The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett
During the months that followed the escape of the Pathet Lao battalions in May 1959, there were continuous government crises in Vientiane, each one producing a shift to the Right. General Nosavan's "Committee for Defense of National Interests" (CDNI) made its weight increasingly felt. America's new placemen were challenging old, well-established privileges and were working their way up the political spiral too quickly to suit the liking and material interests of the "old faithful," who tried to hold on from one cabinet reshuffle to the next.
In one of these (December 15, 1959) Sananikone dropped eight CDNI ministers, including Nosavan. Eleven days later tanks appeared on the streets of Vientiane, and truck loads of soldiers unloaded outside the National Assembly. Sananikone took the hint and resigned, but King Savang Vatthana, knowing there was usually no place for a king and a "strong man" in the same country, refused to accept the resignation. When Katay dropped dead on December 29—at least that was the official version—Sananikone took this as a further hint and refused the King's commission to form another government.
At this point Nosavan, who then held no government post, issued a communique announcing that the army "had taken charge" pending the formation of a new government. This was followed by another communique five days later stating the High Command had informed the King that "in view of the grave situation existing in Laos, the army considered it essential to take charge of current business."
From that moment, whatever name appeared as prime minister, it was "strong man" Nosavan who executed U.S. policies in Laos. To present the sort of legal facade that American policy sometimes needs, general elections were held between April 24 and May 9, 1960. The elections had to be staggered, like Katay's extermination campaign, to permit the concentration of Nosavan's army and police units at various localities. The results were miraculous. The candidates of Neo Lao Haksat and Santiphap Pencan (Peace and Neutrality Party), who had done so well before, did not win a single seat. In some electoral districts where they had won with overwhelming majorities the last time, they did not get a single vote! All seats were won by the Laotian People's Rally (Sananikone's party) and subsidiaries of the CDNI. Barely two weeks after the elections, the 16 Pathet Lao leaders escaped from Vientiane prison and walked to safety half way across Laos without ever being betrayed.
No wonder the United States and its placemen in Laos were caught completely by surprise when Kong Le carried through his military coup. A rubber-stamp government which had been placed in power two months before the coup came tumbling down. On August 15, 1960, barely a week after Kong Le's battalion occupied Vientiane, the King invited Souvanna Phouma to form a government, which was approved by a thoroughly shaken National Assembly two lays later.
For a while, Nosavan and his CIA advisers were carried away by the strong current of events. At first Nosavan attacked the composition of the new government; in the interests of peace, Souvanna Phouma reshuffled his cabinet on August 30 to include Nosavan as Vice-Premier and Minister of the Interior, Social Welfare and Culture. This government was recognized by most countries of the world, including the United States, as the legal government of Laos. But it was only a stop-gap maneuver while the CIA thought out the next move. It was not long in coming.
Immediately after the investiture of the new government at the Royal capital of Luang Prabang, Nosavan flew south to Savannakhet. There on September 10 Prince Boun Oum announced that, together with Nosavan, he had formed a "New Revolutionary Committee" and that "martial law had been declared throughout the country."
U.S. arms started to pour into Savannakhet from Thailand, and within ten days, Nosavan's troops, reinforced by units of the Thai army, started a push north along the Mekong valley in an attempt to recapture Vientiane. The civil war was on again, this time on a bigger scale than ever. Generals in a number of northern provinces, including Xieng Khouang, Sam Neua, Phong Saly, and Luang Prabang, impressed by the generous scale of U.S. financial and military support for Nosavan, declared their support for him. Among the first results of military action were a stinging defeat inflicted on Nosavan's troops by Kong Le at Paksane, and the occupation of Sam Neua province by the Pathet Lao 2nd Battalion. This was after a sharp battle in which Nosavan lost 2,000 men killed, wounded, and taken prisoner—very big casualties for Laos. The Pathet Lao pursued the remnants into Phong Saly and would have taken over that province too had not the Royal commander had a quick change of heart and declared himself for the Souvanna Phouma government.
Following these two defeats, Nosavan pretended to be in a negotiating mood again until he had built up his forces for another drive to the North. This time in addition to pushing up the Mekong valley, he moved his troops through Thai territory to attack Vientiane from the Thai side of the river. After 18 days of heroic resistance by the forces of Kong Le and the Pathet Lao, helped by the local population to whom Kong Le had distributed the American arms captured during his coup, Vientiane fell, on December 16. It had been heavily shelled from the Thai side of the river, the artillery fire being directed from U.S. helicopters. Boun Oum shifted his Committee there and called it a government. With what seemed indecent haste even to the Western allies, the United States immediately recognized the Boun Oum regime as the only 'legal" government of Laos. The Souvanna Phouma government and its armed forces became "rebels" and the United States let it be known in no uncertain terms that they were to be wiped out with military and financial means provided by the United States. The facility with which "rebels" became "legal government" and vice-versa was a little too much for some of America's closest allies and for most countries of the world which went on recognizing Souvanna Phouma.
Meanwhile the Neo Lao Haksat had rejoined the Souvanna Phouma government; a decision was taken to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and to take economic aid from any country which offered it without conditions. An economic blockade imposed by Thailand to cut off all food and oil from government-held areas was countered by a Soviet air-lift of essential supplies.
It was not a strategic aim to defend Vientiane, situated as it is on the Thai border; possession of the administrative capital could not be decisive for the final outcome. Although they had withdrawn from Vientiane, morale of the Kong Le-Pathet Lao troops was high. They started a 200-mile fighting retreat to hit Nosavan in a place where it really hurt—the Plain of Jars, which dominates all North Laos and into which the Americans had sunk millions of dollars in developing a big network of airfields.
"Our forces," said General Singkapo later, "were pitifully thinly spread out by the time we reached Xieng Khouang [capital of the province of that name and main center in the Plain of Jars]. We had to leave garrisons behind at all strategic points we had captured along the line of withdrawal. Captain Kong Le had only 300 troops by the time we reached Xieng Khouang and we had only one platoon. Most of the rest of both our forces were struggling along, well behind. Transport was difficult, the troops were rather exhausted. But morale was high and we routed Nosavan's troops. By the time all our men had caught up we had about 1,500 altogether. The Plain of Jars was completely in our hands on January 1, 1961. Our old guerilla units started up again in Luang Prabang and other northern provinces nominally under Nosavan's control."
To explain away the massive defeat in the Plain of Jars, Nosavan characteristically invented the myth of "six North Vietnamese battalions," in a note to the UN. This was repeated at two press conferences in Vientiane on January 10 and 23, 1961. But on January 26, a third press conference was held at which, with Boun Oum present, Nosavan's official spokesman admitted there was no evidence of any invasion at all. The protests to the UN and SEATO had been made for reasons of internal propaganda, he admitted. (It was propaganda that had a bad boomerang effect. Nosavan's troops fled in dismay when they heard on Vientiane radio that they had to face "Vietminh" battalions.) On January 4, at a SEATO meeting held at American request in Bangkok, the Thai Secretary-General, Nai Pote Sarasin, had to admit that there was no evidence of active intervention in Laos by North Vietnamese forces and that the presence of invading ground forces would have to be proved before SEATO action could be taken.
In late January, Nosavan launched a major offensive to retake the Plain of Jars, while the American and British governments continued to pour scorn on the idea of an international conference. Nosavan employed 20 battalions, about half his total forces at that time, and from the viewpoint of equipment and training, the best of everything he had. They were supported by numerous commando groups which had been regrouped into battalion-strength units from areas deep in the rear of territory held by Souvanna Phouma.
Throughout February and March the offensive moved on slowly but steadily and the further it went the more specific and haughty were the rejections of proposals for a conference or ceasefire. The type of country made any speedy, spectacular advances difficult in any case, but by the second half of March, guerilla activity was adding to the difficulties. Then, with Souvanna Phouma personally on hand to watch the initial phases, the Kong Le-Pathet Lao forces sprung a counter-offensive. By this time, the Pathet Lao was able to throw its regular forces into the battle; their guerillas struck hard everywhere in the Nosavan rear. There was chaos. Nosavan troops threw away their arms or turned them against their officers. They were fighting in a bad cause, knew this, and showed it.
