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


  • Hanoi’s Current Options in Cambodia

Recent North Vietnamese statements and actions on Cambodia still do not clearly indicate exactly how Hanoi now plans to proceed there. Hanoi has not yet closed any of its options and is apparently still attempting to assess developments before committing itself irrevocably to any course of action.

The North Vietnamese government has made one official statement on the Cambodian situation. That statement endorsed Prince Sihanouk’s call for resistance to the new government, and it accused the new government of being a “servant of the United States.” It also, however, contained elements of caution. Although it said that “the Vietnamese people wholeheartedly support the Khmer people in this just struggle until final victory,” it repeatedly indicated that Hanoi saw this [Page 743] primarily as a Cambodian struggle. It thus suggested that there were limits on Hanoi’s overt involvement in the struggle, if not on its covert support.

Hanoi Objectives: Hanoi’s ultimate objective in Cambodia is to have that country controlled by a government subservient or at least friendly to Hanoi. Its current short-run objective is more limited: to use Cambodia as a sanctuary and supply area for Communist forces in South Vietnam, either with the cooperation of the Phnom Penh government or in defiance of it.

Now Complicated: Prince Sihanouk’s attitude while he was in power served short-run North Vietnamese purposes because it permitted them to use Cambodia as a sanctuary. Premier Lon Nol’s call on the Communist forces to leave obviously complicates Hanoi’s prospects in South Vietnam. Hanoi cannot win the war in South Vietnam under its current strategy without making use of Cambodia. Since Hanoi is still thoroughly committed to taking over South Vietnam, it must do something either to change the Cambodian government or its position.

May See Opportunity: Although Hanoi is probably unhappy about the course of events in Phnom Penh, which have complicated its ability to use the Cambodian sanctuary, it may also hope to use these events to advance its position, not only to safeguard the sanctuaries but also to accelerate the development of a Communist or pro-Communist government in Phnom Penh. (We do not know what Communist role in Cambodia was agreed in Peking between Prince Sihanouk and Hanoi Premier Pham Van Dong.)

Hanoi Options: To regain its sanctuaries as well as supply lines and perhaps to bring about a favorable change of government in Phnom Penh, Hanoi now has the following options:

Option A: Rapid use of Communist military forces against Phnom Penh, reinstalling Sihanouk or some other government favorable to the Communists.

Advantages: Such a course has a number of advantages. It could give Hanoi control of Cambodia, provide a secure rear for the war in South Vietnam, and forestall the Cambodian government’s effort to consolidate its control.

Disadvantages: However, such an overt action might trigger a U.S. response in Cambodia or perhaps even against North Vietnam, and it might also trigger South Vietnamese military operations against Communist forces and bases in Cambodia. There has also been little preparatory political work for such a move, and Hanoi usually precedes its military moves by political efforts.

Option B: Use of Communist forces and cadres to foment dissension and insurrection, leading to a “people’s war” and providing a front for Communist military moves. Perhaps split Cambodia, as Laos is split.

[Page 744]

Advantages: This course preserves some advantage of speed, even if not quite as much as Option A. Unlike Option A, it provides a native screen for the Communist forces and makes it harder for the U.S. and the GVN to become involved.

Disadvantages: By relying on Cambodian political forces and native support, Hanoi delays gaining control of Phnom Penh and may give the government time to consolidate itself. Moreover, such a course places greater reliance on Sihanouk’s backing, since his support is essential to its success, and he is a mercurial friend. It would probably not give Hanoi early access to the port of Sihanoukville.

Option C: Classical “people’s war,” developing a Communist political infrastructure, developing contacts with local dissidents, forming a “liberation front” or “government in exile,” and proceeding to win popular and military support.

Advantages: This is the doctrinally proper course, which is important. It is least likely to provoke a U.S. and GVN reaction. It also gives the Communists more time to develop a complete infrastructure, leaving them in a stronger position later.

Disadvantages: This course takes a long time. It opens another front when Hanoi already has its hands full, and it does nothing to improve Communist fighting conditions in South Vietnam quickly. Moreover, it involves having Sihanouk for an ally over a long time, a prospect which Hanoi would not relish.

Option D: To attempt to work with the present Cambodian government, pressing it to let the sanctuaries remain and to continue the flow of supplies.

Advantages: This keeps the bulk of Communist resources concentrated on Vietnam, where they belong, and it does not materially increase the cost of the conflict. It also runs the least risk of provoking any reaction.

Disadvantages: It puts the Communists at the mercy of the Lon Nol government. It also has a number of internal contradictions.

Current Tactics: Recent Communist actions suggest that Hanoi is now following Option B, using its forces and supporters to move as fast as possible against the new government without actually pushing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces openly into battle against Cambodians. Hanoi is probably not yet certain whether these tactics will work. Much depends on the degree to which it can de-stabilize the government without incurring too much Cambodian reaction.

Other Options Still Open: Even while Hanoi is following these tactics, it appears to be weighing the situation carefully to see whether they will work or whether something else is needed. If Hanoi decides that it must follow Option A, using its own forces more overtly, and that it can do so without great risk of U.S./GVN retaliation, it still might choose that option. On the other hand, if it determines that the Cambodian government is now too strong and that the state of Communist political preparation and Sihanouk’s popular support is inadequate, [Page 745] it can still go back to Option C and settle down to another long “people’s war.” We also believe that Hanoi has not yet closed off all chances of dealing with Lon Nol and that at least one objective of its current pressure against the new government is to persuade Phnom Penh to agree to the re-establishment of the Communist supply lines and sanctuaries on favorable terms.2

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 145, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, April 1, 1970. Secret; Nodis; Sensitive. Sent for information. Haig signed for Kissinger. A note on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it on April 3. This memorandum was based on an analysis prepared by Holdridge on March 26 entitled, “What Hanoi Might Now Do About Cambodia.” Kissinger wrote the following note on it: “Excellent job. HK.” On March 31 Holdridge sent Kissinger this memorandum to the President with the recommendation that Kissinger sign it. (Ibid.)
  2. On April 1 Holdridge sent Kissinger a memorandum outlining possible U.S. moves in Cambodia and suggesting U.S.–GVN contingency planning if the North Vietnamese moved on Phnom Penh. Holdridge wrote: “This contingency plan of course raises all the problems of escalation and U.S. involvement. On the other side, however, is the spectre of a Communist-dominated Sihanouk government providing a secure sanctuary and logistics base for the VC/NVA.” (Ibid., Box 506, Country Files, Far East, Cambodia, Vol. II, September 1969–9 April 1970) Kissinger cites Holdridge’s second sentence quoted above as “our nightmare” in White House Years, p. 470. On April 2 Winston Lord prepared at Kissinger’s request a long paper on U.S. policy options in regard to sanctuaries in Cambodia. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 145, Vietnam Country Files, Vietnam, April 1, 1970)