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dependent upon and allied with the United States”suddenly closed their borders. It was
a serious move, for the bulk of Cambodia's traffic with the outside world at that time
passed either along the Mekong River through South Vietnam or by railway through
Thailand.
The danger to the tiny kingdom was heightened by repeated military
provocations. Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory and CIA-financed irregulars


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began to make commando raids from South Vietnam. Deep intrusions were made into
Cambodian air space by planes based in the two countries.
To Sihanouk, these actions "looked more and more like preliminary softening-up
probes" for his overthrow. He chose to thrust matters out into the open. At a press
conference he scolded the US, defended Cambodia's policy of neutrality, and announced
that the whole question would be on the agenda of his party's upcoming national
congress- There was the implication that Cambodia would turn to the socialist bloc for
aid.
The United States appeared to retreat in the face of this unorthodox public
diplomacy. The State Department sent a couple of rather conciliatory messages which
nullified a threatened cut-off of certain economic aid and included this remarkable piece
of altruism: "The only aim of American policy to Cambodia is to help her strengthen
and defend her independence." Two days before the national congress convened,
Thailand and South Vietnam opened their frontiers. The local disputes which the two
countries had cited as the reasons for the blockade had not been resolved at all.2
The measures taken against Cambodia were counter-productive. Not only did
Sihanouk continue to attack SEATO, but he established relations with the Soviet Union
and Poland and accepted aid from China. He praised the latter lavishly for treating
Cambodia as an equal and for providing aid without all the strings which, he felt, came
attached to American aid.3
Such behavior should not obscure the fact that Sihanouk was as genuine a
neutralist as one could be in such a highly polarized region of the world in the midst of
the cold war. He did not shy away from denouncing China, North Vietnam or
communism on a number of occasions when he felt that Cambodia's security or
neutrality was being threatened. "I foresee perfectly well," he said at one time, "the
collapse of an independent and neutral Cambodia after the complete triumph of
Communism in Laos and South Vietnam.'"1
In May 1957, a National Security Council (NSC| paper acknowledged that "the
United States has been unable to influence Cambodia in the direction of a stable [i.e.,
pro-Western] government and non-involvement in the communist bloc."5
The following year, five battalions of Saigon troops, supported by aircraft,
crossed the Cambodian border again, penetrated to a depth of almost 10 miles and
began putting up new boundary markers. Sihanouk's impulse was to try and repel the
invaders but, to his amazement, he was informed by the American Ambassador to
Cambodia, Carl Strom, that US military aid was provided, exclusively for the purpose
of opposing "communist aggression" and in no case could be used against an American
ally. The ambassador cautioned that if a single bullet were fired at the South
Vietnamese or a single US-supplied, truck used to transport Cambodian troops to a
military confrontation with them, this would constitute grounds for canceling aid.6
Ambassador Strom was called back to Washington, told that Sihanouk would
now have to go and that US aid would be cut off to precipitate his fall. Strom, however,
did not think that this was the wisest move to make at that point and was able to
convince the State Department to hold off for the time being."
William Shawcross, in his elaborately-researched book, Sideshow: Kissinger,
Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, notes that "NSC papers of the period cited in
the Pentagon papers confirm that Washington saw Thai and Vietnamese pressure across
the borders as one of the principal weapons to be used in an effort to move Sihanouk
toward a more pro-American position."8
In addition to Thai and South Vietnamese troops, the CIA had at its disposal two
other forces, the Khmer Serei and the Khmer Krom, composed largely of ethnic


