Accessibility links

Breaking News

Q&A with William J. Rust, author of “Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War”

The cover of the book “Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War.” (Photo provided by William J. Rust)
The cover of the book “Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War.” (Photo provided by William J. Rust)

A central focus of the book is on covert US involvement in the intriguing and little-known plot by a military commander, Dap Chhuon, against Cambodia’s then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Editor’s note: William J. Rust is one of the foremost researchers specialized in US relations with Southeast Asian nations. His recently published book looks closely at American policy toward Cambodia during the U.S. presidential administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower during the years 1953-1961. Titled “Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War”, Rust’s book deals primarily with the Eisenhower administration and its relationship with Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk. A central focus of the book is on covert US involvement in the intriguing and little-known plot by a military commander, Dap Chhuon, against Cambodia’s then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Born in Washington DC and currently living in East Otis, MA., Rust is a writer, editor and communications consultant. He was a researcher with the book division of US News and World Report where he contributed articles on the Vietnam War. He has published four books on US relations with countries in Southeast Asia and is currently writing a fifth about US relations with Indonesia.

William J. Rust’s recently published book entitled “Eisenhower and Cambodia” examines secret U.S. Attempts in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower to interfere in internal Cambodian politics. (Photo: Kristin Coffey)
William J. Rust’s recently published book entitled “Eisenhower and Cambodia” examines secret U.S. Attempts in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower to interfere in internal Cambodian politics. (Photo: Kristin Coffey)

In a recent phone interview with VOA Khmer’s Sopheada Phy, Rust explained why the Eisenhower administration was covertly involved in the Dap Chhuon affair, and how relations between the US and Cambodia were significantly damaged as a result. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eisenhower and Cambodia - What is the book mainly about?

The book is mainly about the formulation and execution of US policy toward Cambodia during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Essentially, it is history of US relations with King, and later Prince, Norodom Sihanouk between 1953 and 1961. The book also has an epilogue that covers US relations with Cambodia during the administration of John F. Kennedy. During the 1950s and early 1960s, there were many significant events in Cambodian history, including Sihanouk’s crusade for independence in 1953, the Geneva Conference in 1954, Cambodia’s declaration of neutrality in 1955, and Cambodia’s troubled relations with its US-backed neighbors, South Vietnam and Thailand. The book devotes a great deal of attention to the plots against Sihanouk and his eventual decision to kick out American military and civilian advisors.

What are a few of the important issues discussed in the book?

Basically, the book examines the Eisenhower administration’s inability to find common ground with Sihanouk, who was at least initially pro-Western in his political orientation. I pay particular attention to US relations with anti-communist Cambodian dissidents plotting against Sihanouk, and with their patrons in South Vietnam and Thailand. In 1959, American relations with the Prince were severely damaged by the exposure of CIA involvement with Dap Chhuon and his unsuccessful plot to overthrow Sihanouk. Cambodia’s relations with the Americans were severely damaged by the failure of the United States to provide any explanation for agency operative Victor Matsui’s contact with the rebels.

Was the plot against Sihanouk at that time conducted secretly by the US government?

Yes, I believe so. For much of Eisenhower’s presidency, national security policy provided explicit guidance for encouraging anti-Sihanouk groups and individuals. From the Eisenhower administration’s point of view, the basic problem with Sihanouk was his indifference to the global ideological struggle between the so-called communist bloc and the Free World. Sihanouk, however, said that he wanted to stay out of the fight between two elephants—the United States and the Soviet Union. The US government tended to look at all international relations through the Cold War perspective of being for the West or the communist bloc.

Neutrality, particularly in Southeast Asia, was very troubling to the United States. It was disturbing to the US government when Sihanouk established diplomatic relations with China in 1958. In the 1950s, non-recognition of China was the cornerstone of US policy in the Far East. When Sihanouk in Cambodia and Souvanna Phouma in Laos tried to come to an understanding with their giant neighbor [China], US officials were upset.

When talking about the plots against Sihanouk, you have to talk about his relations with South Vietnam and Thailand, which were not good in this period. I think part of the problem was the personalities of the leaders and part of it dated back to clashes among the Khmer, Siamese, and Vietnamese empires in Southeast Asia. The relations between Cambodia, Thailand, and South Vietnam were worsened by arbitrary boundaries established by the French in Indochina during the colonial era. The United States, however, paid little attention to historical antagonisms and focused almost exclusively on the fight against communism. The Americans were not terribly sympathetic to Sihanouk’s concerns about the threats from his anti-communist neighbors.

In 1956, when Sihanouk first visited China and decided to establish economic and cultural relations with that country, Siem Reap regional military commander Dap Chhuon approached the US ambassador and said he was going to resist the Prince’s policy of getting along with China. He [Dap Chhuon] was anti-communist, and he was prepared to take forceful measures against Sihanouk. At that time, in 1956, the United States did not back Dap Chhuon, correctly assuming that he really didn’t have much political support and that it would probably make matters worse if he tried to launch a coup.

But, that changed later in the decade. In 1958, Sihanouk agreed to establish diplomatic relations with China, which deeply disturbed the United States as well as Thailand and South Vietnam. The Thai and the South Vietnamese were willing to work together to overthrow Sihanouk and to provide support for the Khmer Serei, the armed Cambodian dissidents who operated from bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. Then there is the issue of CIA involvement in plotting against Sihanouk.

