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The Year Before Zero: Dean’s Controlled Solution - ‘Internationalization’

A Khmer Rouge rebel frisks a civilian in downtown Phnom Penh hours after the rebel forces led by Pol Pot took control of the Cambodian capital April 17, 1975.
A Khmer Rouge rebel frisks a civilian in downtown Phnom Penh hours after the rebel forces led by Pol Pot took control of the Cambodian capital April 17, 1975.

Part Three: ‘Internationalization’

In May, John Gunther Dean, the last US ambassador to Cambodia before it fell to the Khmer communists, turned over thousands of documents to the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, Ga., part of the US National Archives. In part, the documents show the ambassador’s attempts for a controlled solution to the deteriorating Cambodian conflict, including a plan he called the “internationalization” of the Cambodian problem. This plan, he hoped, would bring an end to the conflict and prevent a one-sided, unchecked takeover by the Khmer communists. This is the third in a series of reports on the Dean documents.

By September, the communists controlled 75 percent of the country, with their eyes ever on Phnom Penh. In the capital, you’d be playing tennis and the rockets would crackle over the courts. At night, you might go to the cinema, but it was dangerous; communist agents had begun planting bombs around town. By then, a rumor was circulating among the population that Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the head of state of the Government Royal d’Union Nationale de Kampuchea, which included the communists, was negotiating with the Khmer Republic for a ceasefire.

In fact, the US administration was considering a Cambodian peace conference, in part thanks to ideas put forward by a fresh ambassador in Phnom Penh, John Gunther Dean. After discussions with the ambassador, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Philip Habib, drafted a secret “action memorandum” for a peace conference and sent it to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

“Purpose of proposal: primarily to achieve a ceasefire linked to a political settlement through the early holding of an international conference,” Habib wrote. “The basic rationale is that if we let matters take their present course, the trends in Cambodia, the US and Vietnam will combine to produce an unraveling of the [Khmer Republic] and a more serious setback to US interests than the compromises that will inevitably have to be made under this proposal.”

A peace conference would “remove the danger of a challenge to the Khmer [Republic] credentials” at the UN’s General Assembly meeting later in the year, he wrote. In that meeting, the legitimate seat of the government would be decided between President Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic and Sihanouk’s Royal Government. The previous year had seen the Republic win a seat at the UN in a 53 to 50 vote. Diplomats were guessing the Republic this year would “barely squeak through,” the New York Times reported, but no one was sure.

A peace conference would also “move ahead of the growing Congressional opposition to US assistance to Cambodia and to obtain, in contrast, its support for this peace effort,” Habib wrote.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had prepared a bill for a $347 million aid cap for the following year, $200 million less than the administration of President Gerald Ford had requested. Without money to prop up the Republic, many assumed it could not survive.

An international conference could be pursued, Habib wrote, first by including the Chinese. The US would not oppose Sihanouk in a key role. US military assistance to Cambodia would not be necessary, but the US would contribute to reconstruction. Lon Nol and other leaders could step aside, if absolutely necessary. If the Chinese agreed, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union would be approached, to create a “bandwagon effect” the North Vietnamese might jump on, “if they are to be invited.” The plan could include the UN secretary-general.

Even if no solution emerged at a conference, the US would be prepared to announce its efforts and endorse participation in a government by all sides, Habib wrote.

“In this declaration, we should make the points that we were, and are, prepared to accept and support the results of the conference, including the participation in a Cambodian government by all factions and that the US will be prepared to assist in the reconstruction of a peaceful Cambodia,” he wrote. The US would accept “any reasonable compromise which would establish peace and a relative political balance between the two sides, as well as among the Great Powers. The return of Sihanouk to a position of importance would be acceptable, as would the departure of Lon Nol.”

In Phnom Penh, Dean understood well the implications of such a conference, what he called the “internationalization” of the crisis.

“I believe that an international conference is the only course left to us to achieve a ‘controlled’ solution to the Khmer problem,” Dean wrote Habib on Sept. 13. “If no conference is held or no solution is found, then we must be prepared for an ‘uncontrolled’ denouement to the Khmer drama as US military and economic funds run out, the US mission is withdrawn and the [Republic] and [national army] disintegrate. Under the latter circumstances, a bloodbath cannot be ruled out.”

Syndey Schanberg, writing for the New York Times, summed up the ongoing war in story that ran Sept. 8.

“By the lowest possible estimates, more than 300 Cambodians are killed or wounded every day,” he wrote. “So far 600,000 Cambodians have become casualty statistics, nearly one-tenth of the country’s population of 7 million…. Both sides are now equipped with a greater abundance of lethal instruments than before, and the fighting is intense…. Nearly half the people of Cambodia are now refugees…. And yet there is no discernable motion toward peace talks.”

In the end, no international conference took place. The violence dragged on. When the rains stopped, the Khmer communists would be ready for a heavy offensive that would rattle the resolve of the Republican army—though not Dean.