COUP OF 1960, THE BATTLE OF VIENTIANE AND EXPANDING WAR IN LAOS

COUP OF 1960

As guerrilla warfare resumed over large areas, moral objections began to be raised against Lao killing Lao. On August 9, 1960, the diminutive commanding officer of the elite Second Paratroop Batallion of the Royal Lao Army seized power in Vientiane while almost the entire Lao government was in Luang Prabang making arrangements for the funeral of King Sisavang Vong. Captain Kong Le announced to the world that Laos was returning to a policy of neutrality, and demanded that Souvanna Phouma be reinstated as prime minister. King Sisavang Vatthana acquiesced, but General Phoumi refused to take part, and flew to central Laos where he fomented opposition to the new government. [Source: Lonely Planet = ]

In this, he had the support of the Thai government and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which supplied him with cash and weapons. By December he was ready to march on Vientiane. The battle for the city was spirited, but lopsided. Kong Le withdrew to the Plain of Jars, until then garrisoned by the Royal Lao Army, where he joined forces with Pathet Lao units. The neutralist government still claimed to be the legitimate government of Laos, and as such received arms, via Vietnam, from the Soviet Union. Most of these found their way to the Pathet Lao, however. Throughout the country large areas fell under the control of communist forces. Offensives by the Royal Lao Army led to defeat and disaster. The US sent troops to Thailand, in case communist forces should attempt to cross the Mekong, and it looked for a while as if the major commitment of US troops in Southeast Asia would be to Laos rather than Vietnam. =

Army Enters Politics in Laos

With the LPF's deputies in prison, the political scene became increasingly chaotic, even lawless. When Phoui's mandate ended in December 1959, Phoumi Nosavan and his CDNI supporters began their move to force the king to grant them power by announcing that the supreme command of the armed forces was "handling current affairs." Their move, however, was too bold and caused the Western ambassadors in Vientiane to present a united front to the king in support of constitutionality. An interim government headed by Kou Abhay was charged with preparing for new elections. Phoumi, temporarily rebuffed, bided his time as minister of defense. The army had entered politics but not quite in the manner Washington had hoped. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the April 24, 1960, elections, Phoumi found his revenge. By exerting considerable pressure, he had changes made in the electoral law. With financial support from Marshal Sarit Thanarat of Thailand, Phoumi bought off strong or inconvenient candidates and enlisted civil servants as his campaign workers. Election balloting was fraudulent, and the results, giving rightist candidates large majorities, were totally unbelievable. A new government was formed on June 3, ostensibly headed by Somsanith but in fact controlled by Phoumi acting as minister of defense under the aegis of his new political party, the Social Party (Paxa Sangkhom). Souvanna Phouma, elected without fraud, became the president of the National Assembly. The imprisoned LPF deputies had not been allowed to run for the Assembly, but sent word to LPF supporters to vote for any LPF candidates who had dared run or else to vote for Peace Party candidates. However, on May 23, under darkness and with the cooperation of personnel at their prison, the LPF deputies escaped and disappeared into the countryside. *

Royal Lao Army Seizes Power in Coup in 1960

The a virtually bloodless coup d'état on August 9, led by Captain Kong Le led the Second Paratroop Battalion in 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *

General Kong Lee

The leader of the anticommunist movement was a plucky 4-foot-11-inch soldier who called himself Gen. Kong Le. Trained by French and American advisors, he seized Vientiane in 1960 with 800 troops who believed they were protected from bullets by magic baci bracelets and blessing from the phi guardian spirit. Some even believed they were reincarnations of the Settthathirath, a legendary Lao king who disappeared mysteriously in the jungle. Kong declared a new, politically neutral country.

Gen. Kong Le was called a revolutionary hero by the New York Times and featured in the cover of the June 26, 1964 issue of Time magazine, which described him as a man who "stood almost alone in Laos as the West's only effective battler against Communism.

