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Laos: The Story Nixon Won’t Tell

There are however disturbing similarities between the Nam Tha build-up and the CIA’s “Quemoy plot” of 1954, when without doubt it encouraged Chiang to build up offensive forces on the offshore islands, again in spite of official US advice. One such common feature was the activity of Chinese Nationalist KMT troops, apparently armed and supplied by the CIA and Air America, in the Nam Tha area.9

3) Statement: “In approving the 1962 [Geneva Agreements] the Kennedy Administration in effect accepted the basic formulation which had been advanced by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union for a Laotian political settlement…. The 666 Americans who had been assisting the Royal Lao government withdrew under ICC supervision. In contrast, the North Vietnamese passed only a token 40 men through ICC checkpoints and left over 6,000 troops in the country.”

Comment: As part of the 1962 Geneva Agreements, the Government of Laos declared that it would “not allow any foreign interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Laos”; while the other signing governments agreed to the prohibition of all foreign troops and “paramilitary formations” in Laos, including “advisers” (except for “a precisely limited number of French military instructors”). President Nixon’s picture of North Vietnamese violation is created by referring to intelligence reports of 6,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos, which (as we have seen) objective scholars such as Toye do not accept.

It does appear that at about this time North Vietnamese border patrol battalions began to move into positions on the Laotian side of the frontier passes; but Dommen and Toye suggest that this action was primarily defensive, in reaction to the 5,000 US troops which had been flown into Thailand. Meanwhile Kennedy’s acceptance of the 1962 Agreements was violated by the US in Laos in at least two respects:

a) Roger Hilsman, then State Department intelligence chief, records that the President and National Security Council agreed with Harriman’s contention that “the United States should comply with both the letter and the spirit of the agreements in every detail…and thereafter there should be no…’black’ [covert] reconnaissance flights to confirm whether the North Vietnamese had actually withdrawn.”10

Yet within one or two weeks after the agreements were signed such reconnaissance was carried out at low levels over Pathet Lao camps by USAF intelligence using RF-101 Voodoo jets. According to Dommen this was part of “regular aerial surveillance of northern Laos in connection with contingency planning related to the deployment of American troops in Thailand.”11 One RF-101 was hit over the Plaine des Jarres on August 13, 1964, but made it back to its base in Bangkok. The reconnaissance flights continued until May 1964, when they were belatedly authorized by the new administrations which had come to power in both the United States and Laos.

These overflights seem from the outset to have been concerned less with the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos than with the Plaine des Jarres some 200 miles to the northwest. This was the area in which the CIA and Air America had since 1960-61 armed, trained, and supplied Meo guerrillas, the Meos being hill tribesmen on both sides of the border with little sympathy for either their Lao or their North Vietnamese rulers.

b) Inasmuch as the Pathet Lao objected vigorously to the support by the CIA and Special Forces of the Meo guerrilla tribesmen inside the Pathet Lao area of Northeast Laos, the Agreements called for the withdrawal of “foreign military advisers, experts, instructors…and foreign civilians connected with the supply…of war materials.”12 Yet Air America continued its airlift into Northeast Laos, if only because (as Roger Hilsman observes) “arming the tribesmen engendered an obligation not only to feed them…but also to protect them from vengeance.”13 The Pathet Lao and some neutralists objected violently to Air America’s airlift in support of their recent enemies; they objected even more violently to Air America’s overt airlift of October 1962 to Kong Le.

The first military incident in the breakdown of the 1962 Agreements was the shooting down on November 27, 1962, of an Air America C-123 plane over the Plaine des Jarres. The plane, it soon developed, had not been shot down by the Pathet Lao, but by a new left-leaning neutralist faction, under Colonel Deuane, which now opposed Kong Le and his increasing dependence on the Americans.14

So far as Air America’s airlift is concerned, the President’s assertion that “our assistance has always been at the request of the legitimate government of Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma” is false. The government (which was a tripartite coalition) had not been consulted; Souvanna himself, as Dommen writes,

had neither endorsed the Air America airlift (the contract was a carryover from [Phoumi’s rightwing] government, and had merely been initialled for the coalition by Keo Vithakone, Secretary of State for Social Welfare, a Phoumist) nor prohibited it.15

Nor apparently was Souvanna consulted about reconnaissance overflights until May 1964.

These US violations of the 1962 Agreements were not in response to North Vietnamese activity; they date back to the signing of the Agreements themselves, one month before the date set for the withdrawal of foreign troops. (In this respect the President’s claim that “our assistance…is directly related to North Vietnamese violations of the agreements” suggests a time sequence of causality which is the reverse of the truth.) In effect, in August 1962 our military and civilian intelligence services invited the other side to violate the newly signed agreements by proving conspicuously to them (though not of course to the US public) that the Agreements would be violated on our side.

In addition, it appears that the “withdrawal” of US military advisers was illusory. It has just been revealed that for “several years” several hundred members of the “civilian” US AID mission (working out of the mission’s “rural development annex”) have been former Special Forces and US Army servicemen responsible to the CIA station chief and working in Northeast Laos with the CIA-supported Meo guerrillas of General Vang Pao. Vang Pao’s Armée Clandestine is reportedly not even answerable to the Royal Lao government or army, being entirely financed and supported by the CIA.

Dommen’s carefully qualified description of US compliance with the 1962 Agreements (“Not a single American military man was left in Laos in uniform“) says nothing to refute the Pathet Lao charge which has now been confirmed by American reporters in Laos: that the Meo’s Special Forces “advisers” simply remained, or soon returned, to work for the CIA in the guise of civilian AID officials.16

One country embarrassed by these provocations was the Soviet Union. In 1962, as in 1954, Moscow had helped to persuade its Asian allies to accept a negotiated settlement which the Americans would not honor. The Soviet Union soon moved to extricate itself from its Laotian involvement, since its support of Souvanna now caused it to lose favor not only in Peking but also in Hanoi.

