by John Burgess
Judges at the International Court of Justice in the Hague typically rule on dry and technical issues such as rights of passage through foreign air space or obligations under international conventions. But in October 1959, they were asked to determine ownership of a ruined, thousand-year-old stone temple standing on the windy summit of a cliff in Southeast Asia.
The case known as Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand) transfixed the two countries during the three years of litigation that followed but also drew close attention from the region’s American diplomats. While declaring themselves neutral in the dispute, the Americans were eager to see it resolved. To them it was a troublesome distraction from the main job in the region, shoring up South Vietnam, where an insurgency that would become the Vietnam War was already underway.
American claims of neutrality faced an awkward complication a year into the proceedings. One of the biggest living names in American diplomacy, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, signed on as hired counsel for Cambodia. His presence in the court’s ornate hearing hall in the Hague led many people to conclude that the U.S. was backing Cambodia.
Preah Vihear stands atop a precipice that to its builders was Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods. The sandstone temple was the work of the Khmer Empire, creator of Angkor Wat and other remarkable temples that stand near the Cambodian town of Siem Reap. Originally Preah Vihear lay deep within the empire’s domain. But with the empire’s decline and the emergence of modern states, it had come to sit right at the border between two distrustful neighbors.
In the late 1940s, Thailand sent paramilitary police to occupy the remote, largely deserted temple. At that point, hardly anyone in the two countries had heard of the place. But soon it became a very public point of contention for both peoples. Cambodians saw it as the glorious creation of their ancestors, their country’s rightful property, now the subject of a land grab by Thailand. Thais felt it had been part of their country for centuries, giving them rights to guard it against a covetous neighbor.
Cambodia gained independence in 1953 after almost a century of French colonial control. Through diplomatic channels it asked the Thais to withdraw from Preah Vihear, without success. As the larger, more militarily powerful of the two countries, Thailand saw little reason to comply. Tensions were compounded by the public insults and threats habitually traded by the two countries’ leaders, Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat.
U.S. Diplomats Hope to Avoid Taking Sides
Courting Sihanouk and his non-aligned Cambodia was vital to U.S. Cold War strategy in the region. But so was maintaining good relations with Thailand, which was firmly in the American camp. This arrangement ended up pleasing neither country, each suspecting that true U.S. sympathies lay with the other. Again and again, U.S. diplomats claimed neutrality concerning Thai-Cambodian differences and urged restraint and dialogue. One instrument they favored was the “press truce,” in which the news media of each country were told to tone down the invective.
With Thailand refusing to budge from the temple, Cambodia began floating the idea of going to the World Court. Declassified State Department cables suggest that U.S. diplomats in the two capitals essentially bought into the thinking of their host governments on this question. The Bangkok embassy cabled Washington that involving the court risked escalating a “relatively minor border dispute into major international controversy.” But their counterparts in Phnom Penh disagreed, saying it could put the issue “on ice” for years and give the eventual loser political cover domestically for the humiliation of compliance.
Diplomacy between the two countries peaked in August 1958, when a Cambodian delegation came to Bangkok for two weeks of talks on bilateral issues. Concerning the temple, delegates kept arriving at an impasse. Cambodia argued that it owned the temple under a 1904 treaty that Thailand had signed with the French colonial authorities. Thailand countered that the treaty was forced on it by imperialist injustice. Times had changed, the Cambodians were told. You should accept the reality that Thailand holds the temple.
U.S. Ambassador to Thailand U. Alexis Johnson, meeting privately with Cambodian delegation head Son Sann, issued another American call for restraint. Why not, he asked, put off the question of sovereignty at the temple and focus on joint development of the site?
With the talks having failed, Cambodia went to the court. U.S. efforts for a friendly bilateral settlement had failed.
Cambodia Hires Former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson
Initially Cambodia hired two French legal scholars to head its litigation team. But as Temple of Preah Vihear progressed, Sihanouk seems to have decided his country needed a bigger name. Acheson, a senior attorney specializing in international law at the Washington firm of Covington & Burling, was approached. He had served as President Harry S Truman’s secretary of state from 1949 to 1953 and remained a lionized speaker and geopolitical thinker in the U.S. and abroad.
The Thais were outraged. Surely this meant the U.S. government was siding with Cambodia, or else it would have blocked this celebrated man. Acheson went to the trouble of asking Secretary of State Christian Herter if he saw a problem. Apparently the answer was no. The U.S. position, relayed around the region, was that Acheson was a private citizen with the right to represent whomever he chose, with no endorsement by Washington implied.
In fact, Acheson wasn’t devoid of responsibility in ongoing diplomacy. Early in 1961, President Kennedy appointed him as an unofficial foreign policy advisor and go-between with countries of Europe he had often visited as secretary. In between sessions at the court, he would be making calls again at capitals there.
In 1961, Acheson and his wife Alice were invited to visit Cambodia. But first he checked with his government. “The Department of State—i.e. the Cambodian desk officer—believes that we shall be able to go without causing World War III,” he later wrote to an associate. For much of their time in the country, the couple were VIP tourists, visiting Angkor Wat and other sights.
But Acheson appears to have used his old standing to get a favor from the embassy in Phnom Penh: a U.S. government airplane took him aloft for a special flight along the border to provide an aerial view of the object of the case. It was done in secret; the Thais seem never to have found out. (This flight is recounted in the oral history of Ambassador Richard C. Howland, who was a junior officer in the Phnom Penh embassy at the time. https://adst.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Howland-Richard-C.1.pdf)
The son of an Anglican bishop, Acheson was known as one of official Washington’s most erudite figures. At the court he lived up to his reputation, spicing his arguments with wit and learned quotes from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and John Milton. Overall, he addressed the judges in a direct style that broke with the obtuse oration that they often heard. “The title of Cambodia to the temple of Preah Vihear is without flaw…,” he declared in a 1962 hearing. “The delimitation which gave the temple to Cambodia constituted a final frontier settlement which may not now be reopened.
