rely on nighttime area bombing. But there were also philosophical
differences. The Americans believed that civilian morale was unlikely
to be destroyed by such attacks; indeed the Japanese bombardment
of China could be shown to have the opposite effect. And the Americans
tended to be more scrupulous. In January 1945, General Ira C.
Eaker, an Air Force commander, wrote to his superior, General
Carl Spaatz, Strategic Air Commander, Europe, to advise against
bombing transportation and other targets in small German towns
for fear of excessive civilian casualties. "You and Bob Lovett
[Special Assistant Secretary of War for Air] are right and we
should never allow the history of this war to convict us of throwing
the strategic bomber at the man in the street." Hiroshima
helped destroy such ideals.
After the war was over, jealous organizational imperatives
began to assert themselves. The U.S. Air Force emphasized the
importance of strategic bombing over tactical bombing (close air
support for ground troops) in part to guarantee its independence
from the army. The Air Force had no real strategic mission in
Korea but it immediately saw possibilities in Vietnam. Although
the Joint Chiefs could find only eight industrial targets worth
striking in their first survey of North Vietnam, the Air Force
officers insisted they had a vital role to play in the destruction
of Hanoi's industrial infrastructure.
North Vietnamese industry was not destroyed by air strikes,
and the CIA later noted: "Twenty-seven months of U.S. bombing
of North Vietnam have had remarkably little effect on Hanoi's
overall strategy in prosecuting the war, on its confident view
of long term communist prospects and on its political tactics
regarding negotiations." Other reports gathered in the Pentagon
Papers showed that Hanoi's war-making capacity had hardly been
affected, that its will had been strengthened by the bombing,
its links with the USSR and China had been improved, and civilian
morale had hardened.
Throughout the Vietnam buildup, 1965-69, the principal in-house
critics of the air war were to be found in the Systems Analysis
Office of the Secretary of Defense. Their South East Asia Analysis
Reports contained many scathing evaluations of the recommendations
and the data of the military (the twelve volumes have been obtained
under the Freedom of Information Act). Their skepticism over the
air war convinced Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara but infuriated
the Joint Chiefs, who issued constant rebuttals and demanded that
distribution of the papers within the Pentagon be restricted.
The Chiefs also enlisted Congressional support against McNamara.
Because the political appeal of bombing was so strong, this was
easy to do.
The first report on the war Nixon and Kissinger commissioned
in January 1969, National Security Study Memorandum One, offered
little evidence of the military value of strategic bombing, particularly
by B-52s. It showed that close air support of ground troops by
tactical aircraft was far more effective-but this accounted for
only 8 percent of the total of all missions flown in Indochina.
There was no agreement between military and civilian officials
as to how many Communists were killed in the "boxes"
ground out by the B-52s, but the evidence demonstrated that the
bombing of base camps was the least effective technique of all.
Moreover, despite the enormous number of "interdiction"
flights against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos over the past three
years the Communists were getting through adequate supplies. Evidence
in NSSM I suggested that no amount of air power could prevent
them. The American embassy in Saigon, going further, warned that
neither the bombing of the North nor that of the Trail had affected
Hanoi's ability to wage the war it wished in the South. The embassy
concluded, "With this experience in mind there is little
evidence to believe that new bombing will accomplish what previous
bombings failed to do, unless it is conducted with much greater
intensity and readiness to defy criticism and risk escalation.
The new administration considered that the criticism was indeed
to be defied. Particularly in the use of air power, escalation
was part of their strategy. Menu was launched in March 1969, and
in 1970 Nixon expanded the free fire zone in Laos, sent B-52s
over the Plain of Jars in Laos for the first time, and approved
targets in North Vietnam that Lyndon Johnson had never allowed.
One intention was to demonstrate to Hanoi the political point
that bombing would not be constrained by domestic opposition.
In its "P.R. offensive" the White House always insisted
that it was "winding down" the air war. It is true that
the number of sorties by both tactical aircraft and B-52s was
reduced during the first Nixon administration. But since many
sorties had been judged ineffective, this was fairly easily done.
