President Nixon approves Cambodian incursion

President Nixon approves Cambodian incursion

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President Richard Nixon gives his formal authorization to commit U.S. combat troops, in cooperation with South Vietnamese units, against communist troop sanctuaries in Cambodia.

READ MORE: How Nixon’s Invasion of Cambodia Triggered a Check on Presidential Power

Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who had continually argued for a downsizing of the U.S. effort in Vietnam, were excluded from the decision to use U.S. troops in Cambodia. Gen. Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cabled Gen. Creighton Abrams, senior U.S. commander in Saigon, informing him of the decision that a “higher authority has authorized certain military actions to protect U.S. forces operating in South Vietnam.” Nixon believed that the operation was necessary as a pre-emptive strike to forestall North Vietnamese attacks from Cambodia into South Vietnam as the U.S. forces withdrew and the South Vietnamese assumed more responsibility for the fighting. Nevertheless, three National Security Council staff members and key aides to presidential assistant Henry Kissinger resigned in protest over what amounted to an invasion of Cambodia.

When Nixon publicly announced the Cambodian incursion on April 30, it set off a wave of antiwar demonstrations. A May 4, protest at Kent State University resulted in the killing of four students by Army National Guard troops. Another student rally at Jackson State College in Mississippi resulted in the death of two students and 12 wounded when police opened fire on a women’s dormitory. The incursion angered many in Congress, who felt that Nixon was illegally widening the war; this resulted in a series of congressional resolutions and legislative initiatives that would severely limit the executive power of the president.

READ MORE: Vietnam War Protests

President Nixon approves Cambodian incursion - HISTORY

[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio. (2)]

Good evening, my fellow Americans. Ten days ago, in my report to the nation on Vietnam, I announced the decision to withdraw an additional 150,000 Americans from Vietnam over the next year. I said then that I was making that decision despite our concern over increased enemy activity in Laos, in Cambodia, and in South Vietnam. And at that time I warned that if I concluded that increased enemy activity in any of these areas endangered the lives of Americans remaining in Vietnam, I would not hesitate to take strong and effective measures to deal with that situation. Despite that warning, North Vietnam has increased its military aggression in all these areas, and particularly in Cambodia.

After full consultation with the National Security Council, Ambassador Bunker, General Abrams and my other advisors, I have concluded that the actions of the enemy in the last 10 days clearly endanger the lives of Americans who are in Vietnam now and would constitute an unacceptable risk to those who will be there after withdrawal of another 150,000. To protect our men who are in Vietnam, and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization program, I have concluded that the time has come for action.

Tonight, I shall describe the actions of the enemy, the actions I have ordered to deal with that situation, and the reasons for my decision.

Cambodia -- a small country of seven million people -- has been a neutral nation since the Geneva Agreement of 1954, an agreement, incidentally, which was signed by the government of North Vietnam. American policy since then has been to scrupulously respect the neutrality of the Cambodian people. We have maintained a skeleton diplomatic mission of fewer than 15 in Cambodia’s capital, and that only since last August. For the previous four years, from 1965 to 1969, we did not have any diplomatic mission whatever in Cambodia, and for the past five years we have provided no military assistance whatever and no economic assistance to Cambodia.

North Vietnam, however, has not respected that neutrality. For the past five years, as indicated on this map, that you see here, North Vietnam has occupied military sanctuaries all along the Cambodian frontier with South Vietnam. Some of these extend up to 20 miles into Cambodia. The sanctuaries are in red, and as you note, they are on both sides of the border. They are used for hit-and-run attacks on American and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. These Communist-occupied territories contain major base camps, training sites, logistics facilities, weapons and ammunition factories, airstrips, and prisoner of war compounds.

And for five years neither the United States nor South Vietnam has moved against these enemy sanctuaries because we did not wish to violate the territory of a neutral nation. Even after the Vietnamese Communists began to expand these sanctuaries four weeks ago, we counseled patience to our South Vietnamese allies and imposed restraints on our own commanders.

In contrast to our policy the enemy in the past two weeks has stepped up his guerrilla actions, and he is concentrating his main forces in these sanctuaries that you see in this map, where they are building up to launch massive attacks on our forces and those of South Vietnam.

North Vietnam in the last two weeks has stripped away all pretense of respecting the sovereignty or the neutrality of Cambodia. Thousands of their soldiers are invading the country from the sanctuaries. They are encircling the capital of Pnompenh. Coming from these sanctuaries, as you see here, they had moved into Cambodia and are encircling the capital.

Cambodia, as a result of this, has sent out a call to the United States, to a number of other nations, for assistance. Because if this enemy effort succeeds, Cambodia would become a vast enemy staging area and a springboard for attacks on South Vietnam along 600 miles of frontier: a refuge where enemy troops could return from combat without fear of retaliation. North Vietnamese men and supplies could then be poured into that country, jeopardizing not only the lives of our own men but the people of South Vietnam as well.

Now confronted with this situation we had three options:

First, we can do nothing. Well the ultimate result of that course of action is clear. Unless we indulge in wishful thinking, the lives of Americans remaining in Vietnam after our next withdrawal of 150,000 would be gravely threatened.

Let us go to the map again.

Here is South Vietnam. Here is North Vietnam. North Vietnam already occupies this part of Laos. If North Vietnam also occupied this whole band in Cambodia, or the entire country, it would mean that South Vietnam was completely outflanked and the forces of Americans in this area as well as the South Vietnamese would be in an untenable military position.

Our second choice is to provide massive military assistance to Cambodia itself. Now unfortunately, while we deeply sympathize with the plight of seven million Cambodians whose country has been invaded, massive amounts of military assistance could not be rapidly and effectively utilized by this small Cambodian Army against the immediate trap. With other nations we shall do our best to provide the small arms and other equipment which the Cambodian Army of 40,000 needs and can use for its defense. But the aid we will provide will be limited for the purpose of enabling Cambodia to defend its neutrality and not for the purpose of making it an active belligerent on one side or the other.

Our third choice is to go to the heart of the trouble. And that means cleaning out major North Vietnamese and Vietcong occupied territories, these sanctuaries which serve as bases for attacks on both Cambodia and American and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. Some of these, incidentally, are as close to Saigon as Baltimore is to Washington. This one, for example, is called the Parrot’s Beak. It’s only 33 miles from Saigon.

Now faced with these three options, this is the decision I have made. In co-operation with the armed forces of South Vietnam, attacks are being launched this week to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border. A major responsibility for the ground operations is being assumed by South Vietnamese forces.

For example, the attacks in several areas, including the parrot’s beak that I referred to a moment ago, are exclusively South Vietnamese ground operations, under South Vietnamese command, with the United States providing air and logistical support. There is one area however, immediately above the parrot’s beak where I have concluded that a combined American and South Vietnamese operation is necessary.

Tonight, American and South Vietnamese units will attack the headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam. This key control center has been occupied by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong for five years in blatant violation of Cambodia’s neutrality.

This is not an invasion of Cambodia. The areas in which these attacks will be launched are completely occupied and controlled by North Vietnamese forces. Our purpose is not to occupy the areas. Once enemy forces are driven out of these sanctuaries, and once their military supplies are destroyed, we will withdraw.

These actions are in no way directed to the security interests of any nation. Any government that chooses to use these actions as a pretext for harming relations with the United States will be doing so on its own responsibility and on its own initiative, and we will draw the appropriate conclusions.

And now, let me give you the reasons for my decision. A majority of the American people, a majority of you listening to me are for the withdrawal of our forces from Vietnam. The action I have taken tonight is indispensable for the continuing success of that withdrawal program. A majority of the American people want to end this war rather than to have it drag on interminably. The action I have taken tonight will serve that purpose. A majority of the American people want to keep the casualties of our brave men in Vietnam at an absolute minimum. The action I take tonight is essential if we are to accomplish that goal.

We take this action not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia, but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam, and winning the just peace we all desire.

We have made, we will continue to make every possible effort to end this war through negotiation at the conference table rather than through more fighting in the battlefield.

Let’s look again at the record.

We stopped the bombing of North Vietnam. We have cut air operations by over 20 per cent. We’ve announced the withdrawal of over 250, 000 of our men. We’ve offered to withdraw all of our men if they will withdraw theirs. We’ve offered to negotiate all issues with only one condition: and that is that the future of South Vietnam be determined, not by North Vietnam, and not by the United States, but by the people of South Vietnam themselves.

The answer of the enemy has been intransigence at the conference table, belligerence at Hanoi, massive military aggression in Laos and Cambodia and stepped-up attacks in South Vietnam designed to increase American casualties.

This attitude has become intolerable.

We will not react to this threat to American lives merely by plaintive, diplomatic protests.

If we did, the credibility of the United States would be destroyed in every area of the world where only the power of the United States deters aggression.

Tonight, I again warn the North Vietnamese that if they continue to escalate the fighting when the United States is withdrawing its forces, I shall meet my responsibility as commander in chief of our armed forces to take the action I consider necessary to defend the security of our American men.

The action I have announced tonight puts the leaders of North Vietnam on notice that we will be patient in working for peace. We will be conciliatory at the conference table.

But we will not be humiliated.

We will not allow American men, by the thousands, to be killed by an enemy from privileged sanctuaries.

The time came long ago to end this war through peaceful negotiations. We stand ready for those negotiations. We’ve made major efforts, many of which must remain secret. I say tonight all the offers and approaches made previously remain on the conference table whenever Hanoi is ready to negotiate seriously. But if the enemy response to our most conciliatory offers for peaceful negotiation continues to be to increase its attacks and humiliate and defeat us, we shall react accordingly.

My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.

Small nations all over the world find themselves under attack from within and from without. If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation -- the United States of America -- acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.

It is not our power, but our will and character that is being tested tonight.

The question all Americans must ask and answer tonight is this: Does the richest and strongest nation in the history of the world have the character to meet a direct challenge by a group which rejects every effort to win a just peace, ignores our warning, tramples on solemn agreements, violates the neutrality of an unarmed people, and uses our prisoners as hostages? If we fail to meet this challenge, all other nations will be on notice that despite its overwhelming power the United States when a real crisis comes will be found wanting.

During my campaign for the Presidency, I pledged to bring Americans home form Vietnam. They are coming home. I promised to end this war. I shall keep that promise. I promised to win a just peace. I shall keep that promise. We shall avoid a wider war, but we are also determined to put an end to this war.

In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions which led to victory in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions which led to our victory in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions which ended the war in Korea and avoided war in the Middle East. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision which removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba and the western hemisphere.

I have noted that there’s been a great deal of discussion with regard to this decision that I have made. And I should point out I do not contend that it is in the same magnitude as these decisions that I have just mentioned. But between those decisions and this decision, there is a difference that is very fundamental. In those decisions the American people were not assailed by counsels of doubt and defeat from some of the most widely known opinion leaders of the nation.

I have noted, for example, that a Republican Senator has said that this action I have taken means that my party has lost all chance of winning the November elections. And others are saying today that this move against enemy sanctuaries will make me a one-term President.

No one is more aware than I am of the political consequences of the action I have taken. It is tempting to take the easy political path, to blame this war on previous Administrations, and to bring all of our men home immediately -- regardless of the consequences, even though that would mean defeat for the United States to desert 18 million South Vietnamese people who have put their trust in us to expose them to the same slaughter and savagery which the leaders of North Vietnam inflicted on hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese who chose freedom when the Communists took over North Vietnam in 1954.

To get peace at any price now, even though I know that a peace of humiliation for the United States would lead to a bigger war or surrender later. I have rejected all political considerations in making this decision. Whether my party gains in November is nothing compared to the lives of 400,000 brave Americans fighting for our country and for the cause of peace and freedom in Vietnam.

Whether I may be a one-term President is insignificant compared to whether by our failure to act in this crisis the United States proves itself to be unworthy to lead the forces of freedom in this critical period in world history.

I would rather be a one-term president and do what I believe was right than to be a two-term President at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history.

I realize in this war there are honest, deep differences in this country about whether we should have become involved that there are differences to how the war should have been conducted.

But the decision I announce tonight transcends those differences, for the lives of American men are involved.

The opportunity for 150,000 Americans to come home in the next 12 months is involved.

The future of 18-million people in South Vietnam and 7 million people in Cambodia is involved.

The possibility of winning a just peace in Vietnam and in the Pacific is at stake.

It is customary to conclude a speech from the White House by asking support for the President of the United States. Tonight, I depart from that precedent. What I ask is far more important. I ask for your support for our brave men fighting tonight halfway around the world, not for territory, not for glory, but so that their younger brothers and their sons and your sons can have a chance to grow up in a world of peace, and freedom, and justice.

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Audio Note: Long pauses removed for continuity. All originally delivered content preserved.

30 April 1970: The Cambodian Campaign

On 30 April 1970, US President Richard Nixon publicly announced American and South Vietnamese plans to invade National Liberation Front (NLF) and People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) sanctuaries along Cambodia’s southeastern border with Vietnam, areas long established as resistance headquarters.

In his televised address, President Nixon outlined the reasons behind the planned incursion, often referring to the NLF’s persistent aggression and the need of retaliatory force.

“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

Excerpt from President Nixon ’s televised address (15:14)

The incursion, that would last from the end of April until the beginning of July, was set to embark on a series of operations to systematically target what were regarded as established sites used as headquarters by the NLF and the PLAF.

The first, named Operation Total Victory (Toàn Thắng 42), saw 12 Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) battalions, approximately 8,700 troops, cross the border into Cambodia from the south, an area designated the “Parrot’s Beak”. This stage of the incursion swept through Svay Rieng Province and into Kampong Trebek District, finally pathing a way to the capital Phnom Penh with Operations Kowloon (Cửu Long) I, II and III beginning on 10 April. Forces part of this operation would withdraw from Cambodia on 1 July.

