Nixon’s Cambodia Adventure

Previously, I took a close look at President Richard Nixon’s plans for extricating America from the quagmire that was Vietnam. The strategy, called Vietnamization, was designed to draw down American forces in Southeast Asia while building up the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) so that the South could effectively defend itself against North Vietnam’s attempts to conquer the country.

In Nixon’s view, cutting the supply lines of the North Vietnamese was essential to the success of the South Vietnamese war effort. This meant attacks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Cambodia and Laos. Both nations had a history of struggle against the Communists.

Nixon hoped that cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail would disable the Communist insurgencies in Laos and Cambodia, as well as South Vietnam. He chose to keep the bombing of Cambodia secret, however, fearing a negative reaction from the American public and from Congress. “My administration was only two months old,” Nixon admitted later, “and I wanted to provoke as little outcry as possible at the outset.”1 The operation was so secret, in fact, that Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers did not find out about it until after it was already in progress.

Over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped in Laos between 1964 and 1973.

Over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped in Laos between 1964 and 1973.

The bombing campaign in Cambodia began on March 17, 1969, as a series of operations called Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Dinner, and Dessert, known collectively as Operation Menu. Over the course of the next year over 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped on NVA base camps and along the Trail in Cambodia. On April 30, 1970, South Vietnamese troops invaded the country, backed by the U.S. Air Force. Nixon announced the incursion in a televised address that night. “We take this action not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia, but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam and winning the just peace we all desire.”2

Many did not accept Nixon’s explanation and widespread demonstrations resulted across the country. Congressional opponents openly questioned the legality of the move, but Nixon steadfastly defended his actions. He notes in No More Vietnams, “No reasonable interpretation of the Constitution could conclude that the President, as commander in chief, was forbidden from attacking areas occupied by enemy forces and used by them as bases from which to strike at American and allied troops.”3

Despite Nixon’s views on the matter, domestic political pressure forced him to withdraw U.S. forces from Cambodia on June 30. After the Cambodia invasion, Congress became more involved in how the war was conducted. Feeling the pressure from an agitated public, members of the House and Senate began introducing bills that sought to control how Nixon conducted the war.

One of the first actions taken by the Senate to rein in America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict was to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on June 24, 1970. This act essentially reversed the president’s open-ended power to fight the war, and led to the cutting of funding for the war by Congress. As more troops came home, U.S. representatives were bolder in their criticism of the war, and felt less obligated to vote in favor of funding the military.

Sen. Frank Church - Democrat, Idaho

Sen. Frank Church – Democrat, Idaho

On December 22, 1970, an amendment to a defense spending bill sponsored by Senators Frank Church and Sherman Cooper effectively banned American forces from operating in Laos and Cambodia. The Cooper-Church amendment, as it came to be called, was a demonstration of Congress trumping the president’s constitutional prerogative as commander of the military with its power of the purse. If funding for military operations was denied, there was nothing the president could do legally to continue the campaign.

Kissinger, who was deep into negotiations with the North Vietnamese by this point, expressed disappointment at Congress’s actions. “The pattern was clear. Senate opponents of the war would introduce one amendment after another, forcing the administration into…actions to preserve a minimum of flexibility for negotiations. Hanoi could only be encouraged to stall, waiting to harvest the results of our domestic dissent.”4

Through their actions to limit the president’s ability to conduct the war, Congress demonstrated that it was unconcerned for the outcome of the situation in Southeast Asia beyond the end of America’s involvement. They continued to cut funding for aid to South Vietnam as the U.S. military presence there diminished. Their attack on the president’s ability to conduct the war continued as well with the War Powers Act, which became law over Nixon’s veto on November 7, 1973. This act required the president to seek Congressional approval for any military action that resulted in sending troops abroad for over sixty days.

And what became of the War Powers Act? That’s another story.

Material for this post is excerpted from my book, America’s Failure in Vietnam, available on Amazon.

  1. ^Quoted in Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998, p. 133.
  2. ^Quoted in Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America. New York: Grove Press, 1995, p. 454.
  3. ^Richard Nixon, No More Vietnams. New York: Arbor House, 1985, p. 110.
  4. ^Quoted in Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, p. 221.