137. Telegram From the Embassy in Cambodia to the Department of State 1

10794. Department pass to other posts as desired. Subject: Lon Nol’s Leadership and U.S. Policy.

1. Summary. Lon Nol has not developed into a strong leader over the past four years of war. His 1971 stroke sapped his energy and he failed to pick strong advisors, relying on relatives or cronies instead. Not particularly intelligent or well-organized, the Marshal has seen military reversals, economic disaster and political chicanery and violence undermine his popularity. Though no longer loved, he still has some measure of respect and can instill fear. His authority over the army, so far unchallenged, may not survive a serious future crisis. A skillful politician able to use the prestige of his office, President Lon Nol so far has been able to maintain the stability which underlies the Republic’s successful response to the 1973–74 KC dry season offensive. The Marshal has been responsive to our suggestions for changes in economic, military or diplomatic strategy but has kept his freedom of action and has occasionally short-circuited implementation of those suggestions he has found unpalatable. Totally unacceptable to the other Khmer side, Lon Nol does not have the force to compel them to accept him as the Republic’s interlocutor. American policy never wedded itself directly to Lon Nol, and we should therefore be prepared to accept the principle of his departure from power as part of an overall settlement of the Cambodian conflict. His departure should, however, be used to obtain a quid pro quo from the other side. End summary.

Leader of a Modern State

2. No one would pick Lon Nol to lead a modern state. His rise was an accident of Khmer history due, more than anything else, to Norodom Sihanouk’s desire to keep a modest, manageable figure as leader of the Khmer right. Where others, notably Nguyen Van Thieu, have grown to match the job of Chief of State, Lon Nol has not. He was admittedly severely hampered by his 1971 stroke, which lessened his energy and made impossible the kind of fast-moving countryside visits that Thieu has used to build his popular base. Lon Nol has, moreover, become more dependent on a coterie of “yes-man” advisors and ill-equipped cronies devoted more to their personal aggrandizement than to the national interest. This group is unwilling to explain to him [Page 543]the realities of Cambodia’s situation, leaving the Marshal dependent on foreigners, usually this Embassy, for candid assessments. Lon Nol lavishly rewards loyal subordinates and permits them to carry on well past the point where their incompetence becomes manifest.

3. Lon Nol is not intelligent and his prose and conversation betray a disorderly mind. He does not think logically and must be led by the hand through a chain of reasoning. The Marshal tends to involve himself in details of matters he does not have the time to study and fully understand; consequently, he issues orders on tactical aspects of both the military and civil affairs that often do not square with the realities, thereby causing problems rather than solving them.

4. Unfortunately for Cambodia, Lon Nol, like Sihanouk, is deeply suspicious of would-be rivals. He used a succession of Prime Ministers, including the prestigious Khmer Krom leader Son Ngoc Thanh, as scapegoats to expiate continuing economic, military and diplomatic decline from 1970 to 1974. The Marshal eased out first the popular but ineffective In Tam in late 1971 (and again in 1973) and then Cheng Heng and the administratively talented Sirik Matak in early 1972, but found he could not make the ousters stick in the face of an accelerating decline in popular confidence (see below) and worsening governmental and military efficiency.

5. With the departure of Lon Non, the Marshal’s activist, intriguing younger brother in 1973, Sirik Matak, In Tam and Cheng Heng returned to collaboration. The latter two fell again, leaving Sirik Matak now apparently satisfied with his role as high assistant to the President and the Marshal evidently convinced that Sirik Matak is no threat. If Lon Nol’s past history is any guide, he would see the capable Prime Minister, Long Boret, as posing the most likely immediate challenge to his supremacy. Long Boret, however, is without a military base, is faced with overwhelming problems, and so clearly enjoys American support, that Lon Nol is still willing to work with and support him.

6. These weaknesses are not balanced by the Marshal’s strengths. He is a hard worker and a patriot. Capable of vindictiveness, he is also compassionate. As a politician, Lon Nol surpasses all other GKR political figures. He knows how to size up his political opponents and allies and can pick the right combination of carrot and stick to move them. To control the military, Lon Nol uses the prestige of his office and his title of Supreme Commander. He still retains considerable authority over the military, and even the most outspoken Young Turk does not dare to face the Marshal down.

7. The Marshal uses this ability to handle politicians and the military to ensure reasonable stability under which technicians in the Cabinet and armed forces have the opportunity to bring order out of the administrative chaos in both civil and military affairs. The successful dry season defense and Prime Minister Long Boret’s [Page 544]successful balancing act in the economic and social fields are evidence of the Marshal’s effectiveness.

