Posted: 12:46 am EDT
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Forty years later, John Gunther Dean recalls one of the most tragic days of his life — April 12, 1975, the day the United States “abandoned Cambodia and handed it over to the butcher.”
“We’d accepted responsibility for Cambodia and then walked out without fulfilling our promise. That’s the worst thing a country can do,” he says in an interview in Paris. “And I cried because I knew what was going to happen.”
Five days after the dramatic evacuation of Americans, the U.S.-backed government fell to communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas. They drove Phnom Penh’s 2 million inhabitants into the countryside at gunpoint. Nearly 2 million Cambodians — one in every four — would die from executions, starvation and hideous torture.
Below is an excerpt from Ambassador Dean’s oral history interview conducted in 2000 for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training:
Our messages from Phnom Penh were crystal clear: if the Khmer Rouge takes control of the country, there was going to be a bloodbath. The exact word was “bloodbath.” It turned out to be even worse: a genocide.
Certainly by the end of February and the first week of March, the Khmer Rouge were pressing hard. We used that time to move as many Cambodians, Americans, and foreigners as possible to safety in Thailand. We had set up a system imagined by Robert Keeley (DCM). Ray Perkins (Chief political Section), and Tim Carney, a junior officer who spoke Cambodian. Tim became Ambassador later in his life. All those who felt endangered were sent out by plane over a period of 8 weeks before our departure. In addition, we had set up a procedure whereby key Cambodian leaders were told to send an assistant or secretary to the U.S. Embassy at 6:00 a.m. every day to find out the situation and decisions taken by us regarding taking people to safety. That system worked rather well when on this fateful day of April 12, 1975 we had decided to leave Phnom Penh by helicopter. These aides and secretaries all came on the morning of April 12. One of them was the aide to Sirik Matak. We had prepared during the night a message stating that we were evacuating, and urging the recipient of the note to come along. In his reply to this message, Sirik Matak wrote one of the most heart-wrenching letters ever sent to an American official:
12 April 1975
Dear Excellency and Friend,
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.
You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we all are born and must die (one day). I have only committed this mistake of believing in you the Americans.
Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.
(signed) Sirik Matak
On that fateful day, I said to General Palmer that I wanted to be the last person to leave Cambodian soil. I felt like I was the captain of the ship and, as the tradition goes, the captain is the last man to leave the ship. My wish was granted. Awaiting to be called to move to the extraction site, I was sitting in my office, fully aware of the meaning of the moment for our country. I read the letter from Sirik Matak which had arrived about 45 minutes earlier. Looking out of the window, I saw the Marines taking people to the helicopters and to safety. I watched the Embassy personnel driving themselves to do all they could to help those who had thrown in their fate with us.
Nobody was turned down for evacuation, including at the last moment, Sydney Schanberg’s Cambodian staffer working for the New York Times. We took foreign nationals out, for whom we had responsibility, or even if we had no responsibility. We did not distinguish between illiterate gardeners and highly educated intellectuals. We took the Cambodian girlfriends of some of our bachelor staff members out to safety. I asked our resident military and the Marines in charge of the evacuation to take out anybody who wanted to go with us. At one point in my office, I took a pair of scissors and cut the American flag and the President’s flag off the staff of the poles which were in back of my desk in the ambassador’s office. I was trying to figure out a way of giving some form of protection to the symbol of our country and to the people whom I represented in Cambodia. Tears were rolling off my cheeks. I was alone. I took the two flags and put them over my arm. I got some plastic so they would not get wet. Unkind newspaper people wrote that I had put the flags in a body bag for dead soldiers. On our way to the helicopters, I stopped at my residence where the American flag was flying, and I struck the colors. I took the flag, the third flag, and put it with the other two flags. I asked the Cambodian staff at my residence whether they wanted to go with me. Some of them had been sent to safety before. Those who were still at the residence on April 12 thought they could stay behind without fearing for their safety. At that point, I abandoned the ambassadorial limousine and walked the rest of the way to the waiting helicopters with the American flags draped over my arm. As a Boy Scout in Kansas City, as an officer in the United States Army, and as a Foreign Service officer, I respected the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of our country. I was the last man in our Mission to leave Cambodia in a very large helicopter. One of the correspondents of an American broadcasting system sat next to me weeping because he understood what was going on. We landed on an American aircraft carrier. The entire extraction was called “Operation Eagle Pull.”
Ambassador John Gunther Dean‘s oral history interview for ADST is here (pdf-Cambodia starts on p.99). He was appointed Ambassador to Cambodia in March 1974 and he served in that posting until the Embassy was closed and all US personnel were evacuated on 12 April 1975, 5 days before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Sirik Matak, a member of the Cambodian Royal family previously served as Prime Minister of the Khmer Republic. He was offered political asylum to the United States with other high ranking Khmer Republic officials but declined. He was reportedly executed on April 21, 1975.