Cambodia: The Secret Bombing
excerpted from the book
The Price of Power
Kissinger in the Nixon White House
by Seymour M. Hersh
Summit Books, 1983, paper
Cambodia: The Secret Bombing
In the first few weeks of the new administration,
Kissinger ordered the Pentagon to present a highly classified
briefing on bombing options available in the Vietnam War. The
task fell to Air Force Colonel Ray B. Sitton, an experienced Strategic
Air Command officer serving the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sitton
was known in the Pentagon as "Mr. B-52."
It was an unusual exercise, Sitton says.
"I drew up a big list-on a board about three feet high and
eight or nine feet wide-of military steps you might make that
would signal North Vietnam that we meant business. Kissinger wanted
them to know that we were serious about possible escalation."
Nixon and Kissinger had found the right
signal to send: By mid-March 1969 they would secretly begin bombing
Cambodia with B-52s: aircraft, the eight-engine jets that were
the core of the strategic bombing fleet. The bombing became a
turning point not only in the war but also in the mentality of
the White House. The secret of that bombing-and hundreds of later
missions- would be kept for five years. Eventually, the secret
became more important to the White House than the bombing.
There was, in the Pentagon's view, a legitimate
military reason to assault Cambodia directly. Tens of thousands
of North Vietnamese soldiers had established bases and supply
depots there and were using the sanctuaries as jumping-off points
for ground battles in South Vietnam, just across the border. Somewhere
in that area, too, was the Communist headquarters for the guerrilla
war in South Vietnam, known as the Central Office for South Vietnam,
or COSVN. The Cambodian sanctuaries had been made necessary in
part by the heavy bombings inside South Vietnam.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff had long urged
the Johnson White House to divert some of the B-52s: missions
from South Vietnam to the Cambodian sanctuaries, but without success.
The political arguments against such bombing were obvious. The
United States was not at war with Cambodia, whose government was
headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The official American position
was one of respect for Sihanouk's neutrality, as North Vietnam's
was also. Sihanouk was engaged in a diplomatic balancing act whose
goal was to insulate his nation of seven million from the Vietnam
War. And, of course, there was the antiwar movement at home to
The issue came up again a few days after
the outgoing Johnson Administration had finally resolved a series
of procedural disputes with the North Vietnamese in Paris, permitting
the long-delayed peace talks to begin. On January ~ ~, the day
after Nixon's inauguration, both sides announced that the first
Paris plenary session would be held in four days. Nixon, shortly
before taking office, had let it be known that he favored the
compromises in Paris.
The Pentagon chose that week, Nixon's
first in office, to propose formally that the bombing of North
Vietnam be renewed. That was politically impossible-which should
have been obvious-and was rejected out of hand. In early February
1969, the Pentagon tried anew: It told the White House that it
had received evidence from a North Vietnamese defector pinpointing
the location of COSVN. Kissinger was further assured, according
to top-secret military documents later declassified and released
under the Freedom of Information Act, that "all of our information,
generally confirmed by imagery interpretation, provides us with
a firm basis for targeting COSVN hqs [headquarters]." The
documents also show that General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed a recommendation for a "short-duration,
concentrated B-s2 attack" on COSVN, in an effort to disrupt
a North Vietnamese offensive that was correctly believed to be
imminent. Ellsworth Bunker, the American Ambassador in Saigon,
also endorsed the proposed mission.
Kissinger turned for advice to Richard
L. Sneider, his National Security Council aide for East Asia.
Sneider was dubious. "It didn't make military sense,"
he recalls. He had studied an earlier proposal to use B-52s: aircraft
against the North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia, and concluded
then that the bombing would disperse the North Vietnamese soldiers
from border areas farther west into Cambodia, thus putting more
of Cambodia under Communist control. Sneider had another reason,
too, for his skepticism: "I knew we wouldn't hit COSVN."
Alexander M. Haig, Jr., the Army colonel
who was Kissinger's newly named military aide, wanted the strikes
and argued forcefully for them with Kissinger. "Haig was
the guy who pushed the goddamn thing," Sneider says. "Henry
didn't know what was going on in terms of military operations."
One aspect of Haig's qualifications was particularly impressive
to his civilian colleagues: He confided to a few that while serving
in Vietnam he had participated in one of a regular series of highly
classified ground reconnaissance missions inside Cambodia. The
Americans who went on such missions, whose existence did not become
publicly known until ~973, wore specially manufactured replicas
of North Vietnamese uniforms and carried captured gear and weapons.
