The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
November/December 2005
FEATURE
 
 

Port of Entry, Sihanoukville
A Cambodian Munitions Mystery

 

BY JOHN PRADOS

In April 1970, several weeks before the invasion of Cambodia by American and South Vietnamese forces, military commentator Robert D. Heinl, Jr., observed that closing the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville to munitions shipments destined for the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese military might alter the course of the Vietnam War. General Lon Nol had ordered the closure.

Lon Nol, the military strongman of Cambodia who had replaced Prince Norodom Sihanouk as chief of state after a coup d’état in February, intended to halt supplies to communist forces. Under Sihanouk, his nation had tolerated their presence for years. The closure of Sihanoukville also brought an end to a dispute that had divided American commanders and intelligence authorities for almost as long as Hanoi and Liberation Front troops had been in Cambodia.

This subterranean contest has remained virtually unknown even though some of the most important issues of war strategy turned upon it. The story of Sihanoukville and the arguments that roiled around it shines a stark light on the strategy, diplomacy, and intelligence—as well as the difficulty of appreciating the adversary—in a guerrilla conflict.


During the early years of the American war, Cambodia perched uncertainly at the edges of the conflict. Its neutral status enshrined by the 1954 Geneva agreements, Cambodia had relations with both sides. Prince Sihanouk abdicated the throne in 1955, but he continued as prime minister and became chief of state five years later. His connections with the United States were delicate, compounded by ambiguous American connections to a plot against him that collapsed in 1959. Washington supplied a very small amount of military aid to Cambodia until 1963. After an incident at Chantrea in which South Vietnamese forces fired into his country, Sihanouk expelled the American military and ended their aid program. On the other hand, in September 1963 the Cambodians seized a ship on the Mekong laden with explosive chemicals bound for the National Liberation Front. But two years later, Sihanouk broke all diplomatic relations with the United States. In 1966, Washington sharpened mutual differences by refusing to recognize Cambodia’s borders.

During this time, the NLF grew steadily more powerful in the Mekong Delta and the portions of South Vietnam bordering Cambodia. Some NLF base areas straddled the Cambodian border, and their armed forces began using Cambodia for safe havens. The intelligence question began there, with the issue of NLF use of Cambodia in general, particularly in 1965 when Cambodia sent medical supplies to the NLF. Intelligence analyses pictured Sihanouk as intensely pragmatic, taking the actions he did for practical, not ideological, reasons. By late 1965, American intelligence had a general awareness that NLF activities in Cambodia were well-established, and knowledge of base areas grew as the Liberation Front, and later the North Vietnamese forces, expanded them.


The picture on NLF supplies remained murky. By October 1965, in a study the CIA compiled for the United States Intelligence Board (USIB), analysts were able to cite prisoner interrogations, captured documents, agent sources, and the actual taking of supplies in transit as sources for the conclusion that some NLF supplies had entered South Vietnam from Cambodia, but that these had originated there or arrived through normal trade channels and been procured on the open market. The study noted that Sihanouk’s government had become increasingly favorable to the NLF, but it found “no hard evidence that the central Cambodian government has actively provided logistic support to the Viet Cong,” though it remained possible that the Commerce Ministry had knowingly granted certain import licenses. The spooks had no conclusive evidence that arms that landed at the port of Sihanoukville were destined for anyone other than the Cambodian military.

Another CIA paper in December 1965 reiterated these points, and it added that the amount of supplies that had gone to the NLF had been small in comparison to what arrived by direct seaborne infiltration of South Vietnam, through Laos, from within South Vietnam, and in comparison to NLF supply requirements. The principal items were foodstuffs, medicine, clothing, and chemical precursors for explosives.

The CIA noted there were reasons to believe that the NLF and Hanoi “now calculate that this haphazard procurement of supplies from Cambodia is not enough.” No one could have been surprised when, late in 1966, ships began arriving at Sihanoukville with arms and ammunition from China. Security was nonexistent. One Chinese vessel unloaded its military cargo as a British destroyer remained moored alongside it.

