What the U.S. Bombing of Cambodia Tells Us About Obama's Drone Campaign

A look back at another instance in which the U.S. undertook a secretive and widespread bombing campaign.

Cambodia.jpg
A Cambodian man prays at a Buddhist ceremony as around 300 skulls that formed a giant map of Cambodia are dismantled at a genocide museum in Phnom Penh on March 10, 2002(Chor Sokunthea/Reuters)

Halfway through the Justice Department white paper [PDF] defending the lawfulness of government-ordered assassinations of U.S. citizens, there is a curious reference to a dark chapter of American history.

The memo, making the legal case for covertly expanding military operations across international borders, directs readers to an address by State Department legal adviser John R. Stevenson, "United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law," delivered to the New York Bar Association in 1970.

The comparison is fitting in ways the Justice Department surely did not intend.

Like the current conflict, the military action in neutral Cambodia was so secretive that information about the first four years of bombing, from 1965 to 1969, was not made public until 2000. And like the current conflict, the operation in Cambodia stood on questionable legal ground. The revelation of its existence, beginning in 1969, was entangled with enough illegal activity in this country -- wiretaps, perjury, falsification of records and a general determination to deceive -- to throw significant doubt on its use as a precedent in court.

The most important parallel, though, isn't legal or moral: it's strategic. As critics wonder what kind of backlash might ensue from drone attacks that kill civilians and terrorize communities, Cambodia provides a telling historical precedent.

Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives -- more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II -- on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City's. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.

The bombing had two primary effects on survivors. First, hundreds of thousands of villagers fled towards the safety of the capital Phnom Penh, de-stabilizing Cambodia's urban-rural balance. By the end of the war, the country's delicate food supply system was upended, and the capital was so overcrowded that residents were eating bark off of trees.

Secondly, the attacks radicalized a population that had previously been neutral in the country's politics. The severity of the advanced air campaign -- "I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them," then-U.S. President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger -- fomented immense anger in the Cambodian countryside. Charles Meyer, an aide to the deposed Prince Sihanouk, said that it was "difficult to imagine the intensity of [the peasants'] hatred towards those who are destroying their villages and property." Journalist Richard Dudman was more precise. "The bombing and the shooting," he wrote after a period in captivity in the Cambodian jungle, "was radicalizing the people of rural Cambodia and was turning the country into a massive, dedicated, and effective rural base."

Nevertheless, many historians continued to deny the causal link between the violence and the political upheavals in the country. Cambodia's embrace of radicalism instead fit neatly into the Cold War-era "domino theory" paradigm, de-emphasizing the role of local conditions in driving the country's history.

William Shawcross, in 1979's Sideshow: Kissenger. Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia , was the first to advance the theory that the meteoric rise of the Khmer Rouge was not in spite of the U.S. bombing campaign but because of it. Taylor Owen, the research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and Ben Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, have concluded that the full war archives, released by President Clinton in 2000, confirm this version of history.

Presented by

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.   

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Global

Just In