I was startled to read the Aug. 10 issue of the editorial page of The Washington Times concerning the assertion attributed to Sen. John Kerry that he had spent Christmas 1968 aboard his swift boat some five miles inside Cambodia and had been shot at by our Vietnamese allies, as well as the Khmer Rouge.
I would like to offer some insights and some background about the subject of Cambodia as it related to the U.S. war effort in Vietnam in that period. I served as a Foreign Service officer in the American embassy in Saigon from March 1968 to February 1970 and subsequently at the American embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from 1970 to 1972.
My job in the political section of our embassy in Saigon was to be the “Cambodia Man.” My principal tasks were to follow border incidents involving U.S. forces along the Cambodian border. I worked as a liaison with U.S. forces, wrote reports to Washington, followed the intelligence about Communist use of Cambodia and, given that we did not have an embassy in Phnon Penh at that time, maintained contact with the Australian embassies in Saigon and Phnom Penh because the Australians were the U.S. protecting power in Cambodia.
I also worked with the International Control Commission (ICC) in Saigon and Phnom Penh.
The International Control Commission had been established by the Geneva Agreements of 1954 that ended the French Indochina war. The ICC had separate commission offices in the former French states of Indochina: North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The offices were to monitor their local military situations. The ICC was staffed by representatives of Canada, Poland and India. While really powerless to enforce the 1954 agreements and the ongoing IndoChina war, the four commissions were kept in place as some sort of presence on the ground. Prince Sihanouk, the head of state of Cambodia, used the ICC to chastise the United States and Republic of Vietnam vigorously and publicly for alleged border incidents. If there was a border incident, he dispatched the ICC to the site. Prince Sihanouk had broken diplomatic relations with the United States in 1965 over continuing border incidents.
With the increasing use of Cambodia by the Communists after 1965, the United States offered helicopters and communications equipment to the ICC in Phnom Penh in 1968 to help the commission do its job of locating the more than 12 Communist base areas in the technically “neutral” state of Cambodia. It should be recalled that Communist troops (VC/NVA Viet Cong/North Vietnamese) came out of the sanctuaries in the “Parrot’s Beak” area of Cambodia, a mere 35 miles west of Saigon, for the Tet attacks on Saigon in January 1968. However, Prince Sihanouk, as the official host of the ICC, declined the offer of equipment, saying bluntly that the Russians would not be pleased. The Cambodians did agree in 1968 to receive U.S. intelligence about the details of Communist sanctuaries.
After Richard Nixon assumed office in 1969, Prince Sihanouk agreed to reopen the U.S. embassy, but insisted on the closure of the Phnom Penh ICC office to keep the political balance between the Communists and the United States.
During 1968, there were some 50 “incidents” along the Cambodian border involving U.S. forces. Some of these incidents involved the U.S. “Brown Water Navy.” That is, the Navy Riverine Forces, which used small patrol craft such as PBRs and swift boats in the Mekong Delta and along the waterways adjacent to the Cambodian border.
I also worked with the Navy on the issue of gun-running through Cambodia. The Navy was particularly seized with the debate over whether the Vietnamese Communists were being resupplied through the “Sihanouk Trail,” which was the extension of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or by sea aboard Chinese freighters and hundred-ton steel-hulled trawlers through the port of Sihanoukville. The Johnson administration demanded proof of the CIA and Navy intelligence positions that postulated that the only way munitions of the amount being expended in South Vietnam’s III and IV Corps could be resupplied was by ship. The Navy and local CIA station did a good job of making their case, but the supergrade CIA representatives and the senior State Department officials who came out from Washington to investigate the issue in October 1968 refused to accept that thesis because to do so would require the administration to put heat on Prince Sihanouk to do something about the use of Sihanoukville by the Communists.
After Prince Sihanouk’s ouster in 1970, we in the embassy in Phnom Penh confirmed the assumptions by the CIA and U.S. Navy in Saigon concerning the trade through “neutral” Cambodia’s port of Sihanoukville.
I worked closely with Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who was the commander of naval forces in Vietnam beginning in mid-1968 and before he moved up to become chief of naval operations in 1970. Adm. Zumwalt, unlike most senior American military, had served as an assistant naval attache in Europe as a more junior officer and knew the international political and diplomatic game. Adm. Zumwalt was politically sensitive about the activities of his Riverine units causing border incidents. There were established U.S. forces “rules of engagement” that governed the activities of American forces near the Cambodian border.
There was, for example, a “no-fly zone” along the Cambodian border, where U.S. forces ground units, aircraft and boats were prohibited from routinely approaching or entering Cambodia. I should note here that allied forces in Vietnam from Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Thailand and the Philippines were used in areas away from the border just to avoid adding diplomatic problems.
As U.S. forces in 1966 and 1967 progressively pushed the Vietnamese Communists farther and farther away from Vietnamese population centers, U.S. commanders sought permission for “hot pursuit” operations against Communist forces attacking from Cambodian territory. This always was denied, much to the military’s frustration.
The Cambodians patrolled the crossing border points on the Bassac and Mekong Rivers and had fortifications above the frontier. In mid-1968, just before Adm. Zumwalt took over, a U.S. Army LCM landing craft sailing north on the Mekong River — loaded with lubricants, gas, rations, beer and a forklift, as well as a number of U.S. soldiers — missed the turn from the Mekong River to the Bassac River (the two main north-south rivers that flow through the Mekong Delta) in order to reach its destination on the southern portion of the Bassac. Apparently the troops were somewhat bemused from the heat and the beer consumed and sailed right up into Cambodia, where they were halted by a Cambodian patrol craft and taken to the frontier base and then up to Phnom Penh. Gen. Creighton Abrams, newly in command, was furious, and Adm. Zumwalt’s predecessor was nonplussed, blurting out that it wasn’t one of his boats.
Gen. Abrams snarled, “Yeah, it was one of mine and why did they do it?” We got the crew and LCM back eventually, but that was the only river incident involving the Cambodian border or Navy actions inside Cambodia to my recollection. There were continuing firefights along the Vinh the Canal, which is a kilometer inside the Vietnamese border and stretches straight as a shot from the Gulf of Siam to the Bassac River. The canal fronted the southern Communist base areas inside Cambodia and the Navy patrol craft frequently interdicted Communist infiltrators.
There were plenty of incidents on land in 1968 involving U.S. ground forces and aircraft along the 800-mile-plus length of the Cambodian border with Vietnam. A favorite VC/NVA tactic was to pull up next to a Cambodian military post, shoot at the Americans and then leave and let the Cambodians receive American counter-battery fire or aircraft strikes.
Finally, concerning the assertion that Mr. Kerry was shot at by the Khmer Rouge during his Christmas 1968 visit to Cambodia, it should be noted that the Khmer Rouge didn’t take the field until the Easter Offensive of 1972, when the Vietnamese forces that had attacked the Cambodians initially in March 1970 pulled out of Cambodia to attack the U.S. and Vietnamese forces in Vietnam. Only Vietnamese Communist soldiers were found on the battlefields of Cambodia in 1970-72.
The bottom line of all this is that in the 15 years of active American military involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia, between 1961 and 1975, there was ongoing attention and scrutiny paid to the border because of the political sensitivities over the neutrality of the Cambodians. While things may have happened that no one ever found out about in Saigon, the Cambodians yelled bloody murder to the world press and the ICC whenever they found Americans trespassing.
Andrew Antippas served as a Foreign Service officer in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (March 1968 to February 1970) as the “Cambodia Man” and at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (1970 to 1972). He spent 32 years with the State Department (1960-92).