The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Foreign Affairs Oral History Project Information Series
Ambassador John Gunther Dean
Interviewed by: Charles Stuart Kennedy
Initial Interview date: September 6, 2000
Copyright 2004 ADST http://adst.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Dean-John-Gunther.pdf
DEAN: There was a huge French military Expeditionary Corps. The American Embassy and Economic Mission were small. It was to a large extent a French show of fighting the Viet Minh. The fighting basically took place in North Vietnam.
DEAN: The first job was to work with the Financial Adviser of the French High Commission. Few people realize today that the French Expeditionary Corps, the Vietnamese Armed Forces, the Cambodian Armed Forces, as well as the French advisers to these Indochinese forces, were all financed by the United States. That year, 1953-1954, the United States spent $875 million in support of the French and Indochinese armies to fight the communists. My job was to document how the money was spent, I had a counterpart who I have met again many years later, Pierre Hunt, who became a well-known French Ambassador to Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. He was on the side of the French. The French military would give us details on how they spent the money, for example for pay, for ammunition, for training of Vietnamese or Cambodian pilots, etc… In Cambodia, there was not much fighting. My official title was “Economic Commissioner.”
We also worked on development projects in the 3 Indochinese states. I was at hand when the French Commanding General of the Expeditionary Corps, General Navarre, came to see Ambassador Donald Heath to ask for American air strikes to silence the North Vietnamese artillery which was installed on the hills overlooking the French camp of Dien Bien Phu.
DEAN: I remember one occasion when the French Forces were surrounded in Dien Bien Phu. He had a party for the French High Commissioner. Ambassador Heath climbed on the table and toasted the French “heroes” defending the Free World. As I said before, one day, I was asked to go to the Embassy. The Commanding General of the French Forces, General Navarre, was going to come to see the American Ambassador, and in case of need for an interpreter, I was there. Fortunately, the embassy had other competent interpreters and the First Secretary was asked to attend the meeting. It was at that meeting that General Navarre requested U.S. air support for the encircled French Forces at Dien Bien Phu. The request to bomb the hills overlooking Dien Bien Phu was turned down in Washington a few days later. It should be added that during the campaign at Dien Bien Phu, American pilots flying Air America, risked their lives to deliver precious ammunitions and supplies to the beleaguered French troops. So, the U.S. was helping France in this war. At one point, since the ambassador was accredited to all three countries, I was asked by the American authorities to go to Phnom Penh with my wife for two months. The Chargé had left on home leave. Having no children yet, we were available to spend 2 months at a neighboring posting. It was on that occasion that I first met Sihanouk.
DEAN: He is still around. Sihanouk played a major role in my efforts, 20 years later, to find a negotiated solution in Cambodia – something I achieved in Laos. My role in Cambodia in October 1953 consisted largely of looking after the few economic aid projects we had in Cambodia. But I got an insight into Cambodia and how Sihanouk functions, which later on was going to be helpful. When I see Sihanouk today, nearly 50 years later, he still remembers some of the events that occurred at that time.
DEAN: He was extremely Frenchified but he was truly the “father” of his people. That role he took seriously. When Sihanouk mounted on the throne in 1941 or 1942, he was a young man of 18 or 19 years of age. He was not the logical choice to become king. On his mother’s side, Sihanouk was a Sisowath, the other royal family. On his father’s side, he was a Norodom. The Sisowaths were more nationalistic and more independence-oriented. But the Cambodians, whose territory had been reduced both by the Thais and the Vietnamese, had to worry about two tigers, one on the East, and one on the West, who had designs on the remaining Cambodian Empire. So, the Cambodians turned to the French who were far away but had no territorial designs on the country.
Cambodia was under French tutelage but also protection against encroachment by Cambodia’s neighbors. Between all the evils they faced, French influence was the lesser of the evils. Sihanouk Norodom was a young man well prepared by French military and civilian advisers to assume his duties. While he, the Prince of Cambodia, had never read Machiavelli, he received a good education in what it means to govern. There was no doubt that over time Sihanouk became truly the father figure of his country. The average Cambodian saw in him the incarnation of the nation. In America, we have had a difficult time understanding Sihanouk. During my long career, I stood up for Sihanouk many times. We will get to this. I always thought Sihanouk’s primary interest was to defend Cambodia’s national interest. I recall that in 1954 Sihanouk left his capital Phnom Penh, went to Bangkok, and said to the French: “I will not return unless I get full independence.” He insisted on it and he got it. When students study the Geneva Conference of 1954, it was Sihanouk who absolutely refused any mention in a treaty which alluded to organized opposition within his country (i.e. Khmer Rouges). Both Vietnam and Laos had to sign a document which discussed the Viet Minh and the Pathet Lao.
In 1953-54, we knew relatively little about Cambodia. We considered Cambodia to be part of the zone of French influence.
Cambodia had a small, well educated upper class. It was small, but the French had helped Cambodia to have their own military, their own doctors, their own atomic scientists, their own lawyers, etc. In 1975, I took a Cambodian atomic scientist with me out of Cambodia. (He ended up in France). If needed, Sihanouk would also stand up against the French. In 1970, when he was deposed by a coup d’état of Lon Nol and Sirik Matak, Sihanouk spent a couple of days in the Soviet Union, but from there he went on to Beijing to await the end of the conflict. Sihanouk had a sense of history. He knew that for centuries China had been the protector of Cambodia.
Cambodia is first mentioned in the diplomatic annals by a Chinese emissary who visited Angkor Wat in about the 10th century. Cambodia was a vassal of the Chinese Emperor. Sihanouk knew that if he wanted to return to Phnom Penh, he had to work with the Chinese. He did return to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouges had occupied Phnom Penh in 1975. Sihanouk always understood power, but we made little effort to see the area through his eyes.
DEAN: Our ambassador at the time, who was one of my bosses, McClintock, always called him the “Little King.” He made fun of Sihanouk and Sihanouk knew it. This was poor psychology. Sihanouk also had an ego and he did not appreciate any gesture or remark which did not give him his due as Chief of State of an ancient kingdom.
DEAN: Yes. He was the first American ambassador to Cambodia. He was a very able man, but he saw Cambodia as an operetta state. Sihanouk, at one point, was King, then he put his mother on the throne, but he always remained the real power behind it. He established the “Royal Socialist Boy Scouts.” He saw no contradiction in terms. He was surrounded by French advisers. Sihanouk did not listen to the U.S. a great deal. Even back in 1953-54, Sihanouk was basically a neutral and a neutral at the time of Secretary of State Foster Dulles, was not the best way to endear oneself to the U.S.
DEAN: Basically, Secretary Dulles preferred to see the small states being either in one camp or another, i.e. communist or free world. The advisers to Sihanouk realized that Thailand and Vietnam were the real long-term threat to Cambodia’s territorial integrity. They favored a middle road, a neutralist policy, as the best way for Cambodia’s survival. Sihanouk was one of the founding fathers of the Bandung Non-Aligned Nations Conference in Indonesia, and he may be the last surviving one. That policy was anathema to American diplomacy at the time. I was, at the time, at the dawn of my 45 Year Foreign Service career. I honestly felt that it was okay for small states to be neutral. I was not convinced that every nation had to choose sides. I remembered that Belgium had been neutral in World War I. Belgium was invaded and Herbert Hoover made his name by helping the starving Belgians during the German occupation to survive. The Belgians, still today, so many years later, are grateful to Herbert Hoover. For many years, neutrality had been a respected principle. The Swiss had neutrality in 2 wars in the 20th century.
After the Second World War, Austria was given neutral status. Sweden was neutral during World War II and they were helpful to all sides. Portugal was neutral in the Second World War. The U.S. had remained neutral from September 1939 to December 1941; I felt at the time that Cambodia was a rich country, agriculturally. It had a unifying cement: Sihanouk. People did not go hungry. It was not a democratic republic but a Monarchy where King and deity were somewhat linked. But the people of Cambodia also remembered that nearly 100 years earlier, the Vietnamese had put a puppet as Viceroy in Phnom Penh to rule on behalf of Vietnam. During the Second World War, the Thais had annexed all the rich provinces west of the Mekong. Who remembers that the price for Thailand’s entering into the United Nations was to give back to Cambodia and to Laos the areas annexed during the Second World War?
Neutrality made sense to me at the time because some of the small countries did not want to be dragged into the Communist-Free World conflict. And Vietnam was already looming on the horizon as a conflict between two ideologies and a war of independence as seen through Vietnamese eyes. After all, Cambodia had independence and did not need to fight for it. We are in 1953.
DEAN: No. McClintock became Ambassador to Cambodia in 1956 or so. At that time, we sent separate ambassadors to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. When I went in October 1953 with my wife to Phnom Penh, we had one Ambassador, Donald Heath, who was accredited to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. We had Chargés in Cambodia and in Laos. I went there in order to replace a Chargé who was on home leave. It lasted two months.
There was one prominent American who supported Sihanouk at that time: Mike Mansfield, Senator from Montana. Senator Mansfield remained a friend of Sihanouk until the very end. Let me switch the subject from politics to art. In 1953, my wife and I drove for the first time to Angkor Wat. Both of us were deeply impressed by the great ruins and temples swallowed up by the tropical forest. The “Smile of Angkor” had done its magic. We got interested in another civilization, an art form alien to our Western culture. My wife and I spent a wonderful week ambling through these ruins at a time when there were hardly any tourists. We were alone with the temples and the trees.
DEAN: The atmosphere was basically that, unfortunately. The French made the same mistake we continued to make after their departure. The Vietnamese are an able people, regardless whether they are from the North or from the South. When we were there in the early 1950s, I thought that the French should be more willing to give the Vietnamese control over their own affairs. I honestly felt at the time that President Roosevelt had been right because he understood that open colonialism had come to an end. Unfortunately, we also made the same mistake some years later. A people struggling for their independence will take their support from wherever they can obtain it. The West was clinging for too long to obsolete concepts. The Vietnamese turned to the Russians and Chinese and used communist support to gain their independence.
DEAN: Yes, I think Roosevelt was right. I would like to say, there were people on the French side who agreed with this reasoning and they were not communists. Mendes- France, Prime Minister at the time of the Geneva Accords, was certainly one of the more enlightened French leaders. He afterwards played an absolute cardinal role in giving independence to Tunisia and to Morocco. He was involved in that process of turning over sovereignty to the newly independent countries without losing the relationship with the former colonial power. Not everybody was able to do that, turning over sovereignty to the indigenous governments and still maintaining a close link with the former colonial country. Perhaps French leaders don’t see everything in black and white but more grey.
Let me switch to Laos. We are in 1953. I am sent to Laos. Mike Reaves, a FSO-6 – the lowest rank in the Service, was Chargé. As for me, I was not in the Foreign Service yet. There was also a lady with him in charge of economic assistance. Prince Souvanna Phouma was Minister of Public Works in the Royal Lao Government. He was a French- trained engineer. He was a graduate of one of the best specialized schools in France.
Prince Souvanna Phouma was part of the Viceroy’s family of Laos. In those days, the children of this elite often were educated in the good private schools of France, for example, “L’Ecole de Normandie.” In the summertime, during the vacation period, it was too difficult for the youngsters to return to Laos. A round-trip by boat took 6 weeks. My wife’s family had some cousins who attended the same school. At least two of the children of Prince Souvanna Phouma had gone to school with my wife’s cousins. During the summer vacation in France, not being able to return to Laos, they were asked to spend some weeks at the country home of my wife’s family. Furthermore, the King of Laos had attended the same school in France as my father-in-law.
Hence, when I went up to Laos in 1954 or 1955, I was invited by these two gentlemen to the homes of key Lao officials. These contacts were to play an important role in my later assignments to Laos. When Martine and I went for the first time to Laos, we saw about 10 or 12 automobiles in Vientiane. Working toilettes were rare. When Secretary Dulles visited Vientiane, he was lodged at the King’s guest house which did not have a solid water closet. Mr. Dulles had an unfortunate incident which did not help to dispose him more favorably to the neutralist government of Laos.
In the 1950s, Laos was still living in a different world, many years apart from the modern world. In 1954, I returned to Washington to take the Foreign Service Examination. I first passed the written examination and then was scheduled to take the oral examination. When I entered the Foreign Service, there were very few foreign-born Americans in the career Foreign Service. While I had reached a relatively high rank in the Economic Aid Program, I was determined not to be integrated laterally. I did not want to be criticized later that I had entered the Foreign Service by the rear door.
So, I took the written and oral examinations and started my career from the lowest rank upward.
DEAN: Yes, I do. Ambassador Green, former Ambassador to Ethiopia, was a distinguished Foreign Service Officer. He presided. I had a Foreign Service officer from USIA, one from AID, and a consular officer by the name of Rose. Actually, he had given me my visa in Berlin in 1938 to go to the United States. He was also on the Board of Examiners. They did not give me an easy time. They wanted to test me whether I could represent honorably and knowledgeably the United States. Here are some of the questions they asked me: “Mr. Dean, what makes you think you are able to represent the United States? You were born in Germany. How do you think you can represent the United States?” I said I had come to the States at age 12. I had attended the American public school system. I had served in the American Army during war time. I had known the rich and the poor. I had lived in the Middle West. Above all, I thought I had acquired the values which made the United States great. Like all immigrants, I had made George Washington a role model and I wanted to serve the country which had given me a new home. When asked to talk about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in my oral examination, I remember that I was well equipped to address these questions.
DEAN: Later on, mind you, I had a good political science course at Harvard. Education in the public high school system of Missouri, plus Harvard University helped me to explain differences between both men but both views were needed to make the United States.
After that question, I was asked what kind of cattle is raised in Texas. Answer: Longhorn. What was the economy of Oregon? Did Oregon have different economies in the east and in the west? I was able to address these questions quite well and passed the oral examination. Having passed the Foreign Service Examination, upon my return to Saigon, the Economic Counselor of the Embassy, Mr. Gardner Palmer, took me into the Economic Section.
DEAN: Yes, I went back after taking the examination. There was no money to get an appointment In the Foreign Service right away, but I had passed the written, the oral, the physical and security examinations, and once back in Saigon I was treated somewhat differently. I was awaiting appointment as a Foreign Service Officer and had become a “colleague.” It was in those days that I met Patricia Byrne, later one of our able ambassadors and friends. In the Economic Section in Saigon, in 1955, I was given the job of helping in the negotiation of the sale of assets of the Bank of Indochina to the Bank of Vietnam and to the Bank of Cambodia. For the sale, the French sent from Paris one of the top executives of the Bank of Indochina. He was rather well known because he had been a major player during the Vichy period in France. Some considered him a war criminal.
As Préfet in France, he had been responsible for rounding up Jewish children who were sent to concentration camps. He was the person with whom I negotiated.
DEAN: His name was Rene Bousquet. He was assassinated around 1990 in France. René Bousquet’s name appears on the negotiating contracts. The Bank of Indochina sold its buildings, its facilities, and they wanted to be paid in convertible currency. The year was January 1956. Since the U.S. Government needed local currency, piastres, I was asked to convert the piastres paid by the Vietnamese Government into U.S. dollars, which is what the French wanted.
At the time, Ngo Dinh Diem was President of South Vietnam. The U.S. Government agreed to exchanging dollars for piastres. The Vietnamese put up the piastres. We put up the foreign exchange. The French took it home, and the Bank of Vietnam was created. I then flew to the United States to get new bank notes printed – no longer in France – but in the United States. The plates were in the United States. That was an important consideration. As will be noted, this transaction also reflected the change of influence in Vietnam, from France toward the United States.
DEAN: There is usually suspicion and some bad feelings when one foreign country is being replaced by another foreign power. At the time, Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a highly educated, French-speaking, nationalist mandarin, came to power. Perhaps there were elements in the French military and political establishment who felt that the U.S. did not give them the support they wanted or needed. But it was at that time that we began to replace the French in Vietnam as the guardians of the ramparts fighting communism. This was not the case in Cambodia. Cambodia was a relatively peaceful place in those years, Laos had not yet become a site of confrontation. In January of 1956, I left Indochina, having helped the Vietnam National Bank to be established. In Cambodia, the National Bank of Cambodia was established. In Laos, it was slightly slower. The Bank of Indochina stayed up there for a couple of years longer and the Lao Government took over financial control in a very peaceful manner. Most French realized that the era of French colonialism had come to an end in Asia.