Then, on the 1 April, 36 B-52s dropped 774 tons of bombs along the northern
“Fishhook” zone followed by a ground forces incursion of both US and ARVN troops, named Operation Rock Crusher (Toàn Thắng 43), that targeted Memot and Snoul. Memot had long been regarded as the position for the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), formed in May 1961, and was considered the top prize for US and ARVN military personnel. US forces part of this operation would withdraw from Cambodia on 30 June ARVN forces withdrew on 1 July.

Map Cambodian Incursion beginning May 1970 from US Military Academy

The third operation, Operation Bold Lancer, began on the 6 April as a joint effort by US and ARVN troops, until their equal withdrawal on 30 June. This part of the incursion targeted Bases 353, 354 and 707, areas known to be occupied by the NLF.

Even though considered a successful incursion by the Nixon administration, the operation as a whole theoretically failed to achieve its objectives and further spoiled America’s military presence in Vietnam. Although ARVN and US troops captured large amounts of NLF and PLAF supplies and material, the allied forces failed to capture the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG) or NLF leadership. In essence, this primary military failure stemmed from the lack of understanding US and ARVN forces had of the NLF command structure. Rather than operating from a centralised base, much like the Pentagon or other Western military commands, the bases for resistance headquarters in South Vietnam were loose-knit entities, made up of small decentralised cells that were often far apart and ready to relocate at any time. This resulted in many of the PLAF and NLF leadership personnel fleeing the areas before American and ARVN troops arrived.

As well as the military failure of the operation, the US government suffered politically both at home and abroad. The bombings approved by President Nixon , as well as the troop incursion itself, was seen as an unlawful act by both the US Congress and the American public. Congressmen quickly moved to block the incursion by proposing an amendment to the Foreign Military Sales Act that would have cut off funding not only for US ground operations and advisors in Cambodia but would also have ended US air support for Cambodian forces. Seen as an escalation of the war into yet another country, anti-war protests erupted around the country, resulting in the shooting of four students at Kent University the following month.

Abroad, the failed incursion led to a semi-political victory for the Khmer Rouge, clearing the way for their dominance in government and their eventual rise as Cambodia’s dictatorial regime.

Was It Legal for the U.S. to Bomb Cambodia?

Is it acceptable to engage an enemy on the territory of a third country? It’s a question that has confronted Washington policymakers in recent years over ISIS forces in Syria and Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in 1967, it was asked most urgently over the use of Cambodian territory by Vietnamese communists. What Washington policymakers decided then, and the way they continued to address the question over the following years, has had a significant impact on the shape of American foreign policy ever since.

The National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong, and North Vietnam established camps and supply routes on the Cambodian side of the border with South Vietnam to resupply their forces and undertake military operations against the Saigon government and its allies. As an avowedly neutral party in the war, the Cambodian government did not formally approve of the Vietnamese communists using its territory as a base area, nor would it give permission to American or allied forces to enter its jurisdiction to confront their enemies.

This left decision makers in Washington in a bind. On the one hand, respecting Cambodian sovereignty allowed the enemy a sanctuary or safe haven and so hindered the American war effort. On the other, taking action against the enemy on Cambodian soil risked a public backlash, both within the United States and around the world.

In December 1967, this dilemma came into sharp focus for President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers when Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam, recommended an attack on enemy units resting and regrouping in Cambodia after the Battle of Dak To the previous month.

Westmoreland saw an easy target — intelligence showed no evidence that the enemy units were digging in and constructing bunkers — and on Dec. 5 he sought approval for three days of airstrikes by B-52 bombers. Westmoreland acknowledged that B-52 strikes would leave “a clear signature in Cambodian territory,” meaning news of the operation would be hard to keep under wraps, but he was adamant that possible bad publicity was worth the risk. “I feel strongly that the opportunity which exists is sufficiently important that it should be exploited now,” he wrote to Gen. Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “and if necessary explain our actions as hot pursuit by fire in an uninhabited area.”

A recent spike in news media attention might have helped Westmoreland’s cause. Two weeks earlier, journalists from The Associated Press, tipped off by Westmoreland’s own staff, had reported the discovery of an enemy camp four miles inside Cambodia. And in a late November television interview, former President Dwight Eisenhower criticized “that sort of sacrosanct idea of a line on the ground that no one can see, but it’s on your maps, and you must respect it.”

Publicly supporting the sort of action in “hot pursuit” that Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs would pitch in private a week later, Eisenhower was adamant that “if you’re chasing some people and they just step over into Cambodia or Laos, I wouldn’t — it wouldn’t bother me. I’d go at ’em as long as they’d come in there in the first place.”

Johnson discussed Westmoreland’s request in two meetings with his closest advisers on the war on Dec. 5. Wheeler pressed Westmoreland’s case: “We only wish Cambodia would be neutral — honest to God neutral, too. Anyone else would not permit enemy troops to use their territory for sanctuaries.” But he was in a clear minority. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had announced his pending resignation the previous week, spoke up against granting Westmoreland’s request, telling the group that he was “scared to death of a policy based on an assumption that by going somewhere else we can win the war.”

His State Department counterpart, Dean Rusk, was similarly wary, speculating that Westmoreland’s proposed action could “change the entire character of the war.” Johnson put Westmoreland’s request on hold.

Westmoreland’s proposal to explain his recommended action in Cambodia as “hot pursuit by fire” was an attempt to solve the crux of the Cambodian dilemma as it appeared to American policymakers throughout the Vietnam War: how to warp the red line that a sovereign border represented without ignoring it entirely. As the economist Thomas Schelling put it the previous year in “Arms and Influence” — something of a strategic playbook for key architects of the American war in Vietnam — the “purpose of invoking ‘hot pursuit’ is not merely to find an excuse for it but to identify a limitation in intent, to let the enemy appreciate that his is not an abandonment altogether of some previous restriction but an allowable departure under the rules of the game.”

A number of Johnson’s advisers were skeptical of this logic. They thought that rather than signaling limited intent, an appeal to a right of hot pursuit would more likely be seen as feeble cover for a significant change in policy.. Averell Harriman, ambassador at large and one of Johnson’s foreign policy “wise men,” tried to convince the president that “the world at large (and a substantial section of the American public) has not yet been presented with convincing evidence that expanding the war into ‘a tiny, helpless country’ is justified.”

In any case, despite the assumption of Westmoreland and Schelling, hot pursuit was not widely accepted as an allowable departure under the rules of the game. It had no standing in international law (except within the law of the sea, which allows for the hot pursuit of vessels into international waters), and since at least March 1965 the State Department Office of the Legal Adviser had rejected it as an appropriate justification for crossing the Cambodian border. The lawyers insisted instead that any legal argument for border crossing would need to rest on the right of self-defense guaranteed by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

The legal basis for the American bombing of North Vietnam rested on the collective self-defense of South Vietnam. But the logic of self-defense regarding Cambodia was different: Whereas the government of North Vietnam could conceivably be linked to military attacks against the government of South Vietnam, the government of Cambodia could not. Absent a sudden threat that left no time for deliberation, Washington would therefore need to show Cambodian “connivance” in the use of its territory before launching any attack on Cambodia. The Cambodian head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, often appeared to be more friendly to the communists than to the Americans, but substantial evidence of connivance did not surface.

Particular military units engaged with the enemy had authority to fire over or cross the border if necessary to defend themselves. (On Dec. 5, Rusk suggested that this authority might still allow Westmoreland some freedom of action: “I would have thought that Westy would have drug his shirttail along the Cambodian border and drawn enemy fire. Then the rules would permit him to shoot back across the border when fired upon.”) But beyond this, and the limited covert reconnaissance operations code-named Daniel Boone, no further authority was granted. On Dec. 18, Johnson effectively ended the debate over Westmoreland’s request. The United States would instead focus on trying to convince the Cambodian government to be more assertive in the defense of Cambodian neutrality, or to let others act to preserve that neutrality.

Johnson’s successor in the White House made a different decision. President Richard Nixon approved B-52 strikes on suspected enemy locations in Cambodia from March 1969, and at the end of April 1970 he sent American ground forces across the frontier to find and destroy enemy sanctuaries. The catalyst for the 1970 Cambodian incursion (or invasion) was the overthrow of Sihanouk and the establishment of a more pro-American government in Phnom Penh. But even this government sought to preserve Cambodia’s neutrality, meaning it could not formally invite American troops into the country.

Nearly a decade after the incursion, Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, wrote that the “moral significance” of the distinction between the Johnson and Nixon policies regarding Cambodia escaped him, even if the distinction seemed self-evident to the many people and foreign governments that objected to and protested the action.

The legal significance of Nixon’s action in Cambodia was more subtle, yet not inconsequential. A post-facto legal justification for the incursion was slow in coming, but on May 28, Nixon’s State Department legal adviser laid out a novel extension to the right of self-defense, arguing that the incursion was justified because the Cambodian government could not or would not defend its neutral status and prevent Vietnamese communists from using its territory.

Across a half-decade of earlier legal advice concerning Cambodia’s role in the Vietnam War, lawyers in the Johnson administration do not appear to have acknowledged the existence of such a standard, now known as the “unwilling or unable” doctrine. But since its articulation in 1970, the “unwilling or unable” doctrine has played an increasingly important role in justifying American interventions abroad. How American leaders grappled with the Cambodian problem during the Vietnam War has important implications for the use of military force by the United States today.


Background Edit

The PAVN had been utilizing large sections of relatively unpopulated eastern Cambodia as sanctuaries into which they could withdraw from the struggle in South Vietnam to rest and reorganize without being attacked. These base areas were also utilized by the PAVN and VC to store weapons and other material that had been transported on a large scale into the region on the Sihanouk Trail. PAVN forces had begun moving through Cambodian territory as early as 1963. [4]

Cambodian neutrality had already been violated by South Vietnamese forces in pursuit of political-military factions opposed to the regime of Ngô Đình Diệm in the late 1950s and early 1960s. [4] In 1966, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, ruler of Cambodia, convinced of eventual communist victory in Southeast Asia and fearful for the future of his rule, had concluded an agreement with the People's Republic of China which allowed the establishment of permanent communist bases on Cambodian soil and the use of the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville for resupply. [5] : 127 [6] : 193

During 1968, Cambodia's indigenous communist movement, labeled Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers) by Sihanouk, began an insurgency to overthrow the government. While they received very limited material help from the North Vietnamese at the time (the Hanoi government had no incentive to overthrow Sihanouk, since it was satisfied with his continued "neutrality"), they were able to shelter their forces in areas controlled by PAVN/VC troops. [7] : 55

The US government was aware of these activities in Cambodia, but refrained from taking overt military action within Cambodia in hopes of convincing the mercurial Sihanouk to alter his position. To accomplish this, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized covert cross-border reconnaissance operations conducted by the secret Studies and Observations Group in order to gather intelligence on PAVN/VC activities in the border regions (Project Vesuvius). [8] [5] : 129–130

Menu, coup and North Vietnamese offensive Edit

The new commander of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), General Creighton W. Abrams, recommended to President Richard M. Nixon shortly after Nixon's inauguration that the Cambodian base areas be bombed by B-52 Stratofortress bombers. [9] : 127 Nixon initially refused, but the breaking point came with the launching of PAVN's Tet 1969 Offensive in South Vietnam. Nixon, angered at what he perceived as a violation of the "agreement" with Hanoi after the cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam, authorized the covert air campaign. [9] : 128 The first mission of Operation Menu was dispatched on 18 March and by the time it was completed 14 months later more than 3,000 sorties had been flown and 108,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on eastern Cambodia. [9] : 127–133

While Sihanouk was abroad in France for a rest cure in January 1970, government-sponsored anti-Vietnamese demonstrations were held throughout Cambodia. [7] : 56–57 Continued unrest spurred Prime Minister/Defense Minister Lon Nol to close the port of Sihanoukville to communist supplies and to issue an ultimatum on 12 March to the North Vietnamese to withdraw their forces from Cambodia within 72 hours. The prince, outraged that his "modus vivendi" with the communists had been disturbed, immediately arranged for a trip to Moscow and Beijing in an attempt to gain their agreement to apply pressure on Hanoi to restrain its forces in Cambodia. [4] : 90

National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs that "historians rarely do justice to the psychological stress on a policy-maker", noting that by early 1970 President Nixon was feeling very much besieged and inclined to lash out against a world he was believed was plotting his downfall. [10] : 606 Nixon had vowed to end the Vietnam War by 1 November 1969 and failed to do so while in the fall of 1969 he had seen two of his nominations to the Supreme Court rejected by the Senate. [10] : 606 Nixon had taken the rejection of his nominations to the Supreme Court as personal humiliations, which he was constantly brooding over. In February 1970, the "secret war" in Laos was revealed, much to his displeasure. [10] : 606–7 Kissinger had denied in a press statement that any Americans had been killed fighting in Laos, only for it emerge two days later that 27 Americans had been killed fighting in Laos. [11] : 560 As a result, Nixon's public approval ratings fell by 11 points, causing him to refuse to see Kissinger for the next week. [11] : 560 Nixon had hopes that when Kissinger secretly met Lê Đức Thọ in Paris in February 1970 that this might lead to a breakthrough in the negotiations and was disappointed that proved not to be so. [10] : 607 Nixon had become obsessed with the film Patton, a biographical portrayal of controversial General George S. Patton, Jr., which he kept watching over and over again, seeing how the film presented Patton as a solitary and misunderstood genius whom the world did not appreciate a parallel to himself. [10] : 607 Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that he and the rest of his staff should see Patton and be more like the subject of the film. [11] : 560 Feeling that events were not working in his favor, Nixon was in a favor of some bold, audacious action that might turn his fortunes around. [10] : 607 In particular, Nixon believed that a spectacular military action that would prove "we are still serious about our commitment in Vietnam" might force the North Vietnamese to conclude the Paris peace talks in a manner satisfactory to American interests. [10] : 607 In 1969, Nixon had pulled out 25,000 U.S. troops from South Vietnam and was planning to pull out 150,000 in the very near future. [10] : 607 The first withdrawal of 1969 had led to an increase in PAVN/VC activities in the Saigon area, and General Abrams had warned Nixon to pull out another 150,000 troops without eliminating the PAVN/VC bases over the border in Cambodia would create an untenable military situation. [10] : 607 Even before the coup against Sihanouk, Nixon was psychologically inclined to invade Cambodia. [10] : 606

