74. Memorandum of Conversation0



New York, September 19–24, 1961


  • US
    • The President
    • Ambassador Trimble
    • Mr. John M. Steeves, Deputy Assistant Secretary, FE
    • Ambassador Stevenson joined at 4:30
  • Cambodia
    • His Royal Highness Prince Norodom Sihanouk
    • Foreign Minister Nhiek Tioulong Ambassador Nong Kimny


  • Security in Southeast Asia

After the opening felicitations, the Prince presented to the President a miniature carving of a buddha—a miniature but fine example of Angkor carving from the thirteenth century.

The President took the initiative in raising the subject of security in Southeast Asia and the dangerous situation in Laos. He pointed out to the Prince that we were seeking his advice. Cambodia’s geographic location and the Prince’s obvious resultant concern, plus the great efforts he had already put forth, made his advice of great value to us. He reminded the Prince that in Vienna he was pleased to be able to point to the neutrality of Cambodia as an example of that which we would be willing to accept in Laos in our search for a definition of neutrality which both we and the communist bloc could accept.1

The President outlined the efforts we had made to prove to all concerned that we were genuinely interested in a neutral Laos. He referred to the efforts made by the British and the French in their approaches to Souvanna Phouma and then referred in some detail to the purpose of the [Page 163] The President asked the Prince what he would do in view of the situation. Would he accept Souvanna Phouma’s word that these people would follow a neutral policy? Would he be able to keep the country from going completely communist and would we be taking too great a chance in accepting Souvanna Phouma’s assurances? The Prince did not answer the question directly, but wistfully opined that the only hope might be that once in the government under Souvanna’s leadership, they might be able to separate themselves from complete communist domination.

The President asked the Prince what his own estimate of Souvanna Phouma was. The Prince smilingly said that Souvanna Phouma was his friend, that he had attempted to do everything he possibly could to work with Souvanna Phouma, but that even when Souvanna had stayed in Phnom Penh he had not come to the Prince for advice, but that his association was with people like Ambassador Abramov. These were the people that he took his counsel from. He therefore felt that Souvanna Phouma had committed himself very far to communist support.

In commenting on Cambodia as an example of the type of neutral state we desired for Laos, the Prince restated his often-described conviction that there is a great difference between Cambodia and Laos. The Cambodians have been led to feel a dedicated loyalty to their own King and country and that this was the means that he had utilized in cementing the people of his country together. This, unfortunately, was not true in Laos and the conditions did not exist at present to make it so.

Turning again to the security situation in Laos, the President said that he had been doing some thinking and had talked to the Secretary of [Page 164] State about the possibility of enlarging the ICC to include representatives from Cambodia and Burma in order that people from the area might serve with the ICC in helping to identify the Viet Minh and communist elements from the north serving with the Pathet Lao and Souvanna Phouma forces. In the withdrawal of all foreign forces, we were working at a distinct disadvantage as compared with the Viet Minh for anybody could recognize us, whereas the physical characteristics of the Viet Minh made it possible for them to merge with the Lao. The Prince admitted that it was even difficult for Cambodians to recognize the difference, but admitted that they probably could be very helpful and would indeed be willing to serve in any helpful capacity if they were invited. The Prince, however, reminded the President that the Russians and Chinese would probably not be very happy with Cambodia and Burma serving in this capacity.

During the course of the conversation, the Prince expressed appreciation for the President’s speech to the General Assembly. His support for proper controls in any meaningful disarmament formula and his strong support for a properly constituted and equipped ICC were very much appreciated. The Prince said that while he was not present in the General Assembly during the President’s speech, he had watched it on TV and thought “it was a very good speech.”

