The US’s Secret War in Cambodia, during the Vietnam War.
Above Photo: US choppers in the Parrot’s Beak area of Cambodia. Note the bomb craters in the foreground. (© Jim Wilson 229thavbn.com)
During the 1960s and 1970s, as America fought the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong (I’ll call them collectively ‘NVA’ here) in Vietnam, the NVA invaded Laos and Cambodia to extend and protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail, their supply corridor, that ran for thousands of miles through mountains and dense jungle in both countries. This was in breach of all international agreements and treaties about the supposed neutrality of both countries, but it happened anyway.
The Trail had first been used in the war against the French, but it was materially upgraded and extended by the North Vietnamese, because they realised how important it would be in resupplying their troops in South Vietnam in this latest struggle.
By the mid-to-late 1960s, the amount of NVA troops and war material being trafficked down the Trail was having a serious impact on the US’s war effort in South Vietnam, and they felt they needed to do something about it.
It wasn’t just the Trail (called the Sihanouk Trail inside Cambodia) that was causing a problem to the US in Cambodia. NVA supplies were also moving across Cambodia from the sea to the eastern jungle. This was because Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had agreed to allow China and North Vietnam to use the port of Sihanoukville for the delivery of military supplies to the NVA base camps in the jungle on the Vietnamese border. He had also agreed that the NVA could set up and use these jungle bases without interference, to help their war effort in South Vietnam.
These supplies were loaded onto trucks in Sihanoukville and then driven to the eastern jungle and the base camps of the NVA, before onward transmission down the Sihanouk Trail into South Vietnam.
There were two particularly dangerous points on the Sihanouk Trail for the US in South Vietnam, places known as the Fishhook and the Parrot’s Beak, in slivers of Cambodian territory thrusting deep into South Vietnam (see map). From here the NVA poured weapons, soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam to fight the US and the South Vietnamese armies, and then to attack Saigon.
The US was unhappy. It was nervous about invading Cambodia as that would herald a serious escalation in the war, but it was becoming apparent that Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk and especially the NVA base camps, rest areas and arms caches along the Sihanouk Trail and the supplies coming through Sihanoukville port needed to be dealt with.
Cambodian Incursions by US Soldiers
In the 1960s the US began top secret Special Forces reconnaissance missions to the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails, led by people like Jim Bolen, who has written extensively on this site about his SOG team’s missions inside Cambodia in the late 1960s.
They, and other SOG commando teams, were dropped by helicopter inside the Cambodian jungle, far behind enemy lines, and then made their way to the Sihanouk Trail to report back on what they saw. Where possible, they destroyed NVA supplies and communications systems along the Trail, and attempted to capture prisoners for interrogation about NVA troop movements, base areas and other useful intelligence.
Later in the war, the US either led or supported South Vietnamese invasions of Cambodia along the eastern border to strike at NVA base camps and large weapons caches, something they did with some success towards the end, as they tried to weaken the NVA before the US left Saigon to be defended only by the South Vietnamese Army.
At this stage of the war, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, was just another freedom-fighting Asian Communist organisation, similar to the Pathet Lao in Laos, but less structured, and they were yet to show any signs of their later genocidal tendencies. For now they were fighting side by side with the NVA in the eastern jungles of Cambodia.
The US-backed incursions and bombing (see below) along the eastern border of Cambodia meant the NVA and the Khmer Rouge gradually moved deeper into Cambodia to avoid losses, set-piece encounters and costly battles with the US army and their allies, which had the unfortunate consequence of allowed these groups to seize even more Cambodian territory.
Right at the end of their involvement in the war, as US forces moved deeper into the border region, they discovered enormous caches of NVA weapons and supplies along the Cambodian border, which I’ll write about in later posts.
They handed most of the discovered weaponry to the Cambodian army, but it didn’t help them much, and nor did it blunt the military capabilities of the NVA in South Vietnam. Or the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, for that matter.
The US Bombing of Cambodia
The US had secretly started bombing eastern Cambodia from the early 1960s, escalating in 1969 to carpet bombing with B-52s in Cambodia’s eastern jungle and along the Sihanouk Trail, as the threat posed by the NVA and their supply route increased.
Because of increased NVA attacks in South Vietnam, President Nixon ordered the carpet bombing of eastern Cambodia, initially to strike at NVA base areas in the jungle, which were known about, all along the Cambodian border with South Vietnam.
