Fifty-four years ago today, on March 18, 1969, 60 B-52 Stratofortress bombers took off from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam with orders to bomb a target in Vietnam. Of this number, 40 B-52s were diverted to Cambodia (a nation whose neutrality had been guaranteed by the 1954 Geneva Accord) and dropped 2,400 tons (4,800,000 pounds) of ordnance. President Richard M. Nixon was so pleased with the results that he followed up with a total of 3,800 additional B-52 sorties which dropped 108,823 tons (217,646,000 pounds) of bombs on the same country, which had committed not a single hostile act against the United States. Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger deliberately kept this air war secret, even to the extent of lying to Congress about the operation. The bombing eventually targeted over 50% of Cambodia’s territory. Farmers fled their fields in fear, moving to what they perceived as the safety of Phnom Penh and causing the collapse of the nation’s agricultural economy.
Exactly one year after the first American bombs were dropped, on March 18, 1970, Cambodia’s Chief of State, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was deposed and replaced by General Lon Nol. Between May 1 and June 30, 1970, United States ground forces invaded eastern Cambodia. American university campuses erupted in protest. On May 4th, National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed Kent State University students protesting the invasion of Cambodia. Four million students (including the author of this blog) from 450 universities went on strike. Meanwhile, Cambodia was in chaos, and the Khmer Rouge took advantage of the situation to expand its insurgency, aided in no small measure by the anguish of the Cambodian people which was a result of the American bombing and invasion.
The American military actions continued, mercilessly, on an innocent and defenseless population. No one knows how many were killed by American weapons, but the minimum estimate is “more than 50,000.” The Khmer Rouge continued to leverage the dismay and the anger of the Cambodians and converted countless numbers to their cause, which up to that point had been only dimly perceived. The Khmer Rouge eventually won the civil war and overthrew the Khmer Republic in 1975. There followed four years of autocratic, totalitarian, repressive rule, and genocide by the Khmer Rouge, during which 25% of the Cambodian population was either murdered or starved to death. The Khmer Rouge was finally overthrown on January 7, 1979, just short of ten years from Nixon’s first bombing of Cambodia. The trauma and material remnants of this terrible decade still torment and afflict the Kingdom of Cambodia and its population.
In mid-January 2023, while I was waiting for the afternoon classes at the Cambodian Children’s Fund to begin, Phin Narin, one of the English teachers, asked how I got involved with CCF. I realized that my motivation must be mysterious to all without knowledge of my long-standing relationship with and admiration for the Cambodian Minister of Roads and Transport, so I started back in 1997 when I first met Chanthol Sun. I explained how he had been a student in the Advanced Management Program at Wharton, and how our friendship had flourished over the intervening 26 years.
Narin then offered to tell me about his background. He was born in 1973, during the civil war but two years before the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. His father was a provincial government official. When he was still a baby, the Khmer Rouge had murdered his father and forced his family to watch. The Khmer Rouge threatened to kill the entire family if anybody showed any grief or other emotion. Narin is a gifted and effective teacher who smiles all the time. It is the only expression his face can form. He smiled as he told me this story, but I knew that his heart was weeping, as it must every day when he remembers what happened to his father and to his family as a consequence.
Not every Cambodian affected by the Khmer Rouge has the emotional resilience of Narin. One of the first comments that Scott Neeson made to me after my arrival in Phnom Penh concerned the long-term effects of the policies of the Pol Pot regime. “In terms of the environment (in Steung Meanchey) the squalor and poverty are defining features. A less obvious (and equally damaging) issue is the effect of the Pol Pot days. The mass murders, starvation, and deaths of at least 20% of the population, have left Cambodia with some of the world’s highest rates of PTSD. Additionally, Pol Pot separated family members and many never reunited. With the vast majority of today’s adult population being small children or born during this period, much of the adult population is without emotional attachment, parenting skills, understanding of basic care, empathy, or affection, etc. Hence the kids’ desire for hugs, connection, and being seen. Knowing them individually is all the more healing.”
In the academic community, there is discussion and intellectual infighting about the Khmer Rouge. Some tend to downplay the impact, or place it in the “context” of traditional Cambodian politics. Scott Neeson is not an academic and does not engage in speculation or scholarly debate about such matters. He is a passionate advocate for the children he sees every day, an acute observer of their behavior, and a first-hand witness to the environment in which they live. He knows which children have one parent, two parents, or no parents. He knows the mental, economic, and emotional circumstances of the children. Scott’s observations are to me, infinitely more valuable than all the academic jockeying. Who cares about who is intellectually more nimble? What matters is the welfare of the children of Steung Meanchey.
Every political calamity has many causes, and the Khmer Rouge was no different. However, there is no question in my mind that one can draw a straight line from that first B-52 dropping bombs on Cambodia on the night of March 18, 1969 to the victory of the Khmer Rouge, the breakdown of the Cambodian economy, and the genocide, to the piteous conditions and the broken people of Steung Meanchey on March 18, 2023, 54 years to the day after the first bomb was dropped.
We citizens of the United States bear responsibility for much of this disaster, and I believe that we owe the Cambodian people a debt that will be difficult if not impossible to pay. I have now been involved with the Cambodian Children’s Fund as a volunteer assistant teacher in Phnom Penh for an embarrassingly short period of time compared to what I personally feel I owe. But at least I was there, and maybe I was able to help a student, or two, or five, to climb out of the hole that my nation dug for him and her. We as individuals owe at least this much. But we as a nation owe much more.
U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced S. 3795, the Legacies of War Recognition and Unexploded Ordnance Removal Act in the 117th Congress (2021-22). This legislation would have authorized the president to provide humanitarian aid to, among other countries, Cambodia for the clearance of unexploded ordnance (bombs and mines) and assistance to survivors of the explosive remnants of war in that country. These sponsors of this bill noted that Cambodia has experienced one of the highest rates of landmine and unexploded ordnance casualties in the world. Over 64,000 Cambodians have been killed or injured by explosive remnants of war, much of which were dropped, placed, or launched by American forces and aircraft. The bill would have authorized $100 million annually for the then-current and the next four years for these purposes. This bill was under review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the Senate concluded legislative action for the 117th Congress, effectively killing the bill. It has not yet been reintroduced to the 118thCongress.
We need to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions as a nation. One way is certainly to help clean up the unexploded bombs that we dropped on Cambodia. Another way is to support the Cambodian Children’s Fund, which is doing the difficult, long-term, but rewarding work of giving hope to the next generation of Khmer children. I will support the CCF financially to the extent I am capable. I will return to serve as a volunteer assistant teacher at CCF to the extent my health allows. I remember that my cohort – the young women and men who were in college in May, 1970 – felt passionately about Cambodia and our obligation as a nation to do the right thing. Where are you now, my brothers and sisters? Were your emotions and protests genuine that spring 54 years ago? Will you join me in shortening the distance between our hearts and our deeds?