Bombs Over Cambodia

New information reveals that Cambodia was bombed far more heavily than previously believed
U.S. Air Force/Getty ImagesU.S. Air Force/Getty ImagesUS Air Force bombers like this B-52, shown releasing its payload over Vietnam, helped make Cambodia one of the most heavily bombed countries in history — perhaps the most heavily bombed

In the fall of 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war in Indochina, Bill Clinton became the first US president since Richard Nixon to visit Vietnam. While media coverage of the trip was dominated by talk of some two thousand US soldiers still classified as missing in action, a small act of great historical importance went almost unnoticed. As a humanitarian gesture, Clinton released extensive Air Force data on all American bombings of Indochina between 1964 and 1975. Recorded using a groundbreaking ibm-designed system, the database provided extensive information on sorties conducted over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Clinton’s gift was intended to assist in the search for unexploded ordnance left behind during the carpet bombing of the region. Littering the countryside, often submerged under farmland, this ordnance remains a significant humanitarian concern. It has maimed and killed farmers, and rendered valuable land all but unusable. Development and demining organizations have put the Air Force data to good use over the past six years, but have done so without noting its full implications, which turn out to be staggering.

The still-incomplete database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed—not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson. The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide. The data demonstrates that the way a country chooses to exit a conflict can have disastrous consequences. It therefore speaks to contempor­ary warfare as well, including US operations in Iraq. Despite many differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous, volatile insurgency.
We heard a terrifying noise which shook the ground; it was as if the earth trembled, rose up and opened beneath our feet. Enormous explosions lit up the sky like huge bolts of lightning; it was the American B-52s.
— Cambodian bombing survivor

On December 9, 1970, US President Richard Nixon telephoned his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to discuss the ongoing bombing of Cambodia. This sideshow to the war in Vietnam, begun in 1965 under the Johnson administration, had already seen 475,515 tons of ordnance dropped on Cambodia, which had been a neutral kingdom until nine months before the phone call, when pro-US General Lon Nol seized power. The first intense series of bombings, the Menu campaign on targets in Cambodia’s border areas — labelled Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Dinner, Dessert, and Snack by American commanders — had concluded in May, shortly after the coup.

Nixon was facing growing congressional opposition to his Indochina policy. A joint US–South Vietnam ground invasion of Cambodia in May and June of 1970 had failed to root out Vietnamese Communists, and Nixon now wanted to covertly escalate the air attacks, which were aimed at destroying the mobile headquarters of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (vc/nva) in the Cambodian jungle. After telling Kissinger that the US Air Force was being unimaginative, Nixon demanded more bombing, deeper into the country: “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in...I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?”

Kissinger knew that this order ignored Nixon’s promise to Congress that US planes would remain within thirty kilometres of the Vietnamese border, his own assurances to the public that bombing would not take place within a kilometre of any village, and military assessments stating that air strikes were like poking a beehive with a stick. He responded hesitantly: “The problem is, Mr. President, the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war...in fact, they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.”

Five minutes after his conversation with Nixon ended, Kissinger called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders from the president: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?” The response from Haig, barely audible on tape, sounds like laughter.

The US bombing of Cambodia remains a divisive and iconic topic. It was a mobilizing issue for the antiwar movement and is still cited regularly as an example of American war crimes. Writers such as Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, and William Shawcross emerged as influential political voices after condemning the bombing and the foreign policy it symbolized.

In the years since the Vietnam War,something of a consensus has emerged on the extent of US involvement in Cambodia. The details are controversial, but the narrative begins on March 18, 1969, when the United States launched the Menu campaign. The joint US–South Vietnam ground offensive followed. For the next three years, the United States continued with air strikes under Nixon’s orders, hitting deep inside Cambodia’s borders, first to root out the vc/nva and later to protect the Lon Nol regime from growing numbers of Cambodian Communist forces. Congress cut funding for the war and imposed an end to the bombing on August 15, 1973, amid calls for Nixon’s impeachment for his deceit in escalating the campaign.