The more enlightened political leaders, for example, Mendes France and General de Gaulle were decolonizers. They realized that the time of overt political colonialism had come to an end. The overpowering influence of the former colonial power behind the scenes also had come to an end and different ways had to be found of working with these emerging nations. Was there bad feeling? Probably some, but not for very long. Colonialism had brought good and bad features. At first, the countries of Indochina saw us as supporters of their independence. As time went on, in all three countries, the authorities realized that the United States also had its priorities and they did not always coincide with the goals of the indigenous governments. For example, in Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem was killed; Sihanouk was forced out by Lon Nol; and in Laos, the Pathet Lao replaced the King. It was too bad that the West did not accept earlier that colonialism had come to an end in 1945 with the conclusion of World War II. In January 1956 we returned to Washington and that spring I formally entered the U.S. Foreign Service. I entered at the bottom of the scale as a FSO-6. At the time, that was the lowest level. Shortly thereafter, the ladder was extended by 2 grades to FSO-8.
DEAN: That’s right. That is exactly what happened to me. I fell back to an 8 and was quickly promoted to a 7 at my first FS posting. Before leaving Washington, I attended the FSO basic course where I made a lot of good friends.
DEAN: Yes, in 1956. Then, Jefferson Graham Parsons said “I need a very junior officer in the Political Section in Vientiane. I have been made Ambassador to Laos. I want you to go with me out there.” I had an offer. Obviously, what had helped me up to this time was the fact that I had studied in France, spoke fluent French, and wrote French without difficulty (and if needed, I could always take the paper back to my wife who would correct it). 1956 was the period when we replaced the French in supporting the Meo tribesmen in their struggle against the communists. The French had used the hill tribes as mercenaries in their fight against the Viet Minh in North Vietnam. As you know, Dien Bien Phu is located in that area between Laos and North Vietnam where the hill tribes hold sway. The U.S. was going to replace the French by hiring not the Thai Dam tribe as the French had, but by using similar people, the Meo people who were basically not Lao or Thai, but Chinese. They had drifted southward from China. My big boss was Ambassador Jefferson Graham Parsons. He had a very able wife, Peggy. Ambassador Parsons believed in Foster Dulles’ policies that all countries had to choose sides.
Neutrality was frowned upon.
DEAN: Yes, I served two Ambassadors. Jefferson Graham Parsons who went back in 1957 to Washington to be Assistant Secretary for the Far East, at a time when Laos had moved to center stage in our effort to contain communism in Southeast Asia. The second Ambassador was Horace Smith, who did not speak a word of French.
DEAN: 1956 to 1958. As the lowest member of the Political Section, I was the French speaker on the team. I worked with the Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma, an outspoken Francophile and an avowed neutralist. The Ambassador at the time, J. Graham Parsons, who had been kind enough to select me to go to Vientiane, was close to Secretary Dulles and did not believe that countries should follow a neutralist course; rather, they should choose either “to be with us or against us.”
DEAN: Yes, but he was the executor of this policy. My wife and I had this personal relationship with Souvanna Phouma. We were asked at times to go to his house and play bridge in the evening. At the time, it became clear to me that the French did not believe that the policy pursued by Ambassador Parsons was the right one in Laos. I had a particularly close relationship with the adviser to Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma. His name was Mathieu. He was a military officer. He wrote speeches for the King; then, he wrote the answer for the Prime Minister, and then the Prime Minister would make a speech which required a response from the President of the National Assembly.
All the speeches were written by the same man: Mathieu. My wife and I got along with him. The Ambassador asked me to report directly to him, thereby knowing what was going on in Laos. There was no doubt that Mathieu was the best informed foreigner in the country. It was a time when the CIA sent an extremely able Station Chief. His name was Henry Hecksher. Henry and I got to be friends. From time to time, he would ask me: “Can you do this?” I felt my job was always to be helpful to my colleagues—so I did. One day, Hecksher asked me whether I could take a suitcase to the Prime Minister. Since I had easy access to most Lao, I complied. Whereupon, I received an official reprimand from the Secretary of State that I had abused my functions as a Foreign Service Officer.
DEAN: Somebody must have informed them. I never saw any difference between members of the Embassy. We were all supposed to be one team. What I did find out was that not only a suitcase was taken to the Prime Minister, but several suitcases full of money were being ferried over to the President of the National Assembly, Mr. Phoui Sananikone, who was much more In line with the official American position on Laos. But the delivery of these suitcases was not entrusted to me. Unfortunately, events lead to a political confrontation between Souvanna Phouma, the neutralist, and Phoui Sananikone who was basically very pro-Thai and lent the American Embassy his ear. Souvanna was forced out of office in 1958, which coincided with the end of my tour.
Phoui Sananikone took over the reins of the government and initiated a more hostile policy towards the Pathet Lao. Souvanna Phouma’s half-brother, Souvanna Vong, was Head of the Pathet Lao. The two brothers always kept some channels of communication open. Souvanna Phouma was a great believer in finding a negotiated solution. Phoui Sananikone not at all. He was more interested in fighting the Pathet Lao and favored the business interests in Southern Laos. My Ambassador, J. Graham Parsons, appeared to prefer Phoui to Souvanna.
I do remember something which I think is of interest to future generations of Foreign Service officers. J. Graham Parsons was a reflective ambassador. He would write think pieces to the Secretary of State, Foster Dulles. Then he would call me in and say: “John, (and I was then the lowest man on the totem pole) I know you disagree with this paper, so would you please write one paragraph, no longer than a page, and I will put it at the end of my message?” He started the paragraph. “My political officer, John Gunther Dean, disagrees with me. His views are” and I provided the rest. I thought, for a junior officer, I could not ask for anything more. I did differ, but I was pleased that I was allowed to put my analysis forward without having my criticism held against me. Then, Parsons was recalled to Washington to take up the position of Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East. We received a new ambassador by the name of Horace Smith.
DEAN: No, the joint government came much later, when I served again in Laos in the 1970s. The Pathet Lao were still up in the hills or on the Plaine des Jarres. They were not yet a major military force nor was Laos yet a divided country. The King was still quite respected around the country. His son may be less so. But it was the beginning of training and arming the Meo hill tribes against the Pathet Lao. This trend was accelerated after the new Ambassador, Horace Smith, arrived at post. He arrived in Vietnam toward the end of 1957, Horace Smith was a China expert and spoke Chinese. Unfortunately, he did not speak a word of French. The working language in Laos was French. It was used in public speeches, in written communications with the government and in daily contact with the elite. Even among educated Lao, they used French among themselves. The Ambassador’s inability to speak French made it difficult for him to communicate with the leading personalities of the Kingdom.
My wife and I were asked to help him. Ambassador Smith was a nice man, but people wondered whether he was the right man for the job. To assist in the communication, Ambassador Smith asked me to accompany him on his calls. The Ambassador would say something, and I would translate it into French. When the King, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, or the Commanding General of the Lao Armed Forces spoke, I would translate into English and at the same time take notes. My wife and I played a similar role at the Residence when the Ambassador entertained. At one point, we were asked by Ambassador Smith to move into his residence to help him entertain.
Later in 1958, when I accompanied the Ambassador on his calls, he said: “John, you know what to say.” I would be allowed to say more or less what I knew was on his mind. I would present that point of view and take notes when the person answered. While the Ambassador was nominally in charge, there was another person at the post, the Head of the CIA, Henry Hecksher, who was both professionally able and spoke good French. I had good relations with Henry Hecksher. But it seemed to me that his orders were quite different from the policy pursued by the Ambassador.
The Ambassador was supposed to support the Lao Government and basically not rock the boat. Henry Hecksher was committed to opposing the neutralist Prime Minister and perhaps bring about his downfall. That is what happened in 1958, and the pro-American and anti-Pathet Lao Prime Minister Phoui Sananikone took charge. American resources and support were funneled to Phoui’s Government, probably at the expense of French influence, which had supported Souvanna Phouma. Phoui Sananikone, former President of the National Assembly and then Prime Minister, and his brother Ngon, were basically nice human beings. They were Bangkok-oriented. Souvanna Phouma was Paris-oriented. He was a prince from the ruling class.
He was nationalist but looked to France not only to oppose communist expansionism but he also feared encroachment of the Vietnamese and Thais on his territory. He thought that the best way was to stick with the French. His policy was more oriented toward keeping Laos from being dismembered by neighbors and less motivated by fighting communism. In all these attitudes, Souvanna had a lot in common with Prince Sihanouk. Perhaps Souvanna was more educated than his Cambodian colleague. The dichotomy in the American leadership in Laos got to be known in Washington. In 1958, when I returned from Laos, a Committee had been established in Washington on how to avoid a leadership conflict, a turf battle within large diplomatic missions overseas.
In 1960, after John F. Kennedy was elected, one of the first steps he took was to write a letter which has been institutionalized ever since. It is the Letter of the President to the Ambassador. It says that “You, Mr. Ambassador, are responsible to me for all the activities going on in the country of your jurisdiction, whether they are military, political, intelligence, financial, agricultural, economics, drugs, etc. except if there is a military command which is directly responsible to a higher American military authority outside the country.”
This letter was designed to make the American ambassador the coordinator of all American activities in the country of his accreditation. It meant that if the Drug Enforcement Agency wanted to run a certain operation, it needed the approval of the ambassador. If the CIA wanted to penetrate a certain institution, it needed the approval of the resident ambassador. If there was a conflict between U.S. agricultural interests shipping U.S. wheat or rice to a country, versus the Secretary of the Treasury making the money available for this transaction, the coordinator in the field was the ambassador. It also meant that the ambassador had to be well informed on all activities carried out by the representatives of U.S. departments and agencies within the diplomatic mission he is leading.
Hence, when you have several intelligence agencies in large diplomatic missions and turf battles develop, the ambassador must arbitrate. If you have a professional ambassador at the post, he usually can weigh the pros and cons and make a decision on the spot. He does not have to consult “Washington.” The Presidential Letter says: “You are in charge” so, you do it. It can happen that, for example, on drug enforcement issues, the CIA representative may have different views than the DEA officer at the post. The military may have a conflict with one of the Intelligence Agencies. They may be targeting the same person – which could be a disaster. Both of them may be running against a double agent.
In the economic area, we may be dumping PL-480 rice into a country which is actually exporting rice grown at home. You, ambassador, are in charge of this. I would think this letter, which has been used now for the last 40 years, is one important reason why in sensitive posts the professional ambassador makes a difference. A political appointee having to arbitrate the differences among U.S. departments and agencies may not know all the ramifications of every decision which is to be made. On the other hand, most career people do have the background. Let me give you an example. A wife of a very prominent Prime Minister was deeply involved in the sale of drugs. We knew that. When the Prime Minister refused to sign a certain piece of paper which we wanted signed, we had to threaten the Prime Minister, or at least make it known, that we knew that his wife was very much involved in drugs. The paper was signed. The ambassador, as coordinator of U.S. activities abroad, is probably the only way to avoid in the field what is a problem in Washington where every department and every agency runs its own policies and operations. While theoretically the National Security Adviser to the President is supposed to be the coordinator, I don’t think that every problem can be resolved from thousands of miles away. A good relationship between the National Security Adviser in Washington and the Ambassador at a sensitive post is very helpful to the over-all interests of the United States.
DEAN: It was being built up, artificially I think, as a major point of confrontation. If you think at one point there was a Bermuda Conference with British Prime Minister MacMillan involved with the American President in trying to diffuse the confrontation in Laos, while most average Americans had never even heard of that far away place. Laos had become a flashpoint where the U.S. saw its interests being challenged by the communist world through the communist Pathet Lao. I thought this conflict had been blown up beyond our real national interests. We saw the Pathet Lao not as a national force, but as a prolongation of the communist Vietnamese and the communist Chinese.
We saw Laos as part of a global challenge.
The Bermuda Conference was held because it was feared that this regional confrontation could spread into a broader conflict. Mind you, we were living in an era of “containing communism.”
DEAN: Since I had been close to Souvanna Phouma personally and I played the role of liaison with the French, I supported Souvanna’s neutral policy. With the approval of Ambassador Parsons, I could make known my views. I was allowed to dissent. Most of my colleagues thought their job was to support the new Lao Government under Phoui Sananikone which opposed neutralists and gave priority to fighting the communists. Also, many officers in the Mission were staff involved in supporting the Meo forces fighting the Pathet Lao. There was relatively little dissent in our Mission. After the U.S. elections in 1958 when Governor Harriman entered the Lao scene, he supported again a neutralist general as counterweight to the warrior clan. That was in 1961-1962. It also reflected a slight change in U.S. policy. Dulles had disappeared from the scene. The elections in 1960 brought Kennedy to the fore and an effort was made to find a negotiated solution. It was Harriman who at that point succeeded to deflate the Laos confrontation.
I would like to pay a tribute to a person who may still be alive: Campbell James. His grandfather had been one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was quite flamboyant. I had started at my home regular roulette evenings. I learned how to be the croupier to run the roulette table. People were able to bet small amounts. I held the bank. This was a good way for the Lao military, Lao politicians, and foreign diplomats to come to my house.
People of high rank came to our home to mix, talk, and enjoy themselves. Campbell James, who came from a well-to-do family, said: “John, why don’t you introduce me to your friends?” I did. I felt – and I still feel today – that whether you work for this department or that agency, we all work for Uncle Sam. While he may have had different reasons for coming to my house, he was my colleague. When I was scheduled to depart post, I turned over most of my contacts to Campbell James, who continued to run roulette evenings and used fun evenings to make friends among the Lao military who loved gambling.
Campbell James and I had contact with many foreign missions: Poles, Canadians, Indians… These roulette evenings helped to keep all channels open. Perhaps the most important result of my tour of duty in Laos was the letter from the American President to the Ambassador which put an end to confrontation between different U.S. departments and agencies at diplomatic missions abroad. At least, that was the purpose of the Presidential Letter making the Chief of Mission the Coordinator of all U.S. activities under his jurisdiction.
DEAN: I used it extensively later, wherever I was assigned as Chief of Mission. Some called me a “meddler,” an “intervener.” Years later, when I appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for confirmation, Senator Javits chastised me and said: “If you are confirmed, Mr. Dean, will you continue to intervene in the domestic affairs of the country where you are stationed?” I think I replied to the satisfaction of the Senators, because I was confirmed. But when you are the American Ambassador, you have the means at your disposal to influence the situation. The naked truth is that the Ambassador is more “than a reporter.” Often, he can’t help but take positions. Whether you call this “interference…” I don’t know.
For example, when you answer the question to the King “Are you in favor of this?” and you reply: “Yes,” you have “intervened.” Most of the time, when it’s a vital issue, you can’t say: “I am going to get my instructions from the State Department and I will get back to you.” Your personal relationship with the interlocutor and his confidence in you matters. That is why I do believe that the selection of ambassadors is a very important process. Yes, there are many situations where the ambassador’s advice or opinion is a form of intervention in the internal affairs of a country.
DEAN: It was still off the beaten path and foreign journalists were a rare breed. The medical facilities in Laos were also very limited. That kept some people away. For example, foreign women were reluctant to have their baby in Laos. My wife happened to be pregnant in Laos. Everyone urged her to go to the American Hospital in Bangkok but my wife replied: “I prefer to stay with my husband.” I have one son who was born in Laos. Quite often, he has to explain to a Passport Officer why he was born in Laos. At the time, there was only one hospital in Vientiane: the French military hospital. That is where our older son was born. The Lao have remained themselves. Western ways have not had a significant impact. They are basically nice, decent people who got hurt when Laos became a bone of contention between the West and the communist world.
DEAN: When I arrived in Laos in the autumn of 1972, I had a long conversation with Ambassador Mac Godley. By that time, I had the reputation of being a “fighter.” Embassy/Vientiane was a huge Mission of 680 Americans. Mac Godley was a person who inspired loyalty. He, in turn, reciprocated with full support for his staff. He believed in the doctrine that we should put as much military pressure as possible on the Pathet Lao and their Vietnamese supporters, especially through aerial bombing. In the course of this meeting, Mac asked me: “Do you wish to take the war or peace?” I took the peace. Had I opted for “the war,” it would have meant selecting targets, for bombing by American planes, and supporting efforts with the Meo mercenaries fighting the Vietnamese.
There was a whole section in Embassy/Vientiane that was involved in selecting targets for bombings by the U.S. Air Force. Bombing helped to push Pathet Lao troops off a hilltop or giving support to the Royal Lao Army units facing the enemy. We had a very close relationship with the Lao military. When I arrived in Vientiane in 1972, a Pathet Lao delegation had just arrived in town to explore the possibility of negotiations. So, when I took over the role of following, for the Embassy, efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Lao conflict, I was lucky, as far as timing was concerned.
