Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Chronicle of Survival
Cambodia walks a fine line Caught in the crossfire Terror and genocide Back to square oneMoving ahead, looking back

1969-1974: Caught in the crossfire Profile: Henry Kissinger
On March 18, 1969, American B-52s began carpet-bombing eastern Cambodia. "Operation Breakfast" was the first course in a four-year bombing campaign that drew Cambodia headlong into the Vietnam War. The Nixon Administration kept the bombings secret from Congress for several months, insisting they were directed against legitimate Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge targets. However, the raids exacted an enormous cost from the Cambodian people: the US dropped 540,000 tons of bombs , killing anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 civilians.

President NixonShortly after the bombing began, Sihanouk restored diplomatic relations with the US, expressing concern over the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. But his change of heart came too late. In March 1970, while Sihanouk was traveling abroad, he was deposed by a pro-American general, Lon Nol. The Nixon Administration, which viewed Sihanouk as an untrustworthy partner in the fight against communism , increased military support to the new regime.

US marineIn April 1970, without Lon Nol's knowledge, American and South Vietnamese forces crossed into Cambodia. There was already widespread domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam; news of the "secret invasion" of Cambodia sparked massive protests across the US, culminating in the deaths of six students shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University and Jackson State University. Nixon withdrew American troops from Cambodia shortly afterwards. But the US bombing continued until August 1973.

Meanwhile, with assistance from North Vietnam and China, the guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge had grown into a formidable force. By 1974, they were beating the government on the battlefield and preparing for a final assault on Phnom Penh. And they had gained an unlikely new ally: Norodom Sihanouk, living in exile, who now hailed them as patriots fighting against an American puppet government.

Kent State
Kent State University, 1970, Vietnam War protest

Sihanouk's support boosted the Khmer Rouge's popularity among rural Cambodians. But some observers have argued that the devastating American bombing also helped fuel the Khmer Rouge's growth. Former New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg said the Khmer Rouge "... would point... at the bombs falling from B-52s as something they had to oppose if they were going to have freedom. And it became a recruiting tool until they grew to a fierce, indefatigable guerrilla army." Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has dismissed the idea that the US bears any responsibility for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. As he argued in his memoir, "It was Hanoi-animated by an insatiable drive to dominate Indochina- that organized the Khmer Rouge long before any American bombs fell on Cambodian soil."


photo: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger - 1975
credit: Photo Courtesy U.S. NARA

photo: President Nixon at Press Conference on Vietnam & Cambodia - 1970
credit: Photo Courtesy U.S. NARA

photo: US marine in Da Nang, South Vietnam, 1965
credit: Photo Courtesy U.S. NARA

photo: Kent State University, 1970, Vietnam War protest
credit: Photo Courtesy Kent State University