Episode 95: The Second Indochina War, Part 22



The previous episode of this podcast was a bit on the short side, so to make up for it, this episode is twice as long!  Today we look at Vietnam and Cambodia, in 1973 and 1974.  A cease-fire is signed for Vietnam in early 1973, which ends active American involvement in that country, but it fails to end the fighting.  As for Cambodia, it takes two to make peace, and the communist Khmer Rouge don’t even want to talk about it, so the Cambodian Civil War was a fight to the finish, with American bombers involved until August 1973.  Tune in and listen to the action!




Episode 95: The Second Indochina War, Part 22

or, The Phony Peace

Greetings, dear listeners!  I hope you’re all safe, happy and healthy, especially if you are listening to this in 2020, the year for all kinds of crazy events!  The latest strange news story I have heard is that China has sent strange packets of seeds to random addresses in the United States.  Attempts to identify the seeds have not found any potentially invasive species, and as far I know, they don’t carry toxins, diseases or radiation, but those who received the seeds have been warned not to plant them.  Whose idea was it to send mysterious seeds in the first place?  If it is an act of war on China’s part, it has about as much chance of getting results as the Japanese attempt to send balloons carrying bombs across the Pacific Ocean, during World War II.  Myself, I think we should send the seeds to that vault near the North Pole, where an attempt is being made to store seeds from every species of plant in the world.

All right, what do mysterious seeds have to do with a podcast on Southeast Asian history?  Nothing, really.  I’m just trying to break the ice before we dive into today’s topic.  For more than twenty episodes, that topic has been the Second Indochina War, or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War.  The United States, after years of heavy fighting in the lands that used to be called French Indochina, withdrew from the conflict in the early 1970s, and the war finally ended in 1975.  At least two of my sources tie the Second Indochina War with the First Indochina War, the previous conflict in and around Vietnam between the Viet Minh and the French, and they call it an Asian thirty years war.  With us, in the last episode we got to the end of 1972 in the narrative, so for this episode and the next, we are going to wrap things up, talking about how the conflict turned out.  Today we are going to cover events in Vietnam and Cambodia, during 1973 and 1974.  As for the third country in Indochina, Laos, we won’t be talking about it here; in Episode 79 we already talked about what was happening in Laos at this time.

I picked “The Phony Peace” as the second title for this episode because peace agreements were signed in Vietnam and Laos in 1973, but the agreement for Vietnam failed to halt the fighting.  If you’re familiar with the story of World War II, you will know that near the beginning of the war, there was a period where France and Britain were technically at war with Germany, but there was no fighting between them in Europe, no repetition of the infamous “Western Front” from World War I.  The fighting that did take place was restricted to naval battles in the Atlantic, between the British and German fleets.   There were three reasons for this:

1. The German Army had been highly successful when it invaded Poland in September 1939, but it was not yet ready for a similar campaign in Western Europe.
2. Neither Britain nor France wanted to make the first aggressive move.
3. Only the Russians thought starting a war in the winter was a good idea.  In fact, they invaded Finland during this time, and we call that conflict “the Winter War.”

The British called this pre-combat situation “the Phony War.”  Germans coined the term Sitzkrieg, meaning “sit-down war,” to describe it, comparing the Blitzkrieg in Poland with the Sitzkrieg in the west.  It ended on April 9, 1940, when the Germans began their Western Front campaign by invading Denmark and Norway.

Now fast-forward 33 years.  In Vietnam peace was declared in 1973, but not much was done to make it work; peace did not break out in the Mekong Delta, the Central Highlands, or anywhere else where it mattered.  Thus, we have the opposite situation to “the Phony War” in early 1940, a phony peace.

If you are new to this podcast, and haven’t listened to the other episodes on the Second Indochina War, what are you waiting for?  I already said that this story is almost over.  If you are watching a movie, play or TV show, I think you will agree that the worst time to walk into the story is at the end.  At a minimum, you will want to ask someone else what you missed.  That is how I felt about the war in Vietnam, in the real world.  That conflict began before I was born, so when I grew old enough to learn where Vietnam was, and that soldiers from my country were fighting over there, nothing about that war made any sense to me until I could read about what had happened previously, especially how the war got started.  Therefore, if you are just joining us, the other episodes you need to listen to are 71 through 94, except for 76, 77, and 85, which covered special topics.  That is your listening assignment, go for it!  The rest of you, come with me!



