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


  • The Cambodian Situation

Attached are the principal recent messages bearing on the Cambodian situation.1 The view that emerges from the messages from Bangkok [Page 170] and London is that Sihanouk’s outbursts are part of a carefully calculated strategy. The theories range from the view that he is seeking an accommodation with the Communists because he believes that the U.S. is not going to protect SEA against the Communists to the hypothesis that he is seeking to scare SEATO off from introducing forces into Viet Nam because he fears that SEATO contemplates actions that will compromise Cambodian neutrality.

The FE Bureau is of the view that his statements are not part of some carefully conceived plot or strategy, but a typical [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] reaction to outside criticism. The Bureau believes that a policy of promoting calm is the right one. The release today by Thailand of a white paper on Thai-Cambodian relations is not likely to further this policy.2 I suggested about a week ago that, since it is our view that Sarit bears a considerable measure of the responsibility for the Thai-Cambodian situation, we ought to do some rather tough talking with him. I was informed that a telegram along these lines had been killed by Alexis Johnson on the grounds that the Thais were adequately informed of our Views. Sihanouk’s attack on the U.S. may make such a démarche more difficult, but it also makes it more necessary. Otherwise the Thais may think that the situation has given them greater freedom to attack Sihanouk.

It seems to me that it is quite possible to construct a reasonably accurate picture of Sihanouk’s state of mind. We know that he is a [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] individual with a deep sense of [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] insecurity [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. He is terribly sensitive to criticism and to the possibility that the traditional enemies of Cambodia, Thailand and Viet Nam are plotting against him. He has, in addition, some of the usual feelings of leaders of newly independent nations toward the U.S. as the most powerful representative of the former imperialist powers.

From Sihanouk’s point of view all of these fears received dramatic confirmation when, in 1958, shortly after a very friendly talk with Eisenhower, the U.S. seemed to be [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] using Thailand and Viet Nam as bases from which to launch an effort to overthrow him. His recent speeches as well as his private statements [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] indicate that he sees a close parallel between what has happened recently and what happened in 1958. He had an excellent reception from the President and now again feels threatened by Thailand and Viet Nam. What seems to be required is some form [Page 171] of convincing reassurance. I believe that a three-pronged attack on the problem is called for

Some new kind of Presidential reassurance to Sihanouk is required, either in the form of a message or a talk with the Cambodian Ambassador.
We should make a quite strong démarche to Sarit making it clear that we are not happy with what he has been doing, indicating that we desire to see an armistice on inflammatory statements, white papers, etc., and stating that we will never tolerate a military attack by him upon Cambodia. [2–1/2 lines of source text not declassified] A related, though less stiff approach ought to be taken to Diem—less harsh because, I believe, he has been less of a source of the immediate trouble.
Continuation of efforts through the UN machinery or through the Norwegian representative at the UN to mediate the dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

I have indicated to Bob Cleveland, who is the anchor man of the SEA office in State, that the White House might be receptive to some kind of Presidential role and mentioned the possibility of a Presidential talk with Cambodian Ambassador Nong Kimny. As he pointed out, there is an immediate psychological-political problem because the U.S. is at present an aggrieved party. An initiative by us for a Presidential visit could be rebuffed or exploited by Sihanouk as a vindication of the righteousness of his cause and a loss of face for the U.S. The FE Bureau has been awaiting a response from Nong Kimny to McConaughy’s request to him for clarification of whether Cambodia intends to change its policy of nonalignment.

There has been one recent small indication that Sihanouk may be seeking to crawl back from the end of the limb on which he finds himself. In response to a routine birthday greeting from U.S. Ambassador Trimble sent before the recent troubles, he has sent Trimble a warm telegram of appreciation.

After talking with his colleagues and with John Steeves, Cleveland has come up with two possibilities:

The President could send a message to Sihanouk on Cambodian National Day which is November 9. Some kind of message would be called for anyway and the occasion could be used to reaffirm our support for Cambodian neutrality and independence. In response to my earlier objection that November 9 could be too late, State has indicated that the message could be sent within the next couple of days even though intended for the November 9 celebration.
Ambassador Kimny should call in a day or two to request an appointment in the Department to deliver Sihanouk’s answer to McConaughy’s question. When he calls, the desk officer would seek to ascertain whether the response is favorable. If it is, the desk officer could indicate that the President has been concerned about recent developments affecting Cambodia and he could indicate that it would be possible for the Ambassador to call and have a short discussion with the
[Page 172]

President. (The initiative for requesting a talk would be left, however, with Kimny.) This discussion with the President would be used to reassure Sihanouk that we support his continued independence and neutrality.

I prefer the second proposal as the basic approach. We will probably wish to send a statement on Cambodian National Day in any event. But a private discussion would permit somewhat greater frankness than a public statement. As to the tactics, however, I am not sure whether it wouldn’t be better to have Kimny come to the Department and tell his full story before it is suggested that he might ask for an appointment with the President. If his statement seems satisfactory, the Department officers with whom he talks could then indicate the possibility of such an appointment. We do have to be careful to avoid having Sihanouk exploit such a meeting in a way which would cause us to appear to be supplicants or cause further trouble with his neighbors. But if Kimny’s statement suggests that Sihanouk is making a real effort to undo the damage he has done to U.S.-Cambodian resolutions, that danger should be reduced.

As indicated above, I would favor in addition a démarche to Sarit and, if it seems necessary, to Diem. It is not going to be easy, I suspect, to get Young to deliver a tough statement to Sarit.

The above analysis of the roots of the problem may be wrong. It may be true that Sihanouk has finally decided to seek an accommodation with the Bloc. But if that is the case, there will be little we could do directly to prevent it. Meanwhile, we ought to test the validity of the alternative theory. Provided Sihanouk lays the basis for such an approach in his reaction to McConaughy’s démarche to Kimny, the risks involved would seem worth taking.

I suggest that, if you agree with these proposals, you take up with the President the question of his receptivity to a meeting with Ambassador Kimny if the latter’s impending talk within the Department suggests that such a talk would be useful; also, his reaction to a reassuring National Day message. You may wish to take up with him the question of a State Department message to Sarit and Diem. If you do not believe that this requires his attention, but you agree as to its desirability, you might pass the suggestion on to Alexis Johnson. Alternatively, I can call McConaughy.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Cambodia, 11/1/61–11/7/61. Secret. Copies were sent to Rostow and Bromley Smith.
  2. Not attached. The telegrams are 1779 from London and 651 from Bangkok, both October 31. (Department of State, Central Files, 751H.00/10–3161 and 651H.92/10–3161, respectively)
  3. Not found.