As several of the “Kissinger Cables” made accessible by anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks this week suggest, the Lon Nol regime by 1973-74 was unable – at least publicly – even to accurately identify its opponents.
Cables to DC from US officers on the ground show statements from the US-backed Lon Nol government blaming the communist insurgency largely on the North Vietnamese – who by the start of 1973 had largely withdrawn from Cambodia.
A ceasefire declaration at the end of 1972 and the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 between the US and North Vietnamese signalled an official break between the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge, who in fact had been purging Vietnam-trained cadres by 1971, according to historians such as David Chandler and Ben Kiernan.
Nevertheless, several cables reveal that government statements, as well as proposed propaganda leaflets the Lon Nol government asked the US to airdrop, still referred in 1973 and 1974 to the North Vietnamese as the primary enemy.
A July 1974 cable from US Ambassador to Cambodia John Dean reports that the Lon Nol government had recently stated: “It is public knowledge that, on the enemy side, the local communist forces are recruited, directed, trained, armed and supplied by the North Vietnamese invaders, in flagrant violation of Article 20 of the January 27 1973 Paris Accords.”
One proposed leaflet declares: “The Nort[h] Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, signatories to these accrods [sic] take no notice.”
“It is asked of our Khmer compatriots who live under the influence of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to rejoin us, the Republicans, in order to defend the independence, the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, and the national unity of our country,” says another.
Historian David Chandler told the Post it was less likely that the Lon Nol regime was trying to misrepresent the strength of the Khmer Rouge’s connections to the North Vietnamese than that they actually believed close connections still existed.
“The idea that the KR were a rogue, indigenous communist movement was hard to swallow or program, for many people for many years,” Chandler said.
US officials, too, were most likely not aware of the extent of the split between the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese, he added.
Chandler and others have attributed many US miscalculations in Cambodia and elsewhere to a Cold War mindset that conflated the motivations of different communist groups.
In the case of the anti-Vietnamese propaganda, Chandler said he didn’t believe it would have had much effect, because Vietnamese cadres no longer led the conflict.
He added that the Lon Nol regime “didn’t want to believe they had a civil war on their hands, as opposed to a war against non-Khmer non-believers.”