Politics & Policy

Holiday in Cambodia

Some historical facts.

One of the central events in John Kerry’s personal mythology is the time he was sent illegally into Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict. It was an event that bestowed on him an aura of a victimhood to balance the fact that he served in uniform, endearing him to the Left while immunizing him from criticism from the Right. The most quoted statement is from a Kerry floor speech of March 27, 1986:

I remember Christmas of 1968, sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia, I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there, the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared–seared–in me.

He reiterated this during a September 4, 1997, Senate hearing:

I first was introduced to Cambodia when I spent Christmas Eve of 1968 in a river in Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict, and I found it to be a rather remarkable and very beautiful country which had an allure to me, and to many others, which has been sustained through those years.

And he gave a more detailed if somewhat less attractive version in an article in the April 3, 1994, Providence Journal:

Christmas Eve I was up getting shot at somewhere near Cambodia. Stupid Vietnamese were celebrating Christmas by shooting tracers, fifty-caliber, right up into the air, and the goddamned things were coming right over our head. That was a wild night. That was a night like right out of “Apocalypse Now.” It was just surreal. Mortars going off. Tracers piercing the sky. People crazy. Flares.

In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard makes a dangerous, sometimes-trippy river passage to Cambodia on a PBR similar to the craft Kerry commanded. By the movie’s account, once you got past the Viet Cong ambush parties and spear-throwing tribesmen, a ship-board excursion into neutral Cambodia was pretty much a lonely voyage through the steamy jungle, right on up to Colonel Kurtz’s head-strewn temple-lair. But in fact the river route was much busier, and it would have been hard to just float on in unnoticed.

The North Vietnamese had a massive presence in southeastern Cambodia. At the time Kerry served in the Delta there were around five North Vietnamese (PAVN) divisions active in the area. A year earlier, during the months leading up to the Tet Offensive, 10,000 tons of supplies had been smuggled down river to Viet Cong assault teams. The supplies arrived in Cambodia by cargo ship to the southern port of Sihanoukville, and were carried overland by Chinese-owned trucks by way of Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border areas to be readied for smuggling in-country. The brown-water Navy played an important role in helping check this infiltration. In October 1968, Operation SEALORDS commenced–the largest interdiction mission yet–seeking to seal the entire border up to Tay Ninh. John Kerry participated in this operation as part of Task Force 115.

The Cambodian government tried publicly to ignore the PAVN smuggling operation, as well as the occupation of large swaths of the border region by Communist troops, though some reports said the Cambodian army was profiting by skimming arms and selling food to the North Vietnamese. Cambodia finally admitted that the Viet Cong used their country for sanctuary on October 4, 1968. But while PAVN activities in Cambodia were whitewashed, even minor U.S. border violations brought stern protest. Cambodia had severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. in May 1965 over some alleged border crossings during military operations, and President Johnson was very sensitive to the issue. He wanted to keep Vietnam a limited war, and would not allow major combat operations against the Communist-occupied zone in Cambodia. This unwillingness actively to eliminate North Vietnamese safe-havens was a major constraint on the ability of our military forces to conduct the war effectively. Imagine if organized divisions of Iraqi insurgent forces were holed up over the Syrian and Iranian borders, conducting operations against our troops–it would be a very different ball game.

Not to say there weren’t numerous cross-border covert operations (see the story about the origin of John Kerry’s “lucky hat,” given to him by a CIA operative he was ferrying to Cambodia–which also may have been based on Apocalypse Now, come to think of it). The covert ops were conducted under the auspices of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group(MACV/SOG) reconnaissance unit Operations 35 (OPS-35). OPS-35 operated in Cambodia from 1965 to 1972 under code names “Daniel Boone” and “Salem House,” chiefly using Army special-forces veterans and tribal mercenaries. The missions into Cambodia were strictly limited to observation, and could penetrate no more than 20 to 30 kilometers inside the country. They generally infiltrated by helicopter or overland.

Crossing into Cambodia by boat was not easy, unless one was patrolling the Bassac River, which runs along the southernmost border between the two countries, so if you landed on the wrong shore you were technically “in Cambodia.” Steve Gardner, who served with Kerry on PCF-44 during the period in question, said it was impossible for their boat to have crossed the international border elsewhere because of concrete pilings and U.S. Navy patrols blocking the way. The barriers were intended as much to keep our people in South Vietnam as to keep theirs out; we had already run into problems with people making it too far upriver without an invitation. On July 17, 1968, the Cambodian Navy captured eleven Americans on a boat a mile inside Cambodian waters. The men were on a re-supply mission but, lacking proper charts, they had inadvertently strayed across the line. The Cambodians believed they were up to no good and put the men in detention, treating them well but rejecting U.S. requests that they be repatriated. The eccentric Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk demanded a bulldozer or tractor in exchange for each man, but the president refused to meet his terms. Sihanouk finally released them, along with another American who had fallen from a helicopter on the wrong side of the border on December 19, 1968. He said it was in honor of Christmas–a Buddhist making a goodwill gesture to Christians, as he put it. Thus on Christmas Eve, 1968, the border issue was a hot topic; it is doubtful President Johnson would have tolerated any sailors blundering their way into Cambodia to foment a new crisis, much less have ordered them there.

FIGHTING POL POT?

Kerry says he remembers “what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge and Cambodians” during his sojourn into Cambodia. Of the Vietnamese, no question–particularly those allegedly drunken ARVN troops, who may have been the inspiration for his report of having fought through an ambush during the Christmas truce. We may never know: As General Custer wrote, “Once a statement obtains its place, no matter how, in an official report, years of honest effort to correct the errors it contains often seem unavailing.”

