The official biographer of King Norodom Sihanouk has waded into the US presidential debate, taking issue with critics of Democratic nominee and veteran of the war in Vietnam John Kerry who claim that US troops were not inside Cambodia when Kerry claims to have been in the country.
Julio Jeldres, who is a member of the King’s Cabinet, took aim specifically at two articles that appeared earlier this month in The Washington Times newspaper. The stories were written by Andrew Antippas, a diplomat who served at the US Embassy in Saigon from March 1968 to February 1970 and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh from 1970 to 1972.
In a letter to the editor-in-chief of The Washington Times, dated Aug 21, Jeldres wrote that he did not wish to enter the US’ political fray, but said that the controversy had produced “tremendous distortions of Cambodian contemporary history and of past US policies in Cambodia.”
“In so doing, Cambodia and the poor people of Cambodia, who have suffered so much through no fault of their own, have again become a sideshow,” he wrote.
In several public appearances, including one on the US Senate floor in 1986, Kerry has said he spent Christmas Eve 1968 aboard a swift boat inside Cambodia, while his government told the public back home that no US troops were inside Cambodia.
British newspaper The Independent reported on Aug 13 that Kerry’s official biographer Douglas Brinkley, who has special access to Kerry’s wartime journals, said Kerry was mistaken about being in Cambodia on that date.
. Kerry was then 80 km downstream from the Cambodian border, Brinkley said.
Nevertheless, Brinkley maintained, Kerry “went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions,” The Independent reported.
Brinkley said Kerry’s job had been to carry “US Navy Seals, Green Berets and CIA guys” upstream into Cambodia.
Antippas and others have tried to cast doubt on this claim, saying that the US was not running secret incursions into the area at the time for fear of riling then-Prince Sihanouk.
“While things may have happened that no one ever found out about in Saigon, the Cambodians yelled bloody murder to the world press and the [International Control Commission] whenever they found Americans trespassing,” Antippas wrote in an Aug 13 column.
Citing his own interviews with a US Navy intelligence officer formerly responsible for “Cambodia operations” out of Saigon and a US Special Forces commander, who claimed to have called off an attempt on Prince Sihanouk’s life, Jeldres disagreed.
“From October 1968, the number of cover[t] missions inside Cambodia, with US teams operating up to 20 miles [32 km] inside Cambodia, increased sharply with the teams receiving authorization to use anti-personnel mines and the limitations on the number of Americans participating in them were lifted,” Jeldres wrote.
He added that those incursions increased when Richard Nixon took the White House in 1969. He said there were 188 clandestine missions into Cambodia in the first four months of that year, several of which Cambodia protested at the UN.
Jeldres said the US kept it up until 1972, with 1,885 total incursions, in which 27 US citizens died. He said the US never told families that their sons, fathers and husbands had died inside Cambodia.
In his 1979 book “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia,” journalist and author William Shawcross wrote that, US Special Forces “had been running special highly classified missions,” code-named “Daniel Boone,” in Laos and Cambodia, since May 1967 to attack North Vietnamese and Vietcong thought to be in the two countries.
“The Daniel Boone teams entered Cambodia all along its 500-mile [800-km] frontier with South Vietnam from the lonely, craggy, impenetrable mountain forests in the north, down to the well-populated and thickly reeded waterways along the Mekong River.”
Henry Kamm, in “Cambodia: Reports From a Stricken Land,” wrote that the US ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, obtained Prince Sihanouk’s secret consent in 1968 for the US to launch ground and air attacks on Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers hiding in Cambodia.
These works seem to support Jeldres’ contention that there is no reason to doubt Kerry’s claims of slipping into Cambodia.
However, credible sources conflict with another of Jeldres’ contentions.
The King’s biographer, in his letter, wrote that: “During the Vietnam war there were many unfounded allegations that Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces crossed into Cambodia under the protection of His Majesty and that the ‘general staff’ of the Vietcong/North Vietnamese had been established on Cambodian territory. All these allegations were proven false.”
Prominent reporters and recorders of recent Cambodian history—including Shawcross, Kamm, Elizabeth Becker and Steve Heder—have reported that the Prince allowed military supplies for the communists fighting in southern Vietnam to be routed through Cambodia. His military profited well from the deal, they wrote.
Mostly Soviet support came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail; Chinese support came through the port of Sihanoukville.
Kamm, in the same book, wrote of the Prince confessing his alliance with the Vietnamese communists to him in 1973, “the truth of what he had always described as calumnies against Cambodia and himself.”
Prince Sihanouk said he allowed his soldiers, who helped transport arms to Vietnam from Sihanoukville, to become “the Vietcong’s coolies.”
Steve Heder also contends that the leadership of the Vietnamese communists was well established in Cambodia, though against the Prince’s wishes.
Prince Sihanouk “was deeply dismayed to learn in November 1967 of evidence of the existence of numerous large Vietnamese base camps and ammunition dumps,” Heder wrote in his recently published “Cambodian Communism and the Vietnam Model.”
Consequently, the then-prince resumed relations with the US and gave its military permission to go after the encroachers.
Heder wrote that in January 1968, Prince Sihanouk “secretly agreed with a visiting US diplomat to let US troops carry out ‘hot pursuit’ attacks on Vietnamese forces territory.”
Antippas, on the other hand, wrote in his Aug 13 attack on Kerry’s claims that Cambodia never granted permission for “hot pursuit” operations.
“This was always denied, much to the military’s frustration,” he wrote.