Operation Menu was the codename of a covert United States Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombing campaign conducted in eastern Cambodia from 18 March 1969 until 26 May 1970, during the Vietnam War. The targets of these attacks were sanctuaries and Base Areas of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and forces of the Viet Cong, which utilized them for resupply, training, and resting between campaigns across the border in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The impact of the bombing campaign on the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, the PAVN, and Cambodian civilians in the bombed areas is disputed by historians.
An official United States Air Force record of U.S. bombing activity over Indochina from 1964 to 1973 was declassified by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000. The report gives details of the extent of the bombing of Cambodia, as well as of Laos and Vietnam. According to the data, the Air Force began bombing the rural regions of Cambodia along its South Vietnam border in 1965 under the Johnson administration; this was four years earlier than previously believed. The Menu bombings were an escalation of what had previously been tactical air attacks. Newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon authorized for the first time use of long range B-52 heavy bombers to carpet bomb Cambodia.
From the onset of hostilities in South Vietnam and the Kingdom of Laos in the early 1960s, Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk had maintained a delicate domestic and foreign policy balancing act. Convinced of the inevitable victory of the communists in Southeast Asia and concerned for the future existence of his government, Sihanouk swung toward the left in the mid-1960s.
In 1966, Sihanouk made an agreement with Zhou En-lai of the People's Republic of China that would allow PAVN and NLF forces to establish Base Areas in Cambodia and to use the port of Sihanoukville for the delivery of military material. The US, heavily involved in South Vietnam, was not eager to openly violate the asserted neutrality of Cambodia, which had been guaranteed by the Geneva Accord of 1954.
Beginning in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized covert reconnaissance operations by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group. The mission of the highly classified unit was to obtain military intelligence on the Base Areas (Project Vesuvius) that would be presented to Sihanouk in hopes of changing his position.
By late 1968, Sihanouk, under pressure from the political right at home and from the US, agreed to more normalized relations with the Americans. In July 1968, he had agreed to reopen diplomatic relations and, in August, formed a Government of National Salvation under the pro-US General Lon Nol. Newly inaugurated President Richard M. Nixon, seeking any means by which to withdraw from Southeast Asia and obtain "peace with honor", saw an opening with which to give time for the US withdrawal, and time to implement the new policy of Vietnamization. Before the diplomatic amenities with Sihanouk were even concluded, Nixon had decided to deal with the situation of PAVN troops and supply bases in Cambodia. He had already considered a naval blockade of the Cambodian coast, but was talked out of it by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), who believed that Sihanouk could still be convinced to agree to ground attacks against the Base Areas.
On 30 January 1969, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Earle Wheeler had suggested to the president that he authorize the bombing of the Cambodian sanctuaries. He was seconded on 9 February by the U.S. commander in Vietnam, General Creighton W. Abrams, who also submitted his proposal to bomb the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), the elusive headquarters of PAVN/NLF southern operations, located somewhere in the Fishhook region of eastern Cambodia.
On 22 February, during the period just following the Tết holidays, PAVN/NLF forces launched an offensive. Nixon became even more angered when the communists launched rocket and artillery attacks against Saigon, which he considered a violation of the "agreement" he believed had been made when the US halted the bombing of North Vietnam in November 1968.
Nixon, who was en route to Brussels for a meeting with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders, ordered his National Security Advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, to prepare for airstrikes against PAVN/NLF Base Areas in Cambodia as a reprisal. The bombings were to serve three purposes: it would show Nixon's tenacity; it would disable PAVN's offensive capability to disrupt the US withdrawal and Vietnamization; and it would demonstrate the US' determination, "that might pay dividends at the negotiating table in Paris." He then cabled Colonel Alexander Haig, a National Security Council staff aide, to meet him in Brussels along with Colonel Raymond B. Sitton, a former Strategic Air Command officer on the JCS staff, to formulate a plan of action.
By seeking advice from high administration officials, Nixon had delayed any quick response that could be explicitly linked to the provocation. He decided to respond to the next provocation and didn't have to wait long. On 14 March, communist forces once again attacked South Vietnam's urban areas and Nixon was ready.
In his diary in March 1969, Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, noted that the final decision to carpet bomb Cambodia ‘was made at a meeting in the Oval Office Sunday afternoon, after the church service’.
In his diary on 17 March 1969, Haldeman wrote:
Historic day. K[issinger]’s “Operation Breakfast” finally came off at 2:00 pm our time. K really excited, as is P[resident].
And the next day:
K’s “Operation Breakfast” a great success. He came beaming in with the report, very productive. A lot more secondaries than had been expected. Confirmed early intelligence. Probably no reaction for a few days, if ever.
The bombing began on the night of 18 March with a raid by 60 B-52 Stratofortress bombers, based at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The target was Base Area 353, the supposed location of COSVN in the Fishhook. Although the aircrews were briefed that their mission was to take place in South Vietnam, 48 of the bombers were diverted across the Cambodian border and dropped 2,400 tons of bombs. The mission was designated Breakfast, after the morning Pentagon planning session at which it was devised.
Breakfast was so successful (in U.S. terms) that General Abrams provided a list of 15 more known Base Areas for targeting. The five remaining missions and targets were: Lunch (Base Area 609), Snack (Base Area 351), Dinner (Base Area 352), Supper (Base Area 740), and Dessert (Base Area 350). SAC flew 3,800 B-52 sorties against these targets, and dropped 108,823 tons of ordnance during the missions. Due to the continued reference to meals in the codenames, the entire series of missions was referred to as Operation Menu. Studies and Observations Group forward air controllers of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam provided 70 percent of the Menu bomb damage intelligence
Nixon and Kissinger went to great lengths to keep the missions secret. The expansion of the U.S. effort into "neutral" Cambodia was sure to cause serious debate in the U.S. Congress, negative criticism in the media, and were sure to spark anti-war protests on American college campuses. In order to prevent this, an elaborate dual reporting system covering the missions had been formulated during the Brussels meeting between Nixon, Haig, and Colonel Sitton.
The number of individuals who had complete knowledge of the operation was kept to a minimum. All communications concerning the missions was split along two paths – one route was overt, ordering typical B-52 missions that were to take place within South Vietnam near the Cambodian border – the second route was covert, utilizing back-channel messages between commanders ordering the classified missions. For example: General Abrams would request a Menu strike. His request went to Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC), in Honolulu. McCain forwarded it to the Joint Chiefs in Washington DC, who, after reviewing it, passed it on to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird (who might consult with the president). The Joint Chiefs then passed the command for the strike to General Bruce K. Holloway, Commander of SAC, who then notified Lieutenant General Alvin C. Gillem, Commander of the 3rd Air Division on Guam.
During this time Air Force Major Hal Knight was supervising an MSQ-77 Combat Skyspot radar site at Bien Hoa Air Base, RVN. "Skyspot" was a ground directed bombing system which directed B-52 strikes to targets in Vietnam. Each day a courier plane would arrive from SAC's Advanced Echelon Office at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. Knight was given a revised list of target coordinates for the next day's missions. That evening, the coordinates were fed into Olivetti Programma 101 computers. and then relayed to the aircraft as they came on station. Only the pilots and navigators of the aircraft (who had been personally briefed by General Gillem and sworn to secrecy) knew of the true location of the targets. The bombers then flew on to their targets and delivered their payloads. After the air strikes, Knight gathered the mission paperwork, computer tapes etc., destroying them in an incinerator. He then called a special phone number in Saigon and reported that "The ball game is over." The aircrews filled out routine reports of hours flown, fuel burned, and ordnance dropped. This dual system maintained secrecy and provided Air Force logistics and personnel administrators with information that they needed to replace air crews or aircraft and replenish stocks of fuel and munitions.
Although Sihanouk was not informed by the U.S. about the operation, he may have had a desire to see PAVN/NLF forces out of Cambodia, since he himself was precluded from pressing them too hard. After the event, it was claimed by Nixon and Kissinger that Sihanouk had given his tacit approval for the raids. Peter Rodman claimed, "Prince Sihanouk complained bitterly to us about these North Vietnamese bases in his country and invited us to attack them". In December 1967 Washington Post journalist Stanley Karnow was told by Sihanouk that if the U.S. wanted to bomb the Vietnamese communist sanctuaries, he would not object, unless Cambodians were killed. The same message was conveyed to US President Johnson's emissary Chester Bowles in January 1968. Sihanouk publicly condemned the bombing.
On 9 May 1969, an article by military reporter William M. Beecher exposing the bombing was run in the New York Times. Beecher claimed that an unnamed source within the administration had provided the information. Nixon was furious when he heard the news and ordered Kissinger to obtain the assistance of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover and discover the source of the leak. Hoover suspected Kissinger's own NSC aide, Morton Halperin, of the deed and so informed Kissinger. Halperin's phone was then illegally tapped for 21 months. This was the first in a series of illegal surveillance activities authorized by Nixon in the name of national security. The administration was relieved when no other significant press reports concerning the operation appeared.
By the summer, five members of the United States Congress had been informed of the operation. They were: Senators John C. Stennis (MS) and Richard B. Russell, Jr. (GA) and Representatives Lucius Mendel Rivers (SC), Gerald R. Ford (MI), and Leslie C. Arends (IL). Arends and Ford were leaders of the Republican minority and the other three were Democrats on either the Armed Services or Appropriations committees.
For those in Washington who were cognizant of the Menu raids, the silence of one party came as a surprise. The Hanoi government made no protest concerning the bombings. It neither denounced the raids for propaganda purposes, nor, according to Kissinger, did its negotiators "raise the matter during formal or secret negotiations." North Vietnam had no wish to advertise the presence of their forces in Cambodia, allowed by Sihanouk in return for the Vietnamese agreeing not to foment rebellion in Cambodia.
For four years Menu remained unknown to the U.S. Congress as a whole, although as previously mentioned five Congressmen had been informed. That situation changed in December 1972, when Major Knight wrote a letter to Senator William Proxmire (D, WI), asking for "clarification" as to U.S. policy on the bombing of Cambodia. Knight, who had become concerned over the legality of his actions, had complained to his superior officer, Colonel David Patterson. He then received several bad efficiency reports, which ruined his career, and he had been discharged from the Air Force.
Proxmire's further questioning led to hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which eventually demanded that the Department of Defense turn over all records of U.S. air operations in Cambodia. When they arrived, the records did not even mention the Menu strikes. The committee was not convinced and the investigation continued. Less than two weeks later, it opened hearings on the nomination of General George S. Brown for the position of chief of staff of the Air Force. As commander of the Seventh Air Force in South Vietnam, Brown had been privy to Menu and disclosed as much to the committee.
For the next eight days the committee listened to the testimony of administration officials and the Joint Chiefs, who tried to justify their actions. The committee uncovered excuses and deceptions that were perhaps more alarming than those occurring simultaneously in the Watergate hearings. The Menu revelations raised "fundamental questions as to military discipline and honesty, of civilian control over the military and of Congressional effectiveness." It was basically agreed, both by Congress and concerned military officers, that the deception employed during Menu went beyond covertness. According to Air Force historian Captain Earl H. Tilford: "Deception to fool the enemy was one thing, but lying to Congress and key members of the government, including the chief of staff of the Air Force and the secretary of the Air Force, was something else."
There are no confirmed estimates of Cambodians killed, wounded, or rendered homeless by Operation Menu. The Department of Defense estimated that the six areas bombed in Operation Menu (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack, Dessert, and Supper) had a non-combatant population of 4,247. DOD planners stated that effect of attacks could tend to increase casualties, as could the probable lack of protective shelters around Cambodian homes".
Each of the target areas was small. Area 353 (Breakfast), was only 25 square kilometres (9.7 sq mi) in size and had an estimated population of 1,640 people. B-52s flew 228 sorties into this single area to bomb. Each B-52 can carry up to 108 bombs weighing 225 kilograms (496 lb) and spread them equally over a "box" about 1.5 kilometer long by one-half kilometer wide (1 mile by .3 miles); thus, nearly 25,000 bombs may have been dropped in Area 353 alone. The other target areas had similar saturation rates of bombs.
Following Operation Menu, Operation Freedom Deal continued the bombing of Cambodia for an additional three years and extended the bombing to at least one-half of the country.
The Constitutional issues raised at the hearings became less important when the House Judiciary Committee voted (21–12) against including the administration's falsification of records concerning Menu in the articles of impeachment leveled against President Nixon. One of the key issues that prevented congressional inclusion was the embarrassing fact that five key members of both political parties had been privy to the information and had neither said nor done anything about it.
The consequences of U.S. bombing of Cambodia, positive and negative, are still widely debated by participants and scholars. As for preventing further North Vietnamese offensives, they failed. In May 1969, PAVN/NLF launched an offensive similar in size to that of the mini-Tet offensive of the previous year. It certainly cost North Vietnam the effort and manpower to disperse and camouflage their Cambodian sanctuaries to prevent losses to further air attack. President Nixon claimed the raids were a success, since air power alone had to provide a shield for withdrawal and Vietnamization. They certainly emboldened Nixon to launch the Cambodian Campaign of 1970.
While out of the country on 18 March 1970, the prince was deposed by the National Assembly and replaced by Lon Nol. The Nixon administration, although thoroughly aware of the weakness of Lon Nol's forces and loath to commit American military force to the new conflict in any form other than air power, announced its support of the newly proclaimed Khmer Republic. On 29 March 1970, the North Vietnamese had taken matters into their own hands and launched an offensive against the Cambodian army with documents uncovered after 1991 from the Soviet archives revealing that the invasion was launched at the explicit request of the Khmer Rouge following negotiations with Nuon Chea. A force of North Vietnamese quickly overran large parts of eastern Cambodia.
Author William Shawcross and other commentors asserted that the "Khmer Rouge were born out of the inferno that American policy did much to create" and that Sihanouk's "collaboration with both powers [the United States and North Vietnam]...was intended to save his people by confining the conflict to the border regions. It was American policy that engulfed the nation in war."
Shawcross was challenged by Peter Rodman as follows:
When Congress, in the summer of 1973, legislated an end to U.S. military action in, over, or off the shores of Indochina, the only U.S. military activity then going on was air support of a friendly Cambodian government and army desperately defending their country against a North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge onslaught...What destabilized Cambodia was North Vietnam's occupation of chunks of Cambodian territory from 1965 onwards for use as military bases from which to launch attacks on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. Cambodia's ruler Prince Sihanouk complained bitterly to us about these North Vietnamese bases in his country and invited us to attack them (which we did from the air in 1969–70). Next came a North Vietnamese attempt to overrun the entire country in March–April 1970, to which U.S. and South Vietnamese forces responded by a limited ground incursion at the end of April.
Kissinger in an interview with Theo Sommer defended the bombing, saying:
People usually refer to the bombing of Cambodia as if it had been unprovoked, secretive U.S. action. The fact is that we were bombing North Vietnamese troops that had invaded Cambodia, that were killing many Americans from these sanctuaries, and we were doing it with the acquiescence of the Cambodian government, which never once protested against it, and which, indeed, encouraged us to do it. I may have a lack of imagination, but I fail to see the moral issue involved and why Cambodian neutrality should apply to only one country. Why is it moral for the North Vietnamese to have 50,000 to 100,000 troops in Cambodia, why should we let them kill Americans from that territory, and why, when the government concerned never once protested, and indeed told us that if we bombed unpopulated areas that they would not notice, why in all these conditions is there a moral issue?
The simultaneous rise of the Khmer Rouge and the increase in area and intensity of U.S. bombing between 1969 and 1973 has incited speculation as to the relationship between the two events. Ben Kiernan, Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, said the following:
Apart from the large human toll, perhaps the most powerful and direct impact of the bombing was the political backlash it caused....The CIA's Directorate of Operations, after investigations south of Phnom Penh, reported in May 1973 that the communists there were successfully 'using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda'....The U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia was partly responsible for the rise of what had been a small-scale Khmer Rouge insurgency, which now grew capable of overthrowing the Lon Nol government....
Shawcross's and Kiernan's views were echoed in a 2011 statistical study of U.S. bombing in Vietnam which concluded that the air war "was counterproductive.....hampered the pacification campaign and more of it would likely have hastened the communist victory."
When Phnom Penh was under siege by the Khmer Rouge in 1973, the US Air Force again launched a bombing campaign on Communist forces, claiming that it had saved Cambodia from an otherwise inevitable Communist take-over and that the capitol might have fallen in a matter of weeks. By 1975, President Ford was predicting "new horrors" if the Khmer Rouge took power, and calling on Congress to provide additional economic, humanitarian, and military aid for Cambodia and Vietnam.
- Arnold Isaacs, Gordon Hardy, MacAlister Brown, et al., Pawns of War. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987, p. 83.
- Isaacs, Hardy, & Brown, p. 85.
- Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1967, Annex F, Saigon, 1968, p. 4.
- Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1968 Annex F, Saigon, 1969, p. 27.
- Isaacs, Hardy, & Brown, p. 88
- Isaacs, Hardy, and Brown, p. 90.
- Bernard C. Nalty, Air War Over South Vietnam. Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2000, p. 127.
- Nalty, p. 129.
- John Morocco, Operation Menu. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1988, p. 136.
- William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Washington Square press, 1979, pps. 23–24.
- John Morocco, Rain of Fire: Air War, 1969–1973. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985, p. 13.
- Morocco, Rain of Fire, p. 13.
- Morocco, Operation Menu, pgs. 131–2.
- This chain of command system is covered in Nalty, p. 130.
- Rotter, Andrew J, ed. (1991). Light at the end of the tunnel: a Vietnam War anthology. St. Martin’s Press. p. 280. ISBN 0312045298.
- Morocco, Rain of Fire, p. 14.
- William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976, p. 389.
- Nalty, p. 131.
- Isaacs, Hardy, & Brown, p. 89.
- Shawcross, pps. 68–71 & 93–94.
- Washington Post, 29 December 1967
- Stephen J. Morris "Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia". (Stanford University Press. 1999). p. 44
- Clymer, Kenton (2004), United States and Cambodia: 1969-2000, Routledge, pp. 15.
- Morocco, Operation Menu, p. 141.
- Nalty, p. 132.
- UCMJ Article 107 False official statements, with regard to "dual system" reporting.
- Shawcross, p. 287.
- U.S. Senate, Hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Bombing in Cambodia. United States Senate, 93rd Cong, 1st sess. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1973.
- Earl H. Tilford, Setup: What the Air Force did in Vietnam and Why. Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, 1991, p. 196.
- Shawcross, William Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, pp. 28-29; "William Shawcross vs. Peter Rodman", American Spectator, Vol. 14, No. 7, July 1981, accessed 31 March 2014
- Shawcross, p. 28; "Bombing in Cambodia" Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, 93rd Congreess, 1st Session, 1973, accessed 31 Mar 2014; Owen, Taylor and Kiernan, Ben, "Bombs Over Cambodia" The Walrus, October 2006, p. 67
- War in the Shadows, p. 149.
- Shaw, John M (2005). The Cambodian Campaign. University of Kansas Press. pp. 13–40.
- Shawcross, pgs. 181–182 & 194.
- Isaacs, Hardy, & Brown, p. 98.
- Dmitry Mosyakov, "The Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communists: A History of Their Relations as Told in the Soviet Archives," in Susan E. Cook, ed., Genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda (Yale Genocide Studies Program Monograph Series No. 1, 2004), p54ff. Available online at: www.yale.edu/gsp/publications/Mosyakov.doc "In April–May 1970, many North Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia in response to the call for help addressed to Vietnam not by Pol Pot, but by his deputy Nuon Chea. Nguyen Co Thach recalls: "Nuon Chea has asked for help and we have liberated five provinces of Cambodia in ten days.""
- Shawcross, p. 396
- Rodman, Peter, Returning to Cambodia, Brookings Institution, August 23, 2007.
- Shawcross, p.395
- Kiernan, Ben and Owen, Taylor "Roots of U.s. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent" The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus accessed 1 April 2014
- Kocher, Matthew Adam, Pepinsky, Thomas B., and Kalyvas, Stathis N. "Aerial Bombing and Counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War" American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 55, No. 2, April 2011, p. 216
- "Transcript of President’s News Conference on Foreign and Domestic Matters", The New York Times, 7 March 1975.
Unpublished government documents
- Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1967, Annex F, Saigon, 1968.
- Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1968, Annex F, Saigon, 1969.
Published government documents
- Head, William H. War from Above the Clouds: B-52 Operations during the Second Indochina War and the Effects of the Air War on Theory and Doctrine. Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, 2002.
- Nalty, Bernard C., Air War over South Vietnam, 1968–1975. Washington DC: Air Force Museums and History Program, 2000. ISBN 978-0-16-050914-8
- Tilford, Earl H. Setup: What the Air force did in Vietnam and Why. Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, 1991.
- Westmoreland, William C. A Soldier Reports. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
- Isaacs, Arnold, Gordon Hardy, MacAlister Brown, et al., Pawns of War: Cambodia and Laos. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987. ISBN 978-0-939526-24-6
- Morocco, John, Operation Menu in War in the Shadows. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1988. ISBN 978-0-939526-38-3
- Morocco, John, Rain of Fire: Air War, 1969–1975. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985. ISBN 978-0-939526-14-7
- Rotter, Andrew J. ed., Light at the end of the tunnel : a Vietnam War anthology; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991 [ISBN 0312045298]; p. 276ff., Shawcross: Bombing Cambodia—A critique.
- Shaw, John M. The Cambodian Campaign: The 1970 Offensive and America's Vietnam War. Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2005.
- Shawcross, William, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Washington Square Books, 1979. ISBN 978-0-671-83525-5
- Sorley, Lewis, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York: Harvest Books, 1999.