Cambodia: The Coup

excerpted from the book

The Price of Power

Kissinger in the Nixon White House

by Seymour M. Hersh

Summit Books, 1983, paper

Cambodia: The Coup

In March 1970, Prince Sihanouk's government was overthrown by a group of anti-Communist Cambodian officials led by Premier Lon Nol. The coup, staged when Sihanouk was out of the country, marked the beginning of the end of Cambodia. Ahead were new ties to the United States, civil war with Cambodian Communists, intensified American bombing, disintegration of the social order, and, in 1975, defeat for the Lon Nol government, which would lead to the Pol Pot Communist reign of genocide and war with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese, in both public statements and the secret talks with Kissinger, denounced Sihanouk's overthrow as American-inspired.

On April 30, American and South Vietnamese Army forces invaded Cambodia-the infamous "incursion," as the Nixon-Kissinger White House called it-and Cambodia became engulfed in war between Lon Nol's Cambodian army, aided by the United States and South Vietnam, and the Cambodian Communists, or Khmer Rouge, aided by North Vietnam and the Vietcong.

The invasion was a shock to the American public as well as the Cambodian populace. It inspired antiwar demonstrations all over the United States, and led, indirectly, to the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio. The domestic political consequences of the war in Cambodia drastically affected American foreign policy throughout the summer and fall.

Sihanouk, crowned king in 1941 and chief of state since 1960, had long been under pressure from the United States and South Vietnam for his tolerance of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong "sanctuaries" that, from March 1969 on, were being secretly bombed by American B-52s under the personal direction of Kissinger. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had repeatedly lobbied both the Johnson and the Nixon administrations for permission to invade the sanctuaries; their invariable solution for the failure to win the war in South Vietnam was to expand it. Nevertheless, Sihanouk carefully maintained his neutrality. In January 1970, Sihanouk left his capital, Phnom Penh, for a two-month vacation in France and a series of high-level meetings in the Soviet Union; Lon Nol, a former Minister of Defense with close ties to the American military, was in charge of the affairs of state.

In early March, Lon Nol encouraged violent attacks-really sackings-on North Vietnam's embassy in Phnom Penh, and on that of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, the Vietcong's government in exile that had been set up in June 1969 by the NLF and an alliance of anti-Thieu forces. On March 16, there were more riots at the Communist missions and Lon Nol met with North Vietnamese and NLF officials in Phnom Penh to demand that they withdraw their troops from the sanctuaries. They refused. On March 17, a day before the Cambodian parliament formally deposed Sihanouk in a staged unanimous vote, Lon Nol authorized a South Vietnamese Army task force to cross the Cambodian border on a military sweep against Communist strongholds.

In his memoirs, Kissinger alloted eight pages to a denial of any American complicity in or advance knowledge of the coup. The White House, he wrote, would have "preferred" that the Prince remain in office. As with Chile, and the overthrow in September 1973 of its president, Salvador Allende Gossens there is no conclusive evidence that the United States was directly responsible for Sihanouk's overthrow in 1970. But, as with Allende, such responsibility cannot be measured entirely in terms of actions taken or not taken in one day or week or month; Lon Nol seized power in Cambodia knowing that his regime would immediately be recognized and supported by the United States.

Sihanouk's harshest critics were in the American military, and they did more than complain. His immediate overthrow had been for years a high priority of the Green Berets reconnaissance units operating inside Cambodia since the late 1960s. There is also incontrovertible evidence that Lon Nol was approached by agents of American military intelligence in 1969 and asked to overthrow the Sihanouk government. Sihanouk made similar charges in his memoir, My War with the CIA, but they were not taken seriously then.

One factor may have been his many personal flaws: He was vain, indiscreet and had a high tolerance for official corruption. In a sense, some of these faults may also have been responsible for his success in maintaining neutrality amidst war-he was constantly talking, and those listening, if they chose to do so, could hear only what they wanted to hear. Thus when the secret bombing of Cambodia became known at the height of the outcry over Watergate in July 1973, Kissinger was able to cite many broadcast transcripts and official memoranda of conversations with Sihanouk in which he seemed to express acquiescence to the bombing. Critics of the bombing were able to cite other broadcast transcripts and newspaper interviews to show that Sihanouk did not endorse the bombing.

