U.S. Empire and the Destruction of Cambodia: Fifty Years Ago This Week Nixon & Kissinger Began the Largest Bombing of Civilian Targets in History

Fifty years ago this week newly elected President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, began planning a massive, secret carpet-bombing campaign of the nation of Cambodia using American B-52s. Flying at an elevation of 30,000 feet, using unguided bombs, the campaign was guaranteed to cause unprecedented and indiscriminate damage to the land and people below. Cambodia was a neutral party in the ongoing war that the United States was waging upon Vietnam at that time, and the region along those nations’ shared border had long been believed to be home of the Vietnamese headquarters from which it conducted the war.

The CIA later concluded that nearly 600,000 civilians were killed by the Nixon bombing expansion, which continued until the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in 1975.

Secrecy was the primary concern of Nixon and Kissinger. Note in the passage below that due to Cambodia’s neutrality and the guaranteed high loss of civilian life, the Cambodian bombing campaign was from its inception considered an operation against illegitimate targets; thus the overwhelming focus was on keeping it secret, with knowledge of the operation withheld from Congress, the American people and many U.S. officials, including the Secretary of the U.S. Air Force. 

Of the Nixon bombing expansion in Indochina, author Fred Branfman later concluded:

Mr. Kissinger’s most significant historical act was executing Richard Nixon’s orders to conduct the most massive bombing campaign, largely of civilian targets, in world history. He dropped 3.7 million tons of bombs** between January 1969 and January 1973 – nearly twice the two million dropped on all of Europe and the Pacific in World War II. He secretly and illegally devastated villages throughout areas of Cambodia inhabited by a U.S. Embassy-estimated two million people; quadrupled the bombing of Laos and laid waste to the 700-year old civilization on the Plain of Jars; and struck civilian targets throughout North Vietnam – Haiphong harbor, dikes, cities, Bach Mai Hospital – which even Lyndon Johnson had avoided. His aerial slaughter helped kill, wound or make homeless an officially-estimated six million human beings**, mostly civilians who posed no threat whatsoever to U.S. national security and had committed no offense against it.

Read on for the planning background of the Nixon bombing campaign, one of the great, unprosecuted war crimes in the history of the U.S. empire, courtesy of William Shawcross’s book, Sideshow. See Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent for further discussion of the U.S. corporate press’s treatment of Vietnam and its neighbors, Cambodia and Laos. – RR

In a televised address, Nixon publicly announced an attack on Cambodia in 1970. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Chapter 1: The Secret.

The first request was unpretentious. On February 9, 1969, less than a month after the inauguration of Richard Nixon, General Creighton Abrams, commander of the United States forces in South Vietnam, cabled General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to inform him that “recent information, developed from photo reconnaissance and a rallier gives us hard intelligence on COSVN HW facilities in Base Area 353.”

COSVN HQ was the acronym for the elusive headquarters – “Central Office for South Vietnam” – from which, according to the United States military, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were directing their war effort in South Vietnam. Until then, Abrams remarked, the military had placed COSVN in Laos. Now he was certain the headquarters was much farther south, in one of neutral Cambodia’s border states which were being used by the Communists as bases and sanctuaries from the fighting in Vietnam. Abrams wanted to attack it.

The area is covered by thick canopy jungle. Source reports there are no concrete structures in this area. Usually reliable sources report that COSVN and COSVN-associated elements consistently remain in the same general area along the border. All of our information, generally confirmed by imagery interpretation, provides us with a firm basis for targeting COSVN HQs.

Abrams had been instructed by the new administration to discuss United States troop withdrawals with the South Vietnamese. Now he reminded Wheeler that he had predicted a large-scale enemy offensive around Saigon in the near future. An attack on COSVN, he argued, “will have an immediate effect on the offensive and will also have its effect on future military offensives which COSVN may desire to undertake.” An appropriate form of assault would be “a short-duration, concentrated B-52 attack of up to 60 sorties, compressing the time interval between strikes to the minimum. This is more than we would normally use to cover a target this size, but in this case it would be wise to insure complete destruction.”

Abrams seems to have understood some of the implications of this request. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s ruler, had long been trying to keep his country out of the war in Yemen. Abrams assured Wheeler that “there is little likelihood of involving Cambodian nationals if the target boxes are placed carefully. Total bomber exposure over Cambodian territory would be less than one minute per sortie.” (Put another way, sixty sorties would take about an hour.) The general also thought it necessary to point out that “the successful destruction of COSVN HQs in a single blow would, I believe, have a very significant impact on enemy relations throughout South Vietnam.” He asked for authority for the attack.

