Part One: Failure of Control
In 2007, John Gunther Dean, the last US ambassador to Cambodia before it fell to the Khmer communists in 1975, turned over thousands of documents to the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, Georgia, part of the US National Archives. In the papers, Dean outlines his views on a controlled solution to the civil war. His efforts failed, he says, because Washington didn’t listen. Dean today says that America's failure in Cambodia 40 years ago holds lessons for today's policy-makers. This is the first in a series of VOA Khmer reports on the Dean documents and the final year of the Khmer Republic. It is being reissued for the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh, in April 1975.
By February 1975, the situation in Phnom Penh was dire. Communist insurgents controlled nearly all the Cambodian countryside. Daily shelling of the capital spread fear and discontent through the populace.
The national army was in tatters. The communists had launched a spirited dry-season offensive that had blocked the Mekong River, strangling the capital. From the Royal Palace, you could see the tops of submerged ships, sunk by communists dug in along the banks. The short-lived Khmer Republic, it seemed, was nearly as sunk.
At the US Embassy, a beleaguered ambassador, John Gunther Dean, furiously cabled his boss in Washington, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He was concerned, Dean wrote, that Cambodia could wait no longer, not for the end of the dry season campaign, and not for a decision by Congress on funding for Cambodia. The communists had to be negotiated with, immediately. Deans words were urgent, terse for a diplomatic telegram, and outlined frustration that had been brewing for months.
“To be blunt, we are wasting time,” Dean wrote. “In my major assessment last June, I made clear that time was working against us. In September, I thought I had convinced everyone concerned that we would never again be in a stronger position than we were then, and it would all be downhill thereafter. Now it is February and these predictions have been borne out by events.”
Though sharper in tone, the missive was similar in content to those the ambassador had sent, repeatedly, since arriving eight months earlier, a fresh head of mission thrown into an impending disaster. A first-time ambassador, Dean wanted to bring Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then in Beijing and sinecure head of a coalition with the Khmer communists, into negotiations with the Khmer Republic, led by the US-backed marshal and president, Lon Nol. Dean wanted Washington to pursue every channel available to bring the communists into a coalition with the Republic and its standing army, religious leadership and other assets. The dwindling power of the Republic, Dean thought, would countervail the rising power of the communists. He called this his “controlled solution” and warned that an uncontrolled solution would lead to a disaster for Cambodia’s seven million civilians.
For months, Dean had pushed for and clamored for a controlled solution. By February, Kissinger was tired of the crusade. The communists were stonewalling negotiations, seeking instead a takeover by force, and Sihanouk was incapable now of bringing a settlement, Kissinger wrote Dean. Kissinger also assailed the ambassador.
“We are continuing to work on this matter through the various means open to us,” Kissinger wrote. “You will be kept informed when it is necessary for you to take some action. In the meantime, you should resist the urge to read the department the lectures contained in the [telegram].”
More than 30 years later, Dean, now retired in Paris, still wishes his “lectures” would have registered. And even if they didn’t back then, he said, maybe the lessons of the failed diplomacy to settle Cambodia’s civil war will have an impact on today’s statesmen. In an interview with VOA Khmer following the hand-over of a collection of documents in April 2007, Dean urged today’s policymakers to pursue compromise and avoid unnecessary bloodshed and unsustainable financial expense as America fights two ongoing wars.
“If we want to extricate ourselves from Iraq, we must find a solution which may not be a good one, but will not be a tragedy or lead to a great deal of carnage and fighting,” Dean said. “And the only way you can do that is not military but by sitting down and talking with people.”
Not only should the US have tried harder to negotiate, but it should not have completely withdrawn from Cambodia, a move that led to a catastrophe, Dean says.
“The lesson of Cambodia is: you have responsibility which doesn’t end when your troops leave. You cannot just pull out,” he said.
Dean’s documents highlight a nearly unique rebellious attitude from a junior ambassador for that period, as Dean took Kissinger, one of the most powerful figures in the US government, to task for his failure to reach out to Sihanouk and the communists a year earlier.
Kenton Clymer is chair of the history department at Northern Illinois University and the author of the soon-to-be released “Troubled Relations: the United States and Cambodia Since 1870.”
“I mean, I’ve looked at a lot of different diplomatic correspondence in my time, and I haven’t seen quite that level of antagonism before,” Clymer said. Dean “was ready to resign, as he says, and if things had not been so urgent in Cambodia, he said he would have resigned because he had such fundamental differences with Kissinger.”
Clymer takes a favorable view of Dean’s attempts to bring what the ambassador called a “controlled solution” to the Cambodia crisis, which began as soon as he arrived, while Washington found it easier to continue the course of backing the troubled Lon Nol and rebuffed Sihanouk’s overtures for talks.
“I think he was very courageous, to stand up to the powers that be,” Clymer said. “Not easy to stand up to Kissinger, I wouldn’t think.”
In the wet season of 1974, Dean did stand up to Kissinger. He thought the Khmer Republic would hold back the insurgents. But the communists were closing in, and no negotiations were in sight. With the end of the rainy season would come a vicious offensive by the communists that would signal the beginning of the end of the Republic. But the ambassador never gave up on his controlled solution, pursuing it nearly to his last day, when the US mission evacuated Phnom Penh, less than a week before Day One, Year Zero.