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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 exposé 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.

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.

Though the details are unclear, it seems that the coup was at least in part designed to prevent the restoration of the neutralist coalition. No one has denied Denis Warner’s report that Siho “used the acquiescence of Souvanna Phouma and Phoumi Nosavan in the neutralization of the royal capital of Luang Prabang as the excuse” for the coup.19 Ambassador Unger and William Bundy of the State Department personally persuaded Siho to release Souvanna and restore him as Prime Minister; but the reconstitution of the Laotian Army under a new General Staff consisting of nine rightist generals and only one neutralist indicated the real shift of power to the right. 20 The new command then ordered the neutralist troops on the Plaine des Jarres to be integrated with the right under its authority.

This order was too much for many of Kong Le’s men on the Plaine des Jarres and, instead of complying, six battalions of troops defected, some of them to Deuane’s left-neutralist faction. Warner confirms that “the resulting mass defections…led [in May] to the rout of Kong Le’s troops and the fall of the Plaine des Jarres.”21 Again, as at Nam Tha in 1962, many troops withdrew, amid charges of a North Vietnamese and Chinese Communist invasion, without ever having been directly attacked.22

These right-wing maneuvers in Laos, whether or not they were directly encouraged by irresponsible American advisers, cannot but have been indirectly encouraged by the highly publicized debate in Washington over Vietnam. It was known that in early 1964 many generals were calling for US air strikes against “Communist bases” in the north, including the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The result of Siho’s April coup, if not the intention, was to make way for the initiation of this bombing policy.

6) Statement: “In May 1964, as North Vietnamese presence increased, the United States, at Royal Lao government request, began flying certain interdictory missions against invaders who were violating Lao neutrality.”

Comment: By this important admission it is now for the first time conceded that the US assumed a combat role in Laos in May 1964, at a time when the North Vietnamese Army was still engaged in a support role comparable to that of Air America. (North Vietnam was not formally accused by the US of violating the Geneva Agreements until June 29, 1964.) The air attacks were first carried out by US “civilian” pilots in T-28 fighter-bombers based in Thailand but carrying Laotian markings. On June 11, 1964, one of these T-28s attacked the Chinese cultural and economic mission at the Pathet Lao capital on the Plaine des Jarres, killing at least one Chinese. The United States at that time denied responsibility, though the State Department revealed that Thai pilots also flew the T-28s and had been involved.23

On May 21, 1964, the United States admitted for the first time that “unarmed United States jets” were flying reconnaissance missions over Laos. Dean Rusk later explained that this was in response to Souvanna Phouma’s general request for assistance; but Souvanna Phouma refused to comment on the matter of reconnaissance flights for the next three weeks. In fact these flights had been conducted regularly since at least as early as August 1962. What was new was that in mid-May President Johnson, at the insistence of the Chief of Naval Operations, authorized accompanying escorts of armed jet fighters. These were ordered not to bomb or strafe Laotian installations until and unless United States planes were damaged.24 When a Navy RF-8 was shot down on June 6, President Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes.

At this point Souvanna Phouma finally commented publicly on the reconnaissance flights: he reportedly asked that they cease altogether forthwith. (The New York Times on June 10 published a report that he had not agreed to the use of armed escorts.) On June 12 Souvanna announced that the reconnaissance flights would continue; this suggested to some observers that since the April 19 coup and the collapse of the neutralists Souvanna was no longer his own master.25 His reluctant ex post facto acquiescence in the use of jet fighter escorts for reconnaissance is the closest approximation in the public record to what President Nixon now calls a “Royal Lao government request” for interdictory missions one month earlier.

It has never been explained why the US reconnaissance pilots were ordered to conduct their flights over Laos at low altitudes and slow speeds, when (as they informed their superiors) with their modern equipment they could obtain photographs of equal quality if they were permitted to fly higher.26

The orders seem to reflect the determination of certain Air Force and Navy officials either to coerce the other side by a US air presence, or alternatively to obtain a suitable provocation, as was finally supplied by the Tonkin Gulf incidents, for the bombing of North Vietnam.

