The story of the U.S. intervention in Laos, of which Dommen’s book is the first full-length study, recalls one of those early Mack Sennetts in which the hero is chased over and over again through the same revolving door. Three times forces financed by the United States have overthrown its neutralist Prime Minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma. Three times he has been restored to power, once by elite paratroopers we trained only to have them turn against us, the second time by an international conference we convoked to save our rightist protegés from complete defeat, the third time, earlier this year, by angry orders from Washington, which seemed at last to be getting tired of the comedy. The Laotian Royal Army, which fared so ludicrously in each of these episodes, is the only one in the world wholly on the U.S. payroll. It is also the highest paid in Asia, though the U.S. Comptroller General complained to a Congressional investigating committee that he had no way of knowing how much actually reached the troops and how much stuck to the fingers of its generals. Each time this Army has risen against Souvanna Phouma, it has proved unable to defeat neutralist or Leftist forces it far outnumbered. After each of these escapades, the Left has emerged stronger than before. The virtue of Dommen’s book is that it argues the case for learning something from this ignominious series of military pratt-falls and reconciling ourselves to neutralism not only in Laos but in the rest of Indochina.
Dommen was bureau manager and roving South East Asian correspondent for United Press International in Saigon and Hongkong from 1959 to 1963. Indochina was his beat. But his book is not a journalistic quickie. The country and the people come alive in his pages. His up-to-date account of the intermittent Lilliputian civil wars in Laos and their relation to the bigger one in Vietnam could hardly be more timely since Indochina is the place where the new Johnson Administration may most easily stumble into full-scale war after pledging itself in the election campaign to peace. Two main skeins help us unravel the tangled story. The first is that we have gone on regarding neutralism as inherently wicked in Southeast Asia, long after we have accepted it elsewhere. This explains the perverse U.S. policy which looks with suspicion on the only state in Indochina where Communists are negligible, the people reasonably content, and guerillas non-existent, the Cambodia of Prince Sihanouk. Though its neutralism accounts for its stability, we regard it as living in sin. The other main thread in the story of Indochina is that the U.S. has come to have two different policies for dealing with Communist States. In Eastern Europe we no longer regard the Soviet bloc as a monolith. We recognize diversity and encourage it. But in Asia we treat China, and its two Communist neighbors, North Korea and North Vietnam, as a faceless mass to be dealt with as we did the Russian Revolution from 1917 to 1933, by non-recognition, economic blockade, exclusion from international organizations, and if necessary by war. Any resemblance between this policy and that advocated by an Air Force Brigadier General from Arizona in the last election is coincidental but unmistakable. Dommen’s book on Laos dares recognize the wisdom of De Gaulle’s view that the advent of the Sino-Soviet split makes it worthwhile in Asia, too, to deal with the individual Communist States and resistance movements as distinct national entities with divergent interests which could be exploited to make the neutralization of the area a viable solution.
Such a policy was hinted at last June 9 in a report by a member of the CIA’s Board of National Estimates which was leaked out to the press. It looked toward “some kind of negotiated settlement based upon neutralization” to end the war in Vietnam. Dommen’s book is in line with that policy. If we actually adopt it, we will show the same capacity as the French for learning our lessons the costly way. France, now wooing Ho Chi Minh, had a chance to come to terms with him after the war. He signed an agreement for an autonomous state within the French Union in 1946 and welcomed French troops back to Tonkin as fellow members of the Resistance only to have the French begin a war to reimpose their rule. This ended eight years later with their humiliating defeat at Dienbienphu after the waste of $11 billion in French revenues, $1 billion in U.S. aid, 172,000 French casualties, as many or more among the Vietminh, and a quarter miltion Vietnamese civilians dead.1
The cost of our own intervention in South Vietnam and Laos since we took up where the French left off has yet to be totaled up, but it will be comparable in money and in Vietnam lives. When the smoke of villages being napalmed for “freedom” clears away, it will be seen that we lost two great opportunities in Indochina. The first was after the war, when the Leftists we have been fighting in both Vietnam and Laos had close relations with the OSS, and appealed to us for aid on the basis of FDR’s Atlantic Charter which had inspired them with its promise of liberation from colonialism. With the onset of the cold war, we rejected their appeals and supported the French effort to reimpose their rules. The second opportunity was in 1954, with the Geneva settlement. The neutralization we are beginning to consider now we could have had then. What Dommen fails to make clear, partly because the story gets lost in the details, partly because he is too respectful of the State Department, is that this first attempt at neutralization failed because John Foster Dulles opposed it and set out instead to bring Laos, South Vietnam, and Cambodia into the American sphere of influence. Dulles stopped talking about a rollback of Communism in Europe after the 1952 campaign, but that seems to have remained a catchword of policy in the Far East. As recently as last May 4, William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, told the House Appropriations Committee that our military and economic aid to Laos and South Vietnam along with Formosa, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines was intended “to produce a situation of strength from which we may in time see a rollback of Communist power.”