”But at his place at the Cambodia table, sitting through the hours-long arguments rendered in both French and English, the man who had once commanded American foreign policy could feel exasperation. During one session he passed a note to Brice Clagett, a young American lawyer who was in effect serving as his aide-de-camp: “This is the worst lawyers mumbo jumbo you have ever heard. If you do not understand it, you are to be congratulated.” (Clagett went on to become a prominent Washington lawyer in his own right.)
Six decades later, internal documents and debates of the Cambodian team remain under wraps, so we don’t know Acheson’s role in crafting the legal strategy that Cambodia pursued. But it’s a good bet that, given his stature in the foreign policy world, the Cambodians agreed to many of his suggestions.
U.S. Diplomats in Both Countries Fear Verdict
Arguments concluded in March 1962. The two countries anxiously awaited the decision. U.S. diplomats in Bangkok, fearing a violent reaction there if Thailand lost, cabled their counterparts in the Netherlands, asking them to pass along any advance word about the decision. That drew a scolding response that there was no way to know and trying to find out would be “wholly improper.”
On June 15, 1962, the court announced its decision: Cambodia had prevailed by a vote of nine to three. Many issues figured in the lengthy decision that the chief judge read aloud in the court, but the crucial one was that for close to half a century Thailand had not formally objected to a 1907 map that was based on the work of a joint Thai-French border commission. It clearly showed the temple on the Cambodian side of the border. That silence, the majority ruled, amounted to acceptance.
Wild celebration erupted in Cambodia. Acheson and the two French lawyers were awarded the decoration of Prince of the Royal Order of Cambodia.
In Thailand the response was disbelief, street protests, threats to ignore the ruling—and renewed anger about Acheson. Surely on his calls in European capitals for President Kennedy, it was said, he had rigged the outcome. The decision was unfair, a humiliation.
To protest, the Thais withdrew representatives from the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and ordered the Polish ambassador expelled (the chief judge was a Pole) and Polish ships banned from Thai waters. They threatened to drop out of international talks about a Cold War crisis in Laos.
U.S. diplomats in the region suddenly had a new assignment: make sure Thailand actually gives up the temple, and rein in Cambodian triumphalism.
Declassified cables sent by Ambassador Kenneth Young indicate he took a generally delicate approach with Thai leaders. In a meeting with Sarit, he wrote, he expressed understanding of Thailand’s position but noted that President Kennedy would be deeply disturbed if Thailand left the Laos negotiations, a threat that it carried out in subsequent days.
As day after day passed with no Thai acceptance, Undersecretary of State George Ball seemed to be getting impatient. From Washington, he cabled suggesting that Young tell the Thais directly that defying the court would bring international disgrace and undermine support for the country in the United States. Young warned against such a message, implying it would be viewed as patronizing and backfire. The Thais were well aware of Ball’s points, he wrote, and “attempting [to] enlighten them would only exacerbate feelings and provoke hotheads.”
The U.S. did offer a financial incentive for accepting the ruling—lower interest rates on three irrigation loans. But the best evidence indicates that Sarit decided largely on his own that Thailand must comply, as bitter as that would be. Two weeks after the ruling, he went on national radio to break the news, describing himself as speaking with tears in his eyes, but pledged that at some future point Preah Vihear would return to the Thai fold. Thai officials, meanwhile, retracted off-the-record statements of anger and patched up relations with the Americans.
Cambodia Gloats Over Victory
Cambodia gleefully sniped at Thailand during this period. “Cambodians apparently no more capable of accepting victory with grace than Thais capable of accepting loss, and temptation to gloat irresistible, particularly in view of extreme Thai resentment,” the embassy in Phnom Penh reported.
There was no hand-over ceremony at the temple. The Thais simply packed up their gear and left. In January 1963, Sihanouk oversaw a huge gathering at the temple, attended by thousands of Cambodians and the diplomatic corps. U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Philip Sprouse was among those who came, climbing the temple’s long processional avenue with walking stick in hand. Speeches, a flag-raising, and a general air of jubilance created a feel of triumphalism. Acheson was not present; he had urged his client to refrain from flags and other nationalistic displays.
After that, the temple slipped from the world’s eye. But not for Cambodians. It became a mountain redoubt for soldiers from various factions during the more than two decades of war that began in 1970. And in 2008 and 2011, Thai and Cambodian armed forces exchanged fire at and near the temple, killing scores of soldiers and civilians.
This time the dispute concerned land around the temple. That was due in part to ambiguity in the 1962 decision, which had specified that the temple belonged to Cambodia, but had not addressed the question of precisely where the border ran.
In 2011, Cambodia asked the court to declare that the original ruling meant Thailand had to withdraw from all territory south of the border shown on the 1907 map, about five square kilometers. In 2013, the court declined, but did instruct the Thais to vacate a small parcel abutting the temple on the north. Seven years later, that hasn’t happened. Cambodia has chosen not to object; relations between the two countries are in a spell of general warmth.
Today it’s possible to visit the great mountaintop edifice if you’re game for a harrowing 15-minute ride up a steep Cambodian-side access road by hired motorbike or pick-up truck (the crossing from Thailand has been closed since 2008). For now, peace prevails. But sentiments that have made the temple a focus of conflict for decades remain.
John Burgess is an American author and journalist with a deep interest in Southeast Asia, especially the Angkor civilization of ancient Cambodia. This article is based on his book Temple in the Clouds: Faith and Conflict at Preah Vihear. His new book, Angkor’s Temples in the Modern Era: War, Pride, and Tourist Dollars, has just been published.