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International Socialism, July/August 1970



The Two Crises of Richard Nixon

2. The Cambodian Adventure


From International Socialism, No.44, July/August 1970, pp.2-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The war in Indo-China is the running sore that the system cannot heal. It will not be healed even if American forces withdraw. For Vietnam is one of the cockpits of the system, playing the role that the Balkans did just before World War I. The insolubility of the war is not because vital interests of the US ruling class – its survival – directly depend upon the result of the Vietnam war, any more than the survival of the French ruling class turned upon an earlier phase of that war or on the result of the Algerian conflict. For France, the war continued as long as it did because the attempt to re-establish colonialism was overtaken by the priorities of the Cold War and US assistance. In the American case, the reverse has happened. The priorities of the Cold War have been overtaken by those of the post Cold War period. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to link the US war in Vietnam with the global strategy of the United States. That is partly why members of the US ruling class have joined the movement of protest against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.

The Changing Strategy of US Imperialism

The classical phase of the Cold War in the ’fifties – marked by the US pursuit of ‘containment’ – entailed that Washington control vast areas of the world surrounding the Eastern Bloc through a series of interlocked military alliances. The most powerful of these, NATO, was linked through Turkey to CENTO, and through Pakistan to SEATO. If Japan had agreed, SEATO would have been interlocked with a North Pacific Treaty Organisation stretching as far north as Korea. ‘Containment’ also entailed that the US police the East-West border throughout its length – from north Germany, right round the Euro-Asian land mass to the 38th parallel dividing Korea – and underpin the alliances with direct aid, military assistance, including troops, US bases and, later on, missile sites. Marginal assistance in Germany, the Middle East and south-east Asia was offered by the British and the French. Two of the most important areas were Germany, threatening Western Europe, and the Pacifiic seaboard, threatening the United States itself. In the case of the latter, a necklace of US bases and satellite powers stretched from Singapore in the far south, through the Philippines, Guam, Okinawa, Taiwan, Japan to South Korea.

The breakdown of the Blocs followed the revolt of important Bloc members – China and France, Pakistan and Rou-mania. And the revolt occurred in part because the United States and the Soviet Union were reaching a military technology that demanded a much more centralised, concentrated, power in their own hands, and rendered the old pattern of alliances and territorial control much less vital for their survival. The relationship between the 1957 Soviet launching of the first sputniks and the Sino-Soviet dispute is only the most obvious example of the changed balance of power within the Blocs.

The expression of the change, of the concentration of power in only two sets of hands, was the Washington-Moscow ‘détente’. This did not at all end the central rivalry between Russia and America – that can only be ended by the end of the system of which these two are only parts – but it reshaped the forms of competition and it sought to lay out the rules for a stable modus vivendi between the two, regardless of the interests of their allies. More specifically, each side agreed to try and disentangle itself from an open-ended commitment to defend the interests of its allies: those interests became negotiable. One of the most dramatic examples of the disentangling came in an area where neither US nor Soviet interests are vitally at stake, in south Asia. There, the US expanded its links with India, and relatively decreased its links with Pakistan. The Soviet Union opened up relationships with Pakistan, and thus, relatively, decreased its association with India. Both stepped outside the historic Indo-Pakistan rivalry, and agreed not to use this rivalry against the interests of the other. The Tashkent agreement of 1965 was an expression of the Soviet side of this deal.

The main trend of policy was interwoven with contradictory elements at each stage in its evolution. In particular, contradictions arose in situations where the secret diplomacy of the two major powers broke down because one side could not enforce its will upon its local ally – as the Soviet Union could not and still cannot enforce its will upon North Vietnam; or where the challenge of an organised popular movement, as in South Vietnam, made outside control extremely difficult. Contradictions also arose where major Western economic interests were involved – as in the Middle East and Latin America. Russia has no leverage in Latin America, and the value of foreign investment there is more than that in all of Africa and Asia put together. Direct territorial control is thus likely to remain relatively more important there than in economically less important areas. Even so there has been some moderation in US policy since the heyday of its characteristic response to challenge – moving the marines in. Both Peru and Bolivia have been able to nationalise major US oil interests, so far without reprisals.

The détente did not, then, end the rivalry, but rather sought to insulate it from entanglement in petty local conflicts and focus it on certain key areas. The technological basis for the détente, in the first instance, included the most obvious shift – from aircraft and land power to missiles; and then from medium range missiles that needed to be located around the Soviet and Chinese borders to intercontinental missiles that could be sited in the United States itself, and finally to missiles that did not need to be sited anywhere because they were aboard Polaris submarines. The later phases of the rivalry – creating the ICBM and their elaborate defence systems, MIRV and so on, as well as the development of very long range and rapid troop and equipment air transport – transformed the role of US bases abroad and the US need for satellites. Many of the bases became immediately redundant, US troops could be withdrawn from West Germany (although their symbolic significance impeded the recognition of their declining military importance). The string of alliances – America’s fortresses around the world – could be allowed to decay in favour of Fortress America and simple bilateral arrangements between Washington and individual powers. In the Far East, the symbolic significance of US troops in South Korea – as in Germany – remained important, but the bases in the Philippines and Japan could be allowed to decline. Even Okinawa – the former Japanese island which was one of the most important US missile and air bases in the Far East – could be offered back to Japan. And the British were allowed to leave Malaya and Singapore.

