In March 1970, King Sihanouk was ousted in a right wing coup led by Lon Nol and supported by CIA-trained Khmer Seirge troops while the king was abroad. Sihanouk had angered the United States by playing both sides in the Vietnam War. During the next 20 years King Sihanouk stayed mostly in Beijing and Pyongyang in North Korea.

Lon Nol was essentially a right wing dictator. He abolished the monarchy, named himself president and took control of the country, which he renamed to the Khmer Republic. Supported by the United States and South Vietnam, he discouraged reverence of the monarchy and called for the removal of 40,000 North Vietnamese troops, which were in eastern Cambodia in the early 1970s.

The Lon Nol government was abusive, corrupt and inept and probably wouldn’t have survived long if it weren’t propped up by the United States. In March 1972, Lon Nol tore up the nation’s constitution and grabbed more power for himself in the name of getting rid of Communists.

Khmer Rouge survivor Youk Chhang wrote: ”My father was an architect and was later drafted into the Lon Nol Army. Although we were better off than many people during the early 1970s, prices were going up every day and we had to be careful with my father’s small salary. Plus, many of our relatives had moved into our house in Phnom Penh to avoid the fighting in the countryside. Every banana, every grain of rice was rationed in our home. My parents were also constantly worried that bad things would happen to my sisters, and devoted much of their attention to protecting them. And my school closed down almost every week. As a result of all these things, I learned to do a lot for myself (like making my own kites from newspaper) and to be by myself. In some ways, becoming independent helped prepare me for life under the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Youk Chhang, Documentation Center of Cambodia, ]

Early History of Cambodian Left

The history of the communist movement in Cambodia can be divided into six phases: the emergence of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), whose members were almost exclusively Vietnamese, before World War II; the ten-year struggle for independence from the French, when a separate Cambodian communist party, the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), was established under Vietnamese auspices; the period following the Second Party Congress of the KPRP in 1960, when Saloth Sar (Pol Pot after 1976) and other future Khmer Rouge leaders gained control of its apparatus; the revolutionary struggle from the initiation of the Khmer Rouge insurgency in 1967-68 to the fall of the Lon Nol government in April 1975; the Democratic Kampuchea regime, from April 1975 to January 1979; and the period following the Third Party Congress of the KPRP in January 1979, when Hanoi effectively assumed control over Cambodia's government and communist party. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

Much of the movement's history has been shrouded in mystery, largely because successive purges, especially during the Democratic Kampuchea period, have left so few survivors to recount their experiences. One thing is evident, however, the tension between Khmer and Vietnamese was a major theme in the movement's development. In the three decades between the end of World War II and the Khmer Rouge victory, the appeal of communism to Westerneducated intellectuals (and to a lesser extent its more inchoate attraction for poor peasants) was tempered by the apprehension that the much stronger Vietnamese movement was using communism as an ideological rationale for dominating the Khmer. The analogy between the Vietnamese communists and the Nguyen dynasty, which had legitimized its encroachments in the nineteenth century in terms of the "civilizing mission" of Confucianism, was persuasive. Thus, the new brand of indigenous communism that emerged after 1960 combined nationalist and revolutionary appeals and, when it could afford to, exploited the virulent anti-Vietnamese sentiments of the Khmers. Khmer Rouge literature in the 1970s frequently referred to the Vietnamese as yuon (barbarian), a term dating from the Angkorian period. *

In 1930 Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietnamese Communist Party by unifying three smaller communist movements that had emerged in Tonkin, in Annam, and in Cochinchina during the late 1920s. The name was changed almost immediately to the ICP, ostensibly to include revolutionaries from Cambodia and Laos. Almost without exception, however, all the earliest party members were Vietnamese. By the end of World War II, a handful of Cambodians had joined its ranks, but their influence on the Indochinese communist movement and on developments within Cambodia was negligible. *

Viet Minh units occasionally made forays into Cambodia bases during their war against the French, and, in conjunction with the leftist government that ruled Thailand until 1947, the Viet Minh encouraged the formation of armed, left-wing Khmer Issarak bands. On April 17, 1950 (twenty-five years to the day before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh), the first nationwide congress of the Khmer Issarak groups convened, and the United Issarak Front was established. Its leader was Son Ngoc Minh (possibly a brother of the nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh), and a third of its leadership consisted of members of the ICP. According to the historian David P. Chandler, the leftist Issarak groups, aided by the Viet Minh, occupied a sixth of Cambodia's territory by 1952; and, on the eve of the Geneva Conference, they controlled as much as one half of the country. *

