Military Wiki
Operation Freedom Deal
Part of Vietnam War
Date19 May 1970 – 15 August 1973
Result Strategic US success, delaying the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge
Flag of the United States.svg United States
Cambodia Khmer Republic
Flag of Vietnam.svg Democratic Republic of Vietnam
Flag of Democratic Kampuchea.svg Khmer Rouge
Commanders and leaders
United States Richard M. Nixon Flag of Democratic Kampuchea.svg Pol Pot
Casualties and losses

Khmer Rouge fighters and Cambodian civilians: 40,000–150,000 killed[1][2][3] This figure refers to the entirety of the US bombing of Cambodia, including the Operation Menu bombings.

Vietnamese casualties: unknown

Operation Freedom Deal was a U.S. Seventh Air Force interdiction and close air support campaign waged in Cambodia (later, the Khmer Republic) between 19 May 1970 and 15 August 1973, during the Vietnam War. The targets of the operation were the Base Areas and border sanctuaries of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Khmer Rouge.


With the end of Cambodian neutrality (due to a coup that ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk and installed pro-US General Lon Nol as president), the Cambodian civil war escalated as the PAVN reacted to military actions by the Cambodians, Americans, and South Vietnamese.[4]

On 15 March 1970, Lon Nol issued an ultimatum to the North Vietnamese, ordering them out of the border areas. The PAVN and their indigenous Khmer Rouge allies had occupied eastern Cambodia for the previous ten years and had established a logistical system and Base Areas along the border during their struggle for a unified Vietnam. They were not about to abandon their zones of control without a fight.


The newly renamed Khmer Republic (which will herein still be referred to as Cambodia) enlarged and renamed its army Forces Aremees Nationales Khmeres or FANK and launched it against the PAVN. Hanoi's response to the ultimatum and this offensive was the launching of Campaign X in April. PAVN and NLF forces easily seized eastern and northern Cambodia, leaving only a few isolated FANK enclaves.[5]

The U.S. responded by first launching Operation Patio, which consisted of tactical airstrikes into Cambodia as an adjunct to the highly-classified Operation Menu, the strategic bombardment of the Base Areas by B-52s.[6] The U.S. and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN or South Vietnam) then launched offensive ground operations in May 1970 during the Cambodian Campaign.[7]

President Richard M. Nixon, however, had placed a 30 June deadline on the operation, after which all US ground forces had to return to South Vietnam. This did not bode well for the Lon Nol government. Although the incursion had temporarily thrown the PAVN and NLF off balance, they and the Khmer Rouge struck back savagly against FANK forces. As a result of this state of affairs, Freedom Deal, the overt air support afforded to the incursion, was extended on 6 June.[8]

Operation Freedom Deal

In the post-incursion period, Freedom Deal was originally an interdiction effort, striking enemy supply lines in eastern Cambodia and it was restricted to a 30-mile deep area between the South Vietnamese border and the Mekong River. This restriction was, however, quickly voided due to Search and Rescue operations conducted by the U.S. Air Force in order to pick up downed South Vietnamese pilots, who regularly flew outside the Freedom Deal zone.[9] Within two months (and without public announcement), the operation was expanded west of the Mekong.[10]

The withdrawal of U.S. forces in May left only South Vietnamese and Cambodian forces to do battle with PAVN and the Khmer Rouge. U.S. tactical aircraft then began supplying FANK troops with direct air support. Meanwhile, President Nixon had announced that the policy of the U.S. Air Force was only to interdict PAVN/NLF supply networks (in the same manner that they were interdicted in Laos), and that they were only to be conducted within the specified zone (known as the AIZ or Aerial Interdiction Zone).[11]

Map of Cambodia

During the rest of the year, the Freedom Deal area of operations was expanded three times.

Transcripts of telephone conversations reveal that by December 1970 Nixon's dissatisfaction with the success of the bombings prompted him to order that they be stepped up. "They have got to go in there and I mean really go in," he told Kissinger. "I want them to hit everything. I want them to use the big planes, the small planes, everything they can that will help out there, and let's start giving them a little shock."[12]

By the beginning of 1971, the area of operations stretched from Route 7 to the Laotian border in the north and 75 miles beyond the Mekong to the west.[13] Between July 1970 and February 1971, approximately 44 percent of the 8,000 sorties flown in Cambodia struck targets outside the authorized zone. This led to a policy of falsifying the reports of missions carried out beyond the boundary.[14]

Most of the strikes were flown in direct support of FANK troops, although American officials continued to deny the fact. Despite this effort, the communists occupied one-half of Cambodia by late 1970 and had cut all the land routes leading to and from the capital of Phnom Penh. In short order the U.S. Air Force found itself shifting more and more of its diminishing air power from its interdiction campaign in southern Laos to the struggle in the Cambodia. In 1971 Cambodian missions made up nearly 15 percent of the total number of combat sorties flown in Southeast Asia, up from eight percent during the previous year.

