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Laos: The Story Nixon Won’t Tell

President Nixon cannot expect peace in Vietnam while escalating the war in Laos. His Key Biscayne statement on Laos of March 6 itself draws attention to the connection between the two conflicts, which has since been underlined by Vice President Agnew. In reality the so-called “Vietnamization” in 1969 of the ground war in South Vietnam was balanced by a sharp escalation of the US air war in Laos, beyond the range of inquisitive TV camera teams. This escalation is now rationalized (though not admitted) by the President’s statement on Laos, which puts forth a grossly misleading history of North Vietnamese “persistent subversion” and “invasion.”

This story was put together long before the present administration. Many of its allegations were supplied years ago by US intelligence sources, who had a stake in misrepresenting the Laotian war which they had themselves largely helped to create. The statement must however be answered, since it is at least as misleading as the intelligence reports of North Vietnamese and Chinese aggression in South Vietnam, which preceded our air war in that country. Of course, the escalation in the long run will involve two sides, and some day historians can analyze the whole involvement in Laos of Thailand, the Philippines, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the United States, Taiwan, and China.

It is important, however, to see that it has been not North Vietnam but the United States, and more particularly its apparatus of civil and military intelligence agencies, which has been consistently guilty of the initial subversion of whatever order has been established in Laos through international agreements. Thus the President’s statement should be examined in the light of indubitable CIA and US air force activities that he wholly leaves out.

Although the present war in Laos dates back to 1959, the President’s statement is totally silent about the 1959-61 period. This is understandable, since virtually every independent observer has condemned the subversive activities in Laos of the CIA and other US agencies during the period when Mr. Nixon was Vice President. A RAND Corporation report on Laos concluded, for example, that in 1959 it was not the pro-Communist Pathet Lao but the right-wing Sananikone government (which had been installed by US intrigue and was counseled by US advisers) that “precipitated the final crisis which led to war in Laos.”

This “final crisis” followed a probe by a government patrol into the small but sensitive disputed area of Huong Lap on the North Vietnamese border, which had been governed as part of Vietnam in the days of the French. When the patrol was, predictably, fired upon, the government charged the North Vietnamese with frontier incursions and claimed that this was related to a planned insurrection by the Pathet Lao. It then obtained a vote of emergency powers from the Assembly, and soon ordered the two remaining battalions of the Pathet Lao to be integrated forthwith into the national army.

The Pathet Lao had previously (in November 1957) agreed to this integration, as part of a political settlement in which they received two Cabinet posts and were permitted to participate in elections for specially created seats in the National Assembly. In this election the Pathet Lao and their allies (the party of left-leaning neutralist Quinim Pholsena) obtained 32 percent of the votes and thirteen of the twenty-one contested seats, showing that they had grown considerably in popularity in the four years since the 1954 Agreements. (Prince Souphanouvong, the Pathet Lao leader and half-brother of the then Premier Prince Souvanna Phouma, received more votes than any other candidate.)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in A Thousand Days, has recorded the response of the US to the election:

Washington decided to install a reliably pro-Western regime. CIA spooks put in their appearance, set up a Committee for the Defense of National Interest (CDNI) and brought back from France as its chief an energetic, ambitious and devious officer named Phoumi Nosavan. Prince Souvanna, who had shown himself an honest and respected if impulsive leader, was forced out of office [by a withholding of US aid and CIA encouragement of a parliamentary crisis, allegedly through the use of bribes] ‌a veteran politician named Phoumi Sananikone took his place.

The Pathet Lao were then excluded from the new Cabinet approved on August 18, 1958.

In May 1959 one Pathet Lao battalion refused, understandably, to be assimilated under the new right-wing government, and it decamped to a valley on the North Vietnamese border. The Sananikone government then declared that the Pathet Lao had committed an act of open rebellion and that only a military solution appeared possible. It thus by its own actions deflected the Pathet Lao from the role of political opposition into a military insurgency for which it was poorly prepared, and hence it was forced increasingly to depend on North Vietnamese support. (By 1969 this included regular units of the North Vietnamese army.)