The withdrawals from the Plaine des Jarres in 1964 produced what Phoumi had failed to obtain by his withdrawal from Nam Tha in 1962—a direct armed US intervention in Laos and the frustration of a new initiative (this time by the French) to restore peace in that country. The similarities between the two withdrawals—the gratuitous right-wing provocations, the flight before being attacked, and the incredible stories of Chinese Communist invasion—have been attributed by some to Laotian lack of discipline.

Toye, however, will not accept this explanation for 196227 and there are disturbing indications that in 1964 Laotian and US hawks were still intriguing together to bring about a further Americanization of the war. Perhaps the chief indication was the dispatch in May of US Navy aircraft carriers into the Tonkin Gulf area for the purpose of conducting “reconnaissance” flights and air strikes against Laos (even the new armed flights could easily have been initiated, as in the past, by the USAF in Thailand).

By the time the US jet air strikes got under way in June, the rainy season in Laos had begun, the panic was over, and there was no prospect of ground military activity in Laos for the next several months. Yet many observers (including Melvin Laird, who had his own Pentagon channels) predicted accurately that the aircraft carriers moved in against Laos might soon be used against North Vietnam. As Aviation Week reported on June 22, 1964, President Johnson appeared to be awaiting reactions to the Laotian air strikes (“the first US offensive military action since Korea”) before taking “the next big step on the escalation scale.” On June 3, 1964, a New York Times correspondent reported “a sense of crisis and foreboding” in Southeast Asia, attributed “more to the statements of US Government officials than to any immediate emergency in Laos, South Vietnam or Cambodia.”

Congress would do well to investigate the crucial decisions made during the period preceding the Tonkin Gulf incidents, for the present period, as we shall see, offers disturbing parallels to the withdrawals of 1962 and 1964.

7) Statement: “Since this Administration has been in office, North Vietnamese pressure has continued. Last spring, the North Vietnamese mounted a campaign which threatened the Royal capital and moved beyond the areas previously occupied by Communists. A counterattack by the Lao government forces, intended to relieve this military pressure and cut off supply lines, caught the enemy by surprise and succeeded beyond expectations in pushing them off the…Plain of Jars.”

Comment: Though it is too early to analyze authoritatively the events of the last year in Laos, it is clear that this statement leaves out the biggest recent development of all. Shortly after November 1968 (when it halted the bombing of North Vietnam) the US began to apply to combat zones in Laos the tactic of massive bombardment which hitherto had been reserved for Vietnam and the region of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle. According to Senator Cranston, air strikes against Laos have increased from 4,500 sorties a month (before the November 1968 halt to the bombing of North Vietnam) to between 12,500 and 15,000 sorties a month today. (Other sources suggest a much more dramatic increase.)28

This new policy has led to the total annihilation of many Laotian towns (at first briefly, but falsely, attributed to a North Vietnamese “scorched earth” policy). It has also been accompanied by the evacuation and resettlement (apparently sometimes by coercion) of between 500,000 and 600,000 Laotians, or about one-quarter of the total population. (See The Nation, Jan. 26, 1970; New York Times, Mar. 12, 1970, p. 3.)

With this new tactic, General Vang Pao’s CIA-advised Meo guerrillas have been ordered to withdraw rather than suffer serious casualties in attempting to hold forward positions: their function is rather to engage the enemy and thus expose them to heavy losses through air strikes. These are the tactics alleged by our generals to be succeeding in South Vietnam: attrition of the enemy by massive bombardment, rather than serious attempts to hold territory. The new tactics (like the original covert US military involvements eight years earlier) were inaugurated during the “lame-duck” period of a changeover in administrations. In December 1968 the Pathet Lao protested to the International Control Commission that US planes were dropping four or five times as many bombs in Laos as they had done two months earlier.29

In accordance with their orders to engage the enemy while avoiding heavy casualties, Vang Pao’s guerrillas have twice in the last year made spectacular advances into the enemy Plaine des Jarres area (on one occasion to about thirty miles from the North Vietnamese border) and then withdrawn from key outposts like Xieng Khouang and Ban Ban without waiting for the enemy to attack in strength. Just as with General Phoumi in 1962, these withdrawals from isolated advance positions in the face of enemy probes have been widely publicized and used as arguments for US escalation. The Kennedy Administration did not take this bait; apparently the Nixon Administration (with its recent B-52 strikes) has.

