In 1967, Jacqueline Kennedy’s schedule of royal jazz renditions and beach time with a princess masked a serious political mission: mending a bilateral relationship in tatters
In November 1967, Jacqueline Kennedy – the Onassis would come a year later – fulfilled her “lifelong dream” of visiting the ancient ruins of Angkor. The American magazine Life ran a five-page colour spread on the trip – a rarity at a time when most of the magazine’s articles were still in black and white.
On the cover, a photo by Larry Burrows showed the former first lady strolling in blissful isolation under the benevolent gaze of the faces of Bayon. Any photos that might be taken of Michelle Obama during her trip to Siem Reap this week are unlikely to capture quite the same sense of splendid tranquility that Jackie, in sunglasses and white slacks, conveyed.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk was thrilled.
“We managed to get a copy of the Life magazine,” his official biographer, Julio Jeldres, recalls.
“[Sihanouk] reproduced it and sent it to his friends and diplomats.”
On the surface, Jackie’s trip was exactly the luxurious “jolly” that the glossy publication covered it as.
She banqueted surrounded by local dignitaries, admired Cambodian handicrafts and gingerly fed the royal elephants accompanied by a visibly amused Sihanouk. The young Princess Buppha Devi presented an apsara dance, and joined Jackie on her tours of the “Kingdom of Wonder”.
“We spent some very good moments in Ochheuteal Beach, where King Sihanouk had his private residence in front of the river and the beach,” the princess recalls.
Contemporary gossip columns were alive with the suggestion that the exotic vacation was a pre-engagement getaway for Jackie and her travelling companion Lord Harlech, who had been British ambassador to the US during the Kennedy administration.
But the engagement never came. And, almost 50 years later, posterity has come to see the ex-first lady’s visit in a very different light.
“It was a very real event,” says Australian historian Milton Osborne, who first came to Cambodia in 1959. “It was the start of the repair to Cambodian-US relations, which had been at a very low ebb.”
In the 1950s, Cambodia had been a significant beneficiary of economic and military support from the US. Then in the early ’60s, the relationship soured. Sihanouk was angered by American involvement in Vietnam, specifically the fact that it was increasingly threatening to spill over into his territory.
He also suspected that the CIA was providing support to the Khmer Serei, dissident Cambodians based in Thailand and Vietnam.
When Jackie’s late husband, President John F Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, Sihanouk is alleged to have given a speech calling for celebration.
“We had only three enemies and the leaders of these three countries all died and went to hell,” one record quotes him as saying – referring to Kennedy, Ngo Dinh Diem (president of South Vietnam) and Sarit Thanarat (prime minister of Thailand).
“He called on the population to celebrate the deaths of these people by wearing red armbands and listening to music outside the palace,” affirms Osborne.
Economic relations ceased in 1963, and in 1965 diplomatic relations were severed entirely. Two years later something had changed. The Cultural Revolution in China had called into question Sihanouk’s faith in his great protector, and events in Vietnam weren’t going in the Prince’s favour.
“In 1967, Sihanouk came to the conclusion that perhaps the communists weren’t going to win,” explains Osborne. “The decision to invite a visit by Jacqueline Kennedy was the result of a lot of diplomacy.”
And so, that November, Jackie stood next to Sihanouk and smiled as she inaugurated the JF Kennedy Boulevard in Sihanoukville in honour of her late husband.
Even then, the Prince couldn’t resist a few veiled jabs at his old opponent.
When asked about his choice to open Kennedy’s road in Sihanoukville, he replied: “Sihanoukville is very important. It is named after me. Anyway, I have run out of streets in Phnom Penh.”
Jackie had no technical standing in the US government at the time of her visit, and yet her reception was statesmanlike.
Jim Gerrand, a filmmaker who spent 1967 kayaking along the Mekong, describes her position as “American royalty”.
“[Sihanouk] couldn’t have got a better emissary to symbolise the attempt to mend fences with America,” he says.
Osborne agrees, and draws comparisons to the visit by French President Charles de Gaulle the previous year.
“This visit by Jackie, although not given quite so much weight politically, was in the short term and the longer term perhaps more politically significant [than De Gaulle’s].
“It paved the way for meetings with [American diplomat] Chester Bowles in January 1968 that led to Sihanouk privately telling the Americans that he would not denounce border pursuits of Vietnamese communist forces if they moved from Vietnam into Cambodia.”
Like all backroom deals, the exact details of Sihanouk’s shifting allegiances remain open for debate. Despite a relatively strong consensus among historians, the Prince never openly admitted to having established an “understanding” with the Americans over sanctioning bombings inside the Kingdom. But the basic fact of Jackie’s political significance finds support across the spectrum.
