The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett


May 1,1963


Any illusions that the formation of the coalition government in Laos would, by itself, bring a stable peace were shattered by the events of April 1963. The author paid another visit to Southeast Asia at that time and gathered more firsthand evidence of the hot-cold war continuing there. It was soon evident that the Rightist group, headed by General Phoumi Nosavan, had been far more successful in peacetime intrigues than it had been on the battlefield.

From the moment the coalition government was formed and actually started functioning in Vientiane, U.S.-Nosavan policy, backed by swarms of CIA agents, was to win the neutralists away from the Pathet Lao, isolating the latter as a prelude to destroying them. What almost happened in Vientiane in mid-April was an Iraqian-type coup, as a climax to months of intrigue, bribery, and a succession of assassinations. The plan of winning away the neutralists, breaking up the partnership which had thwarted early efforts to destroy the Pathet Lao, was not merely a political move aimed at forming some future electoral alliance. It had specific military aims—to introduce a Trojan horse into key military areas and take them from within. A scandalous situation existed, with Nosavan's troops and police in complete control of Vientiane. Government, Pathet Lao, and neutralist leaders were virtually hostages of Nosavan's armed forces. In this situation a coup was planned in which certain neutralist and Pathet Lao leaders were to have been assassinated.

The murder of Foreign Minister Quinim Pholsena on April 1 was the signal for an armed coup, the first stage of which was to be the seizure of the strategic Plain of Jars.

In the previous months, there had been a mysterious series of "desertions" to the forces of General Kong Le from Nosavan's regular army. They did not come in two's and three's, but in entire companies complete with arms and officers. A number of senior Nosavan officers also "deserted" to Kong Le's staff headquarters. When the Pathet Lao leader, Prince Souphanouvong, warned Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma and Kong Le of what was happening, the warnings were dismissed as the product of an "over-suspicious mind." There is every reason to believe that in the period just preceding the April events, Kong Le was figuratively, if not literally, a prisoner of the Nosavan infiltrationists. Orders were given in Kong Le's name for certain units to be switched from key points in the Plain of Jars and to be replaced by others which were virtually Nosavan's men in Kong Le uniforms. Colonel Deuane, Kong Le's number two officer, and military commander in the Plain of Jars, refused, aware by then of what was happening. That was late in March.

On April 1 Quinim Pholsena, head of the "Peace and Neutrality" party, comprising progressive forces among the neutralists, was shot down as he walked up the steps of his Vientiane home after attending a Royal reception. His wife, a political figure in her own right, severely wounded in the assassination, told me a few days later that she had no doubt the murderers were inspired by Americans in Laos. She was left to bleed to death on the steps alongside her husband's body; the guard which surrounded the house prevented anyone entering or leaving to get help. No one from the guard came near her. Eventually, a servant dragged her inside. Those who tried to enter were stopped at gun-point, including Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma and the Pathet Lao Minister of Information, Phoumi Vongvichit, and other ministers. It was only three hours after the shooting that Souvanna Phouma was permitted to enter the house and only five hours later was Madame Pholsena taken to a hospital. (As for the assassin, who made no attempt to flee, he was taken to live with a high-ranking neutralist cabinet member and only 12 days later was he nominally arrested and put in a prison controlled by Nosavan's forces!)

A few hours after the assassination, troops supported by tanks were sent to arrest or kill Col. Deuane. They were beaten off, part of the forces refusing to attack. A second much larger assault was made the following day, supported by seven tanks. The troops, supporting peace and neutrality with their feet, either refused to attack or deserted to Col. Deuane. Seeing what was happening, neutralist troops in other key areas declared themselves also for Col. Deuane and for upholding the partnership with the Pathet Lao.

From Kong Le's headquarters, appeals went to Nosavan for reinforcements—this time not "deserters" but entire units of battalion strength. By the second and third week of April, Nosavan's battalions started moving up towards the Plain of Jars, the gates opened for them in some places by the infiltrators among Kong Le's troops. It was only when key points were actually under attack, that the Pathet Lao moved to help Col. Deuane defend the Plain of Jars. As usual in such encounters, Nosavan's forces were beaten back at every point, except one important post at Tha Thom, a southern gateway to the Plain of Jars where some 800 Nosavan men overwhelmed a small Pathet Lao garrison.

In the meantime, the two Pathet Lao ministers, Prince Souphanouvong and Phoumi Vongvichit, managed to escape from the trap set for them in Vientiane, the former withdrawing to Khong Khay in the Plain of Jars and the latter to the old resistance base at Sam Neua. The military plot failed due to the loyalty of Col. Deuane and the main part of the neutralist forces in the Plain of Jars to their partnership with the Pathet Lao; to the reluctance of the Kong Le troops to attack their colleagues; to the vigilance of the Pathet Lao, and to the low morale of Nosavan's forces. But it was a close call. Had "Operation Trojan Horse" succeeded, the trap would have been sprung in Vientiane and all Pathet Lao and progressive neutralist forces in the capital would have been caught in it.

As it was, the assassination of Pholsena was the signal for a brutal assault on progressives. With tanks and armored cars patrolling the Vientiane streets, scores of progressives were hunted down and arrested; others saved themselves only by seeking asylum in friendly embassies.

