Documents declassified by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency this week give dramatic insight into how news of the Khmer Rouge’s capture of Phnom Penh and the subsequent evacuation of the city trickled through to former U.S. President Gerald Ford.
Released on Wednesday, the reports, all stamped with “Eyes Only For The President,” illustrate the uncertainty of what lay ahead as the new regime launched a final siege of the capital.
By April 14, 1975, intercepted communications indicated preparations for a major push into Phnom Penh, with “a buildup of communist units in the capital area,” while “major attacks” were launched in the southeast the following day.
“The Khmer communists, pressing closer to Phnom Penh from the northwest, have launched major attacks southeast of the capital in an apparent final attempt to force the government’s capitulation,” reads the president’s daily briefing on April 15.
On April 16—the day before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh—theories began circulating that the remnants of the Khmer Republic were trying to negotiate a surrender on the condition that the insurgents agree not to take the capital.
The next day, the war was declared over.
“The Cambodian government surrendered this morning,” says the president’s April 17 briefing. “A cease-fire reportedly is in effect, and the capital is described as calm,” it adds, describing the situation in the countryside as “unclear.”
Some 30 Westerners were reported to be holed up in a Phnom Penh hotel, but the communists had reiterated orders to ensure the safety of foreign nationals, it says.
By this point, rumors of a mass evacuation of the capital had already begun.
“Intercepted communist messages confirm plans to evacuate large numbers of civilians from Phnom Penh. The commander of one communist administrative unit reported yesterday that he is ready to ‘accept responsibility’ for between 400,000 and 500,000 people,” it says.
The following day, the communist takeover was described as “proceeding in an orderly fashion,” although the briefing acknowledges press reports claiming that large numbers of Cambodians “were attempting to leave Phnom Penh.”
Some of the Khmer Republic’s top brass had made last-minute evacuations, while a number of high-ranking officials, including former President Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non, were presumed to be in the hands of the communists.
By April 19, intercepted messages confirmed that the communists were forcing large numbers from the city. “The evacuation will reduce the capital’s population to a more manageable level but will complicate any international relief effort,” says that day’s briefing.
Despite taking control of the country, those at the helm of the revolution—which would eventually claim an estimated 1.7 million lives—remained a mystery.
“There is no indication yet that senior Khmer communist leaders have entered Phnom Penh to set up a new regime,” says the April 19 briefing.
On the same day, China praised the “liberation” of Phnom Penh, although congratulatory messages were sent to Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had lent his support to the communist cause after he was ousted by Lon Nol, whose government had been backed by the U.S.
“These references clearly indicate that Peking expects the Prince to play a significant role in Phnom Penh; they may also mean that the Chinese hope to preempt any possible move to shunt Sihanouk aside,” the briefing says.
After resigning as head of state in 1976, the prince would be put under house arrest by Pol Pot’s regime, where he would remain until the Khmer Rouge was toppled in January 1979.