289. Memorandum by Director of Central Intelligence Helms 1


The Honorable Henry A. Kissinger Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs

The Honorable U. Alexis Johnson Under Secretary for Political Affairs

The Honorable David Packard Deputy Secretary of Defense

General Earle G. Wheeler Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff


  • Appraisal of the Cambodian Situation
Our Station Chief in Saigon submits the following appraisal of the Cambodian situation as of 11 May 1970.
In mid-April 1970 the immediate Communist military objectives appeared to be confined to the protection of their base areas and lines of communications in areas immediately adjacent to the Cambodian/Vietnamese border. Since then they have expanded the scope of their operations. They have moved west toward Phnom Penh, cutting lines of communications, occupying strategic towns, and isolating Phnom Penh from major portions of Military Regions One, Two, Five and Six. The Vietnamese Communist/North Vietnamese Army (VC/NVA) have used their main force units selectively to date, and the participation of elements of the 5th Division in attacks on Kratie has been the exception to the general rule that most attacks on Cambodian targets have been by small VC/NVA units. Most large VC/NVA units are dispersed within Cambodia or are otherwise protecting themselves from Allied advances on their base areas. Nevertheless, so far the VC/NVA, no matter how they are used tactically, have been more than a match for the Cambodian National Army (FANK). The Communists are probably motivated to expand their activities westward into Cambodia by a definite decision that the Lon Nol Government is to be replaced with a more cooperative institution which will permit the Communists to freely use Cambodia as a base area. The speed of the Communist movement may be a direct result of the ease with which they are overcoming FANK resistance and, in the past week, of the pressure they may [Page 963] feel from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the American advances, which are much deeper and more intense than they could have expected. However, despite the apparent enemy capability to mount a military assault on Phnom Penh, there are no indications that the enemy is now moving units needed for such an attack or otherwise preparing an imminent knockout blow against Lon Nol. Instead, his intention seems to be to maintain military, economic, psychological and political pressure on the Lon Nol Government while building his own Cambodian power base with which to cloak his eventual attempt to take over the country. The cloak may be Sihanouk’s government in exile, the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), with or without Sihanouk himself. This tactic will spare the Communists both the expenditure of military effort needed to overthrow Lon Nol and the international opprobrium which open Vietnamese Communist (VC) aggression against the neutral capital presumably would bring. Of course, if the Lon Nol Government falls prematurely under its own weight or as a result of Communist pressure, the enemy would undoubtedly move to exploit the situation.
At the same time the Communist control of surface access routes in Cambodia’s Northern Military Region I has isolated Northeastern Cambodia. Communist control of this area, coupled with the recent actions in Southern Laos, particularly the fall of Attopeu, appears to increase the potential Communist logistical access to South Vietnam’s II and III Corps from the Laotian Panhandle. It appears Hanoi wants to use the Sekong River during the 1970 rainy season for water transport of material from Southern Laos to Eastern Cambodia. Heavy use of this river route could decrease the total impact of Allied interdiction capabilities in both Southern Laos and Eastern Cambodia and might in part offset Hanoi’s loss of access to Sihanoukville (Kompong Som).
The VC/NVA might be stimulated to move against Phnom Penh more precipitously than the tactics described in paragraph two seem to call for if Allied operations into his base areas seriously threaten his ability to exist as a military force in Cambodia or drive him to seek supplies in Phnom Penh or beyond. However, while it is too early to attempt to judge the final effect of Allied incursions into the base areas, the enemy probably is not yet driven to desperation moves. Allied operations are disrupting his total support structure, but his fighting units remain essentially intact, and the type of operations he is carrying on in Cambodia do not require elaborate logistic support. So far the following appears to be the net results of Allied actions in Cambodia:
For the time being the Communist sanctuaries have been pushed farther from their Vietnam target areas.
Communist logistical activities have been disrupted both materially and administratively.
Nevertheless, the Communist command and control structure [Page 964] over its fighting forces inside South Vietnam has not been significantly disrupted.
Communist capability to mount a major offensive in South Vietnam at the end of the 1970 rainy season has been appreciably reduced.
The Communists now can regard no area in Cambodia as their sanctuary and must devote more of their available resources to providing security for their base areas.
Only the 271st and 141st Regiments and three main force battalions have resisted Allied advances sufficiently to suffer serious casualties which have had an impact of reducing their unit integrity and ability to function as an effective combat force.