In 1951 the ICP was reorganized into three national units — the Vietnam Workers' Party, the Lao Itsala, and the KPRP. According to a document issued after the reorganization, the Vietnam Workers' Party would continue to "supervise" the smaller Laotian and Cambodian movements. Most KPRP leaders and rank-and-file seem to have been either Khmer Krom, or ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia. The party's appeal to indigenous Khmers appears to have been minimal. *

According to Democratic Kampuchea's version of party history, the Viet Minh's failure to negotiate a political role for the KPRP at the 1954 Geneva Conference represented a betrayal of the Cambodian movement, which still controlled large areas of the countryside and which commanded at least 5,000 armed men. Following the conference, about 1,000 members of the KPRP, including Son Ngoc Minh, made a "Long March" into North Vietnam, where they remained in exile. In late 1954, those who stayed in Cambodia founded a legal political party, the Pracheachon Party, which participated in the 1955 and the 1958 National Assembly elections. In the September 1955 election, it won about 4 percent of the vote but did not secure a seat in the legislature. Members of the Pracheachon were subject to constant harassment and to arrests because the party remained outside Sihanouk's Sangkum. Government attacks prevented it from participating in the 1962 election and drove it underground. Sihanouk habitually labeled local leftists the Khmer Rouge, a term that later came to signify the party and the state headed by Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, and their associates. *

During the mid-1950s, KPRP factions, the "urban committee" (headed by Tou Samouth), and the "rural committee" (headed by Sieu Heng), emerged. In very general terms, these groups espoused divergent revolutionary lines. The prevalent "urban" line, endorsed by North Vietnam, recognized that Sihanouk, by virtue of his success in winning independence from the French, was a genuine national leader whose neutralism and deep distrust of the United States made him a valuable asset in Hanoi's struggle to "liberate" South Vietnam. Champions of this line hoped that the prince could be persuaded to distance himself from the right wing and to adopt leftist policies. The other line, supported for the most part by rural cadres who were familiar with the harsh realities of the countryside, advocated an immediate struggle to overthrow the "feudalist" Sihanouk. In 1959 Sieu Heng defected to the government and provided the security forces with information that enabled them to destroy as much as 90 percent of the party's rural apparatus. Although communist networks in Phnom Penh and in other towns under Tou Samouth's jurisdiction fared better, only a few hundred communists remained active in the country by 1960. *

Prelude to the Cambodian Civil War

By the mid-1960s, Sihanouk's delicate balancing act was beginning to go awry. Regionally, the presence of large-scale North Vietnamese and Viet Cong logistical bases on Cambodian territory and the use of Kampong Saom (then Sihanoukville) as a port of disembarkation for supplies being sent to communist troops, as well as the covert intelligence-gathering, sabotage missions, and overflights by South Vietnamese and United States teams had made a sham of Cambodian neutrality. Domestically, Sihanouk's sporadic harassment of the leftists and the withdrawal of his endorsement from all candidates in the 1966 elections cost the radicals their chance for victory and alienated them from the prince as well. Sihanouk also lost the support of the rightists by his failure to come to grips with the deteriorating economic situation in the country and with the growing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong military presence in Cambodia. In addition to these regional developments and the clash of interests among Phnom Penh's politicized elite, social tensions also were creating a favorable environment for the growth of a domestic communist insurgency in the rural areas. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

In early 1967, an insurrection broke out in the area around Samlot in Batdambang, a province long noted for the presence of large landowners and great disparities of wealth. Local resentment focused on tax collections and on the decision of the revenuestarved government to expropriate land to build a sugar refinery near Samlot. In January 1967, irate villagers attacked a tax collection brigade — an incident that recalled the 1925 murder of the French resident in the area. With the probable encouragement of local communist cadres, the insurrection quickly spread through the whole region. Sihanouk was on one of his frequent sojourns in France, and Lon Nol, the prime minister, responded harshly. After returning home in March 1967, Sihanouk personally supervised counterinsurgency measures. He later mentioned, in an offhand way, that the effectiveness of the royal armed forces had restored the peace but that approximately 10,000 people had died. *

