From Sideshow
To Genocide:

Cambodia Before the Holocaust

Cambodia Colonized

The Seeds of Independence

Sihanouk and the Geneva Accords

The Cold War and Cambodia

Nixon's War:
The U.S. Bombing Campaign

The Coup

The War Rages

The End of Cambodia;
The Beginning of a Nightmare

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The Cold War Threatens Cambodia;
America and Communist Containment

As tensions rose between North and South Vietnam, Sihanouk flirted more and more with Ho Chi Minh's Hanoi government. Sihanouk himself was no communist, but he correctly perceived the likelihood of the North eventually defeating the South. Cambodia was militarily weak, so the only way to avoid losing his country in the crossfire was to make friends with his most dangerous enemy - the North Vietnamese. His overtures to North Vietnam (not to mention to China and the Soviet Union) made the governments of the West very nervous. Even Sihanouk's own ministers, who were steadfastly anti-Vietnamese, privately balked at the idea of acquiescing to Ho Chi Minh.

In Washington DC, the number of Sihanouk critics seemed to increase every day. Richard Nixon, who as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president had met the prince on a trip to Phnom Penh, described Sihanouk as "flighty." Nixon went on to say, "He seemed prouder of his musical talents than of his political leadership, and he appeared to me to be totally unrealistic about the problems his country faced." (Shawcross, p 51) But it was more than Sihanouk's eccentric personality that gave US foreign policymakers much pause. Following the end of World War II, policymakers within the corridors of the US State Department began to embrace what would eventually become known as domino theory, which held that weak governments in a given geographical area were easily susceptible to communism once communists had achieved a foothold nearby. If a young but powerful communist country could cause one weak nation to fall, others would surely follow. The theory had proven true in post-WWII Eastern Europe and the Balkans; by 1947 both Greece and Turkey were threatened by expanding communist insurgencies. But a new US policy known as the Truman Doctrine financially backed the Greek and Turkish struggles against communism. In his famous 1947 speech, President Harry Truman successfully convinced Congress to fund these Balkan nations with $400 million in assistance. To quote Truman:

"To ensure the peaceful development of nations, free from coercion, the United States has taken a leading part in establishing the United Nations. The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose on them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States."
Thanks in large part to this assistance, Greece and Turkey's containment of communism proved to be a success. Similarly, in 1948 the United States committed to over $12 billion dollars in assistance to the war-ravaged nations of Western Europe. In what became known as the Marshall Plan, this massive aid program attempted to rebuild Europe as a preemptive strike against the spread of fledgling communist movements. General George Marshall called on America to "do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace." Both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan became cornerstones of US foreign policy in Europe - communism would be contained in the West.

Now the United States feared the domino theory had come into play in Southeast Asia. The signs were all there: soon after China's 1947 communist revolution they began to support Ho Chi Minh's nationalist ambitions in Vietnam. Though many observers saw Ho as being a nationalist first and a communist second, China's overtures made it all the more easy for him to espouse communism as the answer to the national struggle. China's conversion to communism was scary enough for US officials - the thought of Vietnam following suit inspired an ugly premonition: if a united Vietnam became communist, Laos and Cambodia would fall with it; other Southeast Asian nations from Thailand to Indonesia would become even more vulnerable. Worse-case scenarios of a communist India or Australia fell into place quite easily thanks to the logic of domino theory. As far as the United States was concerned, South Vietnam would become the bulwark for Western capitalism and democracy; Ho Chi Minh's aspirations for a united communist Vietnam would not be tolerated.

In the grand scheme of Asian domino theory, the former Indochina colonies - including Cambodia - were considered a collective domino waiting to topple; understandably, Sihanouk's subsequent public courtship with communist leaders angered many American politicians. Unfortunately neither the US nor Sihanouk himself was very successful at burying the hatchet, so political tensions would rise on a reoccurring basis. For example, Sihanouk often complained that US officials would treat him like a child during private diplomatic meetings, chastising him on how he ran his affairs. Sihanouk would then respond in kind with bombastic anti-US rhetoric that would infuriate the Americans. And in 1959, when Sihanouk successfully quashed an anti-royalist uprising in Siem Reap province, he blamed the entire incident on a CIA-supported attempt to overthrow him. Yet despite the tempestuousness of their relationship, the US managed to support Cambodia with financial aid. These funds built up Cambodian infrastructure and encouraged Sihanouk to stick with Washington's agenda. Some of his ministers, including a frail but well-connected general named Lon Nol, became friendly with the US thanks to the steady flow of economic aid.