In August 1959 the government itself received a large increase in US military support by claiming, falsely, that it had been “invaded” by a North Vietnamese force of as many as eleven battalions. (In February the government had given itself the right to receive this support by declaring unilaterally, with US approval, that it would no longer be bound by the limitations on foreign military aid which it had accepted at Geneva in 1954.) Bernard Fall and the British historian Hugh Toye linked the phony invasion scare to a US Congressional exposĂŠ at this time of major scandals in the Laos aid program, and the very real risk that US military aid would be curtailed.1

It is frequently claimed that the Pathet Lao was never more than a front for North Vietnamese ambitions in Laos; but this is contradicted by the election results of 1958 (the last honest elections in Laos). Though before 1954 Souphanouvong and his cadres had fought with the Viet Minh against the French, the indubitable growth in popularity of the Pathet Lao between 1954 and 1958, by which time it had established a country-wide network of cells at the village level, must be attributed to its own talent for organization, particularly in exploiting the resentment of the many hill tribes against the dominant Lao population in the lowlands and cities.

Let us examine the President’s statement itself:

1) Statement: “By 1961 North Vietnamese involvement became marked, the Communist forces made great advances, and a serious situation confronted the Kennedy Administration.”

Comment: The crisis facing President Kennedy in early 1961 was the armed conflict following the successful displacement from the capital city of Vientiane of Souvanna Phouma’s neutralist government (which we officially recognized) by the CIA-supported right-wing insurrectionary forces of General Phoumi Nosavan. His rebellion against Souvanna had from the outset received logistical support from the CIA-linked airline, Air America, Inc. With the help of Air America, Phoumi’s Royal Laotian Army drove the neutralist troops of General Kong Le, Souvanna’s military chief, to the north and into a temporary alliance with the pro-Communist Pathet Lao. After Kong Le captured the Plaine des Jarres from Phoumi’s troops, the Pathet Lao moved south to join him. Souvanna Phouma and Kong Le, genuine neutralists who feared North Vietnamese influence, nevertheless had been forced to seek Communist support in order to survive Phoumi’s attack. Thus CIA-sponsored subversion was itself directly responsible for the Communists’ “great advances.”2

It is true that in late 1960 Souvanna Phouma’s government, faced with US encouragement of a rebellion against it, did in response invite in Russian, North Vietnamese, and Chinese “advisers,” thus creating the first known North Vietnamese presence in Laos since the 1954 Geneva Agreements. However, in his well-informed book, Conflict in Laos, A. J. Dommen dates the presence of North Vietnamese combat troops (along “the Laos-Vietnam border”) from July-August 1962, and contrasts them with “the technical experts and cadres that North Vietnam had maintained in Laos since the end of 1960.”3 Bernard Fall estimated that

The fighting in Laos in 1960-62 involved relatively small forces from the [North Vietnamese] 335th and 316th Divisions, many of whose men were of the same Thai montagnard stock as the tribesmen on the Laotian side.

The British observer Hugh Toye writes that “On balance, participation by Viet Minh infantry, as opposed to cadres and support detachments, in the skirmishes of 1961-2 is unlikely.”4 But by early 1961 the US had brought in AT-6s armed with bombs and rockets, US pilots to fly them, and Special Forces “White Star” teams to encourage guerrilla activity by Meo tribesmen behind the Pathet Lao lines. Furthermore Air America was using American helicopters and American pilots to move Phoumi’s troops into battle. At this time the Joint Chiefs of Staff pressed for a military show-dwon over Laos, including the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons; while Richard Nixon himself, in a meeting with Kennedy, urged “a commitment of American air power.”5

2) Statement: “[In 1962] During the course of those long negotiations [at Geneva for a Laotian settlement] fighting continued and the Communists made further advances.”

Comment: This is misleading since both the delays and the renewal of fighting in 1962 were again clearly attributable to Phoumi Nosavan, not to the Communists. For months President Kennedy and his special envoy Averell Harriman had been attempting to restore Laotian neutrality and bring about the withdrawal of foreign military elements, by working to establish a tripartite coalition government (Phoumist, neutralist, and Pathet Lao). Phoumi continued to resist Harriman’s efforts to involve him in such a coalition for months after Kennedy attempted to coerce him by cutting off his subsidy of $3 million a month. In contravention of the May 1961 ceasefire, and against US official advice, Phoumi also built up a garrison at Nam Tha (only fifteen miles from the Chinese border) to a strength of 5,000, and began to probe into enemy territory.

