205. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1


  • The Coup in Cambodia
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Herewith our preliminary estimate as to what has happened in Cambodia:2

What Has Happened. The National Assembly “unanimously agreed to withdraw confidence from Prince Norodom SihanoukPrince Sihanouk shall cease his function as Chief of State… Mr. Cheng Heng, Chairman of the National Assembly, is entrusted with the function until the next election of a true Chief of State… .” Aside from its doubtful Constitutionality, this declaration is fuzzy as to what has been changed (Cheng Heng has been Acting Chief of State since Sihanouk’s January departure from Cambodia), and there are various Constitutional processes for deciding who will be Chief of State. The only clear point is that there has been a no-confidence motion against Sihanouk.

Sihanouk is flying from Moscow to Peking, and has said that he will return. However, the airport in Phnom Penh has been closed, probably to forestall such a move.

The Nature of Power in Cambodia. The National Assembly itself has heretofore been a cipher, although it is elective (and a new election is scheduled this year). The same may be said of the interim Chief of State. The power elements in Cambodia have been

  • Sihanouk, with his royal title, popularity, and tactical brilliance.
  • —Prime Minister Lon Nol, normally thought Sihanouk’s heir-apparent, with the Army backing him, and with control of much of the lucrative smuggling trade with the Communists.
  • Sirik Matak, Deputy Prime Minister, a forceful personality without much organizational backing.

There are few other sources or organized political power. The Prince’s political party, the Sangkum, is not disciplined and will probably respond to whoever is in power, or disintegrate.

The Nature of the Challenge. Lon Nol and Sirik Matak have long struggled with Sihanouk for the right to administer the Government free of his personal and whimsical interventions. They have been in and out of office for years, having been put in most recently (by Sihanouk) last August to clean up the economic mess which was developing out of his inept handling of economic problems. He made a desultory challenge to their administration in December, but was overruled.

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Lon Nol and Sirik Matak have not differed with Sihanouk on the broad outlines of policy, although they probably favor a freer economic climate and more positive efforts to deal with Cambodia’s economic and bureaucratic problems. As the new Communiqué proclaims, they stand for Sihanouk’s neutral policy.

Lon Nol has heretofore been content to be Number Two, but this appears to be a straight power challenge. In popular anger against Vietnamese Communist incursions, he has found a good issue to challenge Sihanouk (and the Army fanned up that anger), but Lon Nol’s dealings with the Communists do not suggest that he is a fervent anti-Communist or anti-Vietnamese patriot.

Future Choices. This situation will probably move in one of three ways:

  • —A Lon Nol/Sirik Matak-dominated new Government supported by the Army, with little popular support and forced to buy popularity with anti-Vietnamese slogans and economic progress.
  • —A shaky compromise akin to the barons’ truce with King John in 1215, permitting Sihanouk to come back as Chief of State but with much limited powers. This would be an unstable situation, as Sihanouk maneuvered, probably successfully, to outflank and eliminate his challengers.
  • —A Sihanouk victory, by turning the Army against Lon Nol.

The Implications for Foreign Policy and for Us.3 Khmer nationalism has been aroused against the Vietnamese Communist occupation. Any future Government will probably have to be more circumspect and covert about its cooperation with the Vietnamese. Lon Nol has chosen this issue, and he will need to be able to demonstrate publicly that he is taking action against the Vietnamese occupation. Similarly, Sihanouk will not for some time open himself to the charge of being “soft on the Vietnamese.”

This will create serious problems for the VC/NVA, which will have considerable reason to take a more hostile line toward Cambodia.

Lon Nol will have to keep his followers happy. Therefore, if he wins, we should not expect a sudden termination of smuggling to the Communists.

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Sihanouk could turn to the Vietnamese Communists for military support to neutralize Lon Nol’s military strength, but he is probably too clever a politician to do so in any open way and thus invite the label of “Quisling.”

A Lon Nol victory could result in a more pro-US and pro-Thai policy. Lon Nol would want US economic aid, and he would be less inclined to trust his ability to manipulate the Communists, which would encourage him to develop his relations with the more reliable Thai neighbors.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 506, Country Files, Far East, Cambodia, Vol. II, September 1969–9 April 1970. Secret. Sent for information. On the bottom of the first page Nixon wrote: “I want Helms to develop & implement a plan for maximum assistance to pro U.S. elements in Cambodia—Don’t put this out to 303 or the Bureaucracy. Handle like our air strikes.” Kissinger wrote at the top of the page: “I want to discuss with Helms Monday am.” Holdridge sent the draft of this memorandum to Kissinger on March 18, suggesting that he send it to the President. (Ibid.)
  2. On March 18 the Department of State sent the White House its preliminary analysis of the situation in Cambodia. Holdridge sent it to Kissinger and noted that it was “substantially in line” with this memorandum to the President, “although it is heavier on description and lighter on speculation as to possible outcomes and implications.” Holdridge also summarized Japanese analysis, which held that the Lon Nol/Sirik Matak Government would be stable because of Lon Nol’s control over the Army and Sirik Matak’s new control over the police and bureaucracy. (Ibid.)
  3. On March 18 at noon, Kissinger and Rogers discussed the overthrow of Sihanouk. Rogers suggested, “I think we should be very careful not to say anything until we know more about it.” Kissinger responded, “All we are saying is that we respect their neutrality and not another word.” Rogers stated that, “Mansfield said we are not involved in anyway. That’s a good line to follow but I think it’s unwise to say whether or not we have agents there.” Rogers also thought the development could “be fortunate in some ways. If SVN and Cambodia can work together.” Kissinger noted that, “It may compensate for Laos.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Telephone Conversations, Chronological Record)