The Cambodian Wars by Kenneth Conboy | Books in Review

Kenneth Conboy, the former deputy director of the Asian Studies Center in Washington, D.C., lives and works in Indonesia. He has written extensively about the recent history of Southeast Asia, including many articles and books on the American war in Vietnam and its corollary action in Laos and Cambodia.

His body of work includes Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (1995), written with James Morrison; The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet (2002), also co-written with Morrison;  Spies & Commandos: How America Lost the Secret War in North Vietnam (2000), written with Dale Andrade; and FANK: A History of the Cambodian Army Forces, 1970-75 (2011).

Conboy’s latest book, The Cambodian Wars: Clashing Armies and CIA Covert Operations  (University of Kansas Press, 464 pp., $39.95), follows the pattern of much of his other work in that it is a long, detailed work that leans toward the academic.

The book takes an in-depth look at the CIA’s involvement in Cambodia during the 1970-75 Khmer Republic, which was born when U.S.-backed General Lon Nol overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk; the 1979 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam (which didn’t end until 1989); and the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies, from 1981-91.

“In one sense, ” Conboy says, “this is really two separate stories separated by time, though not geography. And perhaps not surprisingly, most of the primary characters—from Cambodian royalty to Thai generals to CIA case officers—maintained their roles throughout these periods.”

Conboy interviewed dozens of former CIA operatives, along with other intelligence types from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia. He also delved deeply into official records, including those from the U.S. Defense Attache’s Office in Phnom Penh, as well as Vietnamese-language histories published  by the North Vietnamese Army, aka the People’s Army of Vietnam.

—Marc Leepson

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