Document created: 3 June 04
Air University Review, September-October 1971

The Presidential Decision 
on the Cambodian Operation

A Case Study in Crisis Management

Colonel Russell H. Smith

On the night of 30 April 1970, President Nixon announced over nationwide television his decision to commit American forces to ground combat in neutral Cambodia. Coming as a complete surprise to most Americans, including such seasoned and knowledgeable observers of the Washington scene as Stewart Alsop,1 this decision appeared to many to be a breach of faith by a President who only ten days earlier had announced plans to withdraw 150,000 men from the unpopular Vietnam war. Editorial comment was prompt and generally bitter. The New York Times accused the President of “. . . escalating a war from which he had promised to disengage.”2 And the Washington Post leveled at the Chief Executive charges of “. . . artful dissembling. . . suspect evidence, specious argument and excessive rhetoric.”3

Nor was opposition to the President’s move confined to editorial comment. College campuses throughout the nation erupted in violent protest, culminating in the tragic slaying of four students at Kent State College in Ohio by National Guardsmen called out to preserve order. Congressional reaction was bitter and unrestrained, the chief complaint being that Congress had not been consulted before the President initiated the Cambodian operation. Writing in the June issue of Fortune magazine, editor Max Ways expressed the deeply felt misgivings of many Nixon supporters over the apparent rent in the fabric of American society caused by the President’s action:

Cambodia pulled the plug. It may ultimately be shown that Nixon had excellent military reasons for sending U.S. units into Cambodia. But Cambodia was not his main problem. The condition of the U.S. was his main problem. When he encased his announcement on Cambodia in the kind of simplistic and emotional language most likely to inflame antiwar dissidents, including the moderates, he invited a greater cost in American unity than could possibly be balanced by any success in Indochina.4

What lay behind these charges? Had the President in fact broken faith with the nation in some fantastic effort to achieve a military victory, whatever the cost? What events led to the crisis situation which faced the President as he wrestled with his difficult decision? And what motivation could cause a skilled politician to risk doing irreparable damage to himself and to his political party during an election year? Attempts to answer these and similar questions form the basis of this article on political-military crisis management.

On 18 March 1970 one of the longest tightrope acts of history ended when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was ousted as Chief of State of the ostensibly neutral nation of Cambodia. Sihanouk’s ouster came as he was leaving Moscow for Peking to continue his appeals for help in persuading North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops to withdraw from Cambodia. The coup, as a result of which the Premier, General Lon Nol, became the de facto head of the Cambodian government, climaxed two weeks of demonstrations against the presence of an estimated 35,000 to 60,000 Communist troops, located principally in areas of eastern Cambodia adjacent to South Vietnam.

On 23 March Prince Sihanouk announced over Peking radio his intention to form a national liberation army to “free” Cambodia. Two days later, pledging support to Sihanouk, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong broke diplomatic relations with Phnom Penh. Simultaneously, the Russians warned that any change in Cambodia’s neutralist policy would have very grave consequences and accused the United States of seeking to extend the Southeast Asian war to Cambodia.

During the following weeks sporadic fighting occurred throughout most of Cambodia between Communist forces and the poorly trained and inadequately equipped Cambodian army of some 35,000 men. On 14 April, with the situation steadily deteriorating, Lon Nol asked that friendly governments supply arms to Cambodia. Despite captured arms supplied from South Vietnam, during the next two weeks Communist pressure continued throughout the embattled nation. On 29 April, with U.S. air and logistic support, South Vietnamese forces attacked Communist forces just across the border in the “parrot’s beak” area of Cambodia.

