The Richard Nixon Presidential Library last week released a trove of formerly classified documents and tapes, including correspondence and recorded conversation over US bombings in Cambodia that show a president intent on using the raids to affect perceptions of US power.
In 1970, President Nixon told the US in a public address the bombing of Cambodia, which began in 1969 and continued through 1973 despite public and congressional outrage, was intended to disrupt Vietnamese supply lines and protect the Khmer Republic. But previously released materials and much of the information contained in the 265 hours of White House tapes and 140,000 documents released last week—selections of which are available on the library’s website—show a strategy focused on using bombings in Cambodia to intimidate North Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi.
In a taped telephone conversation released last week, US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger told Nixon that his greatest asset in fighting the Vietnamese is their impression that he is “illogical,” and encourages him to cultivate this perception.
“I tell you that [bombing in Cambodia] is the only thing we…. You know how it is…. We can get away with these…. The network people try to whine and bitch about it, but nobody cares,” Nixon said.
“I don’t think we are going to get much flak,” responds Mr Kissinger, referring to indifference within the news media.
The propaganda importance of the bombing campaign is stressed again in a secret April 1970 memorandum from US Central Intelligence Agency Director Richard Helms to Mr Kissinger detailing an attempt to convince leaders in Hanoi of the US determination to intervene should communists reach Phnom Penh, but also conceding the potential advantages of allowing those forces to overrun Cambodia.
“[T]he Vietnamese communist muscle-flexing in neutral Cambodia was giving Hanoi such a propaganda black eye worldwide, particularly within the US itself, that the United States government was reluctant to see the waters muddied by allied military involvement in the Cambodian VC/NVA fight,” wrote Helms.
A newly released recording in the Oval Office between Nixon and Mr Kissinger appears to confirm that US military objectives in Cambodia were less than concrete.
On the tape, dated March 16, 1973, Nixon asks Mr Kissinger for an update: “On the Cambodian front…are they hitting anything?”
Though some of the comments on the tape are muffled, Mr Kissinger can be heard to say the bombings are continuing and that “they just said they didn’t know what the targets are.” Amid the static, only one word of the president’s response is clearly audible, “funeral.”
In a speech at the US State Department this September, Mr Kissinger discussed the period of time covered in the documents, saying: “[T]he rules of engagement were that they could not bomb within a mile of occupied civilian settlements and that bombing had to be approved first by the government of Cambodia and above all by our ambassador on the recommendation of the local commander.”
After an exhaustive study, Polish demographer Marek Sliwinski concluded in 1995 that US bombs killed roughly 40,000 Cambodians.
In 2008, a lawyer for ex-Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, Jacques Verges, claimed that the US bombings may have affected the public accounting of the death toll under the communist regime.
“Look, it wasn’t in [Khmer Rouge’s] interest to diminish the population,” said Mr Verges. “It still has to be recognized that the Americans poured over Cambodia three times more bombs than on Japan. These bombs, there weren’t flowers in these bombs. They kill.”
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)