This bombing campaign was kept highly secret in the US and in Asia. It was effectively illegal under US law, because it was unauthorized by Congress, and Sihanouk himself wasn’t informed, although he might by then have agreed to it, as he’d begun to realize the NVA weren’t as easy to contain or control once he’d let them into his country.
A US-friendly Cambodian general called Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk in 1970. Although he was pro-American, surprisingly, there appears to be no smoking gun evidence of CIA involvement in his ascent to power. When Lon Nol took over, he closed Sihanoukville Port to the Chinese and NVA and began fighting the NVA in eastern Cambodia, although with little impact overall, as the NVA and the Khmer Rouge were by then well-entrenched.
I recently met a former Khmer Rouge fighter who laughed when he remembered fighting Lon Nol’s forces in Ratanakiri Province during this time, when they came up the Sesan River by boat but ended up fleeing into the jungle. He thought they were lazy, cowardly, badly led and stupid.
As I mentioned earlier, at this time the Khmer Rouge were just another largely rag-tag Communist rebel band of insurgents fighting against a right wing government. They had yet to morph into the genocidal maniacs of later years.
Pol Pot described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas . . . scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”
Many believe the US carpet bombing of Cambodia assisted in the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Years after the war ended, a journalist asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit Do replied:
“Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched . . . . The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them. . . . Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”
There is no doubt that the US bombing of Cambodian towns, jungles and farmland swelled Khmer Rouge numbers, but I was surprised when I spoke to many former Khmer Rouge fighters in eastern Cambodia, who said the massive rise in Khmer Rouge numbers came when Prince Sihanouk was deposed by Lon Nol, which led to thousands of recruits flocking to the Khmer Rouge to fight for their Prince, who had by now also fled to the eastern jungle and joined forces with the Khmer Rouge.
Referring to the bombing of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger said in an interview, long after the US had pulled out of Saigon, that:
“People usually refer to the bombing of Cambodia as if it had been unprovoked, secretive U.S. action. The fact is that we were bombing North Vietnamese troops that had invaded Cambodia, that were killing many Americans from these sanctuaries, and we were doing it with the acquiescence of the Cambodian government, which never once protested against it, and which, indeed, encouraged us to do it.”
“I may have a lack of imagination, but I fail to see the moral issue involved and why Cambodian neutrality should apply to only one country. Why is it moral for the North Vietnamese to have 50,000 to 100,000 troops in Cambodia, why should we let them kill Americans from that territory, and why, when the government concerned never once protested, and indeed told us that if we bombed unpopulated areas that they would not notice, why in all these conditions is there a moral issue?”
Unfortunately, not every bomb dropped in the bombing of Cambodia landed in an unpopulated area, and I recently travelled to a formerly big provincial town called Lumphat in Ratanakiri Province, that had been totally obliterated by the bombing, and which has never been properly rebuilt.
Data released by the Clinton Administration showed that between 1965 and 1973, 2,756,941 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia.
To put that tonnage into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II, including the Atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history, and estimates suggest that up to 30% of this ordnance remains unexploded in the jungles and rice fields of eastern Cambodia and elsewhere around the country.
While the number of victims will always be guesswork, conservative estimates put Cambodian civilian casualties at a minimum of 100,000, with 2,000,000 Cambodians made homeless.
The final phase of the bombing of Cambodia came in 1973, when the US began carpet bombing populated areas around Phnom Penh. This was to stop the Khmer Rouge’s advance on the Cambodian capital and other areas of the country where the Khmer Rouge had gained a foothold, as the US now found itself heavily engaged in supporting the weak and hated government of Lon Nol, in a bitter Cambodian civil war.
Eventually, Lon Nol’s regime became completely dependent upon massive amounts of American aid, air support and resupply, as his hold on Cambodia slipped to being only in control of Phnom Penh and Preah Vihear Temple in the north of Cambodia.
As his troops ran out of ammunition and resolve, Lon Nol became increasingly dependent on the advice of fortune tellers. At one point during a Khmer Rouge assault on Phnom Penh, he was said to have sprinkled a circular line of consecrated sand in order to defend the city.
On 1 April 1975, he resigned and fled the country.
On the 17th April, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh – and the rest is genocidal history.
For a modern-day take on POWs/MIAs still missing from the Vietnam War and Adventure Backpackers in the jungles of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, see the trailer for our latest film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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