DEAN: Until October/November 1973. One of the reasons the Pathet Lao delegation had arrived in Vientiane was that the leader of the Pathet Lao was Souphanouvong, who was the half brother of Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, who was very much committed to finding a way of ending the armed conflict. The presence of Souvanna Phouma as Head of the Royal Lao Government was probably the reason that we were able to help find a negotiated solution in Laos. In Cambodia, unlike Laos, there was no major local personality in the country with whom you could negotiate or who was a credible neutralist leader. Souvanna Phouma was known as a neutralist, and proud to be one.
In an earlier interview, I had discussed the personal links I had with him. Since I came back to Vientiane, this time as Deputy Chief of Mission, my wife and I were invited quite often in the evening to the Prime Minister’s home. Dinner was usually followed by bridge.
Souvanna Phouma was an avid bridge player and he liked to win. If by 11:00 p.m. he had won, we went home at 11:15. But if Souvanna Phouma was losing, we stayed on until 1:00 a.m., until he started winning. These social occasions gave me an opportunity of discussing in a leisurely manner the problems of the day. Since Souvanna Phouma was an avowed neutralist, he did not really enjoy the enthusiastic support of the United States.
Most of the time, Souvanna Phouma was interested in exploring solutions which saved face for both Lao parties.
DEAN: Back in those days, Mr. Harriman worked with the neutralist General Phoumi Nosavan. Back in 1962, Lao neutralists were more acceptable to the U.S. You must remember. Secretary Dulles was no longer on the scene. Certainly, by 1972, Souvanna Phouma had emerged as a compromise figure on the Lao political scene. The French gave him full support. I am also inclined to believe that the Russians supported the coming of the Pathet Lao to Vientiane in order to find an alternative to the war. The Pathet Lao official who was sent to Vientiane as Head of the Delegation was Phoumi Vongvichit who later became President of Laos. A word about the other important players on the Lao side, in this crucial period. One of them was the King of Laos. You may remember that he had gone to school with my late Father-in-law, when the former was the Crown Prince.
When we went to Luang Prabang, this made some difference in my relationship with him. The King was a mild-mannered person, while his son, the Crown Prince, was prone to act at times high handedly. Both the Lao Dynasty in Luang Prabang and the Princes of Champasak in Southern Laos had links, not only to France, but also to Thailand. In Southern Laos, Prince Boun Oum had fought the Japanese during the Second World War, and after the war served briefly as Prime Minister of Laos. Prince Boun Oum, a huge man, was basically a country gentleman, not terribly well educated, but he loved the good things in life: booze, beautiful women, and having a good time. I had been told that when he came to Paris as Prime Minister, he was supposed to meet with the President of France. On his way to the meeting, he had met a nice-looking floozie so he just forgot about his appointment with the President of France. His nephew Sisouk Champasak played an important role in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, and was quite pro-American.
DEAN: Oh, yes. She always played a very major role. Her family was known to Souvanna Phouma. By 1972, his children were grown up. One was in the military. Another was in business. His very attractive daughter, Moune, had attended prestigious schools in France. Later, she married an American, Perry Stieglitz, who was in the U.S. Embassy. She was a very refined, beautiful lady. She also had a sister who worked with NGOs. General Kouprasith was the Head of the Royal Lao Armed Forces. Among his accomplishments, is the building of the Arch of Triumph in Vientiane, which every tourist visits today. He was the son of the Head of the King’s Council, the senior position of the Lao civilian administration. He had spent many years in school in France. By the time I returned to Laos in 1972, he was an old man. But with that family we also had close links going back to earlier years. We had spent time with them at their family home in southern Laos.
Nearly all Lao officials spoke French, in addition to their native Lao language which is very close to the Thai language. If we wanted to communicate with the key Lao personalities—civilian or military—it was essential in those days to be able to speak French. Ambassador Godley spoke good French, and most of the Embassy staff spoke French. We also had a few Thai-speaking officers. On the American side, I would like to single out Jack Vessey. He was a Brigadier General at the time. He was in charge of providing our Mission with military support, out of Udorn in northern Thailand. This entailed providing military hardware and military intelligence to the Royal Lao forces.
Jack and I became good friends. On a number of occasions, we traveled together in his plane, visiting the Royal Lao Armed Forces or the Meo Hill Tribes fighting the Vietnamese who were supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.
One day. Jack and I were on the Plaine des Jarres, in northeastern Laos, when suddenly we came under intense artillery shelling from the Pathet Lao, supported by the North Vietnamese. The artillery shelling was pretty precise. Jack Vessey and I were forced to lock arms and jump together into a ditch to avoid being hit by enemy artillery shelling. Jack was a very thoughtful person. In the hours we spent in his plane traveling, we would discuss the role of the United States in Indochina, in Asia, and in the world. Among the many American military I had the honor of working with. Jack was tops. Later, he served with distinction as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It was in 1971 that I started working closely with Peng Pongsavan who was the President of the Lao National Assembly. He had been selected by the King and by Souvanna Phouma to be the negotiator for the Royal Lao Government side. On the Pathet Lao side, was Phoumi Vongvichit. The two Lao delegations met during the daytime and tried to find compromises to their opposing views. In the evenings, usually after 10:00 p.m., I went over to see Peng Pongsavan to obtain a read-out on the status of the negotiations.
Armed with many notes, I returned to the Embassy to send a detailed message to our National Security Advisor on the status of the negotiations to find an end to the Lao conflict. My message was not sent always through the State Department channels, but directly to the White House, i.e., the Security Adviser.
DEAN: You are right. That was Henry Kissinger. He came to Laos quite often as part of his trips to Vietnam. In Vientiane, I would act as his interpreter. Although Dr. Kissinger speaks good French, he preferred to speak in English and I would interpret. Vice-versa, when Souvanna Phouma spoke, he would ask for a translation. This way, both men had time to prepare their replies.
DEAN: I received practically no guidance from Washington and I was very much on my own. It should also be noted that in March 1973 Ambassador Godley had left post for a new assignment and I was left in charge for the next 6 months. Souvanna Phouma’s neutralism was not our preferred solution. Yet, Washington was eager to receive a read out on the status of the negotiations. Often, Peng Pongsavan, the Royal Lao Government negotiator, would ask: “What do you think about this compromise or that approach?” I did not have time to ask the Department for guidance. I would give my opinion, suggesting: “Maybe this approach might work.” In a way, I was part of the negotiation by extension and the faith Peng Pongsavan had, that I reflected the official view of Washington. Sometimes, Peng Pongsavan would ask: “Do you think this is acceptable?” (presumably to Washington). I would say: “If it leads to a settlement, yes.” We both knew that the outcome of the negotiation would have to be a coalition government. That means sharing power with the Pathet Lao. By 1972, Laos was no longer perceived by Washington as a bilateral problem but rather as part of a much broader U.S. effort to contain the spread of communism in South-East Asia, and that entailed all 3 former Indochina states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
DEAN: The Soviets had been involved in Laos for some time. You will recall that Governor Harriman had fortunately found a solution supporting the neutralists in the early 1960s, with General Phoumi Pongsavan. In 1972-1973, the Soviet Ambassador to Laos was definitely in favor of a compromise solution for Laos. That basically meant supporting a denouement to the conflict by the formation of a coalition government with the Pathet Lao.
In my nightly reporting, I had the help of a very dedicated Foreign Service secretary who would come to the office at midnight in order to type up the message to Washington. Before that, Dick Howland, an excellent FSO who later became ambassador, was my political chief and he was also at the office in the middle of the night to ensure that the message was perfect.
DEAN: Dick would come in and be sure that what I had drafted was coherent and I had used the right words. He was an excellent wordsmith. Again, I would like to state that all chiefs stand on the shoulders of their team.
DEAN: Basically, I got answers to my reports from the National Security Adviser, Dr. Kissinger. He came from time to time to Vientiane, on his way to Vietnam. It was quite clear that I was expected to address my messages to the National Security Adviser. On my staff of 680 Americans, more than half were involved either in support of the Meo Hill Tribes fighting the communists or gathering information to support our effort to oppose the spreading of communism.
We also had at our post Army Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. In Washington, the only place where all this information was coordinated was in the Office of the National Security Adviser. At the post, the coordinator was the Ambassador, or in his absence, the Chargé d’Affaires. One day, something happened which was written up in detail in “Time Magazine,” “Newsweek,” and the international press. My nice boss, Ambassador Mac Godley, was asked in February 1973 to become Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs, in Washington. This was an important job where he was also going to be in charge of the Indochina problem. It was also a vote to keep on fighting and continue aerial bombing as an essential part in using military pressure to find a solution.
DEAN: Not always. The bombing could be in the Plaine des Jarres which had nothing to do with the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The American bombing was often directed against a hilltop where the Pathet Lao had displaced the Royal Lao Government Forces. The idea was to get them off the hill and have the friendly forces retake the hill. This was also a time when some vocal reservations were expressed in Congress about bombing. Some Congressmen even urged stopping the air operations altogether. Back in Washington, Mac Godley’s designation as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs ran into difficulties in the Senate. Instead of being confirmed for the Washington assignment, his name was proposed for the Ambassadorship to Lebanon.
With Godley’s departure from Vientiane in early 1973, I became Chargé d’Affaires, a position I held for 6 months, until a new ambassador arrived at post. The official orders we had at that time were clear: support the government of Souvanna Phouma. We supported the Royal Lao Government, and I followed these instructions scrupulously. Souvanna Phouma and this policy were going to be put to a test. In August 1973, General Tao Ma, a Lao dissident Air Force General, sneaked across the Mekong River and occupied the Vientiane Airport. He was supported by a group of dissident Lao military officers who had come from northern Thailand in an effort to topple the neutralist government of Souvanna Phouma. That group of coup plotters undoubtedly had the support of some branches of the U.S. Government and also perhaps the support of Asian countries which opposed the neutralist policies of Prince Souvanna Phouma. After they had also taken control of the Vientiane Radio Station, they went on the air to alert the public that their mission was to evict Souvanna Phouma from power. They took full control of the Vientiane Airport and control tower, and wanted to use the small American-supplied military planes given to the Royal Lao Air Force, to subdue the Souvanna Phouma Government and force the Royal Lao Government to turn over the government to them.
When I was notified of this development, I first found a safe house for Souvanna Phouma, and he was out of harm’s way. I then had my driver take me to the Airport to confront the coup plotters. I then tried to organize Americans to help me to put down the coup, but all of them saw their role as reporters or observers. My staff was very generous in writing up the events. One of them was Frank Franco who was in charge of fire security at the airport. Colonel Bailey, the Military Attaché, was equally active in keeping abreast of developments, but was reluctant to be directly involved in defending the Prime Minister or putting down the illegal coup d’état hatched outside Laos.
DEAN: He was involved with the airport.
DEAN: I don’t know. I think he was on the AID payroll. All I can say is that he was a very hard working and a very devoted person who took the time to write an 18-page report on the coup attempt. It said exactly what happened. I felt pretty much alone in crushing the coup. When we arrived by car at the airport, I got a bull-horn and, standing below the Airport Control Tower, I shouted in French to the coup plotters: “Go back across the Mekong. If you are not going to go back, I’m going to cut off the gasoline supplies and all other items needed by the Lao military and provided by the U.S. Get out of here! My job is to support the Government of Prince Souvanna Phouma and this coup is against this government. I will not have you undermine the legal and internationally recognized Lao Government!” Nobody moved, except some plotters who were getting the small military propeller-powered planes ready to fly over the city and take over the government. So, I asked my driver to drive the car to the middle of the runway in order to block the planes from taking off. I sat in the car with my chauffeur. The latter was shivering with fear. He wanted to get out.
I said: “You stay here. I am staying in the car with you. Put the flags on the car.” The two flags (the American flag and the Presidential flag) were flying on the car and we were blocking the runway. Well, General Tao Ma was not going to be put off by this show of bravado by a young civilian officer. He fired up his plane and he tried to take off. Since I was about midway on the airstrip, he tried to avoid the car. He did not have enough height. In the process of avoiding a collision with my car, he veered off to the right and crashed. He was killed instantly. I must admit that at that point, I was also a little shaky myself. So, I told the driver: “Let’s go back to the Control Tower.” There, I took my bull-horn again and shouted: “Get your buts back over the Mekong River! This thing is over!”
At that point, there was a Royal Lao Army detachment waiting near the airport for the outcome of this confrontation. Sisouk Na Champasak, the Lao Minister of Defense, and a good friend, was heading the troops, but he was still waiting to see how this struggle was going to end. Was it going to be neutralist Souvanna Phouma or hard liners? At that point, a putschist colonel, second in command to General Tao Ma, took off by plane and left for across the Mekong River. The rest of the coup plotters followed by boat. Finally, seeing the failure of the coup plotters, the Royal Lao military detachment decided to move and take control of the airport. The coup was over!
DEAN: They went back to Thailand. This was the last attempt to stop the negotiations for a coalition government which would bring the Pathet Lao out of the bush and into the Royal Lao Government.
DEAN: But these were rebellious officers who had taken refuge in Thailand.
DEAN: There was a major U.S. support operation in Udorn, in northeastern Thailand to assist the Royal Lao Armed Forces and the Royal Government. I think enough books have been written about it. General Tao Ma was an officer in rebellion against the political leadership of Prince Souvanna Phouma. He and his coup plotters could not have undertaken this entire operation unless they had support from other well organized foreign groups. There is no doubt that there existed at the time elements on the American and Thai sides who opposed the neutralist policies of Souvanna Phouma. My instructions were very clear; to support the government of Souvanna Phouma. I was there to carry out that policy. I did not have time to ask for guidance from Washington or from anybody else. In any case, had the coup plotters succeeded in their takeover, there would have been elements in the U.S. who would have blamed me for failing to support Souvanna Phouma, and others for trying to stop the plotters from doing what was needed to stop Laos’ sliding toward communism. I thought I was carrying out the official U.S. policy and I threw my own life in the balance to achieve our objective.
Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma was now free to continue his efforts to bring the war to an end through negotiations. My superiors in Washington were generous in praising my actions. There were undoubtedly factions back home who regretted that the coup had failed. While most of the action centered around the airport, I also had to think about the safety of the Pathet Lao delegation who had come to Vientiane for the negotiations and who lived in a large house in town. Knowing that these Pathet Lao negotiators were very much a target of the coup plotters, I asked some of the American Marines guarding our Embassy to send a few marines to the Pathet Lao house to protect them against those who wanted to harm them. After General Tao Ma was dead and after all coup participants had fled across the border, I went over to the Pathet Lao Delegation where its chief negotiator, Phoumi Vongvichit, thanked me for the protection.
The Pathet Lao Delegation members and their American protectors all joined in a glass of sparkling wine, the closest thing to Champagne, to celebrate the success of our intervention. The road for a negotiated solution was free. The Pathet Lao Delegation members understood that their lives had been in the balance if this coup had succeeded. At that point, we continued working with the two negotiators, Peng Pongsavan for the Royal Lao Government, and Phoumi Vongvichit for the Pathet Lao.
They signed the famous Protocol which opened the door to a coalition government a few weeks after the aborted coup. On October 18, 1973, I received a personal, signed, letter from the President of the United States which reads as follows: “Dear John, You have my warm congratulations and my sincere thanks for the outstanding contribution you made to this successful completion of the Lao Protocol which was signed on September 14. You are far more than an observer and a reporter of the events leading up to the agreement.
You also played a vital role as mediator and catalyst earning the respect and admiration of all the parties. You vigorously and skillfully represented the United States and thus helped fulfill the earnest desire of the American people to advance the cause of peace for the people of Indochina and the world. Sincerely, Richard Nixon.”
We never broke relations with Laos after 1975 when we left Vietnam and Cambodia. Christian Chapman was then in charge of our Embassy in Vientiane and he and Charlie Whitehouse knew how to build on what we had accomplished.
DEAN: Christian Chapman and Ambassador Whitehouse did an excellent job in honing our links with Laos. We never broke diplomatic relations with Laos, even during and after the withdrawal of all American presence from Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975.