Nixon’s Guam doctrine summarised some of the themes in the long term reorientation of the priorities of US imperialism. If there was fighting to be done, local gendarmes should do it. A decline in local US military commitments would permit more resources to go into the real area of rivalry with the Soviet Union, the missile sector, at just the moment when military technology – despite the SALT talks in Vienna – promises a much more massive escalation in arms competition. As it is, fewer troops were required, the draft system could be revised, and promises made that the US army would move towards a volunteer rather than a conscript force. Perhaps even – as Laird promised on June 3 – the US armed forces could be cut from its present 3.5 million men to what it was in Eisenhower’s day, 2.5 million. Of course, some of this is merely window dressing to suggest that Nixon is really a lamb in wolf’s clothing, but in substance the trend is correct. This, however, certainly does not imply the self-liquidation of US imperialism, only a change in its priorities.

The Vietnam Exception

But in Vietnam, between 1965 and 1968, the trend of US policy was in exactly the opposite direction. There US troops were embroiled, as a deliberate act of US policy, in a major land war; US bases were littered round the country and spread even to Thailand. The war, from its real inception so far as the US was concerned in February 1965, was a gamble in direct contradiction to the emerging trend. What is more, it was a gross miscalculation by Washington of the situation in Vietnam, of the likely scale of opposition, and of its ultimate effects in terms of domestic US policies. President Johnson estimated that an example could economically and speedily be made in Vietnam, a demonstration of the enormous US military supremacy and the rapidity with which it could now be mobilised to ‘put out bush fires’. The example was not merely for the benefit of south-east Asia, but for the whole world. In addition, the spectre of guerilla warfare could also be exorcised, and Washington had no doubt been looking for just such an opportunity since the abortive Bay of Pigs operation. In south-east Asia itself, the military impotence of China could be dramatically demonstrated. For Peking could do nothing to dislodge a major US presence close to its border, and in some small measure this might make up for the US failure to win in Korea. Finally, a military operation in Vietnam might be expected to impress any restless US allies with Washington’s determination to be master of the Pacific – Japan, for example. The dominoes would stay in line.

Getting in was easy. But once in, a new world was created that made it, at each stage, even more impossible to get out than the French found in Algeria. The ‘silent majority’ would not tolerate a muddy defeat, and the political damage to the credibility of US power round the world would be extremely difficult to counter. Yet from February 1965 the two alternatives remained consistently the same: to escalate or to evacuate. Escalation was limited, it seems, by some agreement reached with China: China would not enter the war directly provided US troops did not cross the 17th parallel into North Vietnam. Escalation was also limited by the need not to make a bigger crisis than already existed – for example, by using nuclear weapons in South Vietnam. The limits left only escalation in the number of troops, in increasingly dense bombing and naval bombardment of the North, and in the mass slaughter of southerners. In the middle of 1968, the arguments of the generals – for more and more military escalation – finally foundered on the shores of the long-term interests of the US ruling class. Johnson gave up his search for a decisive victory, and began to move towards evacuation. Unlike De Gaulle in Algeria, evacuation cost him the Presidency.

But evacuation presented enormous problems. Washington could not run the risk of being accused of scuttling or of having led US forces to ignominious defeat. The aircraft that had daily bombed North Vietnam, did not stop bombing; they moved over to bombing ‘neutral’ Laos, flattening the jungle in a hopeless search for yet another will o’ the wisp, the Ho Chi Minh trail. However, this change in emphasis did constitute a radical change in policy. Behind the lines in the South, the South Vietnamese armed forces – now expanded to include one in every 17 of the population – began to take over from the Americans. At the moment, of the half-million US troops in the South, it is said that only some 80,000 are actually involved in combat duties.

If the 1968 Tet offensive – with its revelation of how little had been won from three years’ large-scale US warfare – was the decisive factor in altering Johnson’s policy, the change-over to a war fought by South Vietnamese was only possible because Hanoi agreed to call off its attack in the South. It opted to wait for US evacuation, for a policy of ‘softly, softly’, rather than launch further Tet offensives that might compel the US government to yet again change its mind.