The insurgency was not suppressed completely. It spread rapidly from Batdambang to the southern and to the southwestern provinces of Pouthisat (Pursat), Kampong Chhnang (Kompong Chang), Kampong Cham, Kampong Spoe (Kompong Speu), Kampot, and the central province of Kampong Thum. By the end of 1968, unrest was reported in eleven of the country's eighteen provinces. The Khmer Loeu regions of Mondol Kiri (Mondolkiri) Province and Rotanokiri Province fell almost entirely under KCP control by the end of the decade. *

In January 1968, the communists established the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK). During Sihanouk's last two years in power, the RAK obtained minimal assistance from the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, and the Chinese. Although North Vietnam had established a special unit in 1966 to train the Cambodian communists, it was extremely reluctant to alienate Sihanouk at a time when vital supplies were passing through the port of Kampong Saom and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Viet Cong bases along the CambodiaVietnam border. Beijing and Moscow also were providing Sihanouk with arms, many of which were being used against the insurgents. The indifference of the world communist movement to the Cambodian struggle from 1967 to 1969 made a permanent impression on Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders.

March 1970 Coup d'Etat

In March 1970, King Sihanouk was ousted in a right wing coup led by Lon Nol and supported by CIA-trained Khmer Seirge troops while the king was visiting Soviet leaders in Moscow. The news was broken to hom by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. Sihanouk had angered the United States by playing both sides in the Vietnam War. During the 20 years that followed King Sihanouk stayed mostly in Beijing and Pyongyang in North Korea.

Sihanouk was away on a trip to Moscow and Beijing when General Lon Nol launched a successful coup d'état. On the morning of March 18, 1970, the National Assembly was hastily convened, and voted unanimously to depose Sihanouk as head of state. Lon Nol, who had been serving as prime minister, was granted emergency powers. Sirik Matak, an ultraconservative royal prince who in 1941 had been passed over by the French in favor of his cousin Norodom Sihanouk as king, retained his post as deputy prime minister. The new government emphasized that the transfer of power had been totally legal and constitutional, and it received the recognition of most foreign governments. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

Most middle-class and educated Khmers in Phnom Penh had grown weary of Sihanouk and apparently welcomed the change of government. But he was still popular in the villages. Days after the coup, the prince, now in Beijing, broadcast an appeal to the people to resist the usurpers. Demonstrations and riots occurred throughout the country. In one incident on March 29, an estimated 40,000 peasants began a march on the capital to demand Sihanouk's reinstatement. They were dispersed, with many casualties, by contingents of the armed forces and the Khmer Serei. *

From Beijing, Sihanouk proclaimed his intention to create a National United Front of Kampuchea (Front Uni National du Kampuchéa, FUNK). In the prince's words, this front would embrace "all Khmer both inside and outside the country — including the faithful, religious people, military men, civilians, and men and women who cherish the ideals of independence, democracy, neutrality, progressivism, socialism, Buddhism, nationalism, territorial integrity, and anti-imperialism." A coalition, brokered by the Chinese, was hastily formed between the prince and the KCP. On May 5, 1970, the actual establishment of FUNK and of the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea (Gouvernement Royal d'Union Nationale du Kampuchéa, GRUNK, were announced. Sihanouk assumed the post of GRUNK head of state, appointing Penn Nouth, one of his most loyal supporters, as prime minister. Khieu Samphan was designated deputy prime minister, minister of defense, and commander in chief of the GRUNK armed forces (though actual military operations were directed by Pol Pot). Hu Nim became minister of information, and Hou Yuon assumed multiple responsibilities as minister of interior, communal reforms, and cooperatives. GRUNK claimed that it was not a government-in-exile because Khieu Samphan and the insurgents remained inside Cambodia. *

For Sihanouk and the KCP, this was an extremely useful marriage of convenience. Peasants, motivated by loyalty to the monarchy, rallied to the FUNK cause. The appeal of the Sihanouk-KCP coalition grew immensely after October 9, 1970, when Lon Nol abolished the monarchy and redesignated Cambodia as the Khmer Republic. The concept of a republic was not popular with most villagers, who had grown up with the idea that something was seriously awry in a Cambodia without a monarch. *

