For months a whisper of disaster had run through Southeast Asia. Reporters in Bangkok began writing of the specter of starvation stalking Cambodia. A great silence and emptiness spread through the center of the country as continued fighting and political chaos scattered an entire population.

But it was not until late June of last year that the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh agreed to let a two-man team from the International Red Cross and from UNICEF enter the country, which had been sealed off from the West since 1975. Jacques Beaumont and Francois Bugnion headed for Cambodia prepared for a grim experience.

What they saw was worse than anything they could have expected. Cambodia was a society whose very sinews had been ripped out. Phnom Penh was not a city, but a shell in which a few thousand people were camping. Government offices were empty and Bubnion and Beaumont were told that most civil servants had been murdered over the past several years by the Khmer Rouge, who had exterminated most educated people.

The two men reacted in horror as they visited hospitals and orphanages where there were virtually no medical supplies and no trained personnel. They watched children dying for lack of care. Even government officials seemed hungry. The two had brought some rations with them, which they gave to their interpreters.

They described these scenes when they returned and triggered in the months that followed a massive international aid program for Cambodia that has been engulfed in bitter controversy and global political maneuvering.

Famine had been a long time in the making. But in those early crucial months of 1979, two key governments had failed to see it, or a least to acknowledge it. As late as June, just as Bugnion and Beaumont were leaving for Phnom Penh, State Department officials were blithely informing reporters that there was no serious danger. And the Vietnamese, who had invaded in January, had labeled stories of famine as Western propaganda.

In a starving nation, food is direct political power and the relief effort quickly became a hostage of differing political objectives. Hanoi seems determined to stay in Cambodia, while the United States, Thailand, China and others have shaped their policies around an overriding goal of Vietnamese withdrawal.

Allegations that the aid was intentionally delayed because the United States and other Western governments did not want to acknowledge the existence of the Vietnamese occupation government in Phnom Penh, let alone help it feed the people under its control, are matched by charges that the Vietnamese actually refused to respond to repeated international offers of help.

On both sides, grains of truth seemed to have been coated in propaganda. The reality behind each of these accusations is a great deal more complex than the charges have suggested. What actually happened -- how this massive relief program was mounted and continues today -- is at the very least an extraordinary tale of political and bureaucratic misunderstanding and obstruction.

Bugnion and Beaumont made their trip in midsummer: the flow of aid from their agencies did not start until fall. It is clear that if they had made their trip earlier, or -- once the trip had been made -- a program of aid had been organized more rapidly and efficiently, then tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cambodians could have been saved.

The size of the relief program alone makes it significant. Since last October, international organizations have spent more than $205 million -- $72 million of which was contributed by the United States. United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim is now appealing for an additional $262 million for the rest of 1980. Where the earlier aid money has gone, and where these additional proposed allotments will go, are matters of international concern.

At the same time, the Cambodian story has wider implications. The particular circumstances of Cambodia -- its decade of war, revolution, invasion, and four years of rule by what is almost universally recognized as one of the most brutal regimes in history -- are virtually unprecedented. Probably never before has a society been so thoroughly destroyed.

But the need for the world community to mount massive emergency relief efforts is becomming more and more commonplace: Biafra, Bangladesh, the Sahel, Ethiopia, and now Cambodia. The litany of disaster becomes depressingly long.

There is no single villain or conspiracy that explains the disaster that has occurred. And it is not the international organizations and Western governments that deserve blame exclusively, as some accounts pretend. The origins of the tragedy extend back at least a decade.

Between 1970 and 1975, under the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government, the Red Cross and many other agencies had been active in Phnom Penh. Lon Nol had even allowed the agencies to send supplies to his enemies, the Khmer Rouge, which on at least one occasion accepted them.

After the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975, the Red Cross offered to return to Cambodia, but the new government would never permit it. Two year later, less than a month after the Vietnamese invaded, drove the Khmer Rouge out and installed their own administration, the Red Cross approached the new Heng Samrin government with an offer to help. There was no response.

Red Cross officials say that other offers of help were made, both directly to the Phnom Penh government and through the Red Cross office in Hanoi, throughout the first six months of 1979. All of these overtures were ignored.