Let’s begin with a quick recap of the events covered in the previous episode.

In the spring of 1972 North Vietnam launched its second major offensive in South Vietnam, this time with mainly conventional forces.  Like the Tet offensive, this assault eventually ran out of steam, but before it did, between 10% and 25% of South Vietnam’s land and 15% of its people were captured.  The main battle was fought over the northernmost provincial capital, Quang Tri, which the communists held for four and a half months before ARVN forces retook it.  The last American soldiers were leaving Vietnam at this time, so the United States did not get involved in the fighting.

At the same time, the United States was improving relations with China and the Soviet Union.  The Vietnam War kept getting in the way of the agreements they were signing, so Washington, Moscow and Beijing all looked for ways to make the war go away.

The peace talks had been stuck for years on issues that neither side would compromise on, like whether the North Vietnamese should withdraw to their side of the Demilitarized Zone, the role of Nguyen Van Thieu and the Viet Cong in the postwar government, etc.  Now the major powers increased pressure on both Hanoi and Saigon for a diplomatic solution. China and the USSR refused North Vietnamese requests for more aid, and the US threatened to cut off aid to Thieu unless he made peace as well.  The real breakthrough came when both sides agreed to a partial settlement; in effect what they said was, "Just stop the fighting now and we’ll take care of the rest later."

Alright, that was where everything stood as 1972 ended.  Now the narrative can continue.


We saw in the last two episodes that the peace talks were led by the US national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and by North’s Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho.  They resumed negotiations in Paris on January 8, 1973, and all remaining differences between them were resolved by the next day, which also happened to be the sixtieth birthday of the US president, Richard Nixon.  South Vietnam still had to come on board, so again Nixon threatened the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, with a total cut-off of American aid to South Vietnam.  As Nixon said, quote, “You must decide now whether you desire to continue our alliance or whether you want me to seek a settlement with the enemy which serves US interests alone.”  Unquote.  Because Thieu now had no choice, he unwillingly accepted the peace agreement.  Thieu realized that he could not, quote, “allow myself the luxury of resisting America.”  Unquote.  Still, he felt that the terms of the peace agreement were "tantamount to surrender" for South Vietnam, because they allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South.

The Paris Peace Accords were signed by four parties – the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong – on January 27, 1973.  There were scarcely any differences between the final agreement and the agreement reached the previous October, so North Vietnam’s withdrawal from the peace talks, and the massive US bombing campaign in response, Operation Linebacker II, had both been rather pointless.  Later on Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, but Tho refused to accept it.

Podcast footnote: One of my books called the award given to Kissinger the worst Nobel Peace Prize mistake, because his involvement was combined with a bombing campaign to make the North Vietnamese come back to the conference table.  In the previous episode I gave you a quote about the bombing from one of Kissinger’s aides, John Negroponte, and here it is again.  Quote:  “We bombed them into accepting our concessions.”

Unquote:  Personally I think the worst Nobel mistake came twenty years later, when Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat received the Peace Prize for signing the Oslo Accords with Israel, because he never renounced terrorism and he never granted diplomatic recognition to the state of Israel, but that was long after the writing of the book I mentioned.  Tom Lehrer, the comedy piano player, said in 1973, quote:  “Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.”  End quote.  Tom Lehrer composed and sang silly songs like “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”; look up that song on YouTube if you haven’t heard it.  Lehrer retired from songwriting in the same year, but as far as I know, his retirement had nothing to do with Kissinger or Vietnam.  End footnote.

According to the terms of the Peace Accords, the United States agreed to immediately halt all military activities and withdraw all remaining military personnel within 60 days.  The North Vietnamese agreed to an immediate cease-fire and the release of all American prisoners within 60 days.  In return, South Vietnam would release the 30,000 Viet Cong prisoners it held at the end of 1972.  An estimated 145,000 North Vietnamese soldiers presently in South Vietnam were allowed to stay there.  Vietnam remained divided as well.  South Vietnam was now considered to be one country with two governments, one led by President Thieu, the other led by the Viet Cong, pending future reconciliation.  Presumably free and democratic elections would be held to end that division.

