Fifty years ago this month, former United States first lady Jacqueline Kennedy fulfilled her childhood dream of visiting the Kingdom’s famed Angkor temples.
The trip was widely publicised in the American press – including in a spread in Life magazine – and is to this day heralded as an example of soft power diplomacy, documentation of which will be on display at Phnom Penh’s Raffles Le Hotel Royal until the end of the month.
The exhibition features photographs and newspaper clippings from the much-loved former first lady’s weeklong tour of the country – which began in Phnom Penh on November 2 with a visit to the Royal Palace and an Apsara performance by none other than prima-ballerina at the time Princess Buppha Devi.
Though Chief of State Norodom Sihanouk had cut diplomatic ties with the US government more than two years before, Kennedy was received with all the pomp of an official state visit.
The trip is viewed by many historians as an example of soft power diplomacy – one that helped achieve the normalisation of relations between the two countries one year later. Speaking Wednesday at the opening of the exhibition at Raffles, where Kennedy stayed, US Ambassador William Heidt recalled that history and drew a parallel to present-day political tensions between the Kingdom and the superpower.
“I’m sure you’ve all been watching the news and are aware there are a few challenges in our relationship today, between our two governments, just as there were back then during Jackie Kennedy’s visit, but to a large extent that’s natural – no two countries agree on every issue,” he said.
“However, when we look back on that visit, we see it as a symbol of how the people-to-people relationships between the United States and Cambodia have remained strong over the years despite the ups and downs of politics and will remain strong going forward,” he continued. Heidt then reminded Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona of the funding provided by the US government for the preservation of the Phnom Bakheng temple-mountain.
On Kennedy’s tour, which included the opening of a boulevard named after her late husband President John F Kennedy in Sihanoukville and a tour of temples, she was accompanied for much of the trip by Sihanouk, in addition to her own entourage. In one photograph, the pair is shown standing in the back of a convertible, Sihanouk excitedly pointing out to Kennedy something out of the frame. Another photograph shows the chief of state presenting cases of silver trays, finger bowls and plates to the former first lady, with then-Princess Norodom Monineath looking on.
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“Sihanouk composed two songs in her honour: November Blues and The night I remember you,” noted Raymond Leos, Dean of Pannasastra University of Cambodia’s Communications Faculty, who described the visit as an effort at “rapprochement” between the two countries.
Historian Sombo Manara sees the visit as emblematic of Cambodia’s attempt to remain neutral in the geopolitical struggle playing out in neighbouring Vietnam.
“Cambodia at that time was accused of supporting the Viet Cong [National Liberation Front] and the North Vietnamese communists, so it was important for Cambodia to show the world their ‘neutralism’ by having first lady Kennedy visit,” he said.
The photographs are on display in the main lobby of Raffles Le Hotel Royal, #92 Rukhak Vithei, and will be showing until the end of November. There will also be a gala dinner on November 30, with reservations required by the end of today.