Special Collections and Archives

Part Three: Gleichshaltung

Special Collections and Archives

Part Three: Gleichshaltung

Return to the Charles A. Thomas Papers (KSU May 4 Collection)

 

Blood of Isaac
an e-book by Charles A. Thomas

 

 

Part Three: Gleichshaltung.

 

Chapter Eight: The Killing Fields – Prelude.

 

          General Robert Shoemaker, commander of the First Air Cavalry, flew his own chopper to the front.   He knew where he wanted to go, and it left his crew free to zap the gooks.   “Troops are just like children,” he confided to the Reporter on the way in, “They need praise, to be told when they are doing a good job.   Everybody’s happy when he is a winner.”   But when they reached the fire support base, the Reporter did not see happy troops.    “They looked bothered by the sun and the dust,” and perhaps by something deeper.  They had been sent to capture COSVN.  They had captured 200 pounds of medical supplies, a little over 500 pounds of rice, a sewing machine, and a clock.[1]

            But even if they never found COSVN – and they never would – they were about to discover a new objective, one that has always been available to legionaries with no legitimate mission.    The discovery came at Snoul, a town even smaller than Kent, and also on the fourth of May (although May 4th in the United States was May 5th in Cambodia).   As the spearhead of the 11thArmored Cavalry Regiment roared down on the town, it drew fire from trenches surrounding it.   The tanks pulled up and blasted away with their 90-mm. cannon, calling in air strikes to complete the devastation of the unseen enemy.   The coordinated barrage lasted twenty-four hours.  According to the few villagers who survived and had not fled, the enemy had evacuated the area minutes after firing those first provocative shots.[2]   The retaliation they had called down had obliterated 90% of Snoul.   (LTC Grail Brookshire, commanding the 11th, later jokingly described himself as “the Butcher of Snoul.”)[3]

            Unfortunately for the image of the United States Army, several war correspondents were present when the American soldiers entered what was left of the town:

 

In the streets lay the bodies of four dead civilians, including a young girl.   One of the U.S.tanks plowed through a children’s playground crushing a seesaw. And as the Americans passed the smashed and burned-out shops, they helped themselves to whatever loot they could get their hands on.[4]

 

I saw one soldier run from a burning Chinese noodle shop with his arms full of Cambodian brandy.   A Vietnamese interpreter was behind him dragging a case of sodas to a tank.  We watched other soldiers smash open the doors to the remaining shops, pocketing clocks and watches and carrying out electrical equipment before setting the buildings ablaze.   One soldier carried a suitcase filled with new shoes to his tank and two others wheeled out motorcycles and tied them to the turrets of their tanks.   After about an hour of looting and merrymaking an officer came by and yelled, ‘Get your hands off that stuff, we’re moving on.’   The soldiers laughed and mounted their vehicles.[5]

 

            Spec/4 David Ludwig, of the Second Battalion, interviewed after the fact, observed of the liquor he had stolen, “I don’t know what kind of Scotch it was because the label was in Cambodian, but it wasn’t bad at all.”[6]   The surviving civilians were left with nothing but smoking, looted ruins – starving, homeless, “covered by only shreds of clothing.”   ElvyRoberts, commanding the invasion force, dismissed their plight with a curt, “We can’t get involved in administering civil government in Cambodia.”[7]

            Arnett, convinced he had seen something new and appalling in the American conduct of the war, abandoned the invasion in a mad dash to his office in Saigonto file the story.   Ben Basset, the Associated Press managing editor, killed it.  Basset’s reasoning was that

 

We are in the midst of a highly charged situation in the United States regarding Southeast Asiaand must guard our copy to see that it is down the middle and subdues emotion.   Specifically we took looting and similar references out of the Arnett copy because we don’t think it’s especially news that such things take place in war and in the present context, this can be inflammatory.

