In October 1955, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Robert McClintock wrote to Washington with an unusual request: a horoscope for then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
The ambassador, aware of the sway that astrologers were rumored to have over the young leader, thought the horoscopes drawn up in Washington “might show important similarities” to those used at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
“If such similarities exist, knowing them can be of great usefulness in advancing American foreign policy interests in Cambodia,” he wrote to then-Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles.
“We should then be able to press ahead at times which the Cambodians are likely to consider propitious, and we should be able to anticipate more accurately the occasional surprise moves with which the Prince …likes to astound the world.”
It’s unclear how McClintock’s self-titled “experiment in extrasensory politics” was received in Washington. But the sentiment captures the Americans’ clumsy attempts to manage Prince Sihanouk during the 1950s and early 1960s, argues William Rust in his upcoming book “Eisenhower & Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War.”
Mr. Rust, the author of “Kennedy in Vietnam” and “Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961,” builds on the thesis advanced in those books that the U.S. developed its foreign policy around a dangerously simplistic understanding of communism.
“American officials acted as if the Kremlin ran an efficient, vertically integrated global conspiracy with wholly owned subsidiaries in Beijing, Hanoi, and elsewhere, and they paid little attention to national differences that would prove stronger than ideology,” Mr. Rust said in an email. “At the higher levels of…government, there was a profound ignorance of the histories, politics, and cultures of Asian countries.”
The U.S.’ open condescension toward Prince Sihanouk, whom McClintock nicknamed “Snooky” —not to mention a coup attempt likely funded by the CIA—in turn fueled the on-and-off-again king’s fears that the U.S. wanted him out.
The relationship hadn’t always been so sour.
Mr. Rust writes that the administration of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was impressed by the stand Cambodia took at the 1954 Geneva Conference, during which Norodom Sihanouk, then a 31-year-old king, secured international recognition of Cambodia’s independence and resisted calls from then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for the country to bar military assistance from the U.S.
From the outset, however, Cambodia made it clear that it was uninterested in joining any formal military alliance with the U.S. and its anti-communist allies in Thailand and South Vietnam.
“Quarrels between the Vietnamese are of no interest to us, and the more they quarrel the better we like it,” a U.S. State Department report quoted Cambodian officials as saying in June 1954.
Norodom Sihanouk’s decision to remain neutral set off “a hazardous geopolitical journey, navigating between Cold War combatants with his own idiosyncratic brand of balance-of-power diplomacy,” Mr. Rust writes.
His statecraft was in full force after Cambodia reluctantly signed a Mutual Defense Assistance agreement with the U.S. in May 1955 to buttress meager government funding.
When opposition to the agreement emerged from Prince Sihanouk’s political enemies, he denounced “the vile bad faith of those who accuse the Royal Government of having sold out the country” while simultaneously claiming “not a jolt of responsibility” for the decision given that he had abdicated the throne months earlier (even as he remained the de facto head of state).
The U.S. State Department hoped the agreement would serve as a “lever” for “the introduction of adequate training programs and organizational reforms,” according to a dispatch it sent that month.
They were sorely disappointed. Just a year later, Prince Sihanouk was cozying up with Zhou Enlai in China, which he saw as an important counterpoint to U.S. influence.
“Developing cordial relations with China—which the United States did not then recognize—was the tipping point in his relationship with the Eisenhower administration,” Mr. Rust said in an email.
Ambassador McClintock believed Prince Sihanouk was foolish to think he could manage the pernicious influence of China. In a May 1956 memo, McClintock chastised the prince’s “moral neutrality which involves the danger of closing one’s eyes to the evils of Communism.”
Prince Sihanouk recognized China’s power but saw the U.S. as equally dangerous.
“We are resolved to remain neutral because we are ants,” Prince Sihanouk said. “We do not want to participate in the conflict between two elephants.”
Wary of Prince Sihanouk’s supposed leftward drift, Eisenhower approved NSC 5612/1, which gave the CIA broad latitude to undertake “covert operations designed to assist in the achievement of U.S. objectives in Southeast Asia.”
After Interior Minister Dapp Chhuon’s failed coup in 1959, Prince Sihanouk suspected the CIA had collaborated with South Vietnam to back the attempt. Roger Hilsman, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assistant secretary of state for far eastern affairs, told Mr. Kennedy in a 1963 telephone call that the agency had “supplied some money” to the plotters, an assertion echoed by former CIA officials.
“There’s a history, during the administration of President Eisenhower, where the agency did play footsie with opposition groups in [Cambodia],” Mr. Hilsman said.
The failed coup and the U.S.’ steadfast denials of involvement marked a “point of no return” for U.S.-Cambodian relations, according to Mr. Rust. It also fit the habits of the Eisenhower-era CIA, which aided coups in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia and Laos.
In Cambodia, the failed coup shored up Prince Sihanouk’s popularity, Mr. Rust writes. It later served as fodder for “Shadow Over Angkor,” a 1968 film written, directed and produced by the prince, who also played the leading role.
“Many Westerners thought [the film] was the product of an overly active imagination,” he writes in his memoir. In fact, “I did not at that time possess an imagination sufficiently fertile to foresee the grotesque and fantastic schemes which the CIA was dreaming up.”
In July 1960, the U.S. formally changed its Cambodian policy from aiding Prince Sihanouk’s opposition to establishing “an effective working relationship with him,” according to a U.S. National Security Council report.
But it was too little, too late. Prince Sihanouk rightfully suspected Thai and South Vietnamese involvement in several more assassination and coup attempts and was not swayed by U.S. claims that it could not influence its allies, according to Mr. Rust.
“Kennedy’s foreign policy advisers wanted South Vietnam and Thailand to stop conspiring against Sihanouk, but they refused to back their ineffectual diplomatic appeals with stronger threats or action,” he writes.
Mr. Rust, who was still a child during that time, said in an email that the rhetoric of the era presented communism as an omnipresent threat to the U.S. At his Roman Catholic elementary school in Washington, “nuns augmented their academic instruction with graphic stories of physical torture of the faithful at the hands of ancient pagans and contemporary communists.”
The author’s zeal for Southeast Asia-U.S. relations was born of “a desire to understand and analyze the thinking that seemed reasonable in the 1950s and early 1960s…and that seems catastrophic today.”
Nor is Mr. Rust convinced that the U.S. gleaned foreign policy savvy during the era, citing the remarks of General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on the 10th anniversary of the U.S.’ 2001 invasion.
“We didn’t know enough and we still don’t know enough” about Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal told the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.
“Most of us, me included, had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years.”