Thanks to the database, we now know that the US bombardment started three-and-a-half years earlier, in 1965, under the Johnson administration. What happened in 1969 was not the start of bombings in Cambodia but the escalation into carpet bombing. From 1965 to 1968, 2,565 sorties took place over Cambodia, with 214 tons of bombs dropped. These early strikes were likely tactical, designed to support the nearly two thousand secret ground incursions conducted by the cia and US Special Forces during that period. B-52s—long-range bombers capable of carrying very heavy loads — were not deployed, whether out of concern for Cambodian lives or the country’s neutrality, or because carpet bombing was believed to be of limited strategic value.

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17 comment(s)

fuerthOctober 15, 2006 05:35 EST

When it's said that insurgents rally to a cause as a result of having lost home and family, my immediate reaction is, "No kidding?"

If a big plane from another country came and wiped out everything I had, I'd pledge the rest of my life toward avenging my loss, as well.

Why is the Bush administration so stupid that they can't see that, particularly in light of how recent history in Cambodia provides them with the empirical evidence?

This is information that needs a broad audience!

eSeptember 09, 2007 11:19 EST

In reply to the comment above, "Why is the Bush administration so stupid that they can't see [that bombing hurts chances of strategic victory over hearts and minds, i.e. the war itself]?"

You are operating under the assumption that the Bush Administration even cares. I would argue that after looking at the facts of who the people in the Bush Administration really are, I would look at them as completely naive megalomaniacs who really don't care about consequences of their actions. Doesn't that also describe the story of George Bush's whole irresponsible life as a son of privilege who spent the war AWOL coked up and drunk? Perhaps his evangelicalism sheds light on the fact that he doesn't really think too hard or question too much. And don't forget that to his political supporters dropping bombs and talking tough is a whole lot sexier than diplomacy and sensible policy, no matter the actual strategic outcome. Also, don't forget that war has been the historical impetus of our economic might and those thousands of bombs, etc. help funnel money to Bush's political supporters, and quite literally to his own family as well. Perhaps if Nixon (and many presidents before and since for that matter) was held accountable to his criminal operations we wouldn't be in this similar mess today? Just some thoughts.

holly tateJune 02, 2008 16:52 EST

im really glad that you are letting ppl be aware of what is going on in our world thank you and god bless

AnonymousDecember 22, 2010 08:56 EST

"What we learn most from history is that we never learn anything from history"

Recovering CatholicJanuary 03, 2011 12:40 EST

I recently re-read Hillary's book; "It Takes a Village."
In discussing it with a friend over the holidays, he was quick to make this tongue-in-cheek comment:

"It takes a village to raise a child but it takes a Viking to raze a village."

Just food for thought.

Anthony MawJanuary 16, 2011 19:04 EST

This conduct of the war in South East Asia was all about race: "Freedom Loving" White Christians men of European extraction have shown they are more than willing and even eagerness to kill as many "Yellow" Asians as they possibly in the name of mis-guided ideology. This coming from the great society that prides itself as being a "Bastion of Democracy" and "Defenders of the Free World"??? Anyone visiting Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam today will still see the legacy of reckless US policy towards Asian people. How does carpet bombing, napalming, zuni rockets, vulcan machine guns, and spraying Agent Orange onto rice crops of rural Cambodian and Laotian villages serve to defend fucking "American Freedom"? Retired proud White US Air Force men today are enjoying their VA pensions in their homes in the United States as the reward for burning to death whole Cambodian families?? I doubt the Americans would have engaged in a similarly vicious and indiscriminant campaign against their fellow European Whites. Who is killed and how they are killed are all predicated on race.

