83. Letter From the Ambassador to Cambodia (Trimble) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Johnson)0

Dear Alex: The following brief assessment of the Communist threat for Cambodia is submitted in accordance with the request contained in your letter of February 9.1 I trust that the views set forth therein may be of some use to Special Group which you mentioned.

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The Communist threat in Cambodia, in terms of pressures operating within the country is limited at the present time. It takes various forms. There is a local Communist front group, the Pracheachon (People’s Party) which is small, poorly organized and largely discredited because of its identification with the detested Viet Minh. It is, however, the only opposition party and is capable, as recent disclosures have revealed, of undertaking a program of subversion which apparently has succeeded in some penetration of the Buddhist clergy, and according to a recent report may even have subverted several junior and non-commissioned officers in the Army. While the local Chinese and Vietnamese minorities are largely apolitical, both, in particular the Chinese, contain active pro-Commie cadres. There are also the Bloc missions and technicians, outwardly scrupulously observant of the non-interference principle, but who are engaged in intelligence and propaganda efforts directed towards influencing Cambodia toward the Bloc. Finally, and potentially the most dangerous are the so-called young intellectuals discussed below.

Sihanouk and his close collaborators are fully alert to these pressures and have the will and capability to contain them. The Prince commands the loyalty of the overwhelming portion of the Cambodian population, including the armed forces and the police. Furthermore, there is no hint of complacency in his approach to the problem. He periodically campaigns against the local Communists, emphasizing their “foreign” connections and the incompatibility of their program with the Cambodian way of life. His current campaign, which is the longest sustained in recent years, was touched off by the discovery of a Communist subversive plot early in January 1962.

Of particular concern to Sihanouk, and in a sense the principal object of his anti-Communist campaign, is the steadily growing group of “young intellectuals”—French-educated, leftist-oriented and personally ambitious. These are the people who dominate the information and education media, and who to a large extent are responsible for their anti-Western slant. Some of them are openly or tacitly aligned with the Communists. Most are associated with the Prince’s national front, the Sangkum, but their loyalties to it, its policies and even its leader are comparatively shallow. They are impatient with the pace of economic change and even more impatient with the restrictions imposed on them by the existing social and political structure.

Sihanouk has employed a variety of techniques and pressures—flattery, inclusion in the National Assembly and junior cabinet positions, repeated threats to resign, insistence on national unity, etc.—to prevent this group from getting out of control. So far he has been successful, and should continue to be so for the foreseeable future. There is a danger, however, that the increasing difficulties that Cambodia will almost certainly [Page 183] face in the pursuit of economic development will lead to increasing discontent and frustration among these intellectuals. Blocked, by Sihanouk’s dominance, from the normal avenues of political expression, the “intellectuals” will be increasingly vulnerable to the temptation to find solutions in Communism.

What happens if Sihanouk should disappear from the scene? There are no potential successors of his stature and influence, and without him the strains on Cambodian unity would unquestionably intensify. Even so, however, I would foresee no immediate upheaval. The prestige of the Throne, backed by the armed forces, would be sufficient to maintain order and stability until a new formula of national leadership could be devised. And from present indications, there is nothing to suggest that this formula would involve, at least initially, greater sympathy or receptivity to Communism.

The threat to Cambodia of external Communism is a somewhat different matter, although, at the moment, it also is limited. In 1954, as you know, shortly after obtaining its independence under Sihanouk’s personal leadership, Cambodia succeeded in repelling a Viet-Minh inspired rebellion. Since that time Cambodia has zealously defended its territorial integrity and resisted all border incursions, including those of the Viet Cong. While publicity, unfortunately, tends to concentrate on border difficulties with Cambodia’s two pro-Western neighbors, the fact is that a good part of the present border incidents are precipitated by Communist incursions.

The principal element in the equation, however, is the Bloc strategy of “laying off” Cambodia until a regional decision is achieved. By flattering Sihanouk, praising and supporting Cambodian neutralism, and providing economic and technical aid, the Bloc, especially Red China, has managed to create a public image of sincere and unqualified friendship for Cambodia. But there is no doubt, certainly not in Sihanouk’s mind, of the ultimate threat. A Communist take-over of Laos and South Viet Nam would exercise a greater influence on the future of Communism in Cambodia than any foreseeable internal developments. Although the thought of two or even one Communist state on his border is repugnant to Sihanouk, he considers such a development is almost inevitable. In the meanwhile, he is bending every effort to preserve Cambodia’s independence and neutrality.

I have long been convinced that Sihanouk, despite his [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] tirades against South Viet Nam, Thailand, and recurrently the United States, sees the greatest danger to Cambodia as that posed by the prospect of a Communist-controlled, unified Viet [Page 184] Nam. In my talk with him on February 16 (Embtel 548),2 he went further than I can ever recall in giving expression to these sentiments. He spoke of the Viet Minh as “a danger to us—we know them,” and added that in spite of his personal differences with Diem “we must support Diem” against the Viet Minh threat.

