Bombs Over Cambodia: New Light
on US Air War
by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan
www.zmag.org/, May 12, 2007
United States bombings in Afghanistan
have "given a propaganda windfall to the Taliban." 
Is history repeating itself? In 1975, Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer
Rouge forces took power in Cambodia after a massive U.S. bombing
campaign there. New information reveals that Cambodia was bombed
far more heavily during the Vietnam War than previously believed
-- and that the bombing began not under Richard Nixon, but under
In the fall of 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war
in Indochina, Bill Clinton became the first US president since
Richard Nixon to visit Vietnam. While media coverage of the trip
was dominated by talk of some two thousand US soldiers still classified
as missing in action, a small act of great historical importance
went almost unnoticed. As a humanitarian gesture, Clinton released
extensive Air Force data on all American bombings of Indochina
between 1964 and 1975. Recorded using a groundbreaking IBM-designed
system, the database provided extensive information on sorties
conducted over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Clinton's gift was
intended to assist in the search for unexploded ordnance left
behind during the carpet bombing of the region. Littering the
countryside, often submerged under farmland, this ordnance remains
a significant humanitarian concern.
It has maimed and killed farmers, and rendered valuable land all
but unusable. Development and de-mining organizations have put
the Air Force data to good use over the past six years, but have
done so without noting its full implications, which turn out to
The Bombing Database
The still-incomplete database (it has several "dark"
periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973,
the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was
previously believed: 2,756,941 tons' worth, dropped in 230,516
sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing
was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having "unknown"
targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all.
Even if the latter may arguably be oversights, the former suggest
explicit knowledge of indiscretion. The database also shows that
the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed --
not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson. The impact of this
bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades,
is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove
an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed
relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in
motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia,
a coup d'état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge,
and ultimately the Cambodian genocide. The data demonstrates that
the way a country chooses to exit a conflict can have disastrous
consequences. It therefore speaks to contemporary warfare as well,
including US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite many
differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with
the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to
battle a heterogeneous, volatile insurgency.
"We heard a terrifying noise which shook the ground; it was
as if the earth trembled, rose up and opened beneath our feet.
Enormous explosions lit up the sky like huge bolts of lightning;
it was the American B-52s."
-- Cambodian bombing survivor, Kampong Thom
On December 9, 1970, US President Richard Nixon telephoned his
national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to discuss the ongoing
bombing of Cambodia. This sideshow to the war in Vietnam, begun
in 1965 under the Johnson administration, had already seen 475,515
tons of ordnance dropped on Cambodia, which had been a neutral
kingdom until nine months before the phone call, when pro-US General
Lon Nol seized power. The first intense series of bombings, the
Menu campaign on Vietnamese targets in Cambodia's border areas
-- which American commanders labeled Breakfast, Lunch, Supper,
Dinner, Dessert, and Snack -- had concluded in May, 1970 shortly
after the coup.
Nixon was facing growing congressional opposition to his Indochina
policy. A joint US-South Vietnam ground invasion of Cambodia in
May and June of 1970 had failed to root out Vietnamese Communists,
and Nixon now wanted to covertly escalate the air attacks, which
were aimed at destroying the mobile headquarters of the Viet Cong
and the North Vietnamese Army (vc/nva) in the Cambodian jungle.
After telling Kissinger that the US Air Force was being unimaginative,
Nixon demanded more bombing, deeper into the country: "They
have got to go in there and I mean really go in . . . I want everything
that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There
is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget.
Is that clear?"
Kissinger knew that this order ignored Nixon's promise to Congress
that US planes would remain within thirty kilometres of the Vietnamese
border, his own assurances to the public that bombing would not
take place within a kilometre of any village, and military assessments
stating that air strikes were like poking a beehive with a stick.
He responded hesitantly: "The problem is, Mr. President,
the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet
Union. They are not designed for this war . . . in fact, they
are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight."
"Anything that flies, on anything that moves"
Five minutes after his conversation with Nixon ended, Kissinger
called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders from the
president: "He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia.
He doesn't want to hear anything. It's an order, it's to be done.
Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?"
The response from Haig, barely audible on tape, sounds like laughter.
The US bombing of Cambodia remains a divisive and iconic topic.
It was a mobilizing issue for the antiwar movement and is still
cited regularly as an example of American war crimes. Writers
such as Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, and William Shawcross
condemned the bombing and the foreign policy it symbolized.
In the years since the Vietnam War, something of a consensus has
emerged on the extent of US involvement in Cambodia. The details
are controversial, but the narrative begins on March 18, 1969,
when the United States launched the Menu campaign. The joint US-South
Vietnam ground offensive followed. For the next three years, the
United States continued with air strikes under Nixon's orders,
hitting deep inside Cambodia's borders, first to root out the
Viet Cong (VC)/North Vietnam Army (NVA) and later to protect the
Lon Nol regime from growing numbers of Cambodian Communist forces.
Congress cut funding for the war and imposed an end to the bombing
on August 15, 1973, amid calls for Nixon's impeachment for his
deceit in escalating the campaign.
The Secret Bombing of 1965
Thanks to the Air Force database, we now know that the US bombardment
started three-and-a-half years earlier, in 1965, under the Johnson
administration. What happened in 1969 was not the start of bombings
in Cambodia but the escalation into carpetbombing. From 1965 to
1968, 2,565 sorties took place over Cambodia, with 214 tons of
bombs dropped. These early strikes were likely designed to support
the nearly two thousand secret ground incursions conducted by
the CIA and US Special Forces during that period. B-52s -- long
range bombers capable of carrying very heavy loads -- were not
deployed, whether out of concern for Cambodian lives or the country's
neutrality, or because carpet bombing was believed to be of limited
Nixon decided on a different course, and beginning in 1969 the
Air Force deployed B-52s over Cambodia. The new rationale for
the bombings was that they would keep enemy forces at bay long
enough to allow the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. Former
US General Theodore Mataxis depicted the move as "a holding
action . . . . The troika's going down the road and the wolves
are closing in, and so you throw them something off and let them
chew it." The result was that Cambodians essentially became
cannon fodder to protect American lives.
The last phase of the bombing, from February to August 1973, was
designed to stop the Khmer Rouge's advance on the Cambodian capital,
Phnom Penh. The United States, fearing that the first Southeast
Asian domino was about to fall, began a massive escalation of
the air war -- an unprecedented B-52 bombardment that focused
on the heavily populated area around Phnom Penh but left few regions
of the country untouched. The extent of this bombardment has only
now come to light.
Exceeding the World War II Payload
The data released by Clinton shows the total payload dropped during
these years to be nearly five times greater than the generally
accepted figure. To put the revised total of 2,756,941 tons into
perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs
during all of World War II, including the bombs that struck Hiroshima
and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000 tons, respectively. Cambodia may
well be the most heavily bombed country in history.
A single B-52d "Big Belly" payload consists of up to
108 225-kilogram or 42 340-kilogram bombs, which are dropped on
a target area of approximately 500 by 1,500 metres. In many cases,
Cambodian villages were hit with dozens of payloads over the course
of several hours. The result was near-total destruction. One US
official stated at the time, "We had been told, as had everybody
. . . that those carpetbombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating,
that nothing could survive." Previously, it was estimated
that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed
by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed
by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.
The Cambodian bombing campaign had two unintended side effects
that ultimately combined to produce the very domino effect that
the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent. First, the bombing forced
the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing
them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second,
the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer
Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of
Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as
"fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas . . . scattered
across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy,
tactics, loyalty, and leaders."
Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit
Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing
as anti-American propaganda. Chhit Do replied:
"Every time after there had been bombing, they would take
the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters
were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched .
. . . The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants
when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up
and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified
and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were
told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing
that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up
with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them.
. . . Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their
fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge."
A Cambodian witness responded to an earlier publication of this
article by writing:
"I could not agree with you more based on my experiences
during the bombing in Takeo around 1972. The bombings were [spreading]
further into towns and villages. My parents' house was hit by
the bombs, and we had to move to the opposite side of the country.
