ONE torrid day last August the diplomatic, political, and military community of Vientiane turned out in almost full force to welcome home Prince Souvanna Phouma, who was returning from Europe to become Prime Minister of what the fourteen states responsible for the newly signed Geneva accords had called the sovereign, independent, neutral, and united kingdom of Laos. Conspicuous by his jovial presence at the head of the official Lao reception committee was Souvanna’s dark-complexioned half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, leader of the Communist Pathet Lao, who had been acting as head of government.
No less conspicuous by his absence was General Phoumi Nosavan, leader of the right wing, who for more than a year had fought a solitary and determined rear-guard action against the coalition, capitulating only when Washington cut off economic aid and the elite of his armed forces fled in panic from the northern provincial capital of Nam Tha in the last battle of the war.
“How do you think the arrangements set up by Geneva will work?" asked a Westerner of a Polish member of the International Control Commission as Souvanna Phouma passed slowly down the reception line, pausing to select a flower from each of the silver bowls offered in his honor by kneeling Lao women dressed in their richly embroidered shawls and sarongs. “Work?” repeated the Pole. “It cannot possibly work. This is not a government, it is a comic opera.”
The necessity for good faith
Officially, at least, Western diplomats in Vientiane were more hopeful. The Geneva agreement on Lao neutrality had some glaring weaknesses, they agreed. Though there was nothing to prevent Laos from becoming a Communist state, duly neutral of course, it had stepped out irrevocably from under the leaky SEATO umbrella and the anti-Communist lineup in Southeast Asia.
The approved troika system of control for the coalition government laid down that no major decision could be taken without the approval of the left, right, and center members, a condition which required not only good faith on the part of all, but, if the government were to function properly, that there should be mutual trust. Since the factions had been at war for several years and their leaders now lived in Vientiane in compounds guarded by their own nervous troops, this requirement seemed fanciful, to say the least.
Good faith was also required of the thirteen foreign guarantors of the agreement. Though the Polish, Indian, and Canadian members of the International Control Commission had supervisory responsibility for the withdrawal of foreign troops and foreign military equipment, they could perform their tasks only with the genuine cooperation of all concerned. Again, it was questionable whether that cooperation would be forthcoming. While eagerly supporting the concept of a neutral Laos, Ho Chi Minh’s regime in Communist North Vietnam had always regarded its 10,000 troops in Laos as the martial equivalent of the sceneshifters in a No drama, who, though they dart black-clad about the stage among the actors, are not expected to be noticed. It was impossible, Hanoi said, to withdraw that which did not exist.
On the anti-Communist side there were difficulties also. Thailand regarded its security as gravely prejudiced by the Geneva agreement. It signed reluctantly, only under pressure, and was by no means eager to discontinue its military support for General Phoumi Nosavan, a cousin of field Marshal Sarit, the Thai Prime Minister.
The West pinned its hopes on the ability of the United States, if need be, to persuade the Thais to abide by the agreement, and on the Soviet leadership of the Communist side. At a meeting at Bangkok in the spring of 1961, SEATO had considered and, following British and French vetoes, finally rejected military intervention in Laos. Though it all but wrecked the treaty organization, the decision was made easier by what appeared to be a sincere Soviet wish to settle for genuine neutrality in Laos, if only to keep the Chinese out. Thus, there was general satisfaction among Western delegates at Geneva when the British and the Russians, as co-chairmen of the agreement, also accepted responsibility for policing it. This meant, in effect, that it was up to the Soviet Union to see that the Chinese and North Vietnamese ceased their military meddling, and that the North Vietnamese in particular pulled out their troops and stopped using the mountain trails through eastern Laos as a corridor to reinforce and supply the Communist forces in South Vietnam.
Such a fragile guarantee had obvious dangers, of course. Yet, in view of the unattractive alternative of military intervention by SEATO, with all the attendant risks of involvement in a Koreantype war against “volunteers" from North Vietnam and Red China, it was probably the best that the United States could hope for.
If there had been no agreement at Geneva, the Pathet Lao forces could have swept on and taken the towns along the Mekong River, gaining possession of Lao road and river communications, such as they are; and this, in turn, would have led to a much more rapid penetration of vulnerable northeastern Thailand and posed even more formidable problems for the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, which was already gravely concerned with the Communists’ use of Laos as a supply route for the Viet Cong guerrillas. As some Western officials saw it, therefore, the Geneva agreement bought time — time to engage in a widespread community aid program in northeastern Thailand, and time to cope with the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
To the Pathet Lao, who regarded themselves as the victors, Geneva was, on the contrary, a peace treaty that gave de facto recognition of their primacy. The expedient alliance with General Kong Le, the neutralist military leader, no longer served any purpose. As a matter of course, the Pathet Lao also set out to mop up, or starve out, the opiumgrowing Meo tribesmen who had supported the right-wing forces of General Phoumi Nosavan.
Scattered in pockets through the mountains, the Meos had responded well to guerrilla training in the year preceding the Geneva agreement. Sturdy hunters with much more warlike habits than the Lao lowlanders, they had been driven from their clearings by the Pathet Lao. With no chance to settle down to clear new patches of jungle in which to plant their crops, they welcomed the food, the guns, and the training brought by the U.S. White Star special forces and the opportunity to work off old grudges. At the end, about hall of perhaps 100,000 Meos were against the Pathet Lao. Deprived subsequently of continuing supplies of arms and ammunition, and in many cases also of food, they became one of the major casualties of the war and of the half-peace.