There was no genocide in Laos. Unlike Vietnam and Cambodia, there was no mass killings in Laos. A few people went to “reeducation camps” after 1975. Others fled to Thailand or the U.S., or France. A coalition government was formed in the autumn of 1973. Then my very good friend Ambassador Charles Whitehouse took charge of the
American Embassy. The new Lao Government included Pathet Lao and Royal Government ministers under the leadership of Souvanna Phouma. One day, Souvanna Phouma called at his home a meeting of all the ambassadors and chiefs of mission in Vientiane. At that occasion, he publicly thanked me for the constructive role I had played in helping to bring about a peaceful negotiated solution to a long conflict between the Royal Government of Laos and the Pathet Lao. In my long career which was to follow, it was one of the great moments in my life, having been instrumental in helping people find a controlled, negotiated solution rather than continuing military confrontation where I felt then and later, time was not on our side.
This particular aspect of time is repeated in many messages which came out of Vientiane. Let me give you an example of some of the anecdotes. At one point as we were very close to a conclusion in a negotiated solution, the Pathet Lao had pushed the Royal Government off a hilltop and they, in turn, occupied the hilltop. They had broken the cease-fire agreement. Whereupon Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma called me and said: “John, should I call for a B-52 air strike?” At this time, there were no more regular air strikes and I told the Prime Minister: “If we have an air strike, we will kill the Pathet Lao on the top of the hill. They would be off the top of the hill and the Royal Lao Army would reoccupy that hilltop. But I fear that one week later, the Pathet Lao would come back and expel the Royal Lao Army from the hilltop.
We would be back at the same point. Personally, I would not break the cease-fire on the B-52 raids just for this small incident. We are so close to the negotiation of a Lao coalition government which would end the hostilities that I would recommend that you do not call for an air strike.” Before executing an air strike by American bombers we usually had to have the prior approval of the Prime Minister. I went back to the Embassy and reported this conversation by telegram through State Department channels. In return, I received an official reprimand from the Secretary of State, which is in my Foreign Service file, for not having asked for instructions from the State Department. I still believe that, when you are in the kitchen, you have not always got the time to ask the big chief how to handle an immediate problem. You just do your best.
DEAN: By the summer of 1973 bombing by U.S. aircraft in Laos had stopped for all practical purposes. Public pressure in the United States and the opposition by a number of Senators and Congressmen had severely reduced B-52 strikes in Laos. Many legislators had come to Laos and seen for themselves that the bombing was a two-edged sword.
While it may have saved a particular military situation for the moment, quite often it turned the local civilian population into violent opponents of the United States. This also happened in Cambodia. It is difficult to explain to the little guys on the ground that suddenly they get bombed, their cattle gets killed, and they have personal losses, but that this destruction carried out by a foreign nation is in the overall interests of the country.
Not all bombs hit their target. The bombing halt undoubtedly helped me to negotiate the settlement in Laos. Had bombing been resumed, it would have been tantamount to admitting that negotiations had failed and did not lead to an end of hostilities.
DEAN: When you negotiate, you also have to have some way of putting pressure on your adversary to promote your point of view in the negotiations. I made a distinction between U.S./Thai support for Meo Hill Tribes fighting themselves against the Pathet Lao/North Vietnam, and the Royal Lao Armed Forces opposing the Pathet Lao. Quite often, I joined my colleagues in visits to Meo villages to better understand what was the situation on the ground. But in serious negotiations, one can do two things simultaneously: fight and negotiate. I put the emphasis on negotiation. My analysis at that point was that time was not on the side of the Royal Lao Government in pursuing warfare, and therefore I placed my emphasis on moving rapidly on negotiations.
DEAN: No. On that issue, we did not see eye to eye. The instructions I had been given by Dr. Kissinger when I left for Cambodia in early 1974 was “Go and fight. Don’t get yourself involved in negotiations.” To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Kissinger does not believe that the people in the field have a sufficient grasp of the global picture, nor the contacts, to negotiate a solution. In Laos, it was somewhat different: the local Lao factions were negotiating among themselves and we were just “facilitators.” It is quite possible that elements in Washington supported my efforts with other important players, and perhaps even Dr. Kissinger was among them. When what you do appears to lead to positive results, others jump on the bandwagon.
Dr. Kissinger and I have had a strange relationship. We have similar backgrounds. I admire Dr. Kissinger’s keen intellect. Today, historians and pundits are a lot more critical of Dr. Kissinger than in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger was on the cover of TIME MAGAZINE as superman. It is a fact that you see a problem differently when you are on the ground as a field Commander than when you are in Washington and look at the overall picture. Any differences which may have existed between Dr. Kissinger and myself are largely a difference of perception. If you are on the ground and you see what’s going on, you hear what people are saying, and you see the battle fatigue of the civilians and the fighting forces, you come to one conclusion.
Therefore, as Field Commander, I may have had a more parochial vision compared to Dr. Kissinger who looked at the same issue from the global point of view – which might include how the Chinese felt about it, where the Soviets stood on developments, and how did Laos fit into the overall picture of containing communism. In bringing about a negotiated solution in Laos, I had the full support of the French Ambassador, André Ross, who went on to be Ambassador in Japan, India, and Secretary General at the French Foreign Office. I had the impression that the Soviet Ambassador to Laos also favored emphasis on negotiations. As far as I know, no efforts were made to throw a monkey wrench into our efforts to find a negotiated solution. The Australian Ambassador also was helpful. In Vientiane, I felt that I had the support of some other foreign missions. Not getting much guidance from Washington, I did not feel completely isolated. It probably reinforced my tendency to take decisions without asking too many questions or soliciting advice from Washington.
DEAN: I met many journalists – foreign and American – who were to follow me into Cambodia. The lady who wrote the book “The Fall of Phnom Penh,” Dieudonnee Tan Berge, was a Dutch journalist in Laos and later in Cambodia. She interviewed me years later on her book on Indochina. She, as most journalists, was witness to what was going on. They saw the suffering of the civilian populations. Representatives of the non- governmental agencies and the International Red Cross had an accurate evaluation of the destruction, the battle fatigue of the civilian population, and they sympathized with the Lao people. On the whole in Laos, I felt that the media was not unfriendly. Certainly, the European press was not unfriendly.
Yet, by the end of 1973, Laos was a side-show. Everybody was focusing on Vietnam. By 1973, the resident journalists, and even visiting press people, were not hostile to my efforts to press for a negotiated solution. Some were even helpful! A final word about Laos. The Lao got caught in a war not of their choosing, first by the French, and then by the United States. They certainly did not want Vietnamese occupation or communist ideology. They are a rather smiling, friendly, docile, uncomplicated people, who quickly gained the hearts of most foreigners who served there. They are not impulsive warriors. Most of them are not great intellectuals, but they have a lifestyle and a Buddhist approach to life which endears then to many people. They lived in a different era from the rest of their neighbors. More isolated today, Laos, still under communist-inspired leadership, is very much linked to the more dynamic Thai society.
Helping to make peace was one of the most satisfying moments in my professional life. My wife and I still have some Lao friends. Fortunately, only a few Lao suffered after the 1975 communist take-over. Some of our friends found safety in France and in the United States. Laos was first caught in a struggle between Japan and Western colonialism. Then, reoccupation by the former colonial power. Then, war between France and Vietnamese communist expansionism; and finally, U.S. efforts to contain Vietnamese communism. Lao independence did not bring economic development nor modernity as envisioned by the Lao elite. War and conflict were the order of the day for more than 25 years for most of the rural population. Even after the American withdrawal from Indochina, Laos did not participate in the economic boom that characterized the 1980s and 1990s in Southeast Asia. Prince Souvanna Phouma, son of the Viceroy of Laos, saw the problem, not only what was best for the well educated elite but what he thought was best for the great majority of the Lao rural population. The solution of a coalition government with the communist Pathet Lao was probably the best solution possible at the time 1973. It did not last once South Vietnam was taken over completely by the North and the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. The Indochina conflict was also a struggle for independence, without foreign interference.
The interim coalition government solution which we helped to broker in 1973 led to a complete takeover by the Pathet Lao of the country in 1975. But the basic problem remains of taking a very under-developed society and country and bringing it into the modern world. For that task, the Laos of today still needs the West, including the United States. Whether Laos has a communist government or a non-communist regime does not really matter. Laos needs the know-how and the capital to develop its potential, and for that it must look to the West, Japan, and its more advanced neighbors in Southeast Asia.
DEAN: I stayed on with Ambassador Whitehouse in Laos for a very short period of time. It must have been in November that I left Laos for the last time. I never returned to that country, even after retirement from the Foreign Service, despite many invitations from Phoumi Vongvichit who was President of Laos by that time.
DEAN: The largest number of people at the Embassy were involved in working with Cambodian refugees who had come from 1979 onward into Thailand. They were fleeing what was then the Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh, which in turn was supported by the Vietnamese government. Above all, they fled the excesses of the ousted Pol Pot regime which had killed more than one million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.
The American Embassy in Thailand joined other governments and Non-Governmental Agencies from many different countries in providing roofing, food, medicine, and even starting schooling for the refugees in the border camps. These ad hoc refugee centers became fairly well established little agglomerations, towns, where youngsters went to school, mothers were helped by midwives, and medical care for all ages was available. Food rations were handed out to families. Unfortunately, the men did not know what to do. Some of them were carving small wooden artifacts which they sold. Some enlisted in the Cambodian anti-communist fighting force. The true nature of the Hun Sen regime in Phnom Penh was not known by the refugees in the camps, and often not by those supporting them.
DEAN: No. Hun Sen had split with the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot. One of the problems was that the brutal Pol Pot regime was highly nationalistic, claiming to be a modern successor to those who created the great Khmer Empire one thousand years ago. They recalled that South Vietnam had once been part of Cambodia and the Vietnamese only settled the southern tip of South Vietnam some 200 years ago. It is true that the Vietnamese had moved southward from Tonkin and little by little had settled South Vietnam (what the French called Cochin-China).
The Cambodians under Pol Pot had harassed the Vietnamese on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, something the Vietnamese resented. When the Vietnamese moved into Cambodia in 1979 in order to drive out Pol Pot and his henchmen, it was not perceived in the United States as an effort to punish the Pol Pot regime for their brutalities committed at home, or for attacking Vietnam, but as a Vietnamese effort to grab Cambodian land and expand their influence. Some critics even saw Hun Sen as a Vietnamese puppet ruling in the exclusive interest of Vietnam. Personally, I think that one of the Vietnamese considerations for invading Cambodia was to kick out Pol Pot from the area near the Vietnamese border and to punish this regime for the brutalities committed against the Vietnamese living in Cambodia. Once Pol Pot had been kicked out of Phnom Penh and he had retreated to the hills in western Cambodia, the Vietnamese backed a breakaway group of Cambodians who were also Khmer Rouge but who had opposed the outrages committed by Pol Pot against his own people. In 1979, this pro-Vietnamese group of Cambodians were able, with the support of the Vietnamese Armed Forces, to gradually assert control over much of Cambodia.
In 1979, when the refugees stumbled over the border into Thailand, they were sick with malaria; they were hungry, undernourished. Many had lost their loved ones—children, parents…. In 1979, it also became evident to the whole world what had happened to the people of Cambodia under Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. To some extent, it made U.S. support for the Lon Nol regime before 1975 more understandable and the struggle against the Khmer Rouge more acceptable to the world.
Critics of America no longer harped on U.S. bombing of “non-aligned” Cambodia before 1975, but focused on what followed the withdrawal of the United States from Southeast Asia in April 1975. Pol Pot and his gang had committed such atrocities and caused such unbelievable suffering among the Cambodians that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979 was approved by a number of countries around the world. The United States was not among them. We continued to oppose those who ruled Phnom Penh, especially since the U.S. saw Vietnam behind them. The fact that we had lost the war in Vietnam, and that the Vietnamese had installed a friendly regime in Phnom Penh did not sit well with American authorities, in Washington.
We centered our effort in Thailand on helping the refugees on the border and in opposing the new masters in Phnom Penh. The latter group included some of the senior officers who were still around from the Lon Nol era. General Dindel was one of them whom I had known in Cambodia in 1974-75 and who continued struggling from the border camps against Cambodian communism. Since Prince Sihanouk was nominally the Head of the Khmer Rouge movement, I was personally more willing to help those Cambodians who favored putting an end to the tragic warfare which had devastated Cambodia for so many years.
DEAN: Yes. Basically, this explanation is correct. At the time, the division and separation between Pol Pot and his followers on the one hand, and the Hun Sen people supported by the Vietnamese on the other hand, was not that evident. The Khmer Rouge were nominally under Prince Sihanouk. One of the problems which I explained in an earlier chapter was that we did not have a good relationship with Sihanouk who was still residing in Beijing at the time. Sihanouk was still the symbol who rallied international support for the Phnom Penh regime and also gave any regime in Phnom Penh support among the masses in Cambodia. To a large extent, the Khmer Rouge was hiding under the umbrella of Prince Sihanouk. After all, Sihanouk had been on the throne off and on, and the real power in Cambodia since 1941! He either was King himself or he chose his mother or father to mount the throne. In real terms, he remained the Head of the Monarchy for the last 60 years. During my tenure in Thailand, some elements in Washington gave some support to one of Sihanouk’s sons: Prince Ranariddh, in the hope that he could give some legitimacy to the Khmer opposition in exile against the regime in Phnom Penh.
Prince Ranariddh was a highly Frenchified Cambodian. He had been an assistant professor at a French University. He looked a great deal like his father, King Sihanouk. The relationship between Ranariddh and his father was not always good. At one point, Sihanouk left Beijing to travel in order to gain support for the Cambodian regime in Phnom Penh. He also came to Bangkok, where I was Ambassador. Knowing him from a previous era, I invited him to come to a big dinner in his honor at our home. For the occasion, I had invited Chiefs of Missions of the diplomatic corps whose governments recognized Sihanouk as the Head of Cambodia. It was also a way of showing my personal support for Sihanouk. You may remember, from previous chapters, that I had tried in December 1974 to have Sihanouk return to Phnom Penh to head a coalition government.
DEAN: We certainty did not. I had known the man for many years, and many governments around the world had recognized him as the legal Head of Cambodia. When I gave a dinner for Sihanouk at my house in Bangkok, I would like to point out that the Thai Government had given him a visa to come to Thailand. While in Thailand, Sihanouk acted as Chief of State for Cambodia. Specifically, he went to the Thai-Khmer border and stepped about one mile inside Cambodian territory. There, he received the letters of credence of the foreign ambassadors who wanted to be accredited to his regime. He would receive the envoys in the jungle, on Cambodian soil, but he would serve cold champagne as he would have done in his royal palace in Phnom Penh. After the presentation of credentials in the middle of the jungle, near the Thai-Khmer border, he would toast the foreign ambassador who had presented credentials.
Quite a number of countries took the opportunity of Sihanouk’s presence in Thailand to accredit their envoy to Thailand, also to Sihanouk, Chief of State of Cambodia. The period was 1983-84 and most people knew what the Khmer Rouge had done to their own citizens. Sihanouk quite openly criticized some of the acts perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. But in the eyes of his countrymen, he always remained the father of his country. At certain meetings, Sihanouk even asked himself whether the Monarchy had a future in the long run in Cambodia. As for the question of succession, when Sihanouk came to our house in Bangkok, he was accompanied by his current wife, Monique, and a son from her. Sihanouk had many wives in his lifetime, and many children. His current wife, Princess Monique at the time, had a European father and a Khmer mother. She was a very beautiful, intelligent, woman and she continues still today to be active on behalf of many good causes in Cambodia. The son of Sihanouk and Monique became in the 1990s the Cambodian Ambassador to UNESCO.
Since we are on the subject of UNESCO, I might mention that upon my retirement from the Foreign Service In 1989, I was named by the Director General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, his personal Ambassador for Cambodia. In that capacity, I returned to Cambodia in 1992 with the Director General of UNESCO for the purpose of protecting the cultural heritage and monuments of that country. In the course of a luncheon offered by Sihanouk, then King again, in honor of the Director General of UNESCO, Sihanouk spoke about who might succeed him on the throne. While expressing uncertainty over the future of the monarchy in Cambodia after his demise, Sihanouk opined that if a King was to remain a symbol of the unity of the country, he thought Prince Ranariddh would be the wrong person. In his opinion, “Ranariddh will never succeed me.” I should add that the Khmers at the border, fighting against the Vietnamese-supported government in Phnom Penh, were very much under the influence of a special Thai military force that Thai military unit provided food, medicine, ammunitions, and weapons to the anti-communist Khmers, which in turn was supplied in large part by the United States. Prince Ranariddh was a political symbol for that group.