Elements of the Crisis

The situation which faced the President and his advisers during the final days of April was thus one of mounting crisis. Sihanouk’s ouster had come as a complete surprise to the President.5 His efforts to disengage American forces through the process of “Vietnamizing” the war were proceeding on schedule. Although Communist use of Cambodian sanctuaries had been a persistent military problem, Sihanouk, prodded by increasing pressure from his people, had seemed, prior to his ouster, determined to force a reduction of the Communist presence in his country.6 The strife and turmoil that followed the March coup in Cambodia thus created an entirely new situation and threatened the precarious stability of all of Indochina. In addition to military considerations, the resulting crisis contained elements of domestic and international political importance.

military factors

Communist use of sanctuaries in support of “wars of national liberation” has become a familiar tactic in the years since World War II. In fact, as one military analyst notes, “Almost all the successful or viciously stubborn insurgencies of this century have depended on some form of sanctuary strategy.” 7 During the early phases of the Vietnamese conflict, the Viet Cong were strong enough to maintain widespread supply caches and assembly areas within South Vietnam. But as the strength of the South Vietnamese Army grew with U.S. military and logistic aid, the Communists found it necessary to move their supply points and assembly areas across the border to the sanctuary of adjacent Cambodian territory. The bulk of the Communist installations were located in the “fishhook” and “parrot’s beak” salients. The latter area is only some 35 miles from Saigon. From the relative security of these sanctuaries, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were able to mount periodic forays across the border into the III Corps area of South Vietnam.

Following Sihanouk’s ouster, the Cambodian government denied use of the port of Sihanoukville to the Communist forces.8 Thus forced to depend exclusively for replacement and resupply on the long overland route from North Vietnam down through Laos to their sanctuaries, the Communists immediately began moving to ensure the safety of this supply route by effectively consolidating and expanding their separate pockets of strength throughout eastern Cambodia. As the President pointed out in his report on 30 June, “The prospect suddenly loomed of Cambodia’s becoming virtually one large base area for attack anywhere into South Vietnam along the 600 miles of the Cambodian frontier.” 9

In addition to posing an increased threat to Vietnamization efforts in South Vietnam, the Communist expansion in eastern Cambodia threatened the very existence of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia. If the Lon Nol government fell to Communist pressure, according to military experts in Saigon, the immediate outcome would be the reopening of Cambodian supply routes, including the port of Sihanoukville, to the Communists, as well as unobstructed access to the vastly enlarged border sanctuaries.10 Thus even the restoration of a government under the deposed Sihanouk clearly precluded re-establishment of the status quo.

domestic political factors

Although purely military considerations seemed clearly to indicate the advisability of taking some action against the Communist forces in Cambodia, political considerations springing from the troubled domestic scene counseled caution. Apparently satisfied with the progress of Vietnamization, the President on 20 April 1970 had announced plans to withdraw 150,000 more American fighting men from Vietnam by midsummer of 1971. The nation’s campuses, following sporadic flare-ups during the late winter and early spring, seemed to be returning to a measure of calm. Throughout the land, many citizens viewed with satisfaction the Presidents apparent success in “winding down” the war, as the weekly casualty figures continued to decline.

The domestic political climate was thus obviously not one favorable to any increase in American military commitment in Southeast Asia. A stubborn inflation and a worrisome unemployment rate, both widely attributed at least indirectly to the Vietnamese involvement, were of considerable concern to the administration, the Congress, and the public at large. The Presidents policy advisers were optimistic that the nation’s economic ills could be cured, but part of the prescription was the admonition that the patient remain calm and unperturbed. A major divisive event was clearly not desirable.

international political factors

Any nation contemplating the use of military force in a crisis situation cannot fail to consider the international repercussions of its proposed action. Adroit handling of the situation in the United Nations and other international forums during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 has been generally credited with winning widespread approval for the U.S. position. Yet the advisability of seeking prior approval for one’s contemplated actions must be carefully weighed against the loss of the element of surprise resulting from prior consultation. 

A nation engaged in overt hostilities presumably retains a certain degree of freedom in the actions deemed necessary to protect its forces. Yet any action taken which widens the area of conflict or threatens to cause additional powers to join in combat is certainly a matter of international concern. It goes without saying that if the new combatant should be a nuclear power, the concern would mount exponentially.

