THE INVISIBLE GOVERNMENT -- LAOS: THE PACIFIST WARRIORS
Brown, a tall, thin, gray-haired Yankee, had been transferred from New Delhi on short notice with only a superficial knowledge of the long, tortured and expensive history of the United States experiment in Laos. Yet even a quick look convinced him that the CIA and its Pentagon allies were wrong in their assessment of the captain.
The young paratrooper and his battalion of 300 men had taken over the capital city of Vientiane in a pre-dawn coup on August 9, 1960. They had not been paid in three months and were tired of being the only fighting unit in the quasi-pacifist army of 25,000. Kong Le was personally outraged by the high-living, CIA-backed regime of General Phoumi Nosavan. He decided to strike while Phoumi and his cabinet were out of town inspecting a sandalwood tree that was to be turned into a burial urn for the late king.
The CIA and the American military mission viewed the coup with horror. They considered Kong Le to be Communist-inspired, despite his many battles against the pro-Communist Pathet Lao. But Ambassador Brown, a fifty-three-year-old former Wall Street lawyer who tried to see things with detachment and a fresh eye, was inclined to accept the American-trained paratrooper for what he purported to be: a fine troop commander who lived with his men and shared their rations; a patriot weary of civil war.
"I have fought for many years," Kong Le said. "I have killed many men. I have never seen a foreigner die."
Laos is a pastoral land, blessed with magnificent scenery -- soaring mountains, swift rivers, verdant valleys -- and populated by a strange mixture of isolated tribes alike only in their distaste for physical labor. It is the "Land of the Million Elephants," whose only cash crop is opium, and whose people are 85 percent illiterate.
Almost all Laotians are Buddhists, peace-loving by instinct and precept. In battle, to the dismay of their American advisers, they were accustomed to aiming high in the expectation that the enemy would respond in kind.
In 1960 the principal attraction of Phoumi's royal army to a recruit was the pay -- $130 a year, twice the average national income. Although United States aid had amounted to about $25 a head for the two million Laotians, military pay was about all that filtered down to the average citizen. More than three fourths of the money went to equip a modern, motorized army in a nation all but devoid of paved roads. All of this, as formulated by John Foster Dulles, was meant to convert Laos from a neutral nation, vulnerable to left-wing pressures, into a military bastion against Communism.
When the French withdrew in 1954, after a futile eight-year war with the Vietnamese Communists, a neutralist government had been organized under Prince Souvanna Phouma, a cheerful, pipe-smoking, French-educated engineer. He held power for four years, unsuccessfully struggling to integrate the two Communist Pathet Lao provinces into the central government. Then, in 1958, after Communist election gains and signs of military infiltration by the North Vietnamese, he resigned.
Souvanna was followed by a series of right-wing governments in which General Phoumi emerged as the strong-man. Finally, Phoumi succeeded in easing out Premier Phoui Sananikone, an able man with advanced ideas about grass-roots aid and Village development; he was also firmly non- Communist but he had too many independent notions for the CIA. He was replaced by Tiao Somsanith, a thoroughly pliable politician.
Phoumi then rigged the 1960 elections -- not one Pathet Lao was elected -- and settled in for a long, U.S.-financed tenure. Even Kong Le's coup failed to dim his vision of permanent affluence. He still had his army intact with him at Savannakhet in the south. And he was unshakably convinced that the United States would put him back in power. As tangible support for that conviction, Phoumi could point to the personal contact man the CIA kept by his side.
He was Jack Hazey, an ex-OSS man and former French Legionnaire whose face was half shot away during World War II. Occasionally, Hazey would be challenged for being out of step with public statements of U.S. policy. Clearly implying that he was under higher, secret orders, Hazey would retort: "I don't give a damn what they say."
The conflict between the public and secret definitions of United States policy on Laos was particularly pronounced in the summer of 1960. Shortly after Phoumi and his puppet Premier were ousted, Kong Le called back Souvanna Phouma to form a coalition government. To reduce the chances of discord, Souvanna then asked Phoumi to join the government as Vice-Premier and Minister of Defense.
Ambassador Brown dashed off a cable to Washington urging unqualified support for Souvanna's new government.* But the CIA and the State Department decided to hedge: they announced formal recognition of Souvanna but continued substantive support for Phoumi. The decision served to reinforce Phoumi's conviction that the CIA and the American military mission would in the end put him back in power.