 

Arnett pointed out that “KentState was the ‘present context’ Basset was referring to.”[8]

            Looting is an ugly word anyway and the invasion’s foremost chronicler and apologist[9]was able to come up with a new term for it: “the great Cambodian souvenir hunt.”   By way of further rationalizing the complete disappearance of COSVN, he quoted a GI jibe from the first day of operations, that no one had been able to capture “a guy wearing a COSVN T-shirt.”   Throughout his narrative, every bag of rice the invaders captured became “a piece of the COSVN T-shirt.”   Thus he was able to conclude that the Army did capture COSVN after all (even though it had never existed).   He was only mirroring the way the Pentagon’s public relations mega-machine handled the story.   “[O]n the average of every other day, some field commander says his forces have captured at least part of it, and sensational news dispatches result.”[10]   Another reporter commented caustically on the way “Army photographers were flown to the site of each new cache as it was discovered and prints of their pictures were rushed to Washingtonfor distribution.”[11]

            MeanwhileAmerica’s South Vietnamese allies joined in the “souvenir hunt” with larcenous abandon that shamed their plunder of their own country:

 

ARVN soldiers returned home with looted Hondas, bicycles, and radios, and their commanders did not deter them…   ARVN troops frequently ambushed and killed Cambodian officers…   the South Vietnamese stole cars, sandwiched them into military convoys, and barreled through border posts firing at Cambodian sentries.[12]

 

[W]e had found a platoon of South Vietnamese soldiers with two big army trucks loaded full of chairs, beds, wardrobes, and other household furnishings that had been taken            from the houses we could see along the main street, their doors hanging open, stripped bare inside.   Other soldiers from that same outfit had backed a third truck up to the municipal rice warehouse and were carrying out the rice and loading it into the truck.[13]

 

[T]roops of the South Vietnamese task force had drive off all usable vehicles, loading some with air conditioners, refrigerators, and other appliances taken from the houses of the French managers [of the rubber plantation at Chup].[14]

 

As days passed, whenever I looked into the sky I saw furniture, motorcycles, and luxury automobiles (Mercedes, Peugeots, Citroens) flying along, suspended from Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) choppers bound for some senior ARVN or VNAF officer’s home garage, or other stash point.   Another big item was livestock, and it was quite a sight watching cows zoom along in midair on their way back to Saigon’s slaughterhouses.[15]

 

            But the looting was only the most innocuous aspect of the centuries-old mutual loathing between the Cambodians and Vietnamese, now unleashed by the men in the White House.   The latter “behaved as if they were conquering a hostile nation, rather than helping a new ally; every Cambodian was VC and a target.”[16]   And Lon Nol, like his American alter ego, was all too willing to consolidate his dictatorship by turning the envious wrath of his people loose on a despised minority.   In the new Amerika, the scapegoats were students; in Cambodia, they were the Vietnamese ethnics who had however dwelt in Cambodiafor generations.   Lon Nol announced their doom at an hours-long “patriotic rally” in Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium on April 12th, to marching formations of vigilantes carrying the clubs they intended to use on their victims.  German-born correspondent Henry Kann said “the rally stirred in me unpleasant reminiscences from my childhood among the Nazis.”[17]

            The mass detentions and executions began the next day.   As in Indonesiafive years before (where the CIA had provided the proscription lists), the bloodletting was largely a local affair.  It had been in progress for several weeks by the time the South Vietnamese Army arrived.   Like the amateurs they were, the mass murderers in the villages had left copious evidence of their crimes against their Vietnamese neighbors to inflame the hatred of the ARVN troops against them.   Soon, word of the ARVN’s revenge, “reports of killings, rapes, and plundering by South Vietnamese,”[18]had thrown the Cambodians into panic, and had driven them into the arms of the communist guerrillas.    But by then, even the peasants untouched by fear of the ARVN had been recruited for the Khmer Rouge and NVA by “the steady bombing, strafing, and napalming by American, South Vietnamese, and Cambodian planes.”[19]

            By providing such enlistment incentives for potential insurgents and through its own stupid incompetence, the Lon Nol government lost the countryside to the NUF (the National United Front of the Khmer Rouge, Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese Army) with blinding speed.

