Eyewitness to History: Retired U.S. Diplomats Reveal Raucous, Unvarnished Memories of U.S. Foreign Policy as it Happened
By Nate Thayer
March 19, 2014
The privately funded Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training has a Foreign Affairs Oral History Project has compiled the detailed memories of hundreds of key retired U.S. diplomats, eyewitnesses to modern history unfolding, and key front line civilian troops carrying out U.S. foreign policy.
These meticulously compiled accounts, most from the latter half of the 20th century, make for fascinating, entertaining, revealing, and important reading, unencumbered by cautious diplomatic language and full of colour and detail that provide extraordinary insight into how foreign policy is conducted. And importantly, what these often talented and courageous officers were really thinking behind the bland obfuscation of diplomatic language.
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is an independent nonprofit organization founded in 1986. Located at the State Department’s George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia, ADST advances understanding of American diplomacy and supports training of foreign affairs personnel through a variety of programs and activities.
Over the past quarter century ADST has conducted more than 1800 oral histories, which are also posted on the Library of Congress website, with more to come. Interviewees include such fascinating people as Prudence Bushnell, who describes her harrowing experiences during the bombing of U.S. Embassy Nairobi, Julia Child,Philip Habib, Dean Rusk, George Ball, Kathleen Turner, and many others. Excerpts from our oral history collections highlight the horrifying, the thought-provoking, and the absurd. In other words, they reflect the reality of diplomacy, warts and all.
The oral histories can be found here: http://adst.org/oral-history/oral-history-interviews/
Here are excerpts from a U.S. foreign service officer William N. Harben, who was head of the political section of the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh Cambodia from 1971-1973, in the years when Cambodia was engulfed by war between the ouster of Prince Sihanouk by the U.S. backed General Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge capture of the city in 1975.
CAMBODIA, 1971 – 1973
I went to Cambodia as chief of the two-man Political Section. Because the capital, Phnom Penh, was besieged by the Communist Khmer Rouge and several Americans had been killed, I was to go alone.
When I arrived in the beautiful, pagoda-studded capital of Cambodia on the banks of the great Mekong, I set about perusing the files.
The first thing I noticed was a U.S. newspaper article by one Dennis Cameron, described to me as a locally stationed journalist who was addicted to marijuana, claiming that a wizard monk named Mam Pram Moni was Marshal Lon Nol’s principal adviser – conjuring hexes against the Khmer Rouge, developing magical cotton T-shirts which would deflect enemy bullets, etc. “Has anybody checked this out?” I asked. No one had.
If the country and the direction of the war were being run on the basis of magical incantations, Washington ought to know about it, I thought. Taking with me a Khmer-speaking subordinate, Donald Jameson, I went to the pagoda cited in the article as the wizard’s residence. We approached a group of monks and asked for him.
“Oh, he’s not here any more. He lives at the palace of Chamcar Mon, where he advises the Marshal,” translated Jameson.
My heart sank. “All right, let’s look into the bullet-proof shirts.” I had heard that one was on display in the Buddhist Museum. We went there and the woman curator showed us a shirt covered with curious designs and inscriptions. I photographed it as Jameson held it up.
Even before I could ask, the curator said, “A man from the palace came. He wants to mass-produce this shirt for the army. I told him it wasn’t made to ward off bullets, but 55arrows, and anyway, it is the prayers recited by the bonze who paints the shirt which make it effective.”
In the succeeding weeks I had gathered much evidence of Lon Nol’s superstition. It was clear, to me at least, that the reason that a large part of the Khmer Army was besieging the ancient temple of Angkor Wat was the Marshal’s belief that the possession of this abode of the Khmer soul by the enemy prevented victory. An avenue to the palace which had been built for the deposed Prince Sihanouk was torn up in the belief that it exercised a magical influence favoring the return of Sihanouk, who was siding with the enemy.
Remembering how well received my long airgram on Indonesian mysticism had been, I compiled many accounts of Marshal Lon Nol’s superstition, almost from published Cambodian sources and recent books. I entitled it “The Anthropological Lon Nol.” The ambassador, already made nervous by the leaks of his secret telegrams to Washington columnists and intimations by the administration that “negative reports” would be unwelcome, was aghast. He watered it down considerably and edited it to put the Marshal in a more favorable light and finally let it proceed. The White House was displeased, and during a subsequent visit of Gen Haig an NSC functionary, Negroponte (according to a witness informant) drew the ambassador aside and said they did not want any more reports like that.
