Nixon's Fatal Decision

        On February 22, 1969, the North Vietnamese launched a new offensive against American forces in South Vietnam from their sanctuaries in Cambodia. Instead of taking no personal offense to the communist attack, in a war that had been occurring for over a decade, the paranoid Richard Nixon took this as a personal slap in the face and sought retaliation. Nixon consulted his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, who shared Nixon’s determination to respond aggressively. The plan that Kissinger and Nixon created would have devastating and long-lasting effects.

Richard Nixon (left) and Henry Kissinger (right)1 

        The solution the two came up with was to bomb Cambodia in hopes of destroying the North Vietnamese bases hidden in the Cambodian jungles. However, Nixon knew that if they chose this route and it leaked to the public, the national chaos that he promised to end would only spread. For this reason he held off on bombing Cambodia for a few weeks, as the CIA pursued a plan to bribe Cambodian officials to end relations with the North Vietnamese. The CIA soon found out, though, that bribes were no match for the profits Cambodian officials were enjoying from their communist neighbors. After a Viet Cong attack on Saigan, the capital of South Vietnam, on March 15, Nixon’s frustration and impatience grew. As he said to Kissinger, “We cannot tolerate one more of these without hitting back…” The two, along with other foreign policy and military advisors, decided to order the bombing of Cambodia.

            Still worried about what might happen if the public received word of the bombing operation, Nixon and Kissinger worked tirelessly over the next couple of days to make sure it was kept a secret. “No comment, no warnings, no complaints, no protests…I mean it, not one thing to be said to anyone publicly or privately without my prior approval,” Nixon told Kissinger days before the first bombings. The pilots of the planes that carried the bombs were lied to about the location of their targets, and their missions were even kept off record to make it seem that they never happened. Nixon never consulted Congress and even kept the bombings a secret from high-ranking officials in the military.

One American plane bombing Cambodia during Operation Menu2 

Nevertheless, on May 18, 1969, the U.S. military, under direct orders from the President, bombed Cambodia. The entire operation was codenamed Operation Menu, and its first set of bombings were named Breakfast. After the Breakfast bombings were hailed a success by the White House, Nixon  privately shared his belief that, “We should let them have it again…crack the hell out of them…” The Nixon administration secretly ordered more bombings, without the consent of Congress. Air raids, codenamed Lunch, Snack, Dinner, Supper, and Dessert, followed the Breakfast bombings and concluded Operation Menu. Nixon’s fatal decision to bomb Cambodia and his struggle to keep it a secret would have disastrous domestic and foreign consequences, ones that would plague two nations, Cambodia and the United States, for many years.