134
Cambodians opposed to Sihanouk's rule, who operated out of the two neighboring
countries. The Khmer Serei ("Free Cambodians") were described by Shawcross as the
"Cambodian organization with which American officials had had the closest contact".9
Sihanouk once equated them to the "free" Cubans the United States maintained in
Florida.10
These forces”recruited, financed, armed and trained by the CIA and the US
Special Forces (Green Berets)11”began to infiltrate into Cambodia in the latter part of
1958 as part of a complex conspiracy which included, amongst others, a disloyal
Cambodian general named Dap Chhuon who was plotting an armed uprising inside the
country. At its most optimistic, the conspiracy aimed at overthrowing Sihanouk.
Sihanouk discovered the plan, partly through reports from Chinese and French
intelligence. The French were not happy about the American intrusion into what had
been their domain for close to a century.
By February 1959 the conspirators had been apprehended or had fled, including
Victor Masao Matsui, a member of the CIA station in Cambodia's capital city Phnom
Penh, who hurriedly left the country after Sihanouk accused him of being a party to the
plot. Matsui, an American of Japanese descent, had been operating under State
Department cover as an attache at the embassy.
The intrigue, according to Sihanouk, began in September 1958 at a SEATO
meeting in Thailand and was carried a step further later that month in New York when
he visited the United Nations. While Sihanouk was away in Washington for a few days,
a member of his delegation, Slat Peou, held several conferences with Americans in his
New York hotel room which he did not mention to any of his fellow delegates. Slat
Peou, it happened, was a close friend of Victor Matsui and was the brother of General
Dap Chhuon. In the aftermath of the aborted conspiracy, Slat Peou was executed for
treason.12 Sihanouk was struck by the bitter irony of the CIA plotting against him in
New York while he was in Washington being honored by President Eisenhower with a
21-gun salute.13
In a similar vein, several years later President Kennedy assured Sihanouk "on his
honour" that the United States had played no role in the affairs of the Khmer Serei. "I
considered President Kennedy to be an honourable man," wrote Sihanouk, "but, in that
case, who really represented the American government?"14
CIA officer (later Director) William Colby, stationed in Vietnam at the time of
the Dap Chhuon plot, has written that the Agency was well aware of the plot and had
recruited someone on Dap Chhuon's staff and furnished him with a radio with which to
keep the CIA informed. The Agency wanted to be kept informed, Colby asserts, in order
to "dissuade the Thai and Vietnamese" from overthrowing Sihanouk. Colby adds:

Unfortunately, in putting down the coup, Sihanouk had captured our agent and his
radio. And, not unnaturally, he drew the conclusion that CIA was one of the
participants, and that the gold and arms furnished from Bangkok and Saigon to be
used against him were only part of the over-ail plot of which the radio was a key
element.15

The Cambodian leader has attested to several other plots he lays at the doorstep
of the CIA. Amongst these was a 1959 effort to murder him which was foiled when the
police picked a nervous young man, Rat Vat by name, out of a crowd surrounding
Sihanouk. He was found to be carrying a hand grenade and a pistol. Investigation
showed, writes Sihanouk, that the would-be assassin was instigated by the CIA and the
Khmer Serei. Sihanouk also cites three incidents occurring in 1963: an attempt to blow
up a car carrying him and the visiting president of China, Liu Shao Chi; an attempt to