During the discussion considerable time was given to the unsatisfactory relations between Cambodia and Viet-Nam. On being invited to explain some of their outstanding problems, the Prince recounted in great detail the points of friction between Cambodia and Viet-Nam. He referred, first of all, to the 600,000 Cambodians who were resident in Viet-Nam who were not accorded the normal freedoms, such as use of their own language, to be able to use their own script in writing and the denial of the right of Cambodian schools for their children. This particular minority was always blamed for harboring Viet Cong rebels. This led to a discussion of the troubled border situation between the two countries. The Viet Minh not only were invading South Viet-Nam, but occasionally made sorties into Cambodia as well. The Prince pointed out that some of his own forces had been killed recently in meeting a Viet Minh invasion. He pointed out that Cambodia was very vigilant with respect to its security and that it did not allow its territory to be used as a refuge for those escaping from Viet-Nam. He said there was absolutely no truth to the Vietnamese accusation that he assisted the rebels in making trouble in Viet-Nam.

The President asked him his opinion of the Ho Chi Minh trail. How much it was used. Where it came from and where it went. The Prince was not able to give any exact figures, but said that it had traditionally been the artery of communication between North Viet-Nam and the south. Here again he reminded the President that while Viet-Nam said that one [Page 165] branch of the Ho Chi Minh trail came into Cambodia, this was really not true.

He pointed out that Viet-Nam was continuously claiming islands offshore from Cambodia which had traditionally been part of Cambodia, even during the French period. In response to the President’s further search for ways to bring about better relations between Viet-Nam and Cambodia, the Prince said that he wanted this very much. Part of the difficulty stemmed from old historical reasons—Viet-Nam once being a part of Cambodia. Nevertheless, he was willing to do anything reasonable. He said that the Secretary of State had reminded him that while we were talking about summit meetings, it might be a good thing to have a summit meeting between the Thais, Cambodians and Vietnamese, and he agreed.

The President asked his frank opinion as to what was wrong in Viet-Nam. The Prince stated that in his opinion the situation in Viet-Nam would never become stable until the regime could gain popular support. Diem had not achieved this. He was not in touch with his people. The people throughout the country were not loyal. At one point Ambassador Stevenson asked the Prince if he thought that under these circumstances Viet-Nam could survive, and the Prince said he thought it could, but largely because of our support rather than for any indigenous reason.

At this point in the conversation, the President had stepped out for a moment and on returning put a question squarely to the Prince with respect to the security of Laos. He said that while we were seeking an understanding with Souvanna Phouma and attempting to work out an agreement with the communists, there was a real danger that with the coming of the dry season hostilities would break out in Laos. If such took place we would have to think of other alternatives and SEATO might have to act. He wanted to know what the Prince thought of this possibility.

The Prince was very categoric in his reply, saying that SEATO intervention would be very bad. He felt that SEATO involvement would trigger retaliation from the Chinese and that all of Southeast Asia would be overrun by the Chinese and the north Viet Minh. He said that if the people of these countries were not willing to fight for their own integrity as his people were willing to do in Cambodia and as, he believed, the Thais would in Thailand, foreign protection through an organization like SEATO could not accomplish it either. Although he was pressed for an answer to the obviously difficult question as to how a small country like Cambodia, no matter how loyal her people may be, could stand up against communist armies that far outnumber them, he had no ready answer, but merely responded by saying that he thought the communists would not go that far. He said the type of help they wanted from the outside was what we were giving them now. He was grateful for our support [Page 166] to his army, for the equipment and for the training. We were doing the same for Viet-Nam and Thailand. He had a small army. Viet-Nam and Thailand had much larger ones, but that the only support from the outside which they should get was material assistance and not alliances.

Throughout the entire conversation, the Prince was most forthcoming, obviously appreciated the President’s deep interest in his opinion and the conversation ended on a most cordial note. There was no mention of any other problem or matters associated with the United Nations, the talks being entirely confined to Southeast Asia.

On parting the President told the Prince that he was looking forward to seeing him some time next year during his state visit to the United States. The Prince thanked the President very cordially.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Cambodia, 9/24/61–10/23/61. Secret. Drafted by Steeves. The meeting was held in the Hotel Carlyle. President Kennedy was in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly. The text of the President’s speech is in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961, pp. 618–626.
  2. The President is referring to his discussions with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the June 3–4 Vienna summit. For the discussion of Laos and Southeast Asia at Vienna, see vol. XXIV, pp. 225236.