From Presidents' Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions at https://www.smashwords.com/....
Nixon and Cambodia
What: Largely to appear tough to both the North Vietnamese government and to the pro war right wing in the US, Nixon repeatedly ordered the massive carpet bombing of the neutral nation of Cambodia, followed by a US invasion.
Though Nixon and military leaders proclaimed the invasion and bombing killed many National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese troops and disrupted their operations, they were far from weakened. The level of deaths Nixon caused was disastrous. Nixon's bombings led to the Khmer Rouge coming to power as a direct result. The KR went on to commit a second set of atrocities against Cambodians, one even higher in numbers.
Some argue Nixon himself committed outright genocide against Cambodians. The sheer scale of the deaths of civilians and the lack of any genuine military reason for it, they argue, make the US bombings genocide. More bombs were dropped on Cambodia than during all of World War II, on over 113,000 different sites in a nation the size of Missouri. Some bombing was indiscriminate, without even any targets. Often American pilots dropped their bombs on random areas.
If one accepts the genocide argument, this makes Nixon the worst mass murderer in US history. Those scholars that do not use the term genocide still agree these bombings were war crimes and mass atrocities. Scholars and most political analysts do agree the Khmer Rouge coming to power, and thus their genocide, would not have been possible without Nixon's heinous and illegal bombing. Yet Nixon's crimes still continue farther than that.
Far from condemning the Khmer Rouge for genocide, Nixon and later US presidents supported them. Prior to US bombings, the KR were less than 5,000 isolated fighters deep in the jungle. After, Cambodian outrage over the bombings gave the KR a flood of 200,000 new recruits and enough popular support to stay in power until driven out by Vietnamese troops.
The Body Count: At least 500,000 to 600,000 civilians directly killed by American bombers and troops according to no less than the CIA itself. The Finnish Inquiry Commission (FIC) estimated 500,000 deaths, as did Carlyle Thayer, an Indochina scholar. The FIC estimated at least 50,000 to 60,000 of the deaths were executions. Nixon carried out this carpet bombing against Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, only halting because Congress ordered a stop.
The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot were able to take over Cambodia because US bombings destroyed support for the government. The KR killed at least one million to 1.7 million Cambodians. Thus the total death count for these two successive genocides are at least 1.5 million to 2.3 million deaths. Keep in mind this is from a Cambodian population of 6-7 million. Hundreds of thousands more fled as refugees, and the KR forcibly removed the entire urban population to the countryside, where many died from starvation and disease. Note that the KR killed perhaps 100,000 people by violence. Thus Nixon ordered the deaths by violence of far more Cambodians than the Khmer Rouge did.
The US government also supported the Khmer Rouge during and after they committed genocide with financial support and de facto tacit diplomatic recognition behind the scenes, though publicly neutral. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter all cynically saw Cambodia's Khmer Rouge dictatorship as a counterbalance to Vietnam's power in Southeast Asia. There also was still a great deal of resentment over the US loss to North Vietnam in the US-Vietnam War.
Who Also Gets the Blame:
Henry Kissinger was an architect of these US military atrocities as much as Nixon. Nixon and Kissinger casually planned the bombings over breakfast, thus its codename Operation Menu, followed by Operations Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and even Snack and Dessert.
American generals, bomber pilots, and soldiers did the actual mass killings. Before one claims that pilots and soldiers have no choice in following orders, the Uniform Code of Military Justice specifically says one must refuse an illegal order, including targeting civilians, and especially of a neutral country. The execution of those 50,000 to 60,000 prisoners of war was also another illegal order that military law requires a soldier to refuse.
One of the lesser known parts of the history of US wars in Indochina is how many American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen refused to fight. Entire army and marine battalions and naval crews rejected orders from their officers, refused to go into combat or refused to deploy to the Vietnam war zone at all. This is certainly not to say combat resistance was easy, as some servicemen faced court martials. But because combat refusals were so widespread, the majority of servicemen were never punished, while others received only minor punishment.
