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 be considered.

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 of English.

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 wit.

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 unpleasant.

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 nuclear bombings.

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 opposed.

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 knew

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 lives.

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.

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