Nixon’s War 14

“We don’t anticipate that any request will be made,” replied Sec¬retary of State Rogers on March 23, when a reporter asked him whether the United States might grant military assistance to Lon Nol. But Rogers was excluded from the decisions being made at the White House. Six days earlier, on the eve of Sihanouk’s ouster, Kissinger had told Nixon that Lon Nol intended to enlarge the Cambodian army by ten thousand men. Two days later, with Sihanouk gone, Nixon instructed Kissinger to “get a plan to aid the new government.” Secret orders went out to the American mission in Saigon to furnish Lon Nol’s force with weapons captured from the Communists. Dissident Cambodian soldiers, trained by the Americans in Vietnam for clan¬destine operations in Cambodia, were flown to Phnompenh. To cut the State Department out of the picture further, Nixon directed the CIA to beef up its staff in the Cambodian capital.
By late April, different aides were giving Nixon different advice. General Abrams and his military colleagues in Saigon and Washington were predictably pressing for vigorous measures. Laid, by contrast, was worried. And Rogers, again thinking that he could speak for the administration, told a congressional subcommittee that the adminis¬tration had “no incentive to escalate” the war into Cambodia because that would jeopardize the Vietnamization program. Kissinger, at first ambivalent, shifted to adjust to Nixon’s hardening attitude. CIA an¬alysts, whose only function was to forecast, estimated that American and South Vietnamese infantry would be required to rescue Lon Nol, but however much an allied drive into Cambodia harmed the Com¬munists, “it probably would not prevent them from continuing the struggle.”
Anxiety pervaded Capitol Hill, where Senators Frank Church and John Sherman Cooper began to draft legislation to forbid American fighting men from entering Cambodia. On April 20, 1970, Nixon announced the withdrawal of another hundred and fifty thousand U.S. troops from Vietnam within a year—adding that “we finally have in sight the just peace we are seeking.” Two days later, at five o’clock in the morning, he dictated a memorandum to Kissinger declaring that “we need a bold move in Cambodia to show that we stand with Lon Nol.” Though Lon Nol might collapse anyway, “we must do something symbolic” for the only Cambodian regime in twenty-five years with “the guts to take a pro-Western and pro-American stand.”
The question was how to proceed. Laird, reconciled to Nixon’s determination to “do something,” tried to minimize the action. He suggested a foray against Communist bases in the “Parrot’s Beak,” a narrow Cambodian frontier area, to be conducted only by South Vi¬etnamese forces and their American advisers. The recommendation, as Nixon later described it, was “the most pusillanimous little nitpicker I ever saw.” He wanted to stage “the big play”—going for “all the marbles,” since he expected “a hell of an uproar at home” whatever he did. He indirectly encouraged General Abrams to propose inter¬vention by American combat units as well. Abrams broadened the targets to include sanctuaries in the “Fish Hook” border region, farther north, where he also claimed to have located the legendary Communist headquarters, COSVN. On Sunday night, April 26, Nixon decided to “go for broke” with the entire “package.”
Despite Nixon’s solicitude for Lon Nol, the Cambodian leader was neither consulted nor even informed in advance of the American proj¬ect to invade his country. To his dismay, he learned of the operation only after it had started from Lloyd Rives, head of the U.S. mission in Phnompenh—who himself had learned of it only from Nixon’s speech broadcast by the “Voice of America.” But the deeper issue revolved around Nixon’s constitutional prerogatives, a matter that in different guise was to spell his ultimate downfall. Lon Nol’s approval notwithstanding, it was doubtful if Nixon had the authority to broaden the war without congressional endorsement—just as it was doubtful that he had the power to begin, in secrecy, the bombing of Cambodia the year before. Almost as an afterthought, he assigned the task of preparing a legal justification to William Rehnquist, an assistant attorney general, who came up with the argument that the law man¬dated presidents to deploy troops “in conflict with foreign powers at their own initiative.”
Nor did Nixon seem to be conforming to the “doctrine” he had enunciated in Guam, which was to spare GIs from battles on alien soil. One of Nixon’s speech writers, William Safire, raised this point during a briefing session with Kissinger, who exploded: “We wrote the goddam doctrine, we can change it!”
Kissinger was under tremendous pressure. Several members of his staff, hostile to the Cambodian venture, were about to quit. He was concerned about his connections with Harvard, where antiwar fever ran high. At the same time, he had to appear belligerent to retain his place in Nixon’s inner circle. According to William Watts, one of his aides, Kissinger received a telephone call one evening during this pe¬riod from Nixon, who at critical moments frequently sought the com¬pany of his crony, Charles “Bebe” Rebozo. Nixon, sounding drunk, passed the telephone to Rebozo, who said: “The president wants you to know if this doesn’t work, Henry, it’s your ass.” Watts, who was monitoring the conversation for Kissinger, heard Nixon add in a slurred voice: “Ain’t that right, Bebe?”
Nixon unveiled the Cambodian “incursion” on the evening of April 30, 1970, in a televised address that was, as Kissinger derisively put it later, “vintage Nixon.” He could have depicted the operation as a minor tactic, designed merely to crush the Communist bases in order to bring the boys home faster. But, consonant with his pugnacious paranoia, he chose instead to be pious and strident, to respond defiantly to his critics, and to defend an overblown reaction to what he perceived as a challenge to America’s global credibility. Resorting to coarse jingoism, he had spurned “all political considerations,” he said, pre¬ferring to follow his conscience rather than “be a two-term president at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power.” Inter¬national equilibrium hinged on the Cambodian venture: “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *