Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)
In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.
See all the articles in this series.
On the night of March 18, 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, 60 U.S. B-52 bombers began raining explosives from the skies over Cambodia. A U.S. official said at the time “We had been told ... that those carpet bombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating, that nothing could survive.”
Thus began America's first campaign of saturation aerial bombing. It was called "Operation Menu" and for the next 14 months, a total of 3,800 air strikes of B-52 and F-111 bombers dropped 108,823 tons of explosives on this Southeast Asian country less than half the size of California. Cambodia (and Laos) shared a border with Vietnam, and the Hồ Chí Minh trail (named after the North Vietnamese leader), a military and supply route for the Vietnamese liberation forces, ran through Cambodia. This highly effective military and logistical supply route, and the Vietnamese bases along it, were the main targets of the U.S. bombing. But these were not “surgical strikes”—wide swaths of the lush countryside were obliterated, and the U.S. bombed anything that moved.
One Cambodian survivor described the horror: “We heard a terrifying noise which shook the ground, it was as if the earth trembled, rose up and opened beneath our feet. Enormous explosions lit up the sky like huge bolts of lightning; it was the American B-52s.”
The decision to carpet bomb Cambodia was made a few days earlier, after a breakfast planning meeting inside the White House Oval Office. Operation Menu's opening bombing raids were codenamed “Breakfast” and covered an area about 10 square miles. Subsequent similarly bombed target areas were called “Lunch,” “Dinner,” “Snack,” “Supper” and “Dessert.” The codenames kept the bombings secret from almost everyone—from the Cambodians and other Indochinese people, to the masses of people in the U.S., and even to whole sections of the U.S. ruling class such as Congress (except for five members who were secretly informed months later, and who kept silent).
A U.S. embassy official in Cambodia in the early 1970s wrote recently: “I did interview refugees from bombed areas, and most had no idea what had happened to them. The sky turned red and the earth shook, so they ran for their lives. As far as they were concerned it could have been a natural disaster of some sort. Some of them came by bullock cart and brought their dismantled houses with them.”
Between March 1969 and August 1973, the U.S. dropped at least half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia (some estimates range from 2.5 to 2.7 million tons). This included napalm—jellied gasoline that sticks to and burns—literally fries—human skin. The U.S. also dropped cluster bombs. One cluster bomb sprays dozens, even hundreds, of small lethal projectiles over an area, sometime the size of a football field, and shreds its victim on impact, tearing off limbs, organs, torsos or heads. One U.S. military estimate states that 9,500 airstrikes in Cambodia dropped 87,000 cluster bombs. Like victims of nuclear bombs, napalm and cluster bomb survivors are left so physically and emotionally mutilated, livelihood and lives so destroyed, that survivors say they envy the dead.
During the spring of 1970, the U.S. assault on Cambodia was escalated in “Operation Freedom Deal”—a ground invasion with U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. After President Nixon announced the invasion on national TV at the end of April, massive, militant protests erupted immediately on high school and college campuses. The Ohio National Guard deployed to campuses killed four students and wounded nine at Kent State on May 4. About two weeks later, Guardsmen murdered two students and wounded 12 in their after-midnight shooting into dorm rooms at Mississippi’s Jackson State. In response, about 450 schools nationwide and over four million students rose up and shut down campuses, even as more armed National Guardsmen were deployed to dozens of schools in 16 states.
Cambodia had declared neutrality in the U.S. war with Vietnam. But its allowance of the Hồ Chí Minh trail through its territory, along with its own rising anti-U.S. resistance movement, made it a target in a war engulfing most of Southeast Asia. At that time, Cambodia was full of lush vegetation and farmland. The U.S. dropped highly toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange, a defoliant and herbicide that removes leaves from trees and plants, destroys the agriculture, and poisons vegetation, crops, and livestock as well as people. Over a two-week period, from April 18 to May 2 of 1969, nearly 700 square miles of Kompong Cham Province were sprayed with Agent Orange.
U.S. bombs targeted peasant villages, with many hit by dozens of airstrikes over a matter of several hours resulting in their near total destruction. As one eyewitness to the U.S. air war said: “Three F-111s bombed right center in my village, killing eleven of my family members. My father was wounded but survived. At that time there was not a single soldier in the village, or in the area around the village. Twenty-seven other villagers were also killed. They had run into a ditch to hide and then two bombs fell right into it.”
Years of relentless bombing devastated the entire eastern half of Cambodia, including a wide ring around its capital, Phnom Penh. In some large areas of Cambodia, U.S. bombing site maps show almost every square mile of land was hit. All this shattered Cambodia’s rural agricultural economy and life. Cambodia’s peasant population fled to the cities, mainly Phnom Penh. Estimates of the death tolls from direct bombing range from 100,000 to 600,000—mostly civilians. Hundreds of thousands more likely died due to displacement, disease and starvation in this period. Over two million people, more than 25 percent of its population, were driven from the countryside. This created an enormous refugee crisis and huge shortages of food, shelter and other basic necessities that lasted long after the U.S. airstrikes stopped in August 1973.