European WhiteFebruary 16, 2011 09:26 EST

Excuse me, Anthony Maw, but you have an example of Serbia bombing in the middle of Europe, in the middle of the 21th century!!! Which is a country inhabited by European white population as you call it.
Do not forget, the race or religion is easy to take for an excuse, but that is not the going to determine or stop the decisions of any killings or "war" actions... For example, the economic development of the country or a region might "justify" these actions more easily. The race will not limit or stop from committing a war crime any power and control hungry murderers that we ELECT on the elections

AnonymousDecember 11, 2011 21:16 EST

What does history teach us nothing. The French were in Indochina and they lost the war. Their final defeat took place in 1954 in Dien Bien Phu. The United States made the same mistake in Vietnam and result was the same. The Soviets invaded Afganistan in 1979 and had to retreat in 1989. Th United States lead coalition attacted Afganistan in 2001 and quite soon they will be pulling their troops out.

goosarMarch 22, 2012 07:53 EST

ofcourse, What U.S. has committed has never been previously done by any country. Nuclear pombing of Jaban that resulted the death of more than 150,000 loss of lives.. the vietnam war and the bombing of Campodia.

i am certain of that U.S.A. will pay the price of its actions!!!

good job. may god pless u.

LOMarch 22, 2012 07:53 EST

2,756,941 tons’ worth of bombs VS around 7 millions Cambodian at the time.

It is about half a ton of bomb for each Cambodian.

The worst is one of the guy responsible for this senseless bombing, Henry Kissinger, won the Nobel Peace Price in 1973.

What a cruel world!

Arrest the war criminalsMarch 25, 2012 16:52 EST

Six years after the first publication of this article, and the Americans are still killing civilians and supporting dictators in the name of "freedom."

Kissinger, Cheney, and Bush are still free men.

And Stephen Harper is buckling on his six-shooter, looking for a war to call his own.

Donald JamesonMarch 30, 2012 06:50 EST

As a Khmer language political officer in the US Embassy in Phnom Penh I also interviewed refugees from areas in Cambodia that had been subjected to US bombing. I heard almost the exact same stories about the earth shaking and explosions lighting up the sky, but with one major difference from what is reported in this article. No one mentioned B-52s, for the simple reason that Cambodian peasants had no knowledge that B-52s even existed. Beyond that they flew too high to be seen from the ground. The refugees I interviewed had no idea what had caused the explosions and trembling of the earth that they experienced. I am afraid that this critical part of the story is a complete fabrication and, as such, it undermined the whole point of the story. Terrible and inexcusable as it was, the bombing had very little effect on the propensity of Cambodian peasants to join the Khmer Rouge insurgents. Anyone who has even a slight knowledge of Cambodian peasants knows that they have virtually no concept of politics and have no awareness of Communism or any other political ideology. The only thing they know is the king, who is critical in maintaining harmony and stability in the realm, and so they support him. Thus what attracted many Cambodian peasants to the Khmer Rouge was the call by deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk to join the Khmer, with whom he allied himself in revenge for being ousted by Defense Minister Lon Nol on March 18, 1970. These peasants thought they were fighting to restore the king not to install the Khmer Rouge in power or to avenge their suffering from bombing, The idea that American bombing created the Communists or turned them into murderous demons is a complete myth and an utter distortion of reality on the ground in Cambodia during and after the war.

Bobby DiasApril 30, 2012 08:51 EST

1. Kissenger was lying years later of having any involvement, as a form of attracting free-lance work. 2. It was not Cambodia citizens that were bombed- it was small groups from Vietnam that were fleeing from the combined major forces of the official government of South Vietnam, led by Thieu and the government of the never official North Vietnam, led by Tho. 3. Better for you to understand:
The bombing of Cambodia was done at the requests of 1. the government of Cambodia and the most powerful military person in Cambodia- Pol Pot 2. the government of South Vietnam and the military leader of South Vietnam Thieu 3. the unofficial and only government of North Vietnam and its military leader Tho 4. the government of Laos 5. The government of Tailand.
Separately these requests were made to me and I relayed them to President Richard Nixon. Some requests were after inquiries by me as to what they thought should be done by the forces that had escaped from Vietnam,North and South- these forces being those that were in opposition to the unification of Vietnam as started by the joining of the official military forces led by Thieu of the South and Tho of the North. I interject here that President Johnson had started me on visiting many people in southeast Asia when I was stationed on the USS Paul Revere during the ship's duty off the coast of Vietnam in 1967. The official and unofficial governments plus the military leaders of Pol Pot and Thieu and Tho. President Nixon inherited the situation of those small military groups in Vietnam fleeing to Cambodia. I sought and received what each entity wanted, which was to destroy the military forces unwilling to go along with the mainstream efforts in the unification and peace of Vietnam. Camped in jungles, these forces were raiding into populated areas of Cambodia and Thailand and Laos and Vietnam. Their numbers were very overestimated but they meant no peace, only war because of the jungle hiding them.
It was in 1968 that teams of surveyors and cultural experts sent by Mao were mapping for official boundaries of Vietnam and Laos and Thailand and Cambodia and Burma- the cultural people to keep like peoples together in the future offical maps which were being prepared by the United States at the instruction of President Johnson. Except for those bombed in eastern Cambodia there were no disputes in actions leading to the official boundaries.

