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Roots of Genocide: New Evidence on the US Bombardment of Cambodia

The Vietnamese army has withdrawn from Cambodia, 10 years after its invasion to oust the Pol Pot regime. Some Cambodians fear that Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces will push back from their sanctuaries in Thailand to regain power, while others believe that the Vietnamese-trained army of Prime Minister Hun Sen will be able to hold the country.

Fifteen years after the original Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975, Ben Kiernan, author of How Pol Pot Came to Power, looks at some new evidence on the reasons for that victory.

Twenty-one years ago the US Air Force began a secret B-52 bombardment of rural Cambodia. (See Shawcross 1979:21-31: "The bombing was not merely concealed; the official secret records showed that it had never happened.") One year later that country's neutral ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was overthrown by the US-backed general Lon Nol. The Vietnam War spilled across, Sihanouk swore revenge, and a new civil war tore Cambodia apart.

The US bombing of the countryside increased from 1970 until 1973, when Congress imposed a halt. Nearly half of the 540,000 tons of bombs fell in the last six months. From the ashes of rural Cambodia rose a Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) regime, led by Pol Pot. It went on to kill or starve to death more than a million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979.

Pol Pot's CPK (known as the Khmer Rouge) had profited greatly from the US bombings. It used the devastation and massacre of civilians as recruitment propaganda and as an excuse for its brutal, radical policies and its purge of moderate communists and Sihanoukists. This is clear from contemporary US government documents, recently released to me under the Freedom of Information Act, and from the accounts of peasant survivors of the bombing.

Bombings Drive People to Khmer Rouge

In the early years of the Cambodian war, Sihanoukists, moderates, and pro-Vietnamese communists predominated in a factionalized insurgency. The CPK "Center," as the Pol Pot leadership was known, admitted it still needed to "get a tight grasp, filter into every corner" (Kiernan 1985:323). Before defeating Lon Nol, it needed to eclipse its revolutionary rivals and allies.

In 1973 the US withdrew its troops from Vietnam, but switched its air arm to Cambodia. The secretary of the Air Force later said that President Richard Nixon "wanted to send a hundred more B-52's. This was appalling. You couldn't even figure out where you were going to put them all, you know" (Shawcross 1979:218-219).

The early bombing had been disastrous enough. In 1970 a combined US aerial and tank attack in Kompong Cham Province had taken the lives of 200 people. When another raid killed seven people nearby, a local peasant recalls, "some people ran away... others joined the revolution" (See Kiernan 1985:349-357).

In 1971, the town of Angkor Borei in southwestern Cambodia was heavily bombed by American B-52s and Lon Nol T-28s. It was burned and leveled. Whole families were trapped while hiding in trenches they had dug for protection underneath their homes. More than one hundred people were killed and two hundred houses destroyed, with only two or three houses left standing.

US intelligence soon discovered that many "training camps" on which Lon Nol had requested air strikes "were in fact merely political indoctrination sessions held in village halls and pagodas." Lon Nol intelligence noted that "aerial bombardments against the villagers have caused civilian loss on a large scale," and that the peasant survivors of the US bombings were turning to the CPK for support (US State Department 1970:4,6).

One young Khmer joined the communists a few days after an aerial attack claimed the lives of 50 people in his village. Not far away, bombs fell on O Reang Au market for the first time in 1972, killing 20 people, and twice more in 1973, killing another 25 people, including 2 Buddhist monks.

When bombs hit Boeng village, it was burned to the ground, and according to peasants many people were trapped in their houses and burned to death. Nearby Chalong village lost more than 20 dead. An inhabitant says, "Many monasteries were destroyed by bombs. People in our village were furious with the Americans; they did not know why the Americans had bombed them. Seventy people from Chalong joined the fight against Lon Nol after the bombing."

B-52s scored a direct hit on Trapeang Krapeu village; at least 20 people died. Anlong Trea was napalmed and bombed; three people were killed. "Over 60 people from this village then joined the Khmer Communist army out of anger at the bombing," local residents recall.