On 18 March, the Cambodian National Assembly removed Sihanouk and named Lon Nol as provisional head of state. Sihanouk was in Moscow, having a discussion with the Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin, who had to inform him mid-way in the conversation that he had just been deposed. [11] : 558 In response, Sihanouk immediately established a government-in-exile in Beijing and to allied himself with North Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, the VC and the Laotian Pathet Lao. [5] : 144 In doing so, Sihanouk lent his name and popularity in the rural areas of Cambodia to a movement over which he had little control. [12] Sihanouk was revered by the Khmer peasantry as a god-like figure and his endorsement of the Khmer Rouge had immediate effects in rural areas (Silhanouk was less popular in the more educated urban areas of Cambodia). [11] : 558 The reverence for the royal family was such that Lon Nol after the coup went to the Royal Palace, knelt at the feet of the queen mother Sisowath Kossamak and asked for her forgiveness for deposing her son. [11] : 558 In the rural town of Kampong Cham, farmers enraged that their beloved ruler had been overthrown lynched one of Lon Nol's brothers, cut out his liver, cooked it and ate it to symbolize their contempt for the brother of the man who overthrown Sihanouk, who was viewed as the rightful once and future king. [11] : 558

Sihanouk was enraged by the vulgar media attacks by Lon Nol against himself and his family, saying in interview with Stanley Karnow in 1981 that despite that fact that the Khmer Rouge slaughtered much of the royal family including several of his children he still had no regrets about allying himself with the Khmer Rouge in 1970. [10] : 606 His voice raising in fury, Sihanouk told Karnow: "I had to avenge myself against Lon Nol. He was my minister, my officer and he betrayed me". [10] : 606 Sihanouk left Moscow for Beijing, where he was greeted warmly by Zhou Enlai, who assured him that China still recognized him as the legitimate leader of Cambodia, and would back his efforts at restoration. [11] : 558–559 Sihanouk went on Chinese radio to appeal to his people to overthrow Lon Nol, whom he depicted as a puppet of the Americans. [11] : 559 Lon Nol was an intense Khmer nationalist, who detested the Vietnamese, the ancient archenemies of the Khmer nation. [11] : 561 Like many other Khmer nationalists, Lon Nol had not forgotten the southern half of Vietnam was part of the Khmer empire until the 18th century nor had he forgiven the Vietnamese for conquering an area that historically was part of Cambodia. Through Cambodia had a weak army, Lon Nol had given Hanoi 48 hours to pull its forces out of Cambodia and began the hasty training of 60,000 volunteers to fight the PAVN/VC. [11] : 561 By late March 1970, Cambodia had descended into anarchy as Karnow noted: "Rival Cambodian gangs were hacking each other to pieces, in some instances celebrating their prowess by eating the hearts and lives of their victims." [10] : 607

The North Vietnamese response was swift, they began directly supplying large amounts of weapons and advisors to the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia plunged into civil war. [13] [14] Lon Nol saw Cambodia's population of 400,000 ethnic Vietnamese as possible hostages to prevent PAVN attacks and ordered their roundup and internment. [5] : 144 Cambodian soldiers and civilians then unleashed a reign of terror, murdering thousands of Vietnamese civilians. [10] : 606 Lon Nol encouraged pogroms against the Vietnamese minority and the Cambodian police took the lead in organizing the pogroms. [10] : 606 On 15 April for example, 800 Vietnamese men had been rounded up at the village of Churi Changwar, tied together, executed, and their bodies dumped into the Mekong River. [7] : 75 They then floated downstream into South Vietnam. Cambodia's actions were denounced by both the North and South Vietnamese governments. [5] : 146 The massacres of Cambodia's Vietnamese minority greatly enraged people in both Vietnams. [10] : 606 Even before the supply conduit through Sihanoukville was shut down, PAVN had begun expanding its logistical system from southeastern Laos (the Ho Chi Minh trail) into northeastern Cambodia. [15]

Nixon was taken by surprise by the events in Cambodia, saying at a National Security Council meeting: "What the hell do those clowns do out there in Langley [CIA]?". [11] : 559 The day after the coup, Nixon ordered Kissinger: "I want Helms [the CIA director] to develop and implement a plan for maximum assistance to pro–U.S. elements in Cambodia". [11] : 559 The CIA began to fly in arms for the Lon Nol regime, through the Secretary of State William P. Rogers told the media about Cambodia on 23 March 1970 "We don't anticipate that any request will be made". [10] : 607 Realizing that he had lost control of the situation, Lon Nol did a volte-face and suddenly declared Cambodia's "strict neutrality". [10] : 606

On 29 March 1970 the PAVN launched an offensive (Campaign X) against the Cambodian Khmer National Armed Forces (FANK), quickly seizing large portions of the eastern and northeastern parts of the country, isolating and besieging or overrunning a number of Cambodian cities including Kampong Cham. [16] : 61 [2] : 153 Documents uncovered from the Soviet archives revealed that the offensive was launched at the explicit request of the Khmer Rouge following negotiations with Nuon Chea. [17] In early-April South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyễn Cao Kỳ twice visited Lon Nol in Phnom Penh for secret meetings to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two countries and agree on military cooperation. [2] : 115 On 14 April 1970, Lon Nol appealed for help, saying that Cambodia was on the verge of losing its independence. [10] : 606

On 17 April the Khmer Republic announced that North Vietnam was invading Cambodia and appealed for assistance in countering North Vietnamese aggression. The U.S. responding immediately, delivering 6,000 captured AK-47 rifles to the FANK and transporting 3–4,000 ethnic Cambodian Civilian Irregular Defense Group program (CIDG) troops to Phnom Penh. [2] : 32 On 20 April the PAVN overran Snuol, on 23 April they seized Memot, on 24 April they attacked Kep and on 26 April they began firing on shipping along the Mekong River, attacked Chhloung District northeast of Phnom Penh and captured Ang Tassom, northwest of Takéo. [2] : 30 After defeating the FANK forces, the PAVN turned the newly won territories over to local insurgents. The Khmer Rouge also established "liberated" areas in the south and the southwestern parts of the country, where they operated independently of the North Vietnamese. [16] : 26–7

Planning Edit

In mid-April 1970 Abrams and Chief of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff (JGS) General Cao Văn Viên discussed the possibility of attacking the Cambodian base areas. Cao passed on these discussions to South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu who verbally ordered the JGS to instruct ARVN III Corps to liaise with MACV for operations in Cambodia. In late April Thiệu sent a secret directive instructing the JGS to conduct operations in Cambodia to a depth of 40–60 km (25–37 mi) from the border. [2] : 36–40 By April 1970, the PAVN/Khmer Rouge offensive in Cambodia was going well and they had taken all five of Cambodia's northeastern provinces and Kissinger predicated to Nixon that the Lon Nol regime would not survive 1970 on its own. [11] : 564

In response to events in Cambodia, Nixon believed that there were distinct possibilities for a U.S. response. With Sihanouk gone, conditions were ripe for strong measures against the base areas. He was also adamant that some action be taken to support "The only government in Cambodia in the last twenty-five years that had the guts to take a pro–Western stand." [5] : 147 As the poorly-trained FANK went from defeat after defeat, Nixon was afraid that Cambodia would "go down the drain" if he did not take action. [10] : 607 Nixon then solicited proposals for actions from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and MACV, who presented him with a series of options: a naval quarantine of the Cambodian coast the launching of South Vietnamese and American airstrikes the expansion of hot pursuit across the border by ARVN forces or a ground invasion by ARVN, U.S. forces, or both. [5] : 147

Nixon went to Honolulu to offer his congratulations to the Apollo 13 astronauts who had survived a malfunction on their spacecraft and while there, met the Commander in Chief, Pacific Command, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., who was the sort of aggressive, pugnacious military man he admired the most. [11] : 561 McCain drew for Nixon a map of Cambodia that depicted the bloody claws of a red Chinese dragon clutching half of the country and advised Nixon that action was needed now. [11] : 561 Impressed by Admiral McCain's performance, Nixon brought him back to his house in San Clemente, California to repeat it for Kissinger who was unimpressed. [11] : 562 Kissinger was upset that Thọ had temporarily ended their secret meetings in Paris and shared Nixon's inclinations to lash out against an enemy. Kissinger regarded Thọ like all Vietnamese as "insolent". [11] : 563

During a televised address on 20 April, Nixon announced the withdrawal of 150,200 U.S. troops from South Vietnam during the year as part of the Vietnamization program. [11] : 562 This planned withdrawal implied restrictions on any offensive U.S. action in Cambodia. By early 1970, MACV still maintained 330,648 U.S. Army and 55,039 Marine Corps troops in South Vietnam, most of whom were concentrated in 81 infantry and tank battalions. [18] : 319–320

On 22 April Nixon authorized the planning of a South Vietnamese incursion into the Parrot's Beak (named for its perceived shape on a map), believing that "Giving the South Vietnamese an operation of their own would be a major boost to their morale as well as provide a practical demonstration of the success of Vietnamization." [5] : 149 At the meeting of 22 April, both Rogers and the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird proposed waiting to see if the Lon Nol regime could manage to survive on its own. [11] : 563 Kissinger took an aggressive line, favoring having the ARVN invade Cambodia with American air support. [11] : 563 The Vice President, Spiro Agnew, the most hawkish member of Nixon's cabinet, forcefully told Nixon to avoid "pussyfooting" around and invade Cambodia with American troops. [11] : 563–564 On 23 April, Rogers testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee that "the administration had no intentions. to escalate the war. We recognize that if we escalate and get involved in Cambodia with our ground troops that our whole program [Vietnamization] is defeated." [5] : 152

Nixon then authorized Abrams to begin planning for a U.S. operation in the Fishhook region. A preliminary operational plan had actually been completed in March, but was kept so tightly under wraps that when Abrams handed over the task to Lieutenant general Michael S. Davison, commander of II Field Force, Vietnam, he was not informed about the previous planning and started a new one from scratch. [1] : 59 Seventy-two hours later, Davison's plan was submitted to the White House. Kissinger asked one of his aides to review it on 26 April, and the National Security Council staffer was appalled by its "sloppiness". [5] : 152

The main problems were the pressure of time and Nixon's desire for secrecy. The Southeast Asia monsoon, whose heavy rains would hamper operations, was only two months away. By the order of Nixon, the State Department did not notify the Cambodian desk at the US Embassy, Saigon, the Phnom Penh embassy, or Lon Nol of the planning. Operational security was as tight as General Abrams could make it. There was to be no prior U.S. logistical build-up in the border regions which might serve as a signal to the communists. U.S. brigade commanders were informed only a week in advance of the offensive, while battalion commanders got only two or three days' notice. [1] : 58–60

Decisions Edit

Not all of the members of the administration agreed that an invasion of Cambodia was either militarily or politically expedient. Laird and Rogers were both opposed to any such operation due to their belief that it would engender intense domestic opposition in the U.S. and that it might possibly derail the ongoing peace negotiations in Paris (they had both opposed the Menu bombings for the same reasons). [9] : 129 Both were castigated by Henry Kissinger for their "bureaucratic foot-dragging." [9] : 83 As a result, Laird was bypassed by the Joint Chiefs in advising the White House on planning and preparations for the Cambodian operation. [19] : 202 Through relations between Laird and Kissinger were unfriendly, the latter felt that it was not proper for the Defense Secretary to be unaware that a major offensive was about to be launched. [11] : 564 Laird advised Kissinger not to inform Rogers, who was due to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman, J. William Fulbright, was an opponent of the war. [11] : 564 Laird wanted Rogers to honesty say he was unaware of plans to invade Cambodia to avoid having him indicted for perjury. [11] : 564 Once Laird learned that Nixon was determined "to do something", he suggest only invading the "Parrot's Beak" area with ARVN forces. [10] : 608 Nixon in his 1978 memoirs wrote this recommendation was "the most pusillanimous little nitpicker I ever saw". [10] : 608 Nixon had decided to go for "the big play" for "all the marbles" since he anticipated "a hell of an uproar at home" regardless of what he did. [10] : 608 Lon Nol was not informed in advance that American and South Vietnamese forces were about to enter his nation. [10] : 608

