250. Memorandum From Roger Morris, Winston Lord, and Anthony Lake of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Cambodia

We believe that the situation in Cambodia demands action by the U.S., but that the nature of our action is constrained by the facts of the situation. Failure to act within the limits of possibility could destroy the chances for salvaging what we can.

I. False Issues

We must recognize that there is no attainable perfect solution in Cambodia. It is clear now that the government of Lon Nol cannot rally support in the countryside and, more important, that the Cambodian Army is extremely weak both in competence and in spirit. Short of sending in U.S. divisions and/or of deep and long-term ARVN penetrations of Cambodia, it does not seem possible to achieve the “best solution”: an anti-Communist Cambodian government in control of its country and preventing VC/NVN use of its territory against South Vietnam.

We do not have the time required to build up the Cambodian Army to the degree of effectiveness required by the situation—if this were ever possible. To try to find this “best solution” is unrealistic.

Another false issue is the question of sending in U.S. divisions or of supporting deep and long-term ARVN penetration. This would probably be militarily ineffective in the long run unless we were willing to become bogged down as a garrison force in another country. The Cambodian government could not accept deep and long-term ARVN penetration without destroying any pretensions to political legitimacy, and the military value of such penetration would, again, be extremely [Page 853] doubtful. These steps would also raise a political storm here, as it would be the most shocking spur to fears of widening involvement in U.S. ground combat in Southeast Asia.

Deep ARVN raids on a short-term basis or “one-time” use of U.S. forces on a large scale could ease military pressure, but only in the short run. It could not alter the basic balance. Lon Nol himself is against deep ARVN penetration, long or short term. With the Cambodians slaughtering Vietnamese, the GVN will have political problems coming to their aid on a massive scale.

This does not by any means rule out all U.S. actions, however. We need not fear giving the North Vietnamese excuses for their own activities. They do not need public excuses. They act on interest, as we should.

II. U.S. Objectives

Given this framework, our objectives should be:

  • To avoid the return of Sihanouk . If he returned, it would be the result of a Communist decision to allow this, which implies meaningful assurances that he would do their bidding. His return would have a military effect on the war in Vietnam, as the Communists would no longer be bound by the restraints of discretion imposed by the unspoken nature of Sihanouk’s earlier accommodation with them. More importantly, Sihanouk’s return as a Communist stooge would have a serious psychological effect in Vietnam and Laos, and would at least provide an issue for Thieu’s opponents against him, especially and dangerously among hard-liners in the Army.
  • To avoid public U.S. involvement in the pursuit of an unattainable objective. We should not therefore by word or deed publicly commit ourselves to the existence of the Lon Nol regime, although we should continue to support Cambodian neutrality. Any public U.S. military involvement (whether troops or direct military assistance) in Cambodia could have the effect of tying us to Lon Nol. It would have four very serious consequences:
    • •It would heighten the adverse psychological effect in Vietnam, Laos and elsewhere of the regime’s dissolution through more specific involvement of U.S. prestige;
    • •It would limit our own options if the situation deteriorates further and could involve us later in a serious crisis and commitment to military action which we would not now desire;
    • •It would reduce flexibility in the diplomatic situation and the possibility of achieving the objective listed immediately below; and
    • •U.S. troops in Cambodia would have a strong and damaging political effect in the U.S. which would both hurt the President’s Vietnam policies and divide the country further. Fears of widened U.S. involvement in the ground war in Southeast Asia are evident.
  • —The best objective we believe realistically attainable would be a return to the status quo ante without Sihanouk—i.e., a neutral Cambodian government under current or other non-Sihanouk leadership which has reached a private undertanding with the Communists that they may use the border areas in the same fashion as earlier. This would mean that the Cambodian government would look the other way but not publicly acquiesce. This would imply the possibility of continuing Menu and defensive cross-border operations by the GVN —without active Cambodian opposition to military activity by either of the Vietnamese forces in the limited border area. Although not a good situation, this would be better than a Sihanouk government which actively opposed the GVN and would publicly oppose Menu, etc.
  • —There should be at least some good chance for the Cambodian Government to reach such an accommodation, if it seeks one seriously and if we do enough in the short run to make it clear to the Communists that they cannot easily reimpose Sihanouk. The situation would not be essentially different from that in which the Communists were willing to live pre-coup, and there may be some question from their point of view about how one gets reliable assurances of puppetdom from a man like Sihanouk. Their sensitivity to the Cambodian situation has been amply demonstrated. One may presume there is a good chance that they would like to see it resolved in a way which would allow them to make use of the border areas for their struggle in the main theater.
  • —We should give assistance to Lon Nol in the short run which would help achieve such a diplomatic solution. This implies indirect U.S. military assistance and other supporting moves.

