Hundreds of thousands of formerly confidential U.S. diplomatic records from the 1970s, made available by WikiLeaks on Monday, offer previously unseen insight into the turning points of modern Cambodian history.
The global anti-secrecy organization launched a database of more than 1.7 million U.S. diplomatic records—relating to U.S. interests in all parts of the world, called the “Kissinger Cables”—from between 1973 and 1976. The documents date back to Henry Kissinger’s tenure as U.S. secretary of state, a period in which Cambodia’s civil war concluded with the sacking of Phnom Penh by Khmer Rouge forces.
The cables—which have been declassified for some time but were until now only available in a raw, unorganized form—show the State Department and Mr. Kissinger’s preoccupation with Cambodia at the time. They date from around the cessation of the secret U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia and show how Lon Nol, who ousted King Father Norodom Sihanouk in a coup in 1970, struggled to contain violent insurgencies in the countryside.
In a March 1973 cable, Ambassador Emory Swank tells Washington to instruct U.S. journalists about Sihanouk, who at the time was in exile following his overthrow by Lon Nol, a military general.
“It should be recalled that Sihanouk has always been violently hostile to the United States and the American government and that he has taken every occasion to injure them,” the ambassador wrote.
“Sihanouk was rejected by the people by unanimous vote of the National Assembly March 18, 1970, and the Khmer Republic is a legal entity which holds real popular elections.”
As the civil war continued, cables written in 1973 reflect the U.S.’ preoccupation with fighting on the edge of the city as embassy officials expressed their opinion that the wives of all staff members should make plans for evacuation.
In one cable written by the State Department in July 1973 and marked confidential, the government requested “further clarification as to whether there are presently any Khmer pilots (not only KAF [Khmer Air Force] pilots) working for civilian airlines who might be transferred to combat duties.”
A month later, the embassy responded: “From information that we have been able to gather there is only one Khmer national pilot flying with commercial airlines. This pilot, Prey Pea Veng Phan, is flying as co-pilot for Khmer Akas on DC-3 and DC-4 aircraft. He is not qualified as aircraft commander and therefore would be of little benefit to KAF.”
A cable in April 1974 marked “secret” from Mr. Kissinger to U.S. embassies discusses current Khmer Rouge tribunal defendant Khieu Samphan, at the time a rising diplomat, and concludes that his emergence was intended to “give him international stature” and to prevent Sihanouk from taking a powerful role in the event of the rebels’ victory.
He noted that Sihanouk “is cordially despised by the Marxists who also control the insurgency.”
Mr. Kissinger compared Khieu Samphan, who went on to become the Khmer Rouge regime’s head of state, to Yugoslavian autocrat Josip Tito.
“[B]ased on what we know of his personality, that the man who is now being pushed forward falls into a Titoist mold but probably without the supreme influence in the party of a Tito,” he wrote.
Despite U.S. support for the government, communist forces marched into Phnom Penh in April 1975. A flurry of Cambodia-related cables at this time deals with the evacuation of embassy personnel and U.S. citizens, as well as Cambodian orphans.
The cables offer some insight into how the U.S., and the world, slowly became familiar with the Khmer Rouge, its leaders and its tactics.
A January 1976 cable from the Bangkok Embassy cites a conversation with the Japanese charge d’affaires in Hanoi, Yukio Imagawa—a “long-time Cambodia watcher.” Mr. Imagawa reported comments made by the Cuban ambassador to Cambodia, who had visited Phnom Penh.
“The ambassador reportedly said that Phnom Penh remains a dead city. Although some civilians are living there, the great majority of houses and shops are completely closed up. Three or four cars are parked at every intersection in order to block movement on the streets,” the cable says.
“Finally, the Cuban observed that, passing by government offices, health facilities, and the like in Phnom Penh, he saw constantly the faces of foreigners. He surmised that they were Chinese but allegedly said that he could not be certain.”
And in September 1976, the State Department noted that Cambodian communism had “edge[d] out of the closet,” following the death that month of Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
“Khmer rhetoric on the occasion of Mao’s death has provided the clearest public statement yet that the Cambodian revolutionary organization is a Marxist-Leninist party,” the cable, which was written a year and five months after the fall of Phnom Penh, says.
“The first public hint came September 10th when Phnom Penh radio noted that Cambodian flags would fly at half mast to join the mourning of the ‘Fraternal Chinese Communist Party, government and people.’”