By late spring, predictions of famine had become commonplace as continued fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese disrupted Cambodian harvests and food distributions. Thai officials made similar predictions and the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok sent constant warnings to Washington. In May, the Executive Board of UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, decided to cooperate with the Red Cross in trying to mount a relief program.

But in Washington and Hanoi, the warnings appeared to fall on stony ground. The State Department saw no danger. Hanoi kept silent until the Heng Samrin government approved the trip of Beaumont and Bugnion.

The relief officials were allowed to stay just three days. They then went to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and, with some difficulty, negotiated their return to Cambodia with a planeload of supplies in early August. On that trip they began to discuss with Henng Samrin officials the details of a vast relief program to feed some 2.5 million people then thought to be in danger of starvation.

It was at this point that bureaucratic politics clashed with political realities. The Red Cross is a large, international bureaucracy with established procedures. Similarly, UNICEF has its own strict rules.

Both organizations wanted to be able carefully to monitor the aid they brought -- to see that it did not go to combatants instead of civilians. That is normal procedure. The sort of disaster which Bugnion and Beaumont believed threatened Cambodia usually would require an army of doctors, nurses, surveyors, nutritionists and administrators. To operate efficiently, they would need transport facilities, interpreters and communications systems, both within Cambodia and to the outside world.

It quickly became clear that the Heng Samrin government was not prepared to consider such an "invasion" of outsiders. It gave no answer to the proposals.

Red Cross officials in Bangkok now concede that the idea of allowing scores of Western officials into Cambodia must have been alarming for Cambodian officials -- not to mention the Vietnamese. The government's cadres in all likelihood would have been completely outnumbered. The Ministry of Health, for example, at that time consisted of only a handful of officials. Few of the cadres in any ministry had any international experience, and their principal knowledge of the United Nations was that it still officially recognized the Khmer Rouge regime they continued to fight.

Once the original request for relief had been made by the government, other relief agencies were able to make their own arrangements with the Heng Samrin government and they becan flying in supplies.

At the end of August, a planeload of relief supplies organized by a French communist group and paid for by the British Oxfam agency arrived. On board was Jim Howard, an Oxfam official, who was overwhelmed by the suffering he saw, and gave graphic, moving accounts of impending famine on his return home to England. Oxfam soon decided that, since UNICEF-Red Cross appeared unable to quickly start a large-scale feeding program -- partly because of their insistence on monitoring food distribution -- it would initiate a program.

Oxfam, organized as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in 1942, is nonprofit, nonsectarian and nonpolitical. Related committees have formed outside England over the years.

Red Cross-UNICEF also had difficulty getting their program approved by the Heng Samrin government at this stage because most of its senior officials were in Havana, at the summer conference of nonaligned nations. Khmer Rouge representatives also were there, and a furious battle erupted over which "government" should represent Cambodia within the movement. The issue was resolved by leaving the seat vacant, which Vietman considered a victory because it kept the Khmer Rouge out.

When the same issue was debated later in September in the U.N. credentials committee, no such "compromise" was reached. Instead, the majority of committee members -- many out of reluctance to legitimize the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia -- recognized the Khmer Rouge "government of Democratic Kampuchea" as the legitimate Cambodian representative. This was despite its listing and the fact that it controlled only a small portion of the country and people. a

Inevitably, this rebuff of the Heng Samrin government created further problems for the Red Cross-UNICEF mission trying to overcome and deal with the suspicious and inexperienced officials in Phnom Penh.

Around the same time, in mid-September, flight of tens of thousands of Cambodians, most of them from areas under Khmer Rouge control, began toward the Thai border. On Sept 17, Francois Perez, head of the Red Cross office in Bangkok, crossed a few miles into Cambodia with a nutritionist, and found at least 20,000 people in desperate need of help.

The Red Cross, unlike Oxfam, is required by its charger to be neutral, and to aid civilians on both sides of a civil war. Moreover, the Thai government, like other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) states, still recognized and was covertly aiding the Khmer Rouge. It insisted that any relief organization aiding the Heng Samrin side from Thailand must also send aid to areas near the border. There, Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, and the Khmer Rouge themselves, would be most likely to benefit from it.

