May 4. 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 our favor by 1970. Albeit a political victory, the Tet Offensive in early 1968 had been a military disaster for the Vietcong. Tet had been a controversial strategy, with 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 southerners originally from South Vietnam. The decision was made to launch the sneak attack. They almost pulled it off militarily, but ultimately fell short. 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, what was left of them, 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 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 front page news. It seemed the Nation had decided to check out. Then suddenly, out of the blue it seemed, Nixon invaded Cambodia. It was like throwing gas on a fire that seemed 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 many tacitly condoned it by looking the other way.* 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. Removed from the day-to-day relentlessness of incongruent images and statements, the allies were slower to come to the conclusion that they too were being taken for a ride. Next door the U.S. air force had been secretly bombing in Cambodia and Laos, while denying it publicly. The invasion of Cambodia in 1970, an explicit expansion into a so-called neutral country, pretty much jettisoned any credibility we had left. Ascendant since victory in WWII, we were now being labeled the bad guys. Ironically, it would be deals made 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 led to the end of the war, but we have never really fully recovered our prestige in the eyes of the world after our debacle in Vietnam.
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 hole and 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 the North’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 walked a tight rope for years 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. It is debatable how well they succeeded while they were there, but what happened after they left seems to indicate that the North Vietnamese troops had had a measure of success. 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 Northern 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. It’s the old “we had to fight with one arm tied behind our back” argument so popular with the revisionist crowd. They may have been right, but we were in someone else’s neighborhood, and fair doesn’t always enter in to 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, ie we won’t do anything to stand in your way and we think it is a good idea. 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. But, from the long view of history, 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 with murderous thugs. The Americans maintained an embassy, an ambassador and military police for five more years in Phnom Penh. The threat of U.S. military retaliation kept the disease at bay, 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, along with Saigon, in April 1975. Was the Cambodian genocide inevitable? One can’t really say for sure. One thing is clear though, the removal of the antibodies in 1970 allowed the cancer to grow unhindered. 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 genocide.
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 (and 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) What’s more, Secretary Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird were both opposed to any such operation. They urged that it would engender intense 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!
Those watching must have wondered what was going on. It was like Tet in reverse– in 1967 Westmoreland told the country that because of the escalation of troops and firepower we were on the path to victory, the boys will be home before you know it. Then all of a sudden came Tet, a well-coordinated Vietcong invasion. People watched the carnage on TV in their living rooms. A significant portion of the populace came to the conclusion that they were being bamboozled. It was the first big turning point in public opinion against the war. 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? Bamboozled again. 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 the next 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 in Ohio!). 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, not far below the decisions (by Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) that got us into that quagmire in the first place. It led to unneeded suffering by many thousands of families in Asia– several hundred thousand Vietnamese soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians were yet to die on that May morning– and in America, including four young innocents in Kent Ohio.
* Aside from small numbers from some neighboring asian nations, Australia and S. Korea were the only countries to send appreciable numbers of troops
(1) Lipsman, Samuel; Doyle, Edward (1983). The Vietnam Experience Fighting for Time. Boston Publishing Company)