Two U.S. Air Force Bell UH-1P helicopters from the 20th Special Operations Squadron into Cambodia, circa 1970. Communist supplies moved from the port of Kompong Som, through Cambodia, to South Vietnam along the Sihanouk Trail. Until 1969, this artery, named after Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk, was left largely untouched. Photo by Captain Billie D Tedford/U.S. Air Force.
In his televised speech on April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon shocked Americans with his sudden decision to invade the North Vietnamese in Cambodia, a neutral country during the Vietnam War. Due to this neutrality, Cambodia had weakened and the North Vietnamese Army quickly increased its forces in the country. This made it difficult for American soldiers to withdraw from the war safely, resulting in Nixon’s decision to invade despite the uproar of the anti-war protesters who had formed during the lengthy war.
“This is not an invasion of Cambodia,” Nixon assured the audience during his speech. “The areas in which these attacks will be launched are completely occupied and controlled by North Vietnamese forces. Our purpose is not to occupy the areas. Once enemy forces are driven out of these sanctuaries, and once their military supplies are destroyed, we will withdraw.”
The removal of Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, an action taken by the National Assembly on March 18, 1970, and the rise of pro-U.S. General Lon Nol in his place helped make the incursion possible. On April 20, Lon Nol requested support from the U.S. in the continued fight against the enemy; however, his request was so exorbitant that many leaders agreed the U.S. would never be able to fulfill it. It was then that Nixon decided to step up.
His choice, however, was not taken lightly by the American people. According to Peter G. Drivas’s paper, “The Cambodian Incursion Revisited,” hundreds of students amassed at Kent State University on May 4 in protest of the attack. The protest resulted in unruly behavior from the students and the Ohio National Guard’s arrival at the scene. Four students were killed by the guardsmen during the ensuing riot, which sparked outrage and further protests. One such event was held in Washington on May 9 with State Department employees expressing their disagreement with the incursion by signing statements.
“I would rather be a one-term president and do what I believe was right than to be a two-term president at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history,” Nixon said in preparation for American indignation.
Nixon’s effort to assist in driving the North Vietnam troops from Cambodia was short lived. On June 30, 1970, the Cooper-Church Amendment was introduced to stop all funding toward military advances in Cambodia. The amendment did not pass the House in June but succeeded when it was reintroduced seven months later. Operation Menu, a Cambodia bombing campaign that started in 1969, continued until 1973.
The incursion of Cambodia was widely controversial, but according to “The Cambodian Incursion: Tactical and Operational Success and its Effects on Vietnamization” by Major Jeff Hackett of the United States National Guard, the attack itself was a success. With American units — including the 1st Cavalry Division, 25th Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Division, 101st Airborne Division, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment — working together with the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese agenda was delayed by a year after they were cut off from necessary supplies.
The incursion did little to improve the overall outcome of the war, but it was a battle won. American soldiers returned home to their families, and Cambodia was left to determine its own outcome.
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