1978 Conflict – Democratic Kampuchea vs. Socialist Republic of Vietnam – anthonymrugacz.com
text for school peper- wae between Vietnam and Cambodia/

In history there have frequently been wars which, in spite of all the horrors, brutalities, calamities and suffering inevitable in every war, were progressive wars, i.e., were useful to the development of mankind, by assisting in the demolition of particularly harmful and reactionary institutions… V.I. Lenin

 Socialist fabric of international brotherhood shreds

The 1978 conflict between Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), two socialist states, defied traditional Marxist­ Leninist theory on the causes of  war,  revolutionary vi-à-vis reactionary forces. The socialist Indochinese Democratic Front had been collaborating on elimination of imperialist powers from Southeast Asian soil since 1936. Yet the socialist fabric of international brotherhood shredded revealing long tempered social and political differences between the DK and SRV. But were long term issues or recent developments the cause of war? Could outside intervention from other more powerful states have coerced these states into an inevitable conflict? The identifying of the all possible causes of the SRV’s invasion is the goal of this case study.

Caught between the tiger and the crocodile

There is continuing resentment amongst the three states making up the Indochinese peninsula. This well­-known local  proverb explains the traditional stereotypes of the region, “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Thais sell it.” Vietnam’s high population density and limited arable land caused a historic sense of envy for the fertile Cambodian plains. The Khmer nation has been well aware of this fact. The Cambodians have viewed themselves as caught between the tiger (Vietnam) and the crocodile (Thailand) and since the 19th century have been a battleground over control of its rice fields. This economic issue is a possible cause of the conflict.

For centuries tensions have mounted between the Cambodians, the first settlers of the peninsula and of South Asian ancestry, and East Asian Vietnamese that slowly encroached from the north. This pulsing migration and occasional domination by the Vietnamese, never clearly demarcated an agreeable common border. Oddly, these two intermingled ethnic groups have been fairly cooperative when faced with an outside aggressor, yet rapidly less tolerant when prodded with ideas of nationalism.

The internecine desires were frozen during the imperial French occupation. The boundaries demarcated by the French, which in reality saved Cambodia from extinction, did not take into account post­ colonial interests. Additionally, seeds of distrusted were unknowingly sown by French authorities when they employed Vietnamese in the civil administration in colonial Cambodia. The lack of an agreed upon post­ colonial border satisfying Cambodia’s and Vietnam’s interests, rather than the French decision of what was just, can also be considered a reason. War as a  diversion from domestic issues is a consideration.The Soviet Union was pouring three million dollars a day in the SRV to keep it from collapsing but after decades of strife, the Hanoi leadership was in no position to gain support from a populace concerned with rebuilding. Also, an economic policy imitating a Stalinist model of massive industrialization did not include an offense war. In this instance, war as a diversion in this case does not meet the minimum requirements for a rational cause.

The Fantasy of Invincibility 

The bulk of foreign aid to these two newly independent states consisted of military hardware. An arms race of weapons pointed towards an eventual conflict. Since early 1975, the SRV had been receiving heavy offensive weapons, tanks and artillery, from the Soviets. 

Numerically  outnumbering the Khmer Rouge forces 2 to 1, the SRV with heavy armor and overwhelming air power, the SRV had absolute superiority on the battlefield. The Khmer Rouge military power was myth. Pol Pot’s main claim to the invincibility of his forces was the defeat of the American backed government of Lon Nol, which deflated more by corruption and belief in astrology. Red China was supplying massive amounts of heavy artillery and technical advances to the Khmer Rouge. But as a modern fighting force was untrained and poorly lead, all imported weaponry and technologies had to be manned by Red Chinese and North Korean military advisors. With its technical superiority and battle hardened troops, the SRV unleashing its dogs of war because of assured victory is a definite possibility.

Socialist Republic of Vietnam has nothing to lose

Such an imbalance of real power favoring the SRV, might have caused an irrational fear based response by Pol Pot. If the DK sensed SRV viewed it as weak and the opportunity to strike was at hand, the DK may have been mobilizing for a first strike. Pol Pot believed the ethic Cambodian population in southern Vietnam, the Khmer Krom, would rise up in support assuring victory. Radio Phnom Penh began airing decrees to eliminate the Vietnamese race. The DK placed over half of its divisions into the Parrot’s Beak in Svey Rieng to launch such an attack. The Vietnam’s cause for the conflict may have been seizing this opportunity on a tactical blunder placing the Khmer Rouge forces in a position to be easily outflanked and cut off, leaving an open route to Phnom Penh. 

The SRV did not have a deterrent to behavior in regards to loss of foreign aid for re-­development. Decimated by war and being a showcase for Moscow’s Marxist­ backed liberation, gave it unshakable support from the Soviet Union and its satellites. As a member of COMECON, being labeled a pariah with the threat of economic sanctions from the free world would not have influenced their decision not to attack. Lack of economic deterrents can also be considered as a cause. In 1978, Vietnam’s reliance on trade with COMECON was 27 times greater in exports and imports 59 times greater in imports than than Cambodia. The amount of trade with COMECON shows the importance the Soviet block put on the SRV survival. With no trade statistics available between the DK and SRV during the 1975­1978, we can guess that it was at a low level. The theory of increased trade as a deterrent to war applies in this scenario. The emphasis placed on SRV’s survival the Kremlin may have been a confidence boost in its own imperialistic ambitions in the peninsula.

