William J Rust has been researching and studying the history of US relations with the nations of Southeast Asia for more than three decades in an effort to explain the origins of the Second Indochina War. His latest book, Eisenhower & Cambodia, focuses on the Eisenhower administration’s policies toward Cambodia and its mercurial leader Norodom Sihanouk after that country gained its independence in the wake of the First Indochina War against France.
Rust has a keen eye for detail, and his research—manifested in 40-pages of footnotes—shines a light on the complicated politics of Southeast Asia in the 1950s, including the region’s political and military leaders and dissident groups, as well as US diplomats stationed there.
Sihanouk sought US and Western economic and military assistance for Cambodia, but with little or no strings attached. He tried to delicately maneuver between the competing sides in the Cold War, preaching neutralism and nonalignment. He viewed his anti-communist neighbors—South Vietnam and Laos—as pawns of the United States and accused them of aiding his domestic political opponents. Above all, Sihanouk sought to maintain power for himself and his family and independence for his country.
American diplomats and policymakers described Sihanouk as a political schizophrenic, “erratic and unpredictable,” “anti-American”, frustrating, disturbing, and “cynical”. Rust provides some evidence and numerous inferences of US involvement in attempts to overthrow or undermine Sihanouk’s government, including plots to assassinate the Cambodian leader. The author admits, however, that without the declassification of more CIA documents, it is impossible to prove U.S. involvement with certainty.
American diplomats and policymakers described Sihanouk as a political schizophrenic, “erratic and unpredictable,” “anti-American”, frustrating, disturbing, and “cynical”.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Sihanouk believed that the Eisenhower administration—either directly or indirectly—sought to undermine his power and he reacted accordingly. Rust suggests that Sihanouk was correct, concluding that Eisenhower’s
covert intervention in the internal political affairs of neutral Cambodia proved to be a counterproductive tactic for advancing the anticommunist goals of US policy.
Rust’s conclusion, however, is based on a combination of evidence, inferences, and speculation. For example, Rust notes the “limited documentary record of clandestine American assistance to Son Ngoc Thanh and the Khmer Serei,” (domestic opponents of Sihanouk) but suggests the “likely possibility” that more documents exist but are still classified. Similarly, in discussing the “precise role” of American involvement in a plot by Dap Chhuon to overthrow Sihanouk, Rust suggests that “more enlightened declassification” of government documents could reveal the truth. Or again, in writing about the CIA’s likely involvement with South Vietnam’s use of Cambodian dissidents to undermine Sihanouk, Rust speculates that US diplomatic telegrams “may” have mentioned or discussed these matters.
The context within which Rust judges the Eisenhower administration’s interaction with Cambodia is set forth early in the book where he decries:
the US consensus emphasizing the power of communist ideology in international relations while paying scant attention to the history, people, and politics of individual countries, in particular those in Asia. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, American officials tended to reduce the complexity of relations within and among nations to a global zero-sum game in which countries were either lost to or won from an international communist conspiracy efficiently directed by the Kremlin. The failure to see the threats posed by the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as related but distinct phenomena, each with its own dynamics, strengths, and limitations, led American officials to the dubious conclusion that Indochina was strategically significant to US national security.
There is, to be sure, merit to the above analysis, but Rust has the benefit of hindsight, including the later emergence of the Sino-Soviet split and the US defeat in the Second Indochina War. The Eisenhower administration, on the other hand, viewed events in Southeast Asia through the prism of the early Cold War period—Soviet encroachments in Eastern and Central Europe; Soviet development of the atomic and thermonuclear bombs; the communist triumph in China and subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union; the geopolitical analysis set forth in NSC-68 warning of the Sino-Soviet threat to the West; the North Korean invasion of South Korea; Quemoy and Matsu; and the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Moreover, Rust apparently discounts the importance to US policymakers of what came to be known as the “lessons of Munich”, which taught that the failure to respond to even limited aggression by revolutionary totalitarian regimes would lead to greater aggression and, ultimately, war. Indeed, this was the basis for Eisenhower’s proclaimed “domino theory” as applied to Southeast Asia. It is here, in Eisenhower and his policymakers’ acceptance and belief in the validity of the lessons of the preceding 15 years, where we find the real origins of the Second Indochina War.