GRUNK operated on two tiers. Sihanouk and his loyalists remained in Beijing, although the prince did make a visit to the "liberated areas" of Cambodia, including Angkor Wat, in March 1973. The KCP commanded the insurgency within the country. Gradually, the prince was deprived of everything but a passive, figurehead role in the coalition. The KCP told people inside Cambodia that expressions of support for Sihanouk would result in their liquidation, and when the prince appeared in public overseas to publicize the GRUNK cause, he was treated with almost open contempt by Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan. In June 1973, the prince told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that when "they [the Khmer Rouge] no longer need me, they will spit me out like a cherry pit!" By the end of that year, Sihanouk loyalists had been purged from all of GRUNK's ministries. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Lon Nol Government

Lon Nol was essentially a right wing dictator. He abolished the monarchy, named himself president and took control of the country, which he renamed to the Khmer Republic. Supported by the United States and South Vietnam, he discouraged reverence of the monarchy and called for the removal of 40,000 North Vietnamese troops, which were in eastern Cambodia in the early 1970s.

The Lon Nol government was abusive, corrupt and inept and probably wouldn’t have survived long if it weren’t propped up by the United States. Sihanouk was condemned to death in absentia, an excessive move on the part of the new government that effectively ruled out any hint of compromise for the next five years. In March 1972, Lon Nol tore up the nation’s constitution and grabbed more power for himself in the name of getting rid of Communists.

According to Lonely Planet: It didn’t take long for the Lon Nol government to become very unpopular as a result of unprecedented greed and corruption in its ranks. As the USA bankrolled the war, government and military personnel found lucrative means to make a fortune, such as inventing ‘phantom soldiers’ and pocketing their pay, or selling weapons to the enemy. Lon Nol was widely perceived as an ineffectual leader, obsessed by superstition, fortune tellers and mystical crusades. This perception increased with his stroke in March 1971 and for the next four years his grip on reality seemed to weaken as his brother Lon Non’s power grew. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Despite massive US military and economic aid, Lon Nol never succeeded in gaining the initiative against the Khmer Rouge. Large parts of the countryside fell to the rebels and many provincial capitals were cut off from Phnom Penh. Lon Nol fled the country in early April 1975, leaving Sirik Matak in charge, who refused evacuation to the end. ‘I cannot alas leave in such a cowardly fashion…I have committed only one mistake, that of believing in you, the Americans’ were the words Sirik Matak poignantly penned to US ambassador John Gunther Dean. On 17 April 1975 – two weeks before the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) – Phnom Penh surrendered to the Khmer Rouge.

Vietnam Invades Cambodia in 1970

In 1966, Prince Sihanouk allowed the North Vietnamese to move supplies and troops through Cambodian territory on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After the 1970 coup, U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers moved into Cambodia to root out communist "sanctuaries" and military headquarters of a group known as COSVN. After the Americans left, the Vietnamese stayed. Numerous racial-tainted clashes occurred between the Vietnamese and Cambodians.

See Vietnam War, Vietnam

With the fall of Sihanouk, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong became alarmed at the prospect of a pro-Western regime that might allow the United States to establish a military presence on their western flank. To prevent this from happening, they began transferring their military installations away from the border area to locations deeper within Cambodian territory. A new command center was established at the city of Kracheh (Kratié). [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Lon Nol gave communist Vietnamese forces an ultimatum to withdraw their forces within one week, which amounted to a virtual declaration of war, as no Vietnamese fighters wanted to return to the homeland to face the Americans. On April 30, 1970, US and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in an effort to flush out thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops who were using Cambodian bases in their war to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. [Source: Lonely Planet **]

South Vietnamese and United States units unleashed a multi-pronged offensive into Cambodia to destroy the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the headquarters for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong combat operations in South Vietnam. Extensive logistical installations and large amounts of supplies were found and destroyed, but as reporting from the United States MACV subsequently disclosed, still larger amounts of material already had been moved deeper into Cambodia. *

The North Vietnamese army turned on the republican government forces, and by June 1970, three months after the coup, they and the CPNLAF had swept FANK from the entire northeastern third of the country. After defeating the government forces, they turned newly won territories over to the local insurgents. The Khmer Rouge also established "liberated areas" in the south and the southwestern parts of the country, where they operated independently of the Vietnamese. The KCP's debt to the North Vietnamese after March 1970 was one that Pol Pot was loath to acknowledge; however, it is clear that without North Vietnamese and Viet Cong assistance, the revolutionary struggle would have dragged on much longer than it did. FANK stands for “Forces Armées Nationales Khmères”, the Khmer National Armed Forces, the army of the Cambodian government. *

As a result of the invasion, the Vietnamese communists withdrew deeper into Cambodia, further destabilising the Lon Nol government. Cambodia’s tiny army never stood a chance and within the space of a few months, Vietnamese forces and their Khmer Rouge allies overran almost half the country. The ultimate humiliation came in July 1970 when the Vietnamese occupied the temples of Angkor. **

Cambodian Civil War

After the 1970 coup Cambodia was plunged into civil war. North Vietnamese troops and Cambodians loyal to Sihanouk took control of much of the western and southern parts of the country. A government in exile was established by Sihanouk in Beijing. This began a long period of turmoil that was exacerbated by the Vietnam War and the emergence of the Khmer Rouge.

According to Lonely Planet: Savage fighting engulfed the country, bringing misery to millions of Cambodians; many fled rural areas for the relative safety of Phnom Penh and provincial capitals. Between 1970 and 1975 several hundred thousand people died in the fighting. During these years the Khmer Rouge came to play a dominant role in trying to overthrow the Lon Nol regime, strengthened by the support of the Vietnamese, although the Khmer Rouge leadership would vehemently deny this from 1975 onwards. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The escalating conflict pitted government troops, now renamed the Khmer National Armed Forces (Forces Armées Nationales Khmères, FANK), initially against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, and subsequently against the old RAK, now revitalized and renamed the Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces (CPNLAF). As combat operations quickly disclosed, the two sides were mismatched. The inequality lay not so much in sheer numbers. Thousands of young urban Cambodians flocked to join FANK in the months following the coup and, throughout its five-year life, the republican government forces held a numerical edge over their opponents, the padded payrolls and the phantom units reported in the press notwithstanding. Instead, FANK was outclassed in training and leadership. With the surge of recruits, the government forces expanded beyond their capacity to absorb the new inductees. Later, given the press of tactical operations and the need to replace combat casualties, there was insufficient time to impart needed skills to individuals or to units, and lack of training remained the bane of FANK's existence until its collapse. While individual soldiers and some government units fought bravely, their leaders — with notable exceptions — were both corrupt and incompetent. Arrayed against an armed force of such limited capability was arguably the best light infantry in the world at the time — the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. And when there forces were supplanted, it was by the tough, rigidly indoctrinated peasant army of the CPNLAF with its core of Khmer Rouge leaders. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

The Americans, Chinese and Soviets made the conflict in Cambodia worse by supplying arms to various contingents in the civil war at various times. At one time the Chinese armed the Khmer Rouge and the U.S. supplied weapons to two non-Communist rebel groups allied with the Khmer Rouge.

Khmer Rouge and Early Stages of Cambodian Civil War

For a time, Sihanouk allied himself with the Khmer Rouge, forming the Royal Government of the National Union of Cambodia (known by it French acronym GRUNK). Sihanouk formed the alliance in the hope the Khmer Rouge would help restore him to power. The Khmer Rouge had other ideas. It used the king as a marketing tool to attract new recruits. Sihanouk and Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot once posed together for photographs taken in front of Angkor Wat.

According to Lonely Planet, The leadership of the Khmer Rouge, including Paris-educated Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, had fled into the countryside in the 1960s to escape the summary justice then being meted out to suspected leftists by Sihanouk’s security forces. They consolidated control over the movement and began to move against opponents before they took Phnom Penh. Many of the Vietnamese-trained Cambodian communists who had been based in Hanoi since the 1954 Geneva Accords returned down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to join their ‘allies’ in the Khmer Rouge in 1973. Many were dead by 1975, executed on orders of the anti-Vietnamese Pol Pot faction. Likewise, many moderate Sihanouk supporters who had joined the Khmer Rouge as a show of loyalty to their fallen leader rather than a show of ideology to the radicals were victims of purges before the regime took power. This set a precedent for internal purges and mass executions that were to eventually bring the downfall of the Khmer Rouge.

