For those living in Phnom Penh on April 12, 1975, the U.S. Embassy helicopters that took off on a one-way journey that day, carrying a few hundred foreigners and Cambodians to safety, signaled the end of civil war and the victory of the Khmer Rouge.
Phnom Penh had been cut off from the rest of the country for some time. The only means of supply were planes landing at the city’s Pochentong Airport, which was under intense shelling. Food was scarce and prices were so exorbitant that, according to historian Michael Vickery, 8,000 people in the capital city were believed to have died of starvation in March 1975 alone.
President Lon Nol, whose ineptitude had led many to wish him gone months earlier, had already fled the country on April 1 to take refuge in Hawaii.
The civil war had been raging since 1970. After being ousted in a March-1970 parliamentary vote initiated by Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk settled in Beijing.
There he had allied himself with his old foe, the Khmer Rouge, who were supported by the communist Vietnamese forces, and sent a radio appeal to Cambodians to join the Khmer Rouge to rid the country of the new Lon Nol government. The U.S. both directly and indirectly backed the Lon Nol government’s war against the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese communists.
By April 1975, the civil war had caused 300,000 deaths, according to a study by demographer Marek Sliwinski. About 16 to 20 percent of those deaths could be attributed to U.S. bombardments meant to stop Vietnamese communist and Khmer Rouge progress.
The country had been under siege for five years. So, hoping against all hope, some Cambodians believed that an end to the war would at least bring some normalcy to their lives.
“We thought that, once in power, the Khmer Rouge would become sensible,” Francois Ponchaud, a French Catholic priest who was in Phnom Penh at the time, said in an interview last month.
“It would probably be a harsh, communist regime,” he said. “But we did not expect a massacre.”
These unrealistic expectations were not due to ignorance, but rather desperation, Mr. Ponchaud said. “From 1973 on, no doubt remained as to what was happening in Cambodia.”
Following Lon Nol’s 1972 military campaign Chenla II, during which his Republican forces were routed by the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese communists, around 60,000 Cambodians managed to escape Khmer Rouge-occupied zones, bringing with them eyewitness accounts of the killings and living conditions in those sectors.
The U.S. Embassy staff in Phnom Penh had no doubt what to expect from the Khmer Rouge.
“Our messages from Phnom Penh [to Washington] were crystal clear: If the Khmer Rouge take control of the country, there was going to be a bloodbath,” said John Gunther Dean, the U.S. ambassador at the time, in oral history documents kept at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.
“It turned out to be even worse: a genocide.”
The Flight Out
Mr. Dean was surprised at the low number of Cambodians who accepted his offer to board a U.S. helicopter that day.
“It was one of the great mistakes the Cambodian bourgeoisie made: That everything could be forgotten and forgiven…. We knew what to expect from the Khmer Rouge and we tried to tell our contacts,” he said.
Prime Minister Long Boret believed he could count on his acquaintances among the Khmer Rouge, with whom he had gone to high school in Hanoi. As it turned out, he was among the first to be executed after Pol Pot’s forces took control of Phnom Penh.
Prince Sirik Matak simply refused to leave, as he explained in a letter to Mr. Dean.
“I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom,” he wrote. “I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion…. [I]f I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we all are born and must die [one day]. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you the Americans.”
The prince would also be among the first officials executed by the Khmer Rouge.
By April 12, 1975, many foreigners and Cambodians had already left Phnom Penh of their own volition or through U.S. transport. For nearly two months, the U.S. Embassy had been flying in daily shipments of food and offering seats on their airplanes’ return voyages for those wishing to leave, Mr. Dean said.
“We had responsibility for some 12-15 nationalities and certain Cambodians closely linked to the U.S.,” he said.
Among those offered seats on these early flights were International Red Cross staff as well as several dozen Cambodian Catholic monks and nuns evacuated at Mr. Dean’s insistence. However, Joseph Chhmar Salas, the country’s first Cambodian bishop, refused to leave. He would not survive the regime.
So when the U.S. helicopters of “Operation Eagle Pull” finally left once the embassy was shut down on April 12, they carried only 84 Americans and 205 Cambodians and foreigners, including several journalists.
“We took gardeners, houseboys, Koreans working for our mission, Cambodian generals or ministers, or educated Cambodians,” Mr. Dean said. “In short, we took people whose lives would be endangered when the Khmer Rouge came to power.”
