Talker’s foreign correspondent in Cambodia and the plaques in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Highland Park.

Talker’s foreign correspondent in Cambodia and the plaques in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Highland Park.

[Cambodia and Phenom Penh. From map engraved in stone at The Vietnams Veteran Memorial of Greater Rochester, Highland Park Photo: David Kramer 12/2/18]

As seen in A 1997 trip to deep Peru retracing the Shining Path. and From Tirana with love. And a dash of Pristina., Talker‘s foreign correspondent, Dr. Bruce Howard Kay, Brighton High School ’81, educated us on Peru and Albania.

(left) Dr. Bruce Kay and Dr. David Kramer, Cuzco, Peru. From

(left) Dr. Bruce Kay and Dr. David Kramer, Cuzco, Peru. From A 1997 trip to deep Peru retracing the Shining Path.

Dr. Bruce Kay, Director, Democracy and Governance Office USAID Cambodia at USAID, Cambodia, 2018 [Provided by Bruce]

Dr. Bruce Kay, Director, Democracy and Governance Office USAID Cambodia at USAID, Cambodia, 2018 [Provided by Bruce]

Dr. Kay’s most recent Talker assignment is in southeast Asia, specifically Cambodia. Actually and coincidentally, the USAID also transferred Bruce — now wearing two hats — to Cambodia.

As Rochesterians know, the history of the Vietnam War is narrated through plaques on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Walk of Honor in Highland Park.

Bruce Kay in front of statue of Sihanouk. Cambodia, 2018. [Provided by Bruce]

Bruce Kay in front of statue of Sihanouk. Cambodia, 2018. [Provided by Bruce]

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.

1956 new

From The Vietnams Veteran Memorial of Greater Rochester, Highland Park

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.

Below are the plaques and questions and answers for and from Dr. Kay.

On 18 March 1969, on secret orders from Nixon, the U.S. Air Force carried out the bombing of Base Area 353 (in the Fishhook region opposite South Vietnam’s Tây Ninh Province) by 59 B-52 Stratofortress bombers. This strike was the first in a series of attacks on the sanctuaries that lasted until May 1970. During Operation Menu, the Air Force conducted 3,875 sorties and dropped more than 108,000 tons of ordnance on the eastern border areas. Only five high-ranking Congressional officials were informed of the bombing. (Wikipedia, edited)

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)

Cambodia March 18th, 1970

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?

April 13th, 1970-page0001

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

4th mAy

In the United States, on May 4th, violence erupted at Kent State University in Ohio.

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 (now Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi. (Wikipedia, edited)

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)

Cambodia May 1st, 1970

On 1 May an even larger operation, in parallel with Toan Thang 42, known by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam 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 Air Cavalry Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 1st ARVN Armoured Cavalry Regiment, and the 3rd ARVN Airborne Brigade then entered Kampong Cham Province of Cambodia. Known as Task Force Shoemaker (after General Robert M. Shoemaker, the Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division), the force attacked the long-time communist stronghold with 10,000 U.S. and 5,000 South Vietnamese troops. (Wikipedia, edited)

May 23


After rescuing the Vietnamese from the Cambodians, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was tasked with saving the Cambodians from the North Vietnamese. The goal was to relieve the city of Kompong Cham, 70 kilometers northwest of the capital and the site of the headquarters of Cambodia’s Military Region I. On 23 May, General Trí led a column of 10,000 ARVN troops along Route 7 to the 180-acre (0.73 km2) Chup rubber plantationwhere The People’s Army of Vietnam resistance was expected to be heavy. Surprisingly, no battle ensued and the siege of Kompong Cham was lifted at a cost of 98 PAVN troops killed. (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.  

June 16th, 1970

Cambodia June 24th, 1970

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 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. On 30 June the United States 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. (Wikipedia, edited)

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)

Cambodia November 19th 1971

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)dec 19711971 2
23 april

April 23rd, 1972 (2)
Paris PeaceTalker: Ultimately, do many Cambodians blame the United States for allowing Pol Pot’s regime to come to power?  Could the United State have prevented the Killing Fields?

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. 


On the Memorial Day Parade and The Army of the Republic of Viet Nam

(l-r) Tan, Duc, Tai, Tau, Tran, Phuoe, Sy Highland Park, Memorial Day, 2016. From

(l-r) Tan, Duc, Tai, Tau, Tran, Phuoe, Sy Highland Park, Memorial Day, 2016. From On the Memorial Day Parade and The Army of the Republic of Viet Nam

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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