DEAN: Oh, very much so, and still today.
DEAN: No. The Cambodians in Phnom Penh were there with the military assistance and full support of the Vietnamese. As seen by Washington, the Vietnamese were expanding their zone of influence, promoting Marxism all the way to the Thai border. We opposed in the early 1980s the Vietnamese-supported Cambodian government in Phnom Penh. At one point, the Cambodian Government in Phnom Penh was sufficiently strong and self- confident that the Vietnamese military were able to withdraw their troops and only leave behind advisers. When I visited Cambodia in 1990 on my own, without anybody’s blessing or support, Hun Sen was Prime Minister and it appeared to me to be an independent regime, probably Marxist-oriented, but willing to work with everybody who respected their sovereignty and independence. In 1990, most of the support came from Russia and China. The Vietnamese armed forces or military were not visible. I traveled all around Cambodia in 1990. I was taken by helicopter to Sihanoukville, a port on the southern coast of Cambodia. I also traveled to various other towns in different parts of the country.
The Pol Pot diehards were still entrenched in the hills of northwestern Cambodia and in Pailin, near the Thai border, best known for being the mining center for blue sapphires in Cambodia, renowned for their color and purity. The Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot had kept control over that area as a source of financing themselves. The role of the Thai military on the border was absolutely of cardinal importance to all parties. I do believe that during my tenure, the Thai were in support of what we were doing, but they also did not break off all of their links with the other side in Cambodia. I don’t blame them, and such a policy was very much part of the Thai political tradition.
DEAN: Generally speaking, the driving force behind the anti-communist policy in Southeast Asia was the United States. The Thai went along with it as long as it suited their interest (which I find normal). They always left a door open to a change in Thai policy if they found that U.S. strategy was leading nowhere. In addition, U.S.-Thai military links were close and mutually profitable. The Thai units on the border, supporting the anti-communist Cambodians, received U.S. material support, plus training, and at the same time they also protected their own country from unwanted immigrants or intruders.
But let us not underestimate the will of the Cambodian refugees and fighters who wanted to see their country under a more open, less oppressive regime. After all, many Cambodians on the border needed work and some of them volunteered for military service against the Vietnamese-supported, Marxist, Cambodian regime. Conditions inside Cambodia remained difficult for the average Cambodian under the Hun Sen government, until the Paris Peace Agreements brought calm and foreign assistance on a broad scale to Cambodia.
The fact that the anti-communist Cambodian resistance received food and pay in joining the fight also made a difference. Furthermore, a number of foreign countries felt that the Vietnamese occupation of part of Cambodia was against the interests of the Free World and had to be pushed back. This encouraged the anti-communist opposition. After the Vietnamese military had withdrawn from Cambodia, more and more foreign countries felt that the Hun Sen regime was much less harsh on the Cambodian people than the Pol Pot regime. Foreign observers inside Cambodia noted that the new masters of Phnom Penh wanted, above all, to reconstruct the country and to let people live. But since most western countries did not respond to Hun Sen’s plea for help in the reconstruction of the country, the Phnom Penh authorities continued to rely on those countries which wanted to help them, i.e., Russia and China.
When at one point foreign countries began to realize that the Hun Sen regime included many elements which were primarily interested in trying to find a way of dressing the wounds of a horrible genocide which had occurred under Pol Pot, some nations began to recognize the Hun Sen Government and send NGOs to help in that endeavor. When I returned to Cambodia in 1992, there were already a number of countries, including western countries, which had relations with the Hun Sen Government. The United States did not establish direct relations with Phnom Penh until after the signing of the Paris Agreement.
March 1974 I arrived in Cambodia. On my way out of Laos, and on my way to Washington, I had a long meeting with Tom Enders in Bangkok. Tom had been Chargé d’ affaires in Phnom Penh and had done an excellent job. His briefing was useful. I respected Tom Enders. The media tried to give Tom a bad reputation, but the professionals knew better. Enders went on to become ambassador to many countries. He was also Assistant Secretary for Latin America where he was again criticized by the media. Later on, I used to get phone calls from the press or pundits inviting me to criticize Tom Ender’s role in Cambodia. I did not comply.
Most authors who have written about Cambodia did not know that Enders also tried to find negotiated solutions in Cambodia. He was way too intelligent a man not to see the problems ahead. As DCM or Charge, his recommendations to seek a negotiated solution also were not accepted, except that his recommendations were made in 1972 or 1973 when a negotiated solution was easier to implement. When I passed the confirmation hearings to be Ambassador to Cambodia, I flew commercially to Hong Kong, and from there, by a small U.S. Government jet, to Phnom Penh.
Since I had been to Cambodia before, I knew the important role Sihanouk Norodom had played in his country. I respected Sihanouk, and even liked him, for his efforts to defend his people against all outsiders.
DEAN: He was at that point Prince Sihanouk and resided in exile in Beijing. About 800 or 900 years ago, a Chinese envoy was sent to the court of the Khmer kingdom, and he wrote the first report about Angkor Wat. At the time, Cambodia was the vassal of China. Over centuries, as the Khmer kingdom lost power, Vietnam and Thailand tried to control what was left of Cambodia. Both the Thais and the Vietnamese had come originally from southern China and in their migration southward occupied certain areas which had been settled by the Khmers. In the early part of the 19th century, the Emperor of Annam even placed a viceroy on the throne in Phnom Penh. The Thais also had their eye on the Khmer provinces west of the Mekong, the rich areas of Battambang. Parts of Thailand and Vietnam had originally been part of the Khmer Empire. Hence, in the latter part of the 19th century, the Cambodians were quite willing to accept the far away rule of France. The French obviously had their own agenda in Cambodia, but in the 20th century they supported the Cambodian desire to remain outside the Thai or Vietnamese orbit. It was in 1941 that Sihanouk Norodom was selected by the French to take the throne. Sihanouk was only 18 years old at that tine. The French preferred Sihanouk to a Sisowath who had a better claim on the throne but was less pliable and older than Sihanouk. Sihanouk was schooled by French advisers. He really was a popular ruler and many rural folks in Cambodia looked up to him not only as a ruler, but as an intermediary between them and their gods.
Perhaps I should add that when I arrived in Phnom Penh in 1974 I knew that Sihanouk had had a problem with the CIA. Back in the 1960s, Sihanouk had written a book “My War with the CIA.” My former boss and friend, Randolph Kidder, was never allowed to present credentials to Sihanouk and hence, never served as U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, although appointed to the job around 1966. Some people say this was the nefarious role of the French advisers who kept out the Americans. I did not see Cambodia—I still don’t see Cambodia—in this way. The Cambodians saw the French for what they were, a colonial power with interests to play their “rôle civilisateur” (civilizing role), but also, the French dominant foreign role happened to fit the interests of the Cambodians. In 1966, some Khmer officials left the Royal Khmer Government and disappeared into the bush. They became the leaders of what became the “Khmer Rouge.” They were critical of Sihanouk’s way of ruling Cambodia. In 1970 when Lon Nol and Sirik Matak overthrew Sihanouk, the latter was in France completing a medical tune-up in Grasse.
Sihanouk first went to Moscow, and after a few days flew to Beijing where he remained for the duration of the war, until 1975. Hence, from 1970 onward, he saw the American support for Lon Nol and Sirik Matak as a revolt against him. If you believe in democracy, there is no doubt that Sihanouk basically had the support of the ordinary people of Cambodia. Perhaps some of the better educated people were aware of Sihanouk’s shortcomings. In 1970, the revolt which brought Lon Nol and Sirik Matak to power made the United States, in Sihanouk’s eyes, an adversary because he blamed the U.S. for supporting the coup against him in Phnom Penh.
One must remember that at the beginning of the American intervention in Vietnam, Sihanouk had proclaimed Cambodia a neutral country. The U.S. considered the Ho Chi Minh Trail, on the extreme eastern border of Cambodia, to be part of the Vietnamese theater of operations. There is little doubt that the North Vietnamese used the trail inside Cambodian territory to move their equipment into South Vietnam in order to come into South Vietnam as protected as possible and to attack the South Vietnamese army from the west. That led to a policy decision by the United States to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had preceded King Sihanouk’s departure from the scene in 1970. He did not approve of the bombing, but he did not object, which was good enough for the American position. It led, however, to what we called American incursions into an area of Cambodia known as “the parrot beak.” We used American ground forces for these incursions into a country which was avowedly neutral and where the ruler had been one of the founders of the Bandung Conference of Non-Aligned Nations. Cambodia was not in the same category as Vietnam. Sihanouk must be today the last survivor of the Bandung Non-Aligned Conference. After the 1970 coup in Phnom Penh, American bombing was then extended beyond the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At that point, American bombing was in support of the government which the Cambodians themselves established in the absence of Sihanouk in Beijing.
Lon Nol and Sirik Matak were very different people from Sihanouk. The atmosphere had changed. Cambodia was now a war zone. I presented credentials to President Lon Nol not in a government palace but in a military camp which looked like a Foreign Legion outpost with barbed wire and fencing all around it. Lon Nol was a likeable man, but he had already had a stroke by the time I arrived. He was hence slightly handicapped and used a cane for walking. For a military man, his physical handicap must have bothered him psychologically. The credentials ceremony started a relationship where I would see the Chief of State very often. Many of my contacts with him were devoted to trying to help him correct some of the shortcomings of the administration in the country. Lon Nol lived in a modest villa. His partner in the overthrow of Sihanouk, Prince Sirik Matak, who was Sihanouk Norodom’s uncle, was no longer active in the government. When I got to Cambodia in March 1974, I called on him in his very elegant home and found him easier to work with than Lon Nol. Sirik Matak spoke flawless French. He had been Ambassador to Japan, and was more of a cultured aristocrat than a military leader. We maintained a close relationship to the very end when I tried to evacuate him. He wrote this heart-wrenching letter which was read by the President of the United States to the American Congress in order to obtain funds for Southeast Asia.
Above all, I had a wonderful staff of 200 Americans, the number authorized as the ceiling for my staff. Some of them had their wives with them.
DEAN: My wife was with me. At the end of our struggle, about end of February 1975, I had to order all wives out of the country. The military situation in Phnom Penh had become too precarious. They were evacuated to a U.S. military installation in Thailand, awaiting the denouement of the war. Congress had mandated that at no time more than 200 Americans could serve in Cambodia. This excluded wives. It meant that at the end of each day, I could not have more than 200 people physically present in Cambodia. Hence, if people came in from the outside, from Washington or from CINCPAC (the headquarters of the United States Navy in the Pacific in Hawaii), I would have to order other people to take the plane to go over to Thailand and wait until the visitors had left. I applied the spirit and the letter of Congress mandate. The longer I stayed, the more I realized that most of the country was no longer in the hands of the Lon Nol and Sirik Matak regime. By 1974, Cambodia looked like a leopard skin with the Lon Nol government only controlling enclaves, most of them linked to an urban center. Much of the countryside was held and controlled at night by the Khmer Rouge.
Permit me to broach a subject where I have doubts and where there is room for many different interpretations… The American bombings from the air of Cambodian areas far away from the Ho Chi Minh Trail were justified by us on the basis that they were under the control of the Khmer Rouge and hence against the Lon Nol regime we supported. But those of us in Cambodia already then realized that these bombings created a great undercurrent of anti-Americanism among poorly educated farmers who only had to worry about survival. They then became easy prey for the Khmer Rouge to be recruited into their forces. They did not quite understand why they were being hurt. Did our policies of open support for a rebellious regime against Prince Sihanouk, the legal ruler of Cambodia, help the Khmer Rouge recruitment policy? Who were Lon Nol’s allies, in addition to the U.S.: the Thais, and South Vietnam—both countries who were feared by the average Cambodian.
What about Cambodia’s earlier declarations of neutrality? Nobody really respected that self-proclaimed neutrality of Cambodia. Neither the Lon Nol regime, nor the Khmer Rouge, nor any of those countries supporting either side. But I am inclined to believe that all these factors helped the recruitment policy of the Khmer Rouge who made nationalism one of their central themes. That the Khmer Rouge were brutal, inhuman, and committed acts against humanity, everybody knew that, and during our tenure there we documented some of these events. The press went to see the various sites where the Khmer Rouge had committed these atrocities against their own people, in the years 1974 and 1975.
DEAN: That’s right. We knew that the Khmer Rouge were ruthless butchers, and we had sent to Washington documented examples of their brutalities. The regime of Lon Nol had some good generals who fought well. They also had corruption, soldiers not being paid, shortages of ammunition, etc… The job of our team of 200 military and civilians was to help and assist the Lon Nol regime in rectifying some of the shortcomings so they could withstand the Khmer Rouge military attacks.
DEAN: One of the finest military officers I had was Brigadier General Jack Palmer, who is dead. Jack was a dedicated military officer, with an able, beautiful wife who also worked with the wives of some of the senior Cambodian military officers. I remember him in one of the most difficult moments of his life. We were beginning the evacuation, on April 12, 1975, when he received a phone call from the Cambodian General in charge of the aviation who said: “Jack, are you evacuating and leaving us alone here?” Jack Palmer had to waffle his reply (i.e. deny) in order to ensure that the evacuation would go smoothly, but his relationship with the Cambodian General was one of honor and friendship and lying in the interest of the security of the American evacuation must have hurt. I remember seeing him as he answered that phone call. Our staff, both military and civilian, worked every day for well over 8 hours a day. All members of our staff were committed to doing their best to help the Cambodian Government to withstand the Khmer Rouge and keep on fighting.
I owe a particular debt to my deputy, Robert V. Keeley, who got to be ambassador in three different countries and was a particularly well-known figure for his straight and honest stand in Greece. If our evacuation from Cambodia went so smoothly at the end, it is to his credit. We have remained friends ever since Mali where we first met in 1960. Keeley had been my choice for the position of Deputy Chief of Mission. Jim Engle had been in Phnom Penh in this slot, but he did not stay very long. Robert Keeley is a thoroughly fair-minded and honest man, one of the ablest drafters in the Foreign Service. While at times we differed and discussed matters, I usually ended up listening to him. The Chief of USIA was another great person. From time to time, I briefed myself the 20-30 accredited journalists on the state of play in Cambodia.
Early on in my tenure, I tried to find a person who could do for me in Cambodia what I was able to do in Laos to find a negotiated “controlled” solution. My orders when I had left Dr. Kissinger were: “John, you go there and fight and help the Khmers to withstand the communists’ efforts to control the country. Don’t get yourself involved in political solutions.” While I had these instructions from the Secretary of State, in early 1974 I received word from various sources regarding efforts by the Romanians to act as intermediaries. Every time I heard about possible intermediaries for negotiations, I would talk with my fellow Harvard graduate Sydney Schanberg. He later wrote a book which was made into a movie “The Killing Fields.”
As a matter of fact, Sydney often wrote stories from Phnom Penh which tried to support my penchant for a “controlled solution.” At one point, I had told him: “You know, I understand the Khmer Rouge have a list of eight Cambodian leaders who have to be removed from power before they are willing to come to the negotiating table. I would personally urge all eight of them to leave Cambodia, if this would get both sides to the negotiating table.” Well, I did not know when I was on the record and when I was off the record. The NEW YORK TIMES printed my offer on its front page. Sydney was never unfriendly. The questions he asked—”What are you doing on the negotiations? How do you see the situation today?”—were usually designed to advance my idea of a “controlled solution.” At one point, he said on television, years later, “Kissinger shot the dove off Dean’s shoulder.” As for my messages to Washington, some people accused me of getting perhaps a little shrill. My leitmotif remained: “Time is not on our side. We must find a controlled solution. Otherwise, there will be a bloodbath.” The newspapers printed it. THE ECONOMIST printed the same message a few weeks before we left Phnom Penh.
DEAN: No. Very honestly speaking, we were in Cambodia and we really did not have the time to focus on how Washington handled our messages. We were living in a beleaguered city. We spoke to the press and we did not mind saying things the way we saw the situation. Miss Elizabeth Becker, the WASHINGTON POST freelancer, a lovely young lady and a highly motivated person, was in Cambodia in my days but she did not see the Khmer Rouge in 1974 or 1975 in the same light as we did. We saw the Khmer Rouge as a bunch of butchers. We could not turn over a nation of 7 million people to these butchers. Some of our critics in those days saw the Khmer Rouge as “agrarian reformers,” and that was how they tried to depict themselves. The international and American press was not on our side at that time. We were perceived as trying to hold on and impose our will against these “agrarian nationalists” who were opposing the “corrupt, imposed regime of Lon Nol.”