4) Statement: “The political arrangements for a three-way government survived only until April 1963 when the Pathet Lao Communist leaders departed from the capital and left their cabinet posts vacant. Fighting soon resumed.”

Comment: The Pathet Lao leaders did not resign their Cabinet posts in the coalition government; two of their four ministers withdrew from Vientiane, giving the very good reason that, on April 1 and April 12, two of their allies in Colonel Deuane’s left-neutralist faction (one of them Quinim Pholsena, the Laotian Foreign Minister) had been assassinated. The Pathet Lao has since attributed these murders to a CIA assassination team recruited by the Laotian Military Police Chief Siho. It is known not only that the CIA was using such teams in Vietnam but that in 1963 it was responsible for collaborating with Siho in training his cadres. But the murders can also be attributed to the growing factionalism between Kong Le and Deuane in the neutralist forces. (One of Deuane’s men on February 12 killed Kong Le’s deputy commander, a few weeks after the murder of a left-oriented Chinese merchant.)

It seems clear that the resumed fighting on the Plaine des Jarres in April 1963 was chiefly, if not entirely, between the two neutralist factions, rather than with the Pathet Lao. Moreover, Kong Le’s faction, with the support of his old enemy Phoumi, was able to capture certain key outposts, such as Tha Thom, controlling a road north into the Plaine des Jarres.17 But the negotiations between Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong in April and May 1964 (after the opening of a new French peace initiative) suggest that the 1962 political arrangements did not break down irrevocably for almost two years.

5) Statement: “In mid-May 1964 the Pathet Lao supported by the North Vietnamese attacked Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma’s neutralist military forces on the Plain of Jars.”

Comment: Dommen confirms that in May 1964 Kong Le’s men were attacked by the left-neutralist followers of Colonel Deuane. The Pathet Lao shelled the positions of Phoumist troops flown in since 1962, while the North Vietnamese may have played a supporting role, as did the United States with Kong Le. The result of Deuane’s initial attacks was roughly to restore the status quo ante April 1963: the town of Tha Thom in particular was recaptured by his men. By the end of May, Deuane’s men and the Pathet Lao held virtually all the territory occupied by the neutralists and the Pathet Lao in June 1962, but no more.18 It is essential to understand these specific events, inasmuch as they were used as a pretext for launching the US bombing of Laos in May, a new policy which soon was extended to both North and South Vietnam.

What Nixon omits to say is that the fighting in May was, once again, preceded not by a left-wing but by a right-wing initiative. On April 19 a right-wing faction headed by Police Chief Siho staged a coup against Souvanna Phouma—a coup which caused the final collapse of the tripartite coalition government, a restructuring of the Cabinet to shift it to the right, the disappearance of an independent neutralist faction, and the eventual decline and fall of the former right-wing leader Phoumi Nosavan.

Thus it is not true, as the President’s statement claims, that “the present government of Laos…has been the one originally proposed by the Communists”: the 1962 political settlement broke down altogether when the Cabinet was reconstituted without Pathet Lao permission or participation. It is thus not unreasonable for the Pathet Lao to ask (as it did recently) for a conference of all parties to establish a new coalition government (New York Times, March 10, 1970).

The day before Chief Siho’s coup, on April 18, Souvanna and Phoumi had met with Pathet Lao leader Prince Souphanouvong on the Plaine des Jarres, reportedly to work out the details of a new agreement to neutralize the royal capital of Luang Prabang and reunite the coalition government there.

  1. 9

    President Kennedy made another effort to have the KMT troops removed from the area in the spring of 1961; but at least 800 were reported to have insisted on remaining in Laos and Thailand.

  2. 10

    Hilsman, pp. 152-53.

  3. 11

    Dommen, p. 238; Grant Wolfkill, Reported To Be Alive (W. H. Allen, 1966), pp. 273-74.

  4. 12

    Protocol to the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, Articles 1 (a), 2, 4; text in Dommen, pp. 314-15.

  5. 13

    Hilsman, p. 115; cf. Bernard Fall, Street Without Joy (Stackpole, 1964), p. 340; Dommen, p. 233.

  6. 14

    New York Times, December 5, 1962, p. 3; Dommen, p. 243.

  7. 15

    Dommen, p. 244.

  8. 16

    Jack Foisie, San Francisco Chronicle, March 10, 1970, p. 16; Dommen, p. 239, italics added. According to Foisie, “There is the possibility that some [annex] men have gained temporary leave from the Armed Forces and can return to the military after their contract expires.” Some of the US “civilian” pilots working in Laos are also reported to have been recruited from the USAF on this basis.

    On March 13 Senator Fulbright reported that Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence, had “generally confirmed” the accuracy of news dispatches from Laos reporting the CIA activity (New York Times, March 14, 1970).

  9. 17

    As late as May 4, 1964, William Bundy could tell a House Committee that the power change since July 1962 in the Plaine des Jarres area had “been favorable…to the non-Communist elements of the Government”; House Committee on Appropriations, Foreign Operations Appropriations for 1965, Hearings Before a Subcommittee, 88th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 414.

  10. 18

    Dommen, p. 256: “On May 16, the dissident followers of Colonel Deuane Siphaseuth, with Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese support, compelled Kong Le to abandon a number of positions on the Plain and to evacuate his Muong Phanh command post…. By the end of May, the Pathet Lao and the “true neutralists” [under Deuane] occupied virtually all the ground that had been held jointly by themselves and Kong Le…in June, 1962”; cf. Toye, p. 193.

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