As Rochesterians know, the history of the Vietnam War is narrated through plaques on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Walk of Honor in Highland Park.Beginning in March 18th, 1969 and ending on January 23rd, 1973, about a dozen plaques reference events of the Cambodian Civil War during the phase of the United States’ deepest involvement. Beginning shortly before the removal of Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the plaques conclude with the signing of the Paris Peace Accord when the tide had turned in favor of the North Vietnamese-backed Khmer Rouge.
Bruce has kindly agreed to provide context — both historical and contemporary — to further our understanding of the plaques, commenting on how Cambodians today might perceive the plaques.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Sihanouk remained neutral from the civil war raging in neighboring Vietnam. However, following Premier and Defense Minister Lon Nol’s March 1970 coup, the newly declared Khmer Republic openly accepted American military assistance.
In April 1970, US President Richard Nixon announced to the American public that US and South Vietnamese ground forces had entered Cambodia in a campaign aimed at destroying North Vietnamese army base areas in Cambodia (see Cambodian Incursion). By that point, the US had already been bombing Vietnamese positions in Cambodia for well over a year.
As the battle raged and US ground forces retreated, the Khmer Rouge insurgency inside Cambodia continued to grow, aided by supplies and military support from North Vietnam. By 1973, Pol Pot’s insurgency controlled nearly 60% of Cambodia’s territory and 25% of its population. (Wikipedia, edited)
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, and Cambodia would be renamed Democratic Kampuchea. The genocide of Cambodia followed.
Talker: The secret bombings of Cambodia are considered one of the pivotal moments in the southeast Asian conflict. How do Cambodians see the bombings today, especially in their secretiveness. Do Cambodians accept the American rationale from that period or do they think the bombings were counterproductive? Is it true that the effects of the bombings can still be seen on the Cambodian countryside or — in the case of chemical weapons — on its populace?
BHK: I haven’t, obviously, had time to conduct a scientific survey of Cambodian attitudes about the bombings in the 1970s. Remember that two-thirds of Cambodia’s population is under 30 — one quarter are between 14 and 30 — which means that the overwhelming majority of Cambodians were born some 15 years after the bombings ceased. So if there is any residual anti-Americanism among the Cambodian young people, they don’t show it. On the contrary, they seem to like Americans or at least dislike us less than other nationalities. If the bombings are still etched into the collective historical memory here it may be because bomb craters still pock mark the countryside, villagers are still unearthing ordnance that never went kaboom — which usually forces evacuations until the bombs can be deactivated.
In March, 1970, while Prince Sihanouk was out of the country on a trip to France, anti-Vietnamese rioting — semi-sponsored by the government — took place in Phnom Penh, during which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong embassies were sacked. In the prince’s absence, Lon Nol did nothing to halt these activities. Most of the population, urban and rural, took out their anger and frustrations on the nation’s Vietnamese population. (Wikipedia, edited)
Talker: The 1970 plaque indicates animosity in Phnom Penh towards Vietnamese shopkeepers and residents. What was the source of that animosity? Does that animosity persist today in any significant form?
BHK: Historical resentment against the Vietnamese goes back a long way — waaay before the 1970s — to the Angkorian period in the 9th or 10th century, mostly because of the annoying habit the Vietnamese Nguyen rulers had at the time of invading and seizing Cambodian land. The animosity persists and flares up from time to time especially when it is fueled by elites for political purposes, as it was in recent elections, when opponents of the current Prime Minister tried to accuse him of being a Vietnamese puppet (note this has do with the fact that the PM is a prominent figure in the party which governed Cambodia under Vietnamese occupation from 1973-1993)
The Cambodian coup of 1970 (Khmer: រដ្ឋប្រហារឆ្នាំ ១៩៧០) refers to the removal of the Cambodian Head of State, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, after a vote in the National Assembly on 18 March 1970. Emergency powers were subsequently invoked by the Prime Minister Lon Nol, who became effective head of state, and led ultimately to the proclamation of the Khmer Republic later that year.
