Laos: The Road to Vietnam | HistoryNet MENU

Laos: The Road to Vietnam

By John Prados
4/18/2018 • MHQ Magazine

In 1959 the United States was drawn inexorably into a local conflict in a tiny Asian kingdom, relying on secret armies, Cold War tactics, and a vast underestimation of the enemy. Sound familiar?

Almost 60,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War, along with untold numbers of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians. Much of their sacrifice went to support sides of a conflict forged in the foggy hills of Laos in the 1950s, before many Americans were paying any attention to Southeast Asia.

The conflict that the United States and its Laotian allies engaged in  from 1958 to 1962 against Communist forces—the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese—was an intervention intended to induce Laos to take sides in the Cold War. Instead it incubated a new conflict, a civil war that reignited the struggle for Southeast Asia that had ended with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. And that secret war, where action was substituted for any real examination of national interests, was a prelude to and an uncanny predictor of the United States’ failures in Vietnam over the next decade.

Indeed, the road to the Vietnam War lay through Laos, not only politically and strategically but physically. Politically, Washington and Hanoi developed interests in Laos—as early as the 1950s—that they refused to give up. Washington sought a bulwark against the spread of Communism; Hanoi, which had played a formative role in the creation of a Laotian Communist movement, at first aimed to protect that investment, and later to use Laos for its effort to supply guerrillas in South Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy, who finally resisted open intervention in landlocked Laos, then felt obligated to act in Vietnam.

Strategically, Laos became the combat theater where the sides were least restrained by their domestic audiences. A Vietnam lobby in the United States pressed for assistance to South Vietnam, but there was no public opinion at all on Laos. American presidents had complete freedom to try out their policies—as well as exercise a full spectrum of covert and overt military tactics. Few of Hanoi’s leaders concerned themselves with Laos. Those who did argued that a natural affinity existed between Vietnamese and Laotian Communism and found their Laotian colleagues in agreement. The long open border between Vietnam and Laos and the wildness of the country permitted Hanoi to act in almost complete secrecy.

Physically, Laos represented North Vietnam’s actual road to the south, absolutely necessary to infiltrate supplies and especially troops into South Vietnam, which virtually required the North to act to protect its interests in Laos.

Now, formerly secret United States government records make it clear that American involvement in the Laotian civil war began earlier than previously believed, and the United States’ inept meddling in Laos set the stage for the much larger war in which that small, backward country became just one front. With the political weaknesses of its Laotian allies, Washington would never have a serious chance to control that front, leaving Hanoi’s road to South Vietnam open and beckoning.

Nestled in the interior of Indochina, Laos called itself the “land of a million elephants.” Land- locked and surrounded by the two Vietnams, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and the People’s Republic of China, in the 1950s Laos was a poor, sparsely populated land with few resources. Not much was at stake here. Laos was a constitutional monarchy with its royal house in one town, Luang Prabang, and its administrative capital a hundred miles away, in Vientiane.

A small political elite ran the country. Even more so than in Vietnam, many of these leaders knew each other, often from childhood. Scions of the royal family predominated and politics revolved around neutrality. Prince Souvanna Phouma was an important neutralist leader. His half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, led the Neo Lao Hak Xat, a national patriotic front standing in for the Communist Pathet Lao. Laotian neutrality had been explicitly recognized in the 1954 Geneva agreements that ended the Franco-Vietnamese war. Other important divisions were ethnic, between the Lao of the Mekong and other river valleys, and the tribal minorities of the mountains and plateaus.

The Cold War brought upheaval. The Geneva agreements left North Vietnamese Communist troops in the country along with armed Pathet Lao, controlling significant territory. Talks among Laotian factions led to a March 1955 arrangement for integrating all the political factions, including the Pathet Lao, into the government. The plan included elections and provision for a coalition cabinet, and incorporated Pathet Lao troops into the Royal Laotian Armed Forces.

But the plan ran into the Eisenhower administration’s Cold War policies. Washington had three agendas in Laos. The first was overtly anti-Communist, an effort to stymie North Vietnamese and Chinese encroachments. The second was a sub rosa endeavor to maximize the role of the United States and minimize that of France, which had only relinquished control of Laos in 1954. The third was to enlist Laotians directly on the American side in the Cold War.

