In a very brief statement after the death on Saturday of Alexander Haig, US President Barack Obama called the former military general and secretary of state “a great American who served our country with distinction.”
Such a remark may strike some Cambodians as a poor choice of words.
Mr Haig “played a large part” in determining the illegal spillover of the US offensive in the Indochina War, according to author William Shawcross.
As a military assistant to then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Mr Haig was present at the February 1969 breakfast meeting at which the US proposal to bomb Cambodia was first discussed, according to Mr Shawcross, author of the 1979 book “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia.”
The four-year bombing campaign–an operation to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines in Cambodia and which came to be called Operation Menu–began on March 18, 1969, and unleashed nearly 2.8 million tons of bombs in over 200,000 sorties over Cambodia, with over 10 percent dropped indiscriminately. This amounted to a tonnage greater than that dropped by the US on all combat theaters in the whole of World War II, according to US Air Force Data released in 2000.
Casualty estimates range from as few as 5,000 Cambodians to more than half a million, and bomb craters–not to mention unexploded ordnance–still pepper the Cambodian countryside.
Mr Haig “bristled at anything he saw as weakness to war,” and did not think the massive bombing campaign was sufficient, according to Mr Shawcross. He and others on Mr Kissinger’s staff stressed the need for an invasion of Cambodia so that troops could destroy Vietnamese communist sanctuaries. This got presidential approval in 1970.
After the invasion of Cambodia, Mr Haig made numerous trips to Phnom Penh, where the US was backing the government led by Lon Nol, who came to power in a 1970 coup, against the Khmer Rouge insurgency in the countryside.
Mr Haig was a key link between Phnom Penh and Washington in those turbulent years.
“He was vital in defining the relationship between the White House and Lon Nol, between the White House and the United States embassy, between the White House and reality,” Mr Shawcross wrote.
The US Congress ordered that the bombing of Cambodia be stopped in 1973. Apparently, Mr Haig was not happy, as an exchange with the president suggests.
“We’ve lost Southeast Asia,” he told President Richard Nixon after hearing the news, according to David Chandler’s “The Tragedy of Cambodian History.”
“Al, I think you’re right,” Nixon replied.
After the end of the bombing, with outrage over the Watergate scandal building, Mr Haig helped steer Mr Nixon toward resignation, an achievement that got more attention in his recent obituaries in the US media.
But history won’t forget Mr Haig’s involvement in Cambodia, according to Julio Jeldres, the official biographer of retired King Norodom Sihanouk. In an e-mail yesterday, Mr Jeldres repeated the criticism that the US bombing pushed Cambodia into the arms of the Khmer Rouge.
“I feel that General Haig will be remembered by history as one of the persons that helped Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in their destruction of Cambodia, through the relentless bombing of the Cambodian countryside, their encouragement of the coup d’etat against King Sihanouk and their support for the corrupt Lon Nol regime, which opened the doors wide for the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia,” he wrote.