The Joint Chiefs sent Abrams’ memo up to Melvin R. Laird, a former Wisconsin Republican Congressman, who was the new Secretary of Defense. Laird passed it to the White House, where it received the immediate attention of the new President and his National Security Affairs adviser, Dr. Henry Kissinger.

Two days later General John P. McConnell, the acting chairman in Wheeler’s absence, sent a reply that must have cheered Abrams; it indicated that Washington was taking the idea even more seriously than Abrams himself. His request to Wheeler had not been highly classified, but simply headed “Personal for Addressees.” McConnell’s answer, however, was routed so that almost no one besides he and Abrams could see it and was plastered with classifications: “Top Secret” – “Sensitive” – “Eyes Only” – “Delivery During Waking Hours” – “Personal for Addressee’s Eyes Only.”

McConnell told Abrams that his request had been presented to “the highest authority.” In the conventions of cable language, this meant that President Nixon himself had seen it. The President had not rejected the idea; Abrams was told that “this matter will be further considered.” The cable went on:

  1. The highest authority desires that this matter be held as closely as possible in all channels and in all agencies which have had access to it.
  2. The highest authority also wants your estimate on the number of Cambodian civilians who might become casualties of such an attack.
  3. It will not, repeat not, be necessary for you to send a briefing team to Washington. However, it will be important for you to keep me informed on any further developments from your viewpoint. Warm regards.

Despite McConnell’s advice, Abrams did send a briefing team to Washington. Two colonels arrived at the Pentagon, and a special breakfast meeting was arranged at which they could explain Abrams’ proposals to a number of senior officials. These included Melvin Laird, General Wheeler, Colonel Robert Pursley, Laird’s military assistant, and Lieutenant General John Vogt, then the Air Force’s Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations. The meeting was also attended by a representative from Dr. Kissinger’s National Security Council staff, Colonel Alexander Haig.

The colonels outlined their argument with conviction. This time, they claimed, it really was true: the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese headquarters had been located. Base Area 353 was in the so-called Fish Hook, a corner of Cambodia that jutted into South Vietnam, northwest of Saigon. Even without COSVN, it was considered one of the most important Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia. Several regiments were based there and it also contained military hospitals and large caches of food and arms.

Over the next five weeks Abrams’ request was frequently discussed by the National Security Council staff and at Presidential meetings in the Oval Office of the White House. Understandably perhaps, the Joint Chiefs were enthusiastic in support of the proposal. Melvin Laird was more skeptical. But he acknowledged that if COSVN had really been discovered it should be destroyed and argued that it could be publicly justified as an essential precondition to troop withdrawal. Nixon and Kissinger, however, were adamant that if it were done, it had to be done in total secrecy. Normal “Top Secret” reporting channels were not enough. Later General Wheeler recalled that the President said – “not just once, but either to me or in my presence at least a half dozen times” – that nothing whatsoever about the proposal must ever be disclosed.

Before a final decision was made, the Chiefs cabled Abrams to tell him that he could make tentative plans for launching the strike on the early morning of March 18. He was told of the demands for secrecy and was given a code name for the operation – “Breakfast,” after the Pentagon briefing.

The cable set out in detail the way in which the raids were to be concealed. The planes would be prepared for a normal mission against targets in Vietnam. If the Joint Chiefs sent the signal “Execute repeat Execute Operation Breakfast,” they would then be diverted to attack the Cambodian base area. No announcement would be made. “Due to sensitivity of this operation addressees insure that personnel are informed only on a strict need-to-know basis and at the latest feasible time which permits the operation to be conducted effectively.”

Abrams made the necessary dispositions, and on March 17 Wheeler cabled him: “Strike on COSVN headquarters is approved. Forty-eight sorties will be flown against COSVN headquarters. Twelve strikes will be flown against legitimate targets of your choice in SVN not repeat not near the Cambodian border.” (Emphasis added)

The strikes were to take place almost at once, between three and seven o’clock on the morning of March 18, unless Abrams received a priority “Red Rocket” message “Cancel repeat Cancel Operation Breakfast.”

The cable described how the press was to be handled. When the command in Saigon published its daily bombing summary, it should state that, “B-52 missions in six strikes early this morning bombed these targets: QUOTE Enemy activity, base camps, and bunker and tunnel complexes 45 kilometers north-east of Tay Ninh City. UNQUOTE. Following the above, list two or more other B-52 targets struck (12 sorties).”