On the evening of 25 April Nixon dined with his friend Bebe Rebozo and Kissinger. Afterward, they screened Patton, which Nixon had seen five times previously. Kissinger later commented that "When he was pressed to the wall, his [Nixon's] romantic streak surfaced and he would see himself as a beleaguered military commander in the tradition of Patton." [5] : 152 The following evening, Nixon decided that "We would go for broke" and gave his authorization for the incursion. [5] : 152 The joint U.S./ARVN campaign would begin on 1 May with the stated goals of: reducing allied casualties in South Vietnam assuring the continued withdrawal of U.S. forces and enhancing the U.S./Saigon government position at the peace negotiations in Paris. [10] : 607 The task of providing a legal justification was assigned to William Rehnquist, the assistant attorney general, who wrote a legal brief saying in times of war the president had the right to deploy troops "in conflict with foreign powers at their own initiative". [10] : 608 As Nixon had testy relations with Congress, he had Kissinger inform Senators John C. Stennis and Richard Russell Jr. of the plans to invade Cambodia. [11] : 564 Both Stennis and Russell were conservative Southern Democrats who were chairmen of key committees and both were expected to approve of their invasion as indeed they did. [11] : 564 In this way, Nixon could say he did inform at least some leaders of Congress about what was being planned. Congress as a body was kept uninformed of the planned invasion. [10] : 607–608 On 29 April, press reports stated that ARVN troops had entered the "Parrot's Beak" area, leading to demands from anti-war senators and congressmen that the president should promise no American troops would be involved, only for the White House to say the president would be giving a speech the next day. [11] : 565–566 Nixon ordered Patrick Buchanan, his speechwriter, to start composing a speech to justify the invasion. [11] : 566

Nixon speaks Edit

In order to keep the campaign as low-key as possible, Abrams had suggested that the commencement of the incursion be routinely announced from Saigon. At 21:00 on 30 April, however, Nixon appeared on all three U.S. television networks to announce that "It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight" and that "the time has come for action." Nixon's speech began 90 minutes after American troops entered the "Fishhook" area. [11] : 566 He announced his decision to launch American forces into Cambodia with the special objective of capturing COSVN, "the headquarters of the entire communist military operation in South Vietnam." [5] : 153

Nixon's speech on national television on 30 April 1970 was called "vintage Nixon" by Kissinger. [10] : 609 Nixon announced that nothing less than America's status as a world power was at stake, saying he had spurned "all political considerations", as he maintained he rather be a one-term president than "be a two-term president at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power". [10] : 609 Nixon stated: "If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful helpless giant, then the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world". [10] : 609 Karnow wrote that Nixon could have presented the invasion as a relatively minor operation designed to speed up the withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam by eliminating PAVN/VC bases, but instead by presenting the invasion as necessary to maintain America as a world power made it sound like a far bigger operation than what it really was. [10] : 609

On 1 May 1970, Nixon visited the Pentagon where he received the news that 194 PAVN/VC troops had been killed since the previous day, most by air strikes. [11] : 567 Upon seeing a map, Nixon noticed there other PAVN/VC sanctuaries besides the "Parrot's Beak" and the "Fishhook. [11] : 567 When Nixon asked if they were being invaded as well, he was told that Congress might object. [11] : 567 His response was: "Let me be the judge as far as the political reactions are concerned. Knock them all out so they can't be used against us again Ever". [11] : 567 Lon Nol first learned of the invasion when an American diplomat told him, who in turn learned about it from a Voice of America radio broadcast. [11] : 568 Kissinger sent his deputy, Alexander Haig, to Phnon Penh to meet Lon Nol. Dressed in battle fatigues, Haig refused to share any information with the U.S. embassy staff, instead meeting Lon Nol alone. [11] : 568 Lon Nol complained the invasion had not helped as it only pushed the PAVN/VC forces deeper into Cambodia and broke down in tears when Haig told him that the Americans would be withdrawing from Cambodia in June. [11] : 568

Escape of the Provisional Revolutionary Government Edit

Planning for any eventuality the North Vietnamese started planning emergency evacuation routes in the event of a coordinated assault by Cambodians from the west and South Vietnamese from the east. After the Cambodian coup, COSVN was evacuated on 19 March 1970. [20] While the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG) and PAVN/VC bases were preparing to also move to the north and safety they came under aerial bombardment from B-52 bombers on 27 March. [20] As laid out by the evacuation plans General Hoàng Văn Thái planned to have three divisions to cover the escape. [20] : 180 The 9th Division would block any movement from the ARVN, the VC 5th Division would screen any FANK forces and the 7th Division would provide security to the civilian and military members of the PAVN/VC bases. [20] : 180

Moving across the border in Cambodia on 30 March, elements of the PRG and VC were surrounded in their bunkers by ARVN forces flown in by helicopter. [20] : 178 Surrounded, they waited until nightfall and then with security provided by the 7th Division they broke out of the encirclement and fled north to unite with the COSVN in Kratie Province in what would come to be known as the "Escape of the Provisional Revolutionary Government". [20] Trương Như Tảng, then Minister of Justice in the PRG, recounts that the march to the northern bases was a succession of forced marches, broken up by B-52 bombing raids. [20] : 180

Years later Trương would recall just how "Close [South Vietnamese] were to annihilating or capturing the core of the Southern resistance – elite units of our frontline fighters along with the civilian and much of the military leadership". [20] : 180 After many days of hard marches the PRG reached the northern bases, and relative safety, in the Kratie region. Casualties were light and the march even saw the birth of a baby to Dương Quỳnh Hoa, the deputy minister of health in the PRG. The column needed many days to recover and Trương himself would require weeks to recover from the long march. [ citation needed ]

The Angel's Wing – Operation Toan Thang 41 Edit

On 14 April ARVN III Corps units launched a three-day operation into the "Angel's Wing" area of Svay Rieng Province called Operation Toan Thang (Complete Victory) 41. Mounted by two ARVN armor-infantry task forces, the units began their advance at 08:00 on 14 April. One task force met heavy resistance and killed 182 PAVN and captured 30 for the loss of seven killed. The next day the task forces skirmished with PAVN/VC and uncovered food and material caches and claimed 175 PAVN killed and one captured for losses of one killed. On 16 April, the task forces began their withdrawal, returning to South Vietnam by 12:10 on 17 April. Total PAVN losses, according to the ARVN, were 415 killed or captured and over 100 weapons captured. ARVN losses were 8 killed and one Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) A-1H Skyraider shot down. [2] : 44–47 Documents captured during the operation and prisoner interrogations revealed that the area was the base for the PAVN 271st Regiment, 9th Division and other support units. [2] : 48

The Crow's Nest – Operation Cuu Long/SD9/06 Edit

On 20 April, elements of the ARVN 9th Infantry Division attacked 6 km (3.7 mi) into Cambodia west of the "Crow's Nest" in Operation Cuu Long/SD9/06. The ARVN claimed 187 PAVN/VC killed and over 1,000 weapons captured for a cost of 24 killed. Thirty CH-47 sorties were flown to remove captured weapons and ammunition before it was decided to destroy the remainder in situ. The ARVN force returned to South Vietnam on 23 April. [2] : 48–49

On 28 April, Kien Tuong Province Regional Forces with support from the 9th Division attacked 3 km (1.9 mi) into the "Crow's Nest" again in a two-day operation, reportedly killing 43 PAVN/VC and capturing two for the loss of two killed. [2] : 49 During the same period the Regional Forces also raided northwest of Kampong Rou District killing 43 PAVN/VC and capturing 88 for the loss of 2 killed. [2] : 49–50

On 27 April, an ARVN Ranger battalion advanced into Kandal Province to destroy a PAVN/VC base. Four days later other South Vietnamese troops drove 16 kilometers into Cambodian territory. On 20 April, 2,000 ARVN troops advanced into the Parrot's Beak, killing 144 PAVN troops. [5] : 149 On 22 April, Nixon authorized American air support for the South Vietnamese operations. All of these incursions into Cambodian territory were simply reconnaissance missions in preparation for a larger-scale effort being planned by MACV and its ARVN counterparts, subject to authorization by Nixon. [5] : 152

The Parrot's Beak – Operation Toan Thang 42 Edit

On 30 April ARVN forces launched Operation Toan Thang 42 (Total Victory), also labeled Operation Rock Crusher. 12 ARVN battalions of approximately 8,700 troops (two armored cavalry squadrons from III Corps and two from the 25th and 5th Infantry Divisions, an infantry regiment from the 25th Infantry Division, and three Ranger battalions and an attached ARVN Armored Cavalry Regiment from the 3rd Ranger Group) crossed into the Parrot's Beak region of Svay Rieng Province. [2] : 51–55

The offensive was under the command of Lieutenant General Đỗ Cao Trí, the commander of III Corps, who had a reputation as one of the most aggressive and competent ARVN generals. Tri's operation was to have begun on the 29th but Trí refused to budge, claiming that his astrologer had told him "the heavens were not auspicious". [1] : 53 During their first two days in Cambodia, ARVN units had several sharp encounters with PAVN forces losing 16 killed while killing 84 PAVN and capturing 65 weapons. [2] : 56 The PAVN, forewarned by previous ARVN incursions, however, conducted only delaying actions in order to allow the bulk of their forces to escape to the west. [5] : 172 [2] : 56

Phase II of the operation began with the arrival of elements of IV Corps, consisting of the 9th Infantry Division, five armored cavalry squadrons and one Ranger group. Four tank-infantry task forces attacked into the Parrot's Beak from the south. After three days of operations, ARVN claimed 1,010 PAVN troops had been killed and 204 prisoners taken for the loss of 66 ARVN dead. [1] : 54 On 3 May the III Corps and IV Corps units linked up and searched the area for supply caches. [2] : 57–58

Phase III began on 7 May with one ARVN task force engaging the PAVN 10 km (6.2 mi) north of Prasot killing 182 and capturing 8, while another task force found a 200-bed hospital. On 9 May the two task forces linked up southwest of Kampong Trach, crossed the Kompong Spean River and searched the area for supply caches until 11 May. [2] : 60–62

On 11 May Thiệu and Kỳ visited ARVN units in the field and Thiệu ordered III Corps to clear Route 1 and be prepared to relieve Kampong Trach in order to facilitate the evacuation of Vietnamese civilians from Phnom Penh. On 13 May Trí launched Phase IV, moving all three III Corps task forces west along Route 1 from Svay Rieng to meet up with IV Corps forces at Kampong Trabaek. To replace the departing units, Tây Ninh Province Regional Force units were moved into the area. On 14 May the task forces killed 74 PAVN/VC and captured 76. On 21 May a task force killed 9 PAVN and captured 26 from the PAVN 27th Regiment, 9th Division. By 22 May Route 1 was considered secured. [2] : 62–64

On 23 May III Corps began Phase V to relieve Kampong Cham, headquarters of FANK's Military Region I, which had been under siege by the PAVN 9th Division, which had occupied the 180-acre (0.73 km 2 ) Chup rubber plantation northeast of the city and had begun bombarding the city from there. Two task forces moved along Routes 7 from Krek and 15 from Prey Veng to converge on the Chup plantation. The ARVN 7th Airborne Battalion engaged PAVN forces outside of Krek killing 26 and capturing 16. On 25 May armored and Ranger units clashed with the PAVN south of Route 7. On 28 May one task force engaged a PAVN unit killing 73 while the other task force located various supply caches. As the task forces converged on the Chup plantation heavy fighting began which continued until 1 June. [2] : 65–68 [5] : 177

Meanwhile, on 25 May Tây Ninh Province RF units and CIDG forces engaged PAVN/VC forces in the Angel's Wing area killing 38 and capturing 21. On 29 May a task force was sent to assist in the Angel's Wing area. PAVN/VC anti-aircraft fire was particularly heavy, downing one RVNAF A-1H, one USAF F-100 Super Sabre and one U.S. Army AH-1 Cobra gunship. [2] : 67

On 3 June the ARVN began rotating units for rest and refit, withdrawing from around Kampong Cham to Krek. The PAVN quickly moved back into the area and renewed their siege of the city. On 19 June Thiệu ordered III Corps to relieve Kampong Cham once again and on 21 June three task forces moved towards Chup along Route 7 from Krek. By 27 June the PAVN had left the Chup area. On 29 June Task Force 318 was engaged by a PAVN force on Route 15 and the ARVN killed 165 PAVN for losses of 34 killed and 24 missing. [2] : 68–69

Results for the operation were 3,588 PAVN/VC killed or captured and 1,891 individual and 478 crew-served weapons captured. [2] : 82

The Fishhook – Operations Toan Thang 43-6/Rock Crusher Edit

On 1 May an even larger operation, in parallel with Toan Thang 42, known by the ARVN as Operation Toan Thang 43 and by MACV as Operation Rock Crusher, got underway as 36 B-52s dropped 774 tons of bombs along the southern edge of the Fishhook. This was followed by an hour of massed artillery fire and another hour of strikes by tactical fighter-bombers. At 10:00, the 1st Cavalry Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (11th ACR), the ARVN 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment and the ARVN 3rd Airborne Brigade then entered Kampong Cham Province. Known as Task Force Shoemaker (after General Robert M. Shoemaker, the Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division), the force attacked the PAVN/VC stronghold with 10,000 U.S. and 5,000 South Vietnamese troops. The operation utilized mechanized infantry and armored units to drive deep into the province where they would then link up with ARVN airborne and U.S. airmobile units that had been lifted in by helicopter. [5] : 164 [2] : 70–73

Opposition to the incursion was expected to be heavy, but PAVN/VC forces had begun moving westward two days before the advance began. By 3 May, MACV reported only eight Americans killed and 32 wounded, low casualties for such a large operation. [5] : 164 There was only scattered and sporadic contact with delaying forces such as that experienced by elements of the 11th ACR three kilometers inside Cambodia. PAVN troops opened fire with small arms and rockets only to be blasted by tank fire and tactical airstrikes. When the smoke had cleared, 50 dead PAVN soldiers were counted on the battlefield while only two U.S. troops were killed during the action. [5] : 164 [21]

