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."
Part of the reason was an Ambassador – Ambassador John Gunther Dean, who had seen the handwriting on the wall – and acted accordingly – whether he agreed with the pull-out decision or not.
Read the Cambodia evacuation story in juxtaposition to that of Ambassador Graham Martin, Dean’s counterpart in Saigon, who by April 30 had himself fallen apart under the pressure. The Embassy abandoned our Consulate staff upstream who had to find their own way out by river boat, did too little to help too many Vietnamese who had sided with us and, to add insult to injury, almost left our two remaining U.S. Information Service employees stranded – the Public Affairs Counselor and his secretary, while allowing his own wife to take her lap dog with her on one of the last helicopters out. Why she or the dog were even in the country at the time speaks volumes. No one else had been accorded, or should have been accorded, that privilege.
In contrast, the orderly evacuation of Phnom Penh began early Saturday morning. Jim McHale, the USIS public affairs officer (the post’s only USIS officer), and a gaggle of western journalists who covered the evacuation as well as the Ambassador were on the last helicopters out of the besieged city. They and the other evacuees were deposited first on a US carrier waiting in the Pacific then transported, little worse for the wear, to a Thai airbase and then on to Bangkok a short time later.
The short straw
I remember the day all too well because I had drawn the short straw that morning and was Embassy Bangkok’s USIS duty officer backstopping Bill Haratunian, our Acting Public Affairs Officer, who ran the media show at our end. Many of the international press corps covering the Cambodia story were Bangkok-based or had entered Phnom Penh from the Thai capital, just a short flight away. Our Press Attache had meanwhile gone to the designated Thai military base to greet the evacuees and accompanying media as they arrived.
My role was simple: to answer the phone, screen calls, keep a low profile and hand all media queries to Hartunian who was continuously receiving instructions from Washington and real time reports of the evacuation from McHale.
Only one reporter – a Thai who worked for UPI’s Bangkok bureau – was smart enough to ask why I happened to be in the press office at the Embassy answering the phone on a supposedly quiet early Saturday morning since, well, she knew I was a very junior officer, my office was located in the USIS compound several miles away, I didn’t deal with the media and besides it was the weekend and I should have been home having a leisurely breakfast.
The wars in both Cambodia and Laos were, of course, primarily side-shows to the Vietnam conflict. It’s not that we didn’t know about them and I don’t agree that they were kept “secret” or that they weren’t reported in the US and international media; they just didn’t draw the political attention that Vietnam did except for a few members of Congress from both parties who had previously descended upon the Embassies for reasons more related to grandstanding for their next campaign or on personal, taxpayer paid, shopping expeditions in the jewel and bamboo rich Orient.
The Pathet Lao take-over in Laos and the vicious Khmer Rouge regime which replaced the government of Lon Nol couldn’t have been more different. In Laos, power essentially shifted from one member of the royal family to another; whereas the world ultimately witnessed the horrors of the killing fields of Cambodia enacted by a revolutionary group of French educated secondary school teachers who had seized power behaving akin to today’s ISIS: brutally and barbarically murdering the country’s own population and subjugating those they didn’t kill in their single-minded attempt to gain and retain power.
It took several years for that full story to come out as survivors of the horrific Communist-purge fled the country often walking miles to cross the border to reach refugee camps on the Thai side.
Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos remain under varying forms of Communist control while the rest of Southeast Asia ranges from the democratic Philippines and Indonesia to forms of paternalistic authoritarianism. Even the three countries of French Indochina have shed the austere communal economic systems which had emulated China under Mao’s worst experiments of peasant communism during the “Great Leap Forward.” All have re-established or retained relations with the United States. And as China has become wealthier and more aggressive especially in its disputed claims in the South China Sea, relations with the US have improved particularly and perhaps most ironically Vietnam.