Two more noteworthy things happened on January 27, 1973.  First, a US Army officer, Lt. Col. William B. Nolde, was killed by shellfire at An Loc, a provincial capital near Saigon, eleven hours before the cease-fire went into effect.  Although he would not be the last American to die in Vietnam, he was the last official American combat casualty of the war.

The other event was an announcement from Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, that the military draft was ending, in favor of voluntary enlistment.  In the 47 years since then, all American servicemen have been volunteers.  Over the years, some have expressed concern that relying on an all-volunteer force would not work, and that in a desperate situation, the United States would return to the draft.  I can think of one reason why the volunteer force worked – military equipment is too expensive to give it to just anybody.  The Vietnam War was probably the last conflict where an American recruiter would accept anyone who could walk and breathe.  You may remember when I told you in a previous episode about how recruiters willingly accepted men of below-average intelligence.  Since the war, the price of ironmongery has jumped by leaps and bounds so that the typical tank costs millions of dollars, jet fighters and bombers cost at least hundreds of millions, and an aircraft carrier costs so much in construction and maintenance, that choosing its home port can decide whether a portside community will see prosperity or unemployment.  In the age of electronic warfare, weapons are getting fewer in number as they grow increasingly sophisticated, and that means only the most competent, best trained personnel will be retained to use them.  To keep military budgets affordable, the United States and several other nations have "downsized" their armed forces.  We are now in a situation where the largest armies are fielded by the nations least able to equip them; North Korea is one present-day example.


Americans would not consider the war over until all US servicemen were home or accounted for; that included the POWS, or Prisoners of War.  There were 591 known American POWs held in Hanoi, and their return, called Operation Homecoming, began on February 12.  These were about the only American servicemen who received a hero’s welcome.  The last known American POW, Captain Robert White, was released on April 1. Meanwhile, in compliance with the cease-fire terms, most of the remaining US military personnel were withdrawn from South Vietnam by March 29; at this point, President Nixon declared, quote, "the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come."  Unquote.  The only servicemen left were 200 Marines, to guard the US Embassy and consular offices.  Thousands of diplomats, contractors, and agents from the Central Intelligence Agency also stayed behind, because they had non-military jobs to do and the cease-fire terms said nothing about them.

From the American point of view, that is how the Vietnam War ended.  Before the Americans went into Afghanistan, in the early 21st century, this was the longest war they had fought in.  And here’s a spoiler alert: Vietnam was the first war the Americans would lose, though they did not know it at this date.  During 15 years of military involvement, more than 2 million Americans served in Vietnam, with 500,000 seeing actual combat.  47,244 were killed in action, including 8,000 airmen.  There were also 10,446 non-combat deaths, so the total number of Americans who died in Vietnam was nearly 58,000.  153,329 were seriously wounded, including 10,000 amputees.  Finally, the US government had spent $160 billion on Vietnam in one form or another; in today’s money that would be $794 billion.

More than 2,400 Americans were unaccounted for in 1973.  These were called MIAs, or Missing In Action.  Most of them were airmen flying missions over North Vietnam or Laos; presumably their aircraft crashed or were shot down, and their bodies were never found.  As you might expect, rumors went around that some of them had been captured alive by the Communists, and were never repatriated.  For the rest of the twentieth century, there were mysterious reports of white people sighted in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos, who may have been MIAs.  A number of searches have been conducted since the war ended to find the remains of missing Americans, and that has removed one third of the MIAs from the list.  The most recent year I have figures for is 2015; as of then, there were still 1,627 US servicemen unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

For the other side, in 1974 the North Vietnamese defense minister, Vo Nguyen Giap, reported that there were 330,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers missing in action.  After the war, the United States put pressure on the Vietnamese to report on what happened to the missing Americans.  Dr. Le Cao Dai, who ran a mobile field hospital during the war, reported that after his fellow soldiers were killed in heavy bombing raids, sometimes only bits of clothing were found, so he responded, quote, "It’s crazy for the Americans to keep asking us to find their men.  We lost several times more than the Americans did.  In any war there are many people who disappear.  They just disappear."  Unquote.  And when human remains were found, there were not always dog tags, dental records, or DNA samples available to identify them.  For that reason, Dai also said, quote:  "Maybe the time has already passed to search for the missing.  In my opinion, it’s a waste of money, a waste of time, to keep looking for them. Best to just build a memorial."  Unquote.

Speaking of memorials, South Vietnamese soldiers are not included in the 330,000 missing that I mentioned a minute ago.  ARVN’s MIAs are considered traitors by Hanoi, so they are uncelebrated and not even counted; no memorial built in present-day Vietnam is for them.  After the war an attempt was made to bulldoze cemeteries that held Saigon’s war dead; the South Vietnamese cemeteries that stand today are abandoned and overgrown with weeds.


The cease-fire agreement had serious flaws from the start.  I already mentioned the biggest problem: letting North Vietnam keep 145,000 troops in South Vietnam.  In the area they controlled, the North Vietnamese built a paved road, going from Quang Tri Province to Loc Ninh, the town near Saigon that they captured in 1972.  I don’t know if this road reached the Demilitarized Zone; if it did, it would have been a better way to transport people and vehicles than the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which as we saw ran through eastern Laos and Cambodia.  They even managed to build an oil pipeline, following the same route.  There was also talk about capturing Tay Ninh, an important town between Saigon and the Cambodian border, and making it the new Viet Cong capital.

To monitor the peace, a multinational organization was set up, called the International Commission of Control and Supervision, or ICCS.  This consisted of military and civilian workers from four nations: Canada, Poland, Hungary, and Indonesia.  For those of you who don’t remember the Cold War, Poland and Hungary had communist governments at the time; two communist and two non-communist nations were chosen, to make sure the organization was balanced politically.  Each nation had 290 personnel working for the organization.  On the surface the ICCS looked like a United Nations peacekeeping force, but without armed soldiers, it could not enforce anything, it could only watch what others were doing.  Thus, when it observed violations of the cease-fire terms, it proved to be an ineffective organization.  Near the end of May 1973, the Canadians announced that they were withdrawing from the ICCS, because they had come to supervise a cease-fire but were instead observing a war; Iran took Canada’s place.  The other countries, as well as the ICCS itself, stuck around until the war ended in 1975.

Podcast footnote: I am old enough to remember the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  For those of you who aren’t old enough, it may sound strange to hear that Iran was not a rogue nation, but a responsible country monitoring the cease-fire in Vietnam.  Well, under the last Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran had a modern, secular society.  In terms of foreign policy it was pro-Western, and Iran was a very important ally to the United States.  Washington kept the Shah friendly by giving or selling to him everything he wanted, but that’s a subject for a podcast about the Middle East.  In fact, Iran’s pro-American policy before the revolution is the main reason why Iran has been anti-American since the revolution.  End footnote.

Unfortunately, neither North or South Vietnam tried very hard to keep the peace, and violations of the agreement occurred daily, as both sides tried to grab as much land as possible, in order to strengthen their position.  On January 31, just four days after the agreement was signed, American military advisors reported, quote, "Ceasefire or no, operations are continuing much as before." Unquote.  The same advisors reported that ARVN had used the cease-fire to gain the initiative.  Quote:  "With the support of daily air strikes and heavy artillery barrages they [the South Vietnamese military forces] have finally begun to roll the VC back."  Unquote.

Back in Episode 68, we covered the 1954 Geneva Accord, which ended the First Indochina War and divided Vietnam into northern and southern states.  I mentioned that the main accomplishment of the 1954 agreement was that it got the French out of Vietnam, and now history repeated itself; the main accomplishment of the 1973 agreement was that it removed the Americans as players.  Both cease-fires imposed partial solutions; once a military solution was reached, a political solution was expected to come and bring about real peace, and when it did not come, a renewal of the war became inevitable.


South Vietnam’s President Thieu flew to California in April 1973; he met with Nixon in the US president’s estate at San Clemente, before going on to Washington, DC.  Nixon reassured Thieu by renewing his earlier secret pledge, to respond militarily if North Vietnam violates the peace agreement.  Aside from that, however, the Americans lost interest in Vietnam, and it seemed that they were trying to forget they had ever been involved there.  News organizations cut back on the number of reporters they had in Saigon, and I remember that for a year and a half, from the summer of 1973 to the beginning of 1975, I only saw a few stories in the news from all of Indochina.  For Vietnam, I was vaguely aware that the war was still taking place on a reduced scale, and South Vietnam wasn’t winning.  Most Americans were now paying attention to other things:  double-digit inflation, high unemployment, a new war between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East, the energy crisis caused by that war, and most of all, the Watergate scandal.  I can’t talk about Watergate here, that’s way beyond the scope of this podcast, so if you are not familiar with what happened there, I hope you can find another podcast which covers it.  Or maybe watch the movie about it, “All the President’s Men.”