Leader of His People

8. Lon Nol crosses into both the civilian and military segment of the elite. He was a judge and province governor before becoming a Lt. Colonel and military commander in 1952 and then rising to Lt. General and Commander-in-Chief of Royal Forces. Among the military Lon Nol draws support because he backs up his subordinates, rewards loyalty, and subtly mingles decisiveness with an ability to cushion individuals from the consequences of his decisions (Sirik Matak, by contrast, is more decisive, but cares less about saving others’ “face”). The Marshal was, before his stroke, a physically powerful man; he enjoyed considerable prestige for successful operations against the Viet Minh while he was in Battambang. Many civilians respected Lon Nol for his judiciousness and his compassion.

9. Although he lacks the oratorical skills and charisma of a Sihanouk, Lon Nol was genuinely popular. Among the people he was known by the affectionate title “Ta Khmau” (the Dark Grandfather) because his bronze complexion is much closer to the color of the Khmer peasant than to that of the other, paler members of the Sino-Khmer elite. His widely-known devotion to astrologers and geomancers strikes a responsive chord in a country where passages de vie are celebrated on magically-determined dates and the average soldier fights with a buddha-image between his teeth believing firmly in its protection. Lon Nol also received a measure of the reverence accorded to Khmer rulers from the days of the god-kings.

10. Continued popularity, however, demanded a performance the Marshal could not sustain. By late 1971, a host of political and economic problems highlighted by the Chenla II military debacle began to emerge. Lon Nol escaped from blame as popular criticism settled on his entourage, especially his younger brother, Lon Non. The stroke had affected his popular image and he came to be viewed as a pitiable figure whose heart was still in the right place. In early 1972, however, more daring student elements began to question his leadership. Violence directed against students, manifest irregularities in the June 1972 Presidential election and a growing economic crisis sparked by interdiction of lines of communication drove elite confidence in Lon Nol to a nadir and popular unrest to a high. Younger military officers began desultory coup talk and major civilian figures voiced their despair.

11. Although most of the elite has given up on Lon Nol, popular confidence in him recovered marginally in 1973 with the formation of the High Political Council and stood up under the dry season attack and successful defense of the capital in early 1974. At this point, inflation and the destruction of Khmer rural life, along with the continued [Page 545]toll of approximately 200 killed weekly, have engendered public apathy towards all Khmer military and civilian leaders. The people continue to endure, while civilian elements of the elite reluctantly confess that they can name no one to replace the Marshal and recreate the spirit that brought the Khmer into the war.

12. Younger military commanders with an exaggerated idea of their own worth talk about replacing the Marshal, but Lon Nol still maintains a certain authority and political skill that prevents such talk from being translated into action. These younger officers will not present a serious challenge to the Marshal’s leadership, unless the Republic’s fortunes, military or diplomatic, suffer a serious reversal, which they may.

Lon Nol and U.S. Policy

13. The United States has not publicly avowed support for any individual leader or group in the Khmer Republic. Lon Nol, as Chief of State, is useful as long as he can assure political stability under which the technicians can operate to improve military and civil effectiveness. The President has so far accepted our recommendations on critical economic reforms, national conscription, military management and diplomatic initiatives. Implementation is spotty, however, and Lon Nol has shortcircuited action on unpalatable reforms which he has accepted in principle.

14. Our assessment is that no available political figure or combination of figures is likely to provide the leadership needed to reverse popular apathy and reinstill the “Spirit of March 18, 1970.” The other Khmer political leaders are as lackluster as Lon Nol; none, however, gives the promise of the relative stability that he has managed to maintain. The question of succession to the Marshal is under continuing review, but with a major diplomatic confrontation in New York shaping up and major economic problems to be faced, the Marshal’s continued presence appears essential, assuming his health permits and he maintains his close cooperation with the Embassy and support for Prime Minister Long Boret.

15. The goal, of course, is a negotiated settlement. Lon Nol is anathema to the other side, whether it be Sihanouk who feels the Marshal betrayed him or the in-country Khmer Communist Party which remembers his repression at Samlaut in 1967 and views him as hopelessly corrupt and compromised with foreign powers. The other side is doubtless keenly aware of the possibilities for political chaos if the Marshal leaves. Their demand that he, and a handful of others, leave is reminiscent of the NVA/VC insistence that Thieu and his government be removed before they would start serious peace talks. This demand is a maximum position; it is probably negotiable. The other side, of course, should not be permitted to choose those who would represent the nationalist side in negotiations.

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16. Lon Nol is no Nguyen Van Thieu, but he has shown himself of sufficient stature to serve as a major bargaining counter. The Marshal has told us at one point that he is willing to leave if his departure will help bring peace. We should certainly not let him stand in the way of a peace settlement. Before the United States asks him to make good on his word, however, his departure should be used to obtain a major concession from the other side in return.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Box 4, Cambodia, State Department Telegrams, To SECSTATE, Nodis (1). Secret; Nodis.