As the war in neighboring Vietnam increases in intensity, there has been new talk out of Washington about proposals to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos and cut off Hanoi’s infiltration of men and supplies to South Vietnam. As Senator Alike Alanslield, among others, argued publicly in Washington this spring, the building of a. fortified barrier (minefields, strong points, and barbed wire) across southern Laos’ panhandle has a certain appeal. One U.S. Embassy official in Saigon noted, “No one has ever won a war against guerrillas who maintained an open supply line to a friendly nation.”
Although Hanoi has used coastal blockade-runners to get arms into South Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh Trail has been its major route for troop reinforcements — as many as 7000 a month by Pentagon estimates. The Trail, actually a web of footpaths and truck tracks, runs down through mountain defiles to the savage “tri-border area,” where the borders of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam join. In further violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords on the neutralization of Laos, Hanoi keeps upwards of 40,000 labor troops, depending on the season, for repair and maintenance of the Trail. By using the Trail through the Laotian panhandle, Hanoi’s troops can make an end run around the Demilitarized Zone and the allied troops just south of it.
The war trail
The problem has become more acute since mid-1966. Enemy pressure on the U.S. Marines in South A ietnam’s five northernmost provinces has been increasing, quite aside from the spring’s bloody battles along the DMZ. Security around Hué, Quangtri City, and Danang has deteriorated in the past year, as North Vietnamese reinforcements, coming across the mountains from Laos, have stiffened the local Viet Cong. To a lesser extent, the same trend has occurred to the south in the Central Highlands. As long as the Trail remains open, so the argument goes, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong can keep up the war in the south indefinitely.
Bombing the Trail has put a strain on the enemy, who have to move at night. Viewed in daylight from the air, the Trail’s so-called Route 96, east of the Laotian town of Saravane, is simply a scar out into the green mountainside, flanked by bomb craters and expended flare parachutes, with no sign of life. The rains further curb truck activity during the May to September monsoon, turning dirt roads into bogs. But enough men and supplies keep coming south, by all accounts, to replace heavy casualties and build up new units.
The barrier proposal most often cited — and war-gamed in the past — is the Route Nine plan, which, in effect, would extend the forty-mile allied “front” south of the DMZ another 125 miles to the west. Route Nine is an old French-colonial dirt road which winds through the Communist-held valleys of the mile-high Annamite Chain, west to the Mekong River in Laos. To the United States, which built the Burma Road, the terrain does not pose insuperable engineering problems.
But the Route Nine plan, by most estimates, would require up to 100,000 American troops. They would be needed to shield and support the barrier against serious attack from both north and south — and Hanoi could be expected to spare no effort to frustrate a Route Nine plan. The Pentagon is already hard-pressed to maintain 450,000 men in South Vietnam (only about 80,000 of them are infantrymen). In Vietnam the United States Army is rich in machines, elaborate logistics, and supporting arms, but poor in riflemen. Officials in Saigon and Vientiane find it hard to imagine where Lyndon Johnson could find 100,000 extra troops to send into Laos, without greatly increasing draft calls and calling up reserves.
Moreover, in the opinion of most diplomats in Thailand and Laos, the enlargement of the Ahctnam war could not be limited to southern Laos. Hanoi, however hard-pressed, would certainly be able to muster enough troops to make a diversionary counterattack in northern Laos, possibly even a foray across the Mekong against the United States air base at Nakorn Panom, in northeastern Thailand. Thus, still more American manpower would be required.
As William Sullivan, the United States ambassador to Vientiane, is well aware, the military burden of the “barrier” is only half the problem. A massive United States intervention in southern Laos would be a violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords and of the acceptable status quo, which the Soviet Union could not ignore. The prospect gives Communist diplomats in Vientiane the jitters. The political price of the barrier would be a revival of the dangerous Soviet-American confrontation that the 1962 accords, however bent and frayed, managed to avert. “Laos is one of the few places where the detente still exists,” observed one American diplomat. “Is it worthwhile breaking it?”
The acceptable prince
In May, Prince Souvanna Phouma, durable sixty-five-year-old Premier of the rightist-neutralist coalition, made clear in Vientiane his fears of any intensification of the war in Laos.