In the wake of the reported bombing increase, there has also been a reported rise in Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese ground activity. Apparently none of this activity has violated the 1961-62 cease-fire line as seriously as Vang Pao’s unprecedented forays of April-May and August-September into the Xieng Khouang-Ban Ban area. Most of the Pathet Lao activity in the northeast has been directed against Meo outposts within their base area, notably the forward communications post of Na Khang, which was used for the all-weather bombing of North Vietnam, and the US-Thai base at Muong Soui, which was used to support the Meo outposts. On August 25, 1969, The New York Times said that “If Vang Vieng falls…the Laotian government will have been pushed behind the cease-fire line of 1961”; but even Vang Vieng was still on the Pathet Lao side of the line.

There are disturbing indications that in 1969 (as in 1962 and 1964) right-wing provocations and escalations were deliberately intended to frustrate Souvanna Phouma’s continuing efforts to restore peace and a neutralist coalition government. In May, 1969, Souvanna Phouma saw the North Vietnamese Ambassador to Laos (at the latter’s invitation) for the first time in over four years. On May 15 he announced he was hopeful that the Laotian problem could be solved even before the end of the Vietnam war. It was later revealed that he had offered a formula for the termination of US bombing comparable to that used in Vietnam: a gradual reduction in the bombing in return for a gradual withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops. Souvanna said that he would accept the continmiles from Xieng Khouang. On May 27, the North Vietnamese troops “with the condition that those troops withdrew” elsewhere.^30

Four days later, on May 19, The New York Times reported that with the advent of the rainy season, Laos was “suddenly quiet.” Pathet Lao pressure had tapered off: “Where there is any action Government forces appear to be taking the initiative.” Only one day later “fierce fighting” was reported from the Plaine des Jarres: Vang Pao’s CIA-supported guerrillas had clashed with the enemy thirteen miles from Xieng Khouang. On May 27 Vang Pao was reported to have withdrawn from Xieng Khouang (which he had held for one month) “following orders…not to risk heavy casualties.” The next day his troops seized Ban Ban, about thirty miles from North Vietnam, “as Laotian and American bombers continued devastating attacks on North Vietnamese soldiers and supply lines all over northeastern Laos.”31

This chronology recalls the depressing sequence of occasions in the Vietnam war when a new diplomatic initiative was followed by a new escalation or an intensification of the bombing, instead of a hoped-for reduction.32 This pattern of a “politics of escalation” appeared to repeat itself in February of this year. In early February

Souvanna Phouma startled the diplomatic community by publicly offering to go to Hanoi to negotiate an end to the conflict…. Souvanna was ready, so he said, to agree to the neutralization of the Plain of Jars…and…promised that his government would “close its eyes” to what goes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.33

On February 17, the Associated Press reported “some of the heaviest air raids ever flown in Southeast Asia” and on February 19, the first “massive air strikes by US B-52 bombers in the Plain of Jars region.” On February 22 the AP fed the American public the typical kind of panic story that has been emanating from Northeast Laos ever since the phony “offensive” of August 1959. Vang Pao’s guerrillas, it said, had been “swept from the Plain of Jars by an overwhelming North Vietnamese blow…with a third of its force dead or missing…. The government garrison of 1500 men based at Xieng Khouang was hit by 6,000 North Vietnamese supported by tanks.”

On the next day came the typical corrective story: the attack had been made by 400 troops, not 6,000; the defenders (who had falsely inflated their strength “for payday purposes”) had withdrawn with “very little close-in action.” It would appear that once again wildly exaggerated tales from remote areas had resulted in the frustration of a peace initiative, by what was (as Senator Mansfield warned) a significant escalation of the bombing.34

8) Statement: “We are trying above all to save American and Allied lives in South Vietnam which are threatened by the continual infiltration of North Vietnamese troops and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail…. Today there are 67,000 North Vietnamese troops in [Laos]. There are no American troops there. Hanoi is not threatened by Laos; it runs risks only when it moves its forces across borders.”

