On Dec. 24, 1970, an odd airplane touched down at an air base in Thailand. Though it might not have looked like it, this was a top secret U.S. Air Force propaganda plane and the crew had just flown the last of a series of classified missions over neighboring Cambodia.
The Pentagon sent the pilots from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard to help the government in Phnom Penh spread propaganda in remote, rural areas. Though brief, the obscure operation — nicknamed Commando Buzz — paved the way for an all new kind of psychological warfare operation.
By 1970, Washington had been fighting a broad and bloody war in Southeast Asia for nearly five years. North Vietnamese troops funneled weapons, ammunition and other gear through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam.
A seemingly endless stream of ideas, from the practical to the absurd andsometimes terrifying, had all failed to cut the communist supply lines. In Laos, with the help of a friendly government, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency launched a covert bombing campaign and backed a secretive guerrilla army on the ground.
But Cambodia leader Norodom Sihanouk refused to break ties with the Soviet Union and Communist China. An avowed neutralist and supporter of the non-aligned movement, Sihanouk tried to play off all the sides of his advantage.
Ultimately, he found himself surrounded by enemies. Sihanouk coined the French term “Khmer Rouge” — Red Khmers — for his leftist opponents. He similarly derided right-leaning critics as the “Khmer Bleu.”
In March 1970, military officers led by Gen. Lon Nol seized control as Sihanouk was on a world tour of Europe, the Soviet Union and China. Lon and his compatriots believed he gave the North Vietnamese too much freedom and empowered Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
The junta rushed to Washington for help. A month after the coup, American and South Vietnamese troops launched an attack into Cambodian territory. In July 1970, the campaign ended after delivering a major blow to Hanoi’s forces.
Unfortunately, Lon’s government couldn’t capitalize on the victory. The U.S.-led offensive drove the communists deeper into the Cambodian countryside, where they could count on popular support.
The Cambodian military, with its poorly-trained and underpaid soldiers, was also no match for the battle-hardened rebels without American aid.