The slack National Liberation Front effort in the South – as well as the downturn in the anti-war movement in the United States – were the preconditions for Nixon to try one last gamble, one last attempt to win a battle even if the campaign was lost. But the invasion of Cambodia reactivated the anti-war movement on a scale that immediately curbed Nixon’s freedom to manoeuvre. It extracted from him promises which robbed the whole exercise of any military meaning it might have had. The American ruling class showed on Wall Street its attitude to the sabre rattling of the generals in Indo-China, to Nixon’s extravagant military adventures when domestic inflation and unemployment, the recession, the weak export and dollar performance, the invasion of the US market by foreign goods, the urban ghettoes and the students, all cried out for Presidential attention. As in the closing stages of the Korean War, it appeared clear to most of America’s rulers that no strategic gains whatsoever can be won from the Indo-China stalemate in present conditions and at acceptable prices. The profits of US companies with fingers in the pork barrel of the Vietnam war – very modest by the standards of US defence programmes – are little compensation for the attrition of overall ruling class interests.

The driving force in the Cambodian exercise has been provided by the military regime in Saigon – as well as the US generals in Vietnam – not by the US ruling class’ search for profits. To substitute for itself in Indo-China, Washington has created a Vietnamese army which now overshadows South Vietnam. And just as Ngo Dinh Diem found no way to survive politically in the shifting sands of the South except by creating an inner network of Catholic hawks in the army and civil administration, so Thieu has begun to resurrect the same Diem power base against all other challengers, from his vice-President, Ky, to the fragmented political parties, the Buddhists and beyond. For Thieu, the invasion of Cambodia is a breakthrough to independence which was denied Diem. Simultaneously, Thieu can champion one of the historic aims of Vietnamese nationalism – expansion westwards against the Khmers of Cambodia – and pursue a war abroad, a war which can be used as a truncheon to bludgeon domestic critics into conformity. It also keeps Ky on field duties. The irony can be ignored: that, after slaughtering so many Vietnamese in South Vietnam, the Saigon regime should now so impudently claim to be the defenders of the Cambodian Vietnamese. The interests of Saigon have ensured that the tail has tried to wag the Washington dog. Saigon has now effectively annexed Cambodia east of the Mekong and reduced the Phnom Penh regime to dependence. The adventure has come just at the moment when the Buddhists and students are beginning to revive the challenge in the streets which overthrew Diem in 1963 and kept all his successors running until 1965.

Cambodia – like Vietnam in 1954 – is simply the victim of the priorities of outsiders and of the triangular contest between the United States, Soviet Union and China. There are few causes in Cambodia itself for the turn of events. There was no great rupture in policy between Sihanouk and Lon Nol – the latter was after all the most trusted Minister of the former for a very long period of time. Sihanouk protested all last year about NLF and – he said – North Vietnamese troops in Cambodia (he even sent Lon Nol to Hanoi with a protest). Nor is it true, as some on the Left have suggested, that Sihanouk was really interested in a State-owned economy, while the Lon Nol faction wanted the reintroduction of foreign capital into Cambodia. Sihanouk himself admitted that the State orientation of the economy had failed and that inducements to foreign capital were needed to revive it. Nor is it true – as some Right-wing accounts suggest – that Lon Nol was a peculiarly pained nationalist, frustrated by Sihanouk’s toleration of NLF troops in the border provinces. Indeed, one US account, published well before the fall of Sihanouk, suggests that Lon Nol was the man who sold the grain to the NLF troops. Nor will the CIA do as a scapegoat. Undoubtedly, it had a number of fingers in the pie, but it did not make the pie; the CIA has been trying for many years to get Sihanouk overthrown, and that it happened now rather than earlier still needs explanation.

The Cambodian economy was indeed ailing, and, Sihanouk or not, some major reorientation of policy was called for. China has given more aid per head to Cambodia than to any other power in the world, and no doubt Sihanouk would have striven to keep or increase this flow whatever changes in policy. But Lon Nol also probably intended to do the same. Whatever the change in policy, under whoever’s auspices, it might still have given Saigon the pretext for what happened. Whatever the reasons for the coup, it coincided with military and Saigon pressure on Washington to chase yet another scapegoat, the ‘sanctuaries’ in Cambodia. In those days, the Parrot’s Beak was supposed to conceal 40,000 North Vietnamese troops (just concentrated in order to invade Saigon) and COSVN, the ‘Hanoi Pentagon’ for the South. The 40,000 shrank to 25,000 in a few days, and then disappeared altogether – like the mythical COSVN. Possibly, some US sources now say, there were two battalions there. Newspaper scepticism prompted US forces suddenly to begin to discover ‘a mountain of arms’, and the assiduous robbery of Cambodian peasant huts produced enormous ‘secret rice caches’. The reasons for the invasion changed daily according to what hard-pressed US intelligence services could find or invent. But the overall theme – that the invasion was designed to gain short-term relief for the evacuation of 150,000 US troops by next spring – was no more plausible after the invasion than before. If it is to be taken seriously, the same invasion will have to be repeated every three to six months to sustain its claimed effects.

