New Nixon-era Documents Tell of Cambodian Sideshow

The US State Department last week released declassified papers from the administration of former President Richard Nixon and his advisers in the aftermath of the 1970 invasion of Cambodia.

The volume of documents, more than 1,100 pages in total covering US policy in Indochina from 1970 to 1972, was the most recent disclosure by the State Department historian as part of a foreign relations series spanning 1969 to 1976.

Their release Wednesday came after the last volume revealed in July that Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had deliberately leaked word of the US invasion of Cambodia to North Vietnam in an effort to intimidate Hanoi.

The new documents deal with operations in Cambodia by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which “were seen in policy terms as providing South Vietnam additional time to develop a more effective military, to generate economic growth, and to achieve some degree of political stability,” the State Department historian’s office said in a statement accompanying the records.

That priority is clear in a Jan 27, 1971, meeting in the Oval Office, during which Nixon said the following, according to a memorandum: “Our purpose is not the defense of Cambodia but the US program in Vietnam and the protection of US forces involved in this program.”

The meeting came a day before Secretary of State William Rogers, who was present, was to appear before the US Senate to be questioned about US involvement in Cambodia.

The presence of South Vietnamese troops in Cambodia was not without problems. An undated report from Brigadier General Alexander Haig, deputy assistant for National Security Affairs, noted that tales of misbehavior by the South Vietnam army were rampant in Phnom Penh.

“Khmer-Vietnamese animosity is a major problem and could threaten the base of the Lon Nol government, which must continue to rely on the [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] for assistance,” the report stated.

Nixon’s continued support for the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia is documented in the new volume. In a Dec 9, 1970, memorandum on the dismal military situation in Cambodia, Nixon wrote on the bottom of the page: “I want an all-out increase in bombing attacks in Cambodia–regardless of the budgetary limitations.”

Also recorded are comments by Nixon and others on the roughly three-month US invasion of Cambodia, which began in April 1970. The following is an excerpt from a Nov 18, 1970, telephone conversation between Haig and Nixon.

“I think the Cambodian thing has shaken our opponents, who were wrong as hell,” Haig said of the invasion. “I think we’ve turned a corner on this war and how it’s conducted. People have confidence.”

“Even though it failed,” Nixon replied, apparently referring to the invasion. “But that’s one thing. As far as success, my idea of it is a little different from others and I hope they teach this at the military schools. My philosophy is…they say it failed. I say the greatest failure is not trying. If you try and don’t succeed, it’s not a failure; it’s just a lack of success in one instance. You keep trying.”

 

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