In March 1973, the bombardment spread west across the whole country. Around Phnom Penh, 3,000 civilians were killed in three weeks. UPI (1973) reported: "Refugees swarming into the capital from target areas report dozens of villages... have been destroyed and as much as half their population killed or maimed in the current bombing raids" (emphasis added). Days later, the US bombardment intensified, reaching a level of 3,600 tons per day (Schmidt 1973). The "wholesale carnage" shocked the chief of the political section in the US Embassy, William Harben. One night, he said, "a mass of peasants" went out on a funeral procession and "walked straight into" a bombing raid. "Hundreds were slaughtered."

Donald Dawson, a young Air Force captain, flew 25 B-52 missions but refused to fly again when he heard that a Cambodian wedding party had been razed by B-52s.

But in July and August 1973 the Southwest Zone of Cambodia was carpet-bombed; it was the most intensive B-52 campaign yet. The impact of this bombing in the southwest tipped what had been a delicate CPK factional balance there (see Kiernan 1985, ch. 8) in favor of Pol Pot's "Center" group.

Political Repercussions Abound

The political effect of the US bombardment can be observed both at the highest level in the Southwest Zone, its ruling Party Committee, and at the local level. In 1973-1974, four of the six leaders of the CPK's Zone committee were purged. Two of these CPK moderates were murdered by Pol Pot's warlord ally, Mok; the other two were killed after 1975, when the southwest became the stronghold of the Pol Pot regime and Mok went on to purge all other zones in the country.

A similar process occurred at the local level during the 1973 bombing. In one village in the southwest, 80 people died when B-52s hit the village and its pagoda. Nearby Wat Angrun village was annihilated; a single family survived, and 120 houses were destroyed in the air raid.

This part of the southwest was one of the strongholds of the CPK Center. In 1973 Mok's son-in law, the local deputy CPK secretary, was promoted to become chief of a new Southwest Zone Brigade, and his wife became district chief.

The CPK was now able to recruit many peasants by highlighting the damage done by US air strikes. The CIA's directorate of operations, after investigations in the Southwest Zone, reported that the CPK had launched a new recruiting drive:

They are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda. The cadre tell the people that the Government of Lon Nol has requested the airstrikes ad is responsible for the damage and the "suffering of innocent villagers" ...The only way to stop "the massive destruction of the country" is to ...defeat Lon Nol and stop the bombing.

This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of a number of young men... Residents... say that the propaganda campaign has been effective with refugees and in areas which have been subject to B-52 strikes. (CIA 1987; emphasis added)

Mam Lon, a CPK cadre in the southwest, ways that when T-28s and B-52s bombed his village, more than 100 people were killed and wounded. "The people were very angry at the imperialists," he adds. Soon afterward the CPK's political line hardened, and a number of cadres, including Lon himself, were dismissed (see Kiernan 1985:354-355 for references).

Early in 1973, the CPK began a new purge of Sihanoukists, pro-Vietnamese communists, and other dissidents. Mok rounded up hundreds from all over the Southwest Zone. They were forced to perform hard labor before being executed.

In the Northern Zone of the country, where Pol Pot himself was based, B-52s struck Stung Kambot village one morning in February 1973, killing 50 villagers and seriously wounding 30 others. Then, in March, B-52s and F-111s bombarded an ox-cart caravan in the same district, killing 10 peasants. One local man recalls that "often people were made angry by the bombing and went to join the revolution."

A peasant youth, Thoun Cheng, says B-52s bombed his village three to six times per day for three months. More than 1,000 people were killed - nearly a third of the population. Afterward, Cheng says, "there were few people left... and it was quiet." (For the full account of Cheng's experiences, see Kiernan and Boua 1982: 330-334).

Chhit Do was a CPK leader near Angkor Wat in northern Kampuchea. In 1979, he fled the country. Australian journalist Bruce Palling asked him if the Khmer Rouge had made use of the bombing for anti-US propaganda:

Chhit Do: Oh yes, they did. Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…

The ordinary people... sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came... Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told... That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over... It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them.