humphrey hollinsMay 07, 2012 08:11 EST

Sorry donald,but you are wrong.
I would not really expect anything else from an employee of the US embassy.
i have probably spent more time in the country than you and believe me one becomes very poltically minded very fast when you are being bombarded by strangers.
Most commentators agree that the bombing both sent the people mad and drove them into the arms if the khmer rouge.
Your belittling of cambodian peasants shows that you have a terribly US perspective and no real understanding of how cambodians think.
I have recently seen the full size map of the bombing and the extent is horrifying.
Right over the eastern side of the country the US carpet bombed the roads,railways and rivers-exactly where most of the country people live.
Even around phnom penh in kandal province the amount of bombing was extraordinary,I amk very familiar with kandal and it has always been heavily populated.

Ben Shockley June 19, 2012 17:13 EST

@Bobby Dias

Please refrain from posting gibberish and fabrications amidst a serious historical discussion. You're just wasting people's time and potentially creating confusion.

Ben Shockley June 23, 2012 07:46 EST

@Mr. Donald Jameson:

Just because the refugees that you interviewed had never heard of B-52s doesn't mean that they or other Cambodian villagers failed to understand that they were being bombed or that they failed to ultimately reach that correct conclusion, often with the help of the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, whether or not they knew the model of the planes that were bombing them is irrelevant; what's important is that many of them came to comprehend, either initially or eventually, that their lives were being torn asunder and often annihilated by American planes supporting the Lon Nol government. Consequently, Cambodia's peasants became ripe recruiting targets for the opposing side in the civil war, that being the Khmer Rouge.

(By the way, I’d like to know more about your interviewee samples, such as their numbers, the dates, and the regions. By 1973, the US was bombing most of Cambodia, so one might assume that some testimonies varied.)

As for the attraction of Prince Sihanouk, the issue isn't "either/or." To be sure, Sihanouk's association with the Khmer Rouge granted prestige, credibility, and allure to the very Cambodian Communists that he had once hunted and sent underground. But the US bombing and the alienation and grief caused by it also rallied many peasants to the side opposing America, that being the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, Chhit Do's comments in the article and others by fellow ex-Khmer Rouge officers and anonymous Cambodian peasants support this theme and causation, which you spuriously dismiss. Sometimes, sixty or seventy Cambodian villagers would join the Khmer Rouge because of a bombing that left them righteously enraged and embittered. See the quotations for yourself in Ben Kiernan's book titled "The Pol Pot Regime," pages 19-24 in the introduction of the second edition.

You are correct that the US bombing did not actually create the Cambodian Communists and cannot be blamed for the ideological extremism of Pol Pot's regime. I don't believe that the article by Mr. Owen and Mr. Kiernan actually offered that argument, but their concluding line about how "the Khmer Rouge rose up from the bomb craters" may have fostered a misleading impression and may have been over the top. That said, the American bombing of Cambodia certainly played an inadvertent role in facilitating the growth, success, and severity of the Khmer Rouge. From the perspective of propaganda, they feasted upon the deathly bombing like vultures, exploiting the anger of the peasantry, cultivating aggrieved Cambodian commoners in the countryside, and even leaving leaflets in the craters caused by B-52 bombs. Hence the bombing allowed the Khmer Rouge to swell their ranks and become appealing as the force opposing the Lon Nol government and its American backers (and bombers). Again, Sihanouk's role as a figurehead helped the Khmer Rouge, but his presence hardly explains everything.

