The six-year presidency of Richard Nixon will go down in history as one of the most controversial and scandal-ridden in American history. The impropriety stretched from illegal actions that attempted to ensure his reelection on the domestic front to the lies told to the American people about the outlook for the Vietnam War, exposed in the Pentagon Papers. One of the most infamous actions by the Nixon administration that caused immense backlash was the secret bombing of “neutral” Cambodia from March 1969 to May 1970. The bombing, which wasn’t revealed to Congress or the American people until 1973, is often sighted as a low point in the use of American airpower. The broader context of the situation aids in understanding the justification for United States’ actions.
Critics of the bombing often cite the neutrality of Cambodia as justification for calling it illegal. The Geneva Conference did declare Cambodia a nonaligned nation in 1954, which was still in effect when Nixon took office. Despite this lapel, the Cambodian government severed relations with the United States in 1965, believing the North Vietnamese would win the war. Soon after, the North Vietnamese began to use staging bases in Cambodia for operations to fight the South and American forces. The Cambodian bases numbered at least 15, one being 33 miles from Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital.
US military commanders had wanted to destroy Cambodian sanctuary bases for years, but Nixon’s predecessor Lyndon Johnson refused. Throughout his final years in office, Johnson was uncommitted to ensuring an American victory or pulling US troops out of the conflict. Less than two months into office, Nixon’s strategy to bring “peace with honor” included bombing Cambodia. Along with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Nixon insisted that the bombing be kept secret from Congress and the press. During the ensuing 14 months, B-52 bombers flew 3,875 missions against Cambodian targets.
Looking back on the bombing of Cambodia fifty-three years later, the insistence on secrecy by Nixon and Kissinger was a mistake. The North Vietnamese did not alert the global community either because they consistently denied having bases in Cambodia. The toxic US political environment in the summer of 1973 set the backdrop for yet another example of abuse of power by the Nixon White House. Congress, the people’s representatives should have been informed of the bombing since they approve military spending and approve the use of military force. It is now a fact that the Cambodian government facilitated and housed North Vietnamese forces on its soil. These forces carried out missions that killed and injured American soldiers. The mission to take out these North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia should have been justified to Congress and the American people. The outrage would likely have been less severe if this had been done and American airpower would not have been tarnished as a result.