The embassy was, in effect, muzzled, which led to tragicomical consequences. The following I heard from colleagues: In the Pentagon they had devised a way of monitoring the progress of the war in Vietnam by computer. The number of skirmishes, the numbers of arms captured, enemy defectors or prisoners etc. were fed into the computer by province or district and the trend analyzed. It was decided to do the same in Cambodia, with the data furnished by the Political-Military Section. The work was complicated by the fact that the Marshal was selling governorships of provinces – since indirectly the Americans were paying their salaries, and having run out of provinces began dividing existing provinces in two, creating terrible confusion for the computer. The intimidated embassy had not reported that most of the provinces were partly or wholly occupied by the enemy and that the “governors” lived in besieged Phnom Penh. To unravel the confusion Washington proposed to send a team to sort things out “on the spot,” whereupon the embassy had to warn that “security conditions” impeded free circulation (to say the least). Actually one risked a bullet in the head if one drove more than 20 kilometers in any direction, although convoys did go regularly north and west with only occasional ambushes.
My own section’s reports continued to be censored, which weighed heavily on my conscience. If we had been instructed in writing to conceal the deterioration of the situation we might have felt that we had done our job as well as the limitations of government allowed us, but that was not the case. Furthermore the reports of our embassy in Laos, of which we received some copies, were very frank, particularly in regard to corruption, which we were required to gloss over.
Lives were at stake. When the enemy overran certain villages, or military camps, containing women and children, all those found therein were massacred. If the enemy were to overrun Phnom Penh a bloodbath would result. But even I did not suspect the dimensions of the mass murders which later took place. The embassy regarded most journalists as hostile, which was natural, since the truth was unrelievedly unfavorable and very easy to discover. The embassy would not even report Khmer newspaper articles.
Unable to report directly and finding it very dangerous to talk to the many journalists steered to me, I refrained from saying anything myself, but recommended that they visit certain people from whom I believed they could get the truth without involving me.
On one occasion I thought a breakthrough was possible. The Marshal issued a presidential decree ordering the arrest of anyone seen buying rabbits in the market. These were enemy agents, said the decree, and would tie timed explosives on the backs of the little beasts, which would hop into the army’s entrenchments and blow them up! Since it had been broadcast on the state radio I knew that it would be circulated all over Washington by the FBIS in unclassified form. To make sure, however, I drafted a SECRET cable reporting the text. My superiors refused to send it. This led to a confirmation of the bureaucratic lesson I had learned in Moscow: the officer who reports an event which could be used to back criticism of a presidential policy will be suspected of political partisanship. If he even brings such reports to the attention of his superiors he runs an unacceptable risk.
And so it was that an emergency high-level mission from Washington was sent to Phnom Penh after a day of spectacular disasters which could not be concealed by any censorship. By then it was too late. One member of the team was a young fellow on the National Security Council who covered Cambodia. “Why is the situation so much worse than we thought it was?” he asked me at lunch in my villa.
I told him that the ambassador had been discouraged from reporting the truth, “but anyway, there was enough material in the public print for any sensible person back there to realize that this place is going down the tube with its present leadership – like the rabbit bomb decree.”
“The what?” He had never heard of it. Apparently no one in Washington had dared send the item upstairs. The government had concealed the truth from no one but itself.
The evil of political censorship which afflicts the Foreign Service derives, in my opinion, from defects in the U.S. Constitution, which, as George Kennan has observed, was not written for the conduct of foreign affairs by a great power. Election and reelection is the focus of the political system. 1972 was a presidential election year, and nothing should be reported or done which would detract from the votes for the incumbent president – and all foreign service officers serve “at the pleasure of the president.”
Until the armed forces and the foreign service are responsible only to some non-elective council with life tenure, like the Supreme Court, Foreign Service reporting on subjects of internal U.S. political importance are worse than worthless. In the case of Cambodia the result was that a million men, women, and children were shot, bludgeoned, and bayoneted to death, and some slowly put to death by means so horrible that I will not describe them – but none were U.S. voters.
