202. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • MACV Cambodia Assessment

I attach at Tab A a well thought-out assessment of the Cambodia situation done by General Abrams’ staff.2 The assessment makes the following points:

[Page 683]

Cambodia’s economy is in trouble, principally because rice exports have dropped to zero as a result of Sihanouk’s policy of nationalizing the commercial sector. One reason for his decision to reopen relations with us may have been his need for foreign investment and aid. (Incidentally, State took a negative position on aid for Cambodia, in response to your recent request for its views. My staff is working up a set of proposals as to limited things we could do, for your consideration in case you do not agree with State’s conclusions.)3

For the first time in years, Sihanouk faces concerted resistance to his domestic policies. He permitted the formation of the Lon Nol/Sirik Matak government last August so as to permit others to attempt to straighten out the economic mess without involving his own prestige.

Cambodia’s attitude toward operations of VC/NVA forces on Cambodian soil has been hardening for several reasons:

  • —The Communists do not seem to be winning.
  • —Under U.S./GVN pressure, the Communists are establishing more or less permanent enclaves of de facto control in Cambodia.
  • —The Communists are helping Cambodian insurgents, who are an increasing nuisance.
  • —Political pressures within Cambodia are building up to do something about the VC/NVA presence.
  • —As Vietnamization progresses, the Cambodians face the prospect of fighting on Cambodian soil between the two Vietnamese camps, without the American presence to insure that the Vietnamese will not stay permanently.

The first shift in RKG policy in arms supply to the VC/NVA came in May, 1969, following the failure of the Communist spring offensive and the evidence that you planned to stay in Vietnam as necessary. Some supply may have been resumed in the autumn and Sihanouk’s statements suggest that during his trip to Hanoi for the Ho Chi-Minh funeral he negotiated a quid pro quo with Pham Van Dong, in which the latter made some promises of withdrawals. Sihanouk seems to be less than happy with Vietnamese performance on that deal. We do not know whether arms are coming through Cambodia at the present time, but the rate of flow is certainly less than in the past.

Aside from domestic reasons for absenting himself (having lost a test with Sirik Matak in parliament in late December), Sihanouk may have decided on his sudden trip to France to avoid a scheduled visit by Pham Van Dong until he could see how the situation was developing.

[Page 684]

The study was written before the recent demonstrations against the Communist embassies in Phnom Penh.4 It is worth noting that the demonstrations followed reports that Sirik Matak had ordered the VC/NVA to remove their troops from Cambodia, and that he concurrently ordered the Cambodian army to drive the Communists out (an impossible task, given Cambodian military resources).

Lon Nol and Sirik Matak were probably reflecting strong nationalistic feelings in Cambodia, but it is still moot whether they cleared their actions with Sihanouk. Given the sharp competition between Sirik Matak and Sihanouk, it is possible that Sirik wanted to present Sihanouk with a fait accompli, or to challenge him to a test on grounds where Sirik Matak’s position would be popular. On the other hand, nobody has challenged Sihanouk so directly in years, and it is quite possible that this is an elaborate maneuver, to permit Sihanouk to call for Soviet and Chinese cooperation in urging the VC/NVA to leave, on the grounds that he will fall and be replaced by a “rightist” leader if the VC/NVA stay in Cambodia.

The recent behavior of Sihanouk and the RKG would fit either thesis—i.e., that this is a collusive gambit; or that Sihanouk in fact faces a challenge from Sirik Matak and Lon Nol.

  • Sihanouk has publicly claimed that the attacks on Vietnamese installations were “organized by pro-American plotters” and has expressed fears about a “right wing coup.”
  • —He has announced that he will return home via Moscow and Peking, and that he will seek support in those capitals to urge the Vietnamese “to stop interfering in Cambodian affairs and avoid giving the rightists a pretext for seizing power.” (He is to arrive in Phnom Penh without formal welcoming ceremonies on Wednesday.)
  • —He is quoted as calling for a referendum to learn whether the people support him or his challengers.
  • —The Government in Phnom Penh has called publicly for the withdrawal of VC/NVA troops. It has justified the demonstrators’ action, but has called for order.
  • Lon Nol has published a message to Sihanouk, justifying the demonstrations, denying any intent to align with SEATO, and calling [Page 685] for Sihanouk’s support for a 10,000 man increase5 in the army. (Sihanouk made negative noises but avoided a direct reply when asked by newsmen if he concurred in the increase.)

Whatever the truth as to domestic power relationships, Cambodian feelings are being stirred up about the Communist presence, and no Cambodian Government will be likely in the future to take so casual a view of it as has been the case in the past.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 506, Country Files, Far East, Cambodia, Vol. II, September 1969–9 April 1970. Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information.
  2. Tab A was telegram MAC 2439 from Abrams to Wheeler, February 24, attached but not printed. Haig summarized it for Kissinger in a February 24 memorandum. Kissinger instructed that it be made into a memorandum for the President. (Ibid.) Grant revised it as a memorandum to Nixon and noted that he had “added some comments to bring the assessment up to date (as of March 13).” (Ibid.)
  3. Nixon highlighted the last sentences in this paragraph and wrote “Let’s aid new group.” Lon Nol and Sirik Matak overthrew Sihanouk on the afternoon of March 18, Cambodian time, which is 12 hours ahead of Washington time, but the President did not necessarily read this on the day it was drafted.
  4. A CIA intelligence report distributed on March 18, but based on information obtained from an Asian merchant with good contacts within the Cambodia military on March 11–12, stated that the demonstrations and attack on the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s embassy in Phnom Penh were planned by Sirik Matak with the support of Lon Nol. They were to be a showdown with Sihanouk and a prelude to his overthrow. The source also indicated that operating from Paris Sihanouk planned to replace Sirik Matak and Lon Nol, but both officials were aware of Sihanouk’s plan. (Central Intelligence Agency Field Report, TDCS–314/03036–70, March 18; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 105, Geopolitical File, Cambodia, Chronology, March 1970–June 1973)
  5. Nixon underlined this phrase and wrote: “Let’s get a plan to aid the new group on this goal.”