Comment: The CIA’s persistent support, guidance, and encouragement of Meo guerrilla activities in Northeast Laos cannot be rationalized by references to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As anyone can see by looking at a map, the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs south from the Mu Gia pass in the southern portion of the Laotian panhandle, 200 miles to the southeast of the Plaine des Jarres. These Meo tribesmen were first trained by the French for paramilitary activities inside what is now North Vietnam, where some of them continued to operate for years after the 1954 Geneva Agreements, almost to the time when their French officers were replaced by CIA “Special Forces.”35 Veterans of the Special Forces, now “civilians” working for the CIA, are still working with the Meos behind enemy lines; Air America, and more recently Continental Air Services, have never ceased to airlift and supply them.

Hanoi is indeed directly threatened by these CIA activities just across the Laotian border. Heavily fortified Meo outposts at Pa Thi and Na Khang were developed as forward communications centers for the all-weather pinpoint bombing of North Vietnam.36 On November 21, 1968, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported

…evidence that American aircraft, including jets, were flying from a secret base in northern Laos…about 50 miles from the North Vietnam border.

It is difficult to explain the tenacity of the CIA’s ground operations behind enemy lines in Northeast Laos, or the recent conversion of the Plaine des Jarres into an evacuated “free strike” zone for F-4s, F-105s, and B-52s, except as part of a “forward strategy,” to remind North Vietnam of the threat that the United States might resume bombing it. The President’s statement indeed suggests that the US hopes to use its escalation in Laos as a means of imposing its peace formula on Vietnam. (“What we do in Laos has thus as its aim to bring about the conditions for progress toward peace in the entire Indo-Chinese peninsula.”)

One cannot confirm or refute the current intelligence estimates of 67,000 North Vietnamese in Laos. What is clear is that the intelligence estimates have themselves sharply “escalated” from the figure of 50,000 that was used by the Pentagon as late as last month. One is reminded of the similar “escalation” of infiltration estimates for South Vietnam in January 1965. The claims then put forward as to the presence of regular North Vietnamese army units in South Vietnam, including at least a battalion if not a division, were tacitly refuted only six months later by no less an authority than McNamara.37 Six months later it was of course too late. The regular bombing of North and South Vietnam had been initiated; the full “Americanization” of the Vietnam war had been achieved.

The President’s statement on Laos is an alarming document, alarming above all not because of what it misrepresents, but because of what it may portend. In its skillful retelling of events known only to a few, it resembles the State Department’s White Paper of February 1965 on Vietnam. The White Paper, which also relied heavily on intelligence “estimates,” was not really an effort to understand the true developments of the past. It was instead the ominous harbinger for a new strategy of victory through American air power, a document aimed not at serious students of Southeast Asia (who swiftly saw through it) but at the “silent majority” of that era.

What further new strategy of escalation can still attract the Nixon Administration in 1970 is unclear, since American air power has failed to achieve with conventional weapons the results which its advocates promised. As it stands, however, the Key Biscayne statement on Laos is not only an argument for our present murderous bombing policy, it is an argument which, if believed, would lead logically to escalation. The argument is false; and it is urgent that it be refuted.

  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.”

  9. 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.

  10. 10

    Hilsman, pp. 152-53.

  11. 11

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

  12. 12

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

  13. 13

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

  14. 14

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

  15. 15

    Dommen, p. 244.

  16. 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).

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 19

    Denis Warner, Reporting South-East Asia (Angus and Robertson, 1966), p. 190.

  20. 20

    New York Times, May 14, 1964, p. 11; May 19, 1964; p. 5; Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 341.

  21. 21

    Warner, p. 191. The integration order recalled a similar rightist order in 1959 to the Pathet Lao, an order which was instrumental in triggering the Laotian war.

  22. 22

    New York Times, May 16, 1964, p. 2; May 28, 1964, p. 10.