Red Cross officials understood that giving food to the Khmer Rouge side would not help them in Phnom Penh. It was agreed that no public announcement would be made. For unclear reasons, however, the UNICEF press office in Bangkok unilaterally announced it.

The operation predictably was denounced in Phnom Penh, but officials were encouraged by the fact that the Heng Samrin government did not break off negotiations with Red Cross-UNICEF.

On Sept. 26, Henri Labouisse, UNICEF's director, told doner nations in New York that a breakthrough had been made and that agreement was near.

Jubilation was premature. The Heng Samrin government then announced that no such agreement was at hand, mentioning both the agencies' insistence on monitoring and the border operations.

Oxfam, which had decided to operate its program out of Singapore rather than Bangkok, was under no such restraints to supply both sides. On Oct. 6, Oxfam director Brian Walker signed an agreement with the Heng Samrin government pledging to give no aid to the Pol Pot side, and allowing all distribution to be done by Heng Samrin officials "in cooperation with" members of a small Oxfam team based in Phnom Penh.

Its first barge, laden with 1,500 tons of food, arrived at the Cambodian port of Kompong Som on Oct. 13.

Oxfam officials aboard the barge, the Asiatic Success, were moved and excited by the fact that theirs was the first large cargo of relief supplies to reach Cambodia from the West.

In England, Oxfam officials made no secret of their jubilation over arriving where Red Cross-UNICEF apparently feared to tread. As a result, some journalists characterized Oxfam as the only agency which cared for the Cambodian people -- and Red Cross-UNICEF as heartless, bureaucratic stooges of the U.S. government. Oxfam did not do much to discourage such perceptions. Red Cross-UNICEF officials, for their part, tended to speak of Oxfam as credulously accepting whatever Heng Samrin and Vietnamese officials told them.

One of Oxfam's original premises had been that it, and the consortium of voluntary agencies it formed to back it, would alone be able to rush food into Cambodia, since Red Cross-UNICEF insisted both on rigid monitoring and on aiding the Khmer Rouge side. In fact, the Heng Samrin government did not demand that they accept the same terms to which Oxfam had agreed as the price of entry.

On Oct. 13, the same day that Oxfam's barge arrived at Kompong Som, Red Cross-UNICEF began a daily airlift of supplies to Phnom Penh. They still had no formal agreement with the Heng Samrin government. But they understood that they would not be prevented from bringing in supplies both by air and sea.

The airlift was made difficult by the fact that Phnom Penh authorities would not allow the plane to fly due east grom Bangkok -- apparently because this would carry it over the area where fighting with the Khmer Rouge was heaviest, and control was contested.

Instead, the plane, lent by the British government, had to fly in a great arc over the South China Sea and up the path of the Mekong River. This meant that only one flight a day was possible. Offers to fly supplies directly to provincial airstrips were rejected.

Red Cross-UNICEF still sought a formal agreement with the Phnom Penh government. On Oct. 20 they submitted a new, comprehensive aid plan. The government refused to sign any document sanctioning the crossborder feeding operations. At the same time, however, Red Cross-UNICEF officials in Phnom Penh quietly dropped their demands for stringent monitoring: the organizations proceeded with their planning.

On Oct. 26, the first Red Cross UNICEF barge of supplies arrived at Kompon Som. The next day, Heng Samrin's foreign minister, Hun Sen, told their men in Phnom Penh that the government would continue to deal with them. The UNICEF mission cabled New York to say, "We do not expect receive written confirmation, though we shall keep open the possibility of receiving one. We shall consider the minister's clear verbal expression can be regarded as adequate basis for continued operation . . . whole meeting was businesslike and entirely without political reference or overtone . . . a clear advannce in relationship of government and joint mission."

It was with this sort of informal, and hardly satisfactory understanding -- nothing definite and nothing on paper -- that Red Cross-UNICEF went ahead with their full-scale relief operation. Their plan called for bringing about 165,000 metric tons of food into the country over a six-month period. Seven more barges followed the first one into Kimpong Som during November and December: by the end of last year, according to UNICEF officials, about 26,000 tons of supplies had been delivered by them to Cambodia.