183. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to Secretary of State Rusk1


  • Possible Approaches to the Cambodia Problem

This file is more or less self-explanatory.

In meeting with the NSC staff—urging us all to be imaginative—the President asked for proposals to get closer to Sihanouk.

Jim Thomson did the attached paper. I sent it forward with the recommendation that I be instructed to request you to examine the proposals and make your recommendations.

The Presidentʼs enthusiasm is self-evident, including his reaction to pages 5–6.

[Page 396]


Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson

Mr. President:

At your suggestion Jim Thomson has prepared the attached collection of imaginative initiatives with respect to Cambodia.

My recommendation is that you instruct me to request Secretary Rusk to examine them and make his recommendations to you—understanding, however, that you wish movement on this problem.




See me


Memorandum From James C. Thomson, Jr., of the National Security Council Staff to President Johnson


  • Possible Approaches to the Cambodia Problem

In response to your request at our Cabinet Room meeting, I have been probing this town intensively for fresh ideas as to how we might improve our relations with Cambodia over the months ahead.

A. The Problem

As you know, the widely held view within the bureaucracy is that very little can be accomplished until we have achieved success in Vietnam—or at least until Sihanouk is convinced that we will succeed. This view is based on some convincing facts of life:

The United States is closely associated with Cambodiaʼs two historic enemies, Thailand and Vietnam. Both nations have encroached on Cambodia throughout the past (making it, in miniature, the Poland of Southeast Asia); and as recently as 1941–1945, Thailand seized and occupied all of northwest Cambodia. As long as we are so deeply committed to the Thai and Vietnamese, Sihanouk doubts that we will protect Cambodiaʼs independence.
In seeking protection from his immediate neighbors, the Prince thus looks to Communist China. He does this despite his opposition to Communism and his awareness of a long-term threat from China itself. Only the emergence of an alternative protector power will pull him away from alignment with Peking.
The Vietnam war exposes Cambodiaʼs eastern frontier areas to periodic incursions by Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, GVN, and U.S. forces. Since Cambodia completely lacks the capability to keep Communist units out of the sparsely populated northeast, it closes its eyes to Viet Cong incursions—and holds the U.S. and GVN responsible for the destruction of Cambodian lives and property that results from our own border operations.

B. Possible Lines of Action

Despite these facts of life, however, there are steps we could take that might ease the Princeʼs sense of insecurity and gradually improve our relations with Cambodia. None of them guarantees success; all involve [Page 397] at least the minimal risk of rebuff. But they seem to me worth trying nonetheless.

In the proposals that follow, I have suggested actions we might take to reassure Sihanouk of our support for Cambodiaʼs independence, territorial integrity, and neutrality; to maintain channels of friendly unofficial and perhaps official communication; to increase the effectiveness of international supervision of Cambodiaʼs frontiers; to end needless and profitless provocations; and, hopefully, to lay the groundwork for reestablished diplomatic relations. Some involve mere style and atmospherics—but such factors should not be discounted in our relations with a proud and sensitive ruler.


Expansion of the ICC

Sihanouk has asked that the ICC be expanded in order to police more effectively Cambodiaʼs Vietnam frontier; he also asks that we foot the bill. Rusk has informed the Cambodian Foreign Minister of our willingness to push this project. The problem seems to be that the Russians (and their agents, the Poles) are dragging their feet. It is possible that 30 to 40 ICC personnel, with helicopters and terms of reference that permit mobility, could keep close tabs on this border region, detect Viet Cong violations, and deter increased Communist use of Cambodia as a sanctuary or infiltration corridor. We should be entirely willing to pay the cost for such an obvious assist to our side; we should put the heat on the Russians (and the Indians) to get this expansion moving; but we canʼt do it without the Princeʼs strong support, and at the moment he seems to fear the heat from the other side.


Avoidance of Provocations from Vietnam

We should issue firm instructions to keep MACV (and the Pentagon) from further public accusations of unproven Cambodian collusion with the Communists. There is an understandable MACV tendency—with hearty Vietnamese support—to distort and magnify Communist use of Cambodia. We should accept the fact that some border violations will be inevitable in such a war; that although some Cambodian border officials do encourage such violations, the Cambodian Government so far does not; and that there is a clear net value to us in preventing the expansion of the Vietnam Warʼs battleground to include 66,000 sq. mi. of Cambodia.


Avoidance of Provocations from Thailand

Despite periodic efforts in Washington and the field, there is still clear evidence of Thai (and Vietnamese) support for the anti-Sihanouk Khmer Serei forces (no more than 1000) on Cambodiaʼs northwest frontier. The GVN trains Cambodians and ships them to Thailand where they are then put into action on the Cambodia border in order to broadcast anti-Sihanouk appeals and to foment frontier incidents. Sihanouk is still convinced of U.S. collusion with the dissidents. These activities, which [Page 398] stand no chance of success and run counter to our national interests, can only be turned off by a Presidential directive [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] repeated lower level protests have simply not been taken seriously by the GVN or the RTG.