 

By late June, the NUF had liberated more than half of Cambodia, and was carefully building its rural base.  Fifteen of the nineteen Cambodian provinces had either military operations, people’s uprisings, or an established revolutionary power.    In Kratieprovince         in the middle of May, for example, the NUF reported that it was sufficiently emplantedto hold elections for all levels of NUF government for the area.[20]

 

As Cambodia’s Communist-occupied territories grew larger, much of their population fled to Phnom Penh in the hope of finding safety from the fighting, above all from the most destructive American bombing   Quickly Phnom Penh, the once remarkably well-tended  capital, became pockmarked with jerry-built slums…   Cambodian women and girls took over from the banished Vietnamese the sad métier of prostitution.   Petty crime flourished.[21]

 

            TheU.S. military effort meanwhile settled into the pattern that would prevail until the June 30thwithdrawal deadline that Nixon had been forced to set by the campus revolt, a parallel revolt in Congress, and pressure from an extremely nervous Wall Street.[22]   (“It isn’t 1970 anymore,” the Wall Street Journal intoned two days after KentState, “It’s 1928 and seven eighths.”)[23]   The American armored columns charged back and forth through the border provinces, backed by enough air and artillery support to have annihilated any enemy, should one have chosen to stand and fight.   The enemy had, however, pulled into the jungle heart of the country to build his strength and wait for the Americans to leave.   The Lon Nol government waited, as well, to see what would happen then, in a “pathetic air of unreality.”

 

Old French tanks stood in the streets, their crews asleep underneath them in the sticky afternoons of the Southeast Asian hot season.  Students, clutching their belongings in cardboard suitcases and bundles done up with bits of string, paraded in the streets on their way to join the army.   They laughed and waved and sang brave songs as the climbed onto the trucks.  It was 1914.[24]

 

Incredibly, an even smaller percentage of them would come back than had from the Western Front.

            The fount and embodiment of the unreality was Lon Nolhimself.   He had managed to convince himself that the Americans would not abandon him.   Like Nixon taking refuge with Billy Graham (by telephone) in his darkest hours, the Cambodian dictator closeted himself with select Buddhist charlatans, relying on their assurances that the “occult sciences practiced by our ancestors” such as magic spells (including those inscribed on the vests worn into battle by their soldiers), astrology, and the ancient unarmed fighting arts would prevail against AK-47s

 

Out of stone and wood, we can make beefsteaks, cloth, and other useful objects; we can travel through space to the stars, use an electronic brain, communicate across oceans, and go round the world in less than twenty-four hours.[25]

 

Totally deluded, he was scarcely alone.   Many of the Cambodian elite who had sold their souls to the CIA to bring the dictator to power convinced themselves that the June 30th deadline was just a ruse to fool the communists.   Too late they realized that, “they were, in fact, alone, except for the rampaging military intervention of the South Vietnamese, whom they fear little less than those of the North.   They were alone and with the fiercest of adversaries.”[26]

            As the deadline approached, they might have been encouraged by hints that the U.S.military would revolt against the deadline.  As soon as Nixon had announced it, some of the generals had declared themselves (anonymously) “startled and bewildered” by this constraint on their operations.   Not even they claimed that, given more time, they could find COSVN after all; the acronym had discreetly disappeared from Pentagon usage by May 10th.   Their new excuse was that they had captured so much enemy material that they would need more than two months to move it all.[27]

            On May 18th, Laird announced that U.S.planes would continue to attack communist “bases” in Cambodia, but would cease providing close air support for tactical operations when the deadline arrived.   Two days later, “officials” announced that his decision might have to be reconsidered[28]because the ARVN needed air support and they weren’t going to honor the deadline.   Then a MACV spokesman added that it would be dangerous to leave Cambodianow because the U.S.invasion had not destroyed or even crippled the communist forces, which now threatened Phnom Penh.   On May 30th, the Pentagon warned that if the Americans left, Phnom Penh might fall [29]-- the reason Nixon had given for the invasion a month before.

            If this were a gambit to see if the American presence could be extended indefinitely, Nixon himself shot it down.  He announced the next day that he was “encouraged” by the progress the troops were making in Cambodia and was sure the operation would prove a complete success by the time they were pulled out on June 30th  As one reporter implied, it was difficult for him to do anything else after a month of each capture of enemy supplies “being announced in Washington with considerable fanfare”[30] – another piece of the “COSVN T-shirt.”