In its overt role, after Geneva the United States took the lead in creating a defensive alliance called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which initially included Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Under the Geneva rules, Laos could not belong to SEATO but Washington made sure it was a “protocol state,” an ambiguous status intended to suggest the alliance might act there.

Meanwhile, as in South Vietnam, the Eisenhower administration schemed to supplant the French. It made headway in mid-1954, when Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma resigned after the murder of a pro-French defense minister. This worked to further the United States’ secret agendas. A right-wing nationalist replaced the neutralist Souvanna, and American aid began to flow on January 1, 1955. But after this political shift the Pathet Lao dragged their feet on integration.

At Christmas 1955, the Royal Laotian Government held elections that excluded the Pathet Lao, further complicating reconciliation. To Washington’s consternation, the election produced a majority for the neutralist faction, not the pro-American one. The next summer Souvanna Phouma cobbled together a new unity plan, confirmed in late 1957, and Laos seemed back on the road to its Geneva-ordained neutrality. He formed a coalition government with Pathet Lao members, and in February 1958 some Pathet Lao troops prepared to join the national army. A new election took place. Despite American aid designed to help friendly candidates, the Pathet Lao and its political allies won the majority of the seats. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles remarked in a cable 10 days afterward that the difficult tasks were to convince the French to act in concert with the United States and to get the Royal Laotian Government to brand the Pathet Lao “as agents [of] world communism and unite in effective struggle [to] defeat them.”

Battle lines were now drawn. Starting in June 1958, the Central Intelligence Agency backed conservative Laotian politicians who formed a Committee for the Defense of National Interests. Washington also halted its aid to the government once the neutralists took charge, bringing on a financial crisis that caused the fall of Souvanna Phouma. His replacement was a right-winger who excluded Pathet Lao from the government despite their parliamentary strength. The Committee for the Defense of National Interests meanwhile became a power base for the Laotian colonel Phoumi Nosavan, soon a key figure on the Laotian scene.

That May the United States had deliberated on military assistance to Laos. This Washington debate held great consequence. The United States had set up a Program Evaluation Office in Laos at the end of 1955, staffed by former U.S. military personnel who had been given foreign service credentials. Headed by Army Brig. Gen. Rothwell H. Brown, who had previously served with the advisory group in Saigon, its staff quickly grew from 10 to 60. Under the Geneva rules, which prohibited any foreign military presence other than that of the former colonial power, France retained responsibility for training and supervising the Laotian military, and the American role was restricted to planning budgets and scheduling equipment arrivals. Later, PEO advisers took on end-use inspections, and still later gave training advice to the French. The French continued to maintain a base at Seno in the Laotian panhandle, controlling the only airfield in Laos that had runway lights, a control tower, and navigation beacons.

Frustrated by the United States’ limited role and sure it could do a better job than the French, the PEO lobbied Ambassador Horace H. Smith to bring in military advisers. But Smith feared that using active military people would violate the Geneva restrictions. Washington sided with its ambassador: an advisory group could be a future goal but at the moment they could only rely on civilians. The decision on U.S. advisers had unanticipated effects. Dwight D. Eisenhower chose not to strictly adhere to Geneva’s rules. Instead, the president ordered a mixed policy of official cooperation and covert initiatives. This broadened the CIA’s role and was consistent with Ike’s use of that Cold War agency in other countries, such as Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Syria, while keeping up the appearance of observing the Geneva restrictions. The United States would maintain that basic policy stance throughout the war in Laos.

So was born the secret war. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson have been criticized for not abandoning the Geneva framework to conduct a war in Laos but that choice had already been made on Eisenhower’s watch.

Washington resumed its aid in October 1958, and furnished almost $500 million by 1960, Eisenhower’s last year in office. Declassified records show that two-thirds went toward defraying the cost of the Laotian military. (Money for development grants and technical cooperation amounted to just $7.9 million.) The first circumventions of the 1954 Geneva restrictions occurred at this time as the United States’ training role with the Laotian armed forces expanded. A formerly secret U.S. Air Force history notes that four mobile training teams of U.S. Special Forces were in Laos before the end of 1958. The CIA added the services of 72 Filipino instructors through Operation Brotherhood, a civil engineering aid effort that concealed their more military functions.

By then a new PEO chief, Brig. Gen. John G. Heintges, was demanding the United States’ open participation in training, with a move to a dozen mobile teams on six-month assignment. This would eventually become the famed Operation White Star, the first well-recognized U.S. military effort in Laos, though for the time being French opposition continued to delay the move.

