There are reports of a peace settlement in Cambodia, ending more than two decades of what the dispatches call a “civil war.” The term is not quite right. What happened in Cambodia was never simply a local affair. We were all casualties.
I was working in the Nixon White House that soft, fragrant spring of 1970, when it began in almost an offhand way.
Cambodia had long made its neutral bargain in the Vietnam War, tolerating North Vietnamese sanctuaries along the border as long as Hanoi ignored the handful of local communists called the Khmer Rouge. Under Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the small country was somehow an island of peace and relative prosperity--even exporting surplus rice--while rebellion and war raged around it.
Sihanouk had looked the other way, too, at the secret U.S. bombing of Cambodia that had begun early in 1969, something we code-named “Menu,” the clandestine dropping of 100,000 tons of explosives on a neutral nation. Still, the President, National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were annoyed with Sihanouk’s expedience toward both sides. Their message to the bureaucracy was an ancient phrase, and unmistakable: “Who will rid us of this troublesome Prince?”
The Defense Intelligence Agency began its shadowy contacts with dissident Cambodian officers and their leader, a lachrymose general named Lon Nol, whose “mind,” said one report, “tended to take flight.” In March, 1970, the plotters overthrew Sihanouk. Their coup shattered the neutral bargain, provoking both the Khmer Communists and the North Vietnamese. The descent had begun. When the sanctuaries bristled anew along the border, Richard M. Nixon brooded on manly retaliation. We watched incredulously a flow of stream-of-consciousness memos on Cambodia spilling out of the Oval Office: “They don’t know who they’re dealing with. . . . The liberals are waiting to see Nixon let Cambodia go down the drain,” the President wrote to Kissinger. “Those senators think they can push me around, but I’ll show them who’s tough,” he announced amid congressional appeals for caution.
As the secret invasion planning went forward, the President of the United States saw repeated private screenings of the movie “Patton.” “There was nothing he feared more than to be thought weak,” Kissinger recorded later.
I suppose we shall never really know what was happening in Nixon’s mind at that moment. The military and political realities could never justify his acts. Perhaps it had all begun so much earlier, on the playgrounds of Yorba Linda or Whittier. “What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you’re a kid,” Nixon once told an aide. “But . . . if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by . . . personal gut performance . . . so you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice.”
At the last moment in that last week of April, 1970, even Kissinger tried to pull back from the invasion, but Nixon was adamant. “If this doesn’t work, it’ll be your ass, Henry,” the President said in one drunken phone call we monitored from Camp David. “Our peerless leader has flipped out,” Kissinger told us lamely.
The Cambodian “incursion,” as it was called by the White House, was a crucible of careers. It completed Kissinger’s eclipse of then-Secretary of State William Rogers and elevated an ambitious colonel named Alexander Haig. I and two National Security Council staff colleagues, Tony Lake and Bill Watts, walked out of the White House just before the invasion was publicly announced, resigning in dismay and disgust. I turned away completely from the ambitions of government service I had from boyhood, and resolved to understand and write about the men and history I had seen in such scarring fragment.
Not least, it was crucial in the life of Richard Nixon. “Kent State marked a turning point for Nixon,” White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman wrote of the National Guard killings of students protesting the invasion, “a beginning of his downhill slide toward Watergate.” Out of the turmoil triggered by Cambodia came the infamous White House “Houston Plan,” with its proposals for surveillance and repression, the first thread of a string that ended in the President’s resignation in scandal and disgrace four years later.
The U.S. attack on Cambodia that spring did nothing to alter the war in Vietnam. It did plunge the Cambodians into a prolonged nightmare of war, famine and genocide. While the U.S. bombing, targeted with old Michelin road maps, caused what our own embassy called “wholesale carnage,” the Khmer Rouge gathered strength.
In April, 1975, Cambodia fell to the rebels, who in their savagery and fear emptied the cities and began an Asian holocaust. No one knows, even now, how many millions were murdered. Only the memories are clear--the silhouettes of spindly figures herded to oblivion, the rice paddies carpeted in skulls, the spectacle of a United States diplomatically dickering to support the genocidal Pol Pot regime simply because it was at odds with our old Vietnamese enemies.
“Cambodia was not a mistake,” British scholar William Shawcross concluded in his history of the episode. “It was a crime.”
Now, with news of the peace settlement, I look back over the 21 years with the same chill I felt reading those presidential memos. Not for the juncture in my own life. Not for the biographies of the famous men around me then. But for something deeper and far more ominous.
As a political writer, I suppose I should know better. But I cannot escape the feeling that what we did to that little country brought an indelible curse. How much it suffered. And how much we have changed as it did. How steep our own descent these past two decades, how deep our divisions and fathomless our problems compared to that beguiling, leafy Washington April of 1970.
Our legacy has been a Cambodia of the spirit in America.
Perhaps it is time, at last, for a peace settlement of our own, a coming to terms with our history at home and abroad, with what we have really done to each other as well as to distant countries.
Perhaps if the Cambodians can forgive us, we can forgive ourselves.