            Although the Defense Department public relations machine was still capable of hyping the operation, the men on the ground in Cambodia seemed fed up with it, not the least of them the outspoken combat colonel who attended a “postoperationalbriefing” at the command post of the spearhead division, the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile).

 

Among those in attendance was a young brigadier general with brand-new, rumpled green fatigues and the pasty-white face of someone who’s been sitting at a desk too long.   It was Army bureaucrat Alexander Haig, visiting from Washingtonas the President’s        representative…

During the briefing, everyone talked about the operation enthusiastically, as if it were the greatest military feat since the Inchoninvasion…   I disagreed with just about everything that had been said, and after voicing my opinion that the entire operation was a disaster, tactically and strategically, I said that the U.S. had violated everything it stood for by even attempting it…

Unconsciously, I believe I made my decision to quit the U.S. Army then and there, and to leave America, because I couldn’t cope with us becoming Nazis or killing students on college campuses because they wanted the country out of a bad war.[31]

 

            A well-informed assessment from a perspective of a quarter century was as qualified in its enthusiasm:

 

[T]he extent to whichCambodia truly set back the North Vietnamese is impossible to determine…   There were no major NVA offensives after Cambodiaduring 1970, but documents captured during the operation indicated that the North Vietnamese had no intention to conduct any offensives that year.   Assertions that the number of weapons captured would have equipped a large number of NVA combat battalions are misleading.  The stocks of small arms, for example, were mostly of types no longer used in the field; the North Vietnamese had no reason to expend energy and resources to move them back to North Vietnam.  Hanoi’s base network and general supply levels were certainly disrupted, but these were probably the first features of the NVA system to recover.

As for assertions that the Cambodian invasion reduced U.S.casualty rates in the months that followed, the data are ambiguous because over the same period American forces were spending less and less time in the field themselves…

                        The one real fact is that the conflict subsequently engulfed Cambodia.[32]

 

And it eventually triggered the most savage episode of genocide – especially considered relative to the total population of the country – since the heyday of Hitler and Stalin, outstripping even the body count that the oil companies and CIA had notched up in Indonesia.  

            The nation’s business leaders were so unsettled by the invasion and the student murders that followed in its wake that Nixon finally had to invite them to the White House, toward the end of May, to reassure them about his intention to pull the U.S. military out of Indochina.   Nor were the dinner guests impressed with the commander-in-chief’s long speech after dinner claiming that the operation had been a victory.   “He said they’d bought a year,” one of them groused, “and he makes it sound like a smashing success.”[33]

            He had also managed to alienate the generals.  They claimed that, once again, the politicians had not let them win.   If the invasion looked like a failure, it was because Nixon had raised too many expectations with his Churchillian rhetoric on the evening of April 30th.   “[T]he operation was oversold because of political considerations and is being undercut because of political considerations.”[34]   Nixon returned the scapegoatingwith interest; it was the military that had lost Southeast Asia, through lack of aggressiveness.   They had “been playing ‘how not to lose’ so long, [they] now can’t bring themselves to start playing ‘how to win’”; he accused them of “deliberate sabotage of the orders that I have given” as commander-in-chief (forgetting as always that Congress had never declared war.[35]   It did underscore for the Pentagon the entire lesson of Vietnam; that there were some kinds of war the citizen soldier would not fight for it.   The generals would never take the field again without an army of increasingly unthinking mercenaries behind them.  

            But the invasion did have one immediate and powerful success – fulfilling the need for something Nixon, Haldeman, and Kissinger had discussed more than a year before (April 19, 1969) for something “to galvanize people into overcoming slothfulness and detachment arising from general moral decay” (see above).   The invasion had galvanized people, all right, and now they were marching on the White House, their ranks swollen exponentially by the murders at KentState.   As of the blood-red sunset on May 4th, Nixon had five days to prepare for them.

 

 

 

                       



[1]   Gloria Emerson, “General Visits GIs in Fishhook,” New York Times, May 10, 1970, p. 22.

