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How a Former Secretary of State Won an Ancient Temple for Cambodia

Like many nations, Thailand and Cambodia share the colonial legacy of an ambiguous border which has led to violent conflict. Ownership of the ancient Preah Vihear Temple complex has been the subject of rancorous debate within Cambodia and Thailand since the late 19th century. In 1954, Thai troops occupied and claimed the historic site.  The two nations brought the dispute to the International Court of Justice, and Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk hired Dean Acheson, former Secretary of State, to represent Cambodia.

Acheson built his case on the basis of colonial-era treaties to regain what the Cambodians regarded as part of their cultural heritage. After a year of deliberations, on June 15, 1962, the court ruled in Cambodia’s favor and the Thai government was forced to withdraw its troops from the temple. Acheson became a national hero in Cambodia and was awarded the Grand Cross of the Cambodian Order.

Serving as Secretary of State in the administration of President Truman from 1949-1953, Acheson played a central role in Truman’s containment policy and helped create the Marshall Plan and NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. After retirement from State Department, Acheson returned to his private law practice and became an unofficial advisor to the Kennedy administration.

In his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Richard C. Howland, who served on rotation in Phnom Penh from 1961 – 1963, shared his experience with the Preah Vihear temple dispute and Dean Acheson’s work as a lawyer in the case.

Please follow the links to learn more about East Asia, border disputes, and Dean Acheson.


“Secretary Acheson came as a lawyer, not a mediator, and it was dealt with but not settled”

The Preah Vihear temple dispute occupied a lot of our time at the Embassy. It was the major diplomatic issue with the Thai. Secretary Acheson came as a lawyer, not a mediator, and it was dealt with but not settled. Preah Vihear is the Khmer name for the temple. In Thailand it is called Preah Viharn. Both names mean ‘high’ or ‘holy’ temple; in Sanskrit it would be praya vihara.

The temple was built on the lip of a bluff about 600 feet high at the edge of the Dangrek Mountains, projecting out over the Cambodian plain. The Dangrek Range divides Thailand from northern Cambodia. Both the site and the temple are magnificent, especially from the air.

Preah Vihear is a typical Angkorian style temple, a small replica of Angkor Wat in fact. No one has ever contended that ethnic Thai built it. Most obviously the Khmers built it, probably in the 11th or 12th century. Some parts may be older.

Now, the Dangrek Mountains in fact are the southern edge of the Korat plateau, the arid high plain due north of Cambodia. That part of Thailand was an integral part of the Ancient Khmer Empire. In historical times not many Thai lived there. Below the Dangrek cliffs to the south the terrain drops sharply to the Cambodian plain, which then slopes gradually down to the Tonle Sap, the Great Lake.

There are also many other ancient Khmer ruins on the Korat plateau, including several well-preserved temples, at a great distance from the border. Cambodia has never claimed them, of course. But this one is different. Historical evidence shows it was related to Angkor, like Wat Phu in southern Laos.

During the years following the collapse of the Ancient Khmer Empire, the Thai pretty much incorporated all of Cambodia west of the Mekong River into what was then called Siam. When the French moved into Cambodia during the 19th century, they started to take it back. There were many border disputes.

By 1900 it was clear that the border between French Indochina and Siam would have to be demarcated. Where the Mekong separated the two entities, as in most of Laos, that would be easy. Cambodia would be more difficult, because for many years Thailand had occupied the two westernmost provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap, the location of Angkor.  Thai and Khmer lived on both sides of the border, sometimes far into Cambodia.

In addition, pressure was extremely heavy from the archaeologists of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient in Saigon to get as much of Cambodia’s archaeological patrimony into French Indochina as possible so French savants could study and restore the ruins. It was part of France’s mission civilisatrice, restoring the glories of the ancient world.

And of course, these two provinces were Cambodia’s rice-basket. With Cambodia’s sparse population, they would be able to provide rice for export.

The diplomatic picture was further complicated by the desire of several nations to establish coaling stations for their fleets on the Thai islands. The French worried that the Germans would do that, endangering their colony. It was the age when European nations scrambled for colonies, as much for prestige as for economic gain. For example, we took the Philippines about the same time.

“It was a brilliant and rather typical negotiation between the purposeful West and the befuddled East of the times”

Finally the Fre

nch moved troops into southern Thailand properties and occupied several important towns in order to force a border negotiation on their terms. In 1904-06, a joint Franco-Thai border commission traced the border, giving Battambang and Siem Reap to French Indochina. The leader of the French side was a brilliant Army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard.