They went in "sterile," that is, without any identification
or markings to indicate that they were Americans-except, of course,
their white or black skin, large body size, and fluent knowledge
No record has been found that Haig did
in fact participate in such a mission. Former junior officers
who served in Haig's unit in South Vietnam and who regularly went
on cross-border operations had no knowledge that he or any other
field-grade officer took part. Haig's military record was exemplary
without such derring-do. Haig, forty-four years old, had served
as deputy commandant at West Point, a traditional stepping stone
to high Army rank, before being assigned as Kissinger's military
assistant shortly before the inauguration. With every staff stumble
and change, Haig grew in importance to Kissinger. His most obvious
attributes were the most important ones for Kissinger: He was
a no-argument, "can-do" military man all the way, a
hard-liner on Vietnam, the kind of man who would appeal to Nixon
and the White House staff.
In 1969, Haig seemed to be the consummate
staff officer. An average student at West Point-214th in a class
of 310-he had graduated in 1947 and been assigned to the American
Army of Occupation in Japan, where he became a social aide on
the staff of General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters. In 1950,
he married the daughter of MacArthur's deputy chief of staff,
to whom Haig was now aide-de-camp. He won a Silver Star while
serving, again as an aide-de-camp, in a corps headquarters during
the Korean War, where he participated in MacArthur's landing at
Inchon. After Korea, Haig continued on the upwardly mobile track,
attending the right Army schools and serving in the right staff
jobs. In 1962, after a tour as a staff officer of a tank battalion
in Europe, he received a master's degree in international relations
from Georgetown University. His next assignment was at the Pentagon,
where he was selected over many other applicants to become a staff
aide to a Kennedy Administration task force on Cuba directed by
Cyrus Vance, then Secretary of the Army, and Joseph A. Califano,
Jr., then the Army's general counsel. He was, by all accounts,
a superb assistant to Vance and Califano: tireless and loyal,
personable, and with a flair for organization.
It was at this stage in his career that
Lieutenant Colonel Haig was exposed to covert CIA operations.
Pentagon documents show that he was assigned in June ~963 to serve
as Califano's assistant on "all matters pertaining to Cuba."
At the time, the CIA and the military were in the midst of an
intense secret war, authorized by President Kennedy, to overthrow
the government of Fidel Castro. Haig was also officially designated
to serve as the Pentagon's representative on a highly classified
unit known as the "Subcommittee on Subversion" -whose
basic target was obviously Cuba. In 1966 and 1967, as a combat
officer with the First Division in Vietnam, he won the Distinguished
Service Cross and became the youngest lieutenant colonel to serve
as a brigade commander. Now riding on the Army's fastest track,
he left Vietnam for West Point. After Nixon's election, Haig,
by then a full colonel, was formally recommended to Kissinger
by the Army, and informally endorsed by many military and civilian
officials, including Califano and General Goodpaster.
From the beginning Haig was immensely
popular with the young, bright, and ambitious Kissinger crew.
He was not viewed as an intellectual threat-his first assignment
was the routine task of preparing the President's daily intelligence
summary-and he struck most of his colleagues as open and self-effacing.
He laughed easily, held his gin well, and had a lively scatological
None of the NSC members, in scores of
interviews many years later, was quite sure how Haig did it, but
within months he had managed to become indispensable to Henry
Kissinger. His loyalty was astonishing; he worked seemingly all
the time-every day, every night, every weekend-insuring that the
flow of documents in and out of Kissinger's chaotic office was
uninterrupted. He had access to the vast flow of backchannel messages
from Kissinger's office to American officials throughout the world.
He saw, as few other NSC staff people could, the dimensions of
the takeover that Kissinger and Nixon were trying to accomplish.
As an adroit bureaucrat, he knew that more power for Kissinger
meant more power for him. Along with his institutional loyalty,
there was a personal one: He understood that his relationship
to Kissinger was as important to his career as Kissinger's relationship
to the President was to his. Haig was no minor-league courtier
himself; he had learned from his days as an aide-de-camp and in
the Pentagon the art of flattering a superior.
Like most senior military men, and like
Henry Kissinger, Haig was a believer in military force-especially
in Vietnam-and saw the war as vital to American credibility and
world stability. He quickly expressed his views to his fellow
National Security Council staff members. Sometimes things got
Richard Moose, staff secretary for the
National Security Council during most of ~969, shared space with
Haig and Eagleburger just outside Kissinger's main office, in
the White House basement; the rest of the Council staff was across
the street in the Executive Office Building. Before he went to
work for the Pentagon's Institute of Defense Analysis, and from
there to Walt Rostow's NSC, Moose, a native of Arkansas, had spent
five months on the staff of Senator J. William Fulbright, the
Arkansas Democrat and Vietnam war critic who was chairman of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee-and thus one of Richard Nixon's
instant enemies. Early in the administration, Moose earnestly-and
naively-wrote Kissinger a memorandum saying he had worked with
Fulbright and offering to use his relationship if needed. Kissinger,
already under siege because of the "moderates" on his
staff, did not respond. A few weeks later, Moose accidentally
encountered Fulbright in the White House after a presidential
meeting. They chatted amiably. Haig walked by, saw them, and,
as Moose recalled later, "looked as if he'd seen the devil."