Early in the conflict Lee had been allied with the Communist and Vietnam. In 1998 Kong Le was a stateless nomad in Fresno, California trying to avoid deportation. He told the Washington Post, “Some people have sent money or gone back to support the communists. But we are ready to fight...When the moment is right, we will go back and fight, and we will win. The people of Laos are angry, and this from their hearts."

Deepening Split in Laos

Phoumi enlisted the support of the commanders of four of Laos's five military regions. He also began immediately broadcasting propaganda denouncing Kong Le as a communist and on August 15 proclaimed the establishment of a Counter Coup d'État Committee. He appealed to all military personnel to rally behind him, guaranteed their salaries, and proclaimed his intention to liberate Vientiane from communist hands. Forces loyal to Phoumi seized Pakxan. The United States considered Souvanna Phouma's return to office bad news. A Department of State cable stated that the United States sought "to bring about an acceptable power balance of non-communist elements which would eliminate Kong Le and restore authority and stability." *

Souvanna Phouma, wanting to avoid civil war, with Phoumi's concurrence convoked the National Assembly in Louangphrabang on August 29. A new government with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister and Phoumi as deputy prime minister and minister of interior was sworn in on August 31. Phoumi announced the dissolution of his Counter Coup d'État Committee. This might have defused the crisis, but the same day, Kong Le made a radiobroadcast protesting the presence of Phoumi in the cabinet. Souvanna Phouma convinced him to change his mind, which he did "for the sake of peace and reconciliation" on September 1. Phoumi returned to Savannakhét and waited. *

On September 10, Prince Boun Oum, speaking from Savannakhét in the name of the new Revolutionary Committee, announced that the constitution had been abolished, and he and Phoumi were assuming power. In mid-September, two companies of Kong Le's paratroopers routed the two battalions of Phoumi's advance guard from their position at Pakxan and installed a defensive line on the north bank of the Nam Kading. Phoumi made no move to organize his paratroop drop on Vientiane, in spite of the considerable means at his disposal. On the evening of September 21, Sarit made a speech in which he hinted at Thai armed intervention in Laos. *

Kong Le's reputation as a giant slayer had by now spread from the capital to the far corners of the kingdom. On September 28, when he dropped a handful of paratroopers near Xam Nua in order to explain the situation to the 1,500-person garrison that in principle was loyal to Souvanna Phouma, rumors that the garrison's officers, some of whom had been in contact with Phoumi, might be cashiered created a panic. The garrison abandoned the town to the Pathet Lao, who were accompanied by their North Vietnamese advisers from Group 959. The withdrawing column surrendered its arms to the Pathet Lao near Muang Peun on October 2. *

The Pathet Lao now claimed to be supporting Souvanna Phouma. The coup and Phoumi's resistance with foreign assistance, which the United States and Thailand had difficulty camouflaging, gave the still-secret LPP an unprecedented opportunity to burrow more deeply behind the nationalist mantle, and it lost no time in seizing the occasion. Many Laotians came to see the Pathet Lao as acting to defend the country against United States- and Thai-backed aggression. Even in Vientiane, there was growing resentment of the Thai blockade, which caused a shortage of consumer goods and rising prices. Foreseeing an opening for the Pathet Lao to negotiate with the new government, Radio Hanoi and Radio Beijing broadcast support for Souvanna Phouma. *

U.S. Involvement in Laos After the Coup in 1960

After the signing of this first Peace Treaty the US military advisors were withdrawn but a Programs Evaluation Office (PEO) was established in the US Embassy in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It soon became apparent that although all the Western forces had withdrawn the terms of the treaty were not being honoured by North Vietnam in their support of communist Pathet Lao forces. Although direct intervention by US forces was contemplated this was vetoed following the ‘Bay of Pigs' debacle in Cuba and from that point on US military support of the Lao neutralist government was covert, administered by the CIA but under the direction of the US Ambassador to Laos. The CIA's presence in Laos grew steadily from the early 1960s, but it still remained small. The total number of people connected with the war, both in Laos and in Thailand, never exceeded 225. This included some 50 case officers with Hmong, Lao, and Thai units.

