By Deirdre Griswold
It is truly amazing. Search U.S. news sources and archives for information about Cambodia's history between March 1970 and April 1975 and you will find almost nothing. Those five years have been virtually obliterated in our sanitized culture.
You will, of course, find reams about the later period of the Pol Pot regime. The U.S. propaganda machine has made the term "killing fields" synonymous with the Khmer Rouge, or Cambodian communist army.
But why is there such an absence of information about the years that preceded the victory of the Khmer Rouge?
Because they were five years in which bloody U.S. intervention plunged Cambodia into war and disaster.
They started with a CIA-sponsored coup on March 18, 1970. Cambodia until then had remained neutral in the U.S. war against Vietnam, unlike its neighbor Thailand, which had become a base for daily B-52 raids against Vietnamese villages and rice paddies.
Cambodia's leader, Prince Sihanouk, had maintained good relations with People's China, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. The CIA tried several times to have him assassinated, with no luck. But finally, while Sihanouk was out of the country visiting Moscow, he was deposed in a coup led by Lon Nol, the chief of staff of the Cambodian Army.
CIA overthrew Sihanouk
According to an article in the Australian journal The Age by Milton Osborne on Jan. 12, 1971, Lon Nol had been recruited into the CIA in the fall of 1969 while receiving "medical treatments" in the American Hospital at Neuilly sur-Seine outside Paris. He then secretly began to bring into the country Cambodian mercenaries trained at a CIA commando center in Nha Trang, South Vietnam.
Lon Nol also used members of the Khmer Krom, a U.S.-sponsored army of Cambodian fascists headquartered in Thailand and commanded by Son Ngoc Thanh, who had collaborated with the Japanese in World War II.
The CIA and the Fifth Special Forces unit in South Vietnam, however, called the shots. The International Herald Tribune of June 3, 1970, quoted Green Beret Capt. Robert F. Marasco as saying his B-57 unit of right-wing Cambodian mercenaries had been operating "as far as Phnom Penh," the capital, during the Lon Nol takeover, even though they were barred by the Sihanouk government.
Postings in Ralph McGehee's CIAbase say that Lon Nol, under orders from the CIA, first ordered all North Vietnamese out of Cambodia within 72 hours. Four days later the U.S. merchant ship Columbia Eagle was commandeered by two CIA officers, who steered it to the port of Sihanoukville. With guns and ammunition from the ship, Lon Nol's forces seized control of the government.
The intention of the coup was to install a pro-U.S. puppet government that would allow the Pentagon free rein to attack Vietnamese liberation fighters from Cambodian soil. Senate Majority leader Mike Mansfield admitted on Oct. 13, 1971, in a speech on the floor of Congress that "The coup was arranged through the Cambodian High Command."
Demonstrations erupted against the fascist military regime in 17 of Cambodia's 19 provinces. But they were drowned in blood. Hundreds of Lon Nol's opponents were executed by beheading.
When reporters later asked President Richard Nixon about Lon Nol's slaughter of unarmed men, women and children, he replied: "The Lon Nol government is a sovereign government. We cannot do anything."
U.S. invasion follows coup
The U.S. was already carrying out secret military operations inside Cambodian territory. But within weeks of the coup, on April 30, 1970, the Pentagon openly invaded Cambodia, claiming it was going after a mythical "command headquarters" of the Vietnamese NLF.
The reaction inside the U.S. was immediate. Demonstrations flared on hundreds of campuses as Washington widened the war--while claiming to seek peace.
At Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi on May 4, demonstrating students were shot dead by the state. It was a turning point in the anti-war movement here. The mayhem that U.S. intervention had brought to Southeast Asia was beginning to be experienced at home.
Gen. William Westmoreland's strategy had long been to expand the war. In February and March of 1971, U.S. troops invaded Laos after years of a secret bombing campaign there. Troops of the U.S.-puppet Saigon army were sent to fight in Cambodia as well.
