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A Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos

Finally, the North Vietnamese advisers were instrumental in instituting a second rice harvest and extensive irrigation projects, and McKeithen “cannot help but feel” that this is in anticipation of North Vietnamese migration, since there is so much unused land. Since McKeithen’s papers are obviously propaganda documents of the American Government, I assume that he made as strong a case as he could for his conclusion, which, clearly, must be regarded as lacking serious support.

The extensive RAND Corporation study by Langer and Zasloff also attempts to demonstrate North Vietnamese domination of the Pathet Lao. 36 According to the authors, the Vietnamese advisers

…provide experienced, disciplined personnel who add competence to the operations of their Lao associates. We have found that these Vietnamese advisers are widely respected by the Lao for their dedication to duty. By their example, by on-the-job training, and by guidance, generally tactful, they goad the less vigorous Lao into better performance. [p. 146.]

They also provide medical and technical aid, and have trained native Lao, making “a beginning…in developing indigenous technical skills.” Their “doctrine places great emphasis on winning over the population…one would expect considerable tension between the Lao and their Vietnamese mentors…but we were struck by how successful the Vietnamese were in keeping such resentment at a minimum.”

When I discussed the social and economic programs of the Pathet Lao with American Embassy officials they gave me the impression that they would be favorably impressed with what the Pathet Lao had done and might achieve were it not for the “North Vietnamese aggression,” which, they argue, is the cause of the problems of Laos. One official agreed that the Pathet Lao educational reforms were particularly good, but said that the RLG was now imitating these programs, specifically the adult literacy program. I tried to check this information with reporters and with Lao residents of Vientiane who were familiar with government activities. Their response ranged between skepticism and ridicule. I met no one outside the Embassy who believed that the RLG was capable of implementing such a program. Since I did not have the time to inquire further, I must leave it at that.

The American Embassy was also helpful in providing me with data supporting their claim that North Vietnamese aggression is the fundamental problem of Laos. They directed me to reports of the RAND Corporation and the ICC, in addition to the documents cited above. Particularly conclusive, they argued, was an ICC investigation of a complaint from the RLG on October 2, 1964, reporting the capture of three North Vietnamese prisoners,37 which was confirmed. The ICC report concluded that these prisoners had entered Laos as members of complete North Vietnamese army units from February to September, 1964, in groups ranging from fifty to 650 soldiers. The report also stated:

The Commission notes with interest that this was the first time, since the Commission’s reconvening in 1961, that it had been brought to the attention of the Commission that prisoners, alleged to have been North Vietnamese, had been captured by the armed forces of the Royal Laotian Government and were available for interrogation.

The report opens with the letter of October 2 from the RLG containing the complaints which it later investigated, as well as a letter of September 28 from Phoumi Vongvichit, Secretary of the NLHS at Vientiane, alleging that American aircraft based in South Vietnam had attacked Laotian territory and parachuted South Vietnamese military personnel into Laos, three of whom were captured (two are identified by name). The latter charge is discussed in “a separate message,” presumably Message No. 36. On returning to the United States I tried to obtain Message No. 36, but without success. I have been informed that it has not been declassified (by the British Government, which is co-chairman of the Control Commission). Though this fact naturally arouses suspicions, nevertheless it is likely that the Message is perfunctory.

A second ICC document reports the investigation of a complaint that the Officers School of the Royal Army at Dong Hene in Southern Laos was attacked on March 8-9, 1965, by a combined Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese force. The investigation confirmed the allegation. Most of the captured prisoners testified that they were on their way to South Vietnam.38

The final supporting document is a report of interviews with a North Vietnamese adviser to a Pathet Lao battalion, Mai Dai Hap, who defected in December, 1966.39 The informant was a captain in the NVA and a member of the Lao Dong (Workers) Party of North Vietnam. He claims to have been one of thirty North Vietnamese assigned to Laos in February, 1964, to serve as advisers. He trained the personnel of a Lao battalion and directed its operations. He served in the vicinity of Nam Tha near the Chinese and Burmese borders. In February, 1966, his unit was sent to Muong Long in the area of the Co, a highland tribal minority, near Burma, in Northwest Laos, to defend a Pathet Lao base that was under attack by RLG forces.

This was, according to Langer and Zasloff, a region in which “the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao had built resistance bases against the French, so that the Co people welcomed them heartily, especially after seeing the Vietnamese with the unit.” Discouraged by the hardships of combat, the feeling that he had failed in his leadership, and concern that the enemy, now supplied with artillery and bombers, was growing in strength and receiving support from the lowlanders, as well as by a number of personal problems including his remarriage, he defected in December, 1966.

Captain Hap reports that in addition to military tasks he had a political program containing the following topics:

  1. Objectives and tasks of the Laotian revolution

  2. The land of Laos is beautiful and rich, the population of Laos is industrious; why are the Laotian people suffering?

  3. Who is the enemy of the Laotian people?

  4. The tasks and nature of the Laotian Liberation Army

One comment of Hap’s that is frequently quoted by American sources is this:

Generally speaking, everything is initiated by the North Vietnamese advisers, be it important or unimportant. If the North Vietnamese advisory machinery were to get stuck, the Pathet Lao machinery would be paralyzed.

This exhausts the documentary evidence of North Vietnamese control over the Pathet Lao that I was able to obtain. In reading these materials, one is struck by the low-keyed and generally constructive approach of the North Vietnamese, the limited evidence for actual North Vietnamese control over the Pathet Lao, and the gulf between the evidence and the claims which it is meant to support.

