Attempt to Restore Neutrality
On August 9, Captain Kong Le led the Second Paratroop Battalion in a virtually bloodless coup d'état that changed the history of modern Laos. In taking over Vientiane, the paratroopers had unwittingly chosen a moment when the entire cabinet was in Louangphrabang conferring with the king. They informed their compatriots and the outside world by broadcasting their communiqués on the radio. In a rally at the city football stadium on August 11, Kong Le expanded on his goals: end the fighting in Laos, stem corruption, and establish a policy of peace and neutrality. Recalling the experience of the first coalition when the country was temporarily at peace, Kong Le asked for the nomination of Souvanna Phouma as prime minister.
On August 11, General Ouan Ratikoun, as the cabinet's envoy, arrived in Vientiane from Louangphrabang. After negotiations with Kong Le and Souvanna Phouma as president of the National Assembly, Ouan returned to Louangphrabang with a document in which the coup leaders requested the cabinet to return. They agreed to withdraw their forces to specified points in the city and stipulated that these steps would lead to negotiations on the government's future. Two days later, however, when Ouan returned alone, it became evident that the cabinet was reluctant to return to Vientiane. Once this news spread, demonstrators gathered outside the Presidency of the Council of Ministers demanding Somsanith's immediate resignation; they next marched on the National Assembly, where Souvanna Phouma met them and, startled by their vehemence, attempted to moderate their demands. Inside, the forty-one deputies present voted unanimously to censure the Somsanith government. On August 14, a delegation of the assembly carried the news of this vote to Louangphrabang and asked the king to name Souvanna Phouma to form a new government. Fearing violence in Vientiane, Somsanith resigned, and the king named Souvanna Phouma prime minister. The new government was invested by thirty-four deputies on August 16. The next day, Kong Le declared his coup d'état over and vacated the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.
On receiving word of the coup, Phoumi flew from Louangphrabang to Ubol, where he informed Thai and United States officials of his intention to "straighten things out" in Laos and from where he sent emissaries to Savannakhét and Pakxé. In Bangkok the following day, Phoumi met with Sarit, United States embassy counselor Leonard Unger, and the chief of the United States military mission in Thailand. He outlined plans for a parachute drop to recapture the Vientiane airport and ferry in additional forces by air to oust the rebels. He requested that Thailand and the United States provide air transport, fuel, salaries for his troops, and two radiobroadcasting units. He also asked for a secure channel of communication between his new headquarters at Savannakhét and Bangkok.
These steps, taken in secrecy, received immediate approval in Washington. Orders went out to designate a senior PEO officer as liaison to Phoumi, and a PEO channel was established between Savannakhét and the United States military mission in Bangkok, bypassing the embassy in Vientiane. Aircraft of Civil Air Transport, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) front, were made available to Phoumi, and Laotian troops training at bases in Thailand were to be returned as soon as possible to Savannakhét.
Sarit, Pibul's minister of defense who had come to power in a coup in October 1958, had invested heavily in Phoumi and was not about to let him go. The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, for their part, saw aid to Phoumi as preserving at least part of the anticommunist forces in Laos from the effects of the split in the royal army. But from this point on, much as United States officials tried to separate the two issues, aid to the anticommunists in Laos was inseparable from Sarit's personal commitment to Phoumi. The United States embassy in Bangkok was also alarmed by the possibility that inadequate support for Phoumi might lead Sarit to intervene unilaterally in Laos because he had already imposed a blockade on Vientiane.
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