The North Vietnamese had ample notice of the impending attack. A 17 March directive from the headquarters of the B-3 Front, captured during the incursion, ordered PAVN/VC forces to "break away and avoid shooting back. Our purpose is to conserve forces as much as we can". [19] : 203 The only surprised party amongst the participants in the incursion seemed to be Lon Nol, who had been informed by neither Washington nor Saigon concerning the impending invasion of his country. He only discovered the fact after a telephone conversation with the U.S. Ambassador, who had found out about it himself from a radio broadcast. [10] : 608

The only conventional battle fought by American troops occurred on 1 May at Snuol, the terminus of the Sihanouk Trail at the junction of Routes 7, 13 and 131. Elements of the 11th ACR and supporting helicopters came under PAVN fire while approaching the town and its airfield. When a massed American attack was met by heavy resistance, the Americans backed off, called in air support and blasted the town for two days, reducing it to rubble. During the action, Brigadier general Donn A. Starry, commander of the 11th ACR, was wounded by grenade fragments and evacuated. [22]

On the following day, Company C, 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 5th Cavalry Regiment, entered what came to be known as "The City", southwest of Snoul. The two-square mile PAVN complex contained over 400 thatched huts, storage sheds, and bunkers, each of which was packed with food, weapons and ammunition. There were truck repair facilities, hospitals, a lumber yard, 18 mess halls, a pig farm and even a swimming pool. [5] : 167

The one thing that was not found was COSVN. On 1 May a tape of Nixon's announcement of the incursion was played for Abrams, who according to Lewis Sorley "must have cringed" when he heard the President state that the capture of the headquarters was one of the major objectives of the operation. [19] : 203

MACV intelligence knew that the mobile and widely dispersed headquarters would be difficult to locate. In response to a White House query before the fact, MACV had replied that "major COSVN elements are dispersed over approximately 110 square kilometers of jungle" and that "the feasibility of capturing major elements appears remote". [19] : 203

After the first week of operations, additional battalion and brigade units were committed to the operation, so that between 6 and 24 May, a total of 90,000 Allied troops (including 33 U.S. maneuver battalions) were conducting operations inside Cambodia. [1] : 158 Due to increasing political and domestic turbulence in the U.S., Nixon issued a directive on 7 May limiting the distance and duration of U.S. operations to a depth of 30 kilometers (19 mi) and setting a deadline of 30 June for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces to South Vietnam. [5] : 168 The final results for the operation were 3,190 PAVN/VC killed or captured and 4,693 individual and 731 crew-served weapons captured. [2] : 82

Operations Toan Thang 44, 45 and 46 Edit

On 6 May the U.S. 1st and 2nd Brigades, 25th Infantry Division, launched Operation Toan Thang 44 against Base Areas 353, 354 and 707 located north and northeast of Tây Ninh Province. Once again, a hunt for COSVN units was conducted, this time around the Cambodian town of Memot and, once again, the search was futile. On 7 May the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment engaged a PAVN force killing 167 and capturing 28 weapons. On 11 May brigade units found a large food and material cache. The operation ended on 14 May. [2] : 78–79 Results for the operation were 302 PAVN/VC killed or captured and 297 individual and 34 crew-served weapons captured. [2] : 82 Another source states that the division killed 1,017 PAVN/VC troops while losing 119 of its own men killed. [1] : 126

Simultaneous with the launching of Toan Thang 44, two battalions of the U.S. 3rd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division, crossed the border 48 kilometers southwest of the Fishhook into an area known as the "Dog's Face" from 7 through 12 May. The only significant contact with PAVN forces took place near Chantrea District, where 51 PAVN were killed and another 21 were captured. During the operation, the brigade lost eight men killed and 22 wounded. [22] : 272

On 6 May the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, launched Operation Toan Thang 45 against Base Area 351 northwest of Bù Đốp District. On 7 May the Cavalry located a massive supply cache, nicknamed "Rock Island East" after the U.S. Army's Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, the area contained more than 6.5 million rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, 500,000 rifle rounds, thousands of rockets, several General Motors trucks, and large quantities of communications equipment. [5] : 167

A pioneer road was constructed to aid the evacuation of the captured weaponry. On 12 May the 5th Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, was attacked overnight by a PAVN force losing one killed while claiming 50 PAVN killed. The Cavalry continued searching for supply caches until returning to South Vietnam on 29 June. [2] : 79–81 Results for the operation were 1,527 PAVN/VC killed or captured and 3,073 individual and 449 crew-served weapons captured. [2] : 82

Also on 6 May the ARVN 9th Regiment, 5th Infantry Division, launched Operation Toan Thang 46 against Base Area 350. On 25 May, after being engaged by a PAVN/VC force, the 9th Regiment discovered a 500-bed hospital. The Regiment continued searching for supply caches before starting a withdrawal towards Route 13 on 20 June, returning to South Vietnam on 30 June. [2] : 81–2 Results for the operation were 79 PAVN/VC killed or captured and 325 individual and 41 crew-served weapons captured. [2] : 82

Operations Binh Tay I–III Edit

In the II Corps area, Operation Binh Tay I (Operation Tame the West) was launched by the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the ARVN 40th Infantry Regiment, 22nd Infantry Division against Base Area 702 (the traditional headquarters of the PAVN B-2 Front) in northeastern Cambodia from 5–25 May. Following airstrikes, the initial American forces, the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry (on loan from the 101st Airborne Division), assaulting via helicopter, were driven back by intense anti-aircraft fire. On 6 May following preparatory airstrikes the assault was resumed. Helicopters carrying the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry were met again by intense anti-aircraft fire and were diverted to an alternative landing zone, however only 60 men were landed before intense PAVN fire (which shot down one helicopter and damaged two others) shut down the landing zone, leaving them stranded and surrounded overnight. [22] : 195 [2] : 93

On 7 May, the division's 2nd Brigade inserted its three battalions unopposed. On 10 May, Bravo Company, 3/506th Infantry, was ambushed by a much larger PAVN force in the Se San Valley. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and 28 wounded, among those killed was Specialist Leslie Sabo, Jr. (posthumously promoted to Sergeant), who was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the paperwork went missing until 1999. [23] Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor on 16 May 2012 by President Barack Obama. [24] [25]

After ten days the American troops returned to South Vietnam, leaving the area to the ARVN. [22] : 201 Historian Shelby Stanton has noted that "there was a noted lack of aggressiveness" in the combat assault and that the division seemed to be "suffering from almost total combat paralysis." [18] : 324 The operation ended on 25 May, U.S./ARVN losses were 43 killed while PAVN/VC losses were 212 killed and 7 captured and 859 individual and 20 crew-served weapons captured. [2] : 94

During Operation Binh Tay II, the ARVN 22nd Division moved against Base Area 701 from 14–27 May. No significant combat occurred but the ARVN killed 73 PAVN/VC and captured 6 and located supply caches containing 346 individual and 23 crew-served weapons, ammunition and medical supplies. The operation ended on 27 May. [2] : 95–97

Operation Binh Tay III, was carried out by ARVN forces between 20 May and 27 June when elements of the ARVN 23rd Division conducted operations against Base Area 740. [26] [27] [2] : 97–100 During Phase 1 from 20 May to 3 June the ARVN killed 96 PAVN/VC and captured one while losing 29 killed. [2] : 97–99 Phase 2 took place from 4 to 12 June with limited results. During Phase 3 from 19 to 27 June and resulted the ARVN killed 149 PAVN/VC and captured 3 and 581 individual and 85 crew-served weapons for the loss of 38 killed. [2] : 99–100

Operations Cuu Long I–III Edit

On 9 May ARVN IV Corps launched Operation Cuu Long, in which ARVN ground forces, including mechanized and armored units, drove west and northwest up the eastern side of the Mekong River from 9 May to 1 July. A combined force of 110 Republic of Vietnam Navy and 30 U.S. vessels proceeded up the Mekong to Prey Veng, permitting IV Corps ground forces to move westward to Phnom Penh to aid ethnic Vietnamese seeking flight to South Vietnam. During these operations South Vietnamese and American naval forces evacuated about 35,000 Vietnamese from Cambodia. [1] : 146 Those who did not wish to be repatriated were then forcibly expelled. [5] : 174

Surprisingly, North Vietnamese forces did not oppose the evacuation, though they could easily have done so. [5] : 174 It was already too late for thousands of ethnic Vietnamese murdered by Cambodian persecution, but there were tens of thousands of Vietnamese still within the country who could be evacuated to safety. Thiệu arranged with Lon Nol to repatriate as many as were willing to leave. The new relationship did not, however, prevent the Cambodian government from stripping the Vietnamese of their homes and other personal property before they left. [5] : 174 [2] : 83–85

Subsequent operations conducted by IV Corps included Operation Cuu Long II (16–24 May), which continued actions along the western side of the Mekong. Lon Nol had requested that the ARVN help in the retaking of Kampong Speu, a town along Route 4 southwest of Phnom Penh and 90 miles (140 km) inside Cambodia. A 4,000-man ARVN armored task force linked up with FANK troops and then retook the town. Operation Cuu Long III (24 May – 30 June) was an evolution of the previous operations after U.S. forces had left Cambodia. [5] : 177

Operation Cuu Long II was initiated by IV Corps on 16 May to assist the FANK in restoring security around Takéo. ARVN forces committed included the 9th and 21st Infantry Divisions, 4th Armor Brigade, 4th Ranger Group and the Châu Đốc Province Regional Forces. The weeklong operation resulted in 613 PAVN/VC killed and 52 captured and 792 individual and 84 crew-served weapons captured. ARVN losses were 36 killed. [2] : 88–89 Operations continued under the name Operation Cuu Long III starting 25 May in the same area with the same forces less the 21st Division which had returned to South Vietnam. While the PAVN/VC generally avoided contact, the ARVN located 3,500 weapons in a storage area. [2] : 89

Evacuation of Ratanakiri – Operation Binh Tay IV Edit

In late June the FANK asked the U.S. and South Vietnam for assistance in evacuating two isolated garrisons at Ba Kev and Labang Siek in Ratanakiri Province. On 21 June the ARVN 22nd Division was given the mission of facilitating the evacuation of the bases. On 23 June the division moved to Đức Cơ Camp and was organized into four task forces which would then advance west along Route 19 to Ba Kev, protected by U.S. air cavalry units. [2] : 100–105

The FANK units at Labang Siek would then move 35 km (22 mi) east along Route 19 to Ba Kev and would then be flown or trucked to Đức Cơ across the border to South Vietnam. The operation began on 25 June and was successfully completed by 27 June with 7,571 FANK troops, their dependents and refuges evacuated. ARVN losses were 2 killed while PAVN losses were 6 killed and 2 weapons captured. [2] : 100–105

Air support and logistics Edit

Aerial operations for the incursion got off to a slow start. Reconnaissance flights over the operational area were restricted since MACV believed that they might serve as a signal of intention. The role of the United States Air Force (USAF) in the planning for the incursion itself was minimal at best, in part to preserve the secrecy of Menu which was then considered an overture to the thrust across the border. [28]

On 17 April, Abrams requested that Nixon approve Operation Patio, covert tactical airstrikes in support of MACV-SOG reconnaissance elements in Cambodia. This authorization was given, allowing U.S. aircraft to penetrate 13 miles (21 km) into northeastern Cambodia. This boundary was extended to 29 miles (47 km) along the entire frontier on 25 April. Patio was terminated on 18 May after 156 sorties had been flown. [29] The last Menu mission was flown on 26 May. [30]

During the incursion itself, U.S. and ARVN ground units were supported by 9,878 aerial sorties (6,012 USAF/2,966 RVNAF), an average of 210 per day. [1] : 141 During operations in the Fishhook, for example, the USAF flew 3,047 sorties and the RVNAF 332. [1] : 75 These tactical airstrikes were supplemented by 653 B-52 missions in the border regions (71 supporting Binh Tay operations, 559 for Toan Thang operations and 23 for Cuu Long). [1] : 143

30 May saw the inauguration of Operation Freedom Deal (named as of 6 June), a continuous U.S. aerial interdiction campaign conducted in Cambodia. These missions were limited to a depth of 48 kilometers between the South Vietnamese border and the Mekong River. [9] : 201 Within two months, however, the limit of the operational area was extended past the Mekong and U.S. tactical aircraft were soon directly supporting Cambodian forces in the field. [9] : 199 These missions were officially denied by the U.S. and false coordinates were given in official reports to hide their existence. [29] : 148 Defense Department records indicated that out of more than 8,000 combat sorties flown in Cambodia between July 1970 and February 1971, approximately 40 percent were flown outside the authorized boundary. [29] : 148

The real struggle for the U.S. and ARVN forces in Cambodia was the effort at keeping their units supplied. Once again, the need for security before the operations and the rapidity with which units were transferred to the border regions precluded detailed planning and preparation. Abrams was fortunate, had the PAVN/VC fought for the sanctuaries instead of fleeing, U.S. and ARVN units would have rapidly consumed their available supplies. [1] : 136 This situation was exacerbated by the poor road network in the border regions and the possibility of ambush for nighttime road convoys demanded that deliveries only take place during daylight. [1] : 135

The tempo of logistical troops could be mind numbing. The U.S. Third Ordnance Battalion for example, loaded up to 150 flatbed trucks per day with ammunition. Logisticians were issuing more than 2,300 short tons (almost five million pounds) of supplies every day to support the incursion. [1] : 135 Aerial resupply, therefore, became the chief method of logistical replenishment for the forward units. Military engineers and aviators were kept in constant motion throughout the incursion zone. [1] : 96–101