Sihanouk was consistent in one view, however, and he expressed it to most official visitors: The United States could not win the Vietnam War. On August 22, 1969, for example, he met with Senator Mike Mansfield, the Montana Democrat who was a ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. According to the almost verbatim notes of a member of Mansfield's party, the Prince urged the United States "to adopt a realistic approach regarding inevitability. Since a unified socialist Vietnam cannot be avoided, it is better to begin now by establishing normal diplomatic relations with that Vietnam [North Vietnam]. There is no other choice.... The question of establishing relations with Saigon doesn't exist. There is one Vietnam with which to deal-socialist Vietnam." Sihanouk explained that he had been unable to get the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong to leave their sanctuaries inside Cambodia. "The [American] press," he told Mansfield, "criticized Cambodia for providing sanctuaries. Cambodia could criticize the U. S. and her allies in Vietnam for pursuing the Viet Cong . . . into Cambodia. The United States should look at its own responsibility when criticizing Cambodia." Sihanouk went on to say that he knew of American bombing of the sanctuaries and would not protest such bombing as long as the areas under attack were not inhabited by Cambodians. "It is in one's own interest, sometimes, to be bombed," he said, "in this case, the United States kills foreigners who occupy Cambodian territory and does not kill Cambodians." Finally, the Prince suggested that there was a way to avoid any bombing incidents-an American withdrawal from Vietnam. "It would seem that it would be impossible to avoid withdrawal," Sihanouk correctly added. "If the United States were now to say that the time had come for the Vietnamese to deal with each other and were to let them solve their problems alone, that would be a good thing."

Sihanouk, in typical fashion, provided something for everybody in his talk with Mansfield. Kissinger, if he was permitted to review the notes of that meeting, could conclude that Sihanouk was prepared to tolerate even more bombing, as long as Cambodians were not being killed, and also that the Prince did not realize-or was not prepared to acknowledge publicly-that systematic B-s2 bombing was occurring in his country. Shortly after Mansfield's trip, Kissinger became even more obsessed with personally picking targets for the secret bombings, to avoid civilian casualties at all costs, as Colonel Sitton recalls. *

But Sihanouk's message was stark: The United States should consider a strategic, face-saving retreat. It was too late to save South Vietnam. In the Nixon-Kissinger White House, the messenger carrying bad news was always beheaded. What Kissinger would not say in his memoirs has been said repeatedly by former intelligence operatives who served in South Vietnam: Sihanouk was considered an enemy of the United States.

As in Laos, Green Beret teams led by Americans constantly moved into Cambodia on secret intelligence-gathering trips. The number of such missions, at one time code named "Salem House," rose from fewer than 400 in 1967 and 1968 to more than 1,000 in 1969 and 1970. Some extremely sensitive operations inside Cambodia were conducted with the aid of the Khmer Serei, an anti-Communist Cambodian movement of mercenaries based in Thailand that was dedicated to the overthrow of the Sihanouk government. But the official policy then in effect for the Green Beret units ruled out the use of ethnic Cambodians while on operations inside the country, and the vast majority of such crossborder operations were conducted with Vietnamese, Chinese, or Thai mercenaries. The Khmer Serei and another ethnic Cambodian sect, the Khmer Kampuchean Krom, were also involved in the Phoenix assassination program, aimed at killing suspected Vietcong officials inside South Vietnam. Such operations were carried out by Green Beret special operations teams throughout Vietnam.

Randolph Harrison, the Green Beret lieutenant whose colleagues were killed in the aftermath of the first secret B-52 strike inside Cambodia in March 1969, recalls that Special Forces units operating in the border area at that time were constantly urged by their senior officers to avoid encounters with Cambodian civilians. After an operation in which a Green Beret unit inadvertently blew up a Cambodian civilian bus, causing heavy casualties, Harrison and other Green Berets were ordered to stop carrying American-made weapons while on missions. "There was no secret about what we were doing," Harrison says, "but we just didn't want to give Sihanouk material that he could use against us. Philosophically, we considered Sihanouk to be in bed with the North Vietnamese. We just knew that the North Vietnamese were all over the place."

Forrest B. Lindley was a Green Beret captain commanding a Special Forces team, which included 450 ethnic Vietnamese, near the Cambodian border. His main mission early in 1970 was to coordinate and inject intelligence teams inside Cambodia, and he was constantly pressured to keep the Cambodian sanctuary areas under surveillance. There were repeated complaints from the Sihanouk government about the operations of Lindley's unit, which routinely lobbed artillery shells into Cambodia. "In February of 1970," Lindley recalls, "I was told that there would be a change of government in Cambodia. My radio operator, an enlisted man, actually told me. He got it from the Special Forces B team [a higher command]; they told him that Sihanouk was taking off for France. The radio operator also told me that the Khmer Serei would be going into Cambodia." Lindley was later ordered to transfer two of the four companies under his command to another Green Beret unit as replacements for Khmer Serei units that were going into Cambodia. "Using Cambodians in Cambodia like this had never been done before," Lindley says. "The policy was not to use Cambodians there because of the political ramifications of the United States supporting mercenary troops against their own government. This was a policy change." Lindley was forced to cancel many operations which until then, had been considered a very high priority. He knew at that point that something big was in the air.