While US soldiers and especially the generals commanding them have no reason to claim innocence, American pilots do have a defense. Nixon and Kissinger devised very devious methods to keep the bombings secret, even from the crews carrying them out. American pilots were given orders for targets in Vietnam. Then halfway there, they received new orders over the radio to bomb targets in Cambodia. There were thus no records of the bombings for the media to find. Neither the media nor the US public knew for the first two years.
Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all continued to support the Khmer Rouge financially and diplomatically while the KR genocide continued for the next six years, and after. All three presidents calculated, correctly, that the US public would either not notice, care, or be willing to do much to stop the slaughter, being already too fatigued over the US-Vietnam War. Both also saw the Cambodian government as a counter to Vietnam. It was a particularly brutal decision to make, to prefer the more vicious of two Communist governments because one just defeated you in wartime. Under Reagan, for example, the US government paid the Khmer Rouge $85 million and supported them in public in the United Nations assembly. Up to 40,000 KR troops were directly fed by US agencies, and the US provided satellite intelligence and military planning.
President Lyndon Johnson actually first ordered the US bombing of Cambodia starting in 1965. But unlike Nixon's campaign, his was limited, not indiscriminate, did not target civilians, and did not involve an American invasion of ground troops. But Johnson did set a precedent that Nixon used, and it was still the bombing of a neutral country.
A few high ranking members of the US Congress were informed of the bombings when they began under both presidents. This included members of both parties. Neither party objected, but it is unlikely any congressman realized the scope of the casualties or that Cambodian civilians were dying in large numbers, thanks to Nixon and Kissinger's careful planning to keep the bombings secret. To Congress's credit, it was they who halted the bombings, as much out of their own and the public's anti-Vietnam War sentiment as from humanitarian concerns.
The governments of China, North Korea, and Thailand supported the Khmer Rouge financially, diplomatically, and in China's case with a military invasion against Vietnam, one that largely failed. The Chinese government provided advisers to the KR and was encouraged by the US government to do so, as was Thailand's government.
Very few journalists focus on these atrocities carried out by an American president, officers, and troops. Typically only Asian history specialists acknowledge US atrocities in Cambodia at any length. A few political analysts and journalists at the time even defended the carpet bombing. Militarily, the bombing not only accomplished nothing, it expanded, worsened, and lengthened the US-Vietnam War. As noted before, this presidential-ordered genocide put the Khmer Rouge in power, leading directly to a second genocide even higher in numbers. Within the US, Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia led to a huge rise in protests, culminating in the deaths of seven students at Kent State and Jackson State universities. This sees a bit of irony, that the deaths of these US student protesters is far better known than the reason they were protesting, and the deaths of under ten Americans looms larger in American historical memory than the deaths of millions of Cambodians.
Even supposedly liberal media and Hollywood's depiction of the Khmer Rouge genocide leave out, hide, or minimize the earlier genocide done by the US military on Nixon’s orders. In the best known film on the subject, the Academy Award winning The Killing Fields, based on New York Times reporter Sidney Schanburg's account of his own experience, the only mention of US military actions are an accidental bombing of one village. Schanburg and The Killing Fields both completely whitewashed the part in genocide played by a US president, and sanitize the American military role in one of the great atrocities of the century.
Congress did file charges against Nixon for illegally bombing Cambodia. Nixon's infamous response, to not just bombing Cambodia but to any illegal actions he committed while president, was “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
Kissinger’s defense of bombing Cambodia has frequently been that the Cambodian government requested the attacks. But so what? “Their government also wanted these atrocities” is not a defense at all, but an admission of collaboration with a murderous ally. What Kissinger also fails to mention was the new Cambodian government was one just put into power by the US. Prince Sihanouk, who long had the popular support of most Cambodians, was overthrown in a coup and replaced by General Lon Nol with US government backing.
The charge of illegally bombing Cambodia was the only one a Congressional committee did not convict Nixon for. Democratic congressmen feared future Democratic presidents would face charges. (These Democratic congressmen were correct. But the fear of facing charges would be a badly needed deterrent to future wars.) Five congressional leaders, three Democrats and two Republicans, including future President Gerald Ford, had also been earlier informed of the bombings.