Quiet Bilateral Contacts

Of the various posts where U.S. and Cambodian diplomats function in the same community, perhaps New Delhi and New York are the best suited to periodic quiet conversations between our lower level officials and those of the Cambodian Government. The Cambodian Ambassador to India, formerly Ambassador to the U.S., is a trusted Sihanouk man who participated in the prematurely terminated discussions which we conducted with the Cambodians in New Delhi in December 1964. Our Cambodian expert in Embassy New Delhi has maintained contact with this man. This channel should now be used to communicate substantive messages and to raise useful questions from time to time; an alternative channel should also be developed in New York between our mission and Cambodiaʼs able new Number-Two representative there.


U.S. Congressional Visit

As you know, the Vice President has accepted, on behalf of the Congress, a Cambodian suggestion that three members of Congress visit Cambodia sometime in the months ahead; this visit is now tentatively set for the autumn, with Senators Aiken, Inouye, and Pell hoping to travel to Phnom Penh. We should use the occasion of this visit to convey the good will of the U.S. Government to Sihanouk and his colleagues; we should attach to this mission some able Cambodia specialists from the Department; and we should consider using this occasion for the presentation of a letter from you to Sihanouk (see below).


Eugene Black Visit

We should explore the possibility of including Cambodia on the itinerary of Eugene Black when he takes his postponed trip to the Far East in October. Cambodia is highly pertinent to Blackʼs trip since the Mekong Development Program is currently hung up on the problem of funds for the next priority project, the Prek Thant Dam complex in Cambodia. Here again, Black might be the bearer of a Presidential letter (see below).


Presidential Letter

Although one must assume that Sihanouk will probably publish any correspondence he receives, however private, consideration should be given to a letter from you to the Prince, perhaps to be carried by the Senators or Black. The purposes of such a letter would be reassurance, flattery, and the establishment of a personal channel of communication with a man who places high value on personal relations. Such a letter [Page 399] would involve obvious risks, but I have attempted an illustrative draft (see attachment).3


Other Visitors

We should keep in mind the several human assets we hold in Americans for whom the Prince has special friendship or respect. Among them are Dean Acheson, who won Cambodiaʼs World Court case against Thailand; also Senator Mansfield, Governor Harriman, and Chester Bowles; of lower visibility but great skill is Major General Edward C.D. Sherrer, one of our most successful MAAG Chiefs (in Cambodia, 1961–63), who is now serving on the Joint Staff of the Pentagon. In the absence of diplomatic relations, we should try to keep up a program of unofficial visitors to Phnom Penh.


Third Country Mediation

Our diplomatic interests in Cambodia are currently well served by the Australians, whose able Ambassador is close to the Prince. As an antidote to over-reliance on Saigon and Bangkok for information on Cambodia, we should frankly ask the Australians, as well as other potential intermediaries—notably the Japanese, British, Filipinos, and Indonesians—to be alert to times and ways in which our relations with Cambodia might be improved.


Diplomatic Relations

Since 1965, Sihanouk has set three general conditions for resumption of diplomatic relations with the U.S.: a halt to border incidents; compensation—through bulldozers or tractors—for past Cambodian casualties; and formal U.S. recognition of Cambodiaʼs neutrality, territorial integrity and present borders. Although these conditions may be negotiable, we should probably not push too hard for resumed relations until we have tested the ICC track and unofficial contacts. Through the latter contacts, however—and through New York and New Delhi—we should seek to refine Sihanoukʼs conditions to a more acceptable formulation (i.e., a pledge of respect for Cambodiaʼs frontiers and neutrality, and perhaps some symbolic compensation for Cambodian casualties.)

Note: I do not believe that any of these moves will easily or quickly resolve our problems with Cambodia but they are all worth considering, and—with a close eye to timing—they may be worth trying in the months ahead. Some of them, of course, will irritate the GVN and, especially, Thailand; but this is not a high price, and it is well worth paying. Improved relations with Cambodia would clearly serve our national interest not only by limiting the Indo-China battlefield but by proving our willingness and ability to pursue a live-and-let-live relationship with a neutral and unaligned Southeast Asian state.

[Page 400]

C. Recommendations

That you indicate to the Department of State the high priority which you attach to an expansion of the ICC in Cambodia.4
That you direct the Department and CIA to press the Thai and Vietnam Governments to cease all support for the Khmer Serei rebels.5
That you ask State to consider and prepare a Presidential message to Sihanouk, to be carried either by the Senate mission or by Eugene Black.6
That you ask State to prepare a continuing program of unofficial visits by Americans to Phnom Penh and private contacts between U.S. and Cambodian diplomats.7
JC Thomson Jr.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 32–1 CAMB–VIET S. Secret; Exdis. Read sent a memorandum to Rusk, Ball, and U. Alexis Johnson, June 22, informing them that he had asked the Policy Planning Staff to coordinate a response to Thompsonʼs memorandum by June 28. Readʼs memorandum is attached, but not printed.
  2. Johnson approved and wrote the following note: “This is excellent. Iʼm proud—L.”
  3. Attached, but not printed.
  4. Johnson approved and wrote: “Good & Strong!”
  5. Johnson approved and wrote: “Same.” and drew an arrow to the phrase “Good & Strong!”
  6. Johnson approved and wrote: “by both.”
  7. Johnson approved and wrote: “I heartily agree—Letʼs also include other countries where we need contacts (Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe.)”7