Learn about the beta

238. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Dr. Kissinger
  • John H. Holdridge, NSC Senior Staff Member
  • William Nelson, CIA
  • [name not declassified]

SUBJECT

  • Dr. Kissinger's Conversation with CIA Officer Recently in Phnom Penh

[less than 1 line of source text not declassified], explained that he had been sent to Phnom Penh on the QT to contact the Agency's number one agent in Cambodia and to get from him a better feel for the realities of the situation. (This agent [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] has been working for CIA for quite some time and has simply worked his way up through the bureaucracy.) [1 line of source text not declassified], going to Phnom Penh in the course of a swing through Europe so as to avoid running into people who might recognize him. [1 line of source text not declassified]

[1 line of source text not declassified], extremely euphoric over the political change in Cambodia. [name not declassified] was a dedicated man who hated Sihanouk and all he stood for and he now felt there was a good chance for Cambodia to make some progress.

Dr. Kissinger asked how the coup had come off. He had heard Sihanouk had staged the anti-Hanoi and anti-PRG demonstrations, and that these had gotten out of control. Was this possible? [name not declassified] replied that they, meaning General Lon Nol and Vice Premier Sirik Matak, had done it. Mr. Nelson said that Lon Nol and Matak had been put into power last summer by Sihanouk to improve the economy, and were still working with him when he left for Europe although they were very disturbed at the increasing NVA/VC use of the country. There was some question as to whether the demonstrations against the Hanoi and PRG Embassies were spontaneous, but the feeling against the Communists in Cambodia was widespread, particularly in the cities, and emboldened Lon Nol and Matak to go farther than they had originally intended. However, they had sent an emissary to [Page 829] Sihanouk to ask him to join them, but Sihanouk had refused to see him. Sihanouk must have been badly advised. Perhaps he felt that he could handle the situation, and that it was not really so serious. There was no indication that Sihanouk was behind the demonstrations.

Returning to the subject of [name not declassified] euphoria, [name not declassified] said that this euphoria did not seem to be accompanied by a realization of the practical requirements. [name not declassified] had not focussed on such questions as weapons and the VC encampments in Cambodia, and he, [name not declassified], felt that here was another small Southeast Asian country where nobody knew what was going on. The country was not too badly off financially, though—all the assets which Cambodia had possessed under Sihanouk had come into the hands of the Lon Nol Government, plus the “palace funds” which had been socked away by Sihanouk.

Dr. Kissinger mentioned he had heard that Lon Nol had been involved in supplying the VC, and wondered why Lon Nol had changed. Mr. Nelson confirmed that a Hong Kong Chinese had handled the financing of the supply arrangements for the VC through Cambodia, and that this Chinese had made pay-offs to Lon Nol and Sirik Matak with the understanding and the blessing of Sihanouk. He personally could not account for the shift on Lon Nol's part. Mr. Holdridge commented that since Lon Nol had been in effect operating under orders, he may have concluded that he might as well enjoy some of the benefits. This would not, however, necessarily mean that he approved of what Sihanouk was doing and he could have welcomed the opportunity to move against the Communists.

[name not declassified] observed that the Cambodians figure the next thirty days are critical. They believe that the people are on their side, and have come to realize that the many silly things that Sihanouk had done had hurt the country. The army was in bad shape, and arms were needed for the students and the civil service. As of April 10, the Cambodians didn't know what arms were actually needed. They did not seem worried about Sihanouk's broadcasts from Peking, and said that they wanted the people to hear him. This would publicize Sihanouk's zig-zags and foolishness, as well as the fact that he was a tool of the Chinese. As to foreign assistance, they were asking the small countries for help and hadn't asked the US yet (again this was as of April 10). They would first try the Indonesians and Filipinos.

To a question from Dr. Kissinger as to whether Sihanouk could have kept the Communists out of Cambodia, [name not declassified] replied that it was not a strong country. Dr. Kissinger observed that it could be argued that Sihanouk had been making the best deal he could for the country. He, Dr. Kissinger, always thought Sihanouk was a political genius. Was he mistaken? Mr. Nelson replied that Sihanouk was [Page 830]fast on his feet and adroit, but was up and down. He was with you one day and against you the next.

