Category Archives: Asia

Cambodia, Kent State and the Kissinger Question?

May 4, 1970. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. One of my long-standing fantasies has been to ask Henry Kissinger: if you could have a do-over, would you still instruct Nixon to invade Cambodia? Of course I’d have to administer some sort of truth serum first….

In many ways the Vietnam war had begun to turn in the United States’ favor by 1970. Albeit a political victory, the Tet Offensive in early 1968 had been a military disaster for the Vietcong.* Thousands of the best VC warriors were killed. As a result the authority of their Northern leaders had eroded greatly in VC eyes. For their part, Hanoi had lost faith in the southerners as surrogate fighters. By 1970 the VC was almost wiped out as a fighting force, and along with it went much of the tactical connection between the revolution and the villagers. The fish had almost been stripped from the water. The war was being fought primarily by NVA troops coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But how long could they keep it up? In addition their de facto fifth column in the States, the anti-war movement, was fading. Peace talks were beginning to bear fruit for the first time. A negotiated settlement, what seemed like a pipe dream just a short time earlier, now seemed a real possibility. 

At home, as mentioned above, after years of marching, much of the anti-war movement had splintered. After turning out by the hundreds of thousands for protest events– Vietnam Day and the Teach-ins in 1965, the March on the Pentagon in 1967, Chicago 1968 and the National Moratorium in 1969– many had become demoralized by the lack of success and had gone home. Press and media coverage was also dissipating, the war was still raging in South Vietnam but it was no longer daily front page news. It seemed that the nation had decided to check out. Then suddenly, out of the blue it, Nixon invaded Cambodia. It was like throwing gas on a fire that appeared to be burning out.

Here is what was lost at that moment, by that decision:

1) World Stage: the war was never really supported by the allies but, not wanting to strain relations with their most powerful partner, most condoned it by looking the other way. Nevertheless, throughout the 1960s America’s credibility steadily plummeted along with its fortunes on the battlefield. Our friends couldn’t reconcile what they were seeing on TV and reading in newspapers with what they were being told by American leadership. This optic had been a signature of the war domestically for years, US military press briefings were famously known as the five o’clock follies, but the allies were slower to come to the conclusion that they too were being taken for a ride.

While Washington publicly denied it the U.S. Air Force had been secretly bombing in Cambodia and Laos throughout much of the war. They got away with it for the most part because the focus of reporting was primarily on what was happening next door in Vietnam. The invasion of Cambodia in 1970 sent reporters streaming across the border along with the troops, many of whom saw the tell-tale signs of previous bombing and reported on it.** Suddenly Cambodia went from a largely unknown sideshow on the world stage to front page news. Whatever credibility Washington still had internationally was severely damaged at this point. 

In truth, I doubt that Nixon or Kissinger gave a damn what the allies thought. In fact, it was deals made later with the enemies, Russia (SALT1) and China (1972 visit), not the allies, for which Nixon would end up being remembered. Those were master strokes indeed, and quickened the end of the war by peeling off the primary bankrollers from the Vietnamese cause, but it’s debatable whether the U.S. has ever fully recovered our prestige in the eyes of the world after our debacle in Vietnam and Cambodia. 

2) Vietnam: by 1970 North Vietnam’s benefactor nations, China and the USSR, were growing impatient with the seemingly endless war (remember the conflict really began way back in 1945 with the French). The war was beginning to become a political liability, especially for the Russians, who were already making overtures to the west to open dialogue on nuclear arms control. It had also become a money pit. Both countries were growing tired of sending support personnel and materials at discounted rates. Ho had died about six months earlier and the pressure was on the North Vietnamese politburo to come to the peace table seriously.

The invasion of Cambodia, its relative failure, and the political reaction to it back in the States, most famously at Kent State, immediately turned the situation back in North Vietnam’s favor. College campuses erupted across the country and protestors flooded back into the streets. Suddenly the North Vietnamese project had new legs as the Chinese and Russians watched the pictures of mayhem and discord in the heart of enemy territory. The time was again right to strike while the iron was hot. Each decided to renew the commitment to the cause. It would be another two and a half years before serious peace talks would resume.

