76. Memorandum From Robert H. Johnson of the National Security Council Staff to the, President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)0


  • Cambodia’s Dispute with its Neighbors

I. The Sequence of Events

1. The differences of Cambodia with Thailand and South Viet Nam are age old. Since differences between Cambodia and Thailand were mediated at the UN last year and a question of the disputed ownership of a temple on the Thai-Cambodian border has been referred to the World Court, relations between the two countries had gradually improved. This improvement was facilitated by the fact that Sihanouk appeared in recent months to recognize increasingly the danger that Communist activities in Southeast Asia pose to continued Cambodian independence. On the other hand, Sihanouk tends to view Communism as an inevitable wave of the future in Southeast Asia.

2. There has been continuing difficulty, of course, between Cambodia and Viet Nam over the use of Cambodian territory as a safe haven for the Viet Cong.

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3. The immediate cause of the difficulty between Thailand and Cambodia was a press report from Tokyo alleging that Sihanouk had stated that Cambodia was more likely to have to use its arms against its neighbors than it was against Communist countries.1 It has been established that Sihanouk was actually mis-quoted, and said only that Cambodia was menaced at present more by its, neighbors than by the Communists.

4. Sarit, who had apparently become increasingly annoyed with Sihanouk, took the excuse provided by the Japanese press report to make a speech denouncing Cambodia.2 This led to the break in relations.

5. Since the break in relations, we have been engaged in an effort through local diplomatic representatives and the Cambodian Ambassador to cool down the dispute and to make use of the Norwegian representative at the UN,3 who mediated differences between Thailand and Cambodia a year ago, to again undertake mediation.

6. The cause of the latest flap was a speech last week by Sihanouk in which he referred to the U.S. in insulting terms (as “stupid”) and revived the old allegations that the U.S. was using Thailand and Viet Nam in an effort to overturn him.4 He threatened to turn to the Bloc for help. [2–1/2 lines of source text not declassified] Given Sihanouk’s sensitivity [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] his behavior is, in a psychological sense, understandable. [1–1/2 lines of source text not declassified] He is also terribly sensitive to critical commentary in the U.S. press.

7. The Secretary on the 28th called in the Cambodian Ambassador for an explanation of Sihanouk’s speech (telegram is attached).5 There is a feeling in the FE Bureau that this may have done more harm than good. It is most difficult for Sihanouk to accept the loss of face that would be involved. He has given our embassy an explanation which blames part of the difficulty on faulty translation and the impromptu character of the speech.

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8. McConaughy yesterday saw the Ambassador again to attempt to smooth over riffled feelings (telegram attached).6 Meanwhile, our Ambassador has suggested a follow-up talk with Sihanouk, perhaps with an indication he is speaking for the President. The SEA Office believes quite strongly that we would be better off letting the situation cool off for the moment and wait for the Cambodian Ambassador’s answer to the question that was put to him—whether there had been a change in basic Cambodian policy. If the answer to that question is favorable, a conciliatory Presidential message, perhaps in connection with Cambodia’s National Day, might be desirable.

II. Recommendation

9. I very much agree, on the basis of the brief study I have been able to give the problem, that a Presidential approach would not be desirable at this time. Given Sihanouk’s present state of mind it could produce a rebuff which would create a much more serious situation.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Cambodia, 10/29/61–10/31/61. Top Secret.
  2. In the Times of Japan, October 8, as reported in telegram 1277 from Tokyo, October 24. (Department of State, Central Files, 651H.00/10–2461)
  3. Sarit’s speech was one of a number of remarks by Thai officials critical of Sihanouk. Telegram 615 from Bangkok, October 27, contains a summary of them. (Ibid., 651H.92/10–2761)
  4. Norwegian Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Hans Kristian Engen.
  5. A translated text of this speech, made at Kompong Speu Middle School on October 26, is in telegram 312 from Phnom Penh, October 27. Sihanouk’s characterization of the United States reads in part: “The U.S. is too stupid; they try to buy other people with money, but they have always failed. This is because they are stupid and are cheated by such as Sarit and Diem.” (Department of State, Central Files, 651H.92/10–2761)
  6. As reported in a memorandum of conversation, October 28. (Ibid., 611.51H/10–2861) A copy of the speech was not attached, but see footnote 4 above.
  7. As reported in a memorandum of conversation, October 30. (Department of State, Central Files, 611.51H/10–3061) An account of this discussion was sent to the Embassy in telegram 388 to Phnom Penh, October 30. (Ibid., 75H.11/10–3061)