Wheeler continued:

In the event press inquiries are received following the execution of the Breakfast Plan as to whether or not U.S. B-52s have struck in Cambodia, U.S. spokesman will confirm that B-52s did strike on routine missions adjacent to the Cambodian border but state that he has no details and will look into this question. Should the press persist in its inquiries or in the event of a Cambodian protest concerning U.S. strikes in Cambodia, U.S. spokesman will neither confirm nor deny reports of attacks on Cambodia but state it will be investigated. After delivering a reply to any Cambodian protest, Washington will inform the press that we have apologized and offered compensation.

Finally, Wheeler reminded Abrams and the B-52 commanders, “Due to the sensitivity of this operation all persons who know of it, participate in its planning, preparation or execution should be warned not repeat not to discuss it with unauthorized individuals.”

Many of the B-52s used in Indochina were based at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. The planes had been built in the 1950s as an integral part of the United States’ nuclear deterrent, but since 1965 more than a hundred of them had been adapted to carry dozens of conventional 750-lb. Bombs in their bellies and under their wings. They were still controlled by Strategic Air Command but were at the disposition of the Commander of U.S. Forces in South Vietnam. Abrams could call upon sixty planes a day. Each plane could carry a load of approximately thirty tons of bombs.

Before take-off, the crews of the B-52s were always briefed on the locations of their targets in South Vietnam. After Wheeler’s March 17 “Execute Operation Breakfast” order was received, the pilots and navigators of the planes to be diverted were taken aside by their commanding officer and told to expect the ground controllers in Vietnam to give them the coordinates of new targets – they would be bombing Cambodia.

That evening the heavily laden planes rumbled off the runway, rose slowly over the Russian trawlers, which almost always seemed to be on station just off the island, and climbed to 30,000 feet for the monotonous five hour cruise to Indochina. There was little for the six-man crew to do – except watch for storm clouds over the Philippines and refuel in mid-air – until they were above the South China Sea approaching the dark line of the Vietnamese coast.

At this point they entered the war zone and came under the control of the ground radar sites in South Vietnam. But even now there was little reason for concern. There were no enemy fighter planes to harass and chivvy them, no antiaircraft fire, no ground-to-air missiles. A ground radar controller gave the navigator the coordinates of the final bomb run. Then the controller watched on his radar screen as the planes, in cells of three, approached the target; as they did so he counted down the bombardiers with the words “Five – four – three – two – one – hack.”

Twenty times that night the ground controllers, sitting in their air-conditioned “hootches” in South Vietnam, cans of Coke or 7-Up by their elbows, called out hack. Sixty long strings of bombs spread through the dark and fell to the earth faster than the speed of sound. Each plane load dropped into an area, or “box,” about a half a mile wide by two miles long, and as each bomb fell, it threw up a fountain of earth, trees and bodies, until the air above the targets was thick with dust and debris, and the ground itself flashed with explosions and fire. For the first time in the war, so far as is known, forty-eight of such boxes were stamped upon neutral Cambodia by the express order of the President.

  • Excerpted from Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, by William Shawcross, Washington Square Press, 1979. Pages 19 – 24 of Chapter 1, The Secret.

Shawcross later concluded,

If the questions raised by the history of the last decade are to be answered, then more details on Sihanouk’s attitude, on the unhelpfulness of the U.S. Congress, or on Kissinger’s contacts with foreign governments will not alone suffice. The legality of the 1969 bombing; the way in which Menu and then the invasion spread the fighting; the deliberate extension of the war and the sustenance of Lon Nol; the indiscriminate bombing of 1973; the inadequate attempts to reach a peace settlement; finally, perhaps, the way in which the Khmer Rouge were born out of the inferno that American policy did much to create-these are just some of the issues which have to be addressed. Statesmen must be judged by the consequences of their actions. Whatever Nixon and Kissinger intended for Cambodia, their efforts created catastrophe.

No one could have foreseen the consequences at home and abroad of their decision to override the American Constitution and wage war in a neutral country. But constitutions are devised and laws are written to protect and guard against human frailty. For the highest officers in the land to abuse them is tyranny and encourages tyranny.

In Cambodia, the imperatives of a small and vulnerable people were consciously sacrificed to the interests of strategic design. For this reason alone the design was flawed-sacrifice the parts and what becomes of the whole? The country was used to practice ill-conceived theories and to fortify a notion of American credibility that could in fact only be harmed by such actions. Neither the United States nor its friends nor those who are caught helplessly in its embrace are well served when its leaders act, as Nixon and Kissinger acted, without care. Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime. The world is diminished by the experience.

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