3) Cambodia: Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk had been walking a tight rope to keep his country out of the war on his doorstep. Under the guise of neutrality, which really wasn’t, he had so far miraculously kept out of the line of fire. But to do it he had made a deal with the North Vietnamese communists to allow them to use bases in his country near the border with South Vietnam and transport war materials through his port, called Sihanoukville. In return the North promised to contain the burgeoning monstrosity growing within Cambodia’s borders, the Khmer Rouge. What happened after they left indicates that the North Vietnamese troops had had a measure of success in this. Here’s how they left…

American generals, and pro-war pundits, had been calling for a Cambodian invasion for years. Because of the allowance by Sihanouk of NVA troops on his territory, in places like the Parrot’s Beak, within quick striking distance of Saigon, they bellowed that it was not a fair fight. They may have been right, but we were in someone else’s neighborhood, and fair doesn’t always enter into the equation. At any rate, LBJ’s fear of condemnation by western allies and world opinion kept him within the lines. But he bowed out in 1968. Enter Nixon/Kissinger. 

In March 1970 Sihanouk was ousted in a coup by Lon Nol. The CIA’s role has never been totally revealed but at the very least they gave tacit consent to Lon Nol. Sihanouk was gone, his country seized from him while on vacation. In the ensuing chaos, Lon Nol opened the door for a U.S. invasion. Nixon/Kissinger, motivated by the relentless urging from the Right, and a recent viewing of George C. Scott in Patton, pulled the trigger. The troops poured across the border on May 1, 1970 (ARVN had gone in the day before). In the end the operation was indecisive, several bases were captured, but not the command base that was the object.

From the long view of history though, what did occur was the migration of the North Vietnam troops and bases across the border to relative safety in Laos. Thus removing a critical buffer to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The vacuum was quickly filled by those murderous thugs. The threat of U.S. military retaliation kept the Khmer insurgency at bay for a time (the U.S. maintained an embassy, an ambassador and military police for five more years in Phnom Penh), but it continued to grow, and kill, in the countryside, waiting for the chance to attack the heart. That chance came when the Americans evacuated in April 1975.

Was the Cambodian genocide inevitable? One can’t really say for sure. One thing is clear though, the removal of the NVA in 1970 allowed the cancer to grow in the shadows. The Vietnamese would not return until 1979, when they came back to crush the Khmer Rouge and put an end to the killing fields. Nearly 2 million Cambodians died in that despicable bloodbath.

4) The United States: when Nixon went on TV in prime-time on the night of April 30, with his bulldog persona and colorful battle maps, the country was blind-sided. Most people had no idea about the secret bombing that had been going on in Cambodia (or Laos). Just days before, Secretary of State William P. Rogers had testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee saying “the administration had no intentions…to escalate the war. We recognize that if we escalate and get involved in Cambodia with our ground troops that our whole program [Vietnamization] is defeated.” (1) Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird were both opposed to any such operation. They argued that it would re-ignite domestic opposition in the U.S. and might derail the ongoing peace negotiations in Paris. Both were allegedly castigated by Henry Kissinger for their lack of enthusiasm. It turned out both were right!

Many watching in the U.S. must have wondered what the hell was going on. By 1970 the line from the war managers was that we were winding down, Nixon had reduced troop levels significantly, in fact he just recently announced the withdrawal of another 150,000 troops later in the year, the boys will be home before you know it, as winners. Then came Cambodia, a well-coordinated American invasion of a new country, an expansion? People watched the carnage on TV in their living rooms, only this time the killing was happening at home, on college campuses. The Kent State massacre, as it has come to be known, was a crucial turning point in public opinion against the war. It took a while though, the original public reaction was strongly against the demonstrators. But over time the image of a student dead on the ground became one of the most lasting images of the war. Eventually even parents and grandparents in middle-America would turn (the war had come home- our kids are now being killed). Tragically, close to nine thousand more Americans would lose their lives before the nightmare finally ended in 1975.

The invasion of Cambodia turned out to be one of the costliest strategic errors in American 20th century foreign policy. It led to unneeded suffering by many thousands of families in Asia and in America, including those of four young innocents in Kent Ohio.

