“Amazingly Poor Judgement”: Robert Sam Anson in Cambodia, August 1970

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives in College Park, MD

Noted journalist Robert Sam Anson died on November 2, 2020.  The obituaries printed in The New York Times and The Washington Post mentioned that he was captured and held by Communist forces in Cambodia while covering the war in Southeast Asia for Time magazine.  Anson was only one of many journalists seized during that time period.  Unlike Anson, not all survived their ordeal.

Robert Sam Anson graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1967.  He soon went to work for Time magazine and was sent to Southeast Asia to cover the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia.  He was captured in Cambodia on August 3, 1970, and held for three weeks before being released.  He wrote the book War News: A Young Reporter in Indochina (1989) about those experiences.

The outline of his captivity is documented in the records of the Department of State.

The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, reported Anson’s capture and what it knew of the circumstances in a telegram of August 4.[1]

The Department responded, informing the embassy that a Departmental officer had spoken with Anson’s mother, who had received from Time information the same as in the Department’s possession.  The Department also wrote that other formerly-captive journalists “strongly advised that US govt. keep its efforts and statements regarding missing newsmen in lowest possible key, in order to avoid giving impression captives were agents of US Government, as VC tended to suspect.”[2]

On August 6, the embassy in Phnom Penh reported the text of a communique issued on August 4 by the “Committee for the Safety of Foreign Correspondents in Cambodia.”[3]

reports that Anson was the 24th foreign journalist captured in Cambodia. He was driving alone at the time
reports that before his capture he was seen speeding through several Cambodian Army checkpoints, and a couple of VC roadblocks before shots were fired at his car
Extracts from Telegram from US Embassy Cambodia to the Department of State, Aug 6, 1970 (NAID 580618)

The embassy also sent the following comment on the committee’s statement.[4]

Nothing further appears in the files for 17 days, at which point the embassy sent a short telegram reporting “Robert Anson of Time walked into PAO’s room [Public Affairs Officer] at 0900 August 23.  He appears to be in good health.  Drove back to Phnom Penh is same car as that in which captured.”[5]  The next telegram sent by the embassy provided more detail.[6]

During the subsequent weekly meeting of the ambassadors of the U.S., the U.K, and Australia, there was “considerable discussion regarding captured newsmen, release of some and possible release of others.”  They all agreed that it appeared as if the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had decided that continuing to hold newsmen was counter-productive and, indeed, that they were “obtaining useful mileage from articles written by those released.”  In that regard, they highlighted Anson’s statement that his captors told him that all he (and presumably others) needed to do to return to their zone was to apply at the East German or Soviet embassies in Phnom Penh.[7]

After his experience in captivity, Anson left Southeast Asia and went on to a celebrated career as a writer and editor.


[1] U.S. Embassy Cambodia to Department of State, Telegram 01854, August 4, 1970, file POL 27 CAMB, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives. 

[2] Department of State to U.S. Embassy Cambodia, Telegram 126382, August 5, 1970, file POL 27 CAMB, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.

[3] U.S. Embassy Cambodia to Department of State, Telegram 01876, August 6, 1970, file POL 27 CAMB, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives. 

[4] U.S. Embassy Cambodia to Department of State, Telegram 01877, August 6, 1970, file POL 27 CAMB, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives. 

[5] U.S. Embassy Cambodia to Department of State, Telegram 02102, August 23, 1970, file POL 27 CAMB, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives. 

[6] U.S. Embassy Cambodia to Department of State, Telegram 02103, August 23, 1970, file POL 27 CAMB, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.

[7] U.S. Embassy Cambodia to Department of State, Telegram 02148, August 25, 1970, file POL 27 CAMB, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.

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