Cambodian Sanctuary Operations
Much of this accelerated progress in Vietnamization was due to the now indisputable military success of the allied operations against the enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia last spring.
The March 18 deposition of Prince Sihanouk caught us, as well as everyone else, completely by surprise. The situation that had existed in Cambodia, with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong occupying a series of enclaves along the border, represented a troublesome but not insuperable obstacle to our efforts in South Vietnam. Our first reaction to Prince Sihanouk's removal was to encourage the negotiations which the Cambodian government was seeking with the Communists. However, Hanoi flatly refused such a course and rapidly spread out its forces to link up its base areas and pose a growing threat to the neutral government in Phnom Penh.
As I pointed out in my final report on the Cambodian operations, enemy actions during April and captured enemy documents unmistakably show their intentions. We faced the prospect of one large enemy base camp six hundred miles along South Vietnam's flank; a solid supply route from the port of Sihanoukville through which most of the war materiel for the southern half of South Vietnam had come in the previous six years; and a vast staging and sanctuary area from which to attack allied forces in Vietnam with impunity. This would have meant increased enemy attacks, higher casualties among our men and our allies and a clear threat to Vietnamization, the withdrawal program and the security of South Vietnam.
Our choice, though difficult, seemed the more necessary the longer we pondered it. If we wished to pursue the policy of turning over responsibilities to the South Vietnamese and withdrawing our troops, we had to clear out the enemy sanctuaries. The alternative was to allow the enemy to build up this threat without challenge, to increase it's attacks and to raise allied casualties. This would sooner or later have confronted us with the choice of either halting our withdrawals, air continuing them but jeopardizing the lives of those remaining behind.
I preferred to make a difficult decision in April rather than magnifying our dilemma by postponement.
The results of our joint two-month operations with the South Vietnamese, and the subsequent sweeps of the sanctuaries by South Vietnamese forces, removed this threat. There were as well these positive results:
- Greatly reduced American casualties; in the six months before the sanctuary operations the average weekly casualties were ninety-three, the six months after they were fifty-one.
- Extensive materiel and manpower losses for the enemy, which they are taking a long time to replace.
- The ending of the concept of immune Cambodian sanctuaries.
- The dislocation of enemy supply lines and strategy in the Saigon and Mekong Delta regions; as a result the main forces war substantially ended for the southern half of the country during 1970.
- Precluded the enemy from reopening his route of supply by sea.
- Separation of Communist main force and guerrilla units and a boost to pacification efforts in the southern half of the Republic of Vietnam.
- Insurance that our troop withdrawals would continue.
- Increased time for the South Vietnamese to strengthen themselves.
- A tremendous lift in the morale and self-confidence of the South Vietnamese.
My decision to send U.S. ground forces into Cambodia, though clearly required because of these factors, was nevertheless anguishing because of the domestic reaction.
At the time those who urged an immediate American pullout from Vietnam were joined in protest by some who generally support our phased withdrawals but misread the Cambodian operations as a return to a policy of escalation. I believed then that the impact of these actions-reduced enemy activity, lowered U.S. casualties and continued withdrawals-would ultimately persuade some of the latter of the wisdom of our decision.
While many Americans may still disagree with that decision, I think the facts since June 30 have conclusively demonstrated not only the tactical success of the operations but also their strategic purpose of reducing American involvement in Vietnam.