Other Green Berets repeatedly told colleagues after the 1970 coup that a highly secret Special Forces unit, known as Project Gamma, was responsible for conducting anti-Sihanouk intelligence operations inside Cambodia before Sihanouk's ouster. Project Gamma, formally listed as Detachment B57, Fifth Special Forces Group in South Vietnam, used members of the Khmer Serei and the Khmer Kampuchean Krom in its activities inside Cambodia, former Green Beret officers said. One member of B57, Captain John J. McCarthy, Jr. was court-martialed in T968 and sentenced to hard labor for life for killing a Khmer Serei operative believed to be a double agent. McCarthy's conviction was reversed in 1971, after an appeals hearing in Washington in which the Army warned that public disclosure of evidence in the case would damage national security. An official Army history of the Green Berets, published after the Vietnam War, does not mention Project Gamma or Detachment B57. Although the Pentagon has declassified much material about Green Beret crossborder operations inside Laos and Cambodia, nothing on Project Gamma has been made available. One former senior officer of the unit, who left South Vietnam prior to 1970, says that Gamma utilized only ethnic Cambodians in its operations, which were designed to gather tactical intelligence from deep inside Cambodia-areas that the normal Green Beret cross-border operations were forbidden to penetrate. The Cambodians involved in such missions, which included many Khmer Serei and some Khmer Kampuchean Krom, were extremely anti-Sihanouk, the former officer recalls, but he knew of no plans to overthrow Sihanouk while he was involved in Gamma.

Other Americans besides the Green Berets were involved in plots and operations inside Cambodia in the late 1960s. Samuel R. Thornton, a Navy yeoman assigned in May 1968 as an intelligence specialist to the United States Navy command in Saigon, vividly recalls that major planning to overthrow and assassinate Sihanouk was initiated late in 1968 by a Lon Nol representative who was then a high official in the Sihanouk government. Lon Nol was seeking a commitment of American military, political, and economic support after he engineered the overthrow of Sihanouk. The message was relayed by Lon Nol's representative to a Cambodian merchant of Chinese ancestry who regularly traveled between Saigon and Phnom Penh, and who-as Lon Nol and his aides understood-served as an intelligence operative for the United States. The Cambodian merchant was debriefed immediately upon his return by his contact, or "case officer," an American working under cover as an AID adviser to the Vietnamese Customs Service in Saigon. "I was the first person the case officer spoke to after his debriefing of the agent," Thornton recalls.

According to Thornton, the United States did more than pledge its continued support to Lon Nol. It sought to participate in the coup directly. A highly classified operations proposal, initially code named "Dirty Tricks," called for the use of Khmer Kampuchean Krom mercenaries to infiltrate the Cambodian Army before the coup and provide military support if needed. In addition, "the plan included a request for authorization to insert a U.S.-trained assassination team disguised as Vietcong insurgents into Phnom Penh to kill Prince Sihanouk as a pretext for revolution." * After the assassination, "Dirty Tricks" called for Lon Nol to declare a state of national emergency and issue a public request for American military intervention in Cambodia. Such intervention would include assaults against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong sanctuaries along the Cambodian border.

"I was present at some of the discussions which resulted in this plan," Thornton says, "helped prepare the proposal to use Khmer Kampuchean Krom elements, and personally delivered this portion of the proposal to the action office of the MACV [Military Assistance Command headquarters for Vietnam in Saigon] intelligence staff." At least two briefings on "Dirty Tricks" were given to the senior intelligence staff at American military headquarters in Saigon. Thornton remembers that it was late February or early March of ~969 -shortly after Nixon's inauguration-when approval for the operation came from Washington; the message said that there was exceptional interest in the project at "the highest level of government." Thornton says that he and others in his unit interpreted that comment as indicating that President Nixon or one of his top advisers had given personal approval. At that point, the project was given a more discreet code name, "Sunshine Park," and was presented to Lon Nol for his approval.

Lon Nol surprised the Americans by vehemently objecting to the talk of assassinating Sihanouk, calling that part of the plan "criminal insanity." Lon Nol "doubted that either he or the United States Army would be able to control the popular uprising he felt would develop from an attempt to assassinate the Prince, successful or otherwise," Thornton says. Instead, Lon Nol proposed that he lead a coup when Sihanouk left the country for one of his periodic trips to France. Lon Nol stressed "that he had requested originally only overt United States military support for a possible coup, emphasized his impatience with the proposal, and renewed his original request."

Lon Nol's counterproposal was relayed to Washington, where the response was surprisingly cool. Officially, Washington ordered that Lon Nol be told that the United States would have to base a decision to commit American forces in support of a coup on the exigencies of the moment. "Unofficially," Lon Nol "was to be told that, although he could in fact have the requested support, he must understand that the United States was sensitive to international criticism on this point, so that he must be prepared for a show of vacillation and great reluctance." Lon Nol agreed to the American position, Thornton says, and requested that Khmer Kampuchean Krom troops be infiltrated into Cambodian Army units. He also requested a meeting with the KKK commander, who was an exiled Cambodian, and such a meeting did take place, Thornton remembers, in which the two men reached agreement on the infiltration.