Although Souvanna Phouma's government was accepted as the legal government of Laos by Britain, France, and the United States, this did not prevent the United States from broadening its support to Phoumi's forces on the grounds that they were fighting the Pathet Lao. In fact, there is no record of their taking any offensive action against the Pathet Lao. Phoumi had ordered the pullback from Xam Nua. Winthrop G. Brown, the new United States ambassador, reported instances where Phoumi refused help to engage the Pathet Lao because it was offered by Vientiane. The only offensive actions taken by Royal Lao Army troops against the Pathet Lao between August and December 1960 were those taken by troops loyal to Souvanna Phouma in Phôngsali and elsewhere. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The "compromise" worked out by the embassy with Souvanna Phouma, in which the prime minister would not object to direct United States military aid to Phoumi as long as this aid was not used against his government, was a sham. Whenever the embassy tried to persuade Phoumi to give up his plan and return to Vientiane, Phoumi pleaded fear for his safety and escalated his demands. In Louangphrabang, King Savang Vatthana temporized, hoping to bring the military leaders together at least in a united stand against the communists and putting off a political solution until later. Failing to achieve his aim, he retreated, saying he was disgusted with all concerned. Brown felt he was waiting for Phoumi's capture of Vientiane to get him off the hook and avoid the necessity of his taking any categoric action. *

Brown cabled Washington on October 5 that in the continued absence of an agreement between Phoumi and Souvanna Phouma, United States support of Phoumi would lead to "further disintegration" of the anticommunist forces and would involve the United States in actions that risked internationalizing the conflict in Laos. *

At a meeting on October 11 with a visiting United States delegation made up of Parsons, Assistant Secretary of Defense John N. Irwin II, and Vice Admiral Herbert D. Riley, chief of staff to the Commander in Chief Pacific, Souvanna Phouma gave an indictment of the provocative errors committed by his successors after formation of the first coalition. He warned that the only course for Laos was to implement the 1957 agreements before the Pathet Lao--with whom he was in touch and intended to resume negotiations- -presented even more far-reaching demands. The first Soviet ambassador to Laos, Aleksandr N. Abramov, arrived as Parsons was leaving. *

After conferring with the king, the Parsons-Irwin-Riley team proceeded to Bangkok. On October 17, Irwin and Riley met with Phoumi in Ubol. Although the Department of State at that point was under the impression that United States policy required that Phoumi dissolve the Revolutionary Committee, both as a gesture of good faith toward Souvanna Phouma in preserving the unity of anticommunist forces in Laos and, more practically, in order to avoid the growing impression abroad that the United States was illegally aiding a rebel movement, no mention of this point was made either in Parsons' instructions to his two colleagues or at the October 17 meeting. *

Following the formal conversation, Riley took Phoumi aside and told him that the United States had completely lost confidence in Souvanna Phouma and was backing Phoumi to go back and clean up the situation. Irwin similarly told Phoumi that the United States was only supporting him in building up his defenses for the moment; in the long run, the United States was supporting him all the way. The message was not lost on Phoumi. The effect of these unauthorized remarks was to undercut both Souvanna Phouma's efforts to negotiate a compromise solution with Phoumi and Brown's bona fides with Souvanna Phouma, already strained by the continuing United States aid flowing into Savannakhét in the absence of any matching military action against the Pathet Lao. Phoumi's intransigence in turn led the Department of State to make ever-increasing demands on Souvanna Phouma in the interest of "compromise," beginning with the charge that the prime minister was not exercising sufficient control over Kong Le, the demand that he take appropriate precautions to prevent Kong Le from launching an attack on Savannakhét, and so forth. *

Prelude to the Battle of Vientiane

Souvanna Phouma began negotiations with the Pathet Lao on October 18. However, his position was much weaker than in 1957 when he faced the same set of Pathet Lao demands. Although nothing substantive would come from these negotiations, they provided fuel for Phoumi's anticommunist propaganda and heightened nervousness in Washington and Bangkok. *

Next, Phoumi forced the commander of the Louangphrabang garrison to declare for the Revolutionary Committee. This was an important move, for it placed the king within Phoumi's territory. In Bangkok, Sarit's first reaction on hearing the news was to ask the United States ambassador, U. Alexis Johnson, whether now would be a good time for the Revolutionary Committee to "establish itself as a government." General Ouan Ratikoun quickly defected to Savannakhét. Phoumi captured another general, Amkha Soukhavong, at Xiangkhoang and gained the support of General Sing Ratanassamay. Phoumi's troops had been paid without Brown's having been consulted. Ambassador Johnson, without consulting Brown, assured Sarit that the United States would pay Phoumi's troops, an action that Brown protested. *

When Phoumi finally launched his offensive on the Nam Kading on November 21, Souvanna Phouma vainly attempted to contact him. With badly needed supplies to Vientiane, especially fuel, still cut off by the Thai blockade, Souvanna Phouma's forced acceptance of a Soviet offer of aid lent Phoumi's imminent attack "to drive out the communists" a semblance of legitimacy. On December 11, Phoumi led the forty National Assembly deputies who had gathered in Savannahkét over the preceding weeks to vote no confidence in Souvanna Phouma's government. The king accepted the vote as legal the next day when he signed Royal Ordinance No. 282, dismissing Souvanna Phouma's government and giving powers provisionally to the Revolutionary Committee. Royal Ordinance No. 283, approving a provisional government formed by Prince Boun Oum, who acted as front man for Phoumi--the king had scruples about naming a general to be prime minister--was signed on December 14. The Department of State notified its acceptance of the new regime and said it was acting to meet its requests for assistance "to restore peace to the country." At this time, neither the deputies nor the court were free agents--and Souvanna Phouma had not resigned. *

Battle of Vientiane

The capital braced for Phoumi's attack. A last-minute and temporary switch of sides by Colonel Kouprasith Abhay, commander of the Vientiane military region headquartered at Camp Chinaimo on the eastern outskirts, was quickly neutralized by Kong Le, but tension heightened. The Pathet Lao delegation hurriedly left town. More of Souvanna Phouma's ministers disappeared and reappeared. The situation was becoming ungovernable. Souvanna Phouma viewed battle as inevitable, and, accompanied by his ministers Boun Om (Boun Oum's nephew), Tiao Sisoumang Sisaleumsak, and Inpeng Suriyadhay, flew to Phnom Penh on December 9, having delegated his powers to the military. The following morning Quinim Pholsena, the minister of information whom Souvanna Phouma had left behind, flew to Hanoi accompanied by Phoumi Vongvichit, the chief Pathet Lao negotiator, and Lieutenant Deuane Sunnalath, Kong Le's deputy, on a mission to seek Soviet and North Vietnamese military aid, which began arriving the following day on Soviet aircraft. *

Phoumi began his attack on December 13. From his command post near the airport, Kong Le had positioned his men at key points on the outskirts, intending merely to fight a delaying action to allow the safe evacuation to the north of his men and their equipment. The regional command post of the Pathet Lao, situated at Na Khang, sixty kilometers north of the capital, disposed of three guerrilla groups but did not take part in the battle of Vientiane. A massive display of firepower by Phoumi's troops resulted in the deaths of 400 to 500 civilians in the town, mostly Vietnamese residents, and the wounding of another 1,000 to 1,500 civilians. Kong Le's troops only lost seventeen killed. Phoumi's armor rolled into town on December 16. *

Kong Le retreated slowly northward toward Louangphrabang, while Soviet aircraft parachuted badly needed supplies--rice, salt, sugar, blankets, light arms, ammunition, and radios. With new recruits, his ranks had swelled from 800 to 1,200 men. On December 23, at Phôn Hông, about sixty kilometers north of the capital, Kong Le was visited by Kaysone, who had come to settle the details of distribution of Soviet aid and coordination of Neutralist and Pathet Lao troops in future operations. On January 1, Kong Le's troops took control of the Plain of Jars and Khang Khay after skirmishing with some of the 9,000 Phoumist troops and an equal number of Hmong guerrillas in the vicinity and recovered large quantities of supplies. The following day, the Neutralists occupied Xiangkhoang, and United States advisers and Phoumist troops were evacuated from the Muang Phônsavan airfield. *