Support of Diem, as Sihanouk interprets it, obviously does not mean a willingness on his part to undertake a coordinated defense effort. Sihanouk cannot divest himself of his hostility and suspicions toward his pro-Western neighbors, nor would he, except perhaps in the case of direct and outright Communist aggression, even consider abandoning his policy of neutrality to join forces with them. He does, however, cling to two hopes: First, that the regional status quo can be substantially maintained. As Sihanouk sees it, the present balance of power in Southeast Asia safeguards Cambodia’s independence. Only in such an environment can Cambodia avoid being overwhelmed by its traditionally hostile neighbors. Thus, he will continue to resist all pressures that seek to draw Cambodia into one camp or the other. Second, in the event of Communist domination of Southeast Asia by Red China, of which he is mortally afraid, that Cambodia’s national identity, if not its independence or freedom of action, will be preserved. This lies behind his refusal to link the local Communists with any Communist movement except that in North Viet Nam, and his profuse and repeated expressions of friendship for and confidence in Communist China. China he regards as a major and permanent power in the area—a power that must at all costs be placated and that offers some hope of protection for Cambodia should the Viet Minh conquer South Viet Nam.

I believe it is clear from the foregoing that Cambodia not only is aware of the Communist threat in Southeast Asia, but also, within the framework of what it conceives to be its own interests, problems and prospects, is participating, although admittedly in a somewhat negative fashion, in the anti-Communist effort. Sihanouk himself is opposed to Communism, as are the Army and the people in general, apart from certain small groups earlier noted. Cambodia enjoys a greater degree of political stability than any country in the area. Its economy, while not moving ahead as rapidly as desired, is at the moment under less strains and pressures than most other Southeast Asian countries and is probably more stable than that of any other, with the exception of Thailand. As with all under-developed nations, it has high aspirations and desires to achieve them in accordance with its own traditions, and free of outside compulsion.

Cambodia’s voting record in the UN does tend to favor the Bloc, but this I believe is largely the product of its neutralist balancing technique.

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On really vital issues, Cambodia usually abstains. But there have also been some on which it has supported the Western position, for example Sihanouk’s speech at the United Nations in 1961, in which he advocated the need for appropriate safeguards on disarmament and nuclear testing bans, and Cambodia’s opposition to the “Troika” concept.

In effect, while maintaining a posture of neutrality, Sihanouk has succeeded in preventing the Communists from using Cambodia as a springboard for aggression against the pro-Western countries of the area. (In this connection, I recall a comment you once made to me that the question of seeking Cambodia’s adherence to SEATO had never come up in the SEATO Council, and that its limited military capacities would tend to make it more of a liability than an asset if it were to ally itself openly with the West.)

This opposition to Communism, however, does not extend to the point of Cambodia’s aligning itself defensively with its non-Communist neighbors to forestall a Communist victory. However great the logic of a unified effort, it cannot, unfortunately, be sold to Sihanouk. We, of course, do not agree with the Cambodian thesis that the pro-Western neighbors are a serious threat to Cambodia’s independence, but we must recognize that the Cambodians are genuinely convinced that this threat exists, and that, because of their relative weakness, they are seeking to insure themselves of greater support against this threat.

Thus far, Cambodia has depended on the United States, and to a lesser degree the French, for military assistance. I am sure they prefer to keep it that way, but if they ever come to believe that their survival as a nation is at stake, they will turn for support to the other side. This reversal of policy could also be occasioned, given Sihanouk’s volatile personality, by a fit of pique against the West or the neighbors. We can deplore this attitude as unrealistic and self-defeating, but argument about it would be sterile. The problem essentially is what can be done, within the limits set by Cambodian policy and psychology, to insure that Cambodia’s opposition to Communist expansion is maintained and best utilized to bring about an improvement in its relations with Thailand and South Viet Nam.

We must recognize from the outset that the Cambodian will and ability to resist Communism is dependent on two assumptions: first, that a Communist regional victory is not inevitable, and second that Western, i.e., US support of Cambodian independence is genuine and effective. Sihanouk has told me, and, I believe, in all sincerity, that the maintenance of US military strength is essential to his country. With respect to the first assumption, Sihanouk has admittedly referred time and again to the inevitability of Communist domination, the “wave of the future” in SEA. But I think he calculates this as a probability, not a certainty, and is hoping against hope that his prediction is wrong. It is possible that he also [Page 186] aspires in this way to ingratiate himself with Red China. Although he has not so stated, and from his view cannot so state publicly, I am certain that the recent step-up in US assistance to SVN, as evidence of strengthened US purpose in the area, is a source of considerable comfort to him and other Cambodian leaders, and may also have encouraged him in his recent campaign against indigenous Communists.

The second assumption—genuine and effective US support of Cambodian independence—is complicated by the close ties existing between our country and Cambodia’s historically hostile, pro-Western neighbors, with the result that suspicions of US intentions are constantly rising to the surface. These suspicions will never, I suppose, be entirely erased, but they can be minimized. In a recent message to the Department (Embtel 530),3 I pointed to several developments relating to our military aid program which gave the impression that US support was half-hearted and grudging, and deliberately designed to keep Cambodia in a position of relative and constantly worsening inferiority vis-à-vis its neighbors. I should like to underscore again the importance of building Cambodian confidence in US intentions. Whatever aid we give, particularly in the crucial military assistance field, should not be hedged about with delays, reservations and equivocations.