DEAN: This is exactly the position Dr. Kissinger explains in his book which was published in June of 1999. He claims there was nobody to negotiate with in Phnom Penh. Let me explain what I meant by a “controlled solution.” A controlled solution is that if you have the desire to find a negotiated controlled solution, you can find it. It may be a bad one. But my position, starting in 1974, and it got shriller and shriller as we came towards April of 1975, was that a bad solution is better than a human tragedy. The world is not white or black. It very often can be very dark grey. But at least, it would not lead to turning defenseless Khmers over to the Khmer Rouge. The argument you will find in all our messages was always the same: there is still a pro-government army, a fairly efficient navy, and a fledgling air force fighting on the side of Lon Nol. In addition to the military, a group of hard working, well-educated Cambodians who understood the danger of a Khmer Rouge take-over, remained in Phnom Penh. A civilian administration remained in place—perhaps not always efficient—but it was there. Hence, we had something to negotiate with. When the other side takes over and there is nobody to negotiate with because they are all gone—the army, navy, air force, civilians—it is a simple take-over; it’s a defeat and it leaves all power exclusively in the hands of the victors. In my vision, the man who undoubtedly enjoyed the most support in Cambodia remained Prince Sihanouk, even when he was in exile in Beijing. I tried to get him involved in a search for a compromise solution. I urged that we try Malaysians as intermediaries. The Malaysians offered themselves for this mission. The Indonesians offered themselves. The French were always there, willing to find an alternative solution to fighting until the end.
Whatever a “controlled solution” entailed, it would have been contrary to what we had tried to achieve by the policy pursued by Washington. I felt in Phnom Penh that we could not just walk away from our responsibilities to the Cambodian people. But, that appeared to me more and more a possibility.
DEAN: The reason I began to plan for an eventual closing of the American Mission to Cambodia was that Congress was debating the reduction or elimination of funds to support the struggle against the Khmer Rouge. We had no idea whether new funds would be voted for Cambodia, just to finish the fiscal year, or for the new fiscal year. In January 1975, I went on American and international television and pleaded: “Don’t walk out on the Cambodian people, but rather give us the necessary funds so that we can keep going to gain time to find a “negotiated solution.” There were Senators in Congress who agreed with my position. In fact, there was a move in Congress to vote an additional $122 million for the period March-April to the end of June 1975, but during this period a negotiated solution should be found. Dr. Kissinger did not testify before Congress on this issue. He sent his Deputy. Perhaps he disapproved of this approach. Personally, I felt that even if we were dealt a poor hand, (perhaps no more funding), I still had to find a solution. I could not just turn over the Cambodian people to what we knew was a ruthless regime. Our messages from Phnom Penh were crystal clear: if the Khmer Rouge takes control of the country, there was going to be a bloodbath. The exact word was “bloodbath.” It turned out to be even worse: a genocide. Determined to find a controlled solution, I wrote through the French Embassy in Phnom Penh letters to my friend Etienne Manac’h who was at that time French Ambassador in Beijing. He brought about the meeting in Martinique in December 1974 of President Gerald Ford with the President of France, Giscard d’Estaing. They issued an invitation to Prince Sihanouk to return to Phnom Penh and head a coalition government representing the two Cambodian sides.
Sihanouk at that time was the Head of the Khmer Rouge Government in exile. Probably Sihanouk was only the nominal head, but his name meant so much not only inside Cambodia but also on the international scene that his involvement would assure the success of this effort. To convey the invitation, the French sent an ambassador to Beijing but the Chinese authorities would not give him a visa. Sihanouk answered that the offer came too late and that he could not return to Phnom Penh. Was he a free agent at the time? I don’t know. Did he really feel it was too late, that he saw the handwriting on the wall? He turned down the offer. I would like to say, the fact that the President of the United States did go to Martinique for this meeting and helped in issuing this invitation, showed there was in the United States some support for the effort not to leave Cambodia in an uncontrolled situation.
DEAN: The idea of working with the French may have been anathema to some elements in Washington. I was grasping at any straw. Whoever offered to help search for a solution, I passed it on to Washington. At the end, I got a message saying—and it is also in the most recent book of Dr. Kissinger—that there was a feeling in Washington that I was doing this for the record rather than really believing in it. I think Dr. Kissinger himself knocks down this thesis. Personally, I was not interested whether it would make the American negotiators look strong or weak, politically correct or incorrect, but as long as I had something to negotiate with, I was trying to find a “controlled solution.”
DEAN: Cambodia always was a side show. The big show was Vietnam. In 1974 the Vietnamese were still holding. It was only in 1975 that the South Vietnamese military really began to crumble badly. On January 1, 1975, I went by helicopter to look at the military situation in Battambang Province, the western province, adjoining Thailand. The Cambodian authorities admitted that the situation was not good. Visiting a Buddhist monastery in an out- of-the-way densely wooded site, I came across some magnificent ruins of a Khmer temple at least 1,000 years old. This antique site was not on anybody’s map at the time. I felt like some of the early western travelers who first saw the Khmer ruins in the 19th century. I then went to the pagoda to bring rice to the monks. They took me outside in the back of their pagoda. There, in the ground, was a huge fabulous Cambodian sculpture, I would say 1.200 years old. The sculpture was so enormous—it was a four-face Cambodian sculpture, and only one side was easily visible—that a crane would be needed to lift it out of the ground. Fortunately, such earth moving equipment was not available at the time and the art piece stayed in the ground. I then rushed back to Phnom Penh because I had been alerted by radio that the Khmer Rouge offensive had started in earnest. It was January 1st, 1975.
One of the people who was indispensable in our effort to resist the enemy’s offensive was Richard Armitage, an Annapolis graduate, later Secretary of the Army and today Deputy Secretary of State. He was in charge of helping the barge convoys up the Mekong River from Saigon to reach safely Phnom Penh. These barges brought essential ammunition, rice, and other equipment. When the Khmer Rouge began to dig into the banks of the Mekong River in order to interdict the transport by river of essential items, we needed Armitage to help us. The Khmer Rouge were shooting at the river convoys from eye level. If there was ammunition on it, just one shot, and the entire cargo would blow up.
Armitage thought of the idea of putting metallic armor around these barges so that the bullets would not penetrate the cargo. At that point, the Khmer Rouge found different kinds of rocket launchers which would go up into the air and drop into the barges.
DEAN: Like a mortar. When mortars were used, the armored shields were not of much help. At that point, General Jack Palmer, my Military Adviser, came to see me. He said: “John, we can’t get rid of the Khmer Rouge dug in the sides of the Mekong River.
Regular aerial bombing won’t do the job. Could we authorize the Cambodian Air Force to use “lazy dog” grenades?” “What is a ‘lazy dog?” I asked. “It is a grenade dropped from the sky which explodes about six to seven feet off the ground. It has a tendency to explode at a level of a person standing up. That weapon is against the Geneva Convention,” Jack said. “John, we should try that explosive in order to dislodge the Khmer Rouge so that we can get the river convoys through again—otherwise, we would have a huge problem of getting the necessary ammunition and food in sufficient quantities to those Cambodian areas holding out against the Khmer Rouge.” I went into my office and reflected on the idea. I decided I would not ask Washington for advice. I had learned from General Abrams and General Wyant that I was in charge, and I had to make the decision. I knew that if I would refer the matter back to Washington, they would have had a tough time putting an affirmative reply in writing. (For once, perhaps Washington was happy that I did not put “the monkey on their back.”)
DEAN: Allegedly, this weapon is against the Geneva Convention—which we had signed. Nevertheless, I gave the instruction to use it. I remembered the instructions that the Secretary had given me to “go and fight.” We were in a war, declared or undeclared, and our job was to help the Cambodian forces to resist the Khmer Rouge. I gave the instruction to also use that weapon. But it was of no avail. The Mekong was progressively closed to our shipping going up to Phnom Penh. Therefore, our military in Washington, with the help of our military bases in Thailand, thought up an airlift like we had in Berlin, to supply by air Phnom Penh and the outlying districts under the control of the Lon Nol government. Anywhere from six to eight DC-6s landed every day at the airfield in Phnom Penh bringing food and ammunition. These items were then redistributed to other areas.
DEAN: Sihanoukville was open. There was severe fighting around Sihanoukville, but the road between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh was kept open. That road is the link from Sihanoukville on the ocean, winding its way through a narrow mountain path, to Phnom Penh. It had been built by American economic assistance in the 1950s. However, the Khmer Rouge made increasingly determined efforts in early 1975 to cut the road at the mountain path and even tried to overrun the Lon Nol troops at that post. Unfortunately, some of the troops had not been paid for some time and that gave rise to one of the more gruesome incidents, which I don’t think is germane to our main story.
DEAN: They did not get paid, and when the paymaster cane with the money many months later, they killed him. One of the main shortcomings of the Lon Nol regime was inefficiency. In all fairness to the regime, it was difficult, when much of the countryside was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, to get pay, food, and support to the troops on time.
DEAN: The Khmer Rouge received strong support from the North Vietnamese, and also equipment from China. The Khmer Rouge had no transportation problem, i.e., getting supplies from North Vietnam to the areas under Khmer Rouge control. I am not sure where the Soviets stood. We had a Soviet Diplomatic Mission in Phnom Penh. As a matter of fact, we helped to evacuate a Soviet journalist in April 1975. The Khmer Rouge held most of the countryside at night, and certainly were also “present” during the day time. The Lon Nol regime held the urban centers and small towns. In the countryside at night, the Khmer Rouge were able to move quite freely. They had no shortage of equipment. By 1974-75 more and more people had joined their ranks, by force, by conviction, or both. You must also remember that the father figure, Sihanouk, was Head of the Khmer Rouge movement and that mattered for the average, poor farmer in Cambodia. Sihanouk’s role in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy was a major attraction for the average little Cambodian to ally himself with a cause headed by Prince Sihanouk.
Sihanouk was a great asset to the Khmer Rouge.
DEAN: That’s right.
DEAN: Yes. But the bulk of the troops which entered Phnom Penh in April 1975 after the collapse of the Lon Nol regime and our departure from Cambodia, were young people, many of them from the minority hill tribes who had been recruited by the Khmer Rouge. Among the adults were also some of the most brutal thugs, including some French- educated Cambodians. Presumably idealists, they had become murderers. One of them was a graduate of Polytechnique. France’s leading engineering school.
But there were also many Cambodians who honestly believed or hoped that once the Khmer Rouge had taken over, the Cambodians could settle their differences by peaceful means. For example, the Prime Minister of the Lon Nol regime, Long Boret, believed that the old school “tie” of having attended the same French Lycee in Hanoi, back in the good old days, with some Khmer Rouge leaders, would help him to survive after the Khmer Rouge take-over. It was one of the great mistakes the Cambodian bourgeoisie made: that everything could be forgotten and forgiven. We knew what to expect from the Khmer Rouge and we tried to tell our contacts, especially towards the end, that a Khmer Rouge victory meant a bloodbath.
During most of my tenure, our team was sending back messages to Washington about the difficulty of supplying the Phnom Penh regime, the war weariness, and that time was not on our side. I pleaded for a “controlled solution.” My Malaysian colleague agreed with that approach. So did the French. Every time I received an indication of a country trying to help us in the search of a “controlled solution,” I would send a report to Washington. I understand that at some of Secretary Kissinger’s early morning briefings Dr. Kissinger would inquire: “And what have we received during the night from Professor Dean in Phnom Penh?” He was skeptical of any effort by Embassy Phnom Penh to find a negotiated solution.
DEAN: No. We had no contact whatsoever—direct or indirect—with Pol Pot. Pol Pot was merely a name. In Phnom Penh, we had contacts with Cambodians who knew other leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Also, the C.I.A. had a good idea of the makeup and leadership of the Khmer Rouge. The daily briefings I received from Mr. David Whipple, C.I.A. Station Chief, helped us. He gave us documentation of some of the barbarous acts being committed by the Khmer Rouge before April 1975. We knew that the Khmer Rouge were not “agrarian reformers.” In addition to the C.I.A. briefing, we also had a strictly military briefing every morning. Based on these intelligence assessments and our own impression received from traveling around the country or talking with knowledgeable Cambodians and foreigners, we continued to send message after message to Washington pleading not to abandon Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge. When in December of 1974 Sihanouk turned down the invitation of the Presidents of the United States and of France to return to Phnom Penh to find a compromise solution to the war between the two Cambodian factions, it looked as if Sihanouk was no longer a free agent and was merely being used by the Khmer Rouge for his tremendous prestige. But in earlier years, 1972-73, he might have been able to play that role. As a matter of fact, when I had finished successfully the negotiations in Laos in September of 1973, I had sent from Laos a cable to Washington in which I had suggested that the role of Souvanna Phouma in Laos could be duplicated by Sihanouk in Cambodia. After all, Sihanouk was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement and favored a neutral position between two worlds. I never got an answer (but I still have in my possession that cable). When Sihanouk refused to play the role of peace-maker in December 1974, I looked for other ways to avoid a tragedy. But while remaining wedded to the idea of a “controlled solution,” I did all I could to shore up the Cambodian military fighting the Khmer Rouge. Positions held by the Lon Nol forces received our visit. Nine Generals who fought well were rewarded. Ammunition and food were delivered and our staff made sure, to the extent possible, that the supplies reached their destination. Sometimes, some journalists misunderstood our efforts to praise and reward units who fought bravely against the Khmer Rouge. Some journalists covering the war may have misread completely the nature of the Khmer Rouge and what lay in store for the Cambodian people.
DEAN: I don’t think they were trying to cut me down. They mostly thought that the U.S. was supporting a losing cause, and perhaps some journalists were not as moved as we were at the Embassy when in April 1975 we left Cambodia by helicopter. The departure of the American staff with some Cambodians on April 12, 1975 was for most of us a dramatic moment in our lives. Dieudonnee Ten Berge, a Dutch journalist at the time in Cambodia, wrote a book entitled “The Fall of Phnom Penh.” In it she describes the last few months before the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975, as seen through her eyes and other fellow journalists. She also interviewed me in the 1990s for her book. Some observers saw me as a dove, others saw me as a militarist. One journalist, Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times correctly saw me as a negotiator who saw the handwriting on the wall.
Little by little, reporters noted a difference in emphasis between Dr Kissinger and myself, on how to end the Cambodian struggle. My efforts to isolate Cambodia from Vietnam—something I succeeded in doing in Laos—were unsuccessful. In Washington, the majority of the Administration saw Cambodia as part of our overall effort to stem the communist drive for control over what used to be French Indochina. In this vision, the fate of Cambodia was linked to that of Vietnam. I saw every country with its own history and past. The fact that Cambodians have no love for Vietnamese was clearly brought out by the bellicose relationship the Khmer Rouge maintained with communist Vietnam during their years in power.
At the beginning of 1975, it became apparent that the Khmer Rouge offensive meant greater expenditure of ammunition by the Lon Nol forces. The closure of the Mekong River preventing the supplying of military equipment, ammunition, and food to the Cambodians by this mode of transportation also meant switching to the use of U.S. airplanes to bring these essential items to Phnom Penh and the outlying districts under Royal Khmer government control. All this implied the need of additional funding, beyond the original amounts made available for Cambodia by Congress. In short, there was not enough money to keep on going until the end of the U.S. Fiscal Year: June 30, 1975. The Cambodian military also knew that. If there was a cut-off of U.S. funds, the Cambodians would no longer have the means to fight on. There would not be any food for the people in the government controlled enclaves ammunitions would run low. Some U.S. Senators came out to see for themselves what was going on. I met with them as a group, as well as separately. I pleaded: “Give us time to find a controlled solution.” But that was not the official policy of the Administration. Certain Senators, Congressmen, and staffers returned to Washington and spoke up in favor of additional funding for Cambodia. It was March 1975. Was it too late? Perhaps.
In the meantime, our Mission in Phnom Penh was in a progressively more precarious situation. The Khmer Rouge were advancing toward Phnom Penh. Perhaps our telegrams to Washington became more alarming by the day. But all members of our Mission were trying to avoid a situation where the United States would leave Cambodia with its tail between its legs and abandon an ally that we had pledged to support.
DEAN: Yes, there was quite a bit of contact. As we approached the closing days of our presence In Vietnam, I got the impression from some telephone calls I received from Martin that, on certain basic issues, Ambassador Martin disagreed with top policy makers in Washington. In all fairness, the evacuation of Saigon was a much larger operation than our departure from Phnom Penh and also did not go as smoothly as ours did. I think Graham Martin was trying his best in Saigon but only came very late to the conclusion that a compromise settlement was needed. By the time he did, the North Vietnamese were at the gates of Saigon.
