Born November 13,
1913 Veng Province, Cambodia
November 17, 1985
President of Cambodia, 1970–1975
Lon Nol was the president of Cambodia—the country along Vietnam's southwestern border—during the Vietnam War. Cambodia was increasingly drawn into the conflict between Communist North Vietnam and U.S.-supported South Vietnam during his rule. In fact, the United States launched a military invasion of Cambodia just one month after he took control of the government from Prince Norodom Sihanouk (see entry). Lon Nol struggled to maintain his hold on power over the next few years as a group of Cambodian Communist rebels, known as the Khmer Rouge, gained strength and took over large areas of the country. He finally fled from his homeland in April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge captured the capital city of Phnom Penh.
Cambodia is drawn into the Vietnam War
Lon Nol was born on November 13, 1913, in Prey Veng province in southern Cambodia, near the Vietnam border. At the time of his birth, all of Indochina—including Cambodia and Vietnam—was under the colonial rule of France. As the son of a government official, Lon Nol was educated at a French school in Saigon, Vietnam, along with other future Cambodian leaders like Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Sisowath Sirik Matak. Upon completing his education in 1934, Lon Nol began rising through the government ranks in French-ruled Cambodia. In 1951 he became chief of the national police force.
In the early 1950s, though, France's long years of colonial rule in Indochina came to an end. In 1954 a group of Communist-led Vietnamese nationalists known as the Viet Minh defeated the French after nine years of war. The agreement that ended this war divided Vietnam into two sections, Communist-led North Vietnam and U.S.-supported South Vietnam. At the same time, France granted independence to all of its colonies in Indochina, including Cambodia. Prince Norodom Sihanouk—who had been named king of Cambodia by the French in 1941 but then had fought for Cambodian independence—gave up his throne in order to become president of Cambodia in 1955.
Over the next few years, Lon Nol became one of Sihanouk's most trusted advisors. The president rewarded his loyalty by giving him a series of important posts in the government, including defense minister and premier. In the meantime, however, Cambodia was increasingly threatened by a new war that had broken out in Vietnam. This war pitted North Vietnam and its secret allies, the South Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam. North Vietnam wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two countries under one Communist government. But U.S. government officials worried that a Communist government in Vietnam would encourage other countries in Indochina to adopt communism. They felt that this would increase the power of China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Sihanouk declared that Cambodia would remain neutral, or refuse to take sides, in the conflict. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to join the fight on the side of South Vietnam. At this point, Sihanouk began to worry that increased U.S. involvement would expand the war into Cambodia. He decided to cut off diplomatic ties with the United States. Before long, Sihanouk's fears came true. The intense fighting with American troops encouraged the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces to move their base of operations across the border into eastern Cambodia.
Lon Nol takes control of the government
Lon Nol opposed the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia, but Sihanouk reluctantly allowed the Communist forces to enter the country. By the late 1960s the war in Vietnam had caused severe economic hardship and growing unrest in Cambodia. A group of Cambodian Communists known as the Khmer Rouge, under the command of a mysterious man named Pol Pot (see entry), began plotting an armed revolution against Sihanouk's government. To increase his hold on power, Sihanouk reorganized the government and made Lon Nol the prime minister. Together, they began working to remove the Vietnamese Communists from Cambodia.
In 1969 Sihanouk reestablished ties with the United States and allowed American forces to begin bombing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese bases along the border. But the bombing only forced the Vietnamese Communists to move deeper into Cambodian territory. In addition, it caused suffering among the Cambodian people and convinced thousands of peasants that the government could not protect them. Many of these people switched their support to the Khmer Rouge. Lon Nol urged Sihanouk to increase the size of the Cambodian army in order to fight the North Vietnamese and crush the Khmer Rouge rebellion, but Sihanouk continued to insist that Cambodia remain neutral.
In March 1970, while Sihanouk was visiting France, a group of leaders who were unhappy with his government made plans to overthrow him. Prime Minister Lon Nol and Deputy Prime Minister Sisowath Sirik Matak were among those involved in the plan. The Cambodian National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from power and make Lon Nol the new head of the government. Knowing that Lon Nol wanted to force the Vietnamese Communists out of Cambodia, U.S. officials backed him as the country's new leader. Shortly after taking power, Lon Nol approved pogroms (organized massacres) of ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia. In the meantime, Sihanouk met with Vietnamese and Cambodian Communist leaders in China. He agreed to support his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge, in their efforts to overthrow Lon Nol's government.