When the Pathet Lao, after giving repeated warnings, fired on Nam Tha in May, Phoumi’s troops withdrew precipitously into Thailand. Thus the “further advances” of the Pathet Lao were achieved “after a flurry of firefights but no Pathet Lao attack.”6 The Thai government now requested SEATO aid; and the United States responded by sending troops in accordance with the Thanat-Rusk memorandum, signed just two months before, which provided for unilateral US assistance to Thailand. By all accounts “the Royal Lao army ran from Nam Tha as soon as the first shells started to fall,” claiming falsely (as they had done and continued to do in other crises) that they had been attacked by North Vietnamese and Chinese troops.7

This deliberate flight was what President Nixon now calls “a potential threat to Thailand.” Phoumi’s purposes at Nam Tha were by most accounts not military but political, to thwart the Geneva negotiations and further involve the United States. According to the London Times, the CIA had again encouraged Phoumi to resist the establishment of a neutral government in Laos; made up out of its own funds the subsidy which Kennedy had withheld; and urged Phoumi to build up the Nam Tha garrison in spite of contrary US official advice. 8 A State Department spokesman denied the story, and others suggest that the subsidy may have been paid by Phoumi’s kinsman, Sarit Thanarat of Thailand, or by Ngo Dinh Diem.

  1. 1

    For the preceding paragraphs, see: A. M. Halpern and H. B. Friedman, Communist Strategy in Laos (RAND, RM-2561), p. 51; cited and amplified in Bernard Fall, Anatomy of a Crisis (Doubleday, 1969), p. 108; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 325-26; Hugh Toye, Laos: Buffer State of Battleground (Oxford, 1968), pp. 113-31; US Congress, House, Committee on Government Operations, United States Aid Operations in Laos: Seventh Report, June 15, 1969, 86th Cong., 1st Sess.

    Denis Warner heard some of the witnesses to the “invasion” that was alleged to have taken place on August 30, 1959 and reported that the responsible Laotian general “accepted as fact what the most junior western staff officer would have rejected as fiction” (The Last Confucian, Macmillan, 1963, p. 210). But Joseph Alsop, a former US staff officer under General Chennault, heard the same allegations and reported them as fact to Washington, where (during Eisenhower’s temporary seclusion in Scotland) willing believers dispatched a series of secret orders (never yet disclosed) to US armed forces in the Pacific. Bernard Fall (p. 36) implies that the evidence was not merely false, it was deliberately staged.

  2. 2

    Text of President’s statement as printed in San Francisco Chronicle, March 6, 1970, p. 9. The late Bernard Fall observed of the CIA’s policy of deliberate “polarization” in Laos in this period that “it had thrown into Communism’s arms a great many people who essentially were not Communists (just as in 1946 many Vietnamese who at first merely wanted the French to get out as colonial masters in Vietnam, were finally pushed into Ho Chi Minh’s Viet-Minh) but who, by deliberate action on our side, were left with no alternative.” (Fall, p. 199; cf. p. 189.)

    Cf. also Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., op. cit., p. 328: “The Eisenhower administration, by rejecting the neutralist alternative, had driven the neutralists into reluctant alliance with the communists and provoked (and in many eyes legitimized) open Soviet aid to the Pathet Lao. All this was done without serious consultation with the incoming administration which would shortly inherit the problem.” For further details, see Toye, pp. 145-64; Peter Dale Scott, “Air America: Flying the US into Laos,” Ramparts (January 1970), pp. 39-54.

  3. 3

    Arthur J. Dommen, Conflict in Laos (Praeger, 1964), p. 238. Even though he conceded that North Vietnam in 1962 was “very probably” moved by fear of the 5,000 US troops airlifted into Thailand, Dommen was no apologist for the North Vietnamese presence in Laos. On the contrary, his book (prepared with assistance from the Council on Foreign Relations staff) urged “the sudden encirclement of one of the Vietnamese border patrol battalions…and its noiseless liquidation by a determined and highly trained [US] Special Forces unit.” This, he argued, “would have a tremendous shock effect in Hanoi” (p. 301).

  4. 4

    Bernard Fall, Viet-Nam Witness (Praeger, 1966), pp. 249-50; Toye, p. 178.

  5. 5

    Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation (Doubleday, 1967), p. 127; The New York Times, March 25, 1961, p. 2; Fall, Anatomy of a Crisis, p. 206; Fortune, Sept. 1961, p. 94; Schlesinger, pp. 336-7.

  6. 6

    Toye, p. 182; cf. Hilsman, p. 140.

  7. 7

    Denis Warner, The Last Confucian (Macmillan, 1963), pp. 217-18.

  8. 8

    London Times, May 24, 1962; May 31, 1962. A story in the Saturday Evening Post (April 7, 1962, pp. 87-88) also identified a “handful” of CIA and MAAG members as working “industriously to undermine our present policy in Laos.”

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