We did have a great deal of contact with Admiral Gayler, the Commander of CINCPAC, the U.S. naval headquarters for the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, under whose military control we were. The Admiral and his predecessor visited us several times during my tenure. Relations were very cordial. When Admiral Gayler came, he came with 10 additional officers. Since I had a 200-man ceiling on our Mission, we had to put 10 of our people out of Cambodia in order to respect the letter and spirit of our commitment to Congress. The discussions we had with CINCPAC were especially useful as the time approached for our evacuation. When we left Phnom Penh on April 12, 1975, I took the American flag and the President’s flag with me slung over my left arm. Graham Martin also left with the American flag in his arms. For me, it was a last minute effort to shield the honor of our country.
When I returned to the States after our departure from Southeast Asia, I went to see the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Sparkman. The two flags I had taken out with me from Phnom Penh were given back to me. The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee indicated to me at that meeting that the U.S. Mission in Phnom Penh had done a good job for the United States. Unfortunately, the Senator was not as kind with Ambassador Graham Martin. I felt that my colleague in Saigon had a more complex situation in Vietnam. I also know that in the closing days of our presence in Vietnam, Graham Martin was desperately trying to find a compromise solution. When he retired from the Foreign Service, he took a number of messages which could have cleared his name with him.
One day, after retirement, these highly classified messages were found in the trunk of his car. Apparently, his car had a flat tire. He closed the car, left it on the side of the road, and walked a couple of hundred yards to a motel where he spent the night. He had hoped to find somebody at the motel to fix the flat next morning. During the night, people broke into his car and opened the trunk. To their disappointment, there was no money, nothing of value, just a sheath of messages which he had kept as a way of clearing his name. The next morning, these messages were strewn all over the countryside. I lost contact with Ambassador Graham Martin. He had a very distinguished career. But when things go wrong, politicians look for scapegoats.
I was more fortunate than Graham Martin. Few people criticized my tenure in Cambodia. Moreover, after our dramatic departure from Vietnam and Cambodia, people in the U.S. wanted to move on and forget about Southeast Asia. I was very lucky. I was offered a wonderful next ambassadorial position: Denmark.
Before closing the chapter on Cambodia, I would like to relate what was for most of us one of the most tragic moments of our service in Cambodia: the departure from Phnom Penh.
DEAN: He was very much aware of my long struggle for a controlled solution. He obviously had much better links to the White House and the State Department than I did. I was a first-time ambassador. He had been ambassador to some key countries like Italy, Argentina, and Thailand. He knew a lot of people in Washington who listened to him. I sent him a copy of some of our messages addressed to Washington so that he knew what we were thinking and doing. I also visited with him in Saigon.
While our jobs in the evacuation were similar, they were also very different. The number of people for whom our Mission was responsible was limited. In Saigon, that number was enormous. For reasons I cannot explain, people in the United States thought we had done the best possible job under incredibly difficult circumstances. Graham Martin and his team did not get the same reception. Perhaps our Mission in Saigon was under the impression that the U.S. would not walk away from its responsibilities in Vietnam. After all, when the French were losing the war after the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Conference of 1954 provided for an orderly controlled ending of the war. Could anybody think that we would leave Vietnam by helicopter from the roof of our embassy?
Graham Martin’s job was more difficult than mine. The evacuation of Phnom Penh had been planned with CINCPAC for many weeks. I am not sure that the same contingency plans were drawn up for Vietnam. In addition, in Saigon, the American Government was responsible for the safety of many more people than our Mission in Phnom Penh—American officials, plus private American citizens, more foreigners, more Vietnamese closely linked to the U.S— In Phnom Penh, we were able to move people over a number of weeks because we had empty DC-8s leaving every day Phnom Penh Airport for Thailand. This permitted us to move people out, and not wait for the last moment.
DEAN: It was well organized and those who needed to know how to avail themselves of
U.S. assistance knew how our system worked. Even Cambodians and foreigners in the outlying provincial enclaves knew about our daily shuttle service to Thailand. At the same time, Americans in the outlying districts came to Phnom Penh by helicopter and then flew by fixed wing aircraft to Thailand. In Phnom Penh, we had also sent all dependents out of Cambodia several weeks before the final evacuation.
DEAN: We received the same request to evacuate Cambodian orphans and we complied with this request. They were moved to safety, but obviously they were only a small number compared to those who needed help. In the closing days of our presence in Cambodia, some events occurred in Southeast Asia which had an impact on our own decision-taking process. One of them was a difference of views with the Commander of CINCPAC, General Gayler, on how we would leave Phnom Penh. By that time, in March/April of 1975, the city of Da Nang in Central Vietnam had fallen to the North Vietnamese. The photograph in the newspapers reflected the effort of some people to flee the city. It was bedlam. In Da Nang, many Vietnamese had close links to Americans.
They wanted desperately to leave Da Nang because they feared that their very lives were in danger. As the North Vietnamese advanced on the city, some desperate Vietnamese tried to leave on departing aircrafts which were full up, by holding on the wings of the plane. Others tried to climb into boats which were over-loaded and were pushed off by those who were in the boats. Seeing those pictures of despair in the newspapers, I had suggested to Admiral Gayler that we should leave Phnom Penh not by fixed wing because the airport was about 4-5 miles out of town, but from a football field very near to the Embassy, in town, from where we would be extracted by helicopter. After a number of exchanges of cables and after the Admiral had come to Phnom Penh himself to survey the situation first hand, our view prevailed. Selecting the safest, nearest, and most convenient site as the staging area for our departure made a great deal of difference when push came to shove.
There was also a difference of views with Washington over who we at Embassy-Phnom Penh were responsible for. Obviously, all official and non-official Americans were eligible for evacuation. In reply to a query about which Cambodians should we take out, Washington suggested: Cambodians in the government and Cambodian military closely linked to the U.S. Also, all well-educated Cambodians who Washington felt (and rightly so) were a target for the Khmer Rouge once they came to power. Our Mission took exception to that cable, pointing out that anybody who had been working for Americans, Cambodian or third country national, whether he or she was illiterate or a Ph.D., was in danger. Our team agreed that “we would take everybody who wanted to go, whose life could be endangered.”
We took gardeners, houseboys, Koreans working for our Mission, Cambodian Generals or Ministers, or educated Cambodians. One of them was a Cambodian atomic scientist who was still in Phnom Penh and who later went to work for the French Atomic Energy Commission outside of Paris. In short, we took people whose lives would be endangered when the Khmer Rouge came to power. I also sent helicopters into the provinces to bring back some members of the International Red Cross. Sixteen of them came back to Phnom Penh by U.S. helicopters.
I went to see the Archbishop of Phnom Penh, at the beginning of the year, he believed that all clergy, nuns, monks, regard-less of nationality, would be safe. Some of the young French priests were not particularly supportive in their sermons of the American role in Cambodia. By the end of March 1975, I pleaded with the Archbishop to permit all Cambodian priests, nuns, monks, whose lives might be in danger, to leave with our planes for Thailand to await there developments. After a great deal of pleading, I was able to take out some 40 nuns and monks on the DC-8s to Thailand. The Cambodian Bishop of Phnom Penh refused to leave his flock and was among the first to be killed by the Khmer Rouge. Seven or eight years later, when His Holiness the Pope came to Thailand, where I was then the U.S. Ambassador, the same Archbishop (a Frenchman) accompanied the Pope on his trip. In front of the Pope, the former Archbishop of Cambodia—who had been my interlocutor in 1975—fell into my arms and started sobbing and crying. Perhaps he had realized that back in 1975, he had waited too long in authorizing the evacuation of the Cambodian clergy and Christians. After the Paris Accords on Cambodia in the early 1990s, the same man was named again Archbishop of Cambodia. I can only assume that this very decent man was so horrified by what the Khmer Rouge did that he wanted to contribute to the moral and physical reconstruction of the Cambodian society in the 1990s.
But the Archbishop was not alone in his assessment of the consequences of a Khmer Rouge victory. There were quite a number of people—both Cambodian and foreigners—who believed that one could deal with the Khmer Rouge. In my opinion, you could only deal with them if you had something to negotiate with. The existence of a Cambodian army, navy, air force, and educated elite which was able to govern, and major foreign powers who could help on the international scene, would permit the Phnom Penh side to have sufficient weight to be taken seriously in a negotiation by the Khmer Rouge.
In February of 1975, we had sent our wives and all dependents of our Mission to Thailand. We also reduced the size of our staff in Cambodia. The evacuation from Phnom Penh, which went off without a hitch, was run by my good friend, Robert V. Keeley.
Again, I would like to give him full credit for all he did for our embattled Mission. We were also on the telephone with Washington shouting “Help us: We are going under. We are going to leave this country unprotected.” On the other end, on the telephone, was our old, dear friend, Assistant Secretary Phil Habib. The time of negotiation had run out but even Phil Habib could not convince Dr. Kissinger that the existing “fight on” policy was going to lead to a disaster. (Ambassador Keeley’s Oral History gives some interesting details on that telephone call and subsequent telegram from Washington on this subject.)
DEAN: Certainly by the end of February and the first week of March, the Khmer Rouge were pressing hard. We used that time to move as many Cambodians, Americans, and foreigners as possible to safety in Thailand. We had set up a system imagined by Robert Keeley (DCM). Ray Perkins (Chief political Section), and Tim Carney, a junior officer who spoke Cambodian. Tim became Ambassador later in his life. All those who felt endangered were sent out by plane over a period of 8 weeks before our departure. In addition, we had set up a procedure whereby key Cambodian leaders were told to send an assistant or secretary to the U.S. Embassy at 6:00 a.m. every day to find out the situation and decisions taken by us regarding taking people to safety. That system worked rather well when on this fateful day of April 12, 1975 we had decided to leave Phnom Penh by helicopter.
These aides and secretaries all came on the morning of April 12. One of them was the aide to Sirik Matak. We had prepared during the night a message stating that we were evacuating, and urging the recipient of the note to come along. In his reply to this message, Sirik Matak wrote one of the most heart-wrenching letters ever sent to an American official:
Phnom Penh 12 April 1975
Dear Excellency and Friend,
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.
You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we all are born and must die (one day). I have only committed this mistake of believing in you the Americans.
Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.
(signed) Sirik Matak
Basically, Lon Nol was no longer in Cambodia. On April 1, 1975, Lon Nol had left with his immediate family, via Indonesia, for Hawaii and had found refuge there. He died some years later a broken man.
Many people asked me whether Lon Nol had stacked away millions of dollars in the United States. The answer is no. I think the Cambodian Central Bank had moved a few hundred thousand dollars in advance of Lon Nol’s departure, but it was not a huge amount. Originally, he had asked for a million dollars to be set aside for him in case of need, but to the best of my knowledge, at most $500,000 were transferred by the time he reached Hawaii.
By the time the end came to the Lon Nol regime, Lon Nol himself was handicapped. He already had suffered a stroke. For such a man, with wife and children, and retainers, the amount transferred by the Cambodian authorities was not a huge amount. He had fought for his idea, his vision of Cambodia, and had placed his trust—like Sirik Matak—in the United States. I do not find it appropriate for me to criticize a man who had many flaws, but he certainly tried to keep the country together against the Khmer Rouge, a policy we supported.
The story of the Prime Minister’s ending is tragic. Long Boret refused to be evacuated. He was a competent, able man much younger than Lon Nol or Sirik Matak. When I personally went to see him, on April 12, the very morning of our evacuation, to ask him to take his wife and himself and his young children out of Phnom Penh because I feared for his safety, he thanked me but thought his life was not in danger. In his mind, he had me many contacts among the Khmer Rouge with whom he had gone to lycee in Hanoi. That “old school tie” would save him, he believed. So, I said, “Give me your wife and your children.” Again, he refused. I thought he was making a grievous mistake.
Lon Nol’s younger brother, a military officer, had actually gone to a site north of Phnom Penh to talk to the Khmer Rouge about an unopposed entry of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh. He was turned down. That man, so close to the Chief of State, was also under the impression that he could convince the Khmer Rouge to enter Phnom Penh peacefully.
Other members of the Embassy went to other Cambodian ministers in these fateful hours of April 12 to try to convince them to come along with us to safety. The American Marines who had come to secure the soccer field near the Embassy’s Chancery did a magnificent job and made sure that all those who had found safety in the American Embassy—Americans, Cambodians, foreign nationals—could be taken to the waiting helicopters on the adjacent soccer field. The number of helicopters available was well beyond the number of people who showed up for evacuation.
DEAN: They were coming from town.
DEAN: I think they were coming from Thailand and from U.S. aircraft carriers cruising off the coast of Cambodia. The job of the helicopters was to ferry all those who were leaving not directly to Thailand, but first on U.S. soil. That piece of U.S. soil were the American aircraft carriers on which we were to land. When I came back from Long Boret’s house and the others had returned from seeing the other Cambodian dignitaries and generals, I realized that only one key Cambodian had asked for evacuation with us. It was General (retired) Saukam Khoy, former President of the Senate, who had taken over as Chief of State on April 1, 1975, after Lon Nol’s departure. He came with his wife and family and we ferried them to safety.
On that fateful day, I said to General Palmer that I wanted to be the last person to leave Cambodian soil. I felt like I was the captain of the ship and, as the tradition goes, the captain is the last man to leave the ship. My wish was granted. Awaiting to be called to move to the extraction site, I was sitting in my office, fully aware of the meaning of the moment for our country. I read the letter from Sirik Matak which had arrived about 45 minutes earlier. Looking out of the window, I saw the Marines taking people to the helicopters and to safety. I watched the Embassy personnel driving themselves to do all they could to help those who had thrown in their fate with us. Many had worked all night long drafting the letters which were delivered in the early hours of April 12, offering to take them to safety. Robert Keeley had drafted that letter. Nobody was turned down for evacuation, including at the last moment, Sydney Schanberg’s Cambodian staffer working for the New York Times. We took foreign nationals out, for whom we had responsibility, or even if we had no responsibility. We did not distinguish between illiterate gardeners and highly educated intellectuals. We took the Cambodian girlfriends of some of our bachelor staff members out to safety. I asked our resident military and the Marines in charge of the evacuation to take out anybody who wanted to go with us. At one point in my office, I took a pair of scissors and cut the American flag and the President’s flag off the staff of the poles which were in back of my desk in the ambassador’s office. I was trying to figure out a way of giving some form of protection to the symbol of our country and to the people whom I represented in Cambodia. Tears were rolling off my cheeks. I was alone. I took the two flags and put them over my arm. I got some plastic so they would not get wet. Unkind newspaper people wrote that I had put the flags in a body bag for dead soldiers.
On our way to the helicopters, I stopped at my residence where the American flag was flying, and I struck the colors. I took the flag, the third flag, and put it with the other two flags. I asked the Cambodian staff at my residence whether they wanted to go with me. Some of them had been sent to safety before. Those who were still at the residence on April 12 thought they could stay behind without fearing for their safety. At that point, I abandoned the ambassadorial limousine and walked the rest of the way to the waiting helicopters with the American flags draped over my arm. As a Boy Scout in Kansas City, as an officer in the United States Army, and as a Foreign Service officer, I respected the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of our country. I was the last man in our Mission to leave Cambodia in a very large helicopter. One of the correspondents of an American broadcasting system sat next to me weeping because he understood what was going on. We landed on an American aircraft carrier. The entire extraction was called “Operation Eagle Pull.” It was described at length in a Marine Corps magazine some years later.
As I landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier, the loudspeaker announced that “Operation Eagle Pull” was completed. I was asked to go into a large room and there I heard the President of the United States’ voice speaking to me.
DEAN: He praised all 200 Americans who had done their very best to uphold the dignity and reputation of the United States. Years later, a book was published, “Exit Without Honor.” I had a hard time understanding those who only criticized those who represented the United States under very difficult circumstances. We all risked our lives and tried to serve to the best of our abilities our country. The President of the United States, on the 14th of August 1975, months after the evacuation date of April 12, wrote the following letter;
“Dear Mr. Ambassador,
On behalf of the United States Government and the American people, I want to commend you and your staff for your valiant leadership and service in the successful evacuation of Americans from Phnom Penh. In reviewing the events surrounding the last few tragic months in Indochina, I can look with pride at your selflessness and devotion which are so appropriately in keeping with American sacrifices of the last decade. You were given one of the most difficult assignments in the history of the Foreign Service and carried it out with distinction. I know that all Americans join me in expressing our most sincere thanks and appreciation.