“Her journey was the first that started relations with the United States,” says Son Soubert, whose father, Son Sann, met Jackie in his capacity as prime minister at the time. “After that, we have had a good relationship for a while.”
Politics or no politics, Sihanouk wasn’t going to let the Cold War get in the way of him having a good time. While Jackie was in Cambodia, she was treated to live renditions of two of the Prince’s original jazz compositions – November Blues and The Evening I Met You.
He also revelled in his role as tour guide around Angkor, although not always with the desired results.
“Sihanouk confidently instructed the party on Angkor Wat, but got much of it quite wrong,” says writer Martin Woolacott, whose close friend and Magnum photographer Phillip Jones Griffiths accompanied the royal party. “[Griffiths] was told this afterwards by a French archaeologist who was with the group.”
And while history has elevated Jackie to her rightful position as political envoy, she lives on in Cambodian popular mythology as she was on the cover of Life: an unflappable ’60s pinup, frozen in time.
One of the most popular prints at the commercial art gallery Space Four Zero is a psychedelic, colour-saturated reimagining of Sihanouk bowing to kiss Jackie’s hand.
Both the Independence Hotel in Sihanoukville and Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh have suites decorated in the “spirit” of the former first lady to commemorate her stays with them.
At Raffles, they have christened the Femme Fatale in her honour – an “elegant evening cocktail” inspired by the drink that Jackie was offered during her stay. While renovating the hotel, staff also claim to have uncovered the slender glass that she sipped from, complete with lipstick marks. It now takes pride of place in the bar’s trophy cabinet, although the staff happily admit to topping it up with the lipstick of waitresses from time to time.
“It’s like the body of Mao or Lenin or something, it keeps on regenerating,” comments Gerrand, laughing.
But for the filmmaker, the split memories of Jackie as both exotic celebrity and real-politik broker resonate with the situation of Cambodia itself in the ’60s.
“It was the fairy tale kingdom image, the oasis of peace surrounded by war,” says Gerrand. “True, but inside was this paranoia, and this police state. Sihanouk was head of state, not king at that stage, but he had the god king aura and the police state and infrastructure to back him up.”
Cambodian political analyst Chea Vannath agrees. The democracy and human rights activist remembers being dazzled when, in her twenties, she watched the visit on TV.
“I remember her dress – it had only one sleeve. I would never dare wear only one sleeve and show my arms,” she recalls.
Half a century later, the glamour hasn’t faded, but Vannath has filled in the picture surrounding the visit.
“She represented ‘la belle’ while the situation in Southeast Asia was the beast,” she says. “She was a rose among the thorns.”
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.
US first lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Siem Reap this weekend marks the first time that a sitting first lady has visited the Kingdom. But for some commentators, improved relations between the two countries mean that the trip carries less significance than the visit of then ex-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1967.
“Do not expect that Michelle will get the same treatment as Jackie,” says Cambodian political analyst Chea Vannath. “In 1967, it was the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Now Cambodia has a good relationship with the United States – we have a joint military exercise – so it is different.”
Others believe that there are parallels to be drawn. Where Jackie visited in the wake of political tensions related in part to her husband John F Kennedy’s time in office, Michelle Obama’s’s trip is seen by some as an attempt to smooth over any lingering grudges resulting from Barack Obama’s trip to the Kingdom in 2012.
“Things have been hard since Obama’s visit and the snubbing of Hun Sen,” says filmmaker Jim Gerrand.
During his trip, Obama used his meeting with the premier to raise issues about bilateral debt and human rights abuses in Cambodia. Hun Sen was then notably excluded from the White House’s official photographic records of his time in Asia. “I’m not familiar with CPP thinking, but maybe it’s convenient to have some positive event to soften relations with the US,” says Gerrand.
Michelle Obama’s visit is perhaps less significant for what it includes than what it excludes. On her three-day visit she will promote her “Girls Who Learn” initiative in Siem Reap and spend time with the Prime Minister’s wife Bun Rany, but she will not be making a stop off in the capital.
“I suppose that from the American point of view, that will be intended as a less than total embrace of the Cambodian government,” says historian Milton Osborne.
Nonetheless, Osborne believes that the trip will be chalked up as a success for the ruling party. “I’m sure from the point of view of Hun Sen, he’ll regard the visit as a real plus. Because here is a man who is quite frequently criticised by foreign commentators, yet the wife of the most powerful man in the world is coming to visit,” he says.
“I think one of the interesting things will be to see how this plays out in terms of domestic politics. To what extent will this be used by the government as an affirmation of its legitimacy? It’s going to be hard for opposition politicians to be critical of the visit.”