Much of Cambodia’s trade had been with China, but the contents were markedly different: cement and asphalt (not produced in the country), machinery, motor vehicles, and sugar. Preparing briefings for American officials en route to the Manila conference in March 1967, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that, compared to the 30,000 tons a year of rice it estimated the NLF was procuring in Cambodia, the adversary “continue[s] to smuggle small quantities of arms and ammunition,” but that “we have no evidence of large-scale diversion of arms or of any substantial clandestine movement into Cambodia.”

This issue received high-level attention from the Johnson administration. Days after the briefing, the USIB ordered an interagency study of the use of Cambodia in support of the war in South Vietnam. Little more than a week after the DIA briefing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended sustained intelligence collection in Cambodia. On April 11, Washington instructed the U.S. mission in Saigon to set up a Cambodia Committee with representatives of the military services, the CIA, the State Department, and anyone else necessary to furnish “periodic telegraphic assessments” of the “mounting problem” of NLF and North Vietnamese use of Cambodia. In July, the CIA began to put out a regular monthly publication on the subject.

Evelyn Colbert of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) chaired the USIB Cambodia study, which reported out that August. She believed that the joint study group had made “a reasonable and convincing case” that could be declassified for the most part if needed to buttress Johnson administration public arguments. Separate papers covered infiltration through Cambodia and the base camp network. However, the infiltration paper focused entirely on the movement of troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Cambodia. The base-area paper contained only isolated references to truck convoys carrying supplies into the camps.

The CIA report series proved more comprehensive. Its first issue noted that nine merchant ships (five Russian, one Chinese, two Cypriot, one Danish) had called at Sihanoukville in March and April. Cambodia’s government, careful to maintain its neutral stance, made public announcements of military shipments, accepted Chinese aid at a public ceremony in Phnom Penh, and imposed no security restrictions at Sihanoukville. The British and Australian military attachés openly visited Sihanoukville and observed the ships unload. International Control Commission inspectors monitoring the Geneva agreements also examined cargo manifests. The CIA estimated that 33,000 tons of military supplies had landed but found only 450 tons of ammunition from the Chinese vessel.

Analysts concluded that the weight of circumstantial evidence indicated that Hanoi had yet to begin using the Cambodian port as an important logistical source, though they inserted this caveat: “Despite the available evidence to the contrary, the possibility that the Communists have been bringing arms and ammunition into Sihanoukville for transshipment to the Viet Cong cannot be ruled out.”


The difficulty of estimating arms flow through Sihanoukville posed the key headache for American intelligence. The recently built port’s main jetty, completed by French engineers in 1960, had space to dock four ships simultaneously. A reporter who visited a few years later found the place quiet, nearly deserted. But 247 ships called at Sihanoukville in 1967, and 325 in 1968. In 1964, the CIA estimated the port handled 220,000 tons of imports with excess capacity for twice that much. Sihanoukville actually landed 380,000 tons of cargo in 1968. How many carried supplies for Hanoi, and what type of supplies, no one knew.

At the CIA, the Office of Economic Research, a division of the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), took a stab at the question. The OER had the greatest number of analysts available and it picked up a good deal of technical intelligence on Vietnam. Paul Walsh, OER’s division chief, pushed hard for answers and guarded his turf jealously. The division had taken the lead on estimating supply requirements for NLF and NVA forces. With many former military logistics experts, OER had started its analysis by taking standard figures from staff officers’ field manuals specifying numbers of pounds per day of various kinds of supplies necessary to keep troops in the field. When OER checked with the DI’s executive assistant director, Richard D. Kovar, he pointed out that such levels might not be suitable for a guerrilla army—or an Asian one for that matter. The analysts refined their numbers and came up with estimates the United States relied upon through much of the war. Some thought the results skewed the other way—that OER underestimated Hanoi’s supply as a result, but that’s another story.