If Nosavan's offensive had moved forward at a snail's pace, the retreat showed the troops were capable of rapid movement, after all. The elite, trained-in-Thailand units distinguished themselves only by their ability to rush back faster than the others. Nosavan's dream of retaking the Plain of Jars was shattered and more excellent U.S. equipment passed into the hands of the Kong Le and Pathet Lao forces. By mid-April, his troops were chased back further than their jumping-off points—back to within 20 miles each of Luang Prabang and Paksane and 12 miles of Vientiane. The thoroughly demoralized commando battalions disintegrated completely. And in the meantime Pathet Lao guerillas had seized most of lower Laos, occupying among other important points, over 100 miles of the highly strategic Road 9, which leads from Savannakhet to the South Vietnam port of Dong Ha.
The result of that ambitious Nosavan offensive was that a good 70 percent of territory and more than half the population lay behind the Kong Le-Pathet Lao lines. Nosavan held a thin strip along the Mekong river where the main towns are located—and Thailand is conveniently close—and small pockets around Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
In the meantime, U.S. policies in Laos were coming under increasingly severe criticism in the United States itself. Even before Nosavan's shattering defeat, Senator Mike Mansfield on December 28 had complained that there was little to show for the $300,000,000 spent during the previous six or seven years in Laos, except "chaos, discontent, armies on the loose and a large mission of hundreds of U.S. officials in Vientiane." (Most of them CIA employees.)
A very cheeky reply to the rising tide of criticism, far stronger abroad than at home, was contained in a State Department "White Paper" issued on January 7, on the eve of Nosavan's ill-fated offensive. "The United States believes," it concluded, "that it can best contribute to a solution of the Laos problem: First, by attempting to further international recognition and understanding of the true nature of Communist intentions and actions in Laos." Prince Souvanna Phouma's comment on this was published in the New York Times, 12 days later (January 20, 1961). He strongly attacked U.S. policy and especially named Mr. Graham Parsons, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, as "directly responsible for the recent spilling of Lao blood," and added: "What I shall never forgive the United States for is the fact that it betrayed me; that it double-crossed me and my Government." He pointed out that the United States had consistently opposed the only possible solution, "the formation of a government of national union." He particularly assailed Washington for having procured the downfall of his government in July 1958 in favor of that of Sananikone committed to "strong anti-Communist policies."
Also in the midst of Nosavan's ill-fated attempt to crush the opposition, international pressure was rising again for a peaceful settlement. In December 1960, Prince Sihanouk during a visit to Peking had revived the Soviet proposal of three months before for a new Geneva conference on Laos, and his initiative was supported by the Chinese government. After his return to the Cambodian capital, on January 2, 1961, Prince Sihanouk presented a more detailed proposal. He named the 14 states that he felt should participate in a new Geneva conference; in addition to those which had taken part in 1954 he would include the neighboring states of Laos and the three members of the ICC—India, Poland and Canada. The USSR, China, North Vietnam, Poland, and Burma accepted immediately. Of the Western powers only France gave outright approval. Britain, worried about Nosavan's changes, thought it might be "useful," while President Eisenhower, then serving out his last days in office, neither accepted nor rejected the plan. Nosavan and Boun Oum ridiculed the idea, demanding that the Soviet Union first recognize their government as the only "legal" one, a demand later repeated by Washington as the only basis for talks. In another note to London on February 18, 1961, the USSR renewed its proposals.
Thus, until the full impact of Nosavan's disastrous defeat hit Washington like a sledge hammer, the United States continued to oppose a ceasefire or a conference. By mid-March, with his forces crumbling on every front, Nosavan begged the Americans either to bring about SEATO intervention quickly or save him with a ceasefire. By March 23, the British government, replying to the various notes of the USSR, agreed to an international conference, to reconvening the ICC, and to Prince Sihanouk's proposals for the composition of the conference. But above all else they wanted a quick ceasefire, to save Nosavan from complete collapse.