US President Richard Nixon, who ordered the bombing, saying, “I want gunships in there. That means armed helicopters, DC-3s, anything else that will destroy personnel that can fly.... I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and no limitation on budget....” Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman, whose diary admits to urging Nixon to invade Cambodia. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who relayed the order to General Alexander Haig: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia.... Anything that flies, on anything that moves....” (to which Haig reportedly responded with laughter). U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had already begun the bombing of Cambodia in 1965-1968 with 2,565 airstrikes and 214 tons of bombs dropped. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Air Force and other arms of the U.S. military, and the CIA, which all took part in carrying out the bombing raids. The CIA also had backed or even engineered the coup in March 1970 that overthrew the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and installed the U.S. puppet Lon Nol in Cambodia. Others include Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., who was the commander in chief of the Pacific Command; Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird; General Bruce Holloway; Lieutenant General Alvan C. Gillem Jr.; Air Force General George S. Brown and countless others in the Nixon administration.
The U.S. puppet regimes in Cambodia (Lon Nol) and South Vietnam (Nguyen Van Thieu) and their mercenary armies.
Nixon said on April 30, 1970 that there was increased “enemy activity in Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam ... [that] endangered the lives of Americans [troops] remaining in Vietnam.” He said North Vietnam had increased its aggression, especially in Cambodia, and that the bombing of Cambodia was needed for “peace”—to buy time to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam and carry out Vietnamization of the war, i.e., using Vietnamese troops instead of Americans.
The Real Motive:
Bombing Cambodia wasn’t part of a strategy of “peace,” it was part of a strategy of trying to win the war—or at least prevent a humiliating American defeat and end it on terms favorable to U.S. imperialism.
By the late 1960s, the U.S. military was losing its war against the national liberation forces of Vietnam: the People’s Army of Viet Nam (PAVN)--the North Vietnamese army; and the People's Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLAF)--the armed forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF).It was losing the battle for world public opinion about the war. Fierce mass protests were taking place on every continent, including in the U.S. The Black Panther Party had publicly called for its members to fight on the side of the Vietnamese against U.S. imperialism.
The U.S. rulers felt that destroying the Hồ Chí Minh trail and cutting South from North Vietnam was key to any hopes the U.S. had for victory or an “honorable” exit. The U.S. had launched its war in Vietnam to prevent what it called the “domino theory”—that if one country in the region fell to communism or revolutionary nationalism, then surrounding countries could fall like dominos, dealing a blow to U.S. regional dominance and efforts to contain revolutionary China as well as the Soviet Union, which was by then an imperialist power and rival to the U.S.
Vietnam had been the first domino the U.S. imperialists aimed to stop from falling, but was also concerned about Cambodia.
Many forces in Southeast Asia, including inside Cambodia, actively supported or sympathized with North Vietnam/PAVN and the NLF. Open or tacit support of the Hồ Chí Minh trail was a key way to do so. In Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk had declared neutrality in the U.S. war against Vietnam. Cambodia was on record rejecting “all aid granted by the United States in the military, economic, technical and cultural fields” and had turned to socialist China for aid. The U.S. found all this unacceptable at a time they needed to shore up pro-U.S. dictators in Asia, including with CIA-backed or -engineered coups, as it had carried out in South Vietnam (1963). In March 1970, this was applied in Cambodia with a coup removing Sihanouk and installing Lon Nol, an anti-communist, pro-U.S. puppet.
In Cambodia, the U.S. had the added necessity and desire to destroy the internal insurgency (Khmer Rouge) whose growth was fueled by U.S. bombings and invasion. U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia went on for almost a year after the U.S. signed the peace accord with North Vietnam and with the Provisional Revolutionary Government in South Vietnam, in January 1973. Between March and May 1973, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Cambodia was more than double that in all of 1972.
When the U.S. pulled out its military forces in Indochina, the Lon Nol regime collapsed, creating a vacuum. In 1975, the anti-U.S. Khmer Rouge1 marched into Phnom Penh and took control of a totally ruined, war-torn country.
Editor’s note: Today, the Trump/Pence regime is demanding that Cambodia repay half a billion dollars back debt to America, with interest. The $274 million loan, from a U.S. program called “Food for Peace,” was given to the pro-U.S. Lon Nol regime when the U.S. was carpet bombing Cambodia and driving its peasant farmers from the countryside. The loan was to buy American rice, wheat, oil and cotton to feed the starving population—created by U.S. bombing and invasion.
The CIA: A forgotten history, US Global Intervention Since World War 2, William Blum, Zed Books Limited, 1986.
“Cambodia Appeals to Trump to Forgive War-Era Debt, ” Julia Wallace, New York Times, April 2, 2017.
“Haig Said Nixon Joked of Nuking Hill,” Michael Dobbs, Washington Post, May 27, 2004.
“Bombs Over Cambodia,” Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, The Walrus, October 2006.
“Making More Enemies than We Kill? Calculating US Bomb Tonnages Dropped on Laos and Cambodia and Weighing Their Implications and “Bombs Over Cambodia: New Light on US Air War,” Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, The Asia-Pacific Journal, April 27, 2015 and May 2, 2007, respectively.