* Tet had been a controversial strategy. There were heated arguments within the communist camp over whether the time was right to launch the third stage of Mao’s revolutionary warfare, large scale battle with the enemy. Much of the VC leadership opposed the idea, they had been having increasing success fighting a second stage guerrilla war. The Hanoi faction on the other hand was growing impatient. They knew their backers in Moscow and Peking wouldn’t stay in forever. But they were also also divided on tactics. For example, the great hero of the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap, a northerner, opposed the plan. But he was overruled, by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, both originally from South Vietnam. The decision was made to launch the sneak attack. They almost pulled it off militarily, but ultimately fell short.

** This scenario would be repeated a year later in Laos with the launching of the ill-fated Operation Lam Son 719.

(1) Lipsman, Samuel; Doyle, Edward (1983). The Vietnam Experience Fighting for Time. Boston Publishing Company)

Tropic Lightning News – December 23rd, 1968

Read the 25th Infantry Division’s “Tropic Lightning News” Christmas Edition from this date, December 23rd 1968, in Vietnam. It was the end of a long bloody year for the 25th that began with the Tet Offensive. Its headquarters was located almost directly above the tunnels of Cu Chi, which would soon again be discovered the hard way in March 1969, as the Vietcong suddenly appeared behind their lines to conduct the little remembered, but very deadly, attacks of Tet 1969…

25th Infantry Division Tropic Lightning News. December 23rd, 1968

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U.S. Came Close To Unleashing Nuclear Chaos in Vietnam

Fallout_shelterNHK Newsroom Tokyo, has broken a story about the United States’ operation of a secret experimental nuclear reactor in South Vietnam during the war. By itself this revelation is big enough news, but it turns out there is more, much more. According to the story, which includes an interview with a mission participant, in the waning days of the war Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, ordered the site dismantled in a frantic attempt to keep the technology out of communist hands. Here is the big news: in the event of failure, Kissinger allegedly ordered that the radioactive core be blown up as a last-ditch measure!

Watch: NHK Report – Vietnam War Nuclear Mission

SOUTHCOM chief: Sequestration will bring ‘defeat’

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From MilitaryTimes.com March 12.2015:

The offensive launched by defense leaders against the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration continued Thursday, with the four-star chief of U.S. Southern Command predicting “defeat” in his missions if the budget trims go into effect later this year….Read entire article

In response to the article the following:

ParallelNarratives: This is the same tired line used by our proxies against us for decades– Rhee, Diem, Thieu, Karzai etc…”If you don’t continue to escalate $$ and weapons we’ll fall like a house of cards.” Basically extortion. Our generals haven’t learned (or have just plain ignored) many lessons over the years from these wars, but they have grasped, and in fact have embraced, this one.

Some may counter that ultimately Congress and the President drive the agenda, it’s their call on what we do and how we do it. And the General’s complaint in the article is merely a reflection back at national leadership – if  you want to bid at Christie’s then you have to pay the price, and sequestration will cause failure, just laying out the facts….

In theory of course this is true. It’s supposedly a hallmark of our democracy, civilian control of the military. Congress and the Executive do have the ability to drill down into the most minute matters of how the military operates. And yes they can fire military leadership (Truman for example) and they can make changes to the very fundamentals about how the military operates (Goldwater-Nichols for example). And by doing so they are reflecting the will of the government over the desires of the armed forces. According to the theory it’s the politicians who set the foreign and military policy and the Generals just dutifully carry out orders. And they can’t do that unless they get what they need/want. After all, they are the experts in war craft, right?

In practice the lines aren’t quite so tidy, in fact it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to state that the fix is in for the military elites….

Korea: There is a strong argument that the military desperately needed the Korean War after years of reduced funding, especially in Asia, in the post war period. When the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel the elites were presented with an opportunity to revive the Pacific force, and escalate funding for it to massive levels. And maybe, they might even get a chance to invade China and resurrect their beloved Chiang.

They got the funding, but the second part of the equation was shattered in the passes and along the roads of the snow covered mountains of North Korea when repeated warnings by Mao to turn back were ignored, primarily on the advice of MacArthur. Truman was forced to fire MacArthur. But only after he lost the nerve to stop him at Pyongyang, leading to a major military and political disaster at the Yalu. Even with that Truman backed down to MacArthur’s flagrant disregard for his leadership for a period of time after the debacle. It wasn’t until Mac’s public rhetoric about invading (and possibly nuking) China became unbearable for his standing as Commander in Chief that Truman took the ultimate action. But one can easily argue that MacArthur’s actions had a greater influence than did Truman’s on the outcome of not only that war, but also on escalating the Cold War and the resultant decades of massive funding for the military industrial complex.

