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LAOS: The Geneva Protocol And the Not-So-Secret War

The agreement reached in Geneva in July 1962 represented an attempt to return Laos, a nation that President Dwight D. Eisenhower once considered the cornerstone of Southeast Asia, to its former status as a neutral nation. That did not happen.

Instead Laos, “The Land of a Million Elephants,” plunged into a miasma of rising tensions culminating with a resumption of warfare in April 1963. Conflict endured through the end of the Indochina War.

The Laotian war was “secret” because all sides preferred to pretend that the 1962 Geneva Protocol remained in force. The conventional account holds that North Vietnam and the communist Pathet Lao conspired to breach it, and that the North Vietnamese never withdrew their troops from the country as required by Geneva, using those forces to attack the Royal Laotian Government.

As with so much of the story of the second Indochina War, this account represents a vast oversimplification. Re-examining the history offers an opportunity to shed light on what made the Laotian war the intractable morass that it became, a nightmare for Laotians and a headache for both the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam (DRV) and the United States.

A key feature of the Laotian scene, one that made a neutrality agreement possible in the first place, was an array of political tendencies. Unlike South Vietnam, where the pro-American South Vietnamese government contended with the DRV-aligned National Liberation Front, Laos had different factions that favored neutrality, each of which had forces strong enough to impose a change of government by coup d’état.

Like the Vietnamese, Laotians were happy to shift their alliances with the wind, but these shifts were made across the political spectrum, not just among those in government. In addition, because a neutralist Royal Laotian Government (RLG) had existed—however fictively—since 1954, there was at least some tradition of political figures working together.

A further important distinction is that the Laotian monarchy under King Savang Vatthana was largely acceptable to all because it provided a legal framework for whatever government held power. Princes of the royal house also were important leaders on many sides of the political divides in the country, thereby providing the potential that a government of any particular party might not be anathema to the rest.

Prince Souvanna Phouma, the leader installed after the 1962 agreement, had led the RLG from 1956-58 and the neutralist government in Vientiane from August 1960. It is a measure of Laotian politics that the same government, overthrown by right-wing General Phoumi Nosavan on December 11, 1960, had continued to function in the bush, protected by neutralist armed forces under Captain Kong Le.
President Eisenhower had not liked Souvanna. The Laotian came to the United States in January 1958 to try to overcome what he called American “misunderstanding.” Ike received him with platitudes about spiritual and moral partnership, then terminated American foreign aid to force Souvanna to abandon neutrality for the American camp. Eisenhower also used the CIA to finance a right-wing coalition of young Laotians to defeat Souvanna’s party in elections.

John F. Kennedy also kept Souvanna at arm’s length but rejected Eisenhower’s advice to fight a war for Laos. Kennedy appointed W. Averell Harriman to negotiate a settlement, which, in fact, led to the Geneva Protocol. Harriman convinced JFK that Souvanna was the best that the United States could get.

“The Americans say I am a communist,” the prince once said. “All this is heartbreaking. How can they think I am a communist? I am looking for a way to keep Laos non-communist.” Souvanna said he wanted to build a bamboo bridge between the left and right in his country.

As the situation developed, Washington’s main man, General Phoumi Nosavan, grated and frustrated American officials, constantly mounting military adventures—nearly all of which failed. In the worst, early in 1962, Phoumi fought a battle at a place called Nam Tha, a Dien Bien Phu-style siege in which the Royal Laotian Armed Forces (RLAF) lost some of its best units. This suddenly made a Geneva agreement necessary from the military point of view. Souvanna Phouma’s leadership soon began to look positively promising to President Kennedy.

The regime that came out of the Geneva negotiations, the Second Coalition (the first had been in the 1950s), was a “troika,” so-called because ministers represented each of the three political tendencies in the country. Each faction held territory and had its own armed forces. In effect, this was an informal partition of Laos.

In Vientiane, the administrative capital, each faction had its own police and security troops in the city. Government ministers from the Pathet Lao retained a personal guard force of a hundred men. General Phoumi became minister of finance while retaining his command of the RLAF.

A side pact among the Lao parties (the “Three Princes’ Agreement”) provided for unification of the government and armed forces, but progress depended on the confidence of the factions, all of which were intensely suspicious.

Still in place was The International Control Commission (ICC), which was created by the 1954 agreements that neutralized Laos the first time. The ICC was weakened, however, by a rule that its conclusions regarding violations had to be unanimous. This had a direct impact upon compliance judgments regarding the Geneva Protocol, which required the withdrawal of foreign troops as part of its neutralization program.

North Vietnam exploited this weakness. American intelligence estimated that the DRV had 9,000 troops in Laos, divided between northern Laos, where a unit called Doan 959 helped the Pathet Lao, and the southern panhandle, through which ran the Ho Chi Minh Trