The Secret War
United States support of Souvanna Phouma's government in the face of continuing North Vietnamese aggression did not constitute, technically speaking, a violation of the terms of the 1962 Geneva Protocol, as Radio Hanoi and Radio Pathet Lao charged. It did not involve Laos in a military alliance, and there were no United States military bases or ground troops in Laos. Supply flights to RLG outposts were flown by civilian companies under charter to Souvanna Phouma's government. United States military pilots in civilian clothes, their names deleted from Department of Defense rosters, flew forward air control missions over Laos. United States pilots killed or captured in Laos often were officially described as lost "in Southeast Asia." CIA advisers assisted the guerrilla units of General Vang Pao's Hmong army, which, along with irregular forces in the south, was supplied with rice, arms, and pay by CIA operatives based at Udon Thani in Thailand. The total number of CIA personnel involved in this effort never exceeded 225 and included some fifty case officers.
On the periphery of the plenary sessions at Geneva, Harriman and his deputy, William H. Sullivan, had arrived at an informal understanding with Soviet deputy foreign minister Georgi M. Pushkin to the effect that as long as the United States did not technically violate the Geneva Protocol the Soviet Union would not feel compelled, out of consideration of its ally in Hanoi, to respond to United States activities in Laos. The official curtain of secrecy associated with this arrangement gave rise later to statements in Congress that the United States was engaged in a "secret war" in Laos, a perspective that obscured the Ho Chi Minh government of responsibility for its support of the communist-dominated resistance movement in Laos since 1945.
Souvanna Phouma was having problems of his own because of the peculiar nature of the Cold War in Laos. In April 1964, he visited Hanoi and Beijing. Premier Zhou Enlai reiterated China's support for the 1954 and 1962 Geneva agreements and advised Souvanna Phouma to dissociate the Laos question from the Vietnam question, a difficult task. Hanoi seemed to have succeeded in its strategy of making "one battlefield" out of Indochina--Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam--and the Ho Chi Minh Trail now extended through Laos and Cambodia.
After a new tripartite meeting on the embattled Plain of Jars, Souvanna Phouma returned to Vientiane without any result and announced his intention to resign. Two rightist generals took advantage of the situation, staged a coup attempt, and arrested Souvanna Phouma. Only concerted action by Western ambassadors in the capital secured his release. Souvanna Phouma pledged to merge the rightist and Neutralist factions.
There was further infighting among the generals. In February 1965, General Phoumi, whose business dealings had earned him many enemies on the noncommunist side, left for Thailand.
With the formal merger of their faction with the rightists, Neutralist leaders increasingly felt their lives to be in danger. Kong Le eventually took refuge in the Indonesian embassy in Vientiane, leaving Laos soon after for the safety of Paris. He was replaced as commander of Neutralist troops by General Sengsouvanh Souvannarath.
From 1965 to 1973, the civil war seesawed back and forth in northern Laos, characterized by short but often very intense engagements. Because of the large areas contested, even North Vietnamese regular divisions in Laos, such as the 316th, were used in small-unit engagements during the dry season to deny control of territory and population to the other side. Population control was particularly important, because that was where recruitment for military training and transport occurred. The Hmong, in particular, suffered. Aside from the casualties, entire villages periodically had to escape the fighting, disrupting crop growing and livestock tending.
An exception to the rule of small-scale engagements was the major North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao offensive against Vang Pao that began in mid-December 1971 and lasted until the end of April 1972. This battle involved more than twenty North Vietnamese battalions and some 10,000 Hmong irregulars and Royal Lao Army defenders. After blasting the last defensive positions on the Plain of Jars with newly introduced 130-mm guns with a thirty-kilometer range, the North Vietnamese advanced on Longtiang. They captured a number of positions on a ridge dominating the airfield before being driven off with heavy loss of life on both sides. The Hmong halted an attack of T-34 tanks against the airfield by skillfully placing land mines.
Since 1963 Souvanna Phouma had kept vacant the cabinet seats allotted to the LPF, as he had done in the case of Phoumi's seat as interior minister in his August 30, 1960, government. When the National Assembly rejected his budget in debate in September 1966, he obtained a vote in the King's Council to dissolve the assembly and hold elections for a new assembly the following year. Elections were held again on January 2, 1972; forty-one of the fifty-nine deputies elected were new. The LPF boycotted the elections. The prime minister kept up contact with Souphanouvong in his cave headquarters in Houaphan, occasionally using the ICC and Soviet and North Vietnamese ambassadors as messengers.
Powerless to stop the war and acquiescing in the diplomatic fiction that the 1962 Geneva Agreement was still in effect, Souvanna Phouma endured the revilement of Radio Pathet Lao, which called him traitor, a capitulationist, and a tool of United States aggressors. The war drained Laos's manpower resources and pushed Souvanna Phouma into agreeing to introduce Thai artillery units on the royalist side and also helped to identify him with the rightist faction. As a result of the war, a peak number of 378,800 internally displaced persons were being cared for by the RLG in October 1973. Souvanna Phouma never gave up hope of resuming negotiations when conditions became more favorable.
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