Prince Souvanna’s pleas for his avowed policy of neutrality and the military status quo brought no objections from the Soviet Union’s ambassador, Boris E. Kirnassovsky. On this, he and Ambassador Sullivan see eye to eye. Despite their massive materiel support for Hanoi in Vietnam, the Soviets have yet to echo Peking’s and Hanoi’s denunciations of Souvanna as a lackey of the Americans. After thirteen years of topsy-turvy Laotian independence from France, after coups and countercoups, the Prince is now the kingdom’s only politician acceptable to rightist army generals, the neutralists, and most important, Washington and Moscow.
Last New Year’s Day, some 600,000 Laotian voters, most of them illiterate, chose a new fifty-ninemember parliament to succeed its quarrelsome predecessor. (The Pathet Lao, not unexpectedly, boycotted the election and made a few hit-and-run raids to harass the voting.) Souvanna campaigned last fall for a United Front and an end to Vientiane’s chronic factionalism, but such a front has yet to emerge. He is still under pressure from rightists in the assembly to turn over four Cabinet portfolios which he has preserved for the Pathet Lao ever since 1963, when they quit the shortlived tripartite government which was set up after the Geneva Accords. As the Premier remarked sadly this spring, “The Pathct Lao is still the only organized political party in Laos.”
Pathet Lao power
As newcomers to Vientiane are astonished to learn, Souvanna has carefully left the door open for the Pathct Lao to return to tripartitism. Just across from Vientiane’s bustling Morning Market, half-hidden by a weed-shrouded fence, stands an impassive young Pathet Lao soldier in faded baggy khaki. For years the sentry and his comrades have been guarding the Communist Pathct Lao compound in Vientiane. Off duty, the Pathct Lao guards play volleyball, watch inspirational films borrowed from the North Vietnamese embassy, and tend a garden.
The Pathet Lao, whose nominal leader is still Prince Souphanouvong, Souvanna’s half brother, have had little cause for rejoicing in the past year. With perhaps 20,000 armed men, loosely controlling the Plain of Jars and the mountain valleys north and east of the Mekong, they have steadily lost ground since mid-1964. United States officials in Vientiane contend that if it weren’t for 15,000 North Vietnamese regulars, who provide leaders and heavy weapons specialists for Pathet Lao units, the Pathet Lao would collapse.
Other Westerners are less optimistic, noting that the Kha tribesmen in southern Laos and some hill tribes in northern Laos are still stoutly anti-government as a result of past discrimination. The Pathet Lao, while no Viet Cong, still have a grass-roots organization in the “liberated areas” that the government has yet to equal in the territory under its control.
Yet, the Pathet Lao — and Hanoi’s troops — have operated under increasing handicaps. Hanoi has apparently been too preoccupied elsewhere to play more than a conservative, largely defensive role in Laos since early 1965. During the rainy season, when Pathet Lao supply roads turn into quagmires, they go on the defensive. During the past dry season, they have made sporadic forays into the rice-growing flat lands to gather food and assert their presence.
By Vietnam standards, the Fitful war in Laos is almost a cease-fire. Estimated casualties last year were 7000 killed, wounded, and missing on each side, without counting civilians. Except in a few key valleys and towns, neither side has enough strength to take or hold ground against serious opposition. “Often enough,” observed a U.S. official, “one shoots just to warn the other side that it is coming so that the enemy can get out of the way.”
“Laos has had enough”
The government army (Forces Armees Royales) is ridden with incompetents and by antipathies, notably between General Kouprasith Abhay, politically ambitious commander of the Vientiane region, and other regional commanders. But several potentially more dangerous threats to stability have been removed. General Kong Le, long the boyish, charismatic, but increasingly inactive commander of the 10,000 neutralist troups at Vang Vieng and Muong Soui, was ousted by his subordinate colonels last fall. He wound up in Hong Kong.
Little by little, amid dickering over rank and jobs, the neutralist battalions are being integrated into the regular F.A.R. General Phoumi Nosavan, once the CIA-backed rightist “strong man,” has been living in comfortable exile at Thailand’s beach resort of Songkla since the last abortive semicoup against Souvanna in February, 1965. General Thao Ma, the headstrong commander of the fledgling Royal Laotian Air Force, got into a quarrel with the Vientiane generals, tried to settle it by bombing GHQ, last October, and fled to Thailand. “Let’s hope the days of military coups arc over,” said a Vientiane newspaperman. “Laos has had enough.”
The great equalizer in Laos, despite mountainous terrain and chronic bad weather, has been air power. The Communists have no aircraft. The American-trained and equipped Royal Laotian Air Force, with a kind of Hell’s Angels flair, has given the long-suffering F.A.R. ground troops a major boost. At the battle of Thakhck, in December, 1965, for example, General Ma, lacking conventional night bombers, loaded up his old C-47 transports with bombs and told his airmen to kick the bombs out of the doors on the North Vietnamese positions in the darkness below. Enemy casualties, if any, were unknown, but the effect on the government defenders’ morale, by all accounts, was sensational. The real workhorse of the Laotian war has been the stubby propeller-driven T-28 trainer, converted into a mini-bomber capable of carrying 500-pound bombs and rockets. The Laotians fly some twenty T-28’s in close support of the army’s isolated garrisons and occasional “sweep” forces.
But the T-28’s are not the only “equalizers.” On occasion, without any publicity, I hai pilots fly unmarked T-28’s across the Mekong in support of the Laotians (just as a composite Royal Thai Army artillery group mans 105 mm. and 155 mm. howitzers at Muong Soui on the fringes of the Plain of Jars, and Thai and Laotian commandos spy on the Ho Chi Mink Trail).
In mid-1964, U.S. Air Force jets began “armed reconnaissance” over Communist-held territory at Premier Souvanna’s request. Now, A-26 attack bombers and A-1-E fighterbombers fly against Laotian targets from Nakhon Phanom in Thailand. The Thai-based F-105 and F-4-C jets, especially when bad weather prevents strikes against North Vietnam, hit the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the supply routes coming into the Plain of Jars. Every so often, they bomb Dien Bien Phu, site of the 1 954 French disaster, which sits astride Route 19, the supply line from North Vietnam into northern Laos. To preserve the facade of the Geneva Accords, these strikes go unannounced by U.S. military spokesmen. Hanoi, after all, does not admit it is involved in Laos cither.
As Mr. Sot Petrasy, the Pathet Lao representative in Vietnam, likes to point out, all this bombing has not brought the Pathet Lao to surrender. But by all accounts, it has forced Communist leaders to live in caves and dugouts, and reduced most towns and villages held by the P.L. to ruins. It has forced the Communists to divert manpower — far scarcer in rural Laos than in North Vietnam — to fill bomb craters in their few supply roads and repair the bridges. It keeps the Communists off the roads in daylight. It has contributed heavily to the flow of refugees from Communist-held areas, along with the Pathet Lao’s ever increasing demands on the peasants for rice, recruits, and forced labor.
Air transport has also given Premier Souvanna’s government an edge. Laos, a mountainous, sparsely populated, landlocked country the size of Great Britain, has neither paved highway nor railroad. (The French, who saw little to be gotten out of Laos, put little in.) Roving bands of Pathet Lao add to the inconveniences of surface transportation. Only near the Mekong River does normal road traffic occur.
Thus, the gray-clad bush pilots of Air America and Continental Air Services, under annual contract to USAID, play a key role in U.S. efforts to support the Royal Laotian government. Most of the $5 million worth of rice and other aid annually given to the 250,000 refugees is delivered by air, especially in the rugged mountains of the north.
Although economic aid and taxi service take up most of the charter airlines’ effort, others benefit as well. With 100 pilots and 900 other people on its payroll in Laos, representing 7 nationalities, Air America reportedly has 32 aircraft “in-country,” with others based in Thailand. The company’s executives say that their planes carry no troops. But it is generally known in Vientiane that Air America does perform discreet chores for the Central Intelligence Agency, such as dropping arms and ammunition to Meo tribesmen and other “friendlies” in northern Laos. Continental Air Services’ 36 aircraft and 80 pilots are occasionally employed to ferry and supply Royal Laotian Army troops, in addition to doing the same AID transport chores as Air America.
Contrary to some press reports, the bush pilots, who earn np to 82000 a month, are not active-duty air force officers in mufti. Nor do they fly “bombing missions.” All are civilians; many arc former air force pilots; most are old hands at flying in Southeast Asia. They earn their pay. Besides enemy fire and bad weather, the American pilots, mostly married men, must often hazard short, bumpy mountaintop landing sites that go uphill.
