What a Difference an Historical Narrative Makes

What a Difference an Historical Narrative Makes

As I was doing some research into the invasion of Cambodia by South Vietnamese and US forces in 1970, I came across two official government accounts of the invasion — one by the US, the other by Australia, one of the six countries that sent ground troops to Vietnam. They tell a rather different story…

First up: the American narrative, produced by the US Army’s Center of Military History:

From the viewpoint of the Military Assistance Command and the Saigon government, the Cambodian upheaval and the allied offensive brought significant strategic benefits. The enemy had lost his border base areas, thousands of troops, and huge materiel stockpiles, not to mention his secure, efficient Sihanoukville supply route. The enemy had shifted much of his remaining strength opposite III and IV Corps westward to establish his new Cambodian war front and would have to expend time and resources building a logistical corridor from southern Laos into northeastern Cambodia. South Vietnamese forces in III and IV Corps could count on a lengthy period of relief from major enemy attack, a period the allies could use to advance pacification and Vietnamization. Partially offsetting these gains were the allies’ own need to extend their forces over a new battlefield and the political damage the Nixon administration had suffered in the United States. Nevertheless, the advantages appeared to American officials in Saigon and Washington to outweigh the disadvantages. As 1970 ended, they were making plans for additional, even more ambitious, cross-border offensives.

And now the Australian narrative, produced by the Australian War Memorial:

At the end of April 1970 US and South Vietnamese troops were ordered to cross the border into Cambodia. While the invasion succeeded in capturing large quantities of North Vietnamese arms, destroying bunkers and sanctuaries, and killing enemy soldiers, it ultimately proved disastrous. By bringing combat into Cambodia, the invasion drove many people to join the underground opposition, the Khmer Rouge, irreparably weakening the Cambodian government. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975, it imposed a cruel and repressive regime that killed several million Cambodians and left the country with internal conflict that continues today. The extension of the war into a sovereign state, formally neutral, inflamed anti-war sentiment in the United States and provided the impetus for further anti-war demonstrations in Australia. In the well-known Moratorium marches of 1970 and 1971, more than 200,000 people gathered to protest against the war, in cities and towns throughout the country.

I have nothing particularly profound to say about the narratives. The Australian one obviously exhibits far greater critical self-reflection than the typically rah-rah American one. I just find it interesting to see how differently two allies during the Vietnam War narrate the same events.

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Asia-Pacific, International Humanitarian Law
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