162. Note From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Bundy) to the Permanent Representative at the United Nations (Goldberg)1


  • Possible Cambodian Complications

As you perhaps know, the continuing action in the Plei Me area has moved closer and closer to the Cambodian border. As of this moment, based on operations reports through November 21 (Sunday), the border [Page 359] has not been violated by US or GVN forces. However, at least two GVN battalions are operating extremely close to it and the action could at any moment move across the border.

In the light of this situation, the President on Saturday night approved an instruction to Westmoreland2 giving him authority to take the necessary measures for the self-defense of US and GVN forces, to the point of returning fire coming from across the Cambodian border, maneuvering ground forces into Cambodian territory if necessary to defend themselves, and conducting close air support and artillery operations to protect forces actually engaged in combat. At the same time, the authority explicitly excluded any military involvement with Cambodian forces, unless required for self defense, any air or artillery operations against Cambodian-populated areas (there is only one village on the map anywhere near the area), and any attack on base areas unless such areas were a direct part of an immediate military threat to our forces. Our message to Lodge and Westmoreland underscored these exclusions and the political implications of adhering to them.

At this moment, the authority has not been used. If it were to be used, we would stress above all the rationale of self defense, since our lawyers tell us that any “hot pursuit” justification does not have, for ground forces, explicit support in international law. We would make maximum use of the fact that the border is extremely difficult to identify in relation to ground force positions or close air support targets, although we do not, as of now, believe that we can argue that the location of the border is actually disputed (as some other sections are). We have given careful directions that any announcement from Saigon be purely factual and lay maximum stress on the self defense point, not using “hot pursuit” or “immediate pursuit.”

Nonetheless, it is already clear that Sihanouk may react sharply. He put out a statement only this week attacking the Vietnamese and ourselves and also asserting that Cambodian territory had never been used, even temporarily, as a refuge by VC forces. On this point, recent evidence from prisoners taken in the Plei Me area has been that they arrived in Vietnam via Cambodia and were given help by local Cambodian elements during their transit. We have asked Saigon for a full reading of this intelligence and for immediate reports of any other intelligence that may come in on the use of Cambodian territory by the VC. We probably do not wish to argue that Sihanouk has behaved in an un-neutral way, but we do want to have the best possible evidence to support contentions that the VC did in fact use Cambodian territory (with or without Cambodian consent) and, above all, that in the nature of the military action in Plei Me, involving constant regrouping and new attacks by substantial regular [Page 360] North Vietnamese forces, it was unavoidable for US and GVN forces to maintain contact, even into Cambodian territory, with hostile forces constantly seeking to destroy them.

Subject to confirmation from George Ball Monday, we may very well be asking you to take this matter up urgently with U Thant, to draw on the above in presenting the situation as it stands, to emphasize that we are taking every precaution to avoid hitting Cambodians and to emphasize that we continue to have no hostile feelings towards Cambodia but that this kind of border problem will continue as long as there is no effective system for patrolling the border and controlling the real villain of the piece, the North Vietnamese and the VC. In this connection, Charlie Yost and others in your staff can readily dig out the excellent record that was made in the spring of 1964. At that time, Ambassador Stevenson made a most eloquent statement3 of our friendly feelings toward the Cambodians, and we fully supported the three-country investigating group that went to the area and that recommended a substantial international force to patrol the border. We endorsed this recommendation completely, and Sihanouk then proceeded to turn it down. You might therefore be asked to call this record again to U Thantʼs attention and to suggest that one possible action might be a sounding by him whether Sihanouk would now change his position. This would markedly get us off the defensive if the fur really starts to fly, even—as it might—to the point of a Security Council complaint by Cambodia.

Parenthetically, we have just received a Peiping broadcast making vague threats of what Communist China would do if we “attacked” Cambodia. Our first reading is that this is couched in “normal” terms and does not really indicate anything more than a desire to show verbal support for Cambodia.

William P. Bundy 4
  1. Source: Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron. Secret.
  2. November 20; see Document 161 and footnote 4 thereto.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 132.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.