Although the bombs have ceased to tumble down on the towns and transportation networks of North Vietnam, there has been no stand down at the big U.S.-run airbases dotted around Thailand. At Takhli, Korat, Udorn, Ubon, Utapo, and Nakorn Phanom, the warm-up roar of attack aircraft continues without letup. For the U.S. Air Force, and for some of the carriers in the South China Sea, the business of war is as usual; only the targets have changed.

The primary target for the planes that used to bomb North Vietnam is now Laos. The savage internecine conflict in Laos runs on in the wings of the greater Vietnam theater. We bomb Laos in strict violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords, which we signed, in order to get at the North Vietnamese who are infiltrating through Laos in strict violation of the 1962 Accords, which they also signed. That neither side admits it, or who started it, is of little concern to most Laotians. For they are losing over a thousand men a year in the bitter civil war which has followed the breakdown of those 1962 Geneva agreements.

Laos has not been on the agenda in Paris. But both sides know that there can be no meaningful peace in Indochina unless there is a settlement in Laos as well. As in Vietnam, for the first time in many years the old rhetoric is changing, and both sides are beginning to look beyond the end of hostilities to the political struggle that must follow.

Were it not for an accident of geography, Laos, with its tiny population of scarcely more than two million, would be about as important to American strategic interests as Upper Volta. But for over 1000 years Laos has been caught in the clash between the aggressive and Sinocized society of the Vietnamese to the east and the Indian-oriented culture of Thailand to the west. This old struggle was temporarily suspended during the colonial period. But as soon as French power began to dwindle, the old nationalisms and antagonisms broke out again. The United States got involved in Laos because these old battle lines coincided with the new battle lines of the cold war. But the struggle goes far deeper— again, as in Vietnam, Communism is but one of the factors in the Laotian struggle.

During the Kennedy Administration the United States decided that it was overcommitted in Laos. There were arguments for setting up a strong anti-Communist right-wing dictatorship, but the Administration settled for support of the neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma, though the Americans had previously helped to drive him out of the capital. A shaky tripartite government was installed, with the blessings of all the major powers. This regime sought to draw power away from both the right and the left to the center. But the coalition fell apart in 1963. By 1964 the Vietnam War had escalated, to the point where neither the United States nor the North Vietnamese thought they could fight each other without involving Laos. Soon the country reverted to a state of civil war.

Orwellian war

The civil war in Laos follows a cyclical pattern. Souvanna Phouma’s Royal Lao Army, with its superior weapons and air support, advances during the wet season, roughly May to November. During the dry season, November to May, the Pathet Lao push it back again. But a curious modus vivendi has been observed. The basic positions never change, and neither side pushes the other too far. Except for a few towns deep in Pathet Lao territory, the government controls the Mekong valley, where nearly two thirds of the population live. The Pathet Lao control the mountains and forests to the east —about two thirds of the geography but only about one third of the population.

The Americans and the North Vietnamese have respected this status quo. Neither has sought a direct confrontation in Laos. The North Vietnamese, on their part, are content to control the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the regions along the Vietnam border. Their occupation of much of eastern Laos is complete and in some areas amounts to an annexation of territory. There is no doubt that with North Vietnamese help the Pathet Lao could overrun every town in Laos, with the possible exception of Vientiane itself. But if they did, they would risk bringing American troops, and probably the Thais as well, into Laos in force.

The Americans are content to hold the Mekong River valley, and despite all the talk about extending a McNamara line across Laos and cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the ground, no serious attempt has been made to oust the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese from eastern Laos. Thus neither the North Vietnamese nor the Americans have been willing to give their favored Laotian factions enough support even to win the civil war. So the government and the Pathet Lao fight it out in an unwinnable Orwellian sort of war.

With an eye to negotiations, the Pathet Lao may well try to improve their bargaining position this dry season. Few believe, however, that they will try to upset the basic status quo any more this year than they have done in the past.

There is evidence now that the Pathet Lao are beginning to tell their cadres to prepare for peace and the political struggle rather than war, possibly with eventual elections in mind. In November the Neo Lao Hak Xat (NLHX), as the Pathet Lao call their political party, held a new Extraordinary Conference. Their first Extraordinary Conference was held in 1956 when the party first surfaced. The second was held in 1964 soon after the last of the leftist ministers had left the government. So the November conference, being only the third ever held, was meant to be a significant gathering. Out of this meeting came a new, twelve-point political program clearly designed to broaden the base of their struggle. The program borrows liberally from the so-called “Alliance" in Vietnam, and some of the language has been lifted right out of the National Liberation Front’s program of August, 1967.