Moreover, while the Khmer Rouge took inspiration from Mao and thus figured to run a harsh and quite possibly disastrous regime in any event, the B-52 bombing may have worsened the outcome in three distinct ways. First, the physical and psychological terror induced by the bombing and described by Chhit Do was very real and could only be dismissed by someone who has never suffered the misfortune of having experienced that trauma. Indeed, one should also read "A Viet Cong Memoir," by Truong Nhu Tang, the Viet Cong's former minister of justice, to see a confirming account of how intensive bombing could traumatize the body and and lead to mental breakdowns (pages 167-171). As Ben Kiernan writes on page 25 of "The Pol Pot Regime," when Khmer Rouge soldiers arrived in the city of Battambang (the second largest in Cambodia) in April 1975, they tore apart two T-28 bombers with their bare hands and, according to a witness, "They would have eaten" the planes "if they could." The Khmer Rouge soldiers also lynched bomber pilots in Battambang. So while the Cambodian Communists may have proved at least somewhat nihilistic no matter what, the fury, viciousness, and punitive nature of their regime may well have been exacerbated by the bombing that they and many of the peasants who joined them had suffered under over the previous several years. As journalist William Shawcross notes on page 298 of "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia" (the first Cooper Square Press edition of the revised edition), the 1973 bombing probably slaughtered a minimum of twenty-five percent of the Khmer Rouge's soldiers and likely over fifty percent of the Khmer Rouge troops attempting to reach the capital of Phnom Penh. And as Shawcross notes, "There is a military rule of thumb, generally accepted by battle commanders, that units cannot sustain losses of more than 10 percent without suffering often irreversible psychological damage." The idea that war hardens its combatants and renders them more venomous afterward is hardly novel or illogical and certainly an extreme version of that process may have occurred given that (as we now know) Cambodia constituted the most heavily bombed country in global history.

Second, Kenneth Quinn, a US Foreign Service officer (perhaps you knew him) reported in February 1974 that the Khmer Rouge had initiated a far more radical program that had been the case earlier in the seventies. And as Mr. Kiernan writes in "The Pol Pot Regime" (pages 22-23, 25), the torrential bombing of 1973 encouraged Pol Pot and his extreme faction to consolidate and centralize their control over the Khmer Rouge, purging moderates and officials loyal to Sihanouk. Plus, the bombing created time for this consolidation and centralization to occur by preventing a Communist victory at an earlier stage. Needless to say, the US goal was not to see the Khmer Rouge become more extreme, but the bombing inadvertently fostered this political motivation and temporal window.

Third, since Khmer Rouge regiments suffered such extensive casualties and deaths in the 1973 bombing, their recruited replacements often proved even younger. Already adolescent to a large extent, the Cambodian Communist army became even more youthful and thus even more susceptible to the Khmer Rouge hierarchy's brainwashing (see pages 321 and 322 of Shawcross' "Sideshow"). When war, bombing, and death cause a movement to dip even deeper into its youth, the possibility of radical and nihilistic change becomes enhanced.

Thus to dismiss the role of US bombing in the growth and savagery of the Khmer Rouge is incredibly ignorant and propagandistic. The Cambodian Communists certainly exploited the villagers' anger at the bombing and used the devastation as a recruiting tool to expand their ranks, while the bombing furthered a sense of dystopia and degeneration that exacerbated the social phobias, pathologies, and paranoia already developing among the Khmer Rouge (marked by the political purges and the virtual kidnapping and brainwashing of children). No, the bombing did not create the Khmer Rouge or the madness of their ideological scheme and Mr. Owen and Mr. Kiernan never quite offer that argument. But in the multiple manners that I've explained here, the bombing worsened what was already portending to be an especially grim cataclysm.

Ben Shockley June 23, 2012 09:13 EST

And in case anyone is wondering, Mr. Jameson's credentials are legitimate, even though I deem his argument misguided.

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