Quinim and Tiao Sisaleumsak established themselves at Khang Khay and urged Souvanna Phouma, who was in Cambodia, to join them. Souvanna Phouma said that he was still legally prime minister but would resign at once if Phoumi's government were validated in accordance with the constitution. Souvanna Phouma argued that the National Assembly's vote of no confidence on December 11 was not valid because it had taken place in neither the royal capital nor the administrative capital. He regarded the king's dealings with the Revolutionary Committee as beyond the king's authority. When the National Assembly met in Vientiane and voted confidence in the Boun Oum government on January 4, Souvanna Phouma ignored the action. *

After the Battle of Vientiane

The Soviet airlift after the Battle of Vientiane, which continued despite United States protests to Moscow, transformed the Plain of Jars into a vast armed camp, fully resupplying Kong Le. For the first time, the Pathet Lao were equipped with heavy weapons allowing them to play a major role in their military alliance with Kong Le's troops in support of Souvanna Phouma's government. There was, moreover, another and more important factor: the commitment of significant numbers of North Vietnamese troops to the fighting, exactly what Souvanna Phouma and Brown had feared. Kong Le requested four battalions of North Vietnamese troops on January 7. Two of these linked up with his forces on Route 7 and down Route 13. The third was engaged in military action at Tha Thom, a key defense point south of the Plain of Jars. The fourth took up position north of the plain. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In Xiangkhoang, the Hmong once again blew up the bridges on Route 7 in a desperate effort to interfere with North Vietnamese truck convoys rolling westward. The Royal Lao Army had been quietly supplying arms to the Hmong since at least March 1957 to enable them to resist the Pathet Lao, but the North Vietnamese influx created a sudden need for arms far in excess of what the Laotians could supply, even with the help of Thailand. The Hmong, under their military leader Vang Pao, had taken up positions in the mountains surrounding the Plain of Jars and asked to talk to United States officials. Vang Pao requested quick delivery of arms, but United States officials were concerned that the Hmong would not fight, and the arms might fall into communist hands. Vang Pao said all 7,000 volunteers would fight, but they needed the arms in three days or they would have to fall back to less exposed positions. United States airdrops of arms from stocks in Okinawa began three days later, signaling the beginning of a heroic Hmong resistance. *

Second Coalition in Laos

Souvanna Phouma reaffirmed his position that his was the legal government of Laos. In an interview, he spoke bitterly about his nemesis, Parsons, and said that "the Savannakhét group" was committed to the policy of military confrontation that had failed in the past. He believed Laos should conserve its ancient traditions and monarchy and urged a political settlement along the lines negotiated in 1957. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Phoumi's failure to advance on the Plain of Jars made a deep impression on the new administration of United States president John F. Kennedy. If Phoumi had his difficulties with Kong Le's outnumbered battalion, he was no match for the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao counteroffensive that opened in January drove Phoumi's poorly motivated troops and their United States military advisers back--a retreat that irrevocably changed the balance of forces in Laos. *

The United States embassy in Vientiane had accurate intelligence of the numbers and movements of North Vietnamese military units in Laos, as opposed to the alarming reports emanating from Phoumi's headquarters. Central Laos and the entire length of the road from the Sala Phou Khoun junction south to Vangviang was in North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao hands by mid-March. *

Contact between emissaries of the two sides was finally made by officers under a truce flag at the village of Ban Hin Heup on the Vientiane-Louangphrabang road. Tripartite truce talks opened in the nearby village of Ban Namone, with the ICC, reconvened by the cochairmen of the Geneva Conference, Britain, and the Soviet Union, present. The three negotiators were Nouhak, Pheng Phongsavan, and General Sing Ratanassamay. A cease-fire declared on May 3 did not prevent the Pathet Lao from capturing Xépôn, an important crossroads on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or put an end to the fighting in the Hmong country. As part of the plan to find a settlement, an enlarged Geneva Conference convened on May 16. *

