FEW international agreements have ever been concluded with more public goodwill and private misgivings than the Geneva accords of July 23, 1962, which solemnly guaranteed the neutrality and sovereignty of the kingdom of Laos. With a unanimity and a determination that had been sadly lacking in their earlier efforts to keep Laos out of Communist hands, the West combined to drive the anti-Communist forces into a coalition government which they publicly applauded but privately conceded might eventually lead to a take-over by Prince Souphanouvong and his Neo Lao Hak Xat Party, an offshoot of Ho Chi Minh’s Laodong (Communist) Party of North Vietnam.
Last May their fears all but came true. Before the annual monsoon rains deluged the mountains of central and northern Laos, the neutralist forces had been driven from the rolling grasslands of the strategic and politically important Plain of Jars. On all fronts neutralist and rightist forces were in precipitate retreat.
For the West, the Geneva agreement was an escape hatch, a means of disengaging on seemingly face-saving terms from voluntarily accepted but now insupportable commitments under SEATO, which had cast what John Foster Dulles used to call an umbrella of protection over the Indochina states of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.
Inaccessible, backward, mountainous Laos was about the worst place in the world for the United States and its allies to fight a limited war. Laos, tucked away in the heart of Southeast Asia, lacks any internal communications worth the name and is top-heavy with an army that devoured U.S. aid but showed no willingness to fight the Communist Pathet Lao, which already controlled the greater part of the country. Yet limited war, or the early loss of all of Laos, was the only alternative to negotiation.
Peace on the honor system
Having been obliged to negotiate from weakness, the United States lacked authority at the conference table to insist on the creation of effective supervisory machinery that elementary prudence demanded. What it settled for was a sugarcoated defeat, an agreement that simply put the fourteen signatories, including the Soviet Union, Red China, and North Vietnam, on the honor system. The sole authority for supervising the peace was the three-power International Control Commission, set up under the 1954 Geneva agreement and consisting of the representatives of Canada, India, and Poland. The commission had proved totally ineffective, and there was no reason to expect it to do any better in the future.
From the moment that neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma returned from Geneva in August, 1962, to become Premier of the government of National Union — the coalition of neutralists, rightists, and Communists — it was obvious that Communist China and North Vietnam had no intention of honoring the agreement. Souvanna, Souphanouvong’s half brother, a gentle, ineffective aristocrat who yearns for the day when he can retire to Paris in peace, was confronted at the airport by an angry Chinese chargé d’affaires, not yet accredited to the new government, who warned that 650 million Chinese did not intend to be pushed about by 2 million Laotians.
War is renewed
This was just a hint of things to come. At the end of the stipulated thirty-day period in which all foreign troops were required to withdraw from Laos through recognized checkpoints, the International Control Commission counted 666 Americans, 410 Filipinos, and 40 North Vietnamese. Since Hanoi had never admitted the presence of its troops in Laos and could not, without losing face, publicly withdraw what they had always denied, Western embassies hoped that they had pulled out before the checking period. In fact, most had not. This soon became apparent to the neutralists and led to renewed war.
Before the Geneva agreement, relations between neutralist Souvanna Phouma and his military commander, the thirty-six-year-old dedicated, patriotic, and apolitical Kong Le, on the one hand and the Communist Pathet Lao on the other had been close and cordial. The son of poor peasants, scarcely more than literate and shocked by the venality of Vientiane, Kong Le had overthrown the right-wing government in 1960 by a coup d’etat.
When he in turn was driven from the capital, he fell, naturally enough, into an alliance with the Pathet Lao. The Soviet Union equipped him with fifty tanks and other material, and his neutralist and Communist forces lived comfortably side by side on the Plain of Jars, where Souphanouvong and Souvanna Phouma for many months shared austere living quarters in a former French Foreign Legion barracks.
After the Geneva agreement, North Vietnam took over from the Soviet Union the logistical support of the Pathet Lao forces, moving food and other supplies into areas under Communist control. The United States, at the request of Prince Souvanna Phouma, also continued to air-drop nonmilitary supplies to isolated pockets of Meo and other tribesmen, some of them deep in Pathet Lao territory. Therefore the West and the rightists in Vientiane could not complain, though it was suspected that along with rice, the North Vietnamese were sending guns and ammunition. Unlike the Russians, however, the North Vietnamese denied the neutralists a share and imposed a blockade against their units. On November 24, 1962, an American cargo plane carrying supplies, again at Souvanna Phouma’s request, to Kong Le’s blockaded forces was shot down over the Plain of jars.
Far from wanting to continue their alliance with Kong Le, the Pathet Lao patently wanted to destroy him and to take over his forces. “They tried to provoke and to buy over my men,” said the now thoroughly disillusioned Kong Le. “Their aim was to sow discord and disunity in our ranks.” They succeeded. For the troops that shot down the American plane were defectors from Kong Le’s forces.
The timing could scarcely have been worse. On the day the plane was shot down the three factions of the coalition government announced in Vientiane that they had agreed to form a unified national army of thirty thousand men, to be drawn equally from forces loyal to the neutralists, the rightists, and the Pathet Lao. It was the only significant agreement ever reached by the troika government, and it was never put into effect.
The coalition fails
Relations between Kong Le’s troops, the defectors, and the Pathet Lao now deteriorated rapidly. A series of assassinations led to open fighting on the Plain of Jars and the creation of what Hanoi and Peiping have referred to since as the “true neutralists” under Colonel Deuane, Kong Le’s partner in the 1960 coup in Vientiane, who defected to the Pathet Lao with some hundreds of his men.