By Vietnam standards, the U.S. aid effort in Laos is modest. Only a handful of American, Thai, Filipino, and Lao employees of AID live and work “upcountry.” (Others commute.) But among them arc some of the United States’s most respected Asia hands. John Perry, former head of the Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms”) program for Viet Cong defectors in South Vietnam, is AID’s regional director in Luang Prabang. Loren Hafncr, fifty-three, a much-decorated, retired Marine colonel, runs the Peacc-Corps-style “forward area” program in remote valleys newly freed from Pathet Lao control; his “troops” are eight teams, each composed of two Laotians and two young $85-a-month International Voluntary Services men. One of them, a young Quaker, was killed by the Pathet Lao last March.
Aside from occasional danger, the Americans have to contend with local apathy, primitive traditions, extortion and graft, and a natural tendency on the part of many poorly paid local Laotian officials to regard Uncle Sam as Santa Claus. Yet despite delays and failures, schools are going up, roads and dams are being built, government “presence” is being established. Especially in the north, much of the work is being done by the villagers themselves.
Joseph A. Mendenhall, the energetic AID director for Laos, has been trying hard in the last year to cut down on the costly airlift, which accounts for about $7.3 million of the $55 million annual U.S. economic aid program in Laos. (The dollar cost of U.S. military aid is classified, but is thought to run about the same.) Some AID supplies have been floated down the Mekong to Luang Prabang from the northern Thai border town of Chiang Khong, braving Pathct Lao ambushes and sniping. Truck convoys roll down the dirt highway from Vientiane to Savannakhct, despite occasional delays due to “insecurity.”
The old commodities import program, source of many a scandal in the late fifties and early sixties, has been cut back from $7.5 million (1965) to $5 million. Known as USIP, it makes dollars available at the exchange rate of 240 Laotian kip lor authorized imports of commodities. As an AID report put it, “It was found that importers and dealers were making large profits out of USIP by falsifying invoices, re-exporting goods to Thailand, and pricing at the 500 exchange rate goods imported at the 240 rate.”
The list of authorized imports has been reduced to a few essentials: rice, petroleum products, industrial machinery, and utility vehicles. Vientiane’s Chinese shopkeepers still offer a full range of imported delicacies, ranging from New England clam chowder to French wines and Japanese tape recorders, but they don’t get them through USIP.
In Vientiane, Ambassador Sullivan has done his best to keep the American “presence” as unobtrusive as possible, and he has largely succeeded. The big compound which houses the American Community Center (with restaurant and swimming pool), the AID headquarters, and the offices of Colonel Clarke Baldwin’s staff of fifteen army and air force attaches is on a secluded side street. Few Americans except embassy officials live “on the economy”; they inhabit ranch-house ghettos outside town, and shop in the commissary.
Shocking to newcomers, to whom all this smacks of “Ugly Americanism,” the segregation in fact suits both the Laotians and the embassy; only those Americans who have a real interest in meeting Laotians do so. “Incidents” and undue pressure on local housing are avoided. In Vientiane, there is little of the chipon-shoulder anti-Americanism one finds in Bangkok or Saigon. Gone arc the boisterous pre-Geneva days of tire Army Special Forces White Star teams, when the Green Berets, in from the hills, would roister with Vietnamese bar girls along the Strip outside town. Now the Strip is dying, and the girls talk of moving to northeast Thailand, where the U.S. Air Force bases have spurred a nightclub boom.
Without U.S. military and economic aid, Premier Souvanna’s weakly knit government would have hard going. Revenues cover only a third of the budget. And defense outlays gobble up two thirds of it. Souvanna’s thirty-five-year-old Finance Minister, Sisouk na Champassak, has earned Western diplomats’ respect by increasing tax collections and pruning the budget. But there arc limits. Although Souvanna, Sisouk, and other key ministers are regarded as incorruptible, government salaries are already so low as to invite corruption. (A Laotian colonel’s maximum base pay is S70 a month.) And corruption has long been widespread, ranging from rakeoiTs on soldiers’ pay to ventures by officials in opiumand goldsmuggling.
“Under these circumstances,” said one of Sisouk’s associates, “it is useless to talk of real economic development. As long as the war continues, the best we can hope for is a holding operation.”
Even that modest hope, as Souvanna has often pointed out, depends not on the Laotians but on the Great Powers — and the effect of the Vietnam war on their policies. So far, as a U.S. Embassy economist put it, Laos has been a “successful mess”; domestic chaos, Communist take-over, and American-Soviet confrontation have been averted. But in mid-1967 even the optimists in Vientiane arc keeping their fingers crossed.