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A Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos

Government deceit has been so great that virtually no Government statement can be, or should be, believed. Consider, for example, President Nixon’s speech on Laos on March 6.28 The key paragraph is this:

Hanoi’s most recent military buildup in Laos has been particularly escalatory. They have poured over 13,000 additional troops into Laos during the past few months, raising their total in Laos to over 67,000. Thirty North Vietnamese battalions from regular division units participated in the current campaign in the Plain of Jars with tanks, armored cars and long-range artillery. The indigenous Laotian communists, the Pathet Lao, are playing an insignificant role.

These claims are presumably intended to justify the American escalation of the air war, for example, the first B-52 raids in Northern Laos in early 1970.

When I arrived in Vientiane a few weeks after Nixon’s speech, I discovered that it was a favorite topic of conversation and ridicule. Every reporter in Vientiane was aware that only a few days before the President’s speech, the US military attaché in Vientiane had given the figure of 50,000 North Vietnamese, approximately the same figure that had been reported by the US for the preceding year. This interesting fact was reported by D.S. Greenway, head of the Time-Life Bureau in Bangkok, who wrote that “the President’s estimate of North Vietnamese troop strength was at least 17,000 higher than the highest reliable estimates of the Americans themselves.”29

Furthermore, all were aware of how misleading these figures are. The North Vietnamese invasion that Nixon attempted to conjure up was in the Plain of Jars area, recaptured by Communist forces in February in a five-day battle that reconstituted the territorial division that existed between 1964 and August 1969, when the Clandestine Army of the CIA swept through the area. Nixon’s figure of 67,000 North Vietnamese does not distinguish between those in Southern Laos—really an extension of the Vietnamese war—and those with the Pathet Lao in Northern Laos where the “invasion” had taken place. It also does not distinguish combat troops from support and communications units, which, according to military observers in Vientiane, comprise about three-fourths of the North Vietnamese forces, hardly a surprise when one realizes that they bring all of their supplies, including food, through a heavily bombed area.

In fact, it is likely that this ratio is now too low. The effect and presumably the purpose of the American bombardment in Northern Laos have been to destroy the civil society administered by the Pathet Lao and to drive as much of the population as possible into Government-controlled areas. As Tammy Arbuckle reports:

Well-informed sources said the United States is pursuing a “scorched earth” policy to force the people to move into government areas—and thus deprive the Reds of information, recruits and porters.30

When the population is forced into Government areas or driven into caves and tunnels, it can no longer provide support for the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops, who are therefore forced to rely increasingly on supplies from North Vietnam. Hence the proportion of combat troops must have decreased. Furthermore, the support and communications “troops” are said to include a large percentage of women and old men.

There have been widespread reports, confirmed by American military sources, that the largest attacks in the recent “invasion”—namely the attack on Moung Soui and the Xieng Khouang airfield—involved about 400 Communist troops, apparently shock troops. As to prisoners, eight North Vietnamese were reported captured in the “invasion” which recaptured the Plain of Jars. In fact, since 1964 about eighty North Vietnamese have been captured, a figure which may be compared to the 200 Americans listed as missing in action or prisoners of war, in addition to “something under 200” listed as killed in military actions in Laos.31

All of these statistics must be taken with a grain of salt. According to every observer, the Pathet Lao and particularly the North Vietnamese keep to isolated, heavily forested, and often mountainous areas. Few refugees report contacts with Vietnamese. Despite the vast intelligence gathering effort of the US, it is doubtful that any significant information on the number of NVA troops is available.

Consider Nixon’s claim that in the recent offensive the Pathet Lao played only an insignificant role. In support of this claim, American military sources in Vientiane cite only one bit of evidence, namely, captured prisoners. As noted, eight North Vietnamese were reported captured (according to the Lao officers in charge of prisoners). The American military claims that no Pathet Lao prisoners were taken. However, Americans in Sam Thong have spoken to soldiers of the RLG army, who do report that Pathet Lao prisoners were taken. There is also a report, attributed to a source within the US Embassy, that between twenty and thirty Pathet Lao prisoners were taken but were inducted at once into the CIA Clandestine Army. From such statistics (eight, twenty to thirty) one can conclude very little.

Informed observers who have attempted to sift through the available information speculate that at most there may be 5,000 North Vietnamese combat troops involved in the fighting in Laos—a figure which may be compared with the 5,000 Thai combat troops reported, the unknown thousands of Americans involved directly in bombing and ground operations, and the other forces reported to be involved in the American operations.

The Pathet Lao claims that there are 1,200 American Green Berets fighting in Laos. This is denied by the Americans. The Pathet Lao also claims that the CIA Clandestine Army includes tribesmen brought in from Burma and Thailand as well as the Chinese Nationalist troops who remain in Northern Laos.32 Such reports are taken seriously by informed observers in Laos, some of whom note that the multi-ethnic character of the Vang Pao Clandestine Army must require American coordination and control down to the field level.

American Government sources, though naturally antagonistic, also give some idea of life in Pathet Lao areas, as interpreted by hostile observers. The Embassy in Vientiane supplies two documents by Edwin T. McKeithen, whom they describe as one of their outstanding specialists on the Pathet Lao.33 He writes that:

One of the most fundamental alterations [the Pathet Lao] seek in the Lao personality is the addition of persuasion and guilt to traditional authority as means of social control. P.L. cadres are urged to reason, to question and to discuss with villagers until the villagers agree with the P.L. viewpoint. Direct orders are not enough; people must be “taught” until they genuinely believe in what they are doing. At the same time, a villager who cheats or commits crimes against the state must be enlightened until he feels guilty for his actions. This guilt must arise from an internalized higher morality and not from a simple feeling of shame or loss of face among fellows.