It is, after all, hardly surprising that there were North Vietnamese troops in Southern Laos a month after the regular bombing of North Vietnam was initiated (the Dong Hene incident). Nor is it surprising that North Vietnamese advisers should have arrived in Northern Laos in early 1964 (note that the first complaint to the ICC was in October, 1964), in view of the events outlined above. Recall that regular bombardment of Northern Laos from Thai sanctuaries began in May, 1964. Recall as well that the CIA established bases along the North Vietnamese frontier for sabotage and guerrilla action, as well as to guide the all-weather bombardment of North Vietnam.40 It is interesting to compare the North Vietnamese involvement with the American program, aspects of which were discussed earlier. Also remarkable is the barely suppressed outrage over the North Vietnamese activities. How dare they assist on their border friendly forces which the United States is determined to destroy!

Suppose that the Pathet Lao were to take over Laos completely. What would be the North Vietnamese role? When asked this question, a Lao defector said that he expects them to leave when they finish their mission of helping the Pathet Lao:

It is just like when the Chinese went to help the Koreans. After they had won the war, they left.

The urban intellectual whose remarks I have reported earlier was less sure. He thought that Laotian independence would always be threatened by North Vietnam, Thailand, and China, though he felt that there was a fair chance that all might agree that Laos should be left as a neutral buffer. Prince Souvanna Phouma, in an interview with us, had no doubts about the North Vietnamese intention to conquer Laos. He explained:

North Vietnam wants to colonize Laos with Vietnamese because their country is too overpopulated. It’s obvious. Look at their flag with its five-pointed star. One is for Tonkin, one for Annam, one for Cochin China,41 one for Laos, and one for Cambodia.42

(If we were to apply this reasoning to the American flag….) He offered no other argument, apparently regarding this as conclusive.

A North Vietnamese spokesman described the interest of his country in Laos as purely strategic:

It is on our Western border. For our own security, we cannot allow Laos to turn into a base for the Americans to threaten us. You know that the Americans have been using Laos as a forward base both for themselves and the Thais, and have guided their planes for bombing us from Laos…. Laos has been a historic invasion route into North Vietnam. The French took Laos first, originally, before setting out to colonize us. At the end of World War II they went back in and took Laos first, then used route 9 to transport men and materials to take Hue, and also route 7. Our only concern for Laos is that it remain strictly neutral. We cannot allow Laos to be a base for the Americans, with their planes, their soldiers, their special forces, their CIA, their Thais and other mercenaries.

Naturally, North Vietnam regards “the Lao territory bordering on North Vietnam, particularly in the provinces of Phong Saly, Luang Prabang, Sam Neua, and Xieng Khouang, as essential to its security and will strive to ensure that these areas are not controlled by hostile forces.”43 China also has an obvious security interest in these areas. So long as these areas are under attack by American forces or by forces which North Vietnam and China can regard, with justification, as American puppet forces, one can expect a continuing North Vietnamese involvement. It is difficult to see why North Vietnam should attempt to conquer Laos, thus being forced to control a hostile population and coming face to face with the Thai. Nor can I find any serious evidence for such an intent.

According to American Embassy sources, over a million people in this nation of some three million remain in Pathet Lao-controlled areas. Harrison Salisbury, in his report from North Vietnam44 quoted a foreign Communist visitor to these areas:

You cannot imagine what it is like in the headquarters of these people. Never is there any halt in the bombing. Not at night. Not by day. One day we were in the cave. The bombing went on and on. The toilet was in another cave only 20 yards away. We could not leave. We could not even run the 20 yards. It was too dangerous.

  1. 36

    Langer and Zasloff, op. cit.

  2. 37

    Message No. 35, 16 September 1965. International Commission for Supervision and Control in Laos, to the Cochairman of the Geneva Conference.

  3. 38

    Report of an Investigation by the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Laos of an attack on Dong Hene by North Vietnamese Troops; this document, undated and unidentified, is a reproduction of parts of the original ICC document submitted on June 14, 1966.

  4. 39

    Paul Langer and Joseph J. Zasloff, The North Vietnamese Military Adviser in Laos, RAND Corporation, RM-5688, July, 1968.

  5. 40

    The details are difficult to document, of course, since the RAND Corporation does not obligingly supply selected information to indicate the scope and timing of these activities. Some details appear in the Symington Subcommittee Hearings. It is hardly necessary to emphasize that except for the ICC reports, documents of the sort reviewed here are of dubious value. The source material is not available, and there is no way of checking distortions, excisions, or omissions.

  6. 41

    The three regions of Vietnam, in Western terminology. In Vietnamese: Bac-Bô, Trung-Bô, Nam-Bô.

  7. 42

    I did not take notes during the interview with Prince Souvanna Phouma. These remarks and those quoted below were reconstructed immediately after the interview and checked with other participants.

    The five points of the star do have a symbolic significance: they stand for intellectuals, workers, peasants, tradesmen, and soldiers working together to defend and build the country.

  8. 43

    Langer and Zasloff, Revolution in Laos, p. 212.

  9. 44

    Behind the Lines—Hanoi, Harper & Row, 1967, pp. 35-6. Salisbury assumed that he was referring to Southern Laos, but the description is remarkably similar to what has since been reported from the North. In view of what we now know, the description is probably of Sam Neua province.

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