During the height of the Senate Watergate hearings, one of the more memorable questions asked by Senator Howard Baker was in reference to what the President knew and when he knew it. In many ways, British journalist William Shawcross asks similar questions here; however, Shawcross’ target focuses not upon President Nixon and the Watergate scandals, but upon Nixon, and particularly Henry Kissinger, and the United States incursions into Cambodia during 1969-1970.
Shawcross served briefly as a London-based correspondent in Southeast Asia during the 1970’s, and, like many reporters and journalists with similar assignments, he developed a perspective on the policies adopted by the opposing sides. Yet it is the author’s intention here to delve into only one chapter of the lengthy Southeast Asian struggle; namely, the United States decision to pursue the war into Cambodia. In doing so, the author appears confident that the pattern of decisions and actions which took place deviate from the more official contentions put forth by both Kissinger and Nixon in their public statements and recent memoirs. Additionally, Shawcross is anxious to promote his own view that the United States bombings and ground invasions of Cambodia vastly expanded the scope of the fighting and produced a disastrous effect upon the stability of Cambodia as a country. In his attempt to justify this view, Shawcross quotes extensively from government documents while tracing a sequence of events designed to show that the official presentation does not tell the full story.
Shawcross’ depiction of the Cambodian operations begins with the arrival of the new Nixon Administration in early 1969. Upon taking office, President Nixon began in earnest to weigh options before him to conclude the Vietnam War. One such option came in the form of a suggestion in February, 1969, from General Creighton Abrams, then United States Commander in Vietnam, for what later became known as “Operation Breakfast”: United States B-52 aerial bombing of the Communist sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia. In conjunction with Abrams’ recommendation came a Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum outlining the feasibility of a United States-South Vietnamese operation against these bases.
For some time, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces had availed themselves of the eastern Cambodian trails and villages as sanctuaries largely immune to U.S.-A.R.V.N. reprisal strikes; it was a situation not entirely unlike the usage of the Yalu River border by Communist aircraft during the Korean War. From these havens, Communist forces moved freely in the knowledge that stockpiles of supplies and staging areas for infiltration into South Vietnam could be established without undue fear of enemy assaults. The development of the sanctuaries is attributed by Shawcross to the earlier United States and South Vietnamese “search and destroy” military strategy advanced by General William Westmoreland. While search and destroy operations did not result in the end of the Communist attacks in Vietnam, it did have the side effect of forcing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops to shift their efforts westward into the Laotian and Cambodian border zones adjacent to Vietnam. Communist usage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and northeastern Cambodia was beyond the range, at least politically, of Westmoreland’s strategy. This occurrence was viewed in Washington as evidence that Westmoreland’s approach was inadequate to conclude the war effort.
The Operation Breakfast concept fostered by General Abrams purported to offer the United States not only an opportunity to eliminate the eastern Cambodian sanctuaries, but also a chance to destroy COSVN HQ (Central Office for South Vietnam Headquarters), the Communist administrative apparatus through which raids into South Vietnam were now being carried out. Evidence of COSVN, the sanctuaries, and their locations came through “Daniel Boone” operations which were traditional, covert U.S.-A.R.V.N. land infiltrations on a squad-level scale across the Cambodian border for intelligence gathering.
The existence of the Abrams recommendation and the Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum are cited by Shawcross as clear indications that consideration of offensive options against Cambodia were a part of United States strategic policy long before official statements say that they were authorized. Beyond this, Shawcross weaves a lengthy portrait of the efforts made by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to keep the knowledge of the bombing raids under wraps. Operation Breakfast was kept secret with the few exceptions of those directly involved, while the Pentagon was encouraged to juggle logistical records of the B-52 flights.
Yet on March 26, 1969, one week after Operation Breakfast, the New York Times accurately reported on the Abrams recommendation. White House denials...
(The entire section is 2000 words.)