Nixon’s War 12

Early in 1970, aware that the battlefield was deadlocked, the Com¬munists began to revamp their strategy. With Nixon under pressure at home to remove the GIs from Vietnam, time seemed to be on their side. Nevertheless, they faced grave uncertainties. The unpredictable Nixon might halt the U.S. troop withdrawals. Nor could they be sure of defeating the South Vietnamese army, which in any case would continue to be stiffened by American advisers, equipment and the formidable fleet of B-52 bombers. One possible option was to drop their demand that Thieu’s regime be dissolved and agree to some kind of political compromise with him. But they rejected that alternative because, as Foreign Minister Thach confided to me in 1981, they felt too weak to make such a concession. Instead, they retrenched by switching back to small operations, promising that the “protracted” struggle would eventually regain momentum.
Morale was a problem, especially among the southern Vietcong insurgents who had borne the brunt of the fighting only to be told that victory was still a distant dream. Thousands surrendered to the Saigon regime or simply returned to their native villages. The Viet- cong’s rural machinery had been badly damaged, either as a result of the Phoenix program or because peasant sympathizers fled to urban refugee camps to escape the horrendous American bombing of the countryside. The South Vietnamese government, realizing that U.S. troops would not remain in Vietnam forever, was also beginning to improve its “pacification” performance by promoting land reform and arming local militia. General Giap adapted to these developments as he planned ahead. He foresaw the war becoming, ultimately, a conventional conflict, with big divisions clashing in showdown bat¬tles. “Great strides” would be made, he wrote in January 1970, “only through regular war in which the main forces fight in a concentrated manner” (his italics).
While Nixon could not plausibly point to dramatic progress after a year in office, he was nevertheless moving in a fresh direction in Vietnam. The Communists had lost much of their steam, the South Vietnamese were showing signs of assuming responsibility for them¬selves, and he had repatriated more than a hundred thousand young Americans and promised to bring home another hundred and fifty thousand over the next year. But in the spring of 1970, determined to demonstrate his power, he plunged into a crazy sequence of events in Cambodia.
Prince Sihanouk’s charisma was fading. The Cambodian economy was in shambles, drained partly by his extravagances and the cupidity of his court, and also because his attempts to raise revenues by building hotels and a gambling casino had gone awry. Though the peasants still revered him as a devaraja, a god-king descended from the sacred serpent of the Mekong River, he had alienated the middle classes of Phnompenh, his capital. Envious of Saigon and Bangkok, flourishing on American dollars, they yearned to share in the wealth lavished by the United States on its Southeast Asian clients. The ragtag Cam¬bodian army was particularly disaffected. Senior Cambodian officers were nostalgic for the days before Sihanouk’s mercurial neutralism deprived them of American military aid. Along with the prime min¬ister, General Lon Nol, many of them had privately profited from shipping weapons and other supplies from the port of Sihanoukville to the North Vietnamese and Vietcong bases near the Vietnam border. But the lure of renewed U.S. assistance was more attractive, and they dreamed of shifting squarely into the American camp. Besides, their relations with the Vietnamese Communists had deteriorated.
Early in 1969, after Sihanouk acquiesced to the American bombing of their sanctuaries, the North Vietnamese had expected him to swing against them completely. They had been arming and training guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge—the Cambodian Communist movement—in North Vietnam. To exert pressure on Sihanouk, they infiltrated a Khmer Rouge force of some twelve thousand back into Cambodia, spurring an incipient civil war. As the tension mounted, so did Si¬hanouk’s denunciations of the Vietnamese Communists. But he and his top soldiers differed in their prescription for the dilemma. They believed, naively, that they could count on the United States to help them evict their hated neighbors. He believed, naively, that he could get them to quit his territory through diplomatic maneuvers.
But no crisis could deter Sihanouk from his annual “cure” for obes¬ity at a clinic on the Cote d’Azur. He departed for France in January 1970, complacently entrusting Cambodia to Lon Nol and the deputy prime minister, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, a cousin belonging to a rival royal clan. The two men, neither very brainy, blundered from the start by assuming that they could effectively crack down on the Vietnamese Communist presence in Sihanouk’s absence. Beginning in March, they exhorted Cambodian youths to sack the North Viet¬namese and Vietcong legations in Phnompenh and followed the riots with an ultimatum to the Vietnamese Communists to leave their re¬mote Cambodian bases. Soon Cambodian mobs were running amok, slaughtering innocent Vietnamese civilian residents in an explosion of primeval ethnic passion that portended horrors yet to come. Lon Nol and especially Sirik Matak, hoping to benefit from the chaos, now contemplated Sihanouk’s ouster. Allegations to the contrary, there is no firm evidence to substantiate the speculation that CIA agents encouraged them—though contacts with American operatives may have inspired their wishful thinking that the United States favored a coup d’etat.
In Paris at this juncture, Sihanouk erred. As he acknowledged later, he should have rushed home, where he could have deployed his im¬mense prestige and skill to reimpose his authority. But his mother warned him that danger awaited his return, and he chose instead to go to Moscow to enlist Soviet support to eject the North Vietnamese and Vietcong from Cambodia. Accomplishing nothing there, he de¬cided to fly to Beijing for the same purpose. On March 18, as they drove to the Moscow airport, Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin informed him that he had been deposed by his opponents that morn¬ing. Sihanouk had once observed Emperor Bao Dai on the Cote d’Azur, and the memory of the deposed ruler wasting in luxurious exile haunted him. Rather than seek a safe haven in France, he pro¬ceeded to China.

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