Welcome for the lackeys

There is little trace of Marxist language in this program, and there seems to be something in it for everybody. “They seem to be casting themselves in the classic liberal mold,”a diplomat in Vientiane observed, “and if is significant that all this sort of sweet reasonableness is not in accord with the Chinese position.”Propaganda or no, the program is at least evidence that Laos has been following Hanoi’s line.

The program takes an anti-American tone, of course, but the strong pitch is to nationalism. In the preamble the Pathet Lao say: “Buddhism has been offended seriously, and in many places pagodas have become places or breeding grounds for depraved American culture and way of life. The traditional culture and the fine customs and manners of the nation are being trodden underfoot.”

But the Pathet Lao open their arms to the “United States and its lackeys” as well. They offer to “welcome and support all forces, individuals, personalities, intellectuals, students, soldiers, policemen and employees of the Vientiane administration who are against the U.S. aggression and are for freedom, democracy, and justice.”The Pathet Lao’s propaganda message is that it is not too late for other factions to see the light.

“We are interested in free and democratic elections in which all shades of opinion can find expression,”the Pathet Lao representative in Vientiane recently said. Many officials in Vientiane fear that corruption and a heavy-handed army have turned scores of villages in the government-controlled areas against the regime. Similarly, there are many Laotians living in Pathet Lao country who would like to vote against the Pathet Lao. But it is doubtful that any villages in the government zone would be allowed to vote Pathet Lao, any more than villages in Pathet-Lao-controlled areas would be allowed to vote for the government. Even if they take place, elections are not likely to be the immediate way to national reconciliation.

Back to 1962

Both sides in Laos agree that the basis for a peace settlement should be a return to the tripartite agreement of 1962. None of the interested parties in Laos, neither the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Russians, nor the Americans, have denounced the 1962 agreement. A Pathet Lao communique in September laid down the conditions for peace talks. The first step was that the Americans should put an immediate halt to the bombing in Laos to create an “ambience favorable to resuming tripartite negotiations in view to finding a solution to the Laotian problem.”

Prince Souvanna Phouma, for his part, is much more flexible about a bombing halt for Laos than he has been in past years. Under the right conditions “we certainly wish it,” he said soon after the October 31 bombing halt was announced. In the Prince’s view there is no need for a new Geneva conference on Laos. “The Lao problem has already been settled in 1962,” he said, “both externally and domestically. It is not necessary to convene another conference to settle the same problem. If the Paris talks ever come to a conclusion whereby the Vietnam War comes to an end, the North Vietnamese troops will withdraw from Laos, and consequently there will be no more war in Laos.” In the Prince’s view, once the Vietnam War is over, the North Vietnamese will have no further use for the Pathet Lao, and they will allow the Pathet Lao to rejoin the government. According to the Prince, the only reason the Pathet Lao left the government in the first place was “because the North Vietnamese needed them as a tool for the purpose of infiltrating into South Vietnam.”

Blur

The Pathet Lao claim that they left the government because the neutralists and the rightists had joined forces against them. Whether or not that was true in 1963, it is certainly true now. The obstacle to a return to tripartite government is going to be the fact that there are no longer three parties in the field.

Prince Souvanna Phouma started off his reign as the Russians’ neutralist candidate, back in the days when the United States was still backing the right wing. But the neutralists as a separate military force began to fade when the Russians stopped supplying them with arms and ammunition. In the years since 1963 the Prince has become so dependent on the Americans and on the right-wing generals that there is some doubt that he can be called his own man anymore. The neutralists who stayed in Vientiane have long since melted into the right wing. And the neutralists who stayed in the forest have been taken over by the Pathet Lao. Although there is still technically a neutralist military force on the government side, the neutralist troops have been integrated with the Royal Lao Army in everything but name.