Indochina/Vietnam: FDR had made it clear via the Atlantic Charter and comments at Yalta that he in no way supported France’s claim to Vietnam after the war, but alas he died a year too soon and a green Truman was led by his fervent anti-Communist advisors, civilian and military, to support the French reconquest in Indochina. The chickens came home to roost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

At the time, the US Joint Chief Chairman Admiral Radford was advocating for operation Vulture, which had a nuclear component, to save the French and inject the US in to the war. Thankfully that was indirectly stopped by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, at the behest of his deputy Anthony Eden, because Congress would not go along without British support. Eisenhower was largely on board with Radford and was disappointed in the outcome. This can be extrapolated by the fact that he sent Dulles on a whirlwind world tour to try to pressure the British to sign-on, and to drum up support from other nations for American intervention. This set the stage for American involvement in Vietnam.

It was Eisenhower (the most famous former General in the world) who began the doomed relationship with South Vietnam by helping bring Diem to power at Geneva, then by assisting him in holding power in his first major challenge against his rivals in Saigon in 1955. The primary American surrogate in the drama was Air Force officer Edward Lansdale. There was steady flow of American money and military expertise to Vietnam thereafter.

In the early 1960s, it was generals Maxwell Taylor (also a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) and Earl Wheeler (another Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) who made the early pushes for escalation of US involvement in Vietnam. Kennedy, and LBJ after him, could not abandon Vietnam to the Communists, that would have been political suicide. So the military and their right wing benefactors had them by the balls. Clearly the Americans, civilian and military alike, had not learned much from the French experience. As Bernard Fall famously said: “The Americans are dreaming different dreams than the French, but they walk in the same footsteps.” And of course, there was a massive funding escalation in it for the military.

Goldwater-Nichols basically increased substantially the powers of the Joint Chiefs Chairman, thus concentrating power in one person. As we have seen already maybe not such a good idea. MacArthur and Radford were itching for a fight with the ChiComs and both were ready to use nukes to that end. Taylor and Wheeler were vocal cheerleaders for what turned out to be America’s greatest political and military failure. And to add insult to injury, it was Colin Powell, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who led the famous dog and pony show on WMDs to legitimize the invasion of Iraq…

So it’s not so cut and dried as firing rogues and shifting the concentrations of power to “reflect the will of the government over the desires of the armed forces.” It’s a much closer thing than that. Whether overt, covert or implicit, the military establishment has a great deal of influence over national agenda setting. And they have strong incentive to keep the $$ pouring in. Remember what happened when Truman fired MacArthur, some say it’s the closest the country ever came to a military coup in the aftermath. Don’t think every president since doesn’t know it.

Further Reading: Truth Stranger Than Strangelove

Note: almost invariably it’s the nation’s establishment news media outlets that provide some of the best cover for these double dealings. The New York Times was one of the most vocal advocates for the Iraq War and its current ISIS coverage frequently refers to the existential threat it somehow poses. This Op-Ed piece appeared at the Washington Post yesterday :

War With Iran Is Probably Our Best Option

NBC has a portion of it’s website devoted to “ISIS Terror” that keeps a count of the number of stories in the archive boldly displayed on the header. The tally stands at 788 stories at this writing. Here’s a new story introducing chemical weapons use for the first time:

ISIS Used Chemical Weapons in Suicide Attack, Kurds Say

And lets not forget the CIA:

CIA Director Calls Fight Against ISIL Long-Term Struggle

This just in:

US To Abandon Plan For Troop Reduction In Afghanistan

Doesn’t sound like they are bracing for big budget cuts. Maybe they know something we don’t? The best line from this article: “military officials want to maintain troops in order to protect America’s investment” I bet they do. America’s investment in them.

Notice how this announcement comes on a Saturday night, outside of the prime news cycle. Are we to believe that they didn’t know this during the week? But you can be sure they have mobilized the army of TV Generals, who are likely waiting at their phones right now, eager to accept those last minute requests to appear on the Sunday talk shows.