In Cambodia, the ground war dragged on, with the Khmer Rouge doing the bulk of the fighting against the government. On 28 January 1973, the day the Paris Peace Accord was signed, Lon Nol announced a unilateral cease-fire and U.S. airstrikes were halted. When the Khmer Rouge refused to respond, the bombing resumed on 9 February. The US Seventh Air Force argued that the bombing prevented the fall of Phnom Penh in 1973 by killing 16,000 of 25,500 Khmer Rouge fighters besieging the city. In March the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed a much expanded bombing campaign. From then until the end of the operation on 15 August, sortie and tonnage rates increased. By the last day of Operation Freedom Deal (15 August 1973), 250,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on the Khmer Republic, 82,000 tons of which had been released in the last 45 days of the operation.[15]

The end

During 1973 Freedom Deal aircraft dropped 250,000 tons of bombs (primarily high explosive), topping the 180,000 tons dropped on Japan during the Second World War.[16] As communist forces drew a tighter ring around Phnom Penh in April, the U.S. Air Force flew more than 12,000 bombing sorties and dropped more than 82,000 tons of ordnance in support of Lon Nol's forces during the last 45 days of the operation.[17] Since the inception of the Menu bombings in March 1969, the total amount of ordnance dropped on Cambodia reached 539,129 tons.[18] On 15 August, the last mission of Freedom Deal was flown and the fate of Cambodia was sealed.


  1. Marek Sliwinski, Le Génocide Khmer Rouge: Une Analyse Démographique (L’Harmattan, 1995), pp41-8.
  2. Owen, Taylor and Ben Kiernan, Bombs Over Cambodia, The Walrus, October 2006.
  3. See also Heuveline, Patrick (2001). "The Demographic Analysis of Mortality in Cambodia," in Forced Migration and Mortality, eds. Holly E. Reed and Charles B. Keely. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press; and Banister, Judith, and Paige Johnson (1993). "After the Nightmare: The Population of Cambodia." In Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge, the United Nations and the International Community, ed. Ben Kiernan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, for an overview of Cambodian civil war estimates.
  4. For an overview of the situation and its historical context, see Arnold Isaacs, Gordon Hardy, MacAlister Brown, et al., Pawns of War: Cambodia and Laos. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987. See Also William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Washington Square Books, 1979, pps. 46–73.
  5. Isaacs, Hardy, & Brown, p. 94.
  6. Shawcross, pps. 19–35, and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company, War in the Shadows. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1988, pps 130–146.
  7. The best overviews of the incursion are John M. Shaw, The Cambodian Campaign. Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2005, and Tran Dinh Tho, The Cambodian Incursion. Washington DC:United States Army Center of Military History, 1979.
  8. Bernard C. Nalty, Air War over South Vietnam. Washington DC: Air Force Museums and History Program, 2000, p. 199.
  9. Nalty, p. 201-202.
  10. War in the Shadows, p. 146.
  11. Nalty, p. 203.
  12. Elizabeth Becker, "Kissinger Tapes Describe Crises, War and Stark Photos of Abuse", New York Times, 27 May 2004 [1]
  13. Nalty, p. 207.
  14. Nalty, p. 203-204 and War in the Shadows, pps. 146–148.
  15. Morrocco, p. 172.
  16. Samuel Lipsman. Stephen Weiss, et al., The False Peace. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985, p. 53.
  17. John Morocco, Rain of Fire. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985, p. 172.
  18. Shawcross, p. 297.


Published Government Documents

  • Nalty, Bernard C., Air War over South Vietnam, 1969–1975. Washington DC: Air Force Museums and History Program, 2000.
  • Nalty, Bernard C.The War Against Trucks: Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1968–1973. Washington DC: Air Force Museums and History Program, 2005.

Secondary Sources

  • Arnold Isaacs, Gordon Hardy, MacAlister Brown, et al., Pawns of War: Cambodia and Laos. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987
  • Lipsman, Samuel, Stephen Weiss, et al., The False Peace: 1972–74, Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985.
  • Morocco, John, Operation Menu in War in the Shadows. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1988.
  • Morocco, John, Rain of Fire: Air War, 1969–1975. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985.
  • Shawcross, William, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Washington Square Books, 1979.

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