United States Decides to Bomb Cambodia

In 1969, acting in part on advise from Henry Kissinger, U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the U.S. military to secretly bomb eastern Cambodia in an attempt to disrupt the North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line through Cambodia into South Vietnam. The bombing campaign was initially kept secret from the U.S. Congress. The American public didn’t find out about it until 1970.

Explaining the justification for the bombing in a television address, Nixon said, "I have concluded that the actions of the enemy...clearly endanger the lives of Americans who are in Vietnam...If and when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation...acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world...Once enemy forces are driven out of all these sanctuaries and once their military supplies are destroyed, we will withdraw."

The targets of the bombing were described as Vietnamese communist sanctuaries and supply routes inside Cambodia. One of the primary targets was the COSVN command center. COSVN stood for for Central Office for South Vietnam, the political and military headquarters of the North Vietnam army during the Vietnam War. It was envisaged as being in overall command of the communist effort in the southern half of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), which included the efforts of both PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) Whether COSVN actually existed, and if so, where it was located at any one time, and how important it might have been, were contentious subjects, but in his memoirs the American commander in South Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland spoke of it as something whose existence and importance were not in doubt. All U.S. and South Vietnamese efforts to eliminate it during the conflict failed. [Source: Wikipedia]

Bombing of Cambodia

The secret bombing began on March 18, 1969. Between that time and 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, the United States dropped four times as many tons of conventional bombs (539,000 tons) on Cambodia as were dropped on the Japan during World War II. “Huge areas of the eastern half of the country were carpet-bombed, killing what is believed to be many thousands of civilians and turning hundreds of thousands more into refugees. Many of the bombs were dropped after the peace treaty with Vietnam was signed and American soldiers had been evacuated from Vietnam. As bad as this was Laos had even more bombs dropped on it.

United States bombing of enemy troop dispositions and guerrilla sanctuaries in Cambodia — particularly in the summer of 1973, when intense aerial bombardment (known as Arclight) was used to halt a Khmer Rouge assault on Phnom Penh — bought time for the Lon Nol government, but did not stem the momentum of the communist forces. United States official documents give a figure of 79,959 sorties by B-52 and F-111 aircraft over the country, during which a total of 539,129 tons of ordnance were dropped, about 350 percent of the tonnage (153,000 tons) dropped on Japan during World War II. Many of the bombs that fell in Cambodia struck relatively uninhabited mountain or forest regions; however, as declassified United States Air Force maps show, others fell over some of the most densely inhabited areas of the country, such as Siemreab Province, Kampong Chhnang Province, and the countryside around Phnom Penh. Deaths from the bombing are extremely difficult to estimate, and figures range from a low of 30,000 to a high of 500,000. Whatever the real extent of the casualties, the Arclight missions over Cambodia, which were halted in August 15, 1973, by the United States Congress, delivered shattering blows to the structure of life in many of the country's villages, and, according to some critics, drove the Cambodian people into the arms of the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

The bombing was by far the most controversial aspect of the United States presence in Cambodia. In his book Sideshow, William Shawcross provides a vivid image of the hellish conditions, especially in the months of January to August 1973, when the Arclight sorties were most intense. He claims that the bombing contributed to the forging of a brutal and singlemindedly fanatical Khmer Rouge movement. However, his arguments have been disputed by several United States officials — including the former ambassador to Cambodia, Emory C. Swank, and the former Air Force commander in Thailand, General John W. Vogt — in an appendix to the second volume of the memoirs of then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. *

North Vietnam Involvement in Cambodia After the Bombing Cambodia

In late March 1970, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia was ousted as chief of state in a military coup led by Premier and Defense Minister, General Lon Nol. Shortly thereafter, the Lon Nol government cancelled an agreement that had allowed North Vietnam to use the port at Sihanoukville. Hanoi reacted by increasing support to the Khmer (Kampuchean) Communist Party, by then under the leadership of the radical Pol Pot. In April, Nixon authorized the invasion of Cambodia by a joint United States-South Vietnamese force of 30,000 troops for the purpose of destroying Communist bases across the border. Little more than short-term gains were accomplished by the invasion, which resulted in massive protests in the United States, leading to the passage of legislation by Congress requiring the removal of United States troops from Cambodia by the end of June. [Source: Library of Congress]

One of the purposes of the secret American bombing of Cambodia in 1969 was to flush out Vietnamese communist sanctuaries across the border. Given the choice between facing U.S. troops and pushing deeper into Cambodia, the North Vietnamese chose the latter. When U.S ground forces were sent into Cambodia in 1970 to extricate South Vietnam units, whose combat skills left much to be desired, the North Vietnamese moved deeper into Cambodian territory and together with their Khmer Rouge allies controlled half of the country by the summer of 1970, including the area around Angkor Wat. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Impact of the Bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam War

The bombing of Cambodia coincided with Khmer Rouge’s five year drive to Phnom Penh and hurt the pro-American Cambodian regime. That government was too weak to carry on after the United States left Southeast Asia as South Vietnam fell. The bombing helped the Khmer Rouge win the sympathy of villagers and attract new recruits: One Cambodian scholar told AP, “It gave the Khmer Rouge the means to convince people to join them. They just had to say, ‘See they bombed our villages...join us and fight the United States.’”

The American bombing complicated and intensified the Cambodian Civil War and exacerbated problems and tensions within Cambodia. Many have blamed the United States recklessness in Cambodia as setting in motion a chain of events that led to the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. According to Lonely Planet: Undoubtedly, the bombing campaign helped the Khmer Rouge in their recruitment drive, as more and more peasants were losing family members to the aerial assaults. While the final, heaviest bombing in the first half of 1973 may have saved Phnom Penh from a premature fall, its ferocity also helped to harden the attitude of many Khmer Rouge cadres and may have contributed to the later brutality that characterised their rule. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “U.S. bombs dropped on Cambodia at that time caused widespread destruction and upheaval in the countryside, so the Nixon administration is partly to blame for what happened after the Khmer Rouge was left to clean up the mess in 1975. Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan said. "I think the responsibility must be shared to be just." He said the Khmer Rouge did what was necessary to save their country. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2007]

The COSVN sanctuaries and headquarters turned out be collection of temporary huts that were quickly replaced. One villager who lost her son to an American bomb told AP, “My boy was beautiful. He had a big, round face. I could not sleep. I could not eat for months...I do not even swear at the Americans. There was no time. We had to keep running and hiding from place to place.” Some were sympathetic to what the United States was trying to do. One villager told AP, “There were lots of Viet Cong in the area—that’s why they were bombing. If they had wanted to kill the villager, no one would be here today. The Americans knew how to kill.”

President Nixon stopped the airstrikes in August 1973 after a U.S. federal judge ruled them unconstitutional and Congress refused to fund them. From the Khmer Rouge perspective, however, the severity of the bombings was matched by the treachery of the North Vietnamese. The Cambodian communists had refused to take part in the Paris peace talks. When North Vietnam and the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, bombing missions over Vietnam and Laos were terminated. The fighter bombers and other aircraft thus released were diverted to strike Khmer Rouge positions in Cambodia. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Taking Sides in the Cambodia Civil War

According to Khmer Rouge leader Van Rith: The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) policy was to fight on two fronts, "the battlefield fighting the Americans and Lon Nol, and also the battlefield to get away from the Yuon," so that no one could accuse the CPK of being a Vietnamese lackey. The documents were absolutely clear on this, so the policy was to create an army of its own. This was done in 1972, when Rith was already in the liberated zone and had met back up with all his old Democrat Party friends, including Von Vet, who was one of them, someone whom Rith had met during the 1955 elections. Von Vet was very pleased to see Rith and said he had reported to the higher levels about his arrival, and the higher levels said they remembered Rith, too. In July 1972, the higher levels instructed that he be assigned to go down into the districts, but before that he was sent for military training north of Phnom Penh, training in fact to become a political commissar. Rith told Von Vet he was afraid he couldn't handle combat, but Von Vet said he shouldn't worry. As an intellectual, Rith was adept at being a political commissar, which involved the presentation of documents to those who weren't very well educated, and he was praised for his loyalty to the party. So when the Special Zone was organized, he was considered the only one who could sort things out in Sector 25, which was chaotic because of the presence of so many Vietnamese. The place had pioneered by Non Suon, who was there first and was well acquainted with Sao Pheum, but because Rith was locally well known – and his name had appeared as number 90 in the list of 91 intellectuals in the liberated zones, he was well-received by the population and welcomed by Non Suon, who treated him well. For his part, Rith respected Non Suon. Rith spoke at rallies, and – being a well-spoken intellectual – was much applauded by the masses.[Source: Interview with Van Rith in Khpop commune, S'ang district, Kandal province, February 20, 2003 by Youk Chhang, Documentation Center of Cambodia]