The North Vietnamese interpretation of the Geneva agreement was similar to the Pathet Lao’s. Exulting in their allies’ victory, they also persisted with the fiction that they were innocent of any warlike involvement. They removed a military hospital from the Plain of Jars, an ancient burial ground about an hour’s flight north of Vientiane, and celebrated its return to Hanoi publicly and ceremoniously. Only fifty North Vietnamese soldiers passed through checkpoints set up by the International Control Commission, however. Though several thousands left by other routes, in violation of the Geneva agreement, several thousand others, including specialists, instructors, and fully independent units, remained.
As for the Ho Chi Minh trail, as the wilderness of tracks running north and south through eastern Laos is known, nothing changed. For more than a decade these rugged, sparsely populated mountains through which the trail runs have been the private fief of a tribesman named Sithone, who is also a member of the Pathet Lao politburo. Under his direction, the area remained closed to all but the Pathet Lao and the Viet Cong cadres, who, at the rate of about two to three hundred a month, continued to make the backbreaking journey from North Vietnam to South Vietnam.
That the government hung together in Vientiane under these circumstances said much for Souvanna Phouma’s phlegmatic temperament and the general appreciation that if he should withdraw from the scene, the right and the left would quickly be at each other’s throats again. Always more of a figurehead than a Prime Minister, he maintained his leadership of the troika only by threatening repeatedly to resign. This threat was sometimes sufficient to bring the three groups together to agree in principle on issues of fundamental significance, such as the creation of a single army of 30,000 men drawn equally from each of the three factions, but he never succeeded in translating agreement into action.
Trouble at the center
Few believed that this curious arrangement could continue indefinitely. The only real cause for surprise, and that is too strong a word, is that the threat to the coalition should have come through frictions and antagonisms among the neutralist group in the center rather than from renewed hostilities between the left and the right.
The first hint of serious trouble came last November, when an American plane on an authorized mission was shot down at the Plain of Jars by an antiaircraft battery manned by neutralist defectors to the Pathet Lao. Kong Le blamed the Pathet Lao and the ostensibly neutral Foreign Minister, Quinim Pholsena, accusing him of trying to divide the neutralists. Part Chinese and a protégé of Souvanna Phouma’s, Quinim was ambitious and able, but his neutrality, and that of several of his followers, had a heavy anti-American and pro-Communist bias. As defections from the neutralist forces increased, the split between Quinim and Kong Le grew wider.
In January, Roger Hilsman, Jr., who has since succeeded Averell Harriman as Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, and Michael Forrestal of the National Security Council arrived in Vientiane from Washington. Both were anxious in the course of their on-the-spot negotiations to talk to Kong Le. For reasons of personal security, however, the young neutralist general, who had never been forgiven by the right wing for his leadership of the coup d’etat in 1960, preferred to keep at arm’s length from Colonel Siho, General Phoumi Nosavan’s innocentlooking and quite ruthless strong man in Vientiane. Therefore, though plagued by Pathet Lao forces and defectors from his own group, Kong Le made his headquarters at the Plain of Jars.
Under normal circumstances the flight from Vientiane presents no hazards; but following the attack on the American plane in November, it was decided that the two officials should travel in one of the ten Russian planes which with their crews are part of the Soviet Union’s current economic-aid program in Laos. As the Russians with their American passengers began their approach run for the landing at the Plain of Jars, the antiaircraft guns opened fire again. Though this time the plane landed undamaged, its passengers were left in little doubt about either the explosive nature of the situation at the Plain of Jars or the declining ability of the Russians, whose observance of the Geneva agreement has not been in question, to exercise any real control over the Communisttinged warlords of Laos.
Violence on both sides
In an effort to relieve the rapidly mounting tension, Souvanna Phouma included Quinim in the entourage that accompanied King Savang Vatthana on his ceremonial tour of the countries which signed the Geneva agreement. During their absence, however, the situation continued to deteriorate. Rival bands stood by with their guns at the ready on the Plain of Jars. Minor incidents occurred almost every day, and a considerable crisis arose in February, when a neutralist defector shot and killed Kong Le’s deputy while he was at home watching a movie.
News of murders, abductions, arrests, threats, and counterthreats greeted Souvanna Phouma and the rest of the royal party on its return from abroad in March. Among those threatened was Quinim, who as a neutralist minister was guarded by a detachment of troops wearing the distinctive red beret and camouflaged clothing of Kong Le’s paratroops. When a young member of the guard, recently arrived from Kong Le’s headquarters at the Plain of Jars, turned executioner and shot Quinim down, fighting broke out, with the Pathet Lao and former Quinim followers lined up against Kong Le. Peiping, Hanoi, and the Pathet Lao radio all blamed “U.S. imperialism and its lackeys” for Quinim’s death, claiming that their aim was to “wipe out the neutralist groups and to suppress the patriotic forces.” The talk was no longer of peace and neutrality but of war.
In April the Pathet Lao moved ahead rapidly, strengthening both their military and their political position at the expense of the two other factions. When Prince Souvanna Phouma failed to halt the fighting between Communist and neutralist troops, Washington began an intense diplomatic drive to prevent the resumption of full-scale civil war.