Protracted Diplomacy

Protracted Diplomacy

At the reconvened Geneva Conference, the Neutralists were represented by Quinim, the rightists by Phoui Sananikone, and the Pathet Lao by Phoumi Vongvichit. The separate delegations served until they agreed on forming a unified government to sign the final agreement. All Laos's neighbors were represented, as were the three ICC member countries and their cochairmen, and the United States and France.

The summit meeting between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna on June 3-4, 1961, coincided with the crisis over the North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao cease-fire violations at the besieged Hmong outpost of Padong. The Hmong abandoned Padong in early June and established a new base at Long Chieng. Kennedy protested North Vietnam's involvement to Khrushchev and pointed out that the United States was supporting Laos's neutrality. Both leaders agreed that the conflict in Laos should not bring their two countries into confrontation. The idea of neutralizing Laos had been suggested to Kennedy as early as January.

For the next year, an enormous effort of persuasion involving all the great powers went into getting the Laotian parties to agree to form a coalition government. The effort included meetings among princes Souvanna Phouma, Boun Oum, and Souphanouvong in Zurich and Vientiane and protracted diplomatic consultations in Vientiane, Xiangkhoang, Rangoon, Moscow, Paris, and Geneva.

Phoumi finally had to be disabused of the notion that he could count on unqualified United States and Thai support. Sarit favored supporting the negotiation policy. Phoumi favored peace but felt that Souvanna Phouma was the wrong choice to lead a new government. W. Averell Harriman, the intermediary, and a United States delegation held a tense and acrimonious meeting with Phoumi and his cabinet at the general's office in Vientiane. Phoumi repeated his opposition to Souvanna Phouma, and Harriman warned him he was leading his country to disaster. The meeting ended inconclusively. Phoumi further demonstrated his intransigence by building up his forces at Nam Tha, a town in northwestern Laos without strategic importance, thereby inviting attack. When the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao attacked, camouflaging their violation of the cease-fire with the usual propaganda about mutinies in the opposing ranks, the defenders fled toward the Mekong, leaving most of their weapons behind. Phoumi may have hoped the debacle would precipitate Thai or United States armed intervention, but it did not. In the end, he agreed to the coalition.

Souvanna Phouma's new government took office on June 23, 1962, the second coalition in Laos's modern history. In accordance with the principle of tripartism, seven cabinet seats were allocated to the Neutralists, four seats each to the rightists and Pathet Lao, and four to nonparty people. The rapprochement between Souvanna Phouma and Kennedy was manifested by the former's visit to Washington in July at the conclusion of the Geneva Conference. Unlike in 1954, representatives of each of the fourteen participating nations signed the final document, the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos and its Protocol.

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