On the same day, President Kennedy at his press conference supported the British proposals (the same which had been made repeatedly by the Soviet Union for three years), and he blandly asserted that the United States "strongly and unreservedly supports the goal of a neutral and independent Laos." Nevertheless, later the same day came news that the American aircraft carrier Midway and two destroyers had left for the Gulf of Thailand, and on the following day there were reports that several hundred U.S. marines had arrived at Udon Thani airbase, in northern Thailand, about 30 miles from the Laotian frontier.
After a few more diplomatic exchanges between the USSR and Britain, the Co-Chairmen issued a ceasefire appeal on April 24, which was accepted by the forces of Pathet Lao and Kong Le, although they held the advantage everywhere. The ceasefire actually went into effect on May 3, 1961, and the stage was set for a new Geneva conference. The latter was scheduled to open on May 12 but was held up for four days because the U.S. delegation refused to sit down with representatives of the Souvanna Phouma government and the Pathet Lao. Boun Oum and later the Thai delegation refused to take part for the same reason, and it was only on June 27 that a delegation from the Boun Oum-Nosavan government agreed to participate. It was headed by Phoui Sananikone, the same who seven years previously had accepted a million-dollar bribe from the U.S. government not to sign the 1954 Geneva Agreements. The Thai delegation also turned up on June 27.
Month by month, the Geneva conference dragged on while Nosavan, with stepped-up U.S. aid, feverishly tried to rebuild his shattered army and surreptitiously reoccupy key points lost during the February-March fighting. Negotiations continued intermittently through the second half of 1961 and the early months of 1962.
It was at the end of February 1962 that I paid a visit to Laos to learn how the ceasefire and the proposals for a coalition government were working out. As my plane started to descend toward the Plain of Jars, I noticed a heavy smudge of smoke hanging over the trees. Obviously the mountain people clearing a "ray," I thought. But my neighbor, a young Laotian engineer, peered intently through the window and said bitterly: "That's Nosavan's commandos at work. The Americans drop them in the mountains." As we came closer and lower, we could see a cluster of huts enveloped in dusky, red flames.
Zooming down on to the Plain, one could easily mistake the origin of the name. The valley itself and the undulating bare hills which fringe it are covered with large white patches, shaped like narrow-necked jars, laid out as far as you can see in any direction. In fact these growths are sticky traps for any birds or small animals imprudent enough to set foot in them. The name of the Plain comes from the real jars, huge gray stone affairs, ranging from three to eight feet in height and ranged together in strips a mile or so long and several jars wide. If they were to hold wine for special ceremonies, as some experts maintain, the people of that day must have been prodigious drinkers and the Plain the scene of some fantastic orgies. Other specialists claim they were for rice reserves in time of war, others again that they had purely religious significance. In any case, they are a very curious phenomenon, some hacked out of solid pieces of stone, others formed of a powdered stone and cement-like compound.
An hour before the plane touched down another had landed bringing Souvanna Phouma back from Vientiane, where he had made one more fruitless effort in talks with "strong man" Nosavan to set up the coalition government in accordance with agreements signed during previous months.
The Vientiane visit had been arranged by the British and French ambassadors, who had assured Souvanna Phouma that the Americans were now "reasonable" and would accept the neutral coalition government. If he came to Vientiane and talked things over with Nosavan, all would be well. As things turned out, Souvanna Phouma was not met at the Vientiane airport. He had to go looking for a hotel room like an unexpected tourist, since his own villa had been sacked. He was kept waiting by Nosavan for several days while the U.S. ambassador conducted a war of nerves, threatening SEATO intervention if a government were not formed quickly and "advising" the prime minister to cede the ministries of Defense and the Interior to Nosavan. And these were the first demands presented by Nosavan when they met.