Things quickly became difficult for Moose
in the small office. Eagleburger shared the views of Haig, the
hard-liner, who was aggressive and full of certitude about Vietnam;
Moose, critical of the war, was not. And so Haig moved in on the
unresisting Moose and was soon handling much of the daily document
flow. Moose was being cut out. "I soon came not to care,"
Moose says, "except I did really." Within a few months
Moose resigned, his NSC position swallowed up by Haig. As Allen
was for Kissinger, Moose was Haig's first victim.
Al Haig, always working, always loyal,
soon began undermining others on the NSC staff whose integrity
and independence made them potential threats among them Morton
Halperin and Richard Sneider. The rest of the staff-ever sensitive
to bureaucratic pecking order-soon came to realize that Haig's
aggressiveness was being encouraged by his patron. For Kissinger,
Haig's very presence in his outer office served as a way of demonstrating
to the senior military men in the Pentagon and to the hawks in
Congress and on the President's staff-even to Richard Nixon-that
Kissinger was reliable. "Haig was the guy Henry could point
to," as one former NSC staff man puts it, "and say,
'If I were a Harvard liberal, a left-wing kook, would I have Al
Haig working for me?' He was Henry's insurance policy."
Haig was that, but there was much more.
As Sneider recalls, "Haig moved in on Henry and he moved
in from the very beginning. First of all, he was Henry's butler
and his chauffeur. Henry never knew the kinds of perks that could
be arranged-private planes for trips to New York for dinner, limousines
-and he loved it. Haig was also very shrewd politically where
Henry was naive. He was advising Henry at first on how to handle
Haldeman and Ehrlichman. When Henry had to wear a white tie and
tails for his first White House dinner, it was Haig who went to
Henry's house and helped him dress . . ."
Even more important, Sneider said, was
Haig's understanding from the beginning "that the fight for
the soul of Henry Kissinger would be between the civilians and
military on the National Security Council staff-and that's why
he put the knife in the Foreign Service officers and that's why
he was so competitive with Mort Halperin."
Haig's authority and power on the NSC
were to increase with each staff defection and each crisis. Eventually
he would accomplish the one thing Kissinger found intolerable-a
separate relationship with Richard Nixon-and the two men would
become bitter enemies. And eventually Kissinger would come to
realize that Alexander Haig was not Kissinger's Kissinger, as
the newspapers would later characterize him, but Haig's Haig.
In the early months, however, Haig's ambition
was not yet a threat. Kissinger was relying on his enthusiasm
and his firmly expressed professional opinion that the B-s2 bombing
in Cambodia would succeed in destroying the Vietnamese sanctuaries.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff also urged the bombing, and, as Nixon
and Kissinger both explained in their memoirs, those urgings were
given more weight after Hanoi initiated a spring offensive throughout
South Vietnam on February 22. Although the attacks were on a far
less ambitious scale than the Tet offensive the year before, Nixon's
immediate instinct was to retaliate. He and Kissinger believed
the offensive, coming before the new administration had had any
substantive meetings with the North Vietnam delegation in Paris
-and on the day before the President was to depart for his ceremonial
ten-day visit to Europe-was deliberately timed to humiliate him...
... Sixty B-52 aircraft would be sent on the mission. Twelve of
them would drop their bombs on legitimate targets inside South
Vietnam; the others would be bombing Cambodia.
Sitton's process was to become known as
the dual reporting system. The B-52 pilots would be briefed en
masse before their mission on targets that were in South Vietnam-that
is, the cover targets. After the normal briefing, some crews would
be taken aside and told that shortly before their bombing run
they would receive special instructions from a ground radar station
inside South Vietnam. The radar sites, using sophisticated computers,
would in effect take over the flying of the B-52s for the final
moments, guiding them to their real targets over Cambodia and
computing the precise moment to drop the bombs. After the mission,
all the pilots and crews would return to their home base and debrief
the missions as if they had been over South Vietnam. Their successes
and failures would then be routinely reported in the Pentagon's
secret command and control system as having been in South Vietnam.