These techniques he describes as the introduction of “the rather foreign concepts of persuasion and guilt…as mechanisms of social control.” McKeithen does not explain what he would regard as more humane or enlightened methods, nor does he explain wherein he objects to the goals of the Pathet Lao effort to transform Lao society:

They have pressed for economic equality by introducing progressive taxation and discouraging the conspicuous consumption that establishes a wealthy villager’s status. They have almost eliminated the “wasted resources” that are spent on bouns, marriages, funerals, and traditional celebrations.34 They have taken initial steps toward the communalization of property by establishing “public” padi, by closely controlling livestock sales and slaughter and by introducing public ownership of livestock in the school system…. The status of women has also been altered, as they have been given greater responsibility in administrative affairs and have assumed jobs traditionally restricted to men…. [They have set up] “youth organization[s]” devoted to lofty principles and dedicated to the advancement of long-range goals.

Being fair-minded, McKeithen does not limit himself to these comments, which he apparently regards as negative, to judge by the paragraph that follows:

Finally, we should note the favorable aspects of P.L. rule as reported by the refugees. They favored the ideas of adult literacy and agricultural development but not the ways that the P.L. had been carrying them out. They also spoke favorably of the virtual elimination of official corruption.

Later on, he describes Pathet Lao measures to improve agriculture (use of fertilizers and irrigation, directed by North Vietnamese technicians); establishment of co-ops and local control of commerce, displacing the former Chinese and Vietnamese merchants; progressive taxation to support teachers and medics and a basic tax (15 percent after exemptions) “to help the state”; educational reforms, including primary schooling in virtually all villages and the introduction of textbooks which “emphasize hygiene and better agricultural practices, as well as self-denial, communal endeavor and solidarity against US imperialism”; adult literacy programs; improved medical services; a ban on polygamy and the practice of bride abduction in Meo areas; and so on.

In his study of the role of North Vietnamese cadres, McKeithen also emphasizes their reliance on “patient counsel rather than direct command,” their “softest of soft-sell approaches in dealing with their Lao counterparts,” their “deep faith in the efficacy of endless persuasion” and on “the spirit of brotherhood that should bond their relationship.” He claims that “virtually all important policy decisions are made by the NVN cadres, but in such a way that the decisions appear to be the work of Lao officials.” However, he admits that he has very little evidence since the refugees on whose testimony the report is based had little contact with Vietnamese advisers.

The Vietnamese keep to themselves, even raising their own food. He reports that Vietnamese served as political advisers at higher levels, and that economic and other advisers work also at lower levels in giving technical assistance and as teachers. North Vietnamese products are also available at co-op stores, another way “in which their influence is felt.” In listing government officials in Xieng Khouang province he cites three North Vietnamese out of seventeen at the higher (Khoueng Group) level (one a “group representative,” one an adviser, and one in charge of irrigation) and none out of fourteen at the lower (Muong) level.35

McKeithen claims that one of the goals of the North Vietnamese is “to annex Laos and to till its underpopulated land.” Searching diligently through his material, I can find three pieces of “confirmatory evidence” for this judgment. One is a “brief entry” in a diary of a North Vietnamese major found on the Plain of Jars, which states: “[We must] help Laos without restriction, but we have to keep Laos with us to realize permanent duty of [our] volunteer troops, [to] provide land, [to] marry natives, and to be settled in Laos.” Second, “the North Vietnamese have requested permission from the NLHS to move in 20,000 families—dependents of the NVA troops in Laos.” The request was turned down by the NLHS, and the plan, apparently, was not implemented.

  1. 28

    For detailed documentation of other falsehoods in this speech, see Scott, “Laos, Nixon, and the CIA.”

  2. 29

    Life Magazine, April 3, 1970. Reprinted in an excellent selection of articles on the current situation in Laos inserted by Senator Kennedy in the Congressional Record, April 20, 1970, S5988-92. See also Carl Strock, “Laotian Tragedy,” New Republic, May 9, 1970.

  3. 30

    Washington Star, April 19, 1970. Reprinted in the Congressional Record collection cited above.

  4. 31

    See Symington Subcommittee Hearings, p. 380. The report adds that “of those killed in Laos up to October 22, 1969, something around one-quarter were killed with respect to operations in northern Laos.” A UPI report from Geneva in the International Herald Tribune, April 4-5, 1970, gives the figure of 86 US Air Force Personnel held prisoner by the Pathet Lao in Laos. The figure, given by two clergymen, is claimed to be based on US sources “confirmed by private sources in Geneva.” The Pathet Lao claims to have shot down over 1,200 American planes in Laos.

  5. 32

    A statement on this matter appears in the interview cited in note 11.

  6. 33

    Life under the P.L. in the Xieng Khouang Ville Area, undated; The Role of North Vietnamese Cadres in the Pathet Lao Administration of Xieng Khouang Province, April 1970. McKeithen is not further identified in these documents. Presumably, he is associated with USAID, the CIA, or both.

    McKeithen’s anti-Pathet Lao bias is so extreme that he cannot even manage to be consistent. Thus he writes that Pathet Lao “minor officials are chosen on the basis of their contributions to the state and their reliability (strong back / weak mind)” (Life under the P.L.). A few pages earlier we read that “Government officials [under the Pathet Lao] are chosen almost entirely on the basis of merit, although there seems to be a general preference for the economically deprived villager as opposed to his wealthier counterpart.”

  7. 34

    Here McKeithen is a bit disingenuous. The virtual destruction of civil society by aerial bombardment is obviously a major reason why precious resources must be conserved. One refugee described his own marriage ceremony: few people could attend because of the bombardment and they had to dive into trenches during the ceremony because of a nearby raid.

  8. 35

    Life under the P.L. He also notes that “the Khoueng offices were located in a small cave” outside the city, but fails to mention the reason.

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