THE SECRET BOMBING OF CAMBODIA:
A lesson in history and strategy
There follows a talk I gave at Harvard not long ago:
I am about to break a silence of 36 years duration, laying out the page one piece in the New York Times on the secret bombing of Cambodia. I do it for a purpose, which I will explain in a moment.
Several esteemed authors got it wrong. Among them: David Gergen, Anthony Lukas and William Shawcross. Shawcross came the closest.
During the Presidential campaign of 1968 it became clear that Richard Nixon was determined to pull out of Vietnam, but under what he considered “honorable terms.”
At the time, I was in the Washington bureau of The New York Times and had exceptionally good contacts throughout town, including at the Defense Department, the State Department, the White House, the Congress and the CIA.
During the latter stages of the Presidential campaign, I went to some of the sharpest strategists in the Pentagon and posed a question: “Assume,” I said, “that you’ve just received a call from the White House. The President wants to let North Vietnam know that he is prepared to violate self-imposed sanctuaries in order to persuade Hanoi that the game is not worth the candle. What is your short list of viable options?”
I went to a half dozen men. The lists were not identical but on every one appeared B-52 bombing of stocks of weapons and supplies at the southern end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia.
So I waited. And I watched. and early in the Nixon Presidency there came news accounts of huge B-52 raids on the South Vietnamese side of the Cambodian border. I’d been there. That made no sense. This was not what the military called a “target rich environment.”
On the other hand, I realized that such an operation inside Cambodia would be political dynamite in the US, particularly on college campuses, and thus would be very tightly held. But in order to carry out such a massive bombing campaign, certain people would have to know about pieces ot the action.
I went to such men and confirmed one piece after another. A mosaic emerged which in my mind could only have been what I’d been looking for. So I went to two very well plugged-in men–one at the State Department, another at the White House. I laid out what I believed to be the whole scenario. The State Department official said: “Jesus H. Christ!” And then told me he had no comment. His facial expression suggested otherwise. The White House official said, “I’ve never lied to you Bill. And I won’t now. So let’s change the subject.”
Together with what I’d been gathering, I knew I had it nailed. I wrote the story. The Times published it below the fold on page one on May 9, 1969. The story had a lot of detail–about the overall Administration strategy, about the fact that Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia had been briefed so he wouldn’t publicly complain about the bombing of his sovereign territory, about the fact the South Vietnamese military had been briefed so their cross border military forays wouldn’t be hit. And so forth.
You would have thought that such a story would have caused a firestorm. It did not. Although the FBI was charged with finding out where the story had come from. They failed, by the way.
The Pentagon spokesman, when asked, dismissed the story as “speculation.” When reporters went to some of their best sources, they were told: “I’m pretty sure that if this was going on, I’d have been told. I have not been.”
They may have been honest. When four years later I was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, someone showed me a “need to know” list on the operation, signed by Henry Kissinger as the President’s National Security Advisor. Believe it or not, Secretary of State William Rogers was specifically excluded from access to information on the operation. Specifically excluded as having “a need to know.”
Years later, when Kissinger was sued, he and other members of the Nixon Administration contended that the whole operation was top secret because otherwise it might have caused the loss of American lives. From whom was it secret? Not from the North Vietnamese on whose heads the bombs were falling. Not from officials of the Cambodian and South Vietnamese governments. It was secret only from the Congress and from the American public.
I’m convinced that’s one of the reasons it had no chance of achieving its strategic objective. Top planners in Hanoi must have concluded that the Nixon Administration was convinced the war was so unpopular as to tie its hands. Hanoi would simply have to wait us out and the Americans would find a way to disengage. And that’s precisely what happened.
The Administration could have handled it quite differently. The President might have gone on television and declared that North Vietnam had been pouring weapons and ammunition through the sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia that were killing American GIs and that he was going to go after such sanctuaries to save lives and shorten the war. It would have been politically risky, to be sure, and some certainly would have objected vigorously. But a majority of Americans might have supported such a move. And that could have been much more persuasive in Hanoi.
Perhaps not. We’ll never know. Because Nixon and Kissinger weren’t willing to risk telling the American people what they were up to. We’re not talking of some small covert operation here, but a massive saturation bombing campaign, with a false set of coordinates to mislead the Congress and the public.
One final thought. The Washington press corps at the time hadn’t become as skeptical of official pronouncements as is now the case. And, frankly, in the larger perspective, that’s a positive development. A free and open society requires a tough, skeptical press.