Beginning in September 1958, the Pacific theater commander (CINCPAC), Adm. Harry D. Felt, began to press Washington for a Cold War plan for Laos, including estimates of required funding and logistics, the first move in a series of plans for Laotian intervention.

But on January 15, 1959, according to declassified National Security Council minutes, CIA Director Allen W. Dulles told the NSC that “the danger of a Communist take-over in Laos was growing daily.” Council members were stunned. In less than a year, Laos had gone from an evolving neutralist nation to an American security crisis. The Eisenhower administration plainly had overestimated the pro–United States forces and the effectiveness of its own military aid and actions, while failing to provide the economic help that might have strengthened the Royal Laotian Government. They had also far underestimated the depth of neutralist tendencies—and the sway of the Pathet Lao.

In mid-1959, the Joint Chiefs of Staff created their first contingency plan for Laos, which provided for Joint Task Force 116 to plan military operations and conduct them if required, earmarking U.S. Army and Marine units for airlift into Seno and Vientiane, and U.S. Air Force transports to carry them. The logistics planning was more problematical because all supplies would need to be imported from Vietnam or Thailand and the primitive Laotian roads strictly limited the tonnages that could be carried. That Joint Chiefs’ plan stayed on the shelf until somewhat later.

Contemporary accounts make the Pathet Lao out as nothing more than a surrogate for the North Vietnamese, yet the same Lao independence movement that had created the neutralists had spawned the Pathet Lao. Nevertheless, there was a close relationship between Hanoi and the Pathet Lao, and the North Vietnamese had made decisions crucial to the growth of the Communist Pathet Lao and its patriotic front, the Neo Lao Hak Xat.

It was actually back during the 1954 Geneva conference that North Vietnamese commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, anticipating an obligation to withdraw Vietnamese from Laos, ordered the creation of a cadre of advisers, distinct from his troop units, to help the Pathet Lao. Five days before Geneva negotiations ended, Hanoi created its own advisory group, Doan 100, led by mountain tribal minority specialist Chu Huy Man, formerly a political officer of the Vietnam People’s Army 316th Division. Combat units had to withdraw from Laos in the wake of Geneva, but the undercover advisers stayed behind.

Canadian scholar Christopher Goscha, the most acute analyst of these events, finds that these two decisions framed Hanoi’s policy. Thereafter the Cadres Committee for Western Laos, Hanoi’s political advisers, and Doan 100 combined to turn the Pathet Lao into a supple, self-sustaining movement saturating the provinces of Sam Neua and Phong Saly. The Cadres Committee functioned under Nguyen Khang, a member of the Vietnam Workers’ Party Central Committee, who had helped mold the Pathet Lao party when it was first formed. Between 1954 and 1957 some 318 Vietnamese served with Doan 100 and 531 were with the Cadres Committee. A summary of Vietnamese aid indicates that Hanoi put roughly $2.5 million into its Laotian project.

Hanoi’s goal was to reorganize the Pathet Lao within three years. The Vietnamese helped the Pathet Lao establish a general staff, a logistics bureau, and a political office, in addition to training officers and troops. Their most important Lao counterpart was Kaysone Phoumvihane, the first commander of the Lao independence (Lao Issara) army, a Khang associate, and a Pathet Lao minister in the first Laotian coalition government. More than 9,000 Lao regrouped into the controlled provinces, and about 7,200 were recruited for the Pathet Lao army, which formed guerrilla bands into battalions.

By early 1957 Doan 100 had supervised the creation of eight main-force and two heavy-weapons battalions, twelve independent companies, three transport companies, one for military intelligence, and other units. The Vietnamese trained Laotians in tactics and ideology but also political mobilization, village administration, and propaganda. Doan 100 returned to North Vietnam early in 1958.

The Pathet Lao understood what was happening in Vientiane. Incidents of fighting between Royal Government and Pathet Lao forces began in 1955, some 685 by Vietnamese accounts, including some pitched battles where Gen. Chu Huy Man gave key advice. Then the Pathet Lao were excluded from the first Laotian elections. Souphanouvong and Kaysone were dismissed from the government. Having agreed to integration, the Pathet Lao felt threatened when maneuvers by the United States ousted the neutralist, Souvanna. When it came time to integrate Pathet Lao into the government’s armed forces, Vientiane authorities selected only 1,500 soldiers to participate, while several times that many were slated for demobilization. The former group, comprising two battalions, included 133 Pathet Lao party members with secret channels to the Pathet Lao high command and the Vietnamese. When they observed Royal Laotian Government commanders taking measures to undermine them, the Pathet Lao ended the integration initiative.