Sihanoukville posed a different kind of problem. Walsh’s division had developed a sophisticated economic model of the Soviet Union as part of the CIA’s effort to estimate Russian military spending, which provided inspiration for OER to try its hand at building a model of the Cambodian economy to understand the importance of Sihanoukville. Paul Walsh and two of his colleagues served on Evelyn Colbert’s joint study group, bringing the Cambodian intelligence problem to the forefront.

The intelligence section of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV J-2) also had an interest in the Sihanoukville matter. The section already had been drawn into the question of North Vietnamese troop infiltration, starting a special prisoner debriefing program for captives who said they were in, or moved through, Cambodia. The J-2 data became a key resource for the Colbert USIB study. MACV continued to expand collection programs in Cambodia, including new efforts by the MACV Studies and Observation Group (SOG). At J-2, Col. Daniel O. Graham became an important player on the Cambodian arms supply issue.


What to do in terms of policy and strategy troubled the Johnson administration at the highest level. In December 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara approached the Joint Chiefs of Staff about initiatives to deal with Cambodian support of the NLF. The Chiefs acknowledged the lack of adequate intelligence and focused their recommendations in the spring of 1966 on interdicting personnel infiltration through Cambodia. They suggested that “if future intelligence verifies Cambodian support,” the United States should retaliate against shipping companies whose vessels called at Cambodian ports.

By December 1967, the Cambodian problem, enlarged but focused on the base areas, led MACV commander Gen. William C. Westmoreland to recommend B-52 bombing of a North Vietnamese camp in the tri-border region of Cambodia.

President Johnson considered that proposition at a dinner for senior officials. LBJ held the dinner for the purpose of making a decision on the latest developments in a secret peace initiative code-named Pennsylvania. Those considerations led him to reject the bombing proposal, but the President resolved to make a specific effort to convince Prince Sihanouk of the dangers of the NLF and North Vietnamese in his country. Johnson ordered a redoubled intelligence effort to prepare materials that would be given to Prince Sihanouk to induce Cambodian action. He began by sending diplomat Chester Bowles to Phnom Penh in early 1968 to present evidence of the arms traffic to Sihanouk.


In Saigon, the Cambodia Committee began preparing intelligence material. At least seven packets were assembled through 1968, some amounting to monographs broader than the USIB joint study group report. In conjunction, MACV J-2 formed a secret group, the Vesuvius Committee, to identify intelligence collection targets in Cambodia that might prove to be good sources of data to put in the Cambodia Committee packets. Another initiative, suggested to Washington by its Southeast Asia Coordinating Committee in March 1968, was to increase exploitation of the intelligence assets of other countries. This group—which included the U.S. ambassadors and key military commanders in South Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos—recommended underwriting an Australian effort to add an extra military attaché to its mission in Phnom Penh to visit Sihanoukville and the Vietnamese-Cambodian border regions on a regular basis. Approaches to the British and Japanese also were included.

SOG conducted a significant portion of its missions into Cambodia against Vesuvius-designated targets. In the midst of the 1968 Tet Offensive fighting in February, SOG handed over its first information and proposed two additional targets. In a program that extended more than 18 months, SOG reconnaissance teams watched roads out of Sihanoukville, counted trucks to estimate tonnages, and noted Cambodian license plate numbers to accumulate a database that might implicate specific trucking companies. The SOG teams filed messages tagged “Dorsal Fin.” By the summer of 1968, two companies had been identified. The Vesuvius Committee eventually evolved into a Cambodia Study Group that met monthly through 1970, even after the United States had invaded Cambodia.

The U.S. Navy’s efforts to secure good intelligence bordered on heroic. Naval attachés in Japan, Hong Kong, and other places kept a special watch on Chinese ships and other flag vessels known to have put in at mainland Chinese harbors. In Saigon, the assistant chief of staff for intelligence of Naval Forces Vietnam (NAVFORV), Capt. Charles Upshur, did what he could, but he was near the end of his tour of duty. Capt. Earl F. Rectanus replaced him. Rectanus made Sihanoukville a major priority.

