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US-Cambodia (1955-1993)

Project: History of US Interventions
Open-Content project managed by Derek, mtuck

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US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, each visit Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk and attempt to persuade him to place Cambodia under the protection of the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an alliance formed the year before by representatives of Australia, France, Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States to prevent the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. Sihanouk kindly declines the offer preferring to adopt a neutral stance in the conflict between his neighbors and the US. (Blum 1995)

Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s assistant for National Security Affairs, convinces the president to begin a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia where Viet Cong and North Vietnamese have established logistical bases. The campaign, secretly referred to as “Operation Breakfast,” spurs the Vietnamese to move deeper into Cambodia causing US bombings to move further into the country’s interior. As in Laos (see 1969-1973), the US drops an incredible number of bombs on civilian areas. (Scheer 7/8/1997) Craig Etcheson will later write in his book, The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea: “The fact is that the United States dropped three times the quantity of explosives on Cambodia between 1970 and 1973 than it had dropped on Japan for the duration of World War II. Between 1969 and 1973, 539,129 tons of high explosives rained down on Cambodia; that is more than one billion pounds. This is equivalent to some 15,400 pounds of explosives for every square mile of Cambodian territory. Considering that probably less than 25 percent of the total area of Cambodia was bombed at one time or another, the actual explosive force per area would be at least four times this level.” (Etcheson 1984, pp. 99)

While Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk is on a trip abroad, his top ministers, Lon Nol and Sirik Matak, with CIA backing, usurp control of the country and immediately begin cooperating with the United States military to expel the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong presence in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, and supported by a population terrorized by the US bombing campaign, will wage guerrilla warfare against the new government, overthrowing it in 1975 (see April 17, 1975). (Blum 1995; Scheer 7/8/1997)

US and South Vietnamese troops invade Cambodia, attacking North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases and supply lines. Angered by the move, four men from Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff resign (see April 24-30, 1970). (Blum 1995; Hitchins 2001; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005) By the end of May, scores of villages have been destroyed. (Blum 1995) Though US ground forces are withdrawn by June 30, the South Vietnamese troops will remain, occupying heavily populated areas and supported by continued heavy US air bombings. During this time, popular support for the Khmer Rouge broadens, its ranks swelling from 3,000 in March 1970 to a peak of about 30,000. (Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005)

President Nixon meets with his top military and national security aides at the Western White House in San Clemente, California. According to a memo from the meeting, marked “Eyes Only, Top Secret Sensitive,” Nixon tells military officials that while the administration will continue to say that US involvement in Southeast Asia is limited to supporting South Vietnamese forces in order to protect US troops, the US will continue its covert operations in Cambodia. “That is what we will say publicly,” he says. “But now, let’s talk about what we will actually do. I want you to put the air in there and not spare the horses. Do not withdraw for domestic reasons but only for military reasons. We have taken all the heat on this one. Just do it. Don’t come back and ask permission each time.” (Woodward 11/16/2005)

Months after the Paris Agreement, which marked the official end of the Vietnam War, the United States, under the leadership of President Richard Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger, steps up its bombing of Cambodia—contradicting earlier claims that the rationale for bombing Cambodia had been to protect American lives in Vietnam. During the months of March, April and May, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Cambodia is more than twice that of the entire previous year. The bombing stops in August under pressure from Congress. The total number of civilians killed since the bombing began in 1969 is estimated to be 600,000 (see March 1969). (Tatchell 4/25/2002; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005)

The Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot evacuates the capital, sending its urban population into the countryside to work in agriculture. The regime destroys vehicles and machinery because of their Western origins and systematically kills between half a million and two million Cambodians, targeting mostly the wealthy and educated. Pol Pot also abolishes currency and the postal system. (Library of Congress 1990; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005)

The Khmer Rouge defeats the Cambodian government forces and enters the capital city of Phnom Penh. The new government renames the country the Democratic Kampuchea, and Pol Pot becomes its premier. (Library of Congress 1990; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005)

Responding to repeated armed incursions by Cambodian forces into its border villages, Soviet-allied Vietnam forms the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS) made up of communist and noncommunist Cambodian exiles. The KNUFNS invades Cambodia in 1979 and seizes the capital city of Phnom Penh, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the jungles along the Thai border. Heng Samrin becomes Cambodia’s new president. (Library of Congress 1990; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005)

China and the US sustain the Khmer Rouge with overt and covert aid in an effort to destabilize Cambodia’s Vietnam-backed government. With US backing, China supplies the Khmer Rouge with direct military aid. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser during the administration of President Carter, will later acknowledge, “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot…. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.” Between 1979 and 1981, the World Food Program, which was strongly under US influence, provides nearly $12 million in food aid Thailand. Much of this aid makes its way to the Khmer Rouge. Two American relief aid workers, Linda Mason and Roger Brown, will later recount, “Thailand, the country that hosted the relief operation, and the US government, which funded the bulk of the relief operation, insisted that the Khmer Rouge be fed.” By the late 1980s, US aid is officially at $5 million. But this is supplemented significantly by secret CIA support to the tune of between $20 and $24 million. In total, perhaps as much as $85 million is ultimately funneled to Pol Pot’s group through various channels. The US and China are also responsible for the Khmer Rouge retaining its seat at the UN General Assembly. During this period, Khmer Rouge fighters attack “Cambodian villages, seed minefields, kill peasants and make off with their rice and cattle… [—] But they never seriously… [threaten] the Phnom Penh government.” (Blum 1995; Herman 1997; Pilger 1998 pdf file)

Ray Cline, former deputy director of the CIA, visits a Khmer Rouge camp inside Cambodia as a senior foreign-policy adviser to President-elect Ronald Reagan. A Khmer Rouge press release reports that Cline “was warmly greeted by thousands of villagers.” (Blum 1995)

In Cambodia, UN-administered elections lead to a new constitution and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. (Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005)


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