Thornton's tour of duty ended in May 1969, by which time the KKK troops had completed their infiltration of Cambodian Army units that were allegedly loyal to Sihanouk. Thornton was not in Asia when Lon Nol took power in 1970, and he has no firsthand information about any American role at that time. But he maintains that he was present earlier at many secret discussions which "resulted in the plan to overthrow the Sihanouk government and either helped prepare or had occasion to handle most of the pertinent documents." Unable to obtain the "Sunshine Park" documents under the Freedom of Information Act, despite repeated requests, Thornton wants the story known and says he would be willing to undergo a lie detector test if necessary. No governmental or congressional unit seems eager to take him up on the offer.

One military man who would not need a lie detector test to be persuaded of Thornton's allegations is Randolph Harrison, the Green Beret officer. A few weeks after Lon Nol took over, Harrison-on his second tour in Vietnam, this time as an Army information officer-happened to be in the Associated Press news office in Saigon when a German freelance photographer brought in some film from Cambodia. The photographs were of war atrocities-beheaded and disemboweled Cambodian Communist cadre killed, so the photographer reported, by the Cambodian troops who were also in the pictures, posing with their victims. Harrison watched as the photographs were processed and was astonished to see that the smiling soldiers were Khmer Serei who had served with him the year before in South Vietnam. "I knew those guys," Harrison says. "They'd been in my Special Forces unit."

Thornton's allegations, when added to the questions raised at the trial of Captain John McCarthy and the recollections of Green Beret officers Randolph Harrison and Forrest Lindley, provide hard-to-ignore evidence that at least some officials in the American government were actively encouraging the overthrow of Sihanouk before 1970. It is scarcely possible that all this activity was going on outside the purview of the White House and the National Security Council. But, if it did, that would in turn raise profound questions about the Nixon Administration's ability to monitor and control the way the Vietnam War was conducted, and especially about Kissinger's responsibility as national security adviser.

Not all the evidence indicating American complicity has emanated from those on the scene in Southeast Asia, however. Stephen W. Linger was an enlisted man who believed utterly in the rectitude of the Vietnam War and the fight against communism when he joined the Army as a volunteer. His high IQ and his patriotism projected him in early 1970 into one of the most secret jobs in the Pentagon-handling top secret and "Eyes Only" messages for the backchannel communications link of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The link, formally known as the Digital Information Relay Center, provided the military with a secure way of exchanging informal single-copy messages not meant to be filed or retained in any form. In a world of secret badges and secret rooms, the Relay Center stood- at the pinnacle. It processed some of the most highly classified communications intelligence in the United States government-including intercepted material from the Soviet Union-and it handled messages between the highest military commanders. It was a vital means of communication for Henry Kissinger, who could relay messages to field commanders in Saigon and elsewhere without the State Department's knowledge and even without the knowledge of Laird or any of his aides in the Department of Defense.

Linger was thrilled at his assignment and the inside look it gave him into the government's activities. Over the months, however, as he began to perceive the difference between what was happening in Southeast Asia and what the newspapers were reporting, he became distressed. By early 1971, Linger was in touch with Jack Anderson, the newspaper columnist, and had begun to relay some of the Relay Center's information to him. Anderson's columns that spring and summer were to stagger Washington-and Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.

But on the evening of March 18, 1970, Stephen Linger was still new to his job, and the thought of providing information to a newspaper columnist was far off. Nonetheless, he was curious about what was really happening in Cambodia. There was a high-priority message from an overseas American embassy late that night: Sihanouk, in Moscow, had pleaded with a senior American official to "help me out." Linger followed his usual custom with such messages: He forwarded a copy for immediate dispatch to Kissinger's office and telephoned aides of General Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would have to wake him up and read him the message. Linger's duty hours were over before an answer came back, but the next day he dug out the file to see what the United States government had decided to tell Sihanouk. The message, when he did locate it, was one he would never forget: America had decided to adopt a "laissez faire" attitude. "The basic thrust of the message was 'lay off and let Sihanouk get overthrown.' " Linger remembers. And there was other immediate backchannel traffic from Washington to Saigon in which the White House and the Pentagon "kept talking about the military requirements for the new regime."

In his memoirs, Kissinger wrote, "We neither encouraged Sihanouk's overthrow nor knew about it in advance. We did not even grasp its significance for many weeks. My own ignorance of what was going on is reflected in two memoranda to Nixon." It was the only point in his 1,500 page memoir when Kissinger took any credit for ignorance.

The Price of Power

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