Although Souvanna Phouma has steadfastly fought for the neutralization of Laos in the international sense, there are Laotians who feel that he never really was a neutralist in a true sense. “The so-called neutralist faction was an accident of history,”says one. “It was the byproduct of the American policy of the fifties that wanted a vigorously anti-Communist group in power rather than the more flexible and tolerant group represented by Souvanna Phouma. Even when Souvanna Phouma was out on the Plain of Jars with the Pathet Lao he was never sympathetic to the Pathet Lao.”It was inevitable that the rightists and the neutralists should blur.

Everybody’s second choice

It has been said that Souvanna Phouma is everybody’s second choice. This helps explain why the courtly Prince, who prefers to speak French rather than Lao, has become the indispensable man, even though he now has no real power base of his own. Politics on the government side is based on a complex of involved family relationships, regional associations, and positions of military power by the right-wing generals who, like the barons of medieval Europe, get rich off the countryside and quarrel among themselves. The right wing is neither consolidated nor united, and this is just as well for Prince Souvanna Phouma. Few of the powerful families or generals have any love for the Prince, but they hate each other more, and the Prince rules by juggling their jealousies.

But Souvanna Phouma also rules because he has the firm support of the Americans. “The land of the million elephants,” with all its quarreling princes, has been called a Gilbert and Sullivan country. The composer who calls the tune in Laos today is William Sullivan, the able American ambassador who has been on the scene for four years. Sullivan controls the channels of American aid on which the generals depend both for power and personal fortune. Sullivan has made it very clear to the right wing that Souvanna Phouma is America’s man.

By any standards the American presence is enormous—larger than the French presence ever was. The American Embassy-USAID telephone book for Vientiane is as large as the telephone book for the whole of Laos. Per capita, Laos receives more U.S. aid than any country on earth. Military aid figures are still secret, but an AID official recently estimated that altogether, on a per capita basis, the United States is spending $100 a year on every man, woman, and child in the country. Of course only a very small portion of it ever filters down to the people, except under the wings of bombing planes.

Neutral chips

Partly because of the American presence, the bipolarization of Laotian politics has become an inescapable fact. But Souvanna Phouma and the Pathet Lao maintain the myth of tripartism: though the neutralists as a meaningful third force are no longer in the game, both sides would like to pick up their chips. Recently Pathet Lao broadcasts and the Pathet Lao representative in Vientiane have been talking about a return to tripartite government that takes into account the “new realities” and the “actual situation” in Laos. In other words they are going to want more than one third of a tripartite government.

If the neutralists no longer exist as a third force how can there be a return to tripartite government? It

a is not inconceivable that some form of sham neutralist bloc, acceptable to both sides, could be resurrected at least temporarily. It would not be the first time in Laos that myth has been crammed into a mold to fit reality. Then, despite efforts, the Pathet Lao have not yet captured the forces of nationalism in Laos as the Viet Cong have in Vietnam. Theirs is still a foreign ideology, and ideological differences do not mean as much in Laos as they do in Vietnam. This, and the fact that the international aspects of the war in Laos have never been allowed to get out of hand as they have in Vietnam, make optimism possible.

Pheng Phongsavan, the Laotian minister of the interior, summed it up recently. “We are a profoundly Buddhist people,” he said, “and if not specifically anti-Communist we are all, at bottom, pacifists. It will be possible for the Communists to return to the government, no matter how difficult things may seem now, because we are all Laotians first.” This fact has often been the despair of Americans, and probably North Vietnamese too, who have watched their Laotians fire over the heads of an advancing enemy rather than offend Buddha, but it may just save Laos.

Much depends on how other powers perceive their strategic interests. The North Vietnamese may want to keep troops in parts of Laos, especially in the two northeastern provinces which were administered from Hanoi until 1942. The Thais and the Americans may not want to risk an unfriendly force on the Mekong. But if the big powers will leave Laos alone, or at least avoid confrontation there, and if the Laotians themselves can achieve internal peace and stability, the country might serve as a neutral buffer between the Vietnamese and the Thais, between Communists and non-Coinmunists and between Chinese and Western interests in Southeast Asia.

—Hugh D. S. Greenway

REPORT CONTRIBUTORS

Elizabeth B. Drew is the ATLANTIC’S Washington editor. Emma Rothschild,who has been covering American politics for the London Sunday TIMES, was recently in Cuba. Hugh D. S. Greenway is TIME’S Bangkok correspondent.