[2]   Peter Kann, “Two Kinds of War,” Wall Street Journal, May 11, 1970.

[3]   Buckley quoted in William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia.  (New York; Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 150.

[4]   “Operation Successful: Outcome Uncertain,” Newsweek,May 18, 1970, p. 49.

[5]   Peter Arnett, Live From the Battlefield From Vietnamto Baghdad: 35 Years in the World’s War Zones.  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 266.

[6]   Gloria Emerson, “Ruined CambodianTown Can’t Understand Why,” New York Times, May 23, 1970, p. 2.

[7]   Kann, p. 13.

[8]   Arnett, p. 267.   EMPHASIS ADDED.

[9]   Lt. Col. (retd.) J.D. Colman, Incursion: From America’s Chokehold on the NVA Lifelines to the Sacking of the Cambodian Sanctuaries.  (New York:St. Martin’s Press,         ).

[10]  James P. Sterba, “Cambodian Foray After a Month: From Arms and Rice to Buttons,” New York Times, May 30, 1970, p. 3.

[11]   Terence Smith, “Results Uncertain in First Cambodian Forays,” New York Times, May 10, 1970, p. 4.

[12]   Shawcross, pp. 174-175.

[13]   Richard Dudman, Forty Days With the Enemy.  (New York; Liveright, 1971), p. 65.

[14]   Henry Kamm, “Big Rubber Tract in CambodiaFalls to Saigon Troops,” New York Times, May 25, 1970, pp. 1 & 6.

[15]   Hackworth and Sherman, p. 733.

[16]   Shawcross, p. 174.

[17]   Henry Kamm, Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land.  (New York; Arcade Publishing, 1998), p. 78.   Kamm, however retain an authoritarian world-view, refusing to believe his adopted government could do any wrong (such as using the CIA to put Lon Nol in power).    He referred to WilfridBurchette, Sihanouk’s biographer, as a “Communist propagandist.”

[18]   Kann, “Big Rubber Tract”, p. 6.

[19]   Kamm, Cambodia, p. 88.

[20]   Banning Garrett, “The Road to Phnom Penh: Cambodians Take Up the Gun,” in Banning Garrett (ed.), Two, Three… Many Vietnams.  (New York; Harper & Row, 1971), p. 117.

[21]   Kamm, Cambodia. pp. 87-88.  EMPHASIS ADDED.

[22]   Tad Szulc, “U.S.Said to Plan to Quit CambodiaBefore Deadline,”New York Times, May 26, 1970, p. 1.

[23]   “Memories of 1929,” (editorial) Wall Street Journal, May 6, 1970.

[24]   H.D.S. Greenway, “Cambodia,”Atlantic, July 1970, pp. 32-38.

[25]   David Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution Since 1945.  (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1991), p. 205.

 

[26]   Kamm, p. 102.   Kamm titled this chapter (in a sense of bitterness?) “The Price of Trusting America.”   Did he mean that the U.S.should have stayed in Cambodiaindefinitely?

[27]   James P. Sterba, “Nixon Deadline Worries Field Officers,” New York Times, May 11, 1970, p. 1.

[28]   Tad Szulc, “U.S.Acknowledged South Vietnamese May Remain in CambodiaAfter June 30th,” New York Times, May 21, 1970, p. 4.

[29]   Tad Szulc, “Foes’ CambodiaStrategy Alters U.S.Aides’ Views,” New York Times,  May 31, 1970, p. 3.

[30]   Robert B. Semple, Jr., “Nixon ‘Encouraged’ by Briefing on War,” New York Times, June 1, 1970, pp. 1 and 7.

[31]   Hackworth and Sherman, pp. 736-737.

[32]   John Prados, The Hidden History of the VietnamWar.  (Chicago; Ivan R. Dee, 1995), pp. 246-247.

[33]   Terry Robards, “The Day Wall Street Met the President,” New York Times, May 31, 1970, Business Section, p. 1.

[34]   James Sterba, “Cambodian Foray After a Month,” New York Times, May 30, 1970.

[35]   Nixon Memo Asserted ‘Sabotage’ of His Orders,” New York Times, May 27, 1997.