The small contingent of officers and men
who worked inside the four ground radar sites in South Vietnam
were to be provided with top-secret target instructions for the
Cambodian bombings by special courier flights from Saigon that
arrived a few hours before each mission. The men on the ground
knew Cambodia was being bombed, but none of them reported that
fact until the Watergate investigations of ~973. The men had no
illusions about why the secrecy was necessary. Hal Knight, Jr.,
of Memphis, Tennessee, was the first to talk. Knight, who resigned
from the Air Force as a captain in 1972, after being passed over
for promotion twice, told the Senate Armed Services Committee
in July 1973 that he had believed the bombings were being kept
secret to hide them from the American public and the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee. There was another concern, too, Knight said:
"The thing that disturbs me a little bit is the fact that
at least once, if I had had a nervous breakdown . . . I could
have gone to a typewriter, picked me out a town, say, within a
reasonable distance of the actual aiming point, changed the coordinates
of the aiming point to those of that town . . . and no one would
have known the difference."
The final reporting process, as approved
by the National Security Council, flew in the face of a basic
military principle. "We were all trained to the idea that
those reports were just pretty near sacred," Knight testified,
"and that falsifying a report could result in the gravest
disciplinary action against the person who did it." Knight
did not add in his testimony that he and his colleagues had been
trained to deal with B-52 missions involving the basic mission
of the Strategic Air Command-the carrying of nuclear weapons.
Nixon and Kissinger were casually tampering with the command and
control system of America's nuclear deterrent, a system necessarily
under constant high-level analysis to prevent accidents or unauthorized
Sitton's plan, as approved by Kissinger
and Haig, included elaborate precautions in case reporters in
Saigon or Washington began asking questions about the missions
over Cambodia. If that should happen, they were to be told by
a press spokesman that, yes, B-52s did strike on routine missions
in South Vietnam adjacent to the Cambodian border. The spokesman,
wrote Sitton, was to "state that he has no details and will
look into this question. Should the press persist in its inquiries
or in the event of a Cambodian protest concerning U.S. strikes
in Cambodia, U.S. spokesmen will neither confirm nor deny reports
of attacks on Cambodia but state it will be investigated. After
delivering a reply to any Cambodian protest, Washington will inform
the press that we have apologized and offered compensation."
Sitton was ordered to draft the initial
set of press guidelines-and all subsequent guidelines for dealing
with the press during the clandestine bombing-m the most secure
manner possible. Only a few men inside the Pentagon-including
the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sitton's
two immediate superiors-were to know what the White House was
doing. Any paperwork in connection with the bombing was to be
hand carried by Sitton to his superiors; nothing was to be put
into the normal lines of communication.
Nixon and Kissinger wanted the bombing,
but they preferred to bomb with the concurrence of Laird and Rogers.
By mid-March, Laird had been brought around, although he still
had reservations about the secrecy aspect, but Rogers was still
On March 15, Nixon formally authorized
the Joint Chiefs to schedule the attack for March 18. Neither
Rogers nor Laird was told that the command order had been given.
The next step was to concoct an Oval Office meeting for Rogers
and Laird. As Kissinger recalled it, the March 18 meeting "followed
predictable lines." Laird and General Wheeler, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocated the bombing; Rogers objected
on the ground that it would create domestic turmoil. Kissinger's
revealing account continues: "There were several hours of
discussion during which Nixon permitted himself to be persuaded
by Laird and Wheeler to do what he had already ordered. Having
previously submitted my thoughts in a memorandum, I did not speak."
Two days later Kissinger was talking with
Halperin when Haig broke in and handed Kissinger a cable. Kissinger
smiled. The first raids on Cambodia had gone without a hitch and
the crew members, in their initial debriefings, reported seventy-three
secondary explosions, some as much as five times the normal intensity.
Vietcong headquarters, with its presumably vast stores of munitions,
must have been hit. Kissinger expansively shared the report with
Halperin and then sternly warned him that the bombing of Cambodia
was a vital secret that they had to protect; only a very few people
Kissinger did not report in his memoirs
that the initial report of numerous secondary explosions, like
so many of the reports official Washington received from the battlefield
during the Vietnam War, was exaggerated. Those first raids did
not, in fact, accomplish their basic mission-the destruction of
COSVN. And within hours that failure cost American and South Vietnamese
On the same day Kissinger was sharing
his secret with Halperin, a Special Forces group, twelve thousand
miles from the White House basement, also learned for the first
time of the B-52 attacks. The men, operating out of a makeshift
base near the Cambodian-South Vietnamese border, were told that
they were going to be inserted by helicopter into the COSVN area
right after the bombing raids, literally before the dust and smoke
had a chance to settle. Two members of the reconnaissance unit
were Americans; the rest were specially trained South Vietnamese
soldiers. Listening excitedly was Randolph Harrison, a Green Beret
lieutenant who was not scheduled for the mission. He and his fellow
officers had long urged using B-52 strikes to destroy the North
Vietnamese sanctuaries, and he recalls the briefing vividly: "We
were told that we would go in and pick some of these guys [COSVN
personnel] up. If there was anybody still alive out there they
would be so stunned that all you will have to do is walk over
and lead him by the arm to the helicopter. This is what they told
us. We had no reason to doubt this. . . We had been told that
B-52 strikes will annihilate anyone down there."
