- - Tuesday, June 7, 2016


By William Rust

University Press of Kentucky, $40, 354 pages

Did the Eisenhower administration, acting through the CIA, join Thailand and South Vietnam in an attempt to overthrow Norodom Sihanouk, the mercurial king of Cambodia, as the Indochina War approached a boiling point in 1958 and 1959?

Such is the question posed — but not definitively answered — by William J. Rust in the fourth volume of his series of books on the diplomatic history of the Vietnam War. Mr. Rust offers overwhelming evidence that CIA officers know of the plot and, indeed, supplied logistical support. But did their efforts go beyond a careful watch on the scheme, to the point that CIA was collaborating in a plot aimed at Sihanouk’s downfall? Mr. Rust reports that he found no “smoking gun” to this effect.

Washington surely had ample reason to be disillusioned with Sihanouk, whose declared policy of “neutrality” tilted in favor of communist states — notably, the People’s Republic of China — which were trying to overthrow the Saigon government. Through the CIA and their own intelligence arms, both South Vietnam and Thailand knew that Vietnamese communist guerrillas used Cambodia as a launching pad for cross-border attacks.

Although ostensibly a monarchy, Cambodia had been a French protectorate since 1864. Sihanouk inherited the throne in 1941 at age 18, a choice over two other candidates. Why? A State Department report stated, “Sihanouk’s youth, inexperience and taste for high living were counted upon to ensure his continued docility to French control.” Sihanouk’s “power” did not extend beyond his palace inner circle. Vichy French overseers collaborated with the Japanese occupiers.

In 1950, under U.N. prodding, France declared Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos as “autonomous states” within the French Union. But Sihanouk scorned moves toward democracy, dissolving the national assembly and canceling elections. Predictably, he was challenged by nationalists, both democratic and communist.

So what should Washington do about a putative ally it considered to be “weak and inconsistent?” During the mid-1950s the Eisenhower administration opted for military aid. But Sihanouk wanted more than was offered, and he visited the USSR and the People’s Republic of China in quest of more favorable deals — all the while professing “neutrality.” His rhetoric became stridently anti-United States.

As the communist insurgency in Vietnam intensified, Washington became concerned about cross-border incursions by communist guerrillas based in Cambodia. Hence the CIA kept a watchful eye on anti-Sihanouk insurgents led by a western-oriented figure named Dap Chhuon.

And here the CIA walked a very thin line between monitoring a plot and abetting a plot.

The apparent central figure was a CIA officer named Victor Masao Matsui, a California-born Japanese-American who was one of the more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry interned during World War II. He joined the U.S. Army in 1945 and worked as an interpreter and interrogator before joining CIA in 1952. In 1957, he was working in Phnom Penh, Laos. CIA colleague James Lilley said in due course, Matsui’s “name became the word for ‘spy’ in Cambodian.”

Matsui’s chief contact with the dissidents was Dap Chhuon’s brother, Slat Deau, a deputy in the national assembly and former delegate to the U.N. A Saigon intelligence operative provided the plotters with mobile broadcasting equipment, two Vietnamese radio operators, and 595 pounds of gold bars.

But Cambodian security officers got wind of the plot and sent a convoy of 70 armed cars to Dap Chhuon’s home to arrest him. He fled into the jungle. The Cambodian press immediately blamed the CIA for instigating the plot, naming Matsui as a key figure.

So what was the truth? Walter Robertson, assistant secretary of state, admitted “intermittent contact” with Dap Chhuon but “refused his request for help and emphatically urged him not to undertake illegal action against Sihanouk.”

And William Colby, then deputy chief of the CIA station in Saigon, (and later director of central intelligence) said the CIA sought to dissuade Vietnamese and Thai plotters from a coup that “we felt was unlikely to succeed and would only exacerbate the problem of dealing with Sihanouk.” The contact with the coup-makers was intended “that we would know what was happening.”

Mr. Rust suggests that such statements “appear to be a cover story for a more complicated reality.” Documents on direct complicity (if such exist) would be withheld to preserve “presidential deniability.”

But if such a plot existed, who was responsible? Hear Russell Jack Smith, a CIA officer from the 1940s to the 1970s: “Anyone who entertains seriously the notion that the CIA could assassinate a leader or topple a foreign government contrary to White House order or permission simply does not understand how power is disposed in Washington.”

CIA plot? White House plot? No plot? Take your choice.

Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently in intelligence and military affairs.

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