Both Nixon’s Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense William Laird opposed the bombings. In retaliation, Nixon and Kissinger planned bombing Cambodia without them. Nixon bypassed Laird in favor of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and eventually replaced Rogers with Kissinger. Kissinger had been the de facto Secretary of State anyway since, as an adviser, it was not necessary to get Congress’s approval of him.
The version often preferred by American media is that only the Khmer Rouge committed genocide. As horrific as the KR's actions were, most of the deaths they are guilty of were by starvation, forced relocation, and in turn this made many Cambodians vulnerable to disease. In the US case, most Cambodian deaths were from indiscriminate aerial bombing. Nixon ordered the carpet bombing of most of the southern and eastern two thirds of the nation. The invasion killed more, and executions still more. Disruption from the bombings and invasion certainly brought deaths from disease and starvation, but typically those deaths are counted in KR totals, not US totals.
The Khmer Rouge were finally overthrown and brought to justice, not by the US, the UN, nor western powers. The Vietnamese Communists invaded in December 1978. By January 1979, the KR were out of power. Amazingly, the United Nations and most western and major world powers strongly condemned Vietnam. Yes, you read that right. Genocides by a US military acting on Nixon's orders and by the Khmer Rouge brought little action. But Vietnamese leaders choosing to end a genocide going on next door brought angry claims of “aggression.” China even launched an invasion of Vietnam's northern border, driving over 300 miles into Vietnamese territory, then withdrawing when the Vietnamese fought better and harder, with the Chinese suffering greater losses.
Thus what happened in Cambodia's genocide was the opposite of what Americans have been taught, to the extent Americans know about Cambodia at all. There were two genocides, one entirely done by American troops and bombers and ordered by President Nixon, that entirely failed in its declared goals of defeating North Vietnam. This led to a second genocide by the Khmer Rouge, one that was supported by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
Why don't more Americans know about this? Especially during the Cold War, Americans were led to believe only the Communist enemy carries out evil. That a neutral nation would be the victim of American anti-Communism, that an even more fanatic Communist group would come to power because of an American president's incompetence, and that three US presidents would support a genocidal regime and condemn an effort to remove them, all of that seems stranger than fiction, almost surreal.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, two other non-Communist factions arose in Cambodia. The United Nations finally intervened in a manner that actually helped Cambodia, putting together a coalition government that brought an end to wars and atrocities and bringing in peacekeepers. Non-Communists formed a coalition government, one supported covertly by both the US and UK. Some KR officials surrendered or joined the coalition government. KR leader Pol Pot died of natural causes. The Cambodian government prosecuted some KR officials for genocide.
No officials, American, Cambodian, of other nations, or the United Nations, ever proposed prosecuting Nixon or Kissinger for the genocide they carried out. The subject is rarely mentioned by anyone except scholars writing on Southeast Asia. Obviously Cambodia never had the power to prosecute American war criminals and the nation was far too occupied simply trying to survive and rebuild after several decades of horrors. Anyway, non-Communists in Cambodia depended upon the US for arms against the Khmer Rouge, and upon the UN for peacekeeping.
This remains by far the worst thing Nixon ever did, far more important than covering up a burglary and spying upon the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. This is what he should be remembered for, above all else and for all of history. But had there been any political will for true justice, Nixon and Pol Pot should both have faced trial for genocide as much as lower level officials in the Khmer Rouge did. Kissinger still should face genocide charges for Cambodia, as indeed many want him to face war crimes trial in Latin America.
Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College, teaching American, American Indian, and Latin American History. He also taught at Arizona State University, San Antonio College, St. Phillip's College, and Hasanuddin University in Indonesia as a Fulbright Senior Scholar.
His other books are Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veteran Traditions from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War and Survivors: Family Histories of Colonialism, Genocide, and War. He is a longtime activist and researcher for NewAgeFraud.org.
More information is at http://alcarroll.com.