Government troops surrounded the Pathet Lao encampments in May 1959 and demanded allegiance. One unit allowed itself to be integrated. The 2nd Battalion exfiltrated from its camp and evaded blocking forces, including government paratroops dropped along its escape route. Fighting began, though it was not yet generalized. A few months later a CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate, now declassified, concluded that, “the Communist resumption of guerrilla warfare in Laos was primarily a reaction to a stronger anti-Communist posture by the Laotian Government and to recent U.S. initiatives in support of Laos.” The civil war was on.

The same day in January 1959 that Allen Dulles told President Eisenhower that Laos was gravely threatened, a cabinet reshuffle in Vientiane put in power men from the CIA–supported Committee for the Defense of National Interests. The most important of these was Col. Phoumi Nosavan. This was Phoumi’s time, when hard-line measures made reconciliation impossible. As secretary of state for defense, Phoumi made sure the government used maximum force and made no last-minute compromises. Yet he did so without risk to his own power base—Phoumi hailed from Savannakhet in the Laotian panhandle and commanded the Laotian Third Military Region, which was not involved in the crackdown. When the armed forces created a new military region around Vientiane itself, Phoumi took charge of it, putting a trusted ally in his former command. From Eisenhower’s perspective, Phoumi was the perfect ally. It got even better at the end of 1959, when Phoumi engineered the fall of the cabinet of which he was a member. He emerged as military strongman with a promotion to brigadier and the post of defense minister, pulling the government’s strings behind the scenes. In that capacity, Phoumi rigged the April 1960 elections to ensure leftist candidates would be defeated.

Meanwhile, the United States increased its role. The French had rejected the PEO’s 1958 bid for an expanded participation in training on the predictable grounds that the Americans would be abrogating Geneva. But Paris had to deal with the Algerian revolution, a greater priority, and could spare few men and little money for Laos. It reduced its training mission from 1,500 advisers to just a few hundred. The offer of Americans, and, more important, American funds, proved irresistible. Finally the French acquiesced, and the secret war burgeoned.

By the end of 1959, the number of PEO personnel had increased to 531, including 190 Filipino specialists, but also more American military personnel. The Filipinos replaced Frenchmen who had been working with the Laotian air force and maritime service, a few as field advisers.

The first dozen U.S. Special Forces teams for Operation White Star arrived in July 1959. There were field units called “A” detachments, with a control unit called a “C” team at headquarters, under Lt. Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons. A legendary figure among Special Forces today, Simons rented a Vientiane house for headquarters, dispersing the “A” teams to four Laotian armed forces regional bases that became training centers. For White Star, the detachments were cut back to eight men and called “hotfoot teams”; in all, these involved 108 Americans.

The CIA also increased its activity. Henry Hecksher, who ran its station in Vientiane, felt he had a free hand. Ambassador Smith thought otherwise, but under operating rules at the time, Hecksher decided what to tell the ambassador—or keep from him. American diplomats were uncomfortable with what the CIA had the Laotian Committee for the Defense of National Interests doing but were powerless to control those operations. Hecksher assigned case officers to each key Laotian figure—John Hasey to Phoumi was an example—and gave them free rein. Hasey would arrange to have certain money, rice, and weapons delivered directly to Phoumi without going through aid programs at all. When Gordon Jorgensen replaced Hecksher, that arrangement remained in place.

In Washington, meeting with State Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff representatives as early as January 1959, Gen. Charles P. Cabell, deputy director of the CIA, expressed a need for urgency in dealing with what the CIA viewed as a deteriorating situation in Laos. The agency took the lead role in organizing a program in the Philippines in which several classes of Royal Laotian Armed Forces officers were instructed in scout-ranger techniques.

Meanwhile, Allen Dulles continued to brief the National Security Council in somber tones. A CIA National Intelligence Estimate in May, now declassified, warned that government military capabilities were eroding. In August, the agency brought in Air America (newly converted from Civil Air Transport) for Laotian airlifts. Dulles and his operations chief Richard Bissell attended another State–Defense–CIA meeting in September and warned that Laos was ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare, adding that facts on the ground were hard to come by and that the Communists had declared civil war.