Due to the rapid pace of operations, deployment, and redeployment, coordination of artillery units and their fires became a worrisome quandary during the operations. [1] : 72–73 This was made even more problematic by the confusion generated by the lack of adequate communications systems between the rapidly advancing units. The joint nature of the operation added another level of complexity to the already overstretched communications network. [1] : 149–151 Regardless, due to the ability of U.S. logisticians to innovate and improvise, supplies of food, water, ammunition, and spare parts arrived at their destinations without any shortages hampering combat operations and the communications system, although complicated, functioned well enough during the short duration of U.S. operations. [ citation needed ]

The North Vietnamese response to the incursion was to avoid contact with allied forces and, if possible, to fall back westward and regroup. PAVN/VC forces were well aware of the planned attack and many COSVN/B-3 Front military units were already far to the north and west conducting operations against the Cambodians when the offensive began. [1] : 45 During 1969 PAVN logistical units had already begun the largest expansion of the Ho Chi Minh trail conducted during the entire conflict. As a response to the loss of their Cambodian supply route, PAVN forces seized the Laotian towns of Attopeu and Saravane during the year, pushing what had been a 60-mile (97 km) corridor to a width of 90 miles (140 km) and opening the entire length of the Kong River system into Cambodia. [31] A new logistical command, the 470th Transportation Group, was created to handle logistics in Cambodia and the new "Liberation Route" ran through Siem Pang and reached the Mekong at Stung Treng. [6] : 257

The majority of the PAVN/VC forces had withdrawn deeper into Cambodia before the invasion with a rearguard left to stage a fighting retreat to avoid charges of cowardice. PAVN/VC losses in manpower were minimal, but much equipment and arms were abandoned. [10] : 610 The allied forces captured a vast haul of weapons and equipment and the for the rest of 1970 PAVN/VC activities in the Saigon area were notably reduced. [10] : 610 However, by 1971 all of the weapons and equipment had been replaced while the PAVN/VC returned to their frontier bases in the summer of 1970 after the withdraw of the Americans in June 1970. [10] : 610

General Abrams was frustrated with the invasion, saying: "We need to go west from where we are, we need to go north and east from where we are. And we need to do it now. It's moving and-goddam, goddam". [11] : 568 When one officer asked "Time to exploit?", Abrams replied: "Christ! It's so clear. Don't them pick up the pieces. Don't let them pick up the pieces. Just like the Germans. You give them 36 hours and, goddam it, you've got to start the war all over again". [11] : 568

As foreseen by Laird, fallout from the incursion was quick in coming on the campuses of America's universities, as protests erupted against what was perceived as an expansion of the conflict into yet another country. On 4 May the unrest escalated to violence when Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed students (two of whom were not protesters) during the Kent State shootings. Two days later, at the University at Buffalo, police wounded four more demonstrators. On 15 May city and state police killed two and wounded twelve at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi. [32]

Earlier, on 8 May 100,000 protesters had gathered in Washington and another 150,000 in San Francisco on only ten days notice. [32] Nationwide, 30 ROTC buildings went up in flames or were bombed while 26 schools witnessed violent clashes between students and police. National Guard units were mobilized on 21 campuses in 16 states. [32] The student strike spread nationwide, involving more than four million students and 450 universities, colleges and high schools in mostly peaceful protests and walkouts. [5] : 178–179

Simultaneously, public opinion polls during the second week of May showed that 50 percent of the American public approved of Nixon's actions. [5] : 182 Fifty-eight percent blamed the students for what had occurred at Kent State. On both sides, emotions ran high. In one instance, in New York City on 8 May, pro-administration construction workers rioted and attacked demonstrating students. Such violence, however, was an aberration. Most demonstrations, both pro- and anti-war, were peaceful. On 20 May 100,000 construction workers, tradesmen, and office workers marched peacefully through New York City in support of Nixon's policies. [5] : 182

Reaction in the U.S. Congress to the incursion was also swift. Senators Frank F. Church (Democratic Party, Idaho) and John S. Cooper (Republican Party, Kentucky), proposed an amendment to the Foreign Military Sales Act of 1971 that would have cut off funding not only for U.S. ground operations and advisors in Cambodia, but would also have ended U.S. air support for Cambodian forces. [33] On 30 June the U.S. Senate passed the act with the amendment included. The bill was defeated in the House of Representatives after U.S. forces were withdrawn from Cambodia as scheduled. The newly amended act did, however, rescind the Southeast Asia Resolution (better known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) under which Presidents Johnson and Nixon had conducted military operations for seven years without a declaration of war. [19] : 212–213

The Cooper–Church Amendment was resurrected during the winter and incorporated into the Supplementary Foreign Assistance Act of 1970. This time the measure made it through both houses of Congress and became law on 22 December. As a result, all U.S. ground troops and advisors were barred from participating in military actions in Laos or Cambodia, while the air war being conducted in both countries by the USAF was ignored. [9] : 276

In June 1970 Thiệu met with Lon Nol, Prince Sirik Matak and Cheng Heng at Neak Loeung where the ARVN had established an operational base. [2] : 158 On 27 June 1970 Thiệu gave a televised speech in which he outlined South Vietnam's Cambodia policy: (1) South Vietnamese forces would continue to operate on Cambodian territory after the withdrawal of U.S. forces to prevent the PAVN/VC from returning to their base areas (2) South Vietnamese forces would continue to evacuate Vietnamese who wished to be repatriated (3) The South Vietnamese government would support the Cambodian government in meeting PAVN/VC aggression (4) future activities in Cambodia would be conducted without U.S. support (5) the bulk of South Vietnamese forces would be withdrawn from Cambodia and (6) the object of South Vietnamese actions was to improve South Vietnamese security and ensure the success of Vietnamization. [2] : 125 The South Vietnamese military established a liaison office in Phnom Penh and monthly meetings of the JGS, FANK command and MACV were instituted. [2] : 158

South Vietnamese operations into the border areas of Cambodia continued. Operation Toan Thang 42 Phase VI was conducted along Routes 1 and 7 with limited success due to the onset of the rainy season. [2] : 127–129 Operation Cuu Long 44-02 was conducted from 13 to 25 January 1971 to reopen Route 4 which had been closed by the PAVN 1st Division occupying the Pich Nil Pass ( 11°11′42″N 104°04′26″E  /  11.195°N 104.074°E  / 11.195 104.074 ). The operation was successful with PAVN/Khmer Rouge losses of 211 killed while ARVN losses were 16 killed. [2] : 129–131 [34] : 197–198

In mid-1971 the Cambodian government requested the abrogation of South Vietnam's zone of operations in Cambodia and the South Vietnamese agreed to reducing the zone to a depth of 10–15 km (6.2–9.3 mi), which reflected the inability of the South Vietnamese to conduct deeper incursions without U.S. support. [2] : 126 South Vietnam mounted its last major operation in Cambodia from 27 March to 2 April 1974 culminating in the Battle of Svay Rieng. Following that action the severe constraints on ARVN ammunition expenditures, fuel usage, and flying hours permitted no new initiatives. [35]

Nixon proclaimed the incursion to be "the most successful military operation of the entire war." [1] : 153 Abrams was of like mind, believing that time had been bought for the pacification of the South Vietnamese countryside and that U.S. and ARVN forces had been made safe from any attack out of Cambodia during 1971 and 1972. A "decent interval" had been obtained for the final American withdrawal. ARVN General Tran Dinh Tho was more skeptical:

[D]espite its spectacular results. it must be recognized that the Cambodian incursion proved, in the long run, to pose little more than a temporary disruption of North Vietnam's march toward domination of all of Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. [2]

John Shaw and other historians, military and civilian, have based the conclusions of their work on the incursion on the premise that the North Vietnamese logistical system in Cambodia had been so badly damaged that it was rendered ineffective. [1] : 161–170 [18] : 324–325 [36] However this was only temporary as shown by the sustained PAVN attacks on An Loc supported out of Cambodia during the 1972 Easter Offensive. [37]

The U.S. and ARVN claimed 11,369 PAVN/VC soldiers killed and 2,509 captured. The logistical haul discovered, removed, or destroyed in eastern Cambodia during the operations was indeed prodigious: 22,892 individual and 2,509 crew-served weapons 7,000 to 8,000 tons of rice 1,800 tons of ammunition (including 143,000 mortar shells, rockets and recoilless rifle rounds) 29 tons of communications equipment 431 vehicles and 55 tons of medical supplies. [1] : 162 [2] : 193 MACV intelligence estimated that PAVN/VC forces in southern Vietnam required 1,222 tons of all supplies each month to keep up a normal pace of operations. [1] : 163

The official PAVN history claims that from April to July they eliminated 40,000 enemy troops, destroyed 3,000 vehicles and 400 artillery pieces and captured 5,000 weapons, 113 vehicles, 1,570 tons of rice and 100 tons of medical supplies. [6] : 256

Due to the loss of its Cambodian supply system and continued aerial interdiction in Laos, MACV estimated that for every 2.5 tons of materiel sent south down the Ho Chi Minh trail, only one ton reached its destination. However, the true loss rate was probably only around ten percent. Due to lack of verifiable sources in North Vietnam, this figure is, at best, an estimate. The official PAVN history noted:

[T]he enemy had established control over and successfully suppressed, to some extent at least, our nighttime supply operations. Enemy aircraft destroyed 4,000 trucks during the 1970–1971 dry season. Our supply effort, conducted during a single season of the year and using a single supply route, was unable to keep up with our requirements and our night supply operations encountered difficulties. [6] : 262–263

Regardless, the PAVN's Group 559 successfully countered these efforts through camouflage tactics and the construction of thousands of kilometers of "bypass" roads to avoid choke points that frequently came under enemy attack. Per the same history,

[I]n 1969 Group 559 shipped 20 thousand tons of supplies to the battlefields, in 1970 this total rose to 40 thousand tons and in 1971 it increased to 60 thousand tons. losses along the way in 1969, which were 13.5 percent, declined to 3.4 percent in 1970 and 2.7 percent in 1971. [6] : 262–263

The USAF's best estimate for the same time period was that one-third of the total amount was destroyed in transit. [38]

South Vietnamese forces had performed well during the incursion but their leadership was uneven. Trí proved a resourceful and inspiring commander, earning the sobriquet the "Patton of the Parrot's Beak" from the American media. Abrams also praised the skill of General Nguyễn Viết Thanh, commander of IV Corps and planner of the Parrot's Beak operation. [19] : 221 Unfortunately for the South Vietnamese, both officers were killed in helicopter crashes, Thanh on 2 May in Cambodia and Trí in February 1971. Other ARVN commanders, however, had not performed as well. Even at this late date in the conflict, the appointment of ARVN general officers was prompted by political loyalty rather than professional competence. [18] : 337

President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia 50 years ago spurred Congress to act

While many have wrung their hands over Congress’s inability to check the Trump administration or provide adequate oversight of its handling of the covid-19 pandemic, there is one area where Congress has started to fight back after decades of letting the executive branch reign supreme. In recent months, we have seen revived congressional action seeking to limit the president’s ability to wage war without its input. In February, for example, the Senate introduced a resolution limiting the president’s authority “to attack Iran without congressional approval.”

If history is a guide, U.S. foreign policy works best when Congress exercises its constitutional oversight responsibilities and sets boundaries restraining unilateral presidential action in times of war or crisis.

Fifty years ago this week, President Richard M. Nixon authorized a military “incursion” into Cambodia, paradoxically expanding America’s war in Vietnam while attempting to withdraw from a long stalemated conflict.

While national security adviser Henry Kissinger had “no doubt about the operation’s success” — in reality, it proved of limited strategic value — the anniversary of the invasion offers valuable insights into the important role Congress has to play in U.S. foreign affairs. A role most current legislators have been avoiding for far too long.

Even before assuming office, Nixon determined that “total military victory was no longer possible” in Vietnam. The United States had been fighting in the Southeast Asian nation since 1965 and had suffered more than 48,000 military fatalities by the start of 1970. And yet the stalemated conflict seemed no closer to ending. Moreover, Nixon had concluded that to achieve his larger goals of reshaping Cold War foreign policy, the United States would have to free itself from the Vietnam quagmire before concentrating on improved relations with China and the Soviet Union.

One solution was to transfer wartime burdens to local leaders, a central feature of the “Nixon Doctrine.” As the president declared, the United States would “participate in the defense and development of allies and friends” but not “undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” Such proclamations implied, for perceptive observers at least, that there indeed might be limits to American power abroad.

Back in Vietnam, senior U.S. military commanders fretted about their already waning influence over the war’s direction. As more American troops departed the war-torn country because of Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy, Gen. Creighton Abrams worried he was losing the battlefield initiative. Nor did the “secret” bombing of North Vietnamese sanctuaries inside Cambodia — the administration failed to inform Congress of its attack against a nominally neutral country — alleviate the communist threat to Saigon.

Itching to expand the war beyond South Vietnam’s borders, Abrams finally received the green light in late April for a cross-border invasion into Cambodia. American and South Vietnamese troops would cross the frontier, destroy enemy bases and supply caches and thereby provide the Saigon government additional time to prepare for the impending U.S. withdrawal. For the president, swift action by the allies not only would maintain pressure on the communists just across South Vietnam’s borders, but also clearly demonstrate his toughness to the enemy.

On April 30, 1970, Nixon, citing an “an unacceptable risk” to Americans not yet withdrawn from Vietnam, announced his decision to expand the war, although he claimed it was “not an invasion of Cambodia.” Without consulting Congress, the president argued he must be bold. “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation … acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

Nixon approves Cambodian incursion - Apr 28, 1970 -

SP5 Mark Kuzinski

President Richard Nixon gives his formal authorization to commit U.S. combat troops, in cooperation with South Vietnamese units, against communist troop sanctuaries in Cambodia.

Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who had continually argued for a downsizing of the U.S. effort in Vietnam, were excluded from the decision to use U.S. troops in Cambodia. Gen. Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cabled Gen. Creighton Abrams, senior U.S. commander in Saigon, informing him of the decision that a “higher authority has authorized certain military actions to protect U.S. forces operating in South Vietnam.” Nixon believed that the operation was necessary as a pre-emptive strike to forestall North Vietnamese attacks from Cambodia into South Vietnam as the U.S. forces withdrew and the South Vietnamese assumed more responsibility for the fighting. Nevertheless, three National Security Council staff members and key aides to presidential assistant Henry Kissinger resigned in protest over what amounted to an invasion of Cambodia.

When Nixon publicly announced the Cambodian incursion on April 30, it set off a wave of antiwar demonstrations. A protest at Kent State University resulted in the killing of four students by Army National Guard troops. Another student rally at Jackson State College in Mississippi resulted in the death of two students and 12 wounded when police opened fire on a women’s dormitory. The incursion angered many in Congress, who felt that Nixon was illegally widening the war this resulted in a series of congressional resolutions and legislative initiatives that would severely limit the executive power of the president.

The Nixon Doctrine At Work in Vietnam

The Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy team went to work, beginning with Vietnam. In four years, the Nixon administration reduced American forces in Vietnam from 550,000 to twenty-four thousand. Spending dropped from twenty-five billion dollars a year to less than three billion. In 1972, the president abolished the draft, eliminating a primary issue of the anti-war protestors. At the same time, he kept up the American bombing in North Vietnam and added targets in Cambodia and Laos that were being used by Vietcong forces as sanctuaries, while seeking a negotiated end to the war.

An impatient Congress and public pressed the administration for swifter results and accurate accounts of the war. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had been guilty of making egregiously false claims about gains and losses in Vietnam.

When North Vietnam continued to use Cambodia as a staging ground for forays into South Vietnam, Nixon approved a Cambodian incursion in May 1970 by U.S. and Vietnamese troops. Escalation of the war produced widespread student protests, including a tragic confrontation at Kent State University, where four students were killed by inexperienced members of the Ohio National Guard. On June 24, the Senate decisively repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had first authorized the use of U.S. force in Vietnam. It later passed the Cooper-Church Amendment prohibiting the use of American ground troops in Laos or Cambodia.

Bombing of Cambodia

In March 1969, President Richard Nixon authorized secret bombing raids in Cambodia, a move that escalated opposition to the Vietnam War in Ohio and across the United States.

Nixon believed North Vietnam was transporting troops and supplies through neighboring Cambodia into South Vietnam. He hoped that bombing supply routes in Cambodia would weaken the United States' enemies.

The bombing of Cambodia lasted until August 1973. While the exact number of Cambodian casualties remains unknown, most experts estimate that 100,000 Cambodians lost their lives, with an additional two million people becoming homeless. Enhancing the destruction, in April 1970, President Nixon ordered United States troops to occupy parts of Cambodia. Nixon claimed that the soldiers were protecting the United States' withdrawal from South Vietnam. American soldiers quickly withdrew, but their presence, along with the air strikes, convinced many Cambodians to overthrow their government, leading to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a communist and despotic government.

Many Americans opposed the Vietnam War. When media outlets publicized the events in Cambodia, critics of the war became more vocal. College students across the United States became increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the war. In Ohio, at Kent State University, students set fire to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building. Governor James Rhodes called out the Ohio National Guard to restore order at Kent State. The National Guardsmen opened fire on protestors at the campus, with four students dying. Students at other college campuses in Ohio and in the rest of the United States continued to protest the Vietnam War and its escalation into Cambodia.

The Year Nixon Fell Apart

The year was 1970, and the paranoid, stressed president starting drinking, stealing away from the White House and, eventually, going after his enemies.

We know what happened in the spring of 1972: Five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, were caught and arrested, and triggered the slow-dripping scandal that became known as Watergate.

But a full understanding of President Richard Nixon wouldn’t be possible without the events that came before Watergate, when the stress of the presidency—the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, the secret bombing and invasion of Cambodia, the deaths of four student protesters at Kent State, became too much. He was agitated, drinking, paranoid about the press—and in one memorable pre-dawn excursion, exited the White House without his aides, driven by a mix of memory and pain, to try and connect with demonstrators on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When his frantic staff at last caught up with him, he treated them to breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel.

This chapter of the Nixon presidency is the story of how his tragic flaws caught up with him, of how he cracked in the crucible of the presidency. With foreign and domestic crises tearing the country apart, the always-distrustful, unstable, insecure president started going after his enemies.

The flag-draped caskets kept coming home. Opponents of the Vietnam War organized huge, nation-wide demonstrations in the fall of 1969—the Moratorium and the Mobilization—leaving Nixon’s White House in a state of siege.

Then, in March 1970, the pro-Western leaders of the Cambodian military staged a coup, overthrowing the neutralist Prince Sihanouk and prompting the North Vietnamese and the homegrown Communist Khmer Rouge to march upon Phnom Penh. Events drew Nixon into crisis mode. That spring would produce some of the most emotionally charged and dramatic moments of his presidency.

He was finding enemies everywhere: among liberals, the bureaucracy, on Capitol Hill and in the press. “We can have peace. We can have prosperity. We can have all the blacks screwing the whites,” and still not get credit from the liberal establishment, he would complain, in comments captured on his secret White House taping system. His orders sometimes sounded like the mutterings of a paranoid. “The press is the enemy,” he would tell his staff, and ordered aides to comb through the microfilm at the D.C. public library and compile every article by columnist Drew Pearson, dating back to 1946, that mentioned his name.

Work was Nixon’s medication. So was risk. The arduous quest for the presidency and the all-consuming exercise of its powers furnished relief. “He had no personal ability to get control,” his television adviser, Roger Ailes, recalled. “He was to live in a drama—in a Western: Nixon against the world.” Another aide, years later, came to the conclusion that Nixon sought crises like a gambler craves the game.

“He needed to tempt self-destruction,” said Monica Crowley. “He courted controversy intentionally … the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air.”

“Was Nixon paranoid? Yes,” said aide Dwight Chapin. “But he also had the right to be.”

In April 1970, an oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded, putting the lives of three astronauts in jeopardy. The country and its president faced a week of anxiousness and worry: Would those brave men suffocate in space, as Earth listened in on their deaths? Nixon was as tense as anyone and, relieved when the heroes returned safely, ordered celebratory drinks. By 3 p.m. the commander in chief, Haldeman noted, was hammered and snoring.

It was during that week, on a trip to Hawaii to welcome the heroic astronauts home, that a briefing from his Pacific commanders persuaded Nixon that he needed to take forceful action to save Cambodia from falling to the Communists. He would have to expand a war he had promised to end. The president seemed “overwrought” and “increasingly agitated,” National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger recorded in his memoirs, but Nixon’s reasoning was sound. If the Communists seized the rest of Indochina, South Vietnam appeared doomed, and there would be no peace with honor.

“Do you think there’s a prayer for Vietnamization if Cambodia is taken over?” Kissinger asked Secretary of State William Rogers, using the term that described the transfer of combat responsibility from the United States to the South Vietnamese.

“Yes,” said Rogers. It would be a setback, but the South could survive.

“You’re entitled to your opinion,” Kissinger told him.

The initial plan was for the South Vietnamese Army, supported by U.S. artillery and aircraft, to go into Cambodia and attack the North Vietnam­ese military headquarters and ordnance depots at a salient called the Parrot’s Beak. At a meeting of NSC officials, Vice President Spiro Agnew recommended that the administration stop “pussyfooting,” and Nixon, not to be outdone at manly chest-beating, expanded the scope of the invasion. He proposed to double the mission, adding 30,000 American troops to cross the border and sweep through a second Communist sanctuary known as the Fishhook. He fortified his nerves with viewings of the motion picture Patton and cocktail cruises on the White House yacht Sequoia with his family, his best friend Bebe Rebozo and aides. On May 1, as the boat approached Mount Ver­non, Nixon punched the air and told an aide that he wanted the national anthem “blasted out.” He and Bebe, his wife Pat and his daughter Julie, along with her husband David Eisenhower, stood at attention in the bow while a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. “It was a lonely time for him,” his military aide, Jack Brennan, remembered. “I had never seen him appear so physically exhausted.”

Nixon was raging, hanging up on aides and increasingly huddling in his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building, “reflect­ing, resenting, collecting his thoughts and his anger,” Kissinger would recall.

“Don’t worry about divisiveness—having drawn the sword, don’t take it out—stick it in hard,” Nixon told his staff. He was ready to do full battle with his political enemies over his plans for Southeast Asia. “Hit them in the gut.”

The Cambodian incursion was marginally successful, in that it disrupted the Communist command, bought Nixon more time, and dem­onstrated that the South Vietnamese could put up a fight. The incursion secured the border for most of 1971.

The gains, however, were not commensurate with the cost. The pur­pose of the mission was not, as many in the peace movement charged, to open a new front, escalate the fighting, and involve all of Southeast Asia in the conflagration. Quite the opposite: The offensive was limited in scope and designed to provide time and cover for Vietnamization. But it looked like Tricky Dick was expanding the conflict—after promising the country he would wind it down. His April 30 speech announcing the incursion was not so calm and reasoned as the silent majority address he looked tense and had to pause to wipe the sweat from his upper lip. “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world,” he said.

Drafted with the help of the pugnacious Pat Buchanan, Nixon’s speech was deceptive (falsely claiming that the United States had always “scrupulously” respected Cambodian neutrality) and gratuitously confrontational. So was the president’s comment, recorded by the press as he left the Pentagon the next day, that college students who opposed the war were pampered and ungrateful “bums.” It reflected his lifelong prejudice against the sons and daughters of the Ivy League but was difficult to apply to the hundreds of demonstrations that had erupted throughout the country, at institutions like Notre Dame, the University of Virginia or Kent State—an Ohio university with a student body drawn from the working and middle class. During a weekend of unrest at the college, in which arsonists torched the ROTC building, Governor James Rhodes dispatched the Ohio National Guard to restore order, with live ammunition and predictable results. On May 4, the raw, tired, taunted guardsmen fired into a crowd of protesters. Four students died, nine were wounded. Several were just spectators oth­ers had been walking to class.

Nixon was stunned. “I could not get the photographs out of my mind,” he recalled in his memoirs. “I could not help thinking about the families, suddenly receiving the news that their children were dead.”

“I thought of my own daughters … of their learning to talk and to walk, and their first birthdays, and the trips we took together, going to the ballgame … and to the circus … getting them through the teenage years, getting them through college and then—whoosh—all gone.”

But publicly, his response was unyielding, even cruel. “When dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy,” the White House statement said.

Nixon’s pose crumbled in the face of the resultant, “profoundly unnerving” uproar, Kissinger recalled. Across the nation, higher education ground to a halt, as campus after campus suspended classes or was closed by student strikes. Three members of Nixon’s NSC staff resigned. The atmosphere was “absolutely poisonous,” aide William Smyser recalled. “We were not only fighting the North Vietnamese, we were fighting the Americans.”

Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had all suffered moments when the stupefying strain in their lives—the knowledge that a blunder could leave hundreds of millions dead, and civilization in radioactive ruin—led them to episodes of rage or sorrow, use of drugs or alcohol, stress-induced illness, or bizarre behavior. The spring of 1970 saw Nixon’s visit to that sort of Gethsemane.

It was a “paradox,” Nixon adviser Leonard Garment said. When wounded, Nixon was both strengthened—in that he drew renewed confidence from surviving—and weakened, in that he just could not forgive, or forget, or bring a halt to his self-destructive gnashing. “This man had real demons,” Gerald Ford remembered.

On the night of May 8, Nixon held a prime-time press conference, assuring Americans that the U.S. forces in Cambodia would withdraw soon and that he would keep his promise to bring home another 150,000 troops from Southeast Asia. In the Parrot’s Beak and the Fishhook, “we have bought at least six months, and probably eight months of time,” he said. Afterward, wired from the performance, and “agitated and uneasy” from the week’s events, he worked the telephone long past midnight, con­sulting with aides, advisers and reporters. He was facing an emotional crisis as real as that confronting the country. Unable to sleep, he put Rach­maninoff on the stereo and awakened his valet, Manolo Sanchez.

Sometime after 4 a.m., he decided to show Sanchez the glories of the Lincoln Memorial at night.

“Searchlight is on the lawn!” a White House guard reported, using the president’s Secret Service code name. (Nixon would later recall with satisfaction, “I’ve never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension.”) Nixon, Sanchez and the presidential physician, Dr. Walter Tkach, got in a car and left the White House. A few minutes behind them, in a second auto, was the frantic Egil Krogh, the White House aide who was on duty that night.

At the time, the Lincoln Memorial steps, rising above the Mall, were a rendezvous for students assembling for the day’s demonstrations. “Perhaps the major contribution I could make to them was to try to lift them a bit out of the miserable intellectual wasteland in which they now wander aimlessly,” Nixon told his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman later that week. Some of the students gathered round, and he awkwardly tried to connect. His feelings surfaced in zoetropic flashes. Peace and war were on his mind that night, the lesions of his childhood, his beloved mother and her recent death.

“My goals in Vietnam were the same as theirs—to stop the killing and end the war,” he would remember. He spoke about his own generation, about Munich and Chamberlain and Churchill, and the need to deal with Russia and open China. “It was not just a drop by … he had no talking points,” Krogh recalled. “His manner was intense—trying to reach out into them, to communicate with them. I’ve never seen him do it like this before. … He was trying to empathize with them as best he could.”