Bruce Palling: So the American bombing was a kind of help to the Khmer Rouge?

Chhit Do: Yes, that's right..., sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.

On 3 August 1973, US aircraft bombed the hill village of Plei Loh, home of montagnard tribal people. According to a US agent, "the village was totally destroyed, with 28 civilians and five VC guerrillas killed" (US Army Bomb Damage Assessment, 20 August 1973). The next day, B-52s attacked nearby Plei Lom village, "killing twenty people, including children" (US Defense Department 1973a). On 10 August, Plei Lom was bombed again, killing 30 montagnards (US Defense Department 1973b). On the same day, B-52s struck nearby Plei Blah village; 50 died. The US Army report noted that "the Communists intend to use this incident for propaganda purposes" (US Defense Department 1973c).

Who Had "Real" Power?

A report to the US Army in July 1973 stated that "the civilian population fears US air attacks far more than they do Communist rocket attacks or scorched earth tactics" (US Army 1973a:2). Up to 150,000 civilian deaths resulted from the 1969-1973 US bombing campaigns in Cambodia.

Henry Kissinger claims, sarcastically, that "We destabilized Cambodia the way Britain destabilized Poland in 1939" (Page 1982:51). He states in his memoirs that "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" (Page 1982:45).

Kissinger's view at the time was more perceptive. In a 1974 cable, he pointed out that in areas such as southwestern Cambodia the Vietnamese were in conflict with Khmer communists, who "not only had little training abroad but probably resent and compete with the better-trained men from North Vietnam." "The Khmer communists, such as Saloth Sar [Pol Pot]," he said with prescience, "are probably xenophobic... when it comes to Vietnamese."

In 1974, Kissinger was unsure if the Cambodian insurgency was "regional" and "factionalized" with only "a veneer of central control," or whether "the real power" lay with Pol Pot's central presidium. The tragedy is that the former had been largely true in 1972, the latter was largely true in 1974, and Kissinger and Nixon were largely responsible for the change.

CPK cadres told young peasant victims that "the killing birds" had come "from Phnom Penh" (not Guam), and that Phnom Penh must pay for its assault on rural Cambodia (Staffan Hidlebrand, personal communication). On the day the bombing ended, CPK propaganda leaflets found in bomb craters attacked the "Phnom Penh warriors" who were, they vowed, soon to be defeated (US Army 1973b:2). The popular outrage over the US bombing was as fatal for moderate Khmer Rouge as it was for Lon Nol and the 2 million inhabitants of Phnom Penh.



1987 Efforts of Khmer Insurgents to Exploit for Propaganda Purposes Damage Done by Airstrikes in Kandal Province. 19 February.

Kiernan, B.

1985 How Pol Pot Came to Power. London: Verso.

Kiernan, B. and C. Boua, eds.

1982 Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981. London: Zed Press.

Page, B.

1982 The Pornography of Power. In A. Barnett and J. Pilger, eds. Aftermath: The Struggle of Cambodia and Vietnam. pp. 43-53. London: New Statesman.

Schmidt, D.A.

1973 Story in the Christian Science Monitor. 5 April.

Shawcross, W.

1979 Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Simon & Schuster.


1973 Story in the Boston Globe. 1 April

US Army

1973a Effectiveness of US Bombing in Cambodia. 21 August. Declassified 7 April 1987.

1973b Intelligence Information Report No. 2 725 1716 73.22 August.

US Defense Department

1973a Intelligence Information Report No. 2 724 2014 73.16 August.

1973b Intelligence Information Report No. 2 724 2083 73.23 August.

1973c Intelligence Information Report No. 2 724 2116 73.27 August.

US State Department

1970 Cambodia: Can the Vietnamese Communists Export Insurgency? Research study, Bureau of Intelligence and Research. 25 September.

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