Resolution of the Crisis

Any effort to reconstruct in detail the thought processes by which the President and his advisers arrived at their decisions on the Cambodian affair is hampered by a lack of first-person accounts. Most of the principals have been naturally reluctant to divulge their attitudes and advice given to the President. He has revealed some of the options he was considering during the last ten days of April, both in his prepared statements on the decision and in answer to questions at press conferences. But the most extensive descriptions of the deliberations have appeared in a very limited number of accounts compiled after the fact from discussions with the principals or members of their staffs. Until recently, at least, the most exhaustive and detailed of these appears to be the article prepared by David R. Maxey for the August 11 issue of Look magazine. The ensuing discussion of the Presidents crisis decision is based on information gleaned from all the aforementioned sources.

In assessing the military considerations, the President naturally leaned heavily on the advice of his military advisers, principally the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the members of the National Security Council (NSC). In his televised speech to the nation on 30 April, the President stated that his decision had been reached after “. . . full consultation with the National Security Council, Ambassador [to South Vietnam] Bunker, General Abrams [commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam] and . . . [his] other advisers. . .”11 According to the President, the existing military situation permitted three options: (1) to “do nothing,” (2) “to provide massive military assistance to Cambodia,” or (3) “to go to the heart of the trouble” by “cleaning out major North Vietnamese and Viet Cong occupied sanctuaries which serve as bases for attacks on both Cambodia and American and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam.” 12 Maxey reports that the NSC meeting of 22 April convinced the President that the expansion of the Cambodian sanctuaries “gave the enemy an in-creased capability of inflicting casualties on U.S. troops in South Vietnam at almost any level they chose” and, further, that the “poor state of training” of the Cambodian army would preclude the effective use of a “massive infusion of U.S. arms aid even if the Administration wanted to send it.”13

With the feasibility of the first two options thus placed in serious doubt, attention was focused on means of accomplishing the third option—a military move from South Vietnam against the sanctuaries. According to Maxeys account, the NSC consensus at the 22 April meeting was in favor of a South Vietnamese operation with U.S. air support.14 Limited operations against Cambodian sanctuaries had occasionally been reported over the preceding two years, with at least tacit Cambodian approval.15 And on 29 March a battalion-size strike against the sanctuaries by South Vietnamese rangers, supported by American helicopter gunships, had been reported by the New York Times.16 Thus there was ample precedent for at least a South Vietnamese incursion against the sanctuaries. It is also probable that a South Vietnamese operation, even one with U.S. air and logistic support, would have proved much more palatable domestically than an operation calling for the employment of U.S. ground forces. Following the NSC meeting, the President ordered detailed planning for a South Vietnamese strike against sanctuaries in the “parrots beak” area of Cambodia, 35 miles west of Saigon.17

The possibility of using U.S. forces in conjunction with the South Vietnamese strike, originally proposed at the 22 April NSC meeting, apparently continued to weigh heavily on the Presidents mind. Besides the Communist forces in the “parrots beak” area, another of their major concentrations was in the “fishhook” area. Reportedly, it contained vast caches of materiel and supplies and was also headquarters for the entire Communist operation, the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). The military advantages of a successful two-pronged thrust to overrun both areas simultaneously were obvious. In addition to the expectation of capturing much greater quantities of weapons and supplies and the hope of disrupting the enemy command and control structure, the “fishhook” operation would deny the enemy the capability of mounting a flanking attack against the single South Vietnamese thrust into the “parrots beak.” But American forces occupied the area adjacent to the “fishhook.” Considerations of timing and tactical warning clearly precluded any major realignment of forces to permit the South Vietnamese to conduct both operations. It was therefore clear that if a thrust against the “fishhook” were to be conducted in conjunction with the “parrots beak” operation, it would have to be performed by U.S. ground forces.

