Foreign Effects

Cambodia, led by Prince Nordom Sihanouk, won its independence from France in 1953. From then on, Sihanouk dominated Cambodian politics and strived to maintain the independence that he fought for, while also promoting Cambodian nationalism. This task, however, became increasingly difficult as the Vietnam War spread to the border of Cambodia after its beginning in 1955. At the beginning of the war, Sihanouk chose to maintain Cambodian neutrality and refused to take a side, believing it was in Cambodia’s best interest. Sihanouk established a socialist economy at home and balanced foreign influences abroad to keep his country neutral. Remaining completely neutral, however, became more difficult as the war carried on. After discovering the United States was involved in a plot to overthrow Prince Sihanouk and after constant U.S. violations of Cambodian neutrality, Sihanouk decided to break off diplomatic relations with the U.S. and to stop their military aid to Cambodia, in 1963, which had started once the Vietnam War had begun. He cut off all diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1965. 

 Prince Nordom Sihanouk5 


Once financial and military aid from the Americans was halted, Sihanouk sought to find another source of help, turning to the North Vietnamese. In 1965 he allowed Vietnamese communists to travel through the port at Sihanoukville in Cambodia and allowed the Cambodia military to supply the Vietnamese sanctuaries with weapons. Cambodia then became a vital part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Cambodian officials were profiting hugely from arms deals with the Vietnamese communists and the economy overall was lifted out of stagnation due to the high prices the Vietnamese were paying for Cambodian goods.  As Sihanouk himself put it, “We wanted to get rid of American aid, and as a result we… had to handle transport to become the Vietcong's coolies….” However, these arms deals with the communists soon led to more Vietnamese involvement in the jungles of Cambodia. The North Vietnamese began to build essential military bases in Cambodia, and, worried about their intentions, Sihanouk began to distance himself from relations with the neighboring communists.  In 1968 Sihanouk once again patched up diplomatic relations with the United States, greatly upsetting the North Vietnamese communists. After publicly announcing his desire for the Vietminh to abandon their military sanctuaries stationed in Cambodia, fighting broke out between both sides in 1969. The Cambodia military proved to be too weak and poorly trained to pose any real threat to the communist shelters, and so the bases remained. 

Sihanouk (middle) meeting with Mao Zedung (left) in Beijing6

Ever since he was in power, Sihanouk had worked hard to counterbalance his opposition on both sides of the spectrum: the radical communists and the conservatives. At the same time, he was also trying to maintain Cambodian neutrality and independence during the Vietnam War, but both of these struggles inevitably crushed him. With a failing economy at home and an escalating war now extended to the edges of Cambodia, Sihanouk’s delicate Cambodian kingdom was collapsing. In the midst of this, came Nixon’s secret aerial bombardment to oust the Vietnamese from their Cambodian sanctuaries, which sent the nation into a state of devastating chaos. These bombings would spark the Cambodian Civil War, which soon led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, and then unfortunately the infamous Cambodian Genocide.