And in 1971 a single B-52 squadron still dropped in one year half
the tonnage dropped by U.S. planes in the entire Pacific Theater
in World War Two. Furthermore, the White House failed to advertise
that bomb loads per raid were increased enormously. In 1968, the
average fighter bomb load was 1.8 tons. In 1969, it was 2.2 tons
and by 1973, the planes were laden with 2.9 tons of bombs. Each
year proportionately more use was made of the B-52, which was
militarily the least effective plane, but politically and emotionally
the most awe-inspiring. In 1968, B-52s accounted for 5.6 percent
of all sorties; by 1972, their share had risen to 15 percent.
To the Air Force it was altogether clear that Nixon was doing
anything but wind down its role. Its official secret 1969 history
was entitled, ''The Administration Emphasizes Air Power,"
and that of 1970, "The Role of Air Power Grows."
The political use of bombing coincided with the Chiefs' desire
to keep their planes and pilots flying. It aroused the concern
of Melvin Laird. He understood the "firehose" use of
air power and accepted the arguments of his civilian staff that
many sorties were flown only for reasons of interservice rivalry
and for organizational purposes. He never publicly criticized
the Chiefs as McNamara had done, but within the Pentagon he persistently
attempted to counter their and the White House's efforts to keep
the level of bombing as high as possible. Inevitably, his views
were unpopular within the Air Force, and its 1970 secret history
disparages him as "the chief apostle of Vietnamization and
budget cutting." Laird insisted that Congressional concern
must be seen as a real constraint and argued that "escalatory
acts on our part" would not help reach a negotiated settlement.
This was the opposite of the White House perception. The Air Force
history notes that in 1970 Nixon realized that the South Vietnamese
Army was improving more slowly than troop withdrawals and so "bridged
the gap . . . by applying air strikes for political purposes and
by extending the geographic area of air interdiction-into Cambodia
and back into North Vietnam. Thus the role of air power, though
slated for reductions, continued to be emphasized."
Laird was unwilling to place either political or organizational
need for bombing before its purely military use. He and his civilian
staff felt that the White House accepted uncritically every claim
the Air Force or the Chiefs made for air power, and they frequently
voiced their frustrations at the morning meetings on Vietnam that
Laird held in the Pentagon. At one stage in early 1970 even the
Joint Chiefs wished to withdraw from Southeast Asia B-52s that
were not currently required there. The White House refused, demanding
that they remain on station "for contingency purposes."
A contingency did arise; it was the overthrow of Sihanouk and
the invasion of Cambodia. Just before the invasion, Laird's representative,
Warren Nutter, suggested at a meeting of the Senior Review Group
that enemy activity did not justify the current sortie rates and
that these could be made more flexible in future. Kissinger refused
to hear of it and demanded that the number of tactical airstrikes
and B-52 sorties that had already been approved for the next financial
year be flown regardless of the military situation. Laird was
furious. "Anyone that addresses the problem starting with
a set number of sorties doesn't understand the problem and isn't
qualified to discuss it," he said the next day.
Subsequently, Laird tried to introduce a banking system to
mitigate the worst effects of interservice rivalry. He proposed
that sorties be saved for future use if on any day no worthwhile
target was available. Thus each service would eventually fly its
full complement of sorties but at least the targets could be more
The Joint Chiefs resisted the innovations; so did Kissinger.
Laird had to give way.
The invasion of Cambodia led to an extension of the use of
bombing; it l needs to be considered in some detail. The Air Force
1970 history notes that when the North Vietnamese recovered from
the "temporary setback" of the invasion and began to
mount new operations, "the JCS insistence on countering these
moves, as well as possible later ones, intensified, and Presidential
agreement with the JCS turned the tide in favor of a greatly expanded
air interdiction effort."
For a short time in May 1970, Laird attempted to limit the
bombing in Cambodia. The White House kept trying to extend it.
