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How Nixon’s Invasion of Cambodia Triggered a Check on Presidential Power

April 27, 2020 in History

By Jessica Pearce Rotondi

Following months of secret U.S. bombings on Communist bases, American ground troops were deployed to northern Cambodia on April 28, 1970.

When President Richard Nixon ordered U.S. ground troops to invade Cambodia on April 28, 1970, he waited two days to announce on national television the Cambodian incursion had begun. With resentment already building in the country over the conflict in Vietnam, the incursion felt like a final straw.

The news unleashed waves of criticism from many who felt the president had abused his powers by side-stepping Congress. By November 1973, the criticism had culminated in the passage of the War Powers Act. Passed over Nixon’s veto, it limited the scope of the Commander-in-Chief’s ability to declare war without congressional approval.

While the act was an unusual challenge, presidents since have exploited loopholes in the War Powers Resolution, raising questions about executive power, especially during states of emergency.

READ MORE: The US and Congress Have Long Clashed Over War Powers

Why Did the U.S. Invade Cambodia?

Nixon Orders Invasion of Cambodia (TV-PG; 1:02)

LISTEN: Nixon Orders Invasion of Cambodia

Cambodia was officially a neutral country in the Vietnam War, though North Vietnamese troops moved supplies and arms through the northern part of the country, which was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail that stretched from Vietnam to neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

In March 1969, Nixon began approving secret bombings of suspected communist base camps and supply zones in Cambodia as part of “Operation Menu.” The New York Times revealed the operation to the public on May 9, 1969, prompting international protest. Cambodia wasn’t the first neutral country to be targeted by the United States during the Vietnam War—the United States began secretly bombing Laos in 1964, and would eventually leave it the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world.

READ MORE: Why Laos Has Been Bombed More Than Any Other Country

The Cambodian Incursion (April-June, 1970)

Nixon approved the use of American ground forces in Cambodia to fight alongside South Vietnamese troops attacking communist bases there on April 28, 1972. Recent political developments within Cambodia worked in Nixon’s favor. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had led the country since its independence from France in 1954, was voted out of power by the Cambodian National Assembly on March 18, 1970. Pro-U.S. Prime Minister Lon Nol invoked emergency powers and replaced the prince as head …read more


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