“I hope you realize that we are willing to die for what we believe in,” one student demonstrator told the president.

Of course, Nixon responded. “Many of us when we were your age were also willing to die for what we believed in,” he said. “The point is, we are trying to build a world in which you will not have to die for what you believe in.”

This article is excerpted from Richard Nixon: The Life.

Trying to “draw them out,” Nixon asked about their college football teams and spoke of his own days at Whittier College about surfing, the environment, the plight of the American Indians and the rewards of traveling through Europe and Asia. It was important to understand, he said, that amid the material comforts of life, it is “the elements of the spirit that really matter."

Streaks of rose above the Capitol signaled the approach of day. As he returned to his limousine, Nixon ran across Bob Moustakas, a tall and portly bearded longhair from Detroit who, by self-admission, was not looking his best after a long drive to Washington, in which mood-altering substances were consumed. Moustakas had a camera, and Nixon called on Tkach to take their picture. The mood was not hostile, Moustakas later recalled, but it was stilted—like that of a high school party, in which the host’s parents came down to the basement rec room to make small talk. As they posed and chatted, Nixon assessed Moustakas, and told him how, in China, the children were culled at an early age and sent off on different tracks, toward professional, academic or manual labors. The system was flawed, Nixon said, for it missed “late bloomers.” Then he patted Moustakas on the back, as if to say, there is hope for you yet.

The failure of the Lincoln Memorial visit was “a great shame,” said John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s assistant for domestic affairs, because “that was an opportunity for some reconciliation that didn’t take place.” Nixon and the students “just never reached each other.”

Nixon was not finished roaming. To the Capitol they drove, where he tried to show Sanchez the Senate and his old vice-presidential office and, finding the doors locked, settled on taking him into the House chamber and ushering him up to the rostrum, to stand where the Speaker wields the gavel and deliver a speech that Nixon applauded. In Statuary Hall, as the president made his way back to the car, a cleaning lady caught his attention and asked him to sign her Bible. He did so and urged her to read it faithfully. “Most of us don’t read it enough,” he said. And then, holding her hand, he stammered with some emotion, “You know, my mother was a saint. She died two years ago. She was a saint. You be a saint too.”

Frenzied aides, who had rushed into town from their homes in the suburbs (“Weirdest day so far,” Haldeman confided to his diary), caught up to Nixon at the Capitol. He decided to take them to breakfast. To the Mayflower, he told his driver. The presidential entourage arrived at the hotel restaurant, sat down, and gave their orders to the startled waitresses. Nixon remembered how, as a young politician in the 1950s, he liked their corned beef hash and eggs. Finally, with morning well under way, and groups of demonstrators tromping the streets, Haldeman and Krogh per­suaded Nixon, with more than a little difficulty, that it was not safe to walk back to the White House. He got back in the car, passed through a ring of buses parked end to end around the mansion grounds, and the gates of “this great white jail,” as President Harry Truman called it, shut behind him.

“I am concerned about his condition,” Haldeman confided to his diary. “The decision, the speech, the aftermath killings, riots, press, etc. the press conference, the student confrontation have all taken their toll, and he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper and mood suffer badly. … He’s still riding on the crisis wave, but the letdown is near at hand and will be huge.”

Kissinger was worried as well. “He was prepared to make decisions without illusion. Once convinced, he went ruthlessly and courageously to the heart of the matter,” the national security adviser recalled, “but each controversial decision drove him deeper into his all-enveloping solitude.”

Nixon was known to overindulge in alcohol, a habit that seemed to grow worse that spring. “I don’t think that it should be exaggerated,” said Winston Lord, an NSC aide. “However, there is no question that he had a problem.”

“He never could handle liquor,” his former press secretary Jim Bassett said, “and you had to be very careful with him about that.” On several occasions—the Apollo 13 drama, a banquet in China, an eve­ning during the Yom Kippur War, a flight back from Denver—his aides reported that he drank to excess. Nixon’s daughter Julie and friend Billy Graham both acknowledged it after his presidency.

Ehrlichman, after watching a sodden Nixon make a clumsy pass at a young lady in 1964, had made him promise to lay off the stuff before agreeing to work for him. Garment remembered instances during the 1968 campaign when his exhausted friend—after a drink or a sleeping pill or both—would call him late at night and ramble on and on until Morpheus claimed him in midconversation. After one such phone call, in which Nixon passed into slumber, an inexperienced, panicky Charles Colson, Republican operative and special counsel to the president, called Manolo Sanchez, thinking the president had a stroke or a heart attack. Nixon apolo­gized the next day sleeping pills and jet lag had caught up with him, he said.

A beer and a sleeping pill, and Nixon began to mumble, Speechwriter Ray Price recalled. Two drinks and “his voice would become slurred,” said another Nixon speechwriter, William Safire. “He would reminisce … open himself up.” On a private jet to Florida during the 1968 campaign, Nixon had downed a quick scotch or two and began to cry as he spoke to his aides of his parents, Frank and Hannah, and Arthur and Harold, the two brothers who died in their youth. “People don’t know me,” he pitiably told his staff.

Three drinks? “He couldn’t handle it,” said veteran California strate­gist Stu Spencer. “He really got paranoid when he got three drinks in him. There are things I’m not even going to discuss that were said, but they were the result of drinking. He could not handle drink.” His White House tapes capture the tinkling of ice cubes on several occasions in which Nixon, coming down from the high of a nationally televised address or a prime-time press conference, starts slurring his words while polling friends and advisers on his performance. “When I talked to the president he was loaded,” Kissinger told a colleague, explaining why Nixon could not take a phone call from the British prime minister during a Mideast crisis.

Insomnia was a long-standing problem. Nixon augmented his prescription sleeping pills with Dilantin, an anti-seizure drug recommended by a friend, the businessman Jack Dreyfus, who championed the drug for an unintended use: to combat depression. The slurring of speech was one potential side effect.

Nixon “took all those sleeping pills that would give him a low in the morning and a high in the evening,” said his spiritual counselor, Billy Graham. The president’s failures could be blamed on “sleeping pills and demons,” said Graham. “All through history, drugs and demons have gone together. … They just let a demon-power come in and play over him.”

“Looped,” Ehrlichman wrote in his diary after visiting with Nixon the night of the president’s speech on Cambodia.

As the midterm elections of 1970 approached, Nixon faced an unforgiving calculus. For Vietnamization to succeed, he had to stave off the Communists, but every action he took to do so—bombarding Laos, invading Cambodia, bombing sites in southern North Vietnam—stirred the fears of the public back home, lacing steel through the backbones of the antiwar members of Congress.

From government infiltration and intimidation, changes in the draft laws, internal bickering or simple exhaustion, the peace movement sagged after the deaths at Kent State. But the uproar over the Cambodian incursion had heartened the opposition on Capitol Hill, and by a 57–38 vote, the Senate approved a measure introduced by Senators Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, and John Sherman Cooper, a Republican of Kentucky, prohibiting U.S. military action in, and aid to, Cambodia after June 30.

The House refused to go along, and the Senate soundly rejected another amendment (offered by Senator George McGovern, the Democrat from South Dakota, and Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon) to cut off funding for all military action in Southeast Asia. But the hourglass had been turned. It was only a matter of time before the rebels in Congress succeeded. “The president’s personal relations with Congress have deteriorated gravely,” White House aide Bryce Harlow warned. Hanoi took heart.

Identifying enemies, and offering battle, were among those things that Nixon did best. The events of the spring of 1970 left him feeling beleaguered. The face he showed to his foes, for the rest of his presidency, would be one long contorted snarl.

In 1969, Nixon had dispatched Agnew to lambaste the network news executives (“a small and unelected elite”) and American intellectuals who opposed the war. The vice president had urged Americans to “separate them from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples.” Now Agnew took to the stump again, railing against Nixon’s critics (“nattering nabobs of negativism”) and liberals (“radic-libs”) and stoking the nascent culture wars. “How do you fathom the thinking of those who work themselves into a lather over an alleged shortage of nutriments in Wheaties,” Agnew asked, “but who cannot get exercised at all over a flood of hard-core pornography?”

“Dividing the American people has been my main contribution to the national political scene,” Agnew would come to boast. “I not only plead guilty to this charge, but I am somewhat flattered by it.”

Buchanan wrote a 13-page memo to Nixon, urging him to engage in “heated political warfare, of not cooling off our supporters but of stirring the fires” as they were now “in a contest over the soul of the country” with their liberal enemies in Congress, the press and the universities. “It will be their kind of society or ours we will prevail or they shall prevail.”

And another aide, Michael Balzano, urged the president to transmit the following message to disgruntled white voters: “Today, racial minorities are saying that you can’t make it in America. What they really mean is that they refuse to start at the bottom of the ladder the way you did. They want to surpass you … [and] they want it handed to them. … You worked the menial jobs to get where you are - let them do it too.” Balzono knew what he was proposing—an intentional rending of American society along racial lines, for political profit. “CAUTION – DANGER,” he wrote. “With respect to the calculated polarization described in this paper, ABSOLUTE SECRECY CANNOT BE OVERSTATED” or “there would be no way of calculating the damage to the Administration.” The capitalization was his.

White House aide Tom Huston drafted an organizational plan for government intelligence agencies, to improve upon the performance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was deemed too timid in his dotage to adequately suppress the radicals. The “Huston plan,” as it became known, explicitly authorized wiretapping, clandestine mail openings and break-ins, and acknowledged that such measures were illegal. Nixon approved it.

After several hundred construction workers went on a rampage in downtown Manhattan, beating antiwar protesters and other young people on what came to be known as “Bloody Friday,” the White House helped organize hard-hat demonstrations. A hundred thousand marched in New York. Nixon welcomed a group to Washington, and accepted a helmet of his own. The offensive continued through the fall election, as Nixon joined Agnew on the stump, and the two of them blistered the Democrats for encouraging a climate of riot and disorder.

On October 29 the president himself was the target of a rowdy demonstration in San Jose. He and Haldeman were hoping to turn such an incident into an evocative confrontation (“If anybody so much as brushes against Mrs. Agnew, tell her to fall down,” Nixon told his aides. “If the vice president were slightly roughed up by those thugs, nothing better could happen for our cause.” ), and the president climbed atop his limo to defy the rock-throwing protesters. He followed that performance with an ill-tempered speech from a poorly lit airport hangar in Phoenix that his aides chose to televise as the Republican curtain-closer for the fall campaign:

Let’s recognize these people for what they are. They are not roman­tic revolutionaries. They are the same thugs and hoodlums that have always plagued the good people. …

For too long, and this needs to be said and said now and here, the strength of freedom in our society has been eroded by a creeping permissiveness in our legislatures, in our courts, in our family life, and in our colleges and universities.

For too long, we have appeased aggression here at home, and, as with all appeasement, the result has been more aggression and more violence. The time has come to draw the line.

Nixon looked awful—too “hot” and mean for television—and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, responding with calm dignity from his homey living room Down East, made a far better impression for the Democrats, becoming an instant front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination in 1972.

The Election Day results were mixed, but Nixon’s foes on Capitol Hill were emboldened. In March 1971 the Democratic caucus in the House went on record, demanding a “date certain” for withdrawal from Vietnam. William Timmons, the White House congressional liaison, warned the president that it was just a matter of time before Congress cut off funding. The loss of leverage “will murder us with the North Vietnamese,” Kissinger noted.

And in the early months of 1971, Nixon approved the installation of a secret White House tape-recording system to memorialize his decision-making process for posterity. It quickly captured the president ordering his aides to target Muskie, Ted Kennedy and other Democratic rivals, Jews, liberal donors, journalists, and media organizations for harassment, sabotage and electronic surveillance. “Politics over the next two years is not a question of bring­ing in the blacks, and liberal senators, and making them feel that they are ‘wanted,’ ” Nixon told Haldeman. “It is going to be cold steel.”

This article has been excerpted from Richard Nixon: The Life, which will be published this week by Doubleday.

April 28, 1970: President Richard Nixon Approves a US Invasion of Cambodia

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On April 20, Nixon had announced that he would be withdrawing over 100,000 troops from Vietnam, but less than two weeks later, on this date 45 years ago, the United States invaded Cambodia, thus extending the war and seemingly precluding further withdrawals. In the Nation of June 1, 1970, the historian and sociologist Franz Schurman wrote &ldquoCambodia: Nixon&rsquos Trap&rdquo:

The lies that have been coming out of official quarters in Washington since the Cambodia coup appear to be frantic attempts to preserve the illusion of Presidential command and control over foreign policy. Mr. Nixon&rsquos rapidly alternating moods&mdashcalm optimism on April 20, threats on April 30, contrition on May 8&mdashshow weakness where there should be strength. The weakness is exacerbated by his inability to choose between two diametrically opposed thrusts of his political make-up&mdashone, a proclivity for reactionary conservatism which marked the beginnings of his political career, and the other a desire expressed in his campaign and in the first year of office to bring us all together. He cannot be a President of peace and of war at the same time. Johnson tried that by separating the two: he waged war abroad and preached peace at home. It worked for a while because the foreign and home fronts were not yet tightly linked. Today they are inextricably enmeshed, morally on the campuses and materially in the stock market. Nixon must make a move in one direction or another. Whichever way he moves, he will have a great fight on his hands. If he does not move, whatever power he has left will slip away. The decisive confrontation between the constitutionalists who want peace and the militarists who want war is close at hand.

To mark The Nation&rsquos 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.

Richard Kreitner Twitter Richard Kreitner is a contributing writer and the author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union. His writings are at

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