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The Year Before Zero: Dean's Controlled Solution - The Death of Throes of Diplomacy

A Cambodian woman with five children apprehensively looks upwards from the shallow bunker as shells from the insurgent forces start falling in the area in the encircled capital of Phnom Penh, in March 1975.
A Cambodian woman with five children apprehensively looks upwards from the shallow bunker as shells from the insurgent forces start falling in the area in the encircled capital of Phnom Penh, in March 1975.

Part Five: The Death of Throes of Diplomacy

Earlier this year, 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. The documents show an increasingly desperate ambassador calling for negotiations that were likely too late, despite terse reprimands from his bosses in Washington and in the face of a collapsing Khmer Republic. This is the fifth in a series of reports on the Dean documents.

With Phnom Penh gasping for supplies and troops, in early 1975, New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg interviewed several refugee families snatched from their besieged town, Neak Loeung, by Khmer Republican forces. They had been rescued by boat on the condition the men fight for the national army. Wearing olive green uniform shirts, their wives and families in tow, the men were uneasy about their new prospects, Schanberg wrote.

“The Government took special steps to prevent the men from deserting,” Schanberg wrote. “When the boats pulled up to the river landing at 11 am, the trucks and officers that were to take them to the training center had not yet arrived, so the boats were kept from unloading for two hours. In the meantime, the military police brought some bread and threw it to the refugee conscripts.”

Such were the defense efforts of Phnom Penh, surrounded by communist insurgents and cut off from supplies by all but airlifts. As the weeks passed, the US chief of mission, Ambassador John Gunther Dean, began to feel the intense heat of his unenviable position. He cabled Washington a status report.

“Being in the kitchen and sitting in the frying pan right on top of the burner, I would like to take a few minutes to give you my assessment of the present situation and how we should proceed as perceived from Phnom Penh,” he wrote.

Dean then sketched for his boss, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the portrait of a ruined city: an undersupplied army led by morale-weakened officers, a collapsing economy plagued by corruption, refugee settlements “wiped out,” prices likely to “spiral upward dramatically,” and anti-government demonstrations imminent. Dean was unhappy that weak attempts by Washington to find a controlled solution had led to nothing in his nearly one year in Cambodia.

“The kind of picture I paint in this message was projected in the Mission’s assessment sent to the Department in four parts last June,” he wrote. “We concluded at that time that a political solution must be found to the Cambodian dilemma as soon as possible. The obvious conclusion remains that, while we will try to do our best here to maintain some form of stability in the military-political-economic-social field, we are heading towards a debacle unless a political solution can be found rapidly.”

The Americans were failing the Cambodians, Dean wrote in another cable.

“I must state very frankly that the Khmers of this side are waiting, and waiting desperately, for us to get involved…. What they must be wondering is what is holding us back?” he wrote. “They certainly are not holding us back, and if they are not, who or what is? I must say I do not have the answers to these questions.”

Dean’s argument still centered on reaching Prince Norodom Sihanouk, in exile in Beijing and the theoretical head of a government in exile for the Khmer communists and monarchists. Dean’s continuous cables were not well received. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger finally warned Dean to stop.

“As a friend, I want to give you my very personal reactions to your latest messages on how to proceed with negotiations,” Eagleburger wrote. “In utterly frank terms, these messages are seen here as confirmation that your interest in negotiations has now become an obsession. I must tell you that such cables are increasingly counterproductive.”

Eagleburger cautioned Dean that Washington had tried every channel to reach Sihanouk. He reminded the ambassador that the strong military position of the communists, who saw themselves “on the verge of victory,” meant they would not negotiate, and that Sihanouk “will not or cannot assert himself in this matter.”

“I therefore strongly suggest that you recognize that no useful purpose can be served by continued harping on the question of negotiations,” Eagleburger wrote. “Your cables cannot by themselves bring Sihanouk back, nor do they suggest any line that has not already been pursued. What they do suggest…is an attempt to build a record of your own perspicacity. I know this is not the case, nor would it be necessary in any event, since no one has any intention of leaving you holding the bag.”

His bosses were concerned Dean’s obsession was distracting him from his primary mission: “to bend every effort to keep the [Republic] together.” They also worried his repeated calls for negotiation could “rattle” the Cambodians “and increase their despair.”

Dean’s relationship with policymakers in Washington, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was deteriorating. Several weeks before Eagleburger’s reprimand, a disgruntled Dean wrote Washington to say that the US had a moral obligation to find a solution for Cambodia. Washington’s refusal to do so, he said, would be enough for his resignation, if things weren’t so bad in the war-ravaged country.

“When an ambassador is at odds with the policy pursued by the Department, it is customary under normal circumstances for him to submit his resignation,” Dean wrote. “These are not normal circumstances and such an act might be misinterpreted as a desire on my part to get out. As a disciplined foreign service officer, I will therefore desist from such action at this time.”

Dean’s letter would serve as a registry of his “profound disagreement” with the State Department’s reasoning: “that developments will have occurred [later] in the US or in Cambodia which will shed a kind light on our five-year effort in Cambodia.”

By the time he wrote these words, the chance for a controlled solution was evaporating. Sihanouk no longer had any power to broker, even if Washington could reach him, which, for whatever reason, it had not done. The communists were sure of victory and would never negotiate. By April 10, they’d broken the capital’s defenses, and the following day Dean led his people away by helicopter, famously draping the US flag over his arm, to prevent anyone burning it.

On April 11, at 9:07 am in Washington, the men who Dean worried had not worked hard enough for a solution, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his subordinate, Philip Habib, spoke by phone of the US evacuation, codenamed Eagle Pull. Habib told Kissinger Eagle Pull could not be delayed.

“[The insurgents are] very, very close in,” he said. “And the final thing is that if the Cambodians still want to do what we’ve opened the door for them to do with Sihanouk, they can do it without our presence now, because we’ve passed all the messages that we need to pass.”

“OK,” Kissinger replied. “It’s not a proud day, but we did the best we could.”

Dean left Cambodia for Bangkok feeling “terrible sadness,” convinced that Americans “didn’t live up to our responsibilities and our promises.” No negotiations ever took place. A dark curtain fell over the small Buddhist country, and even 30 years later Dean would insist that more could have been done. The last Phnom Penh heard of the ambassador and his hopes for a controlled solution were the dull thuds of helicopter rotors, as America left Cambodia to its fate.