In 1963, unpopular South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was murdered in a coup that was tacitly supported by the US. Sihanouk was furious with what he saw as the United States' arrogant interference in Asia's local affairs, so he refused further aid and ordered the US embassy staff out of Cambodia. In numerous public diatribes he levied charges that the US was still supporting Son Ngoc Thanh, the once-popular anti-monarchist partisan whom he personally despised. Privately, Lon Nol and other pro-US ministers were uncomfortable with Sihanouk's turn against the US, yet they knew they were in no position to do much about it. And in what may have been an attempt to send positive signals to China and North Vietnam, Sihanouk announced he would nationalize much of the country's industrial infrastructure, declaring himself an ardent socialist and a crusader against Western imperialism.

Meanwhile a new war between North and South Vietnam escalated. The French were long gone from the scene, so American presidents Kennedy and Johnson successively supplied a growing stream of military advisors to aid South Vietnam's Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). ARVN, a poorly commanded and often corrupt fighting force, was up against two deadly foes: the North Vietnam Army (NVA), the North's regular army, and the Viet Cong (VC), an intricate guerrilla network of armed South Vietnamese citizens who supported Hanoi's fight for reunification with the South.

As early as 1965, Prince Sihanouk quietly tolerated small VC/NVA camps inside the Cambodian border. Because Cambodia was internationally regarded as neutral, both North and South Vietnam were supposed to respect its borders. But the communists gambled that they could take advantage of Sihanouk's military weakness and hide in Cambodian forests along the border. If the United States ever discovered the intrusion, the communists bet that President Johnson wouldn't have the stomach for a fight in a neutral, noncombatant country (though it should be noted that the US had no such aversion to engaging in a secret war in neutral Laos, where North Vietnamese troop movements were more flagrant). Sihanouk knew he couldn't afford to make Hanoi an enemy, so he never raised a significant protest against these border incursions. Similarly, China forced him to open up his southern port city of Sihanoukville to clandestine supply smuggling to the Viet Cong, whose previous smuggling route along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos had been hampered by covert US bombing. Again, Sihanouk did not protest, despite his private distaste for the communists. At least in the case of the Sihanoukville smuggling operation there was serious money to be made, so in order to placate his pro-US ministers, Sihanouk allowed them to take a piece of the concessions. These illicit profits gave these ministers and the Cambodian armed forces an early taste of the rampant corruption that would later erode military discipline to the breaking point.

As US intelligence received reports of communist supply movements within Cambodian territory, the CIA began to recruit Vietnamese of ethnic Cambodian descent - the Khmer Krom - to infiltrate the border and stop the flow of shipments. The CIA often brought in Son Ngoc Thanh, himself a Krom, to recruit volunteers. These search-and-destroy missions, as fate would have it, were not very successful; in fact, they may have encouraged more VC and NVA units to cross into Cambodia to protect their operations. American military officials became more and more fed up with Cambodia's growing infection. US General William Westmoreland encouraged decisive action, including a full-scale invasion of Cambodia, but President Johnson refused, for he was convinced he could turn Sihanouk towards complete cooperation with the US without bringing Cambodia into the war.

As the war increased in Vietnam and Laos, Sihanouk's politics started to swing to the right. More and more members of the Sangkum were anti-Sihanouk conservatives, which forced the prince to work with them in order to maintain power. In 1966 he appointed a more conservative government and he ordered Lon Nol to crush a leftist uprising in Battambang province, which he did with ruthless success. The violence of the uprising was the final straw for many of the remaining left-wing politicians, including Khieu Samphan. Khieu and other leftists joined their colleagues in the wilderness, who had fled for their safety several years earlier. For many years, though, Khieu Samphan was believed to be dead, a victim of a bloody Sihanouk purge.

Increased US operations in 1967 forced more NVA over the Cambodian border. Sihanouk was becoming more nervous every day, worried by both this troop escalation and the growing violence emanating from the Cultural Revolution in China. Concluding he had little alternative, Sihanouk again began to make overtures to the US. It was classic Sihanouk as he managed to lecture US officials about their involvement in Vietnam while asking to do business with them if they would recognize Cambodia's borders. Soon enough the money began to flow, and President Johnson promised the US would recognized Cambodia's neutrality and integrity. This policy would remain in place until the inauguration of President Richard Nixon in January 1969.

Next: Nixon's War: The Bombings

From Sideshow to Genocide: Copyright 1999 by Andy Carvin. All Rights Reserved.