Rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot

The Cambodian Civil War lasted five years, from the coup in 1970 to the fall of Phnom Penh to the communists in 1975. During this five-year span, the Cambodians and Americans witnessed the rise to power of one of the most radical and brutal political parties of all time: the Khmer Rouge. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge exploited the U.S. aerial bombardment as a means of propaganda, which proved extremely crucial for their rapid growth to power. Once Operation Menu started, it impacted the lives of thousands of rural Cambodians. As the U.S. commander in South Vietnam, General Abrams requested more carpet bombings of North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia and provided target locations to the White House in which he assured no civilian villages were, a false assertion. The moment these bombs hit, they began to terrorize the once peaceful Cambodian countryside. As one Cambodian survivor recalled, “We heard a terrifying noise which shook the ground; it was as if the earth trembled, rose up and opened beneath our feet. Enormous explosions lit up the sky like huge bolts of lightning; it was the American B-52-s.” 

  Pol Pot15

As the Khmer Rouge began to pose a real threat to the Nol government in 1971, the U.S. motive for the bombings shifted from wanting to eliminate North Vietnamese bases to wanting to eliminate Nol’s internal opposition: Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Ironically and unfortunately for the U.S., these bombings, that were meant to destroy the Red Khmers, directly led to their rise to power. By 1973, the U.S. conducted air raids close to Phnom Penh and increased the bombing to 3,600 tons per day, killing roughly 3,000 civilians. Nol had requested the bombings in his struggle against the Khmer Rouge in the Civil War, and later the CIA learned that many of the sites Nol requested to be bombed were merely political sessions in small villages.  In total, the American bombing of Cambodia resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Cambodian civilians, most of who lived in the countryside. The bombings not only drove ordinary citizens into the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge, but they also drove North Vietnamese troops deeper into Cambodia, into closer contact with Cambodian civilians. There, the North Vietnames troops most likely shared their anti-American sentiments and influenced Cambodians to join Pol Pot. Before the bombings, the Khmer Rouge was barely a legitimate political group, and as Pol Pot himself stated, they were, “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerillas…scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.” But as the bombs continued to fall, Pot and the Khmer Rouge jumped at the opportunity to use the American carpet-bombing as a source to recruit new members, and the CIA soon learned, as their main heme of propaganda.   

An American B-52 bomber16
 Numerous B-52D bombers, specialized planes meant to travel long distance to conduct carpet bombings, carried out the bombing of Cambodia. They were known as “Big Belly’s” because of their storage of thousands of kilograms of bombs. The absolute destruction of the Cambodian countryside can attest to this. In some cases Cambodian villages were raided by dozens of B-52D planes in only a couple of hours, each carrying thousands of kilograms of bombs. The result was the utter wreckage of hundreds of small peaceful villages, and of course the utilization of this tragedy by the Khmer Rouge to come to power. When asked if they did indeed use this as propaganda, former Khmer Rouge official, Chhit Do, replied:

“Oh yes, they did. Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…The ordinary people... sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came... Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told... That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over... It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them... sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”

        Thousands of Cambodians suffered this trauma that Do expressed, which drove a great majority of them into the hands of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Cambodian civilians, who otherwise never would have been drawn to the Khmer Rouge, began to accept the party’s insanely radical beliefs and tactics after witnessing and experiencing such atrocity and pain. One Cambodian inhabitant of a destroyed village stated, “Many monasteries were destroyed by bombs. People in our village were furious with the Americans; they did not know why the Americans had bombed them. Seventy people from Chalong joined the fight against Lon Nol after the bombing.” As news correspondent Richard Durman explained, “The peasants were turning to the fighters [the Khmer Rouge] as their best friends.” By the early 1970s, the CIA and Lon Nol intelligence confirmed that the bombings were directly leading to Cambodian civilians supporting the Khmer Rouge. However, Nixon chose to ignore this risk, and in doing so, Pol Pot rose to power. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge finally ended the Civil War against Lon Nol, after Nol fled the country and the U.S evacuated its embassy. The Red Khmers marched into Phnom Penh, led by Pol Pot, as people cheered nervously, not sure of what was to come. What came next was Pol Pot’s reign from 1975 to 1979, beginning the Cambodian Genocide.    

The Khmer Rouge celebrating in Phnom Penh in 197517