135
smuggle arms into Cambodia in a number of crates addressed to the US Embassy; and a
partially successful venture aimed at sabotaging the Cambodian economy and
subverting key government personnel through the setting up of a bank in Phnom Penh.16
On 20 November of the same year, two days before the assassination of John F.
Kennedy, the Cambodian National Congress, at Sihanouk's initiative, vote to "end all
aid granted by the United States in the military, economic, technical and cultural fields".
It was perhaps without precedent that a country receiving American aid voluntarily
repudiated it. But Sihanouk held strong feelings on the subject. Over the years he had
frequently recited from his register of complaints about American aid to Cambodia: how
it subverted and corrupted Cambodian officials and businessmen who wound up
"constituting a clientele necessarily obedient to the demands of the lavish bestower of
foreign funds"; and how the aid couldn't be used for state institutions, only private
enterprise, nor, as mentioned earlier, used against attacks by US allies.17
After some American bombings of Cambodian villages near the South Vietnam
border in pursuit of North Vietnamese and Vietcong, the Cambodian government, in
October 1964, announced that "in case of any new violation of Cambodian territory by
US ground, air, or naval forces, Cambodia will immediately sever diplomatic relations
with the United States". The government did just that the following May when
American planes bombarded several villages, killing or wounding dozens of peasants.18
The pattern over the next few years, as the war in Indochina intensified, was one
of repeated forays into Cambodian territory by American, Saigon and Khmer Serei
forces in search of Communist supply lines and sanctuaries along the Ho Chi Minh
Trail; bombing and strafing, napalming, and placing land mines, with varying numbers
of Cambodian civilian casualties; angry accusations by the Cambodian government,
followed on occasion by an American apology, promise of an investigation, and the
taking of "measures to prevent any recurrence of such incidents".19
Sihanouk did not at all relish the intrusions into Cambodia by the Vietnamese
Communists, nor was he wholly or consistently antagonistic to American pursuit of
them, particularly when there was no loss of Cambodian lives. On at least one occasion
he disclosed the location of Communist bases which were promptly bombed by the US.
However, Sihanouk then went on the radio and proceeded to denounce the bombings.20
Opportunist that he often revealed himself to be, Sihanouk was nonetheless truly caught
between the devil and the deep blue sea, and by the late 1960s his predicament had
compelled him to resume American aid and re-establish diplomatic relations with the
United States.
Despite all the impulsiveness of his personality and policies, Sihanouk's
neutralist high-wire balancing act did successfully shield his country from the worst of
the devastation that was sweeping through the land and people of Vietnam and Laos.
Cambodia had its own Communist insurgents, the Khmer Rouge, who surely would
have unleashed a full-scale civil war if faced with a Cambodian government nestled
comfortably in the American camp. This is precisely what later came to pass following
the overthrow of Sihanouk and his replacement by Lon Nol who was closely tied to the
United States.
In March 1969, the situation began to change dramatically. Under the new
American president, Richard Nixon, and National Security Affairs adviser Henry
Kissinger, the isolated and limited attacks across the Cambodian border became
sustained, large-scale B-52 bombings”"carpet bombings", in the euphemistic language
so dear to the hearts of military men.
Over the next 14 months, no less than 3,630 B-52 bombing raids were flown
over Cambodia.21 To escape the onslaught, the Vietnamese Communists moved their


136
bases further inside the country. The B-52s of course followed, with a concomitant
increase in civilian casualties.
The Nixon administration artfully played down the nature and extent of these
bombings, going so far as to falsify military records, and was largely successful in
keeping it all a secret from the American public, the press and Congress.22 Not until
1973, in the midst of the Watergate revelations, did a fuller story begin to emerge.
It was frequently argued that the United States had every right to attack
Cambodia because of its use as a sanctuary by America's foes in Vietnam. Apropos of
this claim, William Shawcross has pointed out that:

During the Algerian war of independence the United States rejected France's
claimed right to attack a Tunisian town inhabited by Algerian guerrillas, and in
1964 Adlai Stevenson, at the U.N., condemned Britain for assaulting a Yemeni
town used as a base by insurgents attacking Aden. Even Israel had frequently
been criticized by the United States for attacks on enemy bases outside its
territory.23