Kissinger told one meeting of the Washington Special Action Group
that the United States would even give close air support to Thai
troops in Cambodia if necessary. By early June Laird had stopped
resisting. "We're taking so much heat in Cambodia that we
might as well bomb as much as possible," he told his Vietnamization
group on June 5. But he and his aides were still concerned that
Kissinger and Nixon had no idea of what air power could and could
not do. He asked Philip Odeen to produce a briefing "to begin
educating Dr. Kissinger." "It's a very big job,"
commented Colonel Pursley, Laird's military assistant. "The
President and Dr. Kissinger both believe everything the Seventh
Air Force has told them."
The language of the Cooper-Church amendment (limiting U.S.
involvement in Cambodia), which was being debated at this time,
forbade the use of American air power in close support of Lon
Nol's troops. After June 30, 1970, it was to be used only to interdict
men and supplies en route to Vietnam. Publicly the administration
accepted this restriction, but in fact it was ignored from the
start. On the fifteenth of June, Nixon interrupted a WASSAG meeting
to insist on more bombing in Cambodia. Its primary purpose might
be interdiction, he said, but "I want this purpose interpreted
very broadly." The President ordered Laird's deputy, David
Packard, to see how more air power could be made available to
Lon Nol. Packard suggested that bombing might not be the most
effective aid but, he told his colleagues later, "This didn't
seem to get through." It was clear to Packard that Nixon
was determined to have almost limitless bombing in Cambodia. And
so, on June 17, a "Top Secret, Exclusive" cable was
sent to Abrams by the Joint Chiefs to authorize more United States
and Vietnamese bombing "in any situation which involves a
serious threat to major Cambodian positions, such as a provincial
capital whose loss would constitute serious military or psychological
blow to the country." The Chiefs ordered Abrams, in accordance
with Nixon's instructions, to "conduct the most aggressive
U.S. and R.V.N.A.F. [South Vietnamese] air campaign in Cambodia
which is feasible...." Laird, realizing that the White House
was obdurate, secretly recommended that post-strike reports no
longer be divided between close support and interdiction; this
allowed the support role to be concealed much more easily.
The White House was concerned not to provoke the Congress
into banning all air power, as well as advisers, in Cambodia.
While the debate over the Cooper-Church amendment was taking place,
the extent and purpose of the bombing were publicly played down.
But when, at the end of 1970, the amendment finally became law,
without any bar on bombing in Cambodia to interdict men and supplies
en route to Vietnam, some pretenses were dropped. The Pentagon
admitted openly that it would now use the full range of its air
power in Cambodia, since any enemy there might "ultimately"
threaten United States forces in Vietnam. Laird publicly dismissed
the distinction between "interdiction" and "close
air support" as "semantics." Rogers declared, "We
are going to continue to use that air power, because it protects
American lives. It's the least costly way to protect our men-and
why we should have any restrictions on the use of that air power
to protect American lives, I don't know." Unnamed officials
told The New York Times that Cambodia was being used as a laboratory
to test "public acceptance of the general process of gradually
substituting helicopters and attack planes for foot soldiers,
as American combat units are withdrawn from the Vietnam war."
There were fewer controls and restraints on targeting in Cambodia
than in Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Air Force, as we have seen,
considered Cambodia an open field, and although most American
pilots were, as a rule, more careful, several have testified that
almost anything in Cambodia constituted a legitimate target. The
original Menu strikes on the border sanctuaries ended, still a
secret, in May. By now, Menu was a recognized procedure, not merely
a geographic area. "I would like to retain the Menu cover,"
Laird wrote to the Chiefs. One of his aides subsequently explained
that the Menu procedures required the Chiefs to ask Laird's approval
for specific attacks and thus placed some control on the bombing.
At the same time, however, it meant that the falsification of
Cambodian bombing reports was now accepted as normal.
The main area of the new, extended bombing was known as Freedom
Deal. Originally a box of Northeastern Cambodia between the border
and the Mekong, it was gradually pushed southward and westward
into more heavily populated areas, as the fighting spread. Bombing
outside Freedom Deal was reported as being inside, and bombing
in populated areas inside as being in wild, uninhabited places.