The coup is generally seen as a turning point in the Cambodian Civil War. No longer a monarchy, Cambodia was semi-officially called “État du Cambodge” (State of Cambodia) in the intervening six months after the coup, until the republic was proclaimed, marking the point at which Cambodia became substantially involved in the Vietnam War as Lon Nol issued an ultimatum to North Vietnamese forces to leave Cambodia. (Wikipedia, edited)
Talker: What does Sihanouk represent to the people of Cambodia today? Is he a great patriot who resisted French neo-colonialism or is Sihanouk blamed for his complicity with Pol Pot?
BHK: A lot of Cambodians still see him as an important historical figure, wily, perhaps heroic; in any event, he’s the one credited with extricating Cambodia from French colonial rule in the fifties. Again, I haven’t taken a survey, but my impression is that Sihanouk is not widely blamed for the Khmer Rouge. If he were, then how to explain his son Ranariddh’s election as the country’s first prime minister in 1993?
The election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 introduced policies of gradual U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam and the Vietnamization of the conflict. At first, American involvement in Cambodia was focused on aerial bombardment. In April 1970, Nixon added ground assault against Vietnamese army sanctuaries in Cambodia.
Talker: What does the name Nixon mean to Cambodians today: war criminal or the leader who made the Paris Peace Accords possible?
BHK: Again, no survey data but my uneducated guess, based on the above-mentioned demographics of Cambodia’s youth bulge, is that not many have heard of Tricky Dick. His name has no resonance in contemporary Cambodian society as a villain or hero of the Paris Accords
Talker: What do older Cambodians today think of the student Vietnam anti-war movement? Does it have any place in their historical consciousness?
BHK: The US anti-Vietnam War movement has little place in Cambodians’ historical memory. Coverage of US news was very spotty in the 1960s and 1970s in Cambodia and for the older, mainly urban, elite Cambodians with access to radio/TV or newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, the horrific events that unfolded on Cambodia’s home front during that dark period probably loom a lot larger in people’s minds than a bunch of hippies and vets flashing peace signs and marching against the war in America’s cities.
On 29 April 1970, South Vietnamese and U.S. units unleashed a limited, multi-pronged Cambodian Campaign that Washington hoped would provide a shield for the American withdrawal from Vietnam by destroying the Vietnamese army’s logistical system and killing enemy troops in Cambodia. (Wikipedia, edited)
Although a considerable quantity of equipment was seized or destroyed by US and South Vietnamese forces, containment of North Vietnamese forces proved elusive. By June, three months after the removal of Sihanouk, the Vietnamese army and Khmer Rouge rebels had swept government forces from the entire northeastern third of the country. (Wikipedia, edited)
Talker: Although it’s been over 40 years, does Cambodia still bear psychic scars from the Civil War? That is, do people remember and resent who was on which side?
BHK: Yes, the wounds of the civil war and the Khmer Rouge period will take a long time, perhaps generations, to heal. The outward signs of a society traumatized by violence are evident in phenomena like higher-than-normal rates of emotional stress and anxiety. And, yes, people remember the perpetrators. This is in part because of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, whose work is to hear testimony from scores of KR victims and family members and to judge — and hold senior members of the Pol Pot regime responsible for — crimes perpetrated during the genocide. That period has been memorialized in dozens of gut-wrenching films which, I see as a healthy sign of a society coming to grips with its past.
Following the withdrawal of US ground troops, the tough, rigidly indoctrinated peasant army of the Khmer Rouge with its core of seasoned leaders now received the full support of Hanoi. Khmer Rouge forces would grow from 12–15,000 in 1970 to 35–40,000 by 1972, when the so-called “Khmerization” of the conflict took place. (Wikipedia, edited)
From 1972 through 1974, the war was conducted along the Khmer National Armed Forces’s lines of communications north and south of the capital. Limited offensives were launched to maintain contact with the rice-growing regions of the northwest and along the Mekong River and Route 5, the Republic’s overland connections to South Vietnam. The strategy of the Khmer Rouge was to gradually cut those lines of communication and squeeze Phnom Penh. As a result, FANK forces became fragmented, isolated, and unable to lend one another mutual support. (Wikipedia, edited)
BHK: For those who still think about that period, yes, there is a sense that the US role in first militarily supporting — and then abandoning — the Lon Nol regime that ousted Sihanouk paved the way for the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.