October 1970: Proposed Ceasefire and Start of the Khmer Republic

On 7 October 1970, US President Richard Nixon proposed a ceasefire and peace negotiations with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government in Hanoi while speaking on US television.

During the address, President Nixon impressed upon the support of Laos, Cambodia and the South Vietnamese government of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) for the “major new initiative for peace.” In large part, Nixon attributed the ability for such peace talks to the Vietnamisation programme, which he claimed had been “a remarkable success over the past eighteen months.” (00:58)

“I propose that all armed forces throughout Indochina cease firing their weapons and remain in the positions they now hold. This would be a ceasefire in place. It would not in itself be an end to the conflict. But it would accomplish one goal all of us have been working toward – an end to the killing… I propose an Indochina peace conference. At the Paris talks today we are talking about Vietnam. But North Vietnamese troops are not only infiltrating, crossing borders and establishing bases in South Vietnam, but they are also carrying out their aggression in Laos and Cambodia as well. An international conference is needed to deal with all three states of Indochina… The third part of our peace initiative has to do with the United States forces in South Vietnam. In the past twenty months, I have reduced our troop ceilings in South Vietnam by 165,000 men. During the Spring of next year, these withdrawals will total more than 260,000 men, about one half of the number that was in South Vietnam when I took office… We are ready now to negotiate an agreed timetable for complete withdrawals as part of an overall settlement…”

President Richard Nixon’s points for a ceasefire aired on national television in America and across the world

President Richard Nixon Address to the Nation on a New Initiative for Peace, October 7, 1970, published by the Richard Nixon Library

Hanoi did not respond.

One could argue that, although a respectable call for peace, President Nixon’s proposals were as weak as the premise they were built on – the Vietnamisation programme. As the proposals were apparently a result of the successful Vietnamisation process, the programme itself comes into question.

Unfortunately for the Nixon administration, by 1970, Vietnamisation had proved a failure on the ground. Although true that the policy had initiated the first decrease in the number of American troops in Vietnam since 1959, the reductions, as well as the passing on of control over the war effort to the South Vietnamese, left a vacuum that was quickly filled by anarchy. The author of Fire in the Lake, Frances Fitzgerlad, highlighted this aspect of the ‘changeover’ in alarming detail. From villages to the top of government in South Vietnam, there were constant reports of politicians, generals and soldiers ruling the country engaged in corruption, inaction and incompetence. As a result, the process of Vietnamisation sowed the seeds of disorder, dividing the southern government into factions. Military leaders, sometimes unsure of how to act in specific military scenarios, failed to honour their duties of leadership. Common soldiers frequently deserted.

However, on 9 October 1970, General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak of Cambodia declared the formation of the Khmer Republic. Having led the government in Cambodia since the coup against Prince  Norodom Sihanouk in March the same year, Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak presented the rare opportunity of an allied Cambodian government. Both leaders were pro-United States, having led the previous coup after becoming dissatisfied with the increasing number of communist Vietnamese forces using Cambodia as a safe haven.

In the five years of its existence, the Khmer Republic government fought a bloody war with the communist-supported Khmer Rouge, a period that saw the deaths of roughly 700,000 Cambodian citizens. The national army under the Khmer Republic (Forces Armées Nationales Khmères (Khmer National Armed Forces or FANK)), although supported by the US with military and financial aid, was ineffective against forces from the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the National Liberation Front (NLF), finally falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Once again, as in South Vietnam, American support in Indochina proved to be no guarantee of power.

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