A civil conflict was undoubtedly under way in Laos, but it had not yet erupted in full-scale war. The most apparent threat came in late July and early August, 1959, when Pathet Lao regulars overran several government outposts in Sam Neua province and challenged Vientiane for control. There were reports—which the U.S. was too quick to accept—that North Vietnamese troops were with them. A United Nations fact-finding mission, sent to Laos, found a welter of confusion but indeterminate evidence of a North Vietnamese presence. Actually, Hanoi did have an ad hoc advisory unit in Laos at that time, but only created a permanent doan to work with the Laotian Communists in September. The Pathet Lao mounted their threat, then faded into the jungle while the United States hastened past new milestones on its own road to involvement.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff again demanded that the PEO be converted into a standard military advisory group, and that as a matter of policy the United States free itself from all constraints on its actions. Joint Task Force 116 under Marine Maj. Gen. Carson Roberts moved toward carrying out a plan to airlift a marine regimental combat team into Laos.

On September 8, Gen. Thomas H. White, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, asked the Joint Chiefs to authorize the deployment of a squadron of Boeing B- 47 bombers of the Strategic Air Command to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. From there they would stand ready for a campaign against the Pathet Lao—by striking selected targets in North Vietnam with conventional and tactical nuclear weapons. General White called this rash scheme “decisive termination of hostilities in Laos.”

All this happened in the face of little apparent Pathet Lao activity, even in Sam Neua. President Eisenhower, keeping a cooler head, perhaps reacting to this immediate invocation of a nuclear threat, instead bucked the matter up to America’s regional allies. The Australians, British, and New Zealanders all expressed qualms. The French military attaché in Vientiane insisted there was no evidence of North Vietnamese activity in Laos. The Joint Chiefs quashed the Air Force proposal and called off the joint task force intervention.

The autumn round of Washington deliberations led to several decisions. The United States increased its funding to the Laotian armed forces and for local self-defense militias known by their French name, Auto-Défense de Choc. They concentrated on recruiting militia from among tribal minorities in the Annamite Mountains. American planners knew these tribesmen were mostly at odds with the Vientiane government. The CIA carried the ball on that initiative, as it did in encouraging Thailand’s participation. The “5412 matters”—a White House euphemism for CIA covert operations—that President Eisenhower reviewed both on September 25 and November 30, 1959, may well have concerned the beginnings of the secret army in Laos, starting with the CIA recruiting Laotian Auto-Défense de Choc.

Phoumi Nosavan’s family relationship with the military dictator of Thailand, Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who had taken power late in 1957, helps explain why Americans favored Phoumi. The Sarit-Phoumi relationship opened the door for Thailand to become a key pillar of the war. Almost simultaneously with Washington’s aid expansion in the fall of 1959, Thailand agreed to host an eight-week training program for Laotians at its Camp Erawan, near Lopburi. In this exercise, the entire Laotian para troop force brushed up on counterinsurgency tactics.

In the summer of 1960, pressed by the Bangkok CIA station chief, Marshal Sarit agreed to provide covert Thai airborne ranger teams to the new CIA secret army project. And Bangkok turned a blind eye as the CIA proprietary company Sea Supply, long active in Thailand, became a major conduit for clandestine logistics into Laos, while agency proprietary Air America used Thai airfields for its rapid expansion into the war zone.

Early in 1961, the Thai permitted the CIA to build camps where agency employees trained a regular rotation of Laotian battalions. Some of them worked directly with the Royal Thai Army. Sarit also permitted the U.S. Air Force to set up its own phony company as a cover for American pilots and crews of combat aircraft that flew attack and rescue missions in Laos and instructed Lao aircrews. The Laotian war would have been impossible without Thai help.

The conflict erupted into full hostilities during 1960, and moved to an early climax in 1961 and 1962. A good case can be made that the main catalyst was the United States’ ally Phoumi Nosavan— and the key events took place in Vientiane, not the bush. Phoumi maneuvered to oust the government in December 1959. Ambassador Smith wanted to support the sitting prime minister, who in his heyday had been lauded in Washington circles as America’s best friend.