The mis-reporting meant that there was very little follow-up,
or "bomb damage assessment," after missions. In Saigon,
little or nothing was known about the location and shifts of Cambodian
villages, particularly in Khmer Rouge areas. At the same time,
the battle zones of Cambodia were even more inaccessible to the
press than those of Vietnam. Carelessness and callousness were
easier to practice and tolerate.
There were different procedures for bombing inside and outside
Freedom Deal. In the eastern half of the country, B-52 missions
were controlled (and targets were selected) by the Seventh Air
Force in Saigon. West of Freedom Deal-west of the Mekong river,
in effect-B-52 strikes could be requested by the Cambodians.
Much of the tactical bombing of the country was controlled
by American spotter planes known as FACs (Forward Air Control
planes). Their job was to call the "strike birds" or
bombers into targets. Because American ground advisers were forbidden,
the United States trained Cambodian soldiers to liaise with the
pilots from the ground. They were known as FAGs (Forward Air Guides),
and they spoke either a little French or a little English and
were equipped by the United States with FM radios on which they
could speak either to the "strike birds" or to the spotter
planes above. They developed a close rapport with their American
counterparts in the sky, and together the FAGs and the FACs actually
controlled many battles. The American pilot was often able to
see just what a situation was, and he frequently gave encouragement
and instructions, through his FAG, to the ground-unit commander,
to whom the Cooper-Church amendment denied such help. (Problems
arose after the Communists captured or bought the radio sets and
started to ask pilots to bomb FANK positions, and jammed the wave
bands by shouting or playing Radio Peking down them.)
The story of the river convoys illustrates how the use of
American air power expanded in Cambodia. As the Mekong narrowed
with the recession of the flood waters, toward the end of 1970,
the convoys to Phnom Penh became more vulnerable to attack from
the banks. In early January, Swank cabled Rogers to warn that
supplies of petroleum in the city were dangerously low. In Saigon,
the military worked out an emergency plan to provide Vietnamese
naval support and United States air power to push the convoys
The task of guarding the convoys was given to the U.S. Air
Force, and to Army helicopter gunships. This drew instant protests
from the U.S. Navy, which wanted its own planes involved as well.
In Saigon, the Air Force categorically claimed that, "Sufficient
air assets were available," and refused to allow the Navy
in. But the Air Force had also assumed prime responsibility for
keeping Cambodia's roads open. As the 1971 dry season progressed,
North Vietnamese attacks on the roads grew so heavy that the Air
Force was compelled to divert planes from the river convoys. The
Navy was called upon.
Once the Navy, the Air Force and the Army were involved, they
all made sure they stayed. Although the convoy protection was
meant to be short-term, it expanded along with every other American
effort in Cambodia. Even after the river widened with the summer
flooding, and became safer for the convoys, air attacks over it
were extended again and again. They remained an integral part
of United States air activity in Cambodia until 1973.
Throughout 1971, the White House hoped to conclude a settlement
and withdraw all but an advisory mission of United States troops
from Saigon before the 1972 election. This meant, if anything,
more bombardment. President Nixon made frequent public threats
to step up the bombing, asserting, for example, that he had "laid
down" a new "understanding" with Hanoi on the use
of air power. And he warned, "I am not going to place any
limitations on the use of air power in Indochina-except to exclude
nuclear weapons." The reliance on bombing increased after
the catastrophic defeat of ARVN soldiers invading Laos on Operation
Lam Son 719 in February 1971.
Laird had recently returned from Saigon. He wrote a bullish
report for Nixon in which he praised Vietnamization, and endorsed
General Abrams' suggestions for such an invasion. But the ARVN
was weaker than he believed, and the enduring image of the operation
was of wretched South Vietnamese soldiers desperately clinging
to the skids of American helicopters, often falling from great
heights as they attempted to flee the disaster.
