won its independence from France on November 9, 1953, officially
ending eight decades of colonial control. Twenty-two-year-old
King Norodom Sihanouk returned from exile to lead the new country.
After stepping down from the throne to become prime minister in
1955, Sihanouk insisted that Cambodia remain neutral and avoid
foreign influences. As the Cold War heated up in Southeast Asia,
the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations feared that Cambodia
might fall to communism and wanted to use it as a buffer against
North Vietnam. Speaking about the strategic importance of Southeast
Asia in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower warned, "You have a
row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what
will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over
very quickly." Sihanouk accepted temporary assistance from the
United States, but he also resented its interference in Cambodian
the American military presence in Southeast Asia escalated,
however, Sihanouk decided to distance himself completely from
the United States. In March 1965, U.S. Marines landed in South
Vietnam, beginning a new phase of the war. Sihanouk had rejected
American military aid two years earlier, and now he broke off
all diplomatic relations with the United States. His relationship
with communist North Vietnam became increasingly cozy. By 1967,
the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were operating along
Cambodia's border with South Vietnam, with Sihanouk's approval.
The United States and South Vietnam responded with cross-border
operations, which Sihanouk publicly protested.
Cambodia was drawn into the bloody conflict next door, Sihanouk's
dream of Cambodian neutrality quickly faded. For now, Cambodia
would not be the next "domino" to topple over. But it had become
a new battlefield -- some called it a sideshow -- in the American
war in Vietnam.
During this period, many Cambodians revered Sihanouk as a god-king and
respected him for keeping the country relatively peaceful. But
there was growing opposition to his government's corruption
and intolerance of dissent. In 1960, a small group of leftist
intellectuals, including Saloth Sar (later known as Pol
Pot) and Nuon Chea, formed the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
The small, highly secretive organization operated in the capital,
Phnom Penh, until 1963, when its leaders fled to the countryside
and launched an armed insurgency. At the time, the communist
guerillas posed little threat to Sihanouk and became known simply
by the dismissive moniker he gave them: the Red Khmer, or Khmer
1969-1974: CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE
photo: King Sihanouk
with Hu Nim(L) and Son Sen (R) of the Khmer Rouge.
credit: Photo Courtesy Documentation Center of Cambodia
Villager in Damrey Slap, Cambodia - 1959
credit: Photo Courtesy United Nations