The CIA backed Phoumi. During most of this period, the Pathet Lao were building strength, not mounting offensives. They only moved when Phoumi’s maneuvers created resentment among the Lao elite.

Creatively organized by Phoumi, elections in April 1960 were a farce. No leftist candidate won. Right-wingers polled thousands of votes in Pathet Lao strongholds; leftists only dozens. In one district, a leftist polled fewer votes than the number of his family members eligible to vote, while Phoumi’s candidate again amassed thousands. The result smacked of arrogance, and not only to the leftists.

Phoumi also treated the Lao military in a high-handed fashion, yet expected them to back him at every turn. This proved too much for Capt. Kong Le, commanding the 2nd Paratroops, the army’s best battalion. Early in August, Kong diverted his men from a scheduled operation and occupied Vientiane instead, overthrowing the Phoumist government. This action marked the beginning of a confusion of musical-chairs politics that fueled war and unsettled Laos for almost a decade. Kong Le invited Prince Souvanna Phouma to form a new neutralist cabinet, and Souvanna crafted a fresh coalition in service of that aim, inviting the Pathet Lao back into government.

For a week or so Eisenhower was uncertain how to proceed: the United States even warned officers with Phoumi not to encourage him to fight the neutralists. But it soon reverted to its established role, attaching senior PEO officers directly to Phoumi and funneling aid outside government (now neutralist) channels directly to Phoumi’s troops around Luang Prabang. On August 18, Ike told top officials it was important “that disaffection be stimulated in Vientiane,” in effect making an enemy of the official Lao government. Soon Washington was mulling over the “Kong Le problem.”

Early in September General Phoumi, enlisting another royal, Prince Boun Oum, declared “revolution” against the neutralist government, and began moving against Vientiane. A brief truce in October quickly disintegrated. Phoumi’s troops captured Vientiane on December 17.

At that point, Laos erupted into an international crisis. Souvanna’s neutralist government asked for foreign assistance. The Soviet Union responded but asked the neutralists to ally with the Pathet Lao. A constitutionalist coup on December 8, designed to support Souvanna and prevent such an alliance, further confused matters. Without many alternatives, the neutralists did as the Soviets asked, and made a deal in Hanoi on December 10. Soviet aircraft immediately delivered an initial shipment of a few artillery pieces to Vientiane. Russian officials later reported this effort to be the Soviets’ largest aerial operation since World War II, and when the neutralists were driven out of Vientiane, taking refuge in the Plain of Jars, Russia continued the deliveries to airfields there.

For some time intelligence reports had acknowledged that the Pathet Lao were extending control over villages in many areas, particularly in the Plain of Jars, while solidifying their bases in Sam Neua and Phong Saly, yet there had been little open fighting except that initiated by the Royal Laotian Armed Forces. In March 1960 Allen Dulles reported the Pathet Lao were attempting to reach their goals through subversion. Military attachés on the scene saw the Pathet Lao as being “capable” of resuming their insurgency. But the advent of the new coalition government—and the Phoumist counteroffensive—brought an end to the combat hiatus.

By October, ahead of any actual alliance of Souvanna and Kong Le with the Pathet Lao, CIA reports referred to “Kong Le–PL” forces, and Dulles claimed the Pathet Lao “have been gaining strength.” In December the Pathet Lao began their own offensive, openly clearing provinces near the Vietnamese border. The Souvanna government’s retreat to the Plain of Jars solidified the Pathet Lao–neutralist alliance.

New factors came into play on both sides in 1960. For the Pathet Lao, the big change was the recrudescence of their relationship with the North Vietnamese. Hanoi had created an ad hoc Doan 800 to assist the Pathet Lao in early 1959, followed that fall with the permanent Doan 959. This unit advised the Pathet Lao throughout the Laotian war.

In December 1960, Hanoi also committed small bodies of regular troops. Equally important, Hanoi decided to help insurgents in South Vietnam by moving cadres and supplies down the eastern side of the Laotian panhandle, infiltrating them along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This strategic supply route gave Hanoi a far greater stake in Laos, resulting in an increase of North Vietnamese aid to the Pathet Lao, whose inroads prevented the reconstituted Phoumist government from focusing on the trail. Special Forces Col. Bull Simons, who appreciated the threat very quickly, convinced superiors to let him try to organize irregular troops in the south of Laos, especially on the Bolovens Plateau, to shut down the trail, and a portion of his White Star teams were active there through 1960.