It is the idea of building a series of advanced bases around Communist China which explains the course of events from 1954 onward. Cambodia became the stepchild of U.S. policy because it insisted on remaining neutral, as the Geneva pact provided. That pact seemed to provide our favorite formula—free elections—for reuniting the divided countries of Vietnam and Laos. But here East and West switched sides. Our formula for reuniting Korea and Germany, where we were sure we would win, was free elections. The Communists rejected them there, where they knew they would lose, but pressed for fulfillment of the election pledge in Vietnam. Eisenhower’s memoirs later disclosed we were advised that in any free election at the time the war ended Ho Chi Minh would win 80 percent of the vote. The U.S. soon indicated (China Quarterly, Jan.-Mar. 1962) that it “would not sit by quietly if faced with the prospect that South Vietnam might go Communist, even as a result of free election.” So on our side, too, end justified means. We backed Diem not only in blocking the elections but in rejecting every appeal from North Vietnam for trade and better relations. East and West Germany, despite their bitter differences, trade with each other on a substantial scale. But we made the 17th parallel between North and South Vietnam one of the tightest Iron Curtains in the world. In Laos we tried our best to prevent the elections but failed. When they were finally held in 1958, the country was reunited, and a coalition Cabinet established under the neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma, we cut off aid to help the rightists overturn it and set up a dictatorship instead. This split the country wide open again.
No country could be easier to split. The enormous complexity of its politics is in inverse ratio to its size. A majority of its people are not Lao at all. To climb from the broad, fertile valley bottoms where the Lao dwell into the mountain jungles is to enter the realm of primitive tribes of Meo, Kha, and Thai, whose lands often straddle unmarked borders between Laos and Vietnam to which they are wholly indifferent. The loyalties of these ethnic groups, as Dommen writes, “transcend all ideological groupings and are of a more permanent character.” The relatively advanced Lao live in a medieval-style kingdom whose semi-independent fiefdoms have both used, and been used by, the great Powers in their cold war. Three figures have dominated the Laotian political landscape since 1954. Their exotic names sound as if they came out of Gilbert and Sullivan. In the view of Dommen and almost every journalist who has visited the area, two are idealists: Prince Souvanna Phouma and his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong. The third, General Phoumi Nosavan, is a sharpie. It should not be hard to guess which one ended up on our payroll. The two Princes stem from the viceregal branch of the Laotian Royal family. Both were educated in France and came home as engineers to work in the Civil Service. Both joined the resistance movement after the war, were driven into exile in Thailand and appealed in vain for U.S. aid in their liberation struggle. Souvanna Phouma, the elder and more moderate of the two, finally returned home to become Prime Minister of Laos in the closing years of French rule. Souphanouvong, a brilliant scholar who spent one term in jail in Vientiane reading classical Greek, turned Left in the same period, and became head of the Pathet Lao. At the time of the French collapse in 1954 this leftist guerrilla movement, with aid from Ho Chi Minh, had obtained control of the two Northwestern provinces adjacent to China and North Vietnam. General Nosavan was once in this guerrilla movement under Souphanouvong, but defected to the French who rewarded him with rapid promotion in their territorial army. Later he was picked by the CIA as our favorite “strong man” for Laos.2
The whole story of Laos under our influence stinks of money. We debauched this lovely, sparsely inhabited mountain jungle country, a lotus-eater land where food was plentiful and the problems, like the ideologies, are mostly imported. The State Department under Dulles insisted, over the objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in establishing a 25,000 man Royal Army in Laos. To train it, we sent in something called a Programs Evaluation Office, made up of U.S. Army officers in civilian clothes. These disguises were required because the Geneva agreement of 1954 allowed only a small French military mission. The establishment of this huge army for a country of 2 million created a sharp inflation. The cost of living doubled. To sop up the inflation we poured in all kinds of luxury goods. According to Dommen the leftist party of Prince Souphanouvong showed “little or no concern” with teaching Marxism-Leninism to the villagers. “Instead of analyzing the struggle against ‘imperialism,’ their propaganda,” Dommen tells us, “pointed to the American aid program as evidence of a scheme to exploit Laos for foreign purposes. Potential converts were sent from their villages on trips to Vientiane so that they could get an eyeful of the luxurious homes and cars that Lao government officials had bought with money meant to help Laos become economically independent.”
No country in Southeast Asia has more money per capita pumped into it than Laos and in none has less reached the ordinary villager. The U.S. Embassy once claimed in its own defense that it had imported “only” three Cadillacs and thirty Buicks, “all lowest priced models,” into this almost roadless country!