Naval intelligence liaison officers with the South Vietnamese and U.S. riverine forces funneled information through operational intelligence chief Lt. Victor Spoto. Captured supply caches and reported movements indicated a significant flow. Spoto assigned Lt. J.G. Art Murphy to focus on Cambodia and Sihanoukville. Another lieutenant, Charles Peterson, headed Rectanus’s collection division.

Together with South Vietnamese Navy intelligence chief Capt. Nguyen Van Tan, NAVFORV conducted an operation against Sihanoukville code-named Sunshine Park. A Cambodian entrepreneur with close connections to the palace served as principal agent and moved frequently between Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and other key locations. The principal agent handler was a Marine officer, Russ Shroyer. Rectanus, Spoto, Peterson, and Tan all remember their agent providing accurate data on the North Vietnamese arms shipments.

Capt. Rectanus labored in vain, however, to supplement and deepen the Sihanoukville reporting. Rectanus had good connections in Honolulu, having previously been intelligence chief to Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, the Commander-in-Chief Pacific, and managed to get a submarine assigned to patrol off Sihanoukville to watch shipping. But the sub commander, not aware of Navy data on sailings, did not know which ships to look for, had not been briefed in sufficient depth on what mattered, and did not remain long enough to get a bead on the traffic. Lts. Peterson and Spoto went to Hong Kong to debrief the sub crew but returned with little of value. Rectanus, who had held a senior staff position with the Naval Security Group, prevailed on commanders there to let him have a signals intelligence detachment, but the best he could get was agreement for a “test” operation. Detachment No. 27 arrived from the Philippines and set up in the Mekong Delta. Rectanus heard back through channels that poor “hearability” had negated their effort. The captain is still not sure whether the results were real or if what he heard reflected some Washington power play.


Power plays were not limited to Washington. Capt. Rectanus recalls that Col. Graham at MACV was his main contact. J-2 chief Maj. Gen. Philip Davidson stayed in that stratosphere that only generals inhabit. Their only difference, Rectanus feels, is that he worried more about the strategic level than the J-2 estimates chief. Graham talked to Rectanus mostly and sometimes sent him something in writing. But Graham never told Rectanus about Vesuvius or shared any of its intelligence with NAVFORV.

Lt. Spoto, who represented Rectanus at the daily intelligence staff meetings held at Tan Son Nhut headquarters, hardly ever heard the word “Cambodia.” The eyes of J-2 focused myopically on in-country tactical operations. Meanwhile, the Cambodia Committee never asked Capt. Rectanus to contribute to its packages or participate in its deliberations. Nor was the naval intelligence chief ever told about National Security Study Memorandum 1, the policy review assembled for the incoming Nixon administration to which MACV was required to reply, and one of whose questions specifically concerned North Vietnamese supplies from Cambodia.

The Navy did the best it could. Capt. Rectanus used his data to create a full-scale briefing with slides and graphics that was presented to all prominent folks who came through town. Rectanus presented his briefing at least thirty—perhaps as many as fifty—times. One of those times the audience was Russell Jack Smith, the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence. The Smith trip originated at director Richard Helms’s CIA morning staff meeting, in which he said that someone had to resolve the differences over the existing data. Smith volunteered.

It was the fall of 1968, perhaps October, shortly after NAVFORV’s newest commander, Rear Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, inaugurated the big push up the rivers toward the Cambodian border called Operation Sealords. Jack Smith, making the latest of many trips to Vietnam, had been apprised of differences between CIA and the military over North Vietnamese supply through Cambodia. Smith wanted to hear the military’s evidence. He already had listened to J-2 and come away unimpressed. Now, as Rectanus recalls, he and Smith spent an entire day “going over every stick of information.” Rectanus thought Smith gracious and that there had been a positive result, and he could not believe Smith might “knuckle under.”