LA COMTESSE DE PLAUD
The British widow of a French officer, this harridan was a fine example of the mischief which can be wrought by dilettante amateur practitioners of foreign relations. Desirous of penetrating behind the curtain into the realm of the wizards who cast hexes for Lon Nol, I consulted a member of a friendly embassy who had been in Phnom Penh some years. He suggested that I contact Madame Nou Neau, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Cambodia, who was commandant of the Khmer Women’s Army Corps. She was most concerned with supernatural matters. On one occasion my informant and his wife had been strolling at the foot of the sacred Wat Phnom, in the heart of Phnom Penh, and heard strange music coming from the summit. He climbed the Wat and found a dozen or so ancient crones dancing in an enclosure, brandishing scimitars. Leading this ballet was Madame Nou Neau. Bonzes stood to one side, muttering disapproval. To get to Nou Neau I must first contact the Comtesse de Plaud, he said. He gave me her address – in a decaying apartment house on the Mekong.
She greeted me and the conversation proceeded satisfactorily. I invited her to dinner and asked her to convey an invitation to Nou Neau. On the appointed evening they arrived, Nou Neau accompanied by her handsome young “garde de corps,” whose duties, I believe, quite literally corresponded to his title. She was, indeed, breathtaking. Raising her hand I said, in French, “It is true, Madame, what I have heard. You are the most beautiful woman in Cambodia!”
I was startled by her reply, delivered in a tone of weary resignation, “Oui. Tout le monde veut coucher avec moi: Je ne sais pas quoi faire!” [Yes, Everybody wants to sleep with me. I don’t know what to do!]
“Do you realize, M. Harben, that Madame Nou Neau is the reincarnation of a famous queen of Angkor?” said the Comtesse de Plaud during dinner.
“No. Is this true, Madame?” I asked, turning to Nou Neau.
“So the phantoms say,” she replied diffidently.
The dinner did not result in any introduction to the phantoms or their intermediaries, but it did result in having the Comtesse in my hair for some time.
Shortly afterwards I heard a knock at my bedroom door while I was shaving. Thinking it was my cook I opened it, clad only in my sagging pyjama bottoms. It was the Comtesse.
“Come quickly! I want to take you to a very important man who has been talking to Khieu Samphan!” [an enemy leader who we thought was dead].
She took me to the Tuol Kork quarter, where she introduced me to a mild little man, Dr. Moch Lean, who said Khieu was alive and that he had talked to him near Kompong Speu a couple of weeks earlier. He had been his family physician, he said. His story sounded plausible, but exasperatingly vague on points which would have clinched its veracity. I warned him to reveal it to no one and to stay away from the Americans, since Lon Non would probably murder him if he found out.
A few days later he walked right through the front door of the embassy to request compensation for his orchard near Kompong Speu which had been destroyed by U.S. aircraft. This contact led nowhere, but La Plaud’s fertile imagination soon conjured up another scheme. She came to me claiming that she knew of an island in the Mekong near Kratie where the Khmer Rouge were holding captured American journalists. About 20 were missing and all were presumed dead. She asked me to procure a disguise from the CIA to enable her to pass through enemy territory to the island and get a message from the captives. The idea of a 70-year old white woman who spoke no Khmer sneaking through the jungle was so ludicrous that I decided she was suffering from senile dementia.
Not long after this another political crisis erupted, and the Khmer prime minister, Hang Thun Hak, invited the top echelon of the embassy to a dinner behind closed doors with him and the cabinet for a frank and confidential discussion. At the head of the table, eyeing me triumphantly, was la Comtesse de Plaud!
“What is that woman doing here?” I asked Um Sim, the Foreign Minister. “I thought this was to be confidential.”
“Well, she’s the personal representative of Dr. Kissinger, isn’t she?” he replied in surprise.
“She’s the personal representative of nobody!” I fumed.
For years after my retirement, even as late as April 1993, I received transatlantic telephone calls from her in Oxford, where she had gone to live with her son after the collapse, trying to enlist me in mad schemes of her own devising. I finally said I could not discuss anything with her because the Russians tapped the telephone lines!