By Patricia H Kushlis
In three days, the international media will have long forgotten last week’s centenary of the Armenian “genocide” and moved on to the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, an event in history which still reigns as a defining moment in the memories of the hundreds of thousands of the mostly young Americans who fought there and in the families and loved ones of those who did not make it home alive. (photo by PHKushlis, 2002: Cambodia war memorial to the killing fields.)
Yet before the fall of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh’s forces and the messy US evacuation from South Vietnam, came the US evacuation of its embassy in Cambodia, an event that has, for the most part, sunk into obscurity. In fact, the US government had already left Phnom Penh – evacuating its remaining embassy staff - and the killing fields of Cambodia 18 days before the Saigon departure began. Perhaps had this first US evacuation from French Indochina also been as chaotic - more media attention would have been paid to it. In contrast, it occurred smoothly and proceeded with few if any a ripples.
So what did happen that Saturday 18 days before and why was it significant?
Forty years ago on April 12, 1975, the US evacuated its remaining staff from US Embassy in Phnom Penh. The staff left by military helicopters – most of the rest had flown to Bangkok by fixed-wing several days before. Their departures signaled the beginning of the end of American military intervention in French Indochina. The great US military Southeast Asia draw-down thus began.
The US left Saigon in a much more troubling, heart-wrenching and photogenic way 18 days later and Vientiane quietly fell to the Pathet Lao in May but, in stark contrast, the US never broke diplomatic relations with the Laotian government unlike it did with Vietnam and Cambodia.
The costly and mistaken domino theory
The specter of Communism taking over the rest of Southeast Asia - if we were to leave – otherwise known as the “domino theory,” however, proved false. None of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) five – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei – were taken over by Communist insurgents despite the fact almost all had, or had been, threatened by home grown versions helped from elsewhere – most notably the PRC or the Soviet Union. Time, of course, proved the domino theory wrong.
For the fun-loving, king-revering Thai who had never experienced European or American colonization, at least, Communism was far too austere to be attractive for long. In the Philippines, the Marcos regime was too strong and lasted for another 11 years. But truth be told, the histories, cultures and peoples of the various countries that make up the patch-work quilt of Southeast Asia are as different as they can be from one another. Had the US government recognized the differences, understood the nationalist forces at work and responded differently it’s likely that the ignominious retreat of US forces and cessation of diplomatic relations with China’s underbelly would never have happened at all.
My story: what I saw
Since I arrived in Bangkok in early 1972, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh had been operating under siege conditions. The city was only accessible by aircraft - planes flown over combat zones by experienced military pilots. On the ground: all roads to Thailand or Vietnam were controlled by the Khmer Rouge as their noose tightened around the capital.
Embassy spouses and families lived in Bangkok and as the Embassy in Phnom Pen was evacuated, its staff moved into US Embassy Bangkok – lock, stock and files. We knew the evacuation was coming beforehand: the question was the day, not if.
Unlike the evacuation of US Embassy Saigon during which far too many American and Vietnamese employees were left to their own devices to flee or be captured and interned by the Viet Cong, the evacuation of Phnom Penh was a well-oiled professional job directed by the Embassy in coordination with the US military and enacted over weeks. It included Cambodians – from high government officials to gardeners who had worked for Americans – people who felt their lives were endangered. Not just American staff almost clinging to the blades of the last helicopters as they lifted off. (photo by PHKushlis 2002: US helicopter on roof of the "reunification palace."