Kong Le, cheerful and energetic, was even more categoric than the Prince. "The main obstacle to forming the coalition government is the bad faith of Nosavan, his Savannakhet group of generals and their American backers," he said. "They still have illusions that they can win militarily and they try to force us into concessions that would amount to surrender terms, by threatening to bring in SEATO forces."
At this time, Washington was pretending to pressure Nosavan into accepting a coalition government by withholding $5,000,000, its monthly payment to the Boun Oum regime. I found no one in Khang Khay believed this. I asked acting premier Khamsouk Keola about it. He laughed: "It's just a ruse. The Americans give extra money to Sanit Thanarat, the Thai dictator who is Nosavan's uncle, and he just passes it on. If the Americans want to put on real pressure, why don't they cut arms supplies?" The same point had been made a few days previously in the New York Times (February 22), by its Vientiane correspondent, Jacques Nevard. "Washington's backing of both Prince Souvanna Phouma and General Phoumi Nosavan is viewed by some British, French and Canadian diplomats as a two-faced policy," he wrote. After mentioning U.S. withdrawal of financial aid from Boun Oum, Nevard continued:
However, the United States has continued its military aid to General Phoumi Nosavan's forces. Weapons, ammunition and fuel have not been cut off. An airlift chartered from the Chinese Nationalists still functions. Uniformed teams of United States military advisers continue to serve with most of General Phoumi Nosavan's battalions in the field. ... The general has placed more obstacles in the way of a coalition regime than any other leader in the country."
Also replying to my questions on this point, Prince Souphanouvang said: "All I know is that U.S. military aid to Thailand has been doubled since the ceasefire agreements were signed. Why? Is Thailand at war? Deliveries include jet planes. Why? Either to help carry on an existing war or to start a new one."
"I have signed three agreements with Boun Oum and Nosavan," he continued, "which provide for setting up a coalition government under Prince Souvanna Phouma. All I ask is that they honor their signatures. Now the Americans say they are ready to support a neutral government. We see no neutral attitude from them, only aggression."
The three agreements to which he referred were within the framework of the general ceasefire pacts, but were in effect used by Nosavan as time-wasting devices to enable him to prepare for new offensives. The first, at Zurich (June 22, 1961) was an agreement between the three princes—Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong, and Boun Oum—to form a provisional government of national union. At another meeting between the three princes (Hin Heup, October 6-8, 1961), it was agreed that Prince Souvanna Phouma would be prime minister of a coalition government consisting of eight neutral members, four supporters of Souphanouvong and four of Boun Oum. The third agreement, signed at Geneva (January 19, 1962), allotted specific cabinet posts, but it was repudiated by Nosavan, the real power behind Boun Oum, within 48 hours. Small wonder that the two Princes and others at Khang Khay were wary of further traps.
In confirmation of these suspicions was a despatch to the London Times on May 24 from its Washington correspondent. Headed, "CIA is Blamed for Laos Crisis," the despatch reads in part:
(The Administration is now convinced that the Central Intelligence Agency has been up to its old devices again and must share a large part of the responsibility for the situation in Laos... Apparently the evidence shows that the swarm of CIA agents in Laos deliberately opposed the official American objective of trying to establish a neutral government. They are believed to have encouraged General Phoumi Nosavan in the concentration of troops that brought about the swift and disastrous response from the Pathet Lao.
As for the farce of the stopped pay-cheque, the despatch continues, "the CIA provided them with funds from its own capacious budget. The belief is that the agency transferred the money from its operations in Siam." The attempt to prove that the CIA has one policy and the Administration another is wearing a bit thin. The only U.S. policy the world sees in action is the CIA policy. In any case, the Times despatch confirmed everything one could learn on the spot in Laos.
I sought the help of General Kong Le and General Singkapo, who head the Joint Supreme Military Council, to get a picture of what had happened in Laos since the ceasefire agreement. I wanted to see the agreed ceasefire line on a map and was surprised to learn that none existed.