The DK domestic policy of self­ reliance to obtained “Perfect Sovereignty,” proceeded without any regards for the amount of human lives ground into the mortar of its construction. Can there be doubt that this fanaticism also influenced foreign policy in regards to its neighbors? Pol Pot was willing to sacrifice incalculable amounts of Khmer soldiers for priority number one­ irredentism for lost mythical lands of Angkor civilization. Vietnamese intelligence networks, long in operation throughout Indochina and the defecting Khmer Rouge cadres of the Eastern Zone units, doubly assured Hanoi of Phnom Penh’s intentions. A better now than later while there is an advantage could have forced Vietnam’s hand as the deciding factor. Even with the threat of Chinese invasion from the north, a stronger DK on its flank in the future would have been a great disadvantage. 


Political rivalry between the two states transferred from the colonial period to the united front and on into independence. The many of the upper echelon Khmer Rouge cadres before the fall of the Lon Nol Government were trained and based in Vietnam. Often treated as second rate in a system that theoretically repudiated class, they resented being chess pieces in a Vietnamese led plan to unite the peninsula. The fall of Phnom Penh arrived sooner than the Vietnamese had planned setting the stage for Khmer Nationalism to emerge counter to long term goals. The rise of Angkor as the leadership for Cambodian communism focused its foreign policy propaganda on the enemy within. Pol Pot’s paranoia placed the CIA, KGB, and Hanoi all in a collaborative role as threats to the DK.

Paranoia – Revolutionary Brothers and Reactionary Forces 

As a result, all foreign entities were viewed with suspicion. Eventually this paranoia developed into a purge of these foreign elements in the Khmer Regime. The main targets of these thrusts were the Youn, the DK’s civilians of Vietnamese descent, cadres previously trained in Vietnam, or with any marital relationships with enemies. The Khmer cadres in the Eastern Zone bordering Vietnam were suspected of collaborating with foreign elements. As these purges progressed, military forces and civilians began pouring into Vietnam. This alerted Hanoi not only to the eventual invasion to regain lost territories but of genocide taking place.

The magnitude of these atrocities and Vietnam’s ability to stop it can be considered a major cause of the conflict on moral grounds. For months up to the conflict, border incidents involving DK’s incursions, seem a  probable cause. Though easily repulsed, in the wake of these counterattacks were moved border markers and the massive slaughter of innocent Vietnamese civilians. The repeated heavy artillery shelling and aggressive statements emanating from Phnom Penh to wipe out the Vietnamese race, may have forced Hanoi’s action on based on international law. A proportionate response in an attempt to stop these threats would have been appropriate.

With the previous idea at hand, one must consider Leninist ideology in dealing with exporting revolution. The communist had a long history of dual overt and covert policies to obtain goals. By overtly declaring an invasion, justifying it as a humanitarian action, the SRV could obtain the covert goal of dominating the region. Right before the conflict, the SRV had over 20,000 members in Kampuchean United Front for National Construction and Defense (KNUFNS) to be usedn as a propaganda unit in raising support for opposition to the Pol pot regime. Ideology has to a considered as a factor for the war.

Before the invasion, the UN declined the DK’s request to put a neutral stabilizing force on the disputed border and suggested bilateral agreements as the solution. Hanoi’s protests to the Phnom Penh about forays into its territory were responded with statements that it was unaware and had not authorized these actions. This attitude towards ignoring diplomacy and inaction by the UN to separate opposing forces may also have been an additional factor.

All the world is a stage for the super powers

The desire for a proxy battleground by Washington, Moscow, and Beijing to settle differences is a possibility. In combination, all three powers manipulating the region could have aggravated the conflict to a boiling point. The U.S. posturing itself as not supporting any UN mandates against the DK in its irredentist demands in hopes of punishing the SRV, coupled with warmer relations with Beijing in widening the Sino ­Soviet rift added to the fire. Beijing, switching support to the DK to seize on the vacuum left by American withdrawal and to isolate the Russian supported liberation of Vietnam plays into the competition for legitimate leadership of the socialist world. It would seem Moscow would wholeheartedly supported Hanoi in eliminating Red China’s ally then taking another state under its wing. The Soviets in their endless search for a warm water ports throughout the cold war would have welcomed dominance of the peninsula and the possible control of the Straits of Malacca. Did the financial and politic support given to obtain goals place Hanoi in the role of a Kremlin puppet? Strangely enough, Vietnam’s invasion to destroy the Khmer Rouge was done without Moscow’s blessing and does not leverage as a cause.

Political maneuvering to link issues complicated the situation. Irrational leadership placing personal goals in front of true national interests created an environment were dialog was near impossible between the two bickering states. One cannot ignore the attention put on the region by the major powers on a already hazardous situation. For whatever reason is chosen as the source of the conflict, no matter the various actions, reactions, and policies of all parties involved, undoubtedly will depend on the theoretical perspective of the analysis.

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