On 18 Match 1970, Sihanouk, while on a trip abroad, was deposed as Head of
State by two of his leading ministers, Lon Nol and Sirik Matak. To what extent, if any,
the United States played a direct role in the coup has not been established, but there are
circumstances and testimony pointing to American complicity, among which are the
following:
• According to Frank Snepp, the CIA's principal political analyst in Vietnam at
this time, in early 1970 the Agency was cultivating both Lon Nol and Son Ngoc
Thanh, leader of the Khmer Serei, as possible replacements for Sihanouk. The
CIA believed, he says, that if Lon Nol came to power, "He would welcome the
United States with open arms and we would accomplish everything."24 (This,
presumably, meant carte blanche to wipe out Vietnamese Communist forces and
sanctuaries in Cambodia, as opposed to Sihanouk's extremely equivocal position
on the matter.) Both men, as matters turned out, served as prime minister in the
new government, for which diplomatic recognition was immediately forthcoming
from Washington.
• The United States could seemingly also rely on Sink Matak, a committed anti-
Communist who had been profiled by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence
Agency as "a friend of the West and ... co-operative with U.S. officials during the
1950s."25
• Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in his biographic work on Kissinger,
states chat Sihanouk's "immediate overthrow had been for years a high priority of
the Green Berets reconnaissance units operating inside Cambodia since the late
1960s, There is also incontrovertible evidence that Lon Nol was approached by
agents of American military intelligence in 1969 and asked to overthrow the
Sihanouk government. Sihanouk made similar charges in his 1973 memoir, My
War With The CIA, but they were not taken seriously then."26
• An opponent of Sihanouk, Prom Thos, who became a minister in the new
government, has said that whether Lon Nol had specific promises of American
help before the coup is unimportant: "We all just knew that the United States
would help us; there had been many stories of CIA approaches and offers before
then."27
• The CIA's intimate links to the conspiratorial circle are exemplified by an
Agency report prepared six days before the coup, entitled "Indications of Possible
Coup in Phnom Penh". It disclosed that anti-Communist demonstrations against
the Vietcong and North Vietnamese embassies in the capital the previous day had
been planned by Sirik Matak and Lon Nol as part of a showdown policy against
Sihanouk and his followers, and that the two men had put the army on alert "to
prepare ... for a coup against Sihanouk if Sihanouk refused to support" them.28




137
• General William Rosson, deputy to General Creighton Abrams, the Commander
of US Forces in Vietnam at the time, has declared that American commanders
were informed several days beforehand that a coup was being planned and that
United States support was solicited.29
• Roger Morris, who was serving under Henry Kissinger on the National Security
Council staff when the coup took place, reported that "It was clear in the White
House that the CIA station in Phnom Penh knew the plotters well, probably knew
their plans, and did nothing to alert Sihanouk. They informed Washington well in
advance of the coup. "30
• William Shawctoss asserts that had Sihanouk "returned quickly and calmly to
Phnom Penh [following the anti-communist demonstrations] he would most likely
have been able to avert disaster." That he did not do so may not have been by
chance. Frank Snepp has revealed that the CIA persuaded Sihanouk's mother, the
Queen, to send a message to her son abroad reassuring him that the situation was
not serious enough to warrant his return.31

With Sihanouk and his irritating neutralism no longer an obstacle, American
military wheels began to spin. Within hours of the coup, US and South Vietnam forces
stationed in border districts were directed to establish communication with Cambodian
commanders on the other side and take steps toward military co-operation. The next
day, the Cambodian army called in an American spotter plane and South Vietnamese
artillery during a sweep of a Vietcong sanctuary by a battalion of Cambodian troops
inside Cambodia. The New York Times declared that "The battle appeared to be the
most determined Cambodian effort yet to drive the Vietcong out of border areas."32 The
Great Cambodian War had begun. It was to persist for five terrible years.
The enemy confronting the United States and its Saigon and Phnom Penh allies
was now not simply the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. The Cambodian
Communists”the Khmer Rouge”under the leadership of Pol Pot, had entered the
conflict, as had sundry Cambodian supporters of Prince Sihanouk.
On 30 April 1970, the first full-scale American invasion of the new war was
launched. It produced a vast outcry of protest in the United States, rocking university
campuses from coast to coast. Perhaps the most extraordinary reaction was the angry
resignations of four men from Henry Kissinger's National Security Council staff,
including Roger Morris. (Kissinger labeled the resignations as "the cowardice of the
Eastern establishment".)33
By the end of May, scores of villages had been reduced to rubble and ashes by
US air power; the long train of Cambodian refugees had begun their march.
Three years and more than a hundred thousand tons of bombs later, 27 January
1973 to be precise, an agreement was signed in Paris putting an end to a decade of
American warfare in Vietnam. The bombing of Cambodia, however, continued.

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