But if the invasion of Cambodia changed nothing for the US military effort in Indo-China, it transformed Cambodia. The massive South Vietnamese invasion meant that the Lon Nol regime had only US troops as a counterweight to Saigon. Once Nixon committed himself to withdrawal from Cambodia, Phnom Penh was compelled to find other counterweights, and turned to ... the other great historic enemy of the Khmers, Thailand. The wheel had come full circle. The passionate nationalist who could not bear Sihanouk’s toleration of NLF troops in Cambodia, to get them out has now requested the virtual partition of his country by the two traditional enemies of Cambodia.

In the face of the posh protesters, Nixon’s line has veered back towards the main theme of US policy abroad. By July 1 – other things being equal – he should have withdrawn most of the US combat troops from Cambodia. ‘Advisers’ will no doubt remain thick on the ground, and US bombers will continue to support the South Vietnamese occupation troops. In any case, the Cambodian-South Vietnamese border has now been effectively abolished, so no one will know what troop movements take place. More to the point, the South Vietnamese have now created the precedent for what is possibly their next step – the seizure of southern Laos. Like Cambodia’s Quisling, Lon Nol, Prince Boun Oum – the aged representative of the southern Laotian princes who have always challenged the authority of the northern monarchy in Luang Prabang – has prepared the way by openly calling for South Vietnamese intervention. The Thais are already heavily involved ‘unofficially’ in holding up the northern regime of Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane, so the same partition as that in Cambodia is possible. With the Thai and South Vietnamese gendarmes dividing Indo-China between them, this is the Guam doctrine with a vengeance.

Hanoi, for the moment, appears to be doing little except watching. North Vietnam has no interest in provoking the resumption of US intensive bombing, particularly now when its main attention is devoted towards reconstructing its economy. It has been suggested that, since the Tet offensive in 1968, Hanoi has tightened its control over the NLF, which might explain why the NLF has so signally failed to take advantage of its opportunities for attack over the past two years, and particularly now. It seems that Hanoi has opted for a policy of waiting for US withdrawal, of avoiding acts which might provoke the Americans to stay. Certainly, during the Cambodian invasion, the NLF increased its attacks on installations in the South and thereby increased US casualties rapidly. But it was still on a fairly small scale, and selective. For example, in the week ending June 5, Saigon claimed that 71 targets were hit by the NLF. Of these, only 16 were American posts.

As for China, its role throughout the Vietnamese war has been restricted to shouting on the sidelines and giving arms to Hanoi. It has never undertaken more serious assistance – for example, by opening an attack on Taiwan which would divert US attention and forces away from Vietnam, although it undertook precisely just such a diversionary operation in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 by attacking Indian positions in Sikkim. In Cambodia, Peking has been very lucky in scooping the leader of the opposition, Sihanouk, as the centrepiece for its counterattack on Lon Nol. That Sihanouk opted for Peking, when Hanoi has the forces on the ground, and in particular, direct links with the Khmer Rouge (a force Sihanouk spent many years trying to wipe out) has led to a certain coolness in North Vietnam’s attitude to the new Chinese-sponsored opposition front. Even more, it has put Moscow into a quandary. It cannot risk being led by the nose by Peking. So far the Soviet Union has restricted its protests about the ousting of Sihanouk to threatening to change its diplomatic representative in Phnom Penh from an ambassador to a Charge d’Affaires, a terrifying sanction. It has carefully resisted Sihanouk’s requests to be recognised as the official government of Cambodia. In Indonesia, Suharto was able to win Soviet support despite his murder of much of the Indonesian Communist Party, so Lon Nol may even yet become Moscow’s man in Cambodia.

Thus, while the US invasion of Cambodia has certainly assisted a transformation of the balance of power in Indo-China, it does not appear to be the symptom of a fundamental change in US policy there. The US is likely to continue to evacuate Vietnam, despite very considerable counter pressures from the US generals and from Saigon. On the account here, evacuation is directly related to the long-term interests of US imperialism; the invasion of Cambodia contradicts them. Those interests are less and less driven to direct territorial control of the rest of the world, more and more towards a concentration of forces in the home areas. This does not indicate the appearance of a different system – one not directed ultimately to war – but rather a reorientation of priorities. It was never the case that imperialism was a system characterised by a simple conflict between the advanced capitalist powers and the backward. On the contrary, the central dynamic of the system was the direct rivalry of the leading powers, their struggle for supremacy over each other and all the rest. That struggle remains the characteristic dynamic of the post-Cold War phase, as it was of earlier phases.

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