"Nosavan simply walked out of the Na Mone conference which was to pinpoint the ceasefire line and never came back," said General Singkapo. "Apparently he could not accept the realities of the military situation." His own map was marked with the red ceasefire line his side had submitted at the conference and which French military experts later told me coincided with their own. At that time about 70 percent of the territory was under the administration of the Souvanna Phouma government. Shaded areas enclosed with blue lines showed the areas retaken by the Nosavan forces since the ceasefire. They were extensive, about 1,800 square miles.
The two generals said that in December 1961 and January and February 1962, Nosavan's forces had launched three major offensives. According to Nosavan officers who came over to their side, the operational plans were drawn up by MAAG (U.S. Military Aid and Advisory Group) at Vientiane. Thirty-three battalions, about two-thirds of Nosavan's total forces, were employed. By early March, the Nosavan forces had suffered severe defeats again.
In the North, at the time I was there, the Nosavan forces faced disaster. Since January, they had pushed 70 miles behind the ceasefire line to capture Nam Mo, Nam Seo, and Muong Houn. Then the Kong Le and Pathet Lao troops recaptured the towns and chased the attackers back. Nosavan, no great strategist, ordered his retreating troops into a valley about ten miles east of Nam Tha. A glance at the military map showed all the best of Nosavan's forces bottled up in a Dien Bien Phu situation, and almost all of the U.S. supply resources tied up, feeding them. That was the situation in early March 1962 when I was there—7,000 of Nosavan's elite troops, surrounded in a valley on the Souvanna Phouma side of the ceasefire line, an important proportion of his total fighting strength. After all, it was the loss of only 16,000 elite French troops at Dien Bien Phu that caused the collapse of their whole military effort in Indo-China.
The situation had not changed two months later. Nosavan's troops got hungrier, colder, sicker. They were being air-supplied from a forward airfield at Muong Sin, about 60 miles away. Early in May, Nosavan's garrison at Muong Sin revolted. Troops were despatched by air to quell the revolt. The first plane was surrounded when it landed. Some decided to join the revolt. The others were killed or captured and the plane set on fire. No other planes landed. This was the final blow. The encircled troops at Nam Tha made an all-out desperate effort to break out; forces sent to their relief by Nosavan were cut to pieces. Those who succeeded in breaking out, never stopped running until they had got to the Mekong, and across it into Thailand.
That is the real story of Nam Tha, a situation of U.S. making which was presented upside down to the world as a "Pathet Lao" violation of the ceasefire agreements and practically a causus belli for a new world war. It was turned into the pretext for the American military occupation of Thailand, bringing Southeast Asia that much nearer to war.
As for Laotian "threats" to Thailand, the boot was on the other foot when I was in Laos. I was given the designations and garrison locations of 14 battalions of Thai, South Vietnamese, Chiang Kai-shek, and Philippine forces. There were about 2,000 U.S. military "advisers" planning and supervising operations—unsuccessfully, it must be admitted—controlling artillery, engineering, communications, and armored units, even providing drivers and gunners in the latter case. It was not Thailand that was threatened by Laotians, or even Laotians threatened by Loatians. Laos was the object of an international, armed invasion organized by the United States.
After the London Times report on CIA sabotage in Laos, Washington announced it was conducting an official inquiry into CIA activities there. It might well start its investigations with documents left behind in the helter-skelter flight from Nam Tha. These are now in the hands of the Souvanna Phouma government, and include Directive No. 944, signed on August 20, 1961, by General Rattikone, Commander of Nosavan's forces—that is, three and one-half months after the ceasefire which it describes as a "purely theoretical factor." Also Washington might study army operational order No. 1438, signed by Rattikone on November 25, 1961, setting out the plan for an offensive into Souvanna Phouma territory beyond Nam Tha and Muong Sai. These were plans drawn up for Nosavan by his U.S. "advisers," presumably responsible to the Pentagon and not only to the CIA.