Podcast footnote: At the time, I lived fifty miles from Cape Canaveral, America’s space port, so my main interest in the news back then was our progress in space exploration, especially the missions on Skylab, the first American space station.  While reading the news, I remember a cartoon in Time Magazine, which showed President Nixon in a rowboat on the open sea.  In front of Nixon is a shark named “Vietnam,” and he looks relieved as the shark swims away, but he doesn’t see a whale named “Watergate,” coming up behind him.  End footnote.

<Play Nixon sound clip>

On June 19, 1973, the US Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment, which prohibited any further US military involvement in Southeast Asia.  In both the House and the Senate, more than two thirds of the members approved it, meaning the amendment had a veto-proof majority, so Nixon couldn’t stop it.  The date it would go into effect was August 15, 1973, because B-52 bombers were currently carrying out missions over Cambodia – more about that later in this episode.  For the North Vietnamese, the amendment was a signal to them that the next time they attacked the South Vietnamese, the Americans would not be there.  A few days later, on June 24, Graham Martin, the former US ambassador to Thailand under President Johnson, became the new US ambassador to South Vietnam.  We will see him again in the next episode, because he was also the last ambassador to South Vietnam.

South Vietnamese forces were at their strongest in 1973.  920,000 men were serving under ARVN, meaning they outnumbered their opponents 4 to 1, and they had been generously supplied with American-made materiel, including artillery and tanks.  By contrast, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong hadn’t recovered from their 1972 offensive.  Over the course of 1973, the South Vietnamese launched small-scale campaigns to take back key sectors, especially in the Mekong delta.  The last of ARVN’s counter-attacks was the battle of Svay Rieng.  Here from April 27 to May 2, 1974, the South Vietnamese crossed the Cambodian border, advanced 10 miles into Cambodia, and reported killing 1,200 enemy troops and capturing 65, while losing less than a hundred of their own.

Thieu’s plan was to keep on striking the enemy for two years, until the next election, scheduled for 1975, took place.  As long as he could keep on winning militarily, he was sure to win politically as well.  Then, from a position of strength, he would renounce the cease-fire as a worthless agreement, and launch a campaign to crush communism in South Vietnam once and for all.  Communists south of the 17th Parallel would find themselves in a situation very much like what they had suffered in the mid-to-late 1950s, when former President Ngo Dinh Diem almost destroyed them completely.  In response, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong postponed their offensive strategy until the rainy season ended, in late 1973, and ordered their units to only attack where the odds were overwhelmingly in their favor.

However, South Vietnam’s winning streak couldn’t last.  Economic problems appeared first.  Many of Saigon’s residents had worked service jobs, to meet the needs of the Americans stationed among them.  These included secretaries, maids, prostitutes, cabdrivers, and shoeshine boys.  Now that the Americans were gone, those jobs weren’t needed anymore.  In addition, the worldwide increase in oil prices during 1973 and 1974 triggered a wave of inflation.  The result was high prices and unemployment at the same time, which guaranteed trouble on the political and military fronts.

Besides the crumbling economy, South Vietnam had another problem which we have heard about previously – corruption.   To re-use a phrase popular in present-day American politics, no South Vietnamese leader “drained the swamp.”  Now military commanders stole much of the money from the payrolls of their troops.  And the stolen money was not replaced.  Nixon was forced to resign in August 1974, because Congress was planning to impeach him over Watergate.  One of Nixon’s last acts as president was to sign into law a bill that put a ceiling on aid to South Vietnam – $1 billion over the next eleven months.  Even so, for Congress this was too much, and when Congress voted on the next appropriation, in September 1974, they approved sending $700 million, not $1 billion.  And only about two fifths of that money, $280 million, made it to Vietnam.  A Pentagon study conducted later on reported that some of the funds were used to buy equipment that wasn’t shipped before the war ended, and some of the funds were simply unspent in the time left.