We had known [that] almost the entire village that survived from
the bombings had joined forces with the Khmer Rouge."
The Nixon administration knew that the Khmer Rouge was winning
over peasants. The CIA's Directorate of Operations, after investigations
south of Phnom Penh, reported in May 1973 that the Communists
were "using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme
of their propaganda," and that such propaganda was "effective."
But this does not seem to have registered as a primary strategic
"They are murderous thugs, but we won't let that stand in
The Nixon administration kept the air war secret for so long that
debate over its impact came far too late. It wasn't until 1973
that Congress, angered by the destruction the campaign had caused
and the systematic deception that had masked it, legislated a
halt to the bombing of Cambodia. By then, the political as well
as the social damage was already done. Having grown to more than
two hundred thousand troops and militia forces by 1973, the Khmer
Rouge captured Phnom Penh two years later. They went on to subject
Cambodia to a Maoist agrarian revolution and a genocide in which
1.7 million people perished. Now the burgeoning US-China alliance
led Washington to quietly support the Khmer Rouge regime. Secretary
of State Henry Kissinger told Thailand's foreign minister on November
26, 1975, "You should also tell the Cambodians that we will
be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won't let
that stand in our way."
The Nixon Doctrine had relied on the notion that the United States
could supply an allied regime with the resources needed to withstand
internal or external challenges while the US withdrew its ground
troops or, in some cases, simply remained at arm's length. In
Vietnam, this meant building up the ground-fighting capability
of South Vietnamese forces while American units slowly disengaged.
In Cambodia, Washington gave military aid to prop up Lon Nol's
regime from 1970 to 1975 while the US Air Force conducted its
massive aerial bombardment.
Kissinger's 2nd 'Rule of Engagement' for the bombing of Cambodia:
"No strikes within one kilometre of a village"
US policy in Iraq may yet undergo a similar shift. Bombing is
likely to play a key role in a continued U.S. occupation. Moreover,
as Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker in December 2005,
a key element of any drawdown of American troops will be their
replacement with air power. "We just want to change the mix
of the forces doing the fighting -- Iraqi infantry with American
support and greater use of air power," said Patrick Clawson,
the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East
Critics argue that a shift to air power will cause even greater
numbers of civilian casualties, which in turn will benefit the
insurgency in Iraq. Andrew Brookes, the former director of air
power studies at the Royal Air Force's advanced staff college,
told Hersh, "Don't believe that air power is a solution to
the problems inside Iraq at all. Replacing boots on the ground
with air power didn't work in Vietnam, did it? "
It's true that air strikes are generally more accurate now than
they were during the war in Indochina, so in theory, at least,
unidentified targets should be hit less frequently and civilian
casualties should be lower. In addition, many of the indiscriminate
bombardment tactics used in the past, such as those that destroyed
much of Tokyo and killed 100,000 of its citizens in a single night,
are no longer deemed morally acceptable. Yet lessons from Cambodia's
agony remain unlearned. Civilian deaths have been the norm during
the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, as they were during the bombing
of Lebanon by Israeli forces over the summer. As in Cambodia,
insurgencies are the likely beneficiaries. To cite one example,
on January 13, 2006, an aerial strike by a US Predator drone on
a village in a border area of Pakistan killed eighteen civilians,
including five women and five children. The deaths undermined
the positive sentiments that may have been created by the billions
of dollars in aid that had flowed into that part of Pakistan after
the massive earthquake months earlier. A key question remains:
along with its humanitarian and moral hazards, is bombing worth
the strategic risk?
If the Cambodian experience teaches us anything, it is that miscalculation
of the consequences of civilian casualties stems partly from a
failure to understand how insurgencies thrive. The motives that
lead locals to help such movements don't fit into strategic rationales
like the ones set forth by Kissinger and Nixon. Those whose lives
have been ruined don't care about the geopolitics behind bomb
attacks; they tend to blame the attackers. The failure of the
American campaign in Cambodia lay not only in the civilian death
toll during the unprecedented bombing, but also in its aftermath,
when the Khmer Rouge regime rose up from the bomb craters, with
tragic results. The dynamics in Iraq, or even Afghanistan, could