Pathet Lao Influence in Laos

The idea of neutralism had been expressed by Kong Le in his earliest speeches in Vientiane, which described the goals of his coup d'état as stopping the fighting among the Laotians and enacting a policy of friendship with all foreign countries, especially Laos's neighbors. At Khang Khay, Soviet diplomats mingled with officials of missions from Beijing and Hanoi, with which relations had been established on May 5. Kong Le's troops readily adopted the unofficial name Neutralist Armed Forces. Souvanna Phouma seized the opportunity of having a sizeable number of adherents on hand at Khang Khay, including many Lao students returned from abroad, to form the Neutralist Party, (Lao Pen Kang-- known as the Neutralists). He was confident the party would outpoll the Pathet Lao's LPF in a free election. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Although publicly deferring to Souvanna Phouma on matters of government policy, the Pathet Lao secretly extended their influence at the grassroots level, using their proven methods of propaganda and organization. In villages under their control, the Pathet Lao installed their own personnel alongside the existing administration--for example, a khana muang (liberated district) alongside a chao muang (district chief), a khana seng (liberated subdistrict) alongside a pho tasseng (subdistrict chief), and a khana ban (liberated village) alongside a pho ban or nai ban (village chief). Access to the Pathet Lao-administered areas was forbidden to outsiders, even after the formation of the coalition government. *

A hierarchy of politico-military participation and responsibility tied the villagers to a chain of command. All resources in villages under Pathet Lao control were mobilized into both a horizontal and a vertical structure that included organizations of women, youth, and monks. Villagers were easily susceptible to Pathet Lao control, making a Pathet Lao village a world unto itself. Children acted as couriers and lookouts; young people joined the village self-defense units, the lowest level of guerrilla organization; adults acted as porters for the regular guerrilla units; and women made clothing, prepared food, and looked after the sick and wounded. *

Protracted Diplomacy in Laos

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *

Renewed Strains in Laos

The strains imposed on the Neutralists by their alliance of convenience with the Pathet Lao were now manifested. In addition, the presence of the North Vietnamese army that this alliance implied did nothing to support neutralism. As if to confirm their doubts, the Neutralists were subjected to communist propaganda. Deuane Sunnalath, Kong Le's subordinate, allowed himself to be subverted by this political influence and started publishing his own newspaper, Khao Pathan Van (Daily News), full of antiUnited States propaganda. Most of Kong Le's followers remained fiercely loyal, however, and the dissidents, who called themselves Patriotic Neutralists, remained a minority. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

On April 1, 1963, less than a year after the Geneva agreement, foreign minister Quinim was assassinated in Vientiane. Protesting the lack of security, Pathet Lao members of the coalition immediately left town. Following a series of incidents in which one of Kong Le's closest aides was assassinated and a United States plane on a supply flight to Kong Le authorized by Souvanna Phouma was shot down by Deuane's troops, fighting broke out in the Neutralist camp. Kong Le pulled his men back from Khang Khay and set up a new command post at Muang Souy on the western edge of the Plain of Jars. Kong Le was running short of supplies, however, because the Soviet airlift had ended, and the North Vietnamese were in a position to block supplies by road. *

An estimated 10,000 North Vietnamese were still present in Laos, despite the stipulation their government had signed at Geneva that withdrawal of all foreign troops be completed by October 7. In preparation for a massive escalation of the conflict in South Vietnam, North Vietnam had expanded the Ho Chi Minh Trail through eastern Laos and garrisoned it with support troops. North Vietnamese troops also were present in northern Laos, where they were engaged almost continuously in pressuring the Hmong guerrillas. All United States military advisers had been withdrawn by the deadline, but clandestine operations continued, and supply and reconnaissance flights still were conducted over such heavily contested areas as the Plain of Jars. Antiaircraft fire took its toll on such flights, and as a result, the planes began attacking targets on the ground in Laos beginning in 1964. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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