Because they were poorly equipped and rarely paid, the readiness and the morale of the South Vietnamese armed forces dropped like a stone.  By the end of 1974, the number of desertions reached as high as 20,000 per month.  South Vietnamese aircraft lost their pilots and ground crews, while jeeps and other ground vehicles did not have spare parts.  Fuel and ammunition were in short supply everywhere; ARVN troops were rationed one grenade and 85 bullets a month.

On that happy note (sarcasm intended), let’s go see what was happening in Cambodia at the same time.



If you need to refresh your memory, the other episodes where I talked about the war in Cambodia are Episodes 91 and 92.  We saw that France terminated its protectorate over Cambodia in 1953, and for the next seventeen years, Cambodia was ruled by a constitutional monarchy, where the monarch was either King Norodom Suramarit, or his son, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.  Gradually the government came undone, and then in 1970 the National Assembly voted to depose Sihanouk.  In his place, the Khmer Republic was proclaimed, and whereas Sihanouk tried to follow a neutral foreign policy, the new leaders, mostly military men, were openly right-wing, pro-Western and anti-communist.  Since a communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, was already active in the eastern part of the country, the war between communists and anti-communists in Vietnam now spread into Cambodia as well.  The Americans and South Vietnamese even fought the communists in Cambodia, for a few months in 1970.

If you had been in Cambodia at this time, you probably would have expected the government to do well; for one thing, government forces outnumbered those of the Khmer Rouge.  But as we noted previously, the army of the Khmer Republic was undertrained, and morale was poor.  Even worse, the government was run by people who were corrupt and incompetent.  I did not tell you this last time, but whenever the president, Lon Nol, needed to make an important decision, he consulted mystics and astrologers.  While kings of the ancient world regularly did that, it is not an appropriate practice for the leaders of today.  In a future episode, I will tell you about a modern Burmese leader who listened to astrologers, and the crazy things he did because of them.

Anyway, the Khmer Rouge also had help from the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, who fought on their side for the first half of the Cambodian Civil War.  They made rapid gains in 1970, and while there were some stalemates during the fighting in 1971 and 1972, the communists were never in danger of losing.  By the beginning of 1973, the Vietnamese were gone, since they were not needed anymore, and the Khmer Rouge controlled nearly 60% of Cambodia’s territory (mostly rural areas) and 25% of its population.

The first major operation that the Khmer Rouge conducted on its own was at Romeas, about 45 miles northwest of Phnom Penh.  Here on January 6, 1973, two Khmer Rouge battalions surrounded and besieged a government battalion.  With American help, more government troops came to the rescue, broke the siege, and entered Romeas on January 23.

On January 29, two days after the peace accord for Vietnam was signed, Lon Nol tried to do the same thing for Cambodia.  The government ordered a suspension of all offensive operations, in the hope that this gesture would lead to a Cambodian cease-fire and negotiations, but the Khmer Rouge weren’t having any of it.  On February 3, the Khmer Rouge cut Route 4, the highway link between Phnom Penh and the country’s only deep-water port, Kompong Som, present-day Sihanoukville.  Henceforth, the principal way to send supplies to Phnom Penh would be the Mekong River.  For the next two years, ships from Saigon carrying vital supplies like fuel oil would come under heavy fire as they went up the river, in successful but costly attempts to breach the communist blockade of the capital.  Realizing that there wouldn’t be any peace in Cambodia, the United States resumed bombing of military targets in Cambodia on February 9, using mainly B-52s, which were also nicknamed BUFFs, “Big Ugly Fat Fellows.”

<B-52 sound clip>

We saw in Episode 92 that the American bombing campaign over Cambodia was called Operation Freedom Deal.  Later on, officers in the US Seventh Air Force argued that their bombing prevented the fall of Phnom Penh in 1973, by killing 16,000 of 25,500 Khmer Rouge fighters besieging the city.  The Lon Nol government made peace overtures again in May and July, and these proposals were likewise rejected.  Instead, for 1973 the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive during the rainy season, something they hadn’t done previously.  The war in Cambodia would be a fight to the finish, with no cease-fire to interrupt it like the cease-fires in Vietnam and Laos.