With the leading Pathet Lao ministers gone from Vientiane and Prince Souvanna Phouma thrust into a de facto alliance with General Phoumi Nosavan, the right-wing leader, who had adroitly managed to become Finance Minister, the coalition government existed in name only. Along with all their other problems, the two leaders now had to face landslide inflation. Direct U.S. budgetary support had been discontinued on the assumption that two thirds of the rightist forces, which had previously been dependent on American pay and handouts, could be demobilized.
With demobilization now clearly impracticable, the kip soared from its official rate of 80 to the dollar to more than 600 on the black market. Prices for foodstuffs and other essentials in Royal Lao areas doubled and doubled again.
The balmy days when Phoumi could count on American aid sufficient for any needs belonged to the past. The amount of aid was much smaller, more realistic, and, with the differential in the official and free rates of exchange cut by devaluation to a modest 100 percent, less easy and less attractive to manipulate for personal profit. Instead of the monthly $3 million handout, which Phoumi had counted on in the past, the U.S. contribution was reckoned to run to some $12 million to $15 million a year in commodity imports. Britain agreed to contribute another $3 million a year for three years, and Australia $150,000 a year for the same period.
In return, Phoumi was obliged to place a ceiling on his budget deficit, which increased from a total of $1.4 million in the years 1955-1960, to $3.9 million in 1961, $17.8 million in 1962, and $28.8 million, or more than four times the total budgetary collections (U.S. aid excluded), for the first nine months of 1963.
The casinos finance the army
To find the money to keep his 55,000-man army in funds, Phoumi opened a series of gambling casinos in Vientiane and the other Mekong River towns. They produced revenue beyond his wildest dreams. Compared with anticipated export earnings of $800 million, most of it in tin, Phoumi believed that the concession fees from the Casino de Vientiane alone would run to 240 million kips this year, or a million dollars at the new devalued rate of exchange.
The casino’s unusual facilities included a pawnshop, where the unlucky gambler could exchange his car, his house, or even his land for chips to continue the game. An airconditioned salon equipped with eighty pipes of the finest ivory from the Shan States of Burma and opium freshly grown on the mountain slopes of Laos was planned to assuage the losers’ hurts.
Vientiane has gone through some hectic days since indigestible quantities of American aid started coming into the pockets of a privileged few ten years ago. Automobiles, villas, and nightclubs marked the boom period: the casino was the symbol of the bust. Nothing in Vietnam did more to put the town on the map. Men and women from as far away as southern Thailand came to play — and almost always to lose.
To those who complained that the casinos had caused the final demoralization of all that remained of free Laos, Phoumi had a simple reply: “Find me an alternative means of financing my army, and I will gladly close the casinos.” In the end, however, the casinos were his undoing.
Stalling for time
In the latter part of 1963, Phoumi, in concert with Kong Le, had begun to move cautiously into regions once jointly occupied by the Communists and the neutralists. In most areas there was little contact. The movement was really the tentative picking up of uncontested areas in noman’s-land; in no circumstances could it be described as a military offensive. In central Laos, however, it encroached dangerously close to the Ho Chi Minh trail, the North Vietnamese supply route through the rugged mountains of western Laos to the Viet Cong insurgents in South Vietnam.
Late in January the Pathet Lao, stiffened by Viet Minh forces from North Vietnam, attacked and routed the rightist-neutralist forces. It was one of the most humiliating defeats ever. It added to Vientiane’s frustration and led, on April 19, to a coup d’etat in which General Siho Lamphoutakoul, the twenty-nineyear-old chief of Phoumi’s secret police, enlisted the support of the Vientiane commander, General Kouprasith Abhay, to seize power. Using funds from the Casino de Vientiane (which he subsequently closed down), Siho bought off officers already committed to help in another coup and took Vientiane, placing Souvanna Phouma under house arrest.
Western embassies tried with limited success to undo the coup, which was directed more against Phoumi than against Souvanna Phouma. The retention of Souvanna Phouma as Premier was seen as essential, and in this, Western efforts were successful. For a time, however, Souvanna Phouma was quite literally the prisoner of the coup leaders, which helped the Pathet Lao propaganda machine when it wanted to discredit his assumption of authority over Phoumi’s armed forces as well as the remains of his own neutralist group.
In an attempt to discourage the Pathet Lao without actually becoming engaged in hostilities, the United States ordered reconnaissance planes from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, standing off the coast of Vietnam, to patrol the Plain of Jars and the Pathet Lao supply routes from North Vietnam.
The loss of two planes in quick succession to accurate anti-aircraft fire dictated something more urgent in the way of a deterrent. On orders from President Johnson, the Kitty Hawk’s Crusaders, reinforced by land-based fighter bombers, took out the anti-aircraft batteries, and in the process, demolished part of the Chinese Communist mission headquarters. Although Peiping and Hanoi reacted angrily, the Pathet Lao offensive ceased, and the neutralist-rightist forces scored one of their few major successes of the war, clearing the road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, the royal capital of Laos.
Events now began to follow an old and familiar pattern. While they consolidated their military gains on the strategic Plain of Jars, the Pathet Lao, supported by the Soviet Union, France, China, and North Vietnam, called for a new Geneva conference. Prince Souvanna Phouma, backed by the West, replied with demands for an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of Pathet Lao forces from their newly won positions on the Plain of Jars as preconditions for Geneva talks.
On French initiative, the leaders of the three factions began a series of informal meetings in Paris late in August. With General Phoumi Nosavan’s partial eclipse, the right wing was led once again by Prince Boun Oum, who quickly outmaneuvered the Pathet Lao by nominating Souvanna Phouma as spokesman for both rightist and neutralist interests. Although progress appeared slow, and at times nonexistent, the princes seemed to feel that one day the Laotian issue would go back to Geneva, not with any hope of producing a lasting settlement, but as part of the war of maneuver in the now critical struggle for all of Southeast Asia.