Smith recalls the meeting differently. The intelligence people in Vietnam, he said, explained their Cambodia thesis as a possibility, one hypothesis among others—and were almost apologetic about it, as if they had been directed to argue a certain point of view. These are very different recollections. Jack Smith, who at 92 is sharp as ever and the author of ten novels, may be confusing the NAVFORV meeting with one he had had with J-2, about which he wrote in an earlier memoir. In any case, Smith returned unconvinced of the military case for North Vietnamese supplies through Sihanoukville.


By then the CIA had a new iron in the fire. At CIA headquarters in Virginia, Paul Walsh’s people had completed their model of Hanoi’s supply system. Walsh had Jack Smith’s ear. In fact, Smith soon promoted Walsh to associate deputy director for intelligence. Walsh had an impressive briefing of his own to back up the analysis and assumptions made in the OER model. The analysts looking at Sihanoukville had inserted data on the size of the harbor, docks, warehouses, cargo handling, and so on—a broad swath of material.

But Walsh had another hoop to negotiate. CIA director Richard M. Helms had set up an office of the Special Assistant for Vietnam Affairs (SAVA). George Carver had been SAVA since shortly after the office was created. He had a tendency to reach extravagantly alarmist conclusions, far from what the OER model produced. George W. Allen, his deputy, recalls that Carver had been almost as skeptical about the model as he was. Yet Carver, who was close to Walsh, yielded to the clarity of the model.

Allen recalls that several CIA officers spoke up about the model’s problems. He listened to the OER briefing and, preoccupied with other Vietnam intelligence fights, chose not to press his case. Years later, Allen wrote of the OER model that assumptions that underestimated Hanoi’s supply requirements made it seem like the Ho Chi Minh Trail could easily substitute, while an ignorance of earlier sea shipments also biased the analysis. The model failed to take into account Hanoi’s move to rearm its forces in the South with heavier, more modern weaponry; its interest in stockpiling supplies for future operations; and the natural advantages of sea transportation versus the long haul down The Trail. All these posed significant shortcomings.


Meanwhile, there were still information packages from the Cambodia Committee. The sixth report in July 1968, backed by a huge analytical study, raised eyebrows. It cited remarks by a conservative Cambodian politician in October 1967 that Prince Sihanouk privately acknowledged the NLF was receiving military supplies at Sihanoukville. The Cambodia Committee put the amount at 9,500 tons from December 1966 through March 1968, not including anything received under false manifests. There were 30,500 tons of “unidentified” cargo at Sihanoukville during the first half of 1967. The committee conceded it had no reliable evidence, but insisted that large amounts of equipment had been arriving in Cambodia in amounts vastly greater than Cambodian requirements, and that much of this materiel had not reached the Cambodian military.

There are indications that Gen. Creighton V. Abrams, newly appointed MACV commander, talked to President Johnson about the matter. LBJ brought Abrams back to Washington for a secret visit to advise him on halting the bombing of North Vietnam. That happened on October 29. Abrams believed American airpower could be utilized more effectively along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and had no problem telling the president so. Sihanoukville formed part of that conversation. Johnson ordered Secretary of State Dean Rusk to solve the intelligence dispute. Rusk passed the instruction to Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs William P. Bundy, who, a participant recalls, threw up his hands and said, “Don’t ask me to make a decision like that!” Instead, Bundy organized an interagency study similar to the USIB joint group. By Halloween—within two days—the thing was done.

With approval from director Helms, the mission was headed by James C. Graham of the CIA’s Board of National Estimates. It included four CIA analysts, two from DIA, and one from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Graham took his group to Southeast Asia in November and December 1968 and filed his report on the last day of the year. Just as the group prepared to depart, columnist Joseph Alsop published a piece headlined “LBJ Jolted by Abrams’ Report of Arms Flow from Cambodia.”

The group traveled to Bangkok to meet the Australian military attaché at Phnom Penh. One member flew to Laos and received information from CIA and other sources. In South Vietnam, they reviewed intelligence at MACV and visited several places in the Mekong Delta. Graham’s group missed Capt. Rectanus—in Hawaii at the time with his family—and none of the other NAVFORV intelligence people recall the visit. But there must have been some interaction, because its Sunshine Park agent figured prominently in the Graham report.