The Royal Army has grown from 25,000 to 70,000. It had five generals when the French left. Now it has 121, probably the highest ratio of generals to troops in the world; the U.S. still has no way of knowing how much pay and allowance is pocketed by the generals. The one certain fact about this gravy train army is that it can’t fight. Its near collapse in Phoumi Nosavan’s 1960-61 revolt against Souvanna Phouma led the U.S. back to Geneva in 1962, where it negotiated a new pact with Communist China and North Vietnam for the neutralization of Laos. A new coalition was set up, representing right, left, and neutralist forces. But instead of a true coalition, we created a troika, Khrushchev style. The restored Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma, instead of being made the head of a united government, merely presided over a tripleheaded monster, each head of which was supported by a different set of great Powers. Prince Souphanouvong’s Pathet Lao drew their support from North Vietnam and beyond that first from Russia and later from China. The rightist Royal Army was securely in the hands of our man, General Phoumi Nosavan, and the funds for its support went directly from the Pentagon to him. The Prime Minister and his handful of neutralist troops under Kong Le, were precariously dependent on the State Department and oddly enough limited Russian aid until the time when Peking seems to have displaced Moscow as the dominant influence in the area.
The setup might be termed a triple troika. The Pentagon backed the right. North Vietnam and China backed the Left. The neutralist center—and this brings us to the third level—was dependent on the State Department, the U.S. government itself being split three ways. In Laos, as Dommen explains, policy has been bedevilled because the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. military, and the CIA have each had independent sources of funds and independent channels of communication to Washington. The conflicts among them have added to instability. The military and the CIA have disliked the coalition from the start and welcomed the coup d’état upsetting it last April. Washington insisted on putting Souvanna Phouma back as Premier but the unsteady structure of the government laid the neutralist forces wide open to intrigue from right and left. When fighting broke out again after the coup the neutralist forces split in a little civil war of their own, one wing joining the Pathet Lao while the other, with Kong Le and the Prime Minister, became prisoners of the right. The result, as Bernard B. Fall notes in a new and enlarged edition of his Street Without Joy, is that Laos seemed to be headed “toward the kind of ‘polarization’ into Right and Left which had gotten it into deep trouble twice before.”
The sharp-eyed Fall notes that on the eve of the coup last April which overthrew Souvanna Phouma’s neutralist coalition, a secret meeting took place between General Phoumi Nosavan and his fellow “strong man” from South Vietnam, General Khanh. Such a meeting and cooperation between them was bound to increase North Vietnamese suspicion. The military in both countries might have hoped, Dr. Fall writes, “that a Communist reaction against both countries might bring about large-scale American help to what would be in effect an Indochina war at 1953 level” i.e., a total U.S. military involvement and an extension of the war. This has long been Khanh’s one hope of saving himself.
Dommen concludes, as did Dr. Fall last year in his brilliant The Two Vietnams (Praeger), that the only safe way out is neutralization and that North Vietnam is prepared to accept an independent South Vietnam linked in a neutral belt with Cambodia and Laos, as the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and Prince Sihanouk have long proposed. The remedy may seem risky, but less so than a widened war. There is no reason why a firm system of international guarantees could not be worked out for such a settlement. The best guarantee would be the mutual interests it served. In his The Two Vietnams, Dr. Fall reported that the North Vietnamese leaders in interviews with him during his last visit there were prepared to accept an independent South Vietnam if they could resume the normal trade of the North’s surplus coal for the South’s surplus rice. A National Liberation Front leader in a clandestine interview before Diem’s downfall told George Chaffard of Le Monde (Aug. 24, 1963) that the NLF was not fighting to replace “one dictatorship with another,” i.e. Diem’s with Ho’s, but wanted an independent South. For China a settlement would make it easier to replace in the West the sources of supply lost by the Russian break. For the U.S. it would provide a facesaving way out of the war. In the Pentagon, State, and CIA there are men who hope for such a solution now that the elections are out of the way. Another, perhaps more powerful group, would rather widen the war than recognize that it is lost. Dommen and Fall’s books may help to strengthen the saner view.
In a recent conversation with Frank Giles, Foreign Editor of the London Sunday Times, Walter Lippmann made the following remarks:
Personally, I agree in general with the Gaullist and Russian thesis that the neutralization of South East Asia is the answer. The best we can hope for in what is the natural sphere of influence of China, especially as she gets more powerful, is a gradual development of national, Tito-type Communist regimes. You can’t make democracies out of these countries, you can’t hope to retain them as American or French or British colonies, they do not have a private enterprise system. They are bound to become highly socialist states or government-run states. The great question here is independence. I think this is a nicer word than neutralization—which has a bad odor. What we ought to aim at is guaranteed independence, a guarantee in which China, the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain, France, India and perhaps Australia and New Zealand, would all be participants.
December 17, 1964
Some publisher should bring out an English translation of Jean Sainteny’s Histoire d’Une Paix Manquée (Paris, Amoit Dumont, 1953) which tells the inside story of M. Sainteny’s negotiations with Ho as the representative of the French Republic in 1945-46. M. Sainteny is now a member of de Gaulle’s cabinet. ↩
Phoumi Nosavan is an enterprising man. He became worried last year that U.S. funds might be shut off. So according to Le Monde (May 24-25, 1964) he opened a gambling house in Vientiane for the benefit of his General Staff and then the world’s only “legal” opium den. Dommen confirmed this story in a telephone conversation with me. ↩