Western embassies and the wire agencies went into action, describing the fighting as Pathet Lao "aggression" and "violation" of the ceasefire—long before the Pathet Lao had even fired a shot in self-defense. As usual in such cases, the U.S. Fleet moved into the Gulf of Thailand, and the failure of the plot was pictured as a threat to world peace.

These events have shown again that the U.S. State Department and the CIA have no intention of accepting defeat for their policies in Laos, not even the stabilization of a neutral government. The recent growth of popular sentiment in Thailand and South Vietnam for neutral regimes in those countries also, confronts the Kennedy administration with a new crisis of policy, which it cannot meet merely by trying to prove with more intervention and intrigue that neutral regimes in Asia are unworkable.

More troubles can be expected in Laos, as long as the Nosavan Rightists, with the support of the United States, do everything possible to prevent stability. Side by side with this, there are indications that the old plan is being revived of setting up a separate state in South Laos under the guise of "partition." This would provide the United States with a corridor between Thailand and South Vietnam, and with one single front within which troops could be shuttled back and forth as the requirements of counter-revolution may demand. The new element in the plan is to create, side by side with the southern corridor, a U.S.-supported "neutralist" regime centered in the Plain of Jars in the North.

South Vietnam

In South Vietnam, the situation continues to move drastically against the Diemist regime. The failures of U.S. intervention against the forces of the National Liberation Front account to a great measure for the more desperate policies in Laos.

The Staley Plan to wipe out the guerillas in South Vietnam within 18 months has failed. During my travels in April 1963, I met one of the military leaders of the NLF, who must remain nameless for the time. He analyzed the situation as follows:

"The Americans based their plans to wipe us out in 18 months on the following factors: When intervention started at the end of 1961, they figured they had a numerical superiority of Diemist troops over ours of 10 to 1. They hoped to increase this advantage to 20 to 1 by the end of 1962. According to British experience in Malaya, they believed this would be sufficient to end resistance quickly—say in another six months. [Actually, political and military conditions in Malaya were quite different and even with a 40 to 1 superiority at the end, the British had no clear military victory.] American calculations were based on increasing the Diemist military forces to certain target figures and reducing our forces to well below the 1961 levels. Opposition to conscription in the South and large-scale desertions prevented them from achieving their expansion targets. Instead of our forces being reduced, they were doubled by the end of 1962. Thus, instead of achieving a 20 to 1 superiority, the original 10 to 1 proportion was reduced to something between 6 and 7 to 1. And the ratio will continue to change in favor of the NLF forces."

He added with complete confidence, "At present 75 percent of the territory of South Vietnam is entirely liberated. It includes about 7,000,000 inhabitants, half the population. Land reform has been carried out, and in much of the area irrigation projects have made possible two crops instead of one each year. There is a school and public health center in each village and in many districts we already have secondary schools. Outside the solidly liberated territory, we control much of the territory by night while the Diemist administration appears to function by day."

In other words, the struggle in South Vietnam is assuming the classic form it has taken wherever a guerilla war developed into a successful war of independence, be it Algeria or Cuba. Beginning with an overwhelming superiority in favor of the Right-wing and colonialist forces, the ratio constantly changes in favor of the resistance forces until a sort of equality is approached, followed by a sudden collapse of the Rightists. Outside support is powerless to change this. U.S. forces in South Vietnam already exceed 12,000 men, and new weapons are constantly being added, including helicopters with more fire-power than any fighter plane of World War II, amphibious troop carriers, new types of small arms, and rockets. But in the first days of 1963, defeats were already so severe, including mounting American casualties, that President Kennedy demanded a special report from Mr. McNamara. These costly defeats have continued to mount. Nor are American arms and dollars capable of squeezing out a big expansion in Diem's forces, who are obviously unwilling to fight.

Direct U.S. military participation, even with forces of division strength, cannot bring about a reversal of the changing ratio. On the other hand, the resistance forces could be doubled or even quintupled in a short time because they spring from the people defending their own hearths and families. The inexorable logic of the people's war has caught up with Diem and his American backers. The United States is now faced with a choice between facing a straight-out defeat or seeking a negotiated withdrawal.

It is therefore no suprise that by April 1963 Washington was already making soundings—either directly or through British, French, Indian and other channels—for the kind of formula under which an "honorable" withdrawal could be negotiated. But as in Laos, Washington was seeking a formula which would provide gains through diplomacy or intrigue that could not be obtained on the battlefield. Thus the favorite formula being offered by Washington's agents in April 1963 was a form of "neutralization" of South Vietnam which would admit some NLF elements into a Diemist-type regime in the South (although without Diem himself), in exchange for the "neutralization" of the North, guaranteed by the presence of some Diemists in the government of North Vietnam. Other variants, always including "neutralization" of the North, envision a coalition government in the South formed by Diemist elements on the Right, some members of the NLF on the Left, and some liberal Vietnamese exiles in Paris to provide the "neutralist" filling. Again, Diem himself is to be excluded, as all but the most die-hard U.S. diplomats agree he is impossible.

The fact that such schemes are being offered within little over a year of direct U.S. intervention is a measure of the frustration of U.S. policies in South Vietnam. Meanwhile, the NLF leadership does not see in these schemes any evidence that Washington now wants a realistically negotiated settlement. They are prepared to continue the resistance struggle until the United States finds it necessary to negotiate seriously for withdrawal.