Stephen R. Lyne represented INR on the Graham mission. He headed a special section in INR’s Southeast Asia office created that summer to focus on Cambodia-Laos-South Vietnam as a unity—presumably the bureau’s response to the continuing controversy over Hanoi’s supply routes. Lyne knew of MACV’s high estimate of North Vietnamese supplies through Cambodia. Like analysts at the CIA, those from INR thought the numbers were intended to create a justification for an invasion of Cambodia. At one of the last meetings before the group drafted its report, one member asked about the CIA position. Paul Walsh gave an impromptu summary of his OER study. Like others before him, Lyne was impressed.


The Alsop column jarred Lyne. It tarred Washington for sending the usual experts out to argue against everything. Alsop had written the mission’s intent “no doubt [is] to conduct the study against the facts, which is usual in such cases.” Yet, in a sense, Alsop had the story. Lyne recalls: “We were true believers.”

That is what MACV expected. Intelligence chief Davidson told Gen. Abrams at a November 30 meeting, before the Graham mission arrived, “It’s not going to do the slightest bit of good.” He thought that Graham already had his paper written. “The best we can hope for,” Gen. Davidson said, “is to move him in such a direction that he can, with due saving of face, later come on around.”

Jim Graham died in 2001 leaving no known record of his thoughts on this. But Graham had baggage of his own. He had been the senior analyst on the 1967 North Vietnamese Order of Battle estimate that had accepted military views that radically understated the size of the enemy and helped lead Washington into the political fiasco ignited by the Tet Offensive. This time he could make amends.

Graham likely wanted no part of the Sihanoukville mission. An old friend of Jack Smith’s, Graham learned of Smith’s earlier Vietnam visit and wondered how the agency’s chief analyst could have let himself become involved in this. But when CIA Director Richard Helms sanctioned the investigation, Graham had no way to say no. As a member of the director’s prestigious Board of National Estimates, James Graham had the stature to make his mission’s study mean something.

It did not turn out that way. The report made some concessions. Accepting the MACV point of view, the Graham mission agreed that the Cambodian military had to be directly involved in the arms traffic and that Sihanouk probably knew about it. But Graham’s report continued to maintain that the Ho Chi Minh Trail could account for a proportion of the arms, and did not choose between Sihanoukville or The Trail as the main conduit. The OER analysts continued to hew to their figure of 1,600-1,700 tons of arms through the port.

The military counted 13,000 tons since 1966. Graham’s report split the difference, conceding the CIA figure to be almost certainly low, and came up with a projection including “possible” deliveries of 7,000-8,000 tons.

Agent operations contributed to this. Washington and Saigon had the same information. Graham’s mission believed there were no sources in a position to furnish actual numbers for the arms traffic. The group wanted agents to be pulled in for a professional debriefing, presumably including lie-detector tests, that might reassure U.S. intelligence as to their access. For Sunshine Park—and no doubt other agent operations as well—no possibility existed to satisfy that desire. For Graham, that made the evidence inconclusive.


On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, President Johnson made one last effort with Prince Sihanouk at about the same time Graham’s investigators busied themselves with the intelligence files. Johnson dispatched senior foreign aid official Eugene Black to Phnom Penh with a new briefing on the arms traffic. Sihanouk made no open reply, but the Cambodian leader did make a gesture toward Washington. Late in the year, Cambodia released the crew of a U.S. Navy craft that had blundered into the country. After Christmas, Sihanouk gave an interview to American journalist Stanley Karnow with expressions of determination to enforce Cambodian neutrality. And he secretly sent the incoming Nixon administration an overture to improve relations.