The open imperialist aggression consolidated a resistance army in Cambodia. By August and September of 1971, the liberation forces, known as the Khmer Rouge, had launched an offensive called Operation Chenla 2. In the battle of Rum Luong, they turned back 50,000 South Vietnamese troops and cut the main highway to Phnom Penh.
700,000 killed in U.S. air raids
On New Year's Day of 1972, they took control of the river linking Phnom Penh with South Vietnam. All this was done while the U.S. was intensifying its air war, pounding guerrilla positions with carpet bombing from B-52s. By the time the war ended, 700,000 people had been killed in these air raids.
Little by little, however, the Pentagon was losing the war in Southeast Asia. Both the Saigon and U.S. armies were in crisis, troops were rebelling, demonstrations were growing at home despite repression. And in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge continued to make gains, until finally the Lon Nol clique controlled only a 10-mile perimeter around Phnom Penh. But even as the rebels took over Pochentong airport, Lon Nol's lifeline to Pentagon supplies, U.S. planes continued to pound the surrounding countryside.
By March 1975, the handwriting was on the wall. Phnom Penh was a city where "Cabinet ministers ride to and from their air-conditioned villas in chauffeured Mercedes" while "refugees, crushed by food prices which have risen more than 1,000 percent ... stir the garbage in the gutter in search of something salvageable." (New York Times, March 16, 1975)
Thousands of foreign agents of all kinds--U.S., Israeli, south Korean, French, began leaving the country. All the officials were thinking about how to get their wealth out. A puppet army sergeant said, "We'll lose the war because the officers are too busy making money." (Newsweek, March 10, 1975)
On April 1, 1975, Lon Nol fled Cam bodia for Indonesia on his way to refuge in the U.S.
The Cambodian population only wanted an end to the war. A New York Times correspondent wrote from Phnom Penh on April 13, "The American presence meant war to them. ... The Americans brought them planes and napalm and B-52 raids, not schools and roads and medical programs."
The end came on April 17. The New York Post of that day described the entry of the rebel troops into the city: "The first Khmer Rouge troops came in from the north. From the sidewalks, people cheered and waved white strips of cloth as the victors walked in triumph through the downtown streets. Crowds of cheering citizens surrounded small groups of the insurgent soldiers and followed them about."
The Associated Press wrote on the same day: "Crowds on the street cheered the black-uniformed Khmer Rouge forces as they entered the capital this morning. The victors hugged government soldiers and took them aboard their armored personnel carriers for a parade along the waterfront."
Yet another full-scale U.S. assault
But the war wasn't over. After Cambodia detained a U.S. ship, the Mayaguez, that had penetrated its waters, the Pentagon on May 14 launched a full-scale assault. A-7 fighter bombers from the aircraft carrier Coral Sea bombed Cambodian boats in the Gulf of Thailand and attacked the large coastal city of Sihanoukville.
U.S. Marines, accompanied by a flotilla of 12 U.S. naval craft, invaded Cambodia's Koh Tang Island and met stiff resistance.
To many in Cambodia, it must have seemed that the nightmare was to start all over again. The response of the Khmer Rouge was to accelerate their evacuation of Phnom Penh, which they fully expected to become a main target of this new stage of the war.
It was in this evacuation that countless people died--of hunger and disease as well as abuse. The city population was not accustomed to the hardships the peasant-soldiers had been enduring.
The Khmer Rouge have been accused of everything from madness to genocide by the U.S. bourgeoisie. Their victory became the excuse for punishing U.S. sanctions on Cambodia that lasted for years after the Pol Pot group, which became embroiled in a border war with Vietnam, was removed from power.
In the enormous propaganda campaign that has followed, the criminal U.S. record in Cambodia has been expunged. To even speak of the U.S. responsibility is to be accused of apologizing for the extreme measures taken by the Khmer Rouge.
But in truth it was the U.S., driven by greedy imperial ambition, that unleashed a civil war in Cambodia when no seasoned revolutionary movement existed able to unite the workers and peasants in reorganizing society on a socialist basis.