Nixon decided on a different course, and beginning in 1969 the Air Force deployed B-52s over Cambodia. The new rationale for the bombings was that they would keep enemy forces at bay long enough to allow the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. Former US General Theodore Mataxis depicted the move as “a holding action.... The troika’s going down the road and the wolves are closing in, and so you throw them something off and let them chew it.” The result was that Cambodians essentially became cannon fodder to protect American lives.
The last phase of the bombing, from February to August 1973, was designed to stop the Khmer Rouge’s advance on the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The United States, fearing that the first Southeast Asian domino was about to fall, began a massive escalation of the air war — an unprecedented B-52 bombardment that focused on the heavily populated area around Phnom Penh but left few regions of the country untouched. The extent of this bombardment has only now come to light.
The data released by Clinton shows the total payload dropped during these years to be nearly five times greater than the generally accepted figure. To put the revised total of 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during allof ?World War II, including the bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000 tons, respectively. Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history.
A single B-52d “Big Belly” payload consists of up to 108 225-kilogram or 42 340-kilogram bombs, which are dropped on a target area of approximately 500 by 1,500 metres. In many cases, Cambodian villages were hit with dozens of payloads over the course of several hours. The result was near-total destruction. One US official stated at the time, “We had been told, as had everybody...that those carpet-bombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating, that nothing could survive.” Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.
The Cambodian bombing campaign had two unintended side effects that ultimately combined to produce the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent. First, the bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second, the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas?.?.?.?scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”
Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:
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. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them.... Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
The Nixon administration knew that the Khmer Rouge was winning over peasants. The cia’s Directorate of Operations, after investigations south of Phnom Penh, reported in May 1973 that the Communists were “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.” But this does not seem to have registered as a primary strategic concern.
The Nixon administration kept theair war secret for so long that debate over its impact came far too late. It wasn’t until 1973 that Congress, angered by the destruction the campaign had caused and the systematic deception that had masked it, legislated a halt to the bombing of Cambodia. By then, the damage was already done. Having grown to more than two hundred thousand troops and militia forces by 1973, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh two years later. They wenton to subject Cambodia to a Maoist agrarian revolution and a genocide in which 1.7 million people perished.
The Nixon Doctrine relied on the notion that the United States could supply an allied regime with the resources needed to withstand internalor external challenges while the US withdrew its ground troops or, in some cases, simply remained at arm’s length. In Vietnam, this meant building up the ground-fighting capability of South Vietnamese forces while American units slowly disengaged. In Cambodia, Washington gave military aid to prop up Lon Nol’s regime from 1970 to 1975 while the US Air Force conducted its massive aerial bombardment.