Up to now, there have been two narratives about the CIA’s role in the Dap Chhuon coup. One, which I called the covert story, is that CIA operative Victor Matsui merely reported on Dap Chhuon’s activities and that the US government tried to stop his plot against Sihanouk. There is a second narrative, which my book provides evidence for and which I find much more persuasive: The United States played an active role in the Dap Chhuon conspiracy, but unsuccessfully tried to pull the plug on the coup at the last minute. The evidence supporting this conclusion includes documents from the US National Archives and statements from such credible sources as the US ambassador to Cambodia, a CIA case officer in Phnom Penh, and a recorded conversation between President Kennedy and Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman.

Why did Sihanouk establish relations with communist China during that time?

The evidence indicates that he [Sihanouk] was trying to maintain a balance between the West and the communists. He wanted to have good relation with the United States, which was underwriting all the cost of his army, and at the same time, he felt he couldn’t ignore his massive neighbor to the North, China, which loomed so large over Southeast Asia. He didn’t want to antagonize the Chinese communists.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Sihanouk had no tolerance for domestic Khmer communists, and he tried very hard to suppress them. The United States paid little attention to this fact. Eventually, after the collapse of the Dap Chhuon coup, Eisenhower administration officials concluded that it was really counterproductive to plot against Sihanouk, and they tried to figure out a way to get along with him, but that proved to be very difficult.

Why was the United States disturbed that Sihanouk was dealing with China?

You have to go back to the early years of the Cold War and the US view of it. The activities of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s - the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, for example - the successful test of the Soviet atomic bomb, and perhaps most important of all, the success of Mao Tse-tung’s communist revolution in China produced the policy of non-recognition of China. In the eyes of virtually all US officials in the 1950s, China was an outlaw state, and non-recognition of China was fundamental to US policy. A related aspect of US policy was that the conviction that neutral countries were utterly naïve and vulnerable to communist takeovers. American officials also bristled at the moral equivalence implied by Sihanouk’s foreign policy of neutrality. Finally, the US government at this time acted as if the Kremlin ran an efficient, vertically integrated global communist conspiracy with wholly owned subsidiaries in Beijing, Hanoi, and elsewhere, and they paid little attention to national differences that would prove stronger than ideology.

The Red Army in Europe and Soviet nuclear capabilities, these were very scary realities for the United States and worthy of all the sustained national security attention they received. What US officials failed to recognize—or at least failed to act upon—was the fact that communists in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were not controlled by Moscow, and that they operated with considerable autonomy. In other words, the United States failed to see that the threats posed by the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and indigenous communist movements throughout Southeast Asia as related, but distinct phenomena, each with its own dynamics, strengths and limitations. This monolithic, one-size-fits-all view of communism led US officials to the dubious conclusion that Indochina was strategically significant to US national security, which turned out to be untrue.

If Sihanouk had agreed to US support to counter communist North Vietnam during that time, what would have been the result?

I’m not very good at speculative history—getting the facts straight is hard enough. You know, Souvanna Phouma in Laos had a lot of problems with the United States in the 1950s and ended up supporting the Americans. That didn’t change the outcome of the Vietnam War or the outcome of communist rule in Laos. I would flip your question and suggest that greater US tolerance for Cambodian and Laotian neutrality would have been better for everyone. Instead of trying to undermine Sihanouk, instead of engaging in plots against him, instead of trying to elevate anti-communists, the United States could have told him: We don’t think neutrality is going to work; we think this policy is naïve, but we’re going to support you in it. I think that there would have been a great deal more international support for a truly neutral Cambodia and Laos if the United States had actively supported neutral leaders there rather than try to overthrow them, which only benefitted the communists.

If Sihanouk had agreed to United States’ support, North Vietnamese troops would have had no access into Cambodia to fight South Vietnam. What do you think about that argument?

Again, I prefer not to engage in speculative history. Interdicting North Vietnamese troops traveling along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia proved to be very difficult for the United States. To win the Vietnam War, the United States would have had to use overwhelming force and occupied virtually all of Vietnam. If the United States had signed and abided by the terms of 1954 Geneva Agreement, the Vietnamese communists would have still won the war but with a lot less loss of life among Southeast Asians and Americans.

If North Vietnamese troops had not had access into Cambodia through the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the United States had been backed by Sihanouk, would the result of the Vietnam War have turned out different way?

The existence of the Ho Chi Minh Trail made it almost impossible for the United States to win the war in Vietnam. To really shut down the trail, at least in the view of some top US military and civilian officials, the United States would have to invade North Vietnam and sever the trail at its source. Such an operation was unacceptable to both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Do you think the United States was partly responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia?

I think that the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia by both the Vietnamese communists and the Americans were partly responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leadership were responsible for the Cambodian genocide.

My main research interest or main contribution in this book is trying to understand how and why the United States became involved in what most Americans called the Vietnam War, what most historians called the second Indochina War. Although Vietnam was the main focus of many Americans, understanding what happened in Cambodia and Laos are essential to any meaningful understanding of the war.