III. Implications for Decisions on U.S. Actions

With these thoughts in mind, we believe we should:

—Take actions to improve the possibilities of an accommodation between the Cambodian Government and the Communists. We should approach Lon Nol and advise him of the assistance which we feel we can give, but also advise him that we believe it would be in his interest to seek a solution directly with the Communists. We should not suggest to him exactly what this solution should be, except by implication. He would be better at it than we.

This would obviously severely damage his morale, and his approach to the Communists could be interpreted by them as a sign of weakness. But damage to his morale would move him in the direction of accommodation, and his approach to the Communists would be private to avoid hurting the morale of his supporters. Although his approach would be a sign of weakness, no one knows better than the Communists how weak he is anyway.

[Page 855]

It is not certain by any means that they will stop short of installing a puppet whatever we do. But the elements of uncertainty in their calculations noted above, and the actions outlined below, give the status quo ante without Sihanouk a certain attraction to them.

  • —Continue to rally diplomatic support for Cambodian neutrality, but not for Lon Nol himself.
  • —Take actions which would help put pressure on the Communists to reach accommodation and which would buy time for such a move. These would include:
    • • Military assistance to the RKG through covert GVN assistance (e.g., the AK–47’s and other weapons) and through the Indonesians, Australians and perhaps the Thais;
    • • Continued psychological operations against Sihanouk;
    • • Strong U.S. military actions within current guidelines in Southern Laos and within South Vietnam against Communist troops along the Cambodian border; and
    • • Continued agreement to shallow border actions by GVN forces with Cambodian concurrence.
  • —There should be the following firm conditions to acquiesence in shallow GVN attacks into Cambodia:
    • • The Cambodian Government must officially request this type of assistance, and be willing to make this request public.
    • • These operations should be strictly ARVN, with no direct U.S. role; i.e., no U.S. troops, advisors or tactical air support. If this limits the extent of ARVN operations, they should be so limited. (Note General Westmoreland’s conclusion that “if we react quickly enough, we may be able to exploit the situation to our overall advantage without any substantial involvement by United States forces on the ground.”)
    • • Since the North Vietnamese can up the ante, we should make clear in advance that we will not send our forces into Cambodia to bail out the South Vietnamese if they get into trouble.
  • —There should be no U.S. direct military involvement in Cambodia. We must assume that any use of U.S. forces in Cambodia, e.g., U.S. tactical air, gunships, military advisers, or participation in cross-border actions with GVN forces, will become public very quickly. These actions, as argued earlier, would increase our involvement and prestige in a losing cause, limit diplomatic flexibility, and have severe political consequences in the U.S. And it could bog us down in another war in the long run.
  • —These factors all apply still more strongly against significant air attacks on North Vietnam. As you know, we oppose bombing North Vietnam also on the grounds that it gains us much less in damage against North Vietnam than it loses us here in its effect on our society and abroad in our relations with friendly nations and our negotiations [Page 856] with opponents at the SALT and Warsaw talks, etc. These negative arguments grow in strength the greater the level of bombing considered—e.g., bombing the city of Hanoi or the dikes.