The Laotian debacle must have given comfort to Hanoi; in the
White House its effect was to underscore Nixon and Kissinger's
conviction that the Chiefs, and not Laird, were right about the
limits of Vietnamization and the need for expanded bombing. The
Air Force history of 1970 records that his " 'positive' optimistic
positions were eroded more and more by increasingly strong enemy
initiatives . . . and by Presidential agreement with the JCS."
The 1971 Air Force history records, "Past critics of air
interdiction had often suggested that ground forces could achieve
more effective results, but now they were less optimistic."
In his memoirs Nixon later described his general mistrust of Laird's
opinion-"I once jokingly remarked that Laird . . . would
answer questions and state his views whether he was informed or
It is important to remember that Vietnamization never envisaged
the withdrawal of American airplanes from Indochina. Laird publicly
acknowledged that, after American troops were removed, American
planes would "remain on duty in South East Asia" to
form part of the "realistic deterrent which we will maintain."
He failed to mention that the White House intended to keep the
planes not only "on duty" but at work. In private he
expressed his concern. "The roof would come flying off the
Capitol if they knew we were seriously considering flying large
numbers of sorties in 1973 and 1974," he told his staff in
early 1971. "We must keep some considerations very quiet,"
Whatever the tactical relevance of American air power in Cambodia
(it helped Lon Nol's troops in the short term and made them dependent
in the long run), it was employed both to keep the planes flying
and as a strategic symbol. Menu had taken up some of the slack
after Johnson halted the bombing of North Vietnam and it was supposed
to demonstrate Nixon's "toughness." After the 1970 invasion,
the growing South Vietnamese Air Force was diverted to Cambodia;
Pentagon studies show that this was deliberately done to prevent
the South Vietnamese from displacing the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam.
Throughout 1970 and 1971 Kissinger was anxious, for political
reasons, to keep the sortie rates high; it was the expanding battlefield
in Cambodia that enabled him to do so.
The statistics show the way in which the country was used.
In 1970, 8 percent of American combat sorties were flown in Cambodia;
the figure rose to 14 percent in 1971. In the first quarter of
1972, Cambodia accounted for 10.5 percent of all USAF sorties
and 14 percent of the B-52 missions. But suddenly in April 1972
the planes were withdrawn. At the end of March, Hanoi launched
its massive spring offensive into South Vietnam. Soviet-made tanks
and North Vietnamese divisions poured over the Demilitarized Zone
and across the Cambodian border, demonstrating how short-lived
the "brilliant success" of the 1970 invasion of the
sanctuaries had been. The war seeped across Vietnam, and for a
few weeks in April it seemed that the South Vietnamese might be
routed and Nixon confronted with a defeat a few months before
the Presidential election.
Air power was called upon to avert the awful possibility.
Nixon launched hundreds more planes against the North. Haiphong
was bombed and mined. In the South immense numbers of strategic
and tactical bombers were thrown into close air support of Thieu's
Some of this new armada was flown from bases far from Indochina,
but the rest were diverted from Laos and Cambodia. The skies around
Phnom Penh were unusually quiet that summer. In 1971, 61,000 American
and Vietnamese sorties had been flown there; in 1972 only 25,000.
Over these two years Cambodia's share of the bombing fell from
10.5 to 4 percent. But then in 1973, when the Paris Peace Agreement
prevented American bombing of first Vietnam and then Laos, the
entire Seventh Air Force was switched back to Cambodia. All of
this had more to do with political and organizational requirements
in Washington and South Vietnam than with the military needs of
the Lon Nol government. Until August 1973, when Congress brought
the bombing to an end, hundreds of thousands of bombs dropped
by the American, South Vietnamese and Cambodian air forces onto
Cambodia fell unreported and uncontrolled on areas occupied first
by the North Vietnamese and then by the Khmer Rouge.
It could be argued that this use of air power constitutes
a prima-facie case of breach of international law. Article 6 (b)
of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal following
World War II defined "war crimes" as "violations
of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include,
but not be limited to, murder, ill treatment or deportation to
slave labor for any other purpose of civilian population of or
in occupied territory, murder or ill treatment of prisoners of
war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public
or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages,
or devastation not justified by military necessity."