Sincerely, Gerald R. Ford”
We left the aircraft carrier by helicopter and landed on a military base in Thailand. There, I was reunited with my wife. She had been with the wife of General Palmer at an American base, waiting for us. In whatever I did in my professional life, I always had full support from my wife. We are now married half a century. I am grateful to her and to all those with whom I served in Cambodia under very difficult circumstances. Whatever honors and distinctions were bestowed on me during my service, it was in recognition of all those who served our country with distinction. The Cambodian experience was a wrenching experience for all of us who served there. Whether they were secretaries or generals, ambassadors or clerks, we stayed in contact for a long time. After our evacuation, I was instructed to remain in Bangkok for three weeks, writing Efficiency Reports. All those who had served together in Cambodia—Americans and Cambodians—got together one last time on a pleasure cruise boat in Bangkok to say goodbye. As the leader of the team of 200 people, I was asked to speak. I thanked them for what they had done and for the valiant service they had rendered to our country. I closed my remarks on that occasion with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet—Act I, Scene 3. It is Polonius speaking to his son Laertes:
“This, above all: to thine own self be true And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”
This quotation became the leitmotif for the rest of my years in the Foreign Service.
DEAN: I went at least once back to Washington. So did Robert Keeley, my deputy. We were all reading the newspapers of what was going on in the United States. The resignation of President Nixon was an important political factor. The Watergate scandal also meant that the focus of attention was domestic and there probably was not enough time or will to make a major shift in our policy toward Southeast Asia. There was some effort in Congress, in early 1975, to find money for Cambodia to continue the struggle. But that petered out when there was no strong support by the Executive Branch to get behind this alternative. Finally, military developments in Vietnam and in Cambodia made at the end the entire issue theoretical. TIME HAD BEEN AGAINST OUR POLICY IN SOUTHEAST ASIA.
Ambassador Dean formally began his service as an officer with the U.S. Department of State in the spring of 1956. From 1956-1958 he served as a political officer in Vientiane, Laos, and then from 1959-1960 he opened the first American consulate in Lomé, Togo. From 1960-1961 he was Chargé d’affaires in Bamako, Mali, and then became the officer in charge of Mali-Togo affairs in the Department of State from 1961-1963. In 1963 Dean was an adviser to the U.S. delegation to the 18th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, and during 1964-1965 he was an international relations officer in the NATO section of the Department of State. Dean went to Paris in 1965 as a political officer and served there until 1969. From 1969-1970 he was a fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was then detailed to the U.S. military as Deputy to the Commander of Military Region 1 in South Vietnam where he served as Regional Director for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) until 1972. While in Da Nang, South Vietnam, he helped to protect the Cham Museum for which he was officially thanked in 2005 by the Vietnamese and French authorities. From 1972-1974 he was the deputy chief of mission/Chargé d’affaires in Vientiane, Laos. He is credited for having helped the establishment of a coalition government which saved thousands of lives after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Dean was appointed Ambassador to Cambodia in March 1974 and he served in that posting until the Embassy was closed and all American personnel were evacuated on 12 April 1975, five days before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Ambassador Dean’s career culminated with a series of top postings:
- 1974-1975 United States Ambassador to Cambodia
- 1975-1978 United States Ambassador to Denmark
- 1978-1981 United States Ambassador to Lebanon
- 1981-1985 United States Ambassador to Thailand
- 1985-1988 United States Ambassador to India
DEAN: All of us on that team of 200 spoke pretty good French. The only way you could interact with all of them, except for Tim Carney who spoke Cambodian, was to speak French. All members of our team were able to interact very easily with their interlocutors. The Cambodians are nice people. Perhaps they are not quite as work-oriented as others.
They enjoy having a little bit of fun from time to time. But most of the Cambodian military officers and officials we encountered were first rate and worked very hard. When you finance the whole war effort and prop up the whole regime, obviously, whatever you say makes an impact on your Cambodian counterpart. It was not difficult to have access to people since they needed you badly to carry out their effort to withstand the Khmer Rouge.
DEAN: Yes, there was a sustained effort to find these people. But by the time I assumed charge of the Embassy, in March 1974, we were not able to move around freely. The newspaper people probably ran into some Khmer Rouge, who saw spies everywhere, and they were liquidated by them. The Khmer Rouge believed in cleansing the Cambodian society from the scourge of western culture, and the western press was one element of that culture.
DEAN: They had certain criteria for annihilation: anybody who was upper class; anybody who was educated; anybody who opposed leveling society… People threw away their glasses not to be associated with these elements of society. No Cambodian dared to speak French because that meant you had been exposed to a foreign culture. The Khmer Rouge were fanatics and in remodeling Cambodian society they did not take into account the cost on human life.
DEAN: Khmer Rouge ideology and action went much farther than French socialist idealists, Jean Jaures and people like him who were highly respectable.. The Khmer Rouge were revolutionaries, using violence, closer to the Bolsheviks who imposed themselves on Russian society in 1917 in order to impose a new political order and a new social order on their country. The Khmer Rouge was fanatical revolutionaries, and unfortunately some foreign observers, including Americans, did not see them in that light.
DEAN: Sirik Matak was killed on the 19th or 20th of April. The Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on the 17th. Two days later, Sirik Matak was executed publicly, near the Grand Hotel in the center of Phnom Penh.
DEAN: He was shot. Long Boret’s ending was different. He thought he had “the old school tie” and he tried to find a way to ingratiate himself with the Khmer Rouge by saying that all Cambodians were part of the nationalist movement to rid themselves of foreign control. He found that he and his views were completely rejected. Long Boret, in an effort to flee from the Khmer Rouge, drove with his family to the Phnom Penh airport in a jeep. At the same time, some military officers from the Lon Nol regime were trying to take off in a helicopter to save their own skins. Long Boret tried to climb on the helicopter with his wife and young children. He was brutally shoved off the copter by Khmer military into the jeep. The helicopter took off and flew to safety. As for Long Boret and his family, the Khmer Rouge caught up with them and they were all assassinated.
DEAN: I was asked to write an evaluation on every officer. Also, Washington was going to be busy with the evacuation from Saigon at the end of April. For all these reasons, I was asked to stay in Bangkok for a few weeks longer.
DEAN: We left Phnom Penh on the 12th of April. On the 30th of April Saigon fell. I think Washington was involved, with CINCPAC, in making preparations for the much more difficult extraction from Saigon. Meanwhile, our team was kept busy in Bangkok, and out of the way of Washington. I also had to review the claims of all members of our team who claimed to have lost property in Cambodia. Some people came up with large bills. I lost one item for which I claimed something. I had a tapestry by Lurçat which I left behind. I put in a claim for that. In addition to looking after our American team, we had to be sure that the Cambodians we had taken out had enough rice for their stay in Bangkok.
My wife and I took to the Acting President of Cambodia, Saukam Khoy, whole bags of rice so that they could survive while awaiting orders from Washington regarding their future, from time to time, we also shared some of our personal funds with our Cambodian friends so that they could take care of some urgent needs. Our team felt that we had a moral obligation to take care of those for whom we had taken responsibility by evacuating them with us. We continued doing these functions for about three weeks. As a matter of fact, to the credit of plain decency, some civilian food supplies (rice and dried legumes) left over from the Cambodian Aid Program were still in Bangkok. After April 12, when the Khmer Rouge had actually taken the city of Phnom Penh, the American authorities still parachuted some of the left-over supplies to the Cambodian civilian populations so that they would have something to eat.
I did not discuss enough the helpful, courageous role played by the NGOs (Non- Governmental Organizations) during all of my tenure in Cambodia. Some of the NGOs originally got their start in Indochina. Congress was willing to help these NGOs, but the NGOs themselves had to collect funds on their own. Among the NGOs in Cambodia, we had World Vision, Care, Catholic Relief Services, and many others. In previous chapters, I had already praised the unselfish, noble manner in which these various humanitarian organizations helped the suffering civilian populations. One humanitarian organization which always plays a special role in time of conflict is the International Committee of the Red Cross whose headquarters is in Geneva, Switzerland. ICRC, as it is commonly referred to, helps both sides in a conflict. For example, they exchange prisoners. They do many jobs nobody else can do. The ICRC members were active and stationed all over Cambodia, including in Khmer Rouge controlled areas.
In the closing days of our presence in Cambodia, I asked the top ICRC official whether any of them wanted to return to the capital, Phnom Penh, in case of future evacuation. We did send at their request American helicopters into the provinces to pick up those who wanted to return to Phnom Penh. Eighteen ICRC members availed themselves of that offer. As you know from the book or movie “The Killing Fields,” after the American Embassy evacuated Phnom Penh, the French Embassy acted as a haven for anybody who had stayed behind and feared the Khmer Rouge. It was only at that time, after our departure from Phnom Penh and before the French took out the last group at the end of April, that some critics of the U.S. realized that the Khmer Rouge were not a bunch of “agricultural Reformers” but brutal revolutionaries dedicated to remodeling Cambodian society.
Shortly after the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on April 17, they started to vacate the city of its population. Old and young, male and female, walked for miles to new destinations selected by the Khmer Rouge. Some people in hospital beds were forced to leave Phnom Penh; many of them died and their beds were abandoned on the road.
Many old people collapsed on the way. Those foreigners who had not left with the U.S. evacuators took refuge at the French Embassy run by the Chargé d’Affaires. Many U.N. people and foreign humanitarian workers found temporary safety at the French Embassy between April 12 and 30. Some Cambodians also took refuge at the French Embassy. The accommodations for these hundreds of safety seekers were rudimentary but the French did their best to cope with the influx of people—beds on the floor, basic food to survive…
One day. a Khmer Rouge official came to the French Embassy, which by that time looked like a refugee camp, and asked: “Do you have any Cambodian citizens? If you do, they must be declared and given up to us.” I do not want to go into detail, but I heard from my French friends who were at the French Embassy during these fateful days, that humans react differently when their own lives are at stake. One European gave up his Cambodian girlfriend in order just to save himself and not endanger others. To the best of my knowledge, the French convoy left for Thailand from Phnom Penh at the end of April.
We had left on the 12th.
Sid Schanberg was one of those who got out with the French. He had to deny his American identity when their trucks were stopped by the Khmer Rouge on the way to Thailand. He said that he was French, and his beret on his head and a Gauloise between his lips probably made his claim ring true. Some Cambodians in the French convoy gave themselves off as French. The French authorities had given them papers in order to document them as French citizens. This way, they had French protection. While in Phnom Penh, in the French Embassy, if a Cambodian was turned over to the Khmer Rouge, he or she had a good chance of being eliminated. One Cambodian lady had a coke bottle broken off in her vagina. Most of those who had found refuge in the French Embassy got out to safety. A few foreigners stayed behind, but they soon were disillusioned and left via Thailand.
DEAN: As we had the DC-8s coming to Phnom Penh every day during the last six to eight weeks, bringing food and ammunition, on the return trip, these planes were empty. People for whom I had responsibility who wanted to leave Cambodia could come to a certain American office in Phnom Penh to obtain documentation for a flight to Thailand. We had responsibility for some 12-15 nationalities and certain Cambodians closely linked to the U.S. From Thailand, these evacuees had to find their own way to wherever they wanted to go. The standing order for all those to be evacuated by U.S. Government aircraft was the same for all: Two suitcases per traveler. That order applied to Americans, Cambodians, and other nationalities, including our closest allies (NATO members, Australians, etc.).
DEAN: I took one Soviet journalist out, but I had no formal responsibility for him. The Israeli Ambassador, whose first name was Shimon (Simon), came to me and said fairly early in April; “We would like you to take out our coding equipment. It’s about 1,000 kilos.” I said: “Shimon, I really can’t help you.” Israel had a large technical assistance program in Cambodia. “Any one of your technicians and embassy staff who wants to leave can take two large suitcases along. If you put some pieces of the coding equipment into these suitcases, then you can get much of it out.” Shimon said; “You are not really very helpful. I’ll see about that.” I guess he sent a message back to Washington saying: “The Ambassador is not very helpful. The Israeli Embassy has coding equipment which we have to get out and Dean did not want to take it.” Next day, I received a message from
Washington: “John, why are you difficult with the Israeli Ambassador and his request to take out their coding equipment.” I sent back a message to the Secretary: “Mr. Secretary. I am giving the Israeli Embassy and its staff the same treatment I have applied to all Americans and our closest allies who are still in Cambodia: two suitcases per person as they get on the U.S. plane leaving for Thailand. If you want me to give preferential treatment to the Israeli Embassy, please let me know, and I will comply.” I never received an answer to that message. As a result, the 1,000 kilos of the Israeli Embassy were left behind, near the Phnom Penh airfield, and never got out. I might tell how we handled our own encrypting and coding equipment. We put grenades in the machines and the equipment was destroyed by explosion. We did not have the time to take the coding equipment out because we sent messages until shortly before our departure. Hence, in the last minutes, we destroyed our equipment by explosives, as instructed by Washington.
DEAN: That was done very early. The files and security equipment were destroyed days before the evacuation. The departure from Phnom Penh was orderly because we had six/eight weeks of 6/8 daily plane flights from Phnom Penh to Thailand, which permitted us to plan and draw down over a certain period of time. We were amazed that, on April 12, not more Cambodians wanted to leave. For eight weeks we had been taking people out from Cambodia, so people who really felt very insecure had been able to leave before our final departure. Others lived under the illusion that they could survive under Khmer Rouge takeover.
DEAN: I came back to Washington. I presented myself to the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and many other members of Congress. The legislators were very cordial in these meetings and the Executive Branch assured me that I would get another ambassadorial assignment. I was told to take a good vacation because I needed it after these stressful months. I went to Switzerland, took my family on a trip to Italy and showed them Rome, Venice, Florence, Siena, and other cultural sites of the West. By telephone, I was told that I was under consideration for an ambassadorial assignment: either Morocco or Romania. At that point, I was more interested in getting some of my weight back than in future assignments. I had lost more than 15 pounds by the time I came out of Cambodia. One day I received a phone call from Larry Eagleburger, Under Secretary for Management, who said: “John, there is a change of plans. We would like you to go to Copenhagen. Come and see us in Washington.” In Washington, I was told that the Embassy in Copenhagen had become available. This was a post mostly reserved for political appointees. Hence, I was one of the first Foreign Service career officers to go to Denmark. I suggested to the State Department I would like to learn Danish. Since I was fluent in German, had a smattering of Dutch, I was confident I could learn basic Danish in a relatively short time. Above all, I was trying to find a way to show to decision makers that having a career Foreign Service Officer at a post could make a difference to our foreign policy. Speaking the language of the host country was a step in the right direction.
I was sent to the Foreign Service Institute in Washington and learned a few phrases in Danish before leaving for Copenhagen. When I arrived in Copenhagen airport, the local press was waiting for me and I gave my first statements to the press in Danish. Since Denmark never had an American ambassador before who even tried to speak Danish, the local media was, on the whole, very kind to me during my tenure.
FROM The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project (ADST)
John Gunther Dean formally began his service as an officer with the U.S. Department of State in the spring of 1956. From 1956-1958 he served as a political officer in Vientiane, Laos, and then from 1959-1960 he opened the first American consulate in Lomé, Togo. From 1960-1961 he was Chargé d’affaires in Bamako, Mali, and then became the officer in charge of Mali-Togo affairs in the Department of State from 1961-1963. In 1963 Dean was an adviser to the U.S. delegation to the 18th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, and during 1964-1965 he was an international relations officer in the NATO section of the Department of State. Dean went to Paris in 1965 as a political officer and served there until 1969. From 1969-1970 he was a fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was then detailed to the U.S. military as Deputy to the Commander of Military Region 1 in South Vietnam where he served as Regional Director for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) until 1972. While in Da Nang, South Vietnam, he helped to protect the Cham Museum for which he was officially thanked in 2005 by the Vietnamese and French authorities. From 1972-1974 he was the deputy chief of mission/Chargé d’affaires in Vientiane, Laos. He is credited for having helped the establishment of a coalition government which saved thousands of lives after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Dean was appointed Ambassador to Cambodia in March 1974 and he served in that posting until the Embassy was closed and all American personnel were evacuated on 12 April 1975, five days before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Ambassador Dean’s career culminated with a series of top postings: