There has been an invasion of Cambodia twice in recent history.
The first time was in 1970 by American and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War, and the second was by Vietnamese forces in 1978-79.
While they were close together in time – both occurring within the same decade – these two events had very different outcomes for the Cambodian people.
Invasion of Cambodia by American and South Vietnamese forces in 1970
The Vietnam War between communist North Vietnam and the South Vietnamese government, backed by the United States, was fought between 1959 and 1975. American troops fought in the war for South Vietnam from 1965 until the end of the conflict.
Cambodia officially had a policy of neutrality in relation to the Vietnam War, but nonetheless there were North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia during the conflict. In 1969 the United States began secretly bombing these bases along the Vietnam/Cambodia border and in Cambodian territory. This covert action was codenamed ‘Operation Menu’, and by the time it ended more than 3,000 sorties had been flown.
It was in 1970 that the invasion by American and South Vietnamese ground forces occurred. They crossed the border in the hopes of defeating an estimated 40,000 North Vietnamese troops and capturing their headquarters, but in the end neither of these objectives were met, as both the enemy forces and their headquarters proved to be elusive.
One lasting effect of the bombing and invasion by American and South Vietnamese forces was unfortunately to create a climate in Cambodia that later allowed the Khmer Rouge to come to power, with devastating consequences for the country.
The invasion by American forces was very unpopular in the United States, and it caused a wave of protests. During a protest at Kent State University in Ohio, United States National Guardsmen shot at student protesters, killing four of them.
Invasion of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces in 1978-79
The bloody Khmer Rouge regime, led by the dictator Pol Pot, began in Cambodia in 1975. The regime renamed Cambodia as ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ and began to attempt to transform Cambodian back into an agrarian society, evicting people from cities and murdering anyone who they perceived as opposing their ideas.
There are no firm statistics on how many Cambodians lost their lives as a result of the Khmer Rouge regime, but estimates put the death toll from executions, starvation and disease at more than 1 million people out of a population of just 7.3 million.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge Cambodia’s relationships with Thailand and with Vietnam quickly deteriorated. Border clashes were common, and Democratic Kampuchean forces also attacked villages in Vietnam. In retaliation, Vietnam launched an invasion of Cambodia in 1978. There were a total of about 100,000 soldiers in the attacking force. They beat back the Khmer Rouge forces and quickly captured Phnom Penh, taking the city in early 1979.
Unlike the earlier invasion, the invasion by the Vietnamese in 1978-79 liberated the people of Cambodia from a brutal, murderous regime.
So in short…
Cambodia has had, to put it mildly, a difficult recent history, with a lot of suffering and conflict. The invasion of Cambodia in 1970 and again in 1978-79 highlights some of this, but there is of course much more to the story.
On the bright side however, Cambodia is now getting back on its feet, something which really only began with the United Nations sponsoring democratic elections in 1993. In short, Cambodia is looking up, and consequently there has never been a better time to visit and explore Cambodia’s beaches, ruins and temples.