Podcast footnote: Prince Sihanouk, now the figurehead leader of the Khmer Rouge, might have accepted some sort of peace agreement.  Indeed, his government had taken part in the Geneva conference of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War.  However, he was apparently talked out of it by the other Khmer Rouge leaders, when he met with them in Hanoi in early February.  Then, in the middle of the month, Henry Kissinger visited Beijing; coming fresh from the signing of the Vietnam cease-fire, Kissinger probably would have wanted a similar peace arrangement for Cambodia, but Sihanouk wasn’t there; instead the prince made a trip to Hainan, China’s big island in the South China Sea.  Sihanouk again refused to meet with Kissinger when the American negotiator, now the US Secretary of State, visited Beijing a second time in November.  End footnote.

On March 17, President Lon Nol declared a state of emergency, because an aircraft piloted by Captain So Potra (a son-in-law of Prince Sihanouk), bombed the presidential palace, killing 47 people.  Afterwards, known political opponents of Lon Nol were arrested, together with members of the former royal family, and all newspapers and magazines not controlled by the government were shut down for three months.

On the other side, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary asserted their domination over the Vietnamese-trained communists in the Khmer Rouge, purging many of them from the movement.  They also got rid of Prince Sihanouk’s non-communist supporters, who had joined because Sihanouk was with them.  And speaking of Sihanouk, I mentioned in Episode 92 that Sihanouk made his only visit to Cambodia during the war in April 1973.  It was a guided tour of the areas the Khmer Rouge had “liberated.” and concerts were held in his honor in the provincial capitals he visited.  Sihanouk claimed he attended a rally near the ruins of Angkor, Cambodia’s great medieval capital, but the only evidence we have of that are some photos of himself and his wife at Angkor, and it has been suggested they were either taken at another location, or were faked, with the photo retouching tricks used before Photoshop was invented.  Despite this, Sihanouk knew he wasn’t the one in charge, and he seems to have been glad to go back to China at the end of the tour.  In June he told Oriana Fallaci, the famous Italian reporter, quote, “When they no longer need me, they will spit me out like a cherry pit.”  End quote.

The real Khmer Rouge leadership was kept secret from outsiders; in the areas they controlled, the leaders were called Angka, which simply means “Organization,” or Angka Loeu, the “Organization on High.”  Pol Pot and his henchmen believed that Cambodia needed to go through a total social revolution, and that everything that had come before them was anathema and must be destroyed.

The Khmer Rouge began to implement their program for the country after the North Vietnamese troops withdrew, because now there was nobody around to restrain them.  Soon reports of brutal Khmer Rouge policies made their way to Phnom Penh as refugees arrived.  They told stories about the forced relocations of entire villages, of the summary execution of any who disobeyed or even asked questions, the forbidding of religious practices, monks getting defrocked or murdered, and even the abolishment of traditional sexual and marital customs.  War was one thing; the casual way in which the Khmer Rouge killed anyone who disagreed with them, so out of character for Cambodians, was quite another.  At the end of 1973, Sihanouk spoke with the French diplomat Etienne Manac’h.  Comparing the Khmer Rouge with communists in eastern Europe, he said that after the war, Cambodia would not follow a moderate form of socialism like what was practiced in Yugoslavia; Stalinist Albania would be the model.


By April 1973, the situation on the ground had gotten so bad for government forces, that American bomber crews were given permission to strike at targets where civilians were likely to be hit.  In the six months from February to August, 257,465 tons of bombs – nearly 100,000 more tons than were dropped on Japan during World War II – fell on Cambodia.  At one point, B-52 sorties reached 81 a day, compared to the Vietnam maximum of 60.  Near the end of the air raids, Seventh Air Force commander General John W. Vogt, Jr. observed, quote, “The enemy began to pull back.  He had suffered such heavy casualties…that he could no longer sustain the offensive.”  Unquote.  When somebody confronted Lon Nol about the army’s shortcomings, his reassuring answer was, quote, “Calm down.  The Americans are killing a thousand of our enemy every week.”  Unquote.

Unfortunately, Communists were not the only casualties.  The worst “friendly fire” incident happened at Neak Luong, the Route 1 ferry town on the Mekong between Phnom Penh and Vietnam.  Here before dawn on August 6, a B-52 mistakenly dropped its load – thirty tons of high explosive bombs – along a mile-long path that hit the local hospital and marketplace, killing 137 and wounding 268.