One of them was Long Botta, a nuclear physicist who had studied in France in the 1960s. He was then serving as minister of culture while teaching physics and chemistry at Phnom Penh University—today’s Royal University of Phnom Penh. He is now a CNRP parliamentarian.
Having personally seen the Khmer Rouge’s cruelty toward anyone suspected—even vaguely—of not being on their side, Mr. Botta knew what would happen to him and his family when Pol Pot seized power.
Mr. Botta lived with his wife and two young children in teachers’ apartments behind the university. He had been warned by the U.S. Embassy to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. So when a note arrived in the early hours of April 12, he said: “I had 45 minutes to gather my family and reach the embassy” at the corner of today’s Norodom and Mao Tse Toung boulevards. “I left with $50 in my pocket.”
Mr. Botta believed that he would be taken to the border, where Cambodian officials would regroup and set up a government in exile. But instead, the helicopters landed on the USS Okinawa in the Gulf of Siam and, from there, evacuees were taken to Bangkok.
Mr. Botta followed events in Phnom Penh through the military hotline of the Cambodian Embassy until April 17. “The last sentence I heard was, ‘They’ve arrived. Farewell,’” he said. After that final message, the line went dead.
After the Exit
Once the U.S. helicopters had pulled away, many urban Cambodians still believed—or at least hoped —that there would be a return to normalcy after a Khmer Rouge victory, but the thousands of people from the countryside who were seeking refuge in Phnom Penh had few illusions as to what to expect under a Khmer Rouge government.
This illustrates the profound division between city and country that existed at the time. People in rural areas already knew how Khmer Rouge soldiers had been recruited and what was driving them; many had also witnessed firsthand the movement’s unrestrained violence toward perceived enemies.
“Under Prince Sihanouk, efforts in education programs had not reached peripheral parts of the country,” said historian Henri Locard, who lived in Phnom Penh in the 1960s. Sihanouk’s government focused on developing secondary schools and universities rather than primary schools, which meant that illiteracy remained high in the countryside, he said.
This also made provincial youth more vulnerable to Khmer Rouge propaganda when communist Vietnamese forces accompanying Khmer Rouge soldiers went from village to village to recruit in the early 1970s, Mr. Locard said in an interview last month. The Khmer Rouge “pitch” about fighting imperialism was accompanied by simple, memorable slogans that managed to indoctrinate many young people.
To write these slogans, Khmer Rouge leaders often borrowed from Buddhism, despite being nominally anti-religion, Mr. Ponchaud said. For instance, the wheel, which is one of the best-known Buddhist symbols in Cambodia, became in Khmer Rouge-speak the wheel that would crush ignorance and anyone opposing revolution.
One other factor that widened this city-countryside divide and also made rural Cambodians more vulnerable to Khmer Rouge propaganda was a lack of social mobility. Poor Cambodians had little hope of a better future in a society in which positions and promotions were obtained through patronage.
“The genuine and perceived social grievances of Cambodia’s rural poor [had been] ignored or taken for granted by city dwellers and by rulers since Angkorian times,” said historian David Chandler in an email interview. “These people had never been promised justice, empowerment and agency before.”
“[Chinese leader] Mao Zedong’s classic phrase ‘the mobilization of hatred’ was crucial, once hatred could be connected with city dwellers and foreigners,” Mr. Chandler said.
In addition, the Khmer Rouge were led by people who had been hunted in the 1950s and 1960s by the Cambodian authorities, as Prince Sihanouk had brooked no opposition and prohibited freedom of the press.
“Just imagine the mentality of people who had been pursued by police for 20 years,” Mr. Locard said.
Although the Khmer Rouge were about to win the war when the final U.S. helicopters left, their leaders knew that a military victory would not ensure them lasting power over the country.
Because the Vietnamese communist forces had long since left Cambodia to focus on their war against South Vietnam—which they would win by the end of April 1975—the Khmer Rouge army consisted of only about 20,000 soldiers, Mr. Locard said.
Controlling Phnom Penh, where 2 million people lived at the time, plus other cities in the country was going to be virtually impossible for them, he noted. The Khmer Rouge solution to this dilemma would be to empty those cities and disperse urbanites across the countryside to keep them in check.
As the U.S. withdrew, that operation was about to begin.