While I was in Laos, it was possible to witness other forms of violations. I personally saw an American transport plane, escorted by six careening jet fighters, drop a score or more parachuters on a mountain ridge within 15 miles of Souvanna Phouma's capital. Almost every night you could hear planes droning overhead on dropping missions, men or supplies or both. One was shot down about 12 miles from Xieng Khou-ang town a couple of weeks before my arrival.
One day when I visited the Xieng Khouang market— normally a bustling, colorful place with the minority people in gay, embroidered costumes exchanging their forest products for goods from the planes—there was an unusual hush and gloom. I found that three Meo women coming down their mountain trail to the market that morning had been killed by a mine, laid on the path by one of Nosavan's airdropped commandos. To disrupt normal life in the rear areas is one of their main aims, the governor of Xieng Khouang province assured me.
Everyone I met in Laos, from Souvanna Phouma to the minority people in the market places, from Kong Le's troops in their red berets and camouflage uniforms to Pathet Lao partisans, from fishermen with their throwing nets to young students who had dropped their studies in France to take up a rifle with Kong Le—all of them wanted the war to end. But they were not prepared to accept continued foreign domination of their country, nor the sort of solution that would accept as the price of immediate peace, the certainty of renewed war in the future. Absurd demands, supported for so long by the Americans, to put the ministries of Defense and the Interior into Nosavan's hands in any coalition government would have been the surest guarantee of renewed war and a repetition of the 1958-60 attempts to liquidate the Pathet Lao and its leaders.
After the destruction of the "strong man's" forces at Nam Tha, events moved forward to the actual formation on June 12, 1962, of a government of national coalition in which the key posts were in the hands of the Souvanna Phouma neutrals, some minor ones for the Vientiane neutrals (whose "neutrality" is of a dubious hue, according to my informants), and the rest divided equally between Neo Lao Haksat and Nosavan. The Neo Lao Haksat, in view of the major role they played in defeating Nosavan and their long record of sacrifice and struggle for the real independence of their country, were extremely modest in accepting parity with Nosavan.
In the new government, Prince Souvanna Phouma, in addition to the premiership, held the posts of Defense and Social Action; Prince Souphanouvong became deputy prime minister with the portfolios of Economy and Planning; Nosavan also became a deputy prime minister and minister of Finance. Foreign Affairs and the Interior went to Quinim Pholsena and Pheng Phongsavan, respectively, of the Souvanna Phouma neutralists; the Neo Lao Haksat also received the ministries of Information, Propaganda and Tourism (Phoumi Vongvichit); Secretary of State for Economy and Planning (Phamphouane Khamphoue), and Secretary of State for Public Works and Transport (Tiao Souk Vongsak).
It was a matter of general rejoicing—except for Nosavan and the CIA—when the last signature was affixed. But this soon gave way to caution again, when it was learned that U.S planes were still parachuting arms and supplies to commando groups and when Nosavan tried to hold off the application of the agreements by claiming that they would have to be approved by the very National Assembly which his troops and police had set up in 1960. Even more ominous, there were indications that an old plot to detach lower Laos might be revived. On the eve of the June 12 agreement, hints appeared in the American press that the United States was considering occupation of South Laos to secure a 'corridor' between Thailand and South Vietnam in order to establish a single military command in the three countries. All this added to the difficulties of getting the new government actually to function.
The initial meeting of the new coalition government under Prince Souvanna Phouma was held on June 24, 1962, and one of its first acts was to order the immediate cessation of all military activity throughout the country. This paved the way for the resumption of the Geneva conference on July 2. Three documents were finally approved: a Statement by the Laotian government affirming its policy of strict neutrality and peaceful co-existence, a Declaration by the 13 other participating governments welcoming and guaranteeing to respect Laotian neutrality, and an explanatory Protocol. These documents are very specific, spelling out in clear and precise terms the obligations of the Laotian government and the other states.
The most important points in the eight-point Laotian Declaration can be summarized as follows:
(1) The Laotian government will resolutely apply the five principles of peaceful coexistence in foreign relations, and will establish friendly relations and develop diplomatic relations with all countries, the neighboring countries first and foremost, on the basis of equality and of respect for the independence and sovereignty of Laos.