Brown persuaded himself that he had the complete backing of the CIA station chief, Gordon L. Jorgensen, and the leaders of the military mission; but Washington's ambivalent policy put the ambassador in an embarrassing predicament. He tried to make the best of it by seeking out Souvanna and asking him if he had any objections to the continued support of Phoumi by the United States. No, the princely Premier replied, provided the equipment was not used against him; he would need Phoumi's army to fend off the Pathet Lao.
Brown then sent emissaries to Phoumi, assuring him that Souvanna was not scheming to deprive him of his U.S. aid and pleading with him at least to return to Vientiane and negotiate. But this man who had been highly regarded by the CIA and the Pentagon for his fighting qualities was afraid of venturing beyond his closely guarded stronghold. He had a broken line in the palm of his hand and a fortuneteller had once warned him that he would die violently. Even under maximum security he wore a bullet-proof vest during all his diplomatic dealings.
Confronted by Phoumi's intransigence, Souvanna began to despair of his ability to carry on. He called in the Western ambassadors in mid-September and warned them that he urgently needed the support of the royal army. "I am at the end of my capacity to lead," he told them.
Souvanna's government was also in dire need of rice and oil, which had been cut off by a blockade imposed by Thailand's military strongman, Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat, a close friend of Phoumi. Washington said it was entreating Sarit to lift the blockade, but the vise continued to tighten around Souvanna.
Early in October, J. Graham Parsons, former Ambassador to Laos and then Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, flew to Vientiane and demanded that Souvanna sever his relations with the Pathet Lao. This amounted to a demand that the neutralist government abandon its neutrality. Souvanna refused.
Then a high-level mission from the Pentagon, including John N. Irwin, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs, arrived for secret talks with Phoumi.
Souvanna concluded that the United States was in the process of withdrawing all support from the neutralist government and again throwing its full power behind Phoumi. Early in December he made a final and unsuccessful appeal to Brown for rice and oil. In desperation, Souvanna turned to the Russians, who saw an irresistible opportunity: to achieve political dominance in Laos at a cut rate and, at the same time, to replace the Chinese as the principal Communist influence in Southeast Asia. Without delay the Soviets started an airlift from Hanoi on December 11, 1960.*
Two days earlier Phoumi had ordered his troops northward; and on December 18 the royal army recaptured Vientiane. Souvanna fled to Cambodia and Kong Le retreated to the north, distributing close to 10,000 American rifles to the Pathet Lao along the way.
Phoumi quickly established a government, naming Prince Boun Oum, a middle-aged playboy, as Premier. But despite his recent military success, Phoumi failed to pursue Kong Le. Instead, he settled back into his old ways. He had never been within fifty miles of the front lines and he saw no need to break with this tradition.
The Russians, meantime, were moving in substantial amounts of weapons by air and truck. And the North Vietnamese began to infiltrate crack guerrilla troops in support of the Pathet Lao. Kong Le joined forces with them, and by early 1961 he had captured the strategic Plain of Jars with its key airstrip fifty miles from North Vietnam.
By the time President Kennedy was inaugurated, on January 20, it seemed as if only the introduction of U.S. troops could keep the Pathet Lao from overrunning Vientiane and the Mekong River Valley separating Laos from Thailand. Kennedy was so informed by President Eisenhower and Defense Secretary Thomas S. Gates, Jr., in his first Laos briefing on January 19. Eisenhower apologized for leaving such a "mess."
One of Kennedy's first official acts was to ask his military advisers to draw up a plan for saving Laos. They recommended that an Allied force, including U.S. troops, take over the defense of Vientiane under the sanction of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The idea was to free Phoumi's army for a full-fledged campaign in the Plain of Jars.
While weighing the advice, Kennedy ordered the Seventh Fleet within striking distance of Laos and promised Phoumi substantial new support if his troops would show some determination to fight.
Early in March, however, a royal army detachment was easily routed from a key position commanding the principal highway in northern Laos. The new administration became skeptical of Phoumi at the outset.
The Allied occupation plan was further undermined when the British, French and other SEATO powers (with the exception of Thailand) balked at providing troops. In addition, the President could not obtain assurances from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that U.S. forces would be able to save Laos without resort to tactical nuclear weapons.
In a nationally televised news conference on March 23 Kennedy warned that the Western powers would "have to consider their response" if the Communist attack continued in Laos. The clear implication was that the United States was prepared to intervene with military force. But, privately, the President told Harriman that he decidedly did not want to be faced with the prospect of using troops, that he wanted a political settlement.
On April 1 the Russians, apparently wary of a direct confrontation with the United States, agreed in principle to a British proposal for a cease-fire. The next month a fourteen-nation conference on Laos was convened in Geneva. And in the only meeting of minds at their talk in Vienna in June, Kennedy and Khrushchev promised to work for a neutral and independent Laos.
