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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Nixon's War:
The American Bombing Begins

"There are no American combat troops in Cambodia. There are no American combat advisers in Cambodia. There will be no American combat troops or advisers in Cambodia. We will aid Cambodia. Cambodia is the Nixon doctrine in its purest form...." - President Richard M. Nixon, November 1971

On February 9, 1969, US military intelligence reports suggested there was a significant NVA base just inside Cambodia - the Central Office for South Vietnam, Headquarters, or COSVN HQ as it was known. General Creighton Abrahms, commander of US forces in Vietnam, was confident that a series of precision B-52 bomber strikes would do the job of eliminating the base, assuming he could convince the new Nixon administration to go along with him. B-52s airstrikes were one of the most lethal non-nuclear forms of attack in the Air Force's arsenal, as they could be used to carpet bomb large swaths of land, targeted in "boxes" of approximately two miles by one half mile square. In a memo to General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Creighton argued

"(t)here is little likelihood of involving Cambodian nationals if the target boxes are placed carefully. Total bomber exposure over Cambodian territory would be less than one minute per sortie." (Shawcross, p20)

The idea was pitched to Nixon, who quickly approved the bombing with the assistance of his national security advisor Henry Kissinger. The first airstrikes were set for March, barely one month after the initial intelligence reports. In honor of the breakfast meeting at the Pentagon that led to Nixon's approval of the strike, the assault was codenamed Operation Breakfast.

As suggested by Kissenger, Nixon ordered that the attacks occur in secret, and all attempts to expose the bombing should be stopped. General Wheeler informed his staff:

"In the event press inquiries are received following the execution of the Breakfast Plan as to whether or not US B-52s have struck in Cambodia, US spokesman will confirm that B-52s did strike on routine missions adjacent to the Cambodian border but state that he has no details and will look into the question." (Shawcross, p22)

On the 9th of March, 48 boxes - approximately 48 square miles of Cambodian territory - were carpet bombed for Breakfast.

Over the course of the next 14 months, the US conducted 3630 B-52 bombing raids in Cambodian territory. Each major operation followed on a tradition set out by Breakfast; subsequent plans included Operations Lunch, Snack, Dinner, Dessert, Supper. It had taken a change of presidential administrations to start these attacks, but once the bombing began, a new routine of escalation fell into place. As William Shawcross explains in his seminal work Sideshow, "(O)nce the decision had been made in principle that Communist violations of Cambodia's neutrality justified aggressive reciprocal action, it was not difficult to repeat the performance." (Shawcross, p 26) And to this day, there is still debate whether Sihanouk himself approved of the bombing of his own territory; Sihanouk denies it entirely, while Kissinger has stated otherwise. In a sense, though, it didn't matter whether Sihanouk approved it or not, for as was the case with Hanoi's initial placement of troops inside Cambodia, Sihanouk lacked the military might to prevent it.

So either with or without the permission of Sihanouk, the US continued to bomb NVA and VC targets within Cambodia. The Nixon administration was morally quite comfortable with the decision; as Henry Kissinger has stated, "It was not a bombing of Cambodia, but it was a bombing of North Vietnamese in Cambodia." (Shawcross, p 28) Yet they still demanded secrecy, fearing the press would use it as a tool against them. Surprisingly, very little information was mentioned publicly - in April and May of that year there were several small references in the press concerning bombings over the border, but for whatever reason it wasn't considered a major story. Despite the relative success of the administration's news moratorium, Henry Kissinger was livid because of the minor breech. He concluded the story had been leaked by Mort Halperin, an aide on the National Security Council staff. In retribution, Kissinger removed Halperin from the loop and successfully arranged FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap Halperin's home. The Halperin tap was the first of many administration-sanctioned, illegal wiretaps that helped bring down the Nixon presidency.

Yet despite the months of airstrikes, the bombings did little to curb NVA activities. On the contrary, communist forces crept further and further into Cambodia. The US bombers followed suit. Significant populations of Cambodian peasants were now at risk, though no one knows how many of them were killed during the campaign. And the Khmer Rouge, previously a weak guerrilla force run by disenfranchised leftist politicians, grew in the wake of the bombings, as each attack on Cambodian land legitimized their virulent hatred of Sihanouk. They would still need more fighters and weapons if they ever wanted to rule Cambodia, but at least the bombings reinforced the Khmer Rouge's taste for violence. The war in Cambodia was escalating, spiraling out of control. Sihanouk, whose greatest evidence of his mandate from heaven was that he had kept his people out of the war, no longer had the right to that claim. His days were numbered.

Next: The Coup

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