As a result, the masses came to Rith, complaining that the sector cadre were corrupt and lackeys of the Vietnamese, who were picking the fruit off the trees, which infuriated the masses. Rith concluded that unless Cambodians conducted a struggle completely on their own, they would end up as lackeys of the Vietnamese, telling the people that if they wanted to avoid this, they should join the army and fight. Sihanouk's original appeal for people to join the maquis had created the foundation for the liberation army. Without it, people would not have joined the army in large numbers, as the did in response to his appeal. This made it possible for Khmer to do things on their own. So a concentration of sector forces was begun, with the help of a battalion sent down by the higher ups, led by Nat, who was a native of the sector (from Prek Ampil). Nat, who had been in the liberated zones since maybe 1968, was a knowledgeable veteran of guerilla warfare. As part of the process of the organization of sector forces, Rith was assigned chairman of the sector military office. This meant setting up venues for study sessions, ensuring there was enough food for those attending. Indeed, Rith was responsible for all logistics, as well as documentation. Von Vet was impressed with his work and protected him once when it was suggested he should be arrested, saying he was doing a good job, that although he was only a Front cadre, he was key to the expansion of the army. As it advanced with each Lon Nol defeat, Rith moved his office forward. Soon, it was at Tonle Bati. The FANK Division 7 under Un Kauv was defeated, and 105mm howitzers were captured. FANK stands for “Forces Armées Nationales Khmères”, the Khmer National Armed Forces, the army of the Cambodian government.

So from 1972, there was no Vietnamese involvement in the Sector 25 military, the chairman of which was Sok. The legend about the existence of a Vietnamese special forces unit at Kah Khael that intervened in various battles was not true. It just ripped off the local economy and brought bombing down on the people there, which Rith as convinced the Vietnamese did on purpose. Soon the people knew that Rith was in favour of having the Sector troops drive the Vietnamese out, and they were mustered to do so, driving the Vietnamese right down to the border. This was in accordance with political instructions from Von Vet, who was mostly north of Phnom Penh, only occasionally coming south for visits. All the instruction materials came from there, insisting on the principle of independence, self-reliance and being the master of one's own destiny, which meant not relying on foreigners, otherwise one day one would end up as debt slaves to them. So all the fighting was done without foreign training, on the basis of learning lessons from combat itself. Ammunition, weapons and food had to be captured from the enemy. And the reality was that in almost every battle, the FANK soldiers broke and fled. Lessons were learned and war booty captured in every battle. Experience was the teacher. The troops themselves invented flying mines, field radio systems and secret codes, without Vietnamese or Chinese help.

From listening to FANK radio communications it was learned that a major cause of low FANK morale was that although there was a pay system, the commanders took all the money, leaving the ordinary soldiers with nothing to spend. By contrast, the peasant combatants of the liberation army fought even if they had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep, eating what they could find and sleeping on the ground. They joined the army from 12 years up, starting out carrying rice and graduating into combat. And they truly believed that unless they did the fighting themselves, somebody else would take over. They were taught to turn their grievances into anger, and – like the people – they were very angry at US imperialism because of the bombing, the indiscriminate B52 strikes, and at the constant shelling. Although nobody wanted communism, people hated imperialism and the rich, so they supported the Khmer Rouge. The rich whose houses were destroyed by the bombing and shelling also supported the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge leadership was also good: some being quite well educated. Von Vet had attended lycee in Batdambang. (Nat?) was also a lycee student who had then worked for the electricity service. And it was precisely because the leadership was Khmer that the people supported it. The principle of independence/self-reliance meant no foreign leadership. If there had been foreign leadership, there would have been no support. There was support because the Khmer Rouge were against the Americans, Lon Nol and the Vietnamese. So when the time came to attack Phnom Penh, the people were really revved up, and two divisions had been formed: Division 11 and Division 12, plus a regiment for Sector 25. There was also a Division 13 north of Phnom Penh. After 17 April, Division 703 was formed from the south, and Division 801 from the north.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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