By November the outlines of an agreement had been reached at Geneva: Souvanna Phouma was to be recalled to create a neutralist government including the three Laotian factions, the pro-Western royalists, the neutrals and the pro-Communist Pathet Lao.
But once again Phoumi balked. He refused to relinquish the Defense and Interior Ministries, as was decreed at Geneva. If he held out long enough, he reasoned, the CIA and the Pentagon would again come to his rescue.
President Kennedy rebuked him in private messages, but Phoumi steadfastly refused to submit. Had he not been told in 1960 that the United States was determined to have him join Souvanna's coalition? And in the end had not the CIA and the Pentagon supported him in his return to power? And, as in 1960, were not the CIA representatives still with him?
Washington was reluctant to yank out the CIA men abruptly. Precipitate action could only diminish the agency's prestige and usefulness. But Phoumi was proving so intractable that McCone, acting on Harriman's recommendation, ordered Hazey out of the country early in 1962.*
Nevertheless, Phoumi's reliance on the CIA had become so firmly ingrained that he could not be budged, even after the United States cut off its $3,000,000-a-month budgetary assistance to his government in February of 1962.
That spring Phoumi began a large-scale reinforcement of Nam Tha, an outpost deep in Pathet Lao territory, twenty miles from the Chinese border. Ambassador Brown warned him personally that the reinforcement was provocative and that the royal troops were so badly deployed that they would be an easy mark for the Pathet Lao. In May, Brown's admonition proved accurate. The Communists retaliated against the build-up, smashed into Nam Tha and sent Phoumi's troops in wild retreat. Two of his front-line generals commandeered the only two jeeps in the area and fled into Thailand.
The Nam Tha rout finally convinced Phoumi that he could not go it alone; and the Pathet Lao, verging on a complete take-over, halted when President Kennedy ordered 5,000 U .S. troops to take up positions in Thailand near the Laos border on May 15.
The three Laotian factions finally agreed to the coalition government on June 11 and the Geneva Accords were signed on July 23. In October the United States withdrew the 666 military advisers assigned to Phoumi's army.
But Communist North Vietnam failed to comply with the Geneva agreement. It refused to withdraw about 5,000 troops stationed in Laos in support of the Pathet Lao. On March 30, 1963, the Communists launched a new offensive which brought much of the Plain of Jars under their control.
The United States responded predictably: the Seventh Fleet took up position in the South China Sea off Vietnam; some 3,000 troops were sent to Thailand for much-publicized war games; and Harriman flew to Moscow to confer with Khrushchev. The Russian leader reaffirmed his support for a neutral and independent Laos. He also seemed to agree with Harriman that the Pathet Lao was responsible for the renewed fighting. It was clear that Moscow had lost control of the situation in Laos to Peking and Hanoi.
At the same time, United States policy makers were becoming increasingly convinced that Laos was not the right place to take a stand in Southeast Asia. The assessment of the Kennedy Administration was that most of the country, particularly the northern regions, would never be of much use to anyone. Administration officials were fond of debunking the Dulles policy with the quip: "Laos will never be a bastion of anything." The administration felt, nonetheless, that certain areas would have to be retained at all cost: Vientiane and the Mekong Valley. But it opposed the use of U.S. troops on any large scale.
In the event the neutralist government was about to be completely overwhelmed, the official plan, as it was outlined at a briefing of Pentagon officials by Dean Rusk, called for the movement of a modest American force into Vientiane. This would be designed to provoke a diplomatic test of the Geneva Accords. Failing in that, the United States was prepared to strike against North Vietnam as dramatic evidence that the Communist forces in Laos could advance farther only at the risk of a major war.
So it was that by the start of 1964 after a decade of humiliating reverses and the expenditure of close to half a billion dollars, United States policy had come full circle: during the 1950s Souvanna Phouma and his plan for a neutral Laos had been opposed with all the power of the Invisible Government; now the United States was ready to settle for even less than it could have had five years earlier at a fraction of the cost.
* Later, Brown's only regret was that, restrained by a newcomer's caution, he did not make the recommendation even more strong. A key diplomat agreed: "Now we'd gladly pay $100,000,000 for that government."
* Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi M. Pushkin told Harriman at the Laotian talks in Geneva in 1961 that the airlift had been organized and executed on the highest priority of any peacetime operation since the Russian Revolution.
* Hazey was then stationed in Bangkok, where he could be called upon quickly in a crisis.