At the end of the negotiation, he had gained for France hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. All France really gave up was the privilege of extraterritoriality for its nationals in Siam, which was indefensible anyway. Farther north, the French team successfully negotiated the incorporation of Sayaboury and Champassak provinces, which were west of the Mekong, into French Indochina. To this day they remain part of Laos. As a reward, Bernard was retired as a full Colonel with a Legion d’Honneur.

The demarcation principle accepted for the Dangrek range between Cambodia and Siam was, not surprisingly, ’crests and watersheds.’ A line was traced on the French maps and surveyed on the ground following this principle.

Since the Thai contingent had no maps, and could draw no maps – according to the French account they were drunk a good bit of the time – the French did the work of surveying and mapping. The Thai, by and large, agreed. It was a brilliant and rather typical negotiation between the purposeful West and the befuddled East of the times.

When they came to Preah Vihear there was a problem. The great shelf on which Preah Vihear stands drops sharply into Cambodia to the south, but slopes gradually northward into Siam. There is a long esplanade running to the north, and obviously the huge blocks of stone came from that direction. The temple is oriented to the north and east. Along that sloping plateau there are hummocks and valleys caused by erosion and stream flow.

On the maps drawn originally by the French Delegation, the temple is shown as being in Cambodia by virtue of a dry streambed, which, if water were flowing in it, would probably flow off the edge of the precipice and into Cambodia. On the basis that it was therefore in the Cambodian watershed, the French claimed the temple in 1906, and the Thai did not object.

French archaeologists visited and studied the temple up to the time of the Second World War. It was considered part of the Angkorian complex, lying at the end of a long road built by the Khmers in those centuries, but now of course fallen into disuse.

After the Japanese occupied French Indochina in 1942, Thailand moved back into the Preah Vihear temple area. The Thai also reoccupied Battambang and Siem Reap provinces under Japanese rule. In 1947 they were forced to withdraw by the postwar settlement, but in 1954, when Cambodia received its independence, the Thai again occupied the temple.

The Bangkok Government claimed that the French maps were fraudulent and had been imposed upon them in 1906 by a colonial power under threat of war. The Thai also pointed out that the lay of the terrain made it inconceivable that the temple had been built or worshipped from within Cambodia.

They said that it was part of a feudal state on the Korat plateau, which the Thai had conquered and replaced many centuries ago. The French had never claimed the Korat Plateau, on which Preah Vihear stood. Therefore it belonged to Thailand, in their view.

Sihanouk decided that Cambodia needed to hire a really high-powered lawyer to plead its case

Cambodia’s position was simply that it was a Khmer temple, the French border maps placed it in Cambodia, and the Thai had stolen it from them. After a good bit of to-ing and fro-ing, the Cambodians took the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the ’ICJ.’

By 1960 Sihanouk [Norodom Sihanouk, former Head of State of Cambodia, seen left] decided that Cambodia needed to hire a really high-powered lawyer to plead its case there. So the Cambodian Government engaged Dean Acheson, the former U.S. Secretary of State who had returned to private law practice in 1953.

The Cambodian move was a shrewd one in several respects. Basically Sihanouk thought it hindered U.S. support for the Thai position. Well, we would not have gotten involved, of course, but he probably thought we would.

Second, the chief jurist on the court was a Polish judge. It was widely presumed that he would support the Cambodian case because of the Soviet desire to court Sihanouk. The Thai were complaining about this likelihood. Acheson’s role as Cambodia’s representative lent a cachet of impartiality to this potential outcome – it was presumed he wouldn’t lend himself to a spurious judgment, especially from a Soviet bloc jurist.

Thailand was, as usual, taunting Cambodia on this issue and Sihanouk broke relations with the Thai in November 1961. The next year, Acheson was going to argue the Cambodian case before the ICJ in The Hague and naturally he wanted to see the temple. But Thailand continued to occupy the temple and would not let Acheson get access to it via Thai territory.

Acheson had already met Sihanouk years earlier, I suppose at the UN. Naturally he came out to Cambodia to call on Sihanouk and discuss the case with the Cambodian Foreign Minister of the moment. Afterwards he wanted to see the temple. It was potentially too ’high-profile’ to use the Defense Attaché aircraft from Saigon to fly him up to the Dangrek range to ’eyeball’ the temple. That would have been reported by the Thai at the site and caused big complications in Bangkok.

So Charlie Mann, the USAID director, arranged for a USAID contract flight in a civilian aircraft, which routinely ferried USAID personnel to various aid projects in Southeast Asia. The Ambassador had decided that Peter Poole, another Foreign Service Officer, should be the control officer, so he went along.