On April 30, 1970, U.S. and South Vietnamese combat forces launched an invasion of Cambodia. This ground attack was intended to wipe out the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese bases inside the border. American officials did not notify Lon Nol about the invasion in advance, but he agreed to endorse it in return for military and economic aid from the United States. During the invasion, South Vietnamese forces destroyed villages and murdered Cambodian civilians (people not involved in the military) in revenge for the earlier pogroms. The invasion also pushed the Vietnamese Communist forces further into Cambodia, where they captured the ancient city of Angkor.
When the American invasion ended a month later, the situation in Cambodia was worse than it had ever been. People from villages along the border fled from the fighting and streamed into the capital city of Phnom Penh as refugees, creating terrible economic hardships. In addition, the Khmer Rouge continued to increase its size and popularity. In fact, with Sihanouk's support, it began to emerge as a legitimate political alternative to Lon Nol's government.
Cambodia falls to the Khmer Rouge
Over the next year, Cambodia's military forces suffered a string of defeats to the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese Army. As a result, Lon Nol's government became even weaker and less popular. In February 1971 Lon Nol suffered a stroke and went to Hawaii for two months of medical treatment. He temporarily resigned as president and turned power over to Sisowath Sirik Matak. That October, Lon Nol declared a state of emergency and resumed full control over the government. He also took a series of steps to silence the opposition to his rule, including placing tight controls on the media and limiting the rights of citizens. In March 1972 Lon Nol named himself president, prime minister, and head of the armed forces of Cambodia.
Throughout this time of crisis, Lon Nol proved to be a poor and indecisive leader. Always a deeply religious and superstitious man, he began to rely on advice from astrologers when making important decisions. After U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, Lon Nol demanded that the Vietnamese Communists leave Cambodia. He did not seem to realize how weak his position became without American support. At this point, the North Vietnamese Army had defeated his military in a long series of battles. In addition, the Khmer Rouge rebels controlled more than 75 percent of the countryside of Cambodia and held the loyalty of nearly half of the civilian population.
Lon Nol struggled to maintain his hold on power as fighting continued over the next two years. The Khmer Rouge eventually controlled all of Cambodia except the capital of Phnom Penh. Realizing that defeat was near, Lon Nol fled from the country on April 1, 1975. Two weeks later, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and took control of Cambodia. On April 30, North Vietnamese forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to win the Vietnam War. To complete the string of Communist victories in Indochina, a group of Communist rebels known as the Pathet Lao also seized power in neighboring Laos.
Immediately after taking power, the Khmer Rouge launched a brutal program designed to transform Cambodia into a simple farming society. They renamed the nation Democratic Kampuchea and called the beginning of their rule Year Zero. They drove people out of cities and towns into the countryside. They abolished money, prohibited religious practice, eliminated private property, ended all formal education, and forbade the publication of newspapers. Worst of all, the Khmer Rouge murdered hundreds of thousands of Cambodian citizens in an effort to rid the country of "intellectuals" who opposed their rule. Some people were killed simply because they wore eyeglasses. Many others were herded into forced labor camps, where they died of starvation or disease. Historians estimate that as many as two million Cambodians—or one-fourth of the overall population—died under the Khmer Rouge.
During this time, Cambodia was still involved in disputes with Vietnam over national borders and leadership of Indochina. In December 1978 the Vietnamese government sent troops into Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. By January 1979 Vietnam's invasion forces had captured Phnom Penh. They immediately put an end to the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge. They also established a new, pro-Vietnamese government under Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Even though the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia had removed the violent Khmer Rouge from power, many countries around the world criticized Vietnam's actions. For example, the United States and other countries formed an economic embargo to punish Vietnam. The U.S. government also provided support to Cambodian rebels fighting against the Hun Sen government, including the Khmer Rouge.
Despite the international reaction, Vietnam continued its occupation of Cambodia for ten years. During this time, former President Lon Nol settled in the United States, where he continued to suffer from health problems. He died on November 17, 1985, in Fullerton, California. The Vietnamese Army withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, but political instability and violence continued to plague the country through the 1990s.
Isaacs, Arnold. Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Kamm, Henry. Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998.
Kirk, Donald. Wider War: The Struggle for Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. New York: Praeger, 1971.
Ponchaud, Francois. Cambodia: Year Zero. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977.