(4) It will not enter into any military alliance or into any agreement, whether military or otherwise, which is inconsistent with the neutrality of the kingdom of Laos. It will not allow the establishment of any foreign military base on Laotian territory, nor allow any country to use Laotian territory for military purposes or for purposes of interference in the internal affairs of other countries, nor recognize the protection of any alliance of military coalition (including the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation).
(5) It will not allow any foreign interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Laos in any form whatsoever.
(6) Subject to the provisions of Article 5 of the Protocol, it will require the withdrawal from Laos of all foreign troops and military personnel and will not allow any foreign troops or military personnel to be introduced into Laos.
(7) It will accept direct and unconditional aid from all countries that wish to help build up an independent and autonomous national economy on the basis of respect for the sovereignty of Laos.
The four-point Declaration of the countries participating in the Geneva conference obliged them to:
(1) Recognize and respect and observe in every way the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity, or territorial integrity of Laos.
(2) Never employ force or the threat of force, or commit or participate in any act which might directly or indirectly impair the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity or territorial integrity, or might impair the peace of Laos. Not to interfere in any way in her internal affairs nor to use her territory to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, nor invite or encourage her to enter into any military or other alliances inconsistent with her neutrality.
(3 and 4) Encourage other states to respect these provisions and enter joint consultations in the event of a violation or threat of violation of the independence and neutrality of Laos.
A Protocol of 20 Articles defined various terms used in the preceding documents; provided for the withdrawal of foreign military personnel, and laid down the competence and functions of the International Commission for Supervision and Control.
These documents and the events that preceded them represent a very considerable defeat for U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. They are a victory for the progressive and neutralist forces. The Pathet Lao, later joined by Captain Kong Le and the neutralists of Souvanna Phouma, for seven years fought back the U.S.-supported attacks against them, never missing a chance to negotiate for a peaceful solution. The initiative for peace within the country always came from them, and they succeeded in rallying the support of the overwhelming majority of the people. Similarly on the diplomatic front, North Vietnam and China again and again initiated proposals to end the civil war and prevent its spreading. The main diplomatic burden fell on the Soviet Union, which combined a policy of unequivocal firmness against aggression with constant efforts to promote peaceful solutions.
The United States was forced into the agreements which ended the Laos crisis in 1962. As long as their "man in the field" had any chance of victory—and long after it was clear even that he had no chance—the United States supported him in every way. Finally, the Americans accepted a face-saving retreat by way of the Geneva Conference only when Nosavan was finally beaten and his armed forces became the laughing stock of the world, only when the Soviet Union warned that the use of outside force would be met with "retaliatory force," only after France and later Britain had refused to go along with any SEATO adventures.
The role of Britain was almost as bad, worse at times because of her special responsibilities as a Co-Chairman of the 1954 Geneva Conference. As long as there was any chance of Washington's placemen winning, Britain turned a deaf ear to all Soviet peace initiatives, even the mildest proposals, such as reconvening the ICC. It was only when British diplomatic and military observers on the spot saw that Nosavan and Boun Oum were politically and militarily bankrupt and when the British government foresaw American pressure to involve Britain as a SEATO member in a wider conflict that she began to show a cautious interest in the repeated Soviet proposals.
If the coalition government does settle down—and the presence in it of Nosavan justifies much caution—one of the tragedies is that such a government could have been formed any time during the previous eight years. Such governments (excluding a Nosavan) were formed in fact on several occasions and functioned satisfactorily. Much Laotian blood was spilt by the American attempts to overthrow them. A question in everyone's mind now is whether the United States is at last prepared to permit the Laotian people to shape their own future, or whether the 1962 Geneva Agreements are regarded in Washington only as a means to gain time for fresh outrages in this corner of the world.
1.Article 5 of the Protocol retains a provision of the original 1954 Geneva Agreements for a strictly limited number of French military instructors for training the Laotian armed forces.