The flight plan called for a survey of northern Cambodia, with a stop at Siem Reap. This was a routine sort of flight. The aircraft flew to the northeast and then cruised westward along the border, first with Laos, then with Thailand. After circling Preah Vihear a few times at a respectful attitude, well inside Cambodia, the plane continued along the border to the west, then turned south and landed at the Siem Reap airport.

Acheson told Peter he had never toured Angkor Wat and wanted to see it. They were able to arrange for the Auberge des Ruines, the French guesthouse at the Angkor Park, to send a car and driver to take Acheson to see Angkor Wat, a few miles away.

Now, the former Secretary of State was of course wearing his office shoes, so on the way Peter suggested they stop at the Siem Reap market to buy some Bata sneakers. He pointed out that the temples were full of bat-droppings and the causeway was muddy. They actually found a pair of sneakers that fit Acheson.

Then they went off to see Angkor Wat.

Peter Poole showed Acheson many of the bas-reliefs and explained them to him. Angkor you know is a funerary temple, oriented to the West to get the last rays of the setting sun. Acheson was fascinated and they drove around the archaeological park until late afternoon. Finally the pilot said they had to get back to the Phnom Penh airport before dark, otherwise he might lose his contract with USAID. So they flew back to Phnom Penh.

“The Thai were furious, but we leaned on them and they respected the decision”

That evening there was a reception for Acheson (seen left) and I got to talk to him. He was quite charming but had little regard for Asia. He said to several of us clustered around him: “you know these ex-colonies are never going to amount to anything. You young officers should try to get to Europe as quickly as possible. Don’t bother with this area. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is the whole thing. You have to associate your career with NATO now, at your early stage. Leave all of this area behind. These ancient civilizations are fascinating, but they’ll never amount to anything again.”

Well, by this time most of those to whom he spoke, including myself, had fallen in love with Southeast Asia. We were rather appalled by his words. We felt that in Southeast Asia, for example a junior officer could deal with ministers, even the head of state as I had. That was not possible in Europe where Third Secretaries spoke only to other Third Secretaries.

But as it happened Acheson developed a good court case and the ICJ ruled in favor of Cambodia. The Court argued that although the French maps were inaccurate, the Thai had accepted them as a matter of policy for almost forty years, only seizing Preah Vihear under the umbrella of the Japanese takeover of the whole region. The logic was impeccable. No one challenged it, and there was national jubilation in Cambodia at the outcome.

Ambassador Trimble and senior Embassy officers attended a great dinner at the Palace. The Thai

were furious, but we leaned on them and they respected the decision. Marshall Sarit Thanarat [former Thailand Prime Minister], despite his virulent hatred for Sihanouk, ordered the Thai troops withdrawn from the temple precinct.

They took down the barbed wire fences between Preah Vihear and what was now Cambodian soil. New fences were built along the dry streambed, which now marked the border with Cambodia. Cambodian troops were deployed in and around the temple.

A few weeks later, Prince Sihanouk and the top government officials, plus the leaders of the Buddhist sangha, made a pilgrimage to Preah Vihear, climbing the steep cliffs to get there. It was a wonderful inspiring victory for Cambodia and the Khmer people.

“The Cambodians had a big one-day splash, and that was all”

Unfortunately it was also one that didn’t last very long in the public consciousness or Sihanouk’s mind. Of course he wasn’t concerned about the temple, only about the restoration of Cambodia’s sovereign rights and his own glorification.

About two months later, Dick Melville, a USAID officer who traveled quite a lot, went to the town just south of the temple, Cheom Khsan, on USAID business. While there he wangled a vehicle and drove to the base of the cliff on a road that had been improved for the Prince’s visit several months earlier. He climbed the cliff and walked about the temple.

He found that the handful of Khmer soldiers still there had not been resupplied for weeks. The whole country had just forgotten about them. Some had left the temple and wandered away, others went down to Cheom Khsan to buy food. They had also gotten food from the Thai soldiers who guarded the other side of the barbed-wire fence along the streambed, which now marked the border. The soldiers told Melville that the Thai were kind, but also made fun of them. That’s a perfect description of the Thai.

So that was the outcome of the temple dispute, with Dean Acheson and the ICJ. The Cambodians had a big one-day splash, and that was all. Four years later, in 1966, the Thai moved back into the temple enclosure briefly and border incidents continued in the Dangrek range for many years. After 1970 the Khmer Rouge occupied the whole northern area of Cambodia and I presume they controlled the temple. As I write, almost 50 years later, the Thai and Cambodians still come occasionally to the brink of war over the temple on the brink of the Dangrek range.