Now offensive air missions began. Since the Phoumist Royal Laotian Air Force lacked attack aircraft, President Eisenhower ordered that rectified in the fall of 1960. Once again the Thai were key. Thailand supplied 10 North American T-6 Harvard trainers modified as fighter-bombers. Since the Lao also had no combat pilots, Thai “volunteers” flew the planes. Under Project Millpond, U.S. and Thai instructors drilled Lao pilots in Thailand. Even so, Thai pilots continued flying operational missions in Laos for a long time. Ike also ordered his Air Force to give helicopters and transport planes to Air America, and created a covert unit with Douglas B-26 bombers.

Irregular troops became another keynote of change. In addition to Simons’s White Star forces, the United States had the CIA begin Project Momentum, mobilizing Hmong tribesmen in northern Laos. Later, under different code names, they appealed to other Montagnards. A major element in the CIA effort, recruiting the Hmong armée clandestine, or secret army, flowed directly from the AutoDéfense de Choc.

Vang Pao, a Laotian government officer and Hmong himself, was recruited by the CIA to lead the Hmong tribal army; and Bill Lair, who secured General Phoumi’s agreement, set Project Momentum in motion. He convinced the Thai to contribute volunteer advisers who could talk to the Hmong in their language and then interface between them and the CIA, keeping the number of Americans to a handful.

By late 1960, this Hmong secret army numbered over 4,000 and, impelled by Eisenhower’s orders to expand, it passed the 9,000 mark in early 1961. By fall there would be 18,000 secret forces. Vang Pao would become a Royal Laotian Armed Forces general and his Hmong would be the best fighters on the government side. They were almost the only troops in the Laotian uplands when the Pathet Lao moved to control the region.

All this occurred while Eisenhower was in the White House, but in 1961 his presidency gave way to that of John F. Kennedy. During Ike’s final weeks in office, Laotian events piled upon each other like horses coming out of the starting gate. General Phoumi’s troops, having taken Vientiane from Kong Le, installed Prince Boun Oum as prime minister of a fresh Phoumist government. His forces slowly pursued the neutralists, who regrouped in the Plain of Jars and linked up with the Pathet Lao. The Russians began their airlift. The Pathet Lao attacked in the mountains. The Hmong secret army was on the move along the rim of the plain. Reports claimed North Vietnamese troops were invading the country. During the presidential transition Ike warned Kennedy that Laos would be his biggest problem.

John Kennedy would be an activist president, but he found Laos a poor arena for crisis. South Vietnam was far preferable—bad though its port and transportation infrastructure were, it had much better facilities than Laos. Kennedy found it difficult to move U.S. forces into Laos and even harder to sustain them there.

The local allies had extremely limited capabilities. The Hmong could seem attractive allies to the CIA in part because the Phoumist Laotians were poor fighters. Phoumi’s troops moved slowly and often ran away when battle loomed. This lethargic progress ground to a halt in the face of the relatively small number of heavy weapons the Soviets provided the Kong Le–Pathet Lao forces.

The covert B-26 bomber unit, envisioned as a CIA project, fell short when the agency, its hands full with the Bay of Pigs operation (which included a similar air force of Cuban exiles), could not muster the crews. Efforts to recruit nationalist Chinese also failed. Kennedy resorted to using U.S. Air Force crews, passing another waypoint on the road to American combat involvement. Meanwhile the Pathet Lao counterattacked, overrunning important government posts and forcing the Hmong from their ancestral villages.

Washington reconsidered intervening, despite the poor conditions. All the significant options involved moving through Thailand. Most schemes not only involved SEATO but also required improvement of the Thai infrastructure: making roads, airfields, and ports serviceable enough to accommodate the supplies required by the combat troops. Kennedy approved the infrastructure work, and briefly reactivated Joint Task Force 116 to signal his determination, but he also pushed for a new Geneva negotiation to defuse the Laotian situation.

On May 3 the sides declared a ceasefire, which both quickly violated while insisting it was intact. Talks began in Geneva and dragged on for months.

A new complication arose when Chinese nationalist troops entered Laos from Burma, where they had long been established, and took up positions at a town called Nam Tha. Some Chinese left but General Phoumi rechristened others as a Royal Laotian Armed Forces special battalion, complete with an American training team. Despite the ceasefire, General Phoumi reinforced them and started an offensive into Pathet Lao country in October 1961. Phoumi’s forces advanced but North Vietnam committed unprecedented numbers to counter them. The Phoumist troops pulled back to Nam Tha, a vulnerable position with no road connections to government bases further south, and almost as close to Dien Bien Phu as to Luang Prabang.