If we do decide on direct U.S. involvement in Cambodia, we believe it should be (a) public and (b) in a multilateral context. It would be particularly damaging if we intervened directly and tried at first to fuzz it with U.S. public opinion. And the Nixon Doctrine has little meaning if other countries more directly affected than we refuse to help.

IV. Geneva Conference

The above package of U.S. actions might not be sufficient to gain our least bad alternative of a Cambodian Government modus vivendi with the Communist forces and a return to the status quo ante without Sihanouk. We are already doing or plan to do everything suggested above except the approach to Lon Nol recommending that he seek accommodation with the Communists.

Thus, our above moves with relation to Cambodia should be coupled with an all-out U.S. campaign in favor of a new Geneva Conference. Our basic pitch would be that:

  • —Due to various Communist pressures, events in Indochina are apt to get out of hand.
  • —We are trying to avoid the spreading of the military struggle in Southeast Asia and prefer a diplomatic solution.
  • —We obviously cannot go to a conference if the Communists start marching on Phnom Penh.
  • —Many countries have expressed an interest in a new Geneva Conference.
  • —Such a conference would supplement, not supplant, other negotiations under way or contemplated, such as the Paris Talks, internal discussions among the various Laotian factions, and a possible dialogue between the Lon Nol government and the Communists.

There are several arguments in favor of our taking the initiative on a Geneva Conference:

  • —Given the present fragile situation in Indochina, and particularly Cambodia, a bold move is obviously required. Our present half-measures of cautious diplomacy and very limited military assistance clearly won’t stabilize the situation. For reasons cited above, our bold moves should not be military ones.
  • —Such an initiative by us would certainly receive very strong and widespread approval around the world. Among the countries that count, the British, French, Soviets and various Asian nations have all, to one degree or another, favored such a conference. Malik’s initiative, [Page 857] however subsequently fudged, clearly shows that the Soviets would probably go along with a conference, and that perhaps some elements in the Hanoi leadership would also. Faced with the international pressures caused by our initiative, it would be very difficult for these countries to block such a conference. This, in turn, would isolate the Chinese who by themselves could hardly prevent a conference.
  • —There would be strong public support in this country for such an initiative.
  • —This international and domestic support for our trying to find a diplomatic, and not a military, solution would place the President in a very strong position if the Communists blocked the convening of a conference or marched on Phnom Penh. We would be in a better position to take stronger military measures once we had demonstrated our willingness to go the diplomatic route and the Communists’ preference for continued military struggle. The advantage would be only tactical, however, and we believe the same arguments as outlined above would counsel against strong U.S. military action in any case.
  • —With regard to Cambodia, even with all the problems that such a conference would pose, the odds would seem somewhat better than our present ones. The broad umbrella of a conference, coupled with a dialogue between Lon Nol and the Communists, should give us a greater chance to prevent Sihanouk’s return and establish a modus vivendi on the pattern of the status quo ante.

IV. Conclusion

We thus believe that the U.S. should not commit its prestige through its diplomatic position or its actions to an objective which we believe is unrealistic—a Cambodian Government under Lon Nol or anyone else which is anti-Communist and in control of the whole country. The next best solution is a return to the status quo ante without Sihanouk, including an accommodation between the Cambodian Government and the Communists which would allow Menu and limited defensive cross-border operations by the GVN. Direct U.S. military involvement in Cambodia would damage rather than enhance the prospects for such a solution. A strong move for a Geneva Conference would be essential.

In the end, however, we believe the U.S. must face squarely the basically untenable situation in Cambodia—and that no remedy in proportion to our interests may be available.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 506, Country Files, Far East, Cambodia, Vol. III, 10 April 1970–23 April 1970. Secret; Eyes Only. Kissinger discusses this memorandum and his meetings with these NSC staffers on this memorandum in White House Years, pp. 493–494 and 497. Lake and Morris resigned from the NSC staff over Cambodia. (Letter from Morris and Lake to Kissinger, April 29; ibid., Box 1048, Staff Files, Lake Chronological File, 6/69–5/70) William Watts also resigned, an account of which is in William Shawcross Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia, p. 145.