Gen. Abrams and the military stood fast on their intelligence. His chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Elias C. Townsend, recalls that Abrams took exception to the Graham Report. Adm. John S. McCain, the Commander-in-Chief Pacific, also said in an oral history that he disagreed. At a MACV command conference on January 11, 1969, briefers noted: “Sihanoukville is the primary point of entry for supplies, especially arms and ammunition, destined for enemy forces in southern South Vietnam.” The J-2 briefers documented a dozen ships since November 1966, bearing 14,000 tons in all, and believed possible similar deliveries from twenty-two others that might double the assessed amount. Adm. McCain told Abrams in March 1969 that Graham had been “a bit more amenable” after returning from the investigation trip.

Arms traffic issues were aired all over again with the change of administrations from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon. The Nixon transition team ordered up a Vietnam War policy review, coupled with a study intended to discover what the differences were among the various fiefdoms of the U.S. government. The document, National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 1, contained the same data previously furnished by MACV J-2, the CIA, and the Cambodia Committee. The material in NSSM-1 concerning the numbers of agent reports that backed up the claims for arms traffic down The Trail versus Sihanoukville (which showed a large number of reports that document the Cambodian supply route) had appeared earlier in the Cambodia Committee’s information packets.

The U.S. Embassy in Saigon sided with MACV. An INR comment gives the flavor: “While we agree that Sihanoukville may be increasingly important as a channel of supply for the VC, we believe the evidence is not clear that it is the main source of supplies for III and IV Corps. The Embassy does agree that there is insufficient information on this aspect.”

Gen. Davidson at MACV continued to be caustic on the arms traffic issue, as demonstrated by the records of the weekly briefings that updated intelligence estimates for the command (recently transcribed and published by historian Lewis Sorley). In February 1969, Davidson joked at one meeting about capturing materiel stamped for delivery to the Cambodian military. A report of truck movements, Davidson remarked, “just drives another nail into Mr. Graham’s coffin.” By April, Davidson understood the CIA position to be weakening.

Saigon’s information proved correct. One factor was Henry Kissinger, the Nixon administration’s national security adviser. As he did with other intelligence disputes, Kissinger demanded renewed efforts to verify the intelligence on Sihanoukville. By March 1969, these were well underway. In May, when Kissinger accompanied the President to a conference with the South Vietnamese at Midway Island, he had a conversation about the arms traffic with Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Earle Wheeler. By July, one of Abrams’s senior officers, Maj. Gen. William B. Rosson, told a staff meeting: “My impression is that the Graham Report has eroded quite a bit in Washington now.”


The other piece of the puzzle was the CIA’s clandestine service. Somehow the agency acquired a source with excellent access to records of Chinese arms shipments to Cambodia. Exact details remain unknown, except that this classic spy operation involved secret photography. By one account, the agent worked for a shipping company and was controlled by Charles S. Whitehouse’s Hong Kong station. Interestingly, the Graham group stopped in Hong Kong during its mission, but that probably happened before this penetration operation was active, while Hong Kong remained an important waypoint on trips to Vietnam. Other versions put the agent in Cambodia. In any case, the agent could get actual bills of lading.

By August 28, the new MACV intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. William E. Potts, stood up at a meeting with Abrams to credit CIA’s Saigon station chief for the “fine support” the agency had provided on Sihanoukville. In December, another MACV staff meeting lauded the “extremely sensitive” CIA report of a particular Sihanoukville shipment. On February 11, 1970, CIA station chief Ted Shackley provided his own full-scale briefing on the Sihanoukville arms traffic for the Abrams staff. Helms dates the recruitment of the agent to late June 1969.

The 1969 time frame for the CIA’s change of view is confirmed by Jack Smith. The former deputy director for intelligence recalls that the arms traffic issue was settled by new information, at which point the DI performed a postmortem on why it had been wrong about Sihanoukville. Then the CIA moved on. Smith remembers that happening long before the invasion of Cambodia. Richard Helms notes that Smith gave him the bad news at another of the director’s morning staff meetings, and that he supported the CIA postmortem and circulated the agency’s admission throughout the Nixon administration. The record of the MACV staff meeting for December 13, 1969, notes that, given the latest data on the arms traffic, Gen. Abrams referred to CIA’s James Graham. “Fortunately he changed his mind before this report, sir,” someone interjected, “He’s a believer now.”


On the policy side, new data brought a fresh scheme for action. The day after he took office, Richard Nixon asked the military to examine “the feasibility and utility of quarantining Cambodia against the receipt of supplies.” The Joint Chiefs completed that study two months later. About that time, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird visited Saigon, where Sihanoukville figured in his discussions.

At least some were aware, as suggested by Adm. Zumwalt’s comment at a March 15 weekly intelligence estimate update meeting, where he underlined the importance of blockading or quarantining Sihanoukville. Two days later in Washington, Laird sent Nixon a memorandum outlining the JCS recommendations. The Chiefs favored maximum interdiction bombing of The Trail, with the blockade option kept in reserve, though they judged it to be easily feasible militarily.


In the fall of 1969, the Chiefs sent a special planning group to Saigon to prepare attacks on the North Vietnamese that Nixon never carried out. As a component of that package, Rear Adm. Frederic A. Bardshar also assembled a plan to blockade Sihanoukville. This included five options ranging from occasional surveillance to complete closure of the port.

These actions were apart from the Nixon administration’s secret B-52 bombing of North Vietnamese base areas in Cambodia, which began in March. Sihanouk the pragmatist, it turns out, had been waiting for support from some greater power to move against the NLF and North Vietnamese, which were deeply entrenched in his country. By June 1969, the press reported that all known NLF and NVA infantry regiments had left Cambodia to maneuver inside South Vietnam. Of course they drifted back. But beginning late in 1969, Hanoi began to fight Cambodian army units on occasion. More and more frequently, the Cambodian government delayed, interfered with, or cancelled supposed North Vietnamese arms shipments. By 1970, MACV J-2 established that the last vessel bearing Chinese arms intended for the NLF had docked in Sihanoukville on July 11, 1969, and there had been just two others earlier in the year. After that, shipments consisted only of clothing, medical supplies, and other non-lethal equipment. When Gen. Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk in March 1970, he prohibited the shipments altogether.

The United States got what it wanted from Cambodia without conducting an invasion, although the Nixon administration would do that, too, a little over a month later. Ironically, while American intelligence never established that Sihanouk had personal involvement in the arms traffic, the senior Cambodian military officer repeatedly associated with the shipments to our enemy in South Vietnam was Lon Nol. Undoubtedly it was to curry favor with the new American ally that after the American invasion Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non, gave the United States a roomful of records that contained actual manifests and other records of the Sihanoukville traffic. Military intelligence had been within five percent of the actual tonnage, and the CIA was wildly wrong.

Some civilian intelligence analysts point out that the military also had been wrong. Hanoi had done more than even they gave it credit for. A few continue to insist that the CIA performed creditably and changed its position as soon as the data justified it, but most admit their error. Almost all the nonmilitary analysts note as one reason for suspicion of the MACV intelligence estimates their knowledge that from an early date a clique existed within the military that wanted to invade Cambodia. As Evelyn Colbert of INR puts it, the Sihanoukville supply estimates were a case in which “the policy views of the intelligence analysts had a good deal to do with their firm views on the data.” And she conceded, “I’m sure that affected my view.”

Stephen Lyne of INR concurs. He felt embarrassed about the assessment in the Graham mission report. And CIA director Richard Helms writes: “I did not trouble to wipe the egg from our collective faces,” and that the worst result would be “the bludgeon it gave Agency critics to belabor any future intelligence estimates that did not reinforce the administration’s policy.” Naval intelligence officials scoff at Helms’s admission as being not nearly contrite enough, leaving in place the possibility for strategic error in overestimating the capacity of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.


There would be other intelligence mysteries involving Cambodia—most prominently the dispute that went on for some time over the existence, and then the location, of the shadowy high command the United States knew as the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). But that is a case in which the CIA and the military were closer in their evaluations. The last mystery of the Sihanoukville case is how such an important and contentious intelligence dispute remains virtually unknown.

   

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