In January 1962 the North Vietnamese laid siege to Nam Tha. American advisers urged Phoumi to abandon the post. Instead, he sent in more Royal Laotian paratroops and artillery. Brig. Gen. Andrew J. Boyle, leading the military advisory group (which had finally supplanted the PEO), refused Phoumi’s demands for Air America to airdrop the paratroops. When the United States rejected Phoumi’s requests for bombs for the Lao/Thai T-6 aircraft, the general got them through his relative, Marshal Sarit. Nam Tha became a Dien Bien Phu–style siege.

By now, President Kennedy had become frustrated with Phoumi, seeing the general’s political adventurism as a threat to the United States’ careful calculations. His obstructionism impeded agreement in negotiations, and his mediocre military leadership was proving an embarrassment. Phoumi had to go.

Declassified minutes show that on February 5, 1962, the Special Group 5412, the ultrasecret Washington board that controlled covert operations, considered plans to neutralize Phoumi. The schemes ranged from bribes to induce him to depart, to arrest, and worse. Instead, the United States recalled Phoumi’s CIA minder, John Hasey, and cut off the money flow. But the United States’ writ did not run everywhere in Laos, and Phoumi kept his job.

Nam Tha scared Kennedy to his boots. By May all three of the government’s paratroop battalions and five of its infantry units were in or near the camp but could not hold it. On May 6, Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese assaults took the position, almost exactly eight years to the day since the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The CIA concluded that the attack force was smaller than the 4,500 Phoumist troops defending Nam Tha. Many of the defenders were killed and 2,000 Phoumists marched into captivity, while others retreated into Thailand. President Kennedy faced new pressures to escalate, though he was stunned when Dwight D. Eisenhower, briefed by a Kennedy emissary, sent word he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if required.

Kennedy reactivated Joint Task Force 116 yet again, sending marines to Thailand to take up positions along the Laotian border. The United States re- doubled efforts to improve Thai roads and air- fields. But negotiating efforts in Geneva were now bearing fruit and a new set of accords was reached late in June, renewing the neutral status of Laos and providing for a fresh coalition government, again under Souvanna Phouma, to replace the Phoumist cabinet.

Phoumi Nosavan could not survive the Nam Tha debacle. Obliged to give up his military posts, he joined Souvanna Phouma’s coalition as deputy prime minister and minister of finance. He would be progressively marginalized, and as his military allies attempted coups and political maneuvers that failed, they were broken. In February 1965, Phoumi departed for exile in Thailand. Kong Le was also marginalized, and he too went into exile. The war had already reignited in the spring of 1963, fueled by reciprocal assassinations of neutralists and of Pathet Lao allies.

When fighting resumed, the recipe for war was complete: the CIA led the Laotian war for the United States, the Hmong secret army its most powerful instrument; the Royal Laotian Government was officially neutral but actually fighting alongside the United States, which insisted it stood behind the Geneva agreements of 1962. Laotian armed forces were a limited quantity despite their growing strength. Air power predominated, with the United States’ operational scheme to run the war remotely from Thailand using the Thai as the essential ally. The North Vietnamese stiffened and eventually overshadowed the Pathet Lao.

Had Laos remained neutral there would have been no Ho Chi Minh Trail, and a North Vietnamese invasion of Laos designed to create one would have become a case of open aggression that Washington could have confronted with far more international support and alliance backing.

It is remarkable how all the pieces were put into play so early in this buildup to Vietnam.

Concurrent with its machinations in Laos the United States moved beyond supporting an anti-Communist government in South Vietnam to backing Saigon leaders in their effort to eradicate the last enemy cadres—all in Eisenhower’s day. When the Communists bit back, using their networks to mount an insurgency, and Hanoi intervened to sustain them, creating the threat against which Kennedy and Johnson progressively escalated, the panhandle of Laos became Hanoi’s broad avenue to join the war in the south. In the end, Dwight Eisenhower’s success at pushing Laos out of its neutral Cold War stance became the foundation for one of the biggest headaches to confront American commanders in South Vietnam.

 

Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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