But could Kerry have come under fire from the Khmer Rouge and Cambodians? At the very least one wonders how he knew the identity of those who were shooting at him. The claim of having faced off with the Khmer Rouge is most suspect. In the period in question, Pol Pot’s band was not very large, and was based mainly in the mountains in the northeast corner of the country. The Khmer Rouge did not become a major fighting force until 1970, when with Chinese and North Vietnamese support, they expanded from a few thousand to 100,000 fighters. Nevertheless, Kerry’s claim is understandable on an emotional level. There is something romantic about claiming that one fought against one of the 20th century’s most heinous figures.

WHAT DID THE PRESIDENT SAY AND WHEN DID HE SAY IT?

Then there is the matter of the president’s statement, “telling the American people that I was not there, the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared–seared–in me.” You would think that a statement that searing would be easy to find. However, presidential statements on Cambodia from late 1968 to early 1969 deal mostly with the Paris Peace Talks. Neither President Johnson nor President Nixon went out of their way to deny U.S. troop presence in Cambodia, nor were they asked about it. One reason might be that apart from the small OPS-35 teams, there was no presence.

This changed soon into the Nixon administration. The U.S. began offensive action in Cambodia on March 18, 1969, with the advent of B-52 strikes at the previously untouched North Vietnamese support bases, code-named Operation MENU. These were the so-called secret bombings that continued until Congress halted them in August 1973. And they were definitely secret. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle G. Wheeler informed his staff: “In the event press inquiries are received following the execution of the Breakfast Plan as to whether or not U.S. B-52s have struck in Cambodia, U.S. spokesman will confirm that B-52s did strike on routine missions adjacent to the Cambodian border but state that he has no details and will look into the question.”

The bombings were reported for the first time on May 9, 1969, in the New York Times. The report noted that the Cambodians had not registered any objections to the air campaign, and the tone of the article was rather mild. But the revelation generated some political tumult among Democrats, and most significantly the sensitive information contained in the article spurred the creation of the “Plumbers,” an internal White House counter-intelligence unit tasked to track down leakers. To this end Nixon ordered illegal FBI wiretaps on the telephones of four journalists, and 13 government employees. (It was the kind of vigorous action that those calling for blood for the Valerie Plame leak can only dream of.) These were important events in shaping the contemporary liberal worldview. Four years later during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, the “secret bombings” gave rise to the first call for Nixon’s impeachment. The campaign was halted by the Case-Church Amendment, which forbad any further U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia effective August 15, 1973–thus sealing the fate of South Vietnam and Cambodia.

But–getting back to the story–all this was probably not what Kerry was talking about. A better candidate is a statement Nixon made a year later. On March 13, 1970, Prince Sihanouk finally ordered PAVN and Viet Cong troops to leave his country. But five days later he was ousted in a coup by pro-U.S. General Lon Nol–about whom Spalding Gray, in Swimming to Cambodia, memorably observed, “No one in America knew anything about Lon Nol–the press didn’t know anything about Lon Nol except ‘Lon Nol’ spelled backwards spelled ‘Lon Nol!’” (Sihanouk joined the Khmer Rouge, lending legitimacy to what was then being made a true combat force by their Chinese sponsors.) With a new ally in Phnom Penh, Nixon sought to clean out the North Vietnamese sanctuaries. On April 30, he sent thousands of U.S. soldiers into Cambodia in a combined operation with South Vietnamese and Cambodian forces. This was no secret war–the president announced the offensive in an Oval Office address to the nation. Significantly, he stated that “American policy…has been to scrupulously respect the neutrality of the Cambodian people.” And although the North Vietnamese had been there for some time, “for five years neither the United States nor South Vietnam has moved against these enemy sanctuaries because we did not wish to violate the territory of a neutral nation.”

This may be what seared Kerry. By then, however, he was long gone from his fast boat. The president’s very sensible move against the enemy is another event that has become enshrined in leftist dogma as a pillar of Nixon’s criminality. It generated immediate activist violence (“bums blowing up campuses,” the president called them) but Nixon’s approval rating moved up to 59 percent in a May 22-25 Gallup poll, and the public disapproved of the student demonstrations by a 5:1 margin (even after the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970). U.S. troops withdrew from Cambodia after only two months, and an August poll showed 61 percent of the public saying the operation was justified. But in the meantime the U.S. Senate repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and in December the Congress banned further use of ground forces in Cambodia or Laos.

The point of this article is not to be an exhaustive review of John Kerry’s varied claims to have been in Cambodia. The web is already full of them, and in any case, new versions of the events are reportedly coming from the Kerry camp. My purpose is rather to add some additional historical context to the discussion.

My own take on the conflicting and questionable statements Kerry has made is that over the years he probably got sloppy with the facts, making his story more romantic and self-aggrandizing in the process. By juxtaposing his presence in Cambodia with Nixon’s statement that we had no troops there, Kerry gets to call the president a liar and make himself out to be something of a casualty of “Nixon’s War” (as he calls it; I can understand why he would not want to credit his hero John F. Kennedy, but skipping entirely over LBJ strikes one as simply odd). In his account, he is both hero and victim, warrior and dissenter, able to lean toward whichever persona is most useful to him at the time. If anything, it tells us a lot about Kerry’s self-image. But even if everything Kerry said was true–even if he was in Cambodia when the president said we had no troops there–the candidate’s tone of weary cynicism over the affair is misplaced. He was never ordered to go to Cambodia, and if he got there at all, he was violating U.S. policy and international law. The president might have honestly (so far as he knew) stated we had no troops in Cambodia, not knowing that Lieutenant Kerry was drifting around there in existential agony, trying to figure out how to turn a navigation error into an event of great moral significance.

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