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)