In the present situation the VC/NVA have several options; one of which would be to attempt a diversionary action within South Vietnam to ease the pressure on its base areas. However, significant potential for this exists only in Northern I Corps where he can, with little notice, launch division-size attacks across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or from the western base areas across the lowlands against the population centers. The enemy is not now in an apparent posture to do this. Elsewhere he has little capability for any activity which would require a significant response by Free World military forces. The VC/NVA are capable of brief spurts of activity, characterized by widespread artillery attacks and limited sapper and ground probes. The enemy already has alerted his local forces in South Vietnam to attack exposed hamlets left unprotected by the dispatch of Allied forces into Cambodia. In addition, the VC/NVA have a limited capacity for publicity-grabbing terrorist and rocket attacks on Saigon and other major population centers. There are numerous reports that such attacks are already planned in connection with the current spring-summer campaign.
The effectiveness of Communist tactics in Cambodia, and to a large extent of Allied attacks on their base areas, will depend in part on the viability of the Lon Nol Government. Despite a boost in morale which was obtained from Allied support and attacks on Communist base areas, there is no doubt that the Lon Nol Government has grown weaker in the past two weeks and popular support has slowly eroded in the face of economic problems, governmental inefficiency, growing resistance to the draft and continued insecurity in large portions of the country. The Lon Nol Government continues to be dependent on foreign aid for economic and military wherewithal to exist. Its desperate needs from outside sources include money, communications equipment, and perhaps most importantly, ammunition. On the other hand there are no signs yet of dissension within the government and the army, while inept, still apparently is loyal to Lon Nol and remains the power base on which the government rests. As long as Lon Nol continues to retain this loyalty, and FANK does not disintegrate, it is unlikely the Communist could restore Sihanouk or any other government without continuing military effort.
On the diplomatic front, the Lon Nol Government is fast losing any mantle of neutrality it may once have worn. It has done much of this itself through the avidity with which it has sought and welcomed Western aid. The Communists have helped to push the Cambodians into a non-neutral stance. The formation of FUNK and the subsequent rupture of relations between Cambodia and Communist China, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and North Korea will pose problems for the Soviet Union, France and other governments which heretofore have finessed the recognition problem. The effect could be further international isolation of the Lon Nol Government. Furthermore, the formation of FUNK and its consequences eliminate Communist China as a potential middleman in negotiations between the Cambodians and the VC and, for all practical purposes, appears to rule out the possibility of any negotiated settlement involving the Lon Nol Government and DRV or the Provisional Revolutionary Government. The FUNK and the Indochinese People’s Front also provide a cloak of legitimacy which the enemy can spread over the presence of Communist Vietnamese forces in Cambodia.
As a consequence, the upcoming Indonesian-sponsored conference on Indochina assumes a major importance for Lon Nol. A successful conference which supports the position of his government could provide a needed international boost. A conference made up primarily of strongly declared anti-Communist nations, or the failure of the conference to express significant support for the Lon Nol Government would severely affect the morale in FANK and in the civilian population, reduce the chances of the government getting much-needed international economic assistance and thereby decrease the government’s chances of success.
The prospects of the Lon Nol Government surviving are really no better now than they were two weeks ago. In fact, Lon Nol’s problems are becoming more complex with the passage of each day, for he has not gotten the badly needed economic and military equipment or the political support which he has asked of his Asian neighbors. This has weakened Lon Nol’s confidence and the spread of war has started an erosion of his popular support. Prospects for Lon Nol’s future are bleak, particularly if the VC/NVA continue to keep the current level of military pressure on his government.
[less than 1 line of source text not declassified] commenting on the above information believes that the viability of the Lon Nol Government depends on what the Communists choose to do to it. He does not believe that the government is weaker now than it was two weeks ago, but remains the same. There does not appear to be any resistance to the draft and the vast majority of the populace in Phnom Penh are supporting the Lon Nol Government in its efforts to solve the problem of Communist military activity. Those who may not support it appear [Page 966] to be standing down and giving it a chance to solve the deteriorating military situation. However, if Phnom Penh should come under attack, he believes the government would then be in serious trouble. The populace and possibly some high-ranking army officers then would become less charitable toward Lon Nol.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 508, Country Files, Far East, Cambodia, Vol. V, 8 May 1970–22 May 1970. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only.