Moments after the bombing, the helicopter
rolled over the still-smoking bomb site and unloaded the thirteen-man
reconnaissance team. There was instant carnage. "The visible
effect [of the B-52 bombing] on the North Vietnamese who were
there was the same as taking a beehive the size of a basketball
and poking it with a stick," Harrison says. "They were
mad." Only four members of the team lived long enough to
find cover in the woods. "I'm sure there are instances wherein
tremendous damage has been done by B-52s," Harrison says.
"But my original enthusiasm has been tempered somewhat."
There was an order from military headquarters
in Saigon to insert a second Green Beret team that morning, he
recalls. No one wanted to go. "They said, 'Fuck you.' "
The second mission did not take place.
There is no evidence that the Pentagon
informed the White House of the slaughter of the intelligence
team in the jungles of Cambodia. Neither Kissinger nor Nixon mentions
the deaths in his memoirs. There was White House concern, however,
about the failure to knock out COSVN. Richard Sneider think Haig
may have been embarrassed by the lack of results, but he was among
those urgently recommending a second attempt on COSVN. "The
military kept on saying, 'We'll get it next time,' " Sneider
says. Colonel Sitton recalls hearing right away that the reconnaissance
team had been "shot up." It caused him no undue worry.
"We weren't surprised. It was a complete and total headquarters,"
he said of COSVN. "The more bombs we laid on it, the more
we learned how big it was. We could find air vents sticking up
above ground but couldn't tell which way they were going underground."
Such accounts of the size and permanence
of COSVN emplacements would have amazed North Vietnam's leaders
in Hanoi. They had issued orders early in the war that COSVN was
never to stay in one place for more than ten days. The enemy headquarters
moved constantly throughout the war, constantly managing to leave
a false trail for American intelligence. COSVN was never destroyed.
Nevertheless, the White House did not
seem to consider the March ~8 attack on COSVN a military failure.
In his memoirs, Kissinger insisted that the bombing was kept secret
solely for diplomatic and military reasons: "[A] public announcement
[would have been] a gratuitous blow to the Cambodian government,
which might have forced its demand that we stop; it might have
encouraged a North Vietnamese retaliation (since how could they
fail to react if we had announced we were doing it?)." If
the bombing had been made public, Kissinger added, "It would
surely have been supported by the American public." Richard
Nixon was more honest. There was concern about Prince Sihanouk's
position, he wrote in RN, but "Another reason for secrecy
was the problem of domestic antiwar protest. My administration
was only two months old, and I wanted to provoke as little public
outcry as possible at the outset."
Within the next few months, the secret
bombing of Cambodia would become far more intense, and Colonel
Sitton would be rewarded for his work with a promotion to brigadier
general; later he would become a lieutenant general, the second-highest
rank in the Air Force.
Sitton had been promoted for helping to
institute a policy that would enable a few men, operating without
written instructions, to change the flight path and bombing patterns
of a Strategic Air Command bomber. In his view, he had been a
good officer, carrying out orders that he knew had come from the
very top of the government: "My job was picking the right
target and putting the bombs there. If the government chooses
to bomb in secret, that's a political decision."
Over a fourteen-month period, ending in
April 1970, Nixon and Kissinger authorized a total of 3,630 flights
over Cambodia; by the Pentagon's count, the planes dropped 110,000
tons of bombs.
In 1973, when the full story of the secret
B-s2 bombings became known, Kissinger was among the first to condemn
the fact that the bombs were officially reported to have fallen
not on Cambodia but on South Vietnam. Speaking at the height of
the outcry over Watergate, Kissinger told the author, then a reporter
in Washington for the New York Times, that the White House "neither
ordered nor was it aware of any falsification of records"
of the bombing. He added that the White House had begun its own
investigation into the official mishandling of the records. "I
think it's deplorable," he said.
The Price of Power
Henry Kissinger page