The University of Arizona

An Enigma to Washington: The Political Ideology of Cambodia’s Norodom Sihanouk (1945-1970)

Andrew Wickersham


Between 1945 and 1970 the United States Department of State consistently misjudged the ideology of Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk. This same confusion permeates academic literature as well. David Chandler identifies Sihanouk as a leftist, Chinese puppet, while Michael Vickery, stresses his right-wing tendencies and dependence on the United States. Neither conception represents an accurate characterization of Norodom Sihanouk. Consistent with traditional Cambodian understandings of kingship, Sihanouk’s ideology can best be described as conservative Buddhist nationalism. In an attempt to maintain true national sovereignty, he remained consistently committed to a policy of non-alignment. The prince viewed domestic policy through a similar framework, attempting to hold a middle course between pro-American Khmer Blues against the communist Khmer Rouge. This delicate balance became increasingly untenable as the Vietnam War escalated. Ultimately, the State Department’s miscalculation of the importance of Norodom Sihanouk to the stability of Southeast Asia would have dire consequences for the people of Cambodia in the 1970s and 1980s.    

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