  23. 23

    Dommen, p. 259; Toye, p. 194. The first substantial reports of North Vietnamese infiltration followed the new US bombing policy. Cf. T. D. Allman (Far Eastern Economic Review, January 1, 1970, p. 21): “When the Vientiane government permitted the Americans to start the bombing, the North Vietnamese committed increasing amounts of troops in an effort to discredit that government.”

  24. 24

    Joseph C. Goulden, Truth Is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair-Illusion and Reality (Rand McNally, 1969), p. 97.

  25. 25

    Toye, p. 194; Dommen, p. 258: “Souvanna…became daily more of a figurehead in a situation over which he had little control.” In response to the news of Souvanna’s objections, the United States announced that it was suspending the reconnaissance flights “for at least 48 hours”; but at the same time the State Department announced the flights would continue “subject to consultation.” This was by no means the first time that the United States had treated Souvanna in so humiliating a fashion; cf. Fall, Anatomy of a Crisis, pp. 193ff., 223.

  26. 26

    Goulden, p. 97. Grant Wolfkill, then a prisoner of the Pathet Lao, testifies to the lowness of the flights (pp. 273-74): “Flying at a thousand feet, it [an unmarked jet F-101] whipped through the valley and swung around leisurely at one end. I could see the pilot’s head as the plane turned…. Three days later the F-101 returned…. Every gun in the camp blazed away at it this time. With arrogant indifference the jet maintained its course.” Statement of Secretary Rusk, July 30, 1964, in US State Department, American Foreign Policy, 1964, p. 943; see also Dommen, p. 258.

  27. 27

    Toye, p. 182.

  28. 28

    T.D. Allman reported in the Far Eastern Economic Review (January 1, 1970), p. 21, that “the US now flies as many as 20,000 bombing sorties a month in Laos”; Richard Dudman (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 23, 1969) put the level one year earlier at 1,000 a month.

  29. 29

    New York Times, December 31, 1968, p. 6.

  30. 31

    New York Times, May 19, 1969, p. 6; May 20, p. 3; May 27, p. 5; May 28, p. 9.

  31. 32

    Franz Schurmann, Peter Dale Scott, Reginald Zelnik, The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam (Beacon Press/ Fawcett, 1966); David Kraslow and Stuart H. Loory, The Secret Search for Peace in Vietnam (Random House, 1968), pp. 3-74; Ramparts (March 1968), pp. 56-58; New York Times, January 6, 1968, p. 28.

  32. 33

    Newsweek, February 16, 1970, p. 37.

  33. 34

    San Francisco Chronicle, February 17, 1970; Feb. 19; Feb. 22; Feb. 23.

    In August 1969, there was also the mysterious episode of the tribal double-agent who, on Vang Pao’s instruction, sold a map of the secret Meo headquarters at Long Cheng to six members of the North Vietnamese Embassy. According to T.D. Allman, “The affair…appeared to be at least in part a right wing effort to reduce the Prime Minister’s room to maneuver and perhaps even force a break in diplomatic relations between the two countries.” Far Eastern Economic Review (September 11, 1969), p. 648.

  34. 35

    Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 341.

  35. 36

    Robert Shaplen, Time Out of Hand (Harper & Row, 1969), p. 346; New York Times, Oct. 26, 1969, p. 24

  36. 37

    Secretary McNamara on June 17, 1965, Department of State Bulletin, July 5, 1965, p. 18; cf. Department of State Bulletin, March 22, 1965, p. 414; May 17, 1965, pp. 750, 753; Theodore Draper, “How Not to Negotiate,” NYR, May 4, 1967, p. 27n; Theodore Draper, Abuse of Power (Viking, 1967), pp. 76-77; Schurmann, Scott, and Zelnik, p. 47n.

    With respect to the current estimate of 67,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos, one needs to know how many of these are involved in the Ho Chi Minh Trail and how many are border guards sent in defensively (as in the past) to occupy the Laotian side of the border passes. One also needs to know the sources and reliability of the information. The months of January and February have repeatedly seen highly questionable US escalations of infiltration estimates followed by escalations of the bombing. One is reminded not only of the 1965 White Paper but also of the bombing escalation in February 1967.

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