Nixon’s War 13

The French had set up the eighteen-year-old Sihanouk as their pup¬pet ruler in 1941, when they controlled Cambodia as a colonial pro¬tectorate, and they felt a special responsibility for him. Now, after his overthrow, they began to ponder the possibility of an international initiative to reinstall him in Phnompenh. There was a precedent for the idea. In 1964, the major powers had acted in concert to reinstate Prince Souvanna Phouma, prime minister of Laos, who had been toppled by an army colonel. The French now suggested the Cam¬bodian problem be considered at a new version of the Geneva Con¬ference of 1954^ which had confirmed Cambodia’s independence. Some French officials even envisioned the expansion of such a meeting to discuss peace for Vietnam.
Both the North and South Vietnamese regimes, reluctant to allow other nations to dictate their fate, promptly rejected the proposal. By contrast, the idea struck a chord in Britain, which with the Soviet Union had served as cochairman of the earlier Geneva conclave. Neg¬ative noises emanated from the Kremlin, but a positive response was advanced by the Polish foreign minister, Stefan Jedrychowski, an oblique signal that the Soviets were not totally averse to the notion. The Chinese ambassador had stayed on in Phnompenh, also a hint that the Chinese might be receptive to an accommodation.
In Washington, meanwhile, senior State Department figures urged flexibility. Marshall Green, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, recommended that the French proposal be explored—or, in any case, that military moves that would impede American troop withdrawals from Vietnam be avoided. Secretary of State William Rogers was equally prudent. On March 23, he assured reporters of America’s respect for “the neutrality, sovereignty and independence” of Cambodia, adding that events there “will not cause the war to be widened in any way.” Melvin Laird, as usual sensitive to American public opinion, also championed restraint.
Sihanouk, by now in Beijing, characteristically zigzagged. One of his first gestures was to see an old acquaintance, Ambassador Etienne Manac’h of France, in an effort to keep his lines open to the West. But shortly afterward, his regal pride affronted by the Lon Nol re¬gime’s vulgar attacks against himself and his family, he publicly an¬nounced the creation of a coalition with his former Communist foes to “liberate our motherland.” Years later, after the Khmer Rouge had killed several of his children, he still justified his impetuous political decision as having been a personal necessity. His soprano voice rising emotionally, he told me: “I had to avenge myself against Lon Nol. He was my minister, my officer, and he betrayed me.”
Cambodia was being convulsed by anarchy in late March 1970. Rival Cambodian gangs were hacking each other to pieces, in some instances celebrating their prowess by eating the hearts and livers of their victims. Cambodian vigilantes organized by police and other officials were murdering local Vietnamese, including women and in¬fants. North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops and their Khmer Rouge confederates were pushing the Cambodian army back into the interior as South Vietnamese units covertly penetrated the border areas ac¬companied by their U.S. advisers—despite a Pentagon directive pro¬hibiting Americans from crossing the boundary. The hapless Lon Nol, realizing that he had unleashed the furies, decried all foreign intrusion and asserted Cambodia’s “strict neutrality.” Then, reversing himself on April 14, he broadcast a desperate appeal for outside help. American officials in Phnompenh had prompted the plea as a device to lend legitimacy to a forthcoming U.S. step. For Nixon had secretly decided to aid Lon Nol a month earlier—indeed, even before Sihanouk had been overthrown.
The complicated and often confused machinations that went on inside the Nixon administration during that period have not been— and may never be—fully clarified. Kissinger has noted, however, that “historians rarely do justice to the psychological stress on a policy¬maker,” and Nixon’s mood at the time was certainly a factor. He was more than usually tense, defiant, isolated. The Senate had just enraged him by rejecting in succession two of his candidates for a vacant Supreme Court seat. He was infuriated by press revelations of a covert American bombing campaign against the Communists in Laos, whose “neutrality” the United States theoretically honored. His testiness was also aggravated when Kissinger returned from a first unsuccessful round of secret talks in Paris with Le Due Tho, the new high-ranking North Vietnamese negotiator. And, among other challenges to his authority, there was Cambodia. Much has been made of his infatuation then with the film Patton, starring George C. Scott as the lonely, stubborn, aggressive general whose daring risks had won decisive battles in World War II. Nixon watched the movie again and again, and he made his aides watch it with him, pointing out to them with admiration Patton’s disregard for his critics.
But more tangible motives also propelled Nixon toward Cambodia. With the Communists swiftly closing in on Phnompenh, he feared that the whole country would “go down the drain” unless he acted. General Abrams and other senior officers were warning him as well that another large U.S. troop withdrawal, imperative for domestic political reasons, would jeopardize the American forces remaining in South Vietnam unless the enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia could be eliminated. Nor had Nixon abandoned his original belief that a spec¬tacular manifestation of American power would, by showing the North Vietnamese leaders that “we were still serious about our com¬mitment in Vietnam,” drive them to an acceptable compromise at the conference table. Nevertheless, he edged toward direct American in¬tervention gradually—and deceptively.

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