Excerpts and Quotations

excerpted from the book


Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

by William Shawcross

Simon and Schuster, 1979

... Cambodia was a test, a trial through which Nixon was putting the American people, let alone the Cambodians, so that if a real crisis did come one day, the world would beware. "This is not an invasion of Cambodia," Nixon insisted. (Officials were ordered to call it an "incursion" instead.) At one level this was just another lie, but at another it was true. Cambodia was a testing ground for United States resolve.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has pointed out that Nixon's view of the world recalls that of the Romans, as Joseph Schumpeter described it.

"There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, the allies would be invented." This was precisely what happened in Cambodia. United States troops were now committed to its forests, rubber plantations and villages to assure the world that the giant was in full training for the ultimate test.

The law was not relevant. Then, and subsequently, Nixon justified his action in terms of his responsibility as Commander in Chief to protect American troops, and he explained his refusal to consult Congress by citing Kennedy's secret moves at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Afterward the White House asked the Justice Department to prepare a legal justification. The task fell to William Rehnquist, an assistant attorney general, whom Nixon later elevated to the Supreme Court. His arguments are not impressive. He asserted that the Commander in Chief clause of the Constitution was "a grant of substantive authority" that allowed all Presidents to send troops "into conflict with foreign powers on their own initiative." In fact, the clause only gave the President such powers as the commanding officer of the armed forces would have had if he were not President. Rehnquist suggested that the invasion was only a very mild assertion of Presidential prerogative.

Mike Rives and the U.S. mission in Phnom Penh learned of the invasion by listening to Nixon's speech on Voice of America. Rives hurried around to tell Lon Nol what was happening in the eastern provinces of his country. Lon Nol was shocked. He declared publicly that the operation violated Cambodian territorial integrity. All that day United States and South Vietnamese troops, tanks and planes churned across the earth and the air into the provinces of Ratanakiri, Mondolkiri, Kompong Cham and Svay Rieng. Reporters flying westward by helicopter to cover the invasion noticed that the unmarked border was easily discerned. On the South Vietnamese side the buffalo grazed calmly, well used to the noise of the war above and around them. In Cambodia the animals ran into each other and scattered, terrified.

... the President had assumed the power to wage war, not only without Congressional approval, but in the face of express disapproval of the majority. Since it was clear to the Democrats that the votes to override another veto did not exist, such a compromise was made. When the President publicly agreed to respect a deadline of August 15, and not to increase the intensity of the bombing in the interim, the Congress gave him another month and a half to bomb Cambodia and to produce the cease-fire that he and Kissinger claimed was within grasp.

The paradox was clear. Senator J. William Fulbright remarked, "I don't think it is legal or constitutional. But whether it is right or not, he has done it. He has the power to do it because under our system there is not an easy way to stop him." That was an accurate political assessment but it did not satisfy all of his colleagues. Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri complained that bombing was "not an issue that yields to compromise. Congress cannot sanction an unconstitutional and illegal endeavor for 'just a little while.' There is no way of just being a little bit unconstitutional or just a little bit illegal." Senator Edward Kennedy called it an "infamous" agreement, totally careless of Cambodian lives...

General John Vogt, the Seventh Air Force Commander, also speaks with pride today of 1973. The bombing, he says, saved Phnom Penh by killing about 16,000 of the enemy. It is important to consider the implications of this figure, even if, as is probable, it is exaggerated. About 75 of the Khmer Rouge's 175 battalions were put into the battle for Phnom Penh, and each battalion numbered some 340 men. This meant a force of about 25,500 attacking the capital. If most of Vogt's casualties were where the bombing was heaviest, on the city's approaches, then the Khmer Rouge would have lost well over half of its assault force. Even if one spreads the loss across the entire army, this means 25 percent killed. There is a military rule of thumb, generally accepted by battle commanders, that units cannot sustain losses of more than 10 percent without suffering often irreversible psychological damage.

That summer's war provides a lasting image of peasant boys and girls, clad in black, moving slowly through the mud, half-crazed with terror, as fighter bombers tore down at them by day, and night after night whole seas of 750-pound bombs smashed all around. Week after week they edged forward, forever digging in, forever clambering slippery road banks to assault government outposts, forever losing comrades and going on in thinner ranks through a landscape that would have seemed lunar had it not been under water. They pushed toward the enemy's capital, urged on by their commanders, a small group of hardened zealous men who had lived up to ten years in the isolation of the jungles, whose only experience of alliance was betrayal, whose only knowledge of war was massive retaliation.

For those men, 1973 confirmed a historic conviction that survival, let alone victory, could be guaranteed only by absolute independence and an astonishing fixity of purpose. They faced an enemy who at least appeared to have enormous support from his sponsor, while they themselves could not trust even their own leader, let alone their friends. Their attack upon Phnom Penh was a madness born of desperate isolation, which bred a dreadful hatred of their enemy and a contempt for the attitudes of the outside world. But for the bombing and their shortages of munitions, they might have won the war that summer. As it was, the indifference of their allies and the assault upon them by the supporters of their enemy stamped out thousands upon thousands of them, and the survivors had neither the men nor the firepower for a final assault upon the capital when, after August 15, 1973, the rains reinherited the skies.

Prince Sihanouk in New York in 1979
"The humble people of Cambodia are the most wonderful in the world. Their great misfortune is that they always have terrible leaders who make them suffer. I am not sure that I was much better myself, but perhaps I was the least bad."

Neither the United States nor its friends nor those who are caught helplessly in its embrace are well served when its leaders act, as Nixon and Kissinger acted, without care. Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime.


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