As for specific recommendations, there are several steps that we can take to assure that Cambodia will maintain its independence, and that will help us meet our own strategic objectives in this area. If our analysis is correct, pressures will increase, and Cambodia can be expected to call on us for additional assistance in the counter-subversion field. Militarily, we should be prepared to welcome and assist any reasonable and financially feasible initiatives undertaken by Cambodia to strengthen its defensive capabilities. I do not mean to suggest that Cambodia be provided aid of the same relative magnitude as that now furnished Thailand, to say nothing of South Viet Nam. I do believe, however, that in trying to keep their demands at a reasonable level we should not be so obstructive as to drive them to accept offers of military hardware from the Communist Bloc. I believe that there are greater opportunities for the provision of impact items than we have heretofore utilized. In addition, we are now working out a Country Team study of the present policy of reducing military aid to Cambodia by 10 percent annually, and are considering whether to freeze the aid at its present level, or perhaps limit the annual reduction to 5 percent.

It is important to note that Cambodia’s impressive political unity and strong sense of nationalism has as one of its pillars the identification of the armed forces with the community as a whole. This pillar has been consciously erected by a most effective program of what we call civic [Page 187] action, a program that dates from the mid-’50’s. Continued MAP support of such a program is highly desirable. There is a possibility that the RKG will attempt to increase its armed force levels with the aim of intensifying its security-cum-development activities in the sparsely populated northeast regions. If these plans take shape, I would urge that we carefully and sympathetically explore possibilities for assisting in their implementation.

Another problem affecting Cambodia’s security capabilities is that of communications. Much of the country, particularly in the northeast, is lacking the road network essential for effective security operations, and seasonal weather problems limit the utility of such roads as do exist. One answer may be helicopters, and I am hopeful that we will be in the position to contribute to this solution. This would be one of the impact items referred to earlier.

There is also the possibility of putting the police establishment to more effective use. The Provincial Guard comprises a force of some 10,000 whose potential is clearly not being fully exploited. We have given thought for some time to the idea of expanding police capabilities for security and civic action activities. Our problem heretofore has been the unresponsiveness of the police authorities. Recent changes in the police leadership, combined with Sihanouk’s more active appreciation of the Communist threat, suggest that the time may be propitious to raise the subject again. Our suggestions, which are now under preparation, envisage training selected members of the police in certain educational and first-aid techniques. If favorably received, the training program could be expanded to include police participation in off-shore programs in counter-subversion techniques (propaganda, organization of militia and village defense, communications, weaponry, etc.).

We have, of course, no assurances that these ideas would be accepted by the RKG, and we hesitate even to broach them on the matter before ascertaining how large a program would be authorized by the Department. Nevertheless, the present era of good feeling toward the US should be utilized to explore these possibilities.

I do not recommend any increase in economic aid to Cambodia. On the contrary I am hopeful it can be gradually reduced over a period of years. I do recommend, however, that given the primacy of our political objectives in this area there should be a greater dovetailing of our economic aid activities with our political aims. Furthermore, I am convinced that it is to our interest to endeavor, insofar as possible, to concentrate our efforts in areas of activity with very strong social and economic impact, rather than to cover the waterfront.

Here I may note that we have been putting increased emphasis on the field of education and trying to enlarge US scholarship opportunities for Cambodian students. This is vitally important given the present and [Page 188] foreseeable problems of the young intellectuals and the danger—which Sihanouk feels acutely—that students returning from Europe are overly influenced by Communist doctrine and hostile to Western concepts of a free society. Increased scholarships to the United States offer a means of effectively counteracting pro-Communist tendencies among these intellectual cadres.

As a final suggestion, I think it imperative that we constantly bear in mind the key role played by Sihanouk in the determination of Cambodian policy. However reluctant we may be to engage in catering to his vanity, it would be fruitless to deny that in this case flattery represents a highly effective instrument of policy. I hope an official visit by Sihanouk to the United States, which would be extremely helpful in furthering our cause here, can be arranged in the not too distant future. I would also urge that greater use be made of the practice of personal messages from the President to Sihanouk, since the Prince is particularly susceptible to this form of recognition.

With warm regards,

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751H.00/3–562. Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. In this letter, Johnson informed Trimble of the establishment of the Special Group (Counter-Insurgency) on January 18, 1962. Johnson outlined the membership of the group, described its responsibilities, and asked for an assessment of the Communist threat in Cambodia and any suggestions Trimble might have for the Special Group (CI) when it considered Cambodia. (Ibid., 751H.00/2–962) See footnote 1, Document 423.
  3. Dated February 17. (Ibid., 651H.51K/2–1762)
  4. Dated February 8. (Ibid., 751H.5/2–862)