In the United States, Congress turned its attention to the bombing in May.  Members of Congress were furious to learn that air raids had secretly been conducted over Cambodia since 1969; previously they thought the raids had begun when US ground troops went into the country in 1970.  They voted to cut off funds for continued bombing of Cambodia at the end of June, but President Nixon vetoed this legislation.  Then a compromise was worked out, where all bombing had to end on August 15, 1973.  Afterwards, the only missions US aircraft were allowed to engage in were reconnaissance and the delivery of aid packages.  Estimates of the total number of casualties from the bombings vary widely, from 30,000 to 500,000 killed.  And we know that many of the war’s two million refugees became refugees because their homes were destroyed by the bombs.

For the last months of 1973, the main battles were fought along Route 4, the previously mentioned road linking Phnom Penh with Kompong Som, and at Kompong Cham.  Indeed, aside from the sieges of Phnom Penh, the heaviest fighting of the Cambodian Civil War took place at Kompong Cham.  Kompong Cham is located on the Mekong, 75 miles upstream from Phnom Penh, and is Cambodia’s third largest city, after Phnom Penh and Battambang.  The Khmer Rouge occupied half of Kompong Cham in early September, and neutralized a nearby airstrip.  The city was taken back by an operation called “Castor 21,” which involved navy SEALs and the army’s elite unit, the Khmer Special Forces.  The resulting battle lasted nine days and produced an estimated 8,000 casualties, before government forces triumphed in Kompong Cham.  This is one of the few times when Lon Nol had anything to crow about, so we’ll let him celebrate a victory here.


In December 1973 the Khmer Rouge insurgents launched another assault on the capital.  They attacked on the northwest and south sides of the city, using captured American 105mm howitzers to bombard it.  At the same time, radio messages were broadcast into the city, urging residents to evacuate and head for the quote-unquote "liberated areas."  Although the bombardment caused nearly 400 civilian deaths, and communist troops came within 3 miles of the Phnom Penh airport, the civilian population did not panic, and in February a government counteroffensive forced the insurgents to withdraw.  There were three reasons why the government defense had succeeded:

1.  Khmer Rouge forces were poorly coordinated.
2.  The government forces had great firepower, generously supplied by the Americans, of course.
3.  The Mekong River, then and now Cambodia’s most important line of transportation, was kept open at all times.

Even so, 1974 began with the Khmer Rouge controlling 85 percent of Cambodia.  About all that was left to the government were Kompong Cham and the Mekong River below it, a narrow corridor from Phnom Penh to the Thai border, and the coast along the Gulf of Thailand.

In March 1974, the Khmer Rouge captured Udong.  This town was Cambodia’s capital from 1618 until 1865, when  the French moved the capital to Phnom Penh, 24 miles away.  After taking the old capital, the Khmer Rouge dispersed its 20,000 inhabitants into the countryside, and executed the teachers and civil servants.  There were also reports in the same year of them massacring the inhabitants of Sar Sarsdam, a small village in Siem Reap Province, and of Ang Snuol, a town west of Phnom Penh.  This proved to be a trial-run for the atrocities that would be committed as soon as the war ended.  Donald Kirk, an author and correspondent, described the Khmer Rouge behavior as a "sweeping, almost cosmic policy" of indiscriminate terror, and compared it with the Viet Cong using "a modicum of care and precision" when they applied terror in South Vietnam; for instance, the Viet Cong limited their killings to landlords and South Vietnamese officials.  Government forces took back Udong in July, but the atrocity stories were considered to be anticommunist propaganda by many, if not most foreign journalists and other observers, and thus were dismissed.  Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge captured the roads between the government-controlled cities, in preparation for the sieges that would take place in the following year.


All right, I’ve talked enough for today!  We are up to December 1974 in the narrative, and if we go any further, we will be getting into the final campaigns of the war, which I am saving for the next episode.  Join me next time as we wrap up the Second Indochina War, learning how it all turned out in the end.  It’s all coming soon, to a podcast near you.

Another thing is coming up soon – the podcast’s centennial!  Because this is Episode 95 of the podcast, the Big 100 is only five episodes away.  With podcasts, lasting long enough to record 100 episodes is a big deal; it shows dedication and commitment, for a start.  Since I missed celebrating the podcast’s 4-year anniversary, I definitely don’t want to miss celebrating the 100th episode.  But what shall we do to celebrate?  If you have any ideas, drop me a line by email or on the podcast’s Facebook page.

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