[name not declassified] had been in Phnom Penh before this most recent trip, and had seen the masses marching for Sihanouk. They had seemed sullen, in contrast to the demonstrations in favor of the new government. Still, the VC could come right up and take Phnom Penh. In moving about the city, he had seen how the army was functioning in setting up its protective posts, and had the impression that the troops were lackadaisical. In setting up his appointments [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] he had traveled around considerably in pedi-cabs, and had seen no patrols. They had thought he was a newsman, of whom there were plenty in the city. He noted in passing that [name not declassified] had been delighted to get this visit, since it amounted to a concrete expression of US support.

Dr. Kissinger asked if the Cambodians would cave to the Communists. [name not declassified] replied it was now clear that they were scared and worried, but he didn't really know whether they would cave. Dr. Kissinger wanted to know if Sihanoukville had been closed, and how the Communists would supply their base areas. Would they need to rely entirely on the Ho Chi Minh Trail? Mr. Nelson declared that they could rely on their stockpiles for a while, but there were no more incoming shipments. Before, Chinese ships had come to Sihanoukville every six weeks to two months, and the supplies off-loaded from these ships were then taken to a Cambodian arsenal in Kampong Speu from which they were diverted and shipped to the border by the Hak Ly trucking company. The Hak Ly trucks have now all been commandeered by the Cambodian army.

On the subject of the Cambodians possibly crumbling, [name not declassified] observed that after they found they had greater problems with the NVA/VC than they had anticipated, and that the French (with whom they had been rather close) were not doing anything, they had come to the conclusion that somebody had to help them, and that this somebody was the US. With more fighting on their hands, their morale needed bucking up, the only way at the moment to give this bucking up was to give the AK–47 package and provide a Swiss bank account. If we wanted to keep this kind of Cambodia alive, a material gesture had to be made very soon. They were beginning to sound frantic. [name not declassified] thought that Lon Nol and Sirik Matak would certainly appreciate guns and bullets. [2½ lines of source text not declassified] Sirik Matak, who had pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and scrawled down a TO&E for a light Cambodian battalion and had drawn out of his hat the total of 200,000 Cambodian troops. This was the origin of the shopping list which had been passed along to us in terms of equipment, medicines, and clothing.

[Page 831]

Dr. Kissinger again asked if the Cambodians would collapse if the Communists moved out of their sanctuaries against them. [name not declassified] thought that they would, but Mr. Nelson felt that they would fight. In his opinion, the Communists hadn't yet decided what to do and wanted elbow room and to move the Cambodian troops back from the border. They were rolling up the smaller Cambodian posts to get freedom of movement. But there was nothing to indicate that they would or would not move out. He personally believed that they would think twice about opening up another front. This would be a major operation requiring many battalions, and the Communists had shortages of rice and ammunition on their side. They might still hope to wiggle around and make a deal with Lon Nol. In the meantime, they had pulled several of their battalions out of South Laos into Cambodia, for what purpose he did not know. They had a major logistical problem in moving supplies South due to the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Mr. Nelson was certain that there was lots of worry in Hanoi.

Dr. Kissinger asked [name not declassified] if he could get back into Phnom Penh easily. [name not declassified] replied negatively, saying that he was too conspicuous, and there were too many newsmen in the city. Mr. Nelson, [2 lines of source text not declassified] He had hoped that a decision could have been made by now, and was still waiting for one. Dr. Kissinger remarked that they would have had this decision except that all the top people in State were out of town and he did not wish to put the matter before Mr. Samuels, who was Acting Secretary. He felt sure that the word would be passed by Monday or Tuesday.2 [2½ lines of source text not declassified]

In conclusion, Mr. Nelson mentioned that two C–141s were [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] ready to go. One contained AK–47s and the other was loaded with one 1000 man battalion package of US arms and equipment. He hoped that the arms would move that evening. He noted, too, that the Thai battalion was all set to move into Laos.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 506, Country Files, Far East, Cambodia, Vol. III, 10 April 1970–23 April 1970. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Holdridge sent this memorandum to Kissinger on April 21 and Kissinger initialed his approval. (Covering memorandum from Holdridge to Kissinger, April 21; ibid.)
  2. April 20 or 21.