Aside from purely military considerations, a decision to use U.S. ground forces was understood by all concerned to pose far graver domestic political issues than would a purely Vietnamese operation. Even as military planning commenced for a U.S. operation against the “fishhook,” acting on the Presidents orders Dr. Henry Kissinger discussed with a “senior senator” probable Congressional reaction to such a move. In addition, Kissinger is reported to have discussed public reaction with certain members of his staff, who generally felt that

. . . incursions, particularly if they involved American troops, would be a serious escalation of the war, that the domestic response would be explosive, and that the expected results, in terms of enemy supplies captured, would not be worth the risk.18

Extended discussion of the proposed “fishhook” operation, centering on the domestic uproar that it was expected to evoke, took place at another NSC meeting on 26 April. At the conclusion of this meeting the President had apparently still not reached a decision.19

On the following day the President had Dr. Kissinger check with another senator to assess Congressional reaction. One adviser is reported to have warned the President that an American incursion into Cambodia would cause the campuses to “go up in flames.” To this the President reportedly replied, “If I decide to do it, it will be because I have decided to pay the price.” 20

Although international political considerations in this instance appear to have been less critical than in most crises, the probable reactions of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and our own allies were discussed by the President and Dr. Kissinger. Additionally, the possibility of U.S. action in Cambodia was the subject of discussion by Japanese and U.S. academicians at a meeting attended by Dr. Kissinger on the evening of 27 April.21

The weight assigned the facts and opinions gathered from this wide spectrum of sources remains locked in the heart and mind of Richard M. Nixon. By the morning of 28 April he had reached his fateful decision, which was duly conveyed to his closest advisers.22 Planning for the execution of the operation, for the method of its announcement, and for measures to increase public acceptance occupied the President and his advisers up to the moment he appeared before the nations television viewers on 30 April. True to the pledge made to a dissenting aide, in his speech and subsequent statements the President assumed full responsibility for his decision and all its consequences.

Analysis of the Decision

Objections to the President’s decision generally fall into the same categories of analysis as did the considerations which led to the decision: military objections, domestic political objections, and international political objections.

military objections

Criticism of the Presidents move based on purely military considerations quickly appeared from a number of sources. Most of the critics flatly rejected the Presidents contention that the move had been necessitated by the Communists expansion of their sanctuary areas. A Newsweek writer considered the danger “at most, remote.”23 A number of commentators pounced on the apparent disparity between the Presidents statement on 20 April that things were going so well that he could withdraw 150,000 troops and the requirement ten days later to expand the American effort. Writing in the New Republic, Hans Morgenthau opined that the requirement to use U.S. forces proved that Vietnamization was a failure.24 Almost to a man, the critics averred that far from being a response to Communist activities, the move was merely the result of the President’s acceding to demands long expressed by the military that they be allowed to “clean out” the sanctuaries. Sihanouk’s ouster and the subsequent turmoil merely served as the pretext for the long-sought “military victory.” 25

From the administrations point of view, subsequent events proved most of the criticism to be completely invalid. The operation was seen as an almost unparalleled military success. In particular, the performance of the South Vietnamese in most instances exceeded the most optimistic expectations of their American advisers. At the conclusion of the operation on 30 June, President Nixon was able to report to the nation that complete success had been achieved in securing the aims of saving allied lives, assuring the withdrawal of American forces on schedule, enabling Vietnamization to continue as planned, and enhancing the prospects of peace.26

domestic political objections

If most of the military objections seemed laid to rest by the claimed success of the operation, several of the domestic political objections proved more deep-seated and enduring. One of the immediate effects of the Presidents decision was to focus renewed attention on the Constitutional question of the extent of the Presidents authority in committing American forces to combat without consulting Congress. The New Yorker editorialized that “the war in Cambodia was not an emergency. There was time enough to present the matter to Congress for a swift decision.” 27 When subsequently questioned on his reasons for failing to consult Congress prior to his decision, the President justified his action on the requirement to protect American fighting mens lives. He then observed that the Senate had spent seven weeks debating the Cooper-Church amendment before final action; the need for quick action and strategic surprise, in his view, precluded prior official notification of Congress.28

A second broad area of criticism of the President centered on the use (or misuse) he made of his advisers in arriving at his decision. Writing in the New York Times, Robert Semple charged: “The careful decision-making process of the N. S. C. on which the President has normally relied was largely bypassed, as were lower-echelon experts in the Cabinet departments.” 29 Several critics commented on the prominent role played by the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG). The President had formally announced the existence of this body, created for the express purpose of crisis management, in his Report to the Congress of 18 February 1970. He outlined the function of the group as follows:

. . . This group drafts contingency plans for possible crises, integrating the political and military requirements of crisis action . . .While no one can anticipate exactly the timing and course of a possible crisis, the WSAG’S planning helps insure that we have asked the right questions in advance, and thought through the implications of various responses.30

From all accounts, in the Cambodian crisis WSAG functioned precisely in this manner under the direction of Dr. Kissinger, drawing up contingency plans at the President’s direction. Their function was limited exclusively to planning. When questioned at a news conference on 8 May about the influence of others upon his decision, the President made his position quite clear:

. . . after hearing all of their advice, I made the decision. Decisions, of course, are not made by vote in the National Security Council or in the Cabinet. They are made by the President with the advice of those, and I made this decision. I take the responsibility for it. I believe it was the right decision. I believe it will work out. If it doesn’t, then I am to blame. They are not.31

Notwithstanding the President’s avowal that he had fully appreciated the extent and the degree of public reaction to his decision, many critics of the decision doubted that this was the case. Newsweek commented that “. . . the President had gambled his own fortunesand those of his party and his nationon tactics that were perilously unsure of success.”32  Republican leaders were gloomily predicting the destruction of their party, while Democrats fumed and vowed vengeance. Under Secretary of State Elliot L. Richardson confessed that the degree of reaction had been more intense than he personally had expected. 33 But Secretary of State William Rogers reported that a White House poll showed that the American public supported the Presidents action three to one.34 It is perhaps significant that in the 3 November ejections the Republican Party seemed to suffer none of the drastic reversals forecast by some political analysts six months earlier.

international political objections

If certain domestic political objections to the President’s decision remain unresolved, much more so is it the case with international political objections. One common objection was that the Cambodian adventure would surely wreck any chance for a negotiated peace. Against this objection, Under Secretary Richardson proposed the contrary view that weakening the Communists’ logistic base would provide them with an inducement to negotiate that was previously lacking.35

One of the most recurrent objections was the charge that the President’s action failed to consider the fate of the Cambodians. Several critics noted the long-standing enmity between the Cambodians and their Thai and Vietnamese neighbors. An editorial in the New Republic somberly observed that “the prospects for Cambodia seem to be either perpetual internal strife . . . or Cambodia being partitioned between Thailand and Vietnam, the fate the Cambodians have always dreaded.” 36 That traditional Cambodian-Vietnamese enmity did result in excesses on both sides both before and during the operation cannot be denied. Nor is it at all certain that the Lon Nol government could successfully resist, without extensive outside support, a determined Communist effort to capture virtually all of Cambodia.

Any answer to charges of indifference to the fate of Cambodia must be sought within the framework of the Nixon Doctrine. For it is within the context of that doctrine that the entire American policy in Southeast Asia is being pursued. As Vietnamization steadily progresses, the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia will steadily decline. At his news conference of 13 May, Secretary of State Rogers expressed the U.S. position very clearly when he said, “…. the United States has no intention of getting involved in Cambodia with American troops in support of the present government of Cambodia or any other government of Cambodia.”37

In his report to the nation on the Cambodian operation, President Nixon discussed at some length the future of Cambodia. He noted, first, that in accordance with his foreign policy guidelines laid down on Guam, the Cambodians would be expected to exert maximum efforts in their own self-defense. Second, he pointed out that we encourage regional associations for mutual defense. And finally, he specified that we will assist nations and regional organizations only when our participation can make a difference.38 Time magazine summarized the situation succinctly in noting that Cambodia was “….destined to become the first test for the Nixon Doctrine, which encourages Asians to solve Asia’s problems.” 39

 Air War College


1. Stewart Alsop, “The Timing at the Gamble,” Newsweek Times, Vol. 75, May 11, 1970, p. 112.

2. “Mililary HallucinationAgain,”  editorial, New York Times, May 1, 1970, p. 34.

3. “Vietnam: Mr. Nixon’s Quick Fix. . .” editorial, Washington Post, May 2, 1970, p.  A12.

4. Max Ways, “The President Needs One Help Because We Need His,” Fortune, Vol. 81, June 1970, p. 58.

5. “President Nixon’s White Paper on Cambodia,” U.S. News & World Report, Vol. 69, July 13, 1970, p. 83.

6. Stanley Karnow, “Cambodia May Pose Dilemma for Nixons Asian Policy,” Washington Post, March 13, 1970, p. A19.

7. Colonel R. D. Heinl, Jr., “The Problem of Guerrilla Sanctuaries, “ Armed Forces Journal, Vol. 107, April 18, 1970, p. 12.

8. Colonel R. D. Heinl, Jr., “Why Cambodia Action Is Vital,” Armed Forces Journal, Vol. 107, May 16, 1970, p. 18.

9. “President Nixon’s White Paper on Cambodia, ” p. 83.

10. “If Cambodia Falls to RedsWhy Nixon Acted,” U. S. News & World Report, Vol. 68, May 11, 1970, p. 16.

11. “The President’s Speech,” Armed Forces Journal, Special Issues, Vol. 107, May 1, 1970, p. 5.

12. Ibid., p. 6.

13. David R. Maxey, “How Nixon Decided to Invade Cambodia,” Look, Vol. 34, August 11, 1970, p. 23.

14. Ibid.

15. Stanley Karnow, “A Second Indochina War?”  Washington Post, March 22, 1970, p. B1.

16. “The War Overflow,” New York Times, March 29, 1970, p. E5.

17. Maxey, p. 23.

18. Ibid., p. 24.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., p. 25.

23. “Nixon’s Gamble: Operation Total  Victory?”  Newsweek, Vol. 75, May 11, 1970, p. 23.

24. Hans J. Morgenthau, “Saving Face in Indochina:  I—Mr. Nixon’s Gamble,” New Republic, Vol. 162, May 23, 1970, p. 16.

25. Franz Schurmann, “Cambodia: Nixon’s Trap,” Nation, Vol. 210, June 1, 1970, p. 651.

26. “President Nixon’s White Paper on Cambodia,” p. 11.

27. “Notes and Comments,” New Yorker, Vol. 46, May 16, 1970, p. 32.

28. “Congress, Vietnam, Mideast—The  President’s  Appraisal,”  U.S. News & World Report, Vol.  69, July 13, 1970, pp. 20, 21.

29. Robert B. Semple, Jr., “How Nixon Made the Fateful Cambodia Decision,” New York Times, May 10, 1970, p. E2.

30. President Richard Nixon, U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970s: A New Strategy for Peace, A Report to the Congress, Washington, GPO, 1970, pp. 22-23.

31. “President Nixon’s News Conference of May 8,” Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 62, May 25, 1970, p. 645.

32. “Nixon’s Gamble: Operation Total Victory?” p. 23.

33. “Under Secretary Richardson Interviewed on Issues and Answers,’Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 62, June 1, 1970.

34. “Secretary Rogers Discusses Cambodia Action in Interview for Television,” Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 62, May 25, 1970, p. 649.

35. “Under Secretary Richardson Interviewed on Issues and Answers,’ ” p. 682.

36.  “My War, My Way,” New Republic, Vol. 162, June 11, 1970, p. 6.

37. “Secretary Rogers’ News Conference of 13 May,” Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 62, June 1, 1970, p. 676.

38.  “President Nixon’s White Paper on Cambolia,” p. 86.

39. “Cambodia: Struggle for Survival,” Time, Vol. 96, July 13, 1970, p. 22.  


Colonel Russell H. Smith (USMA; M.S., Air Force Institute of Technology) is Chief, Seminar Division, Air War College Associate Program. His career has included assignments as instructor pilot in Air Training Command, tactical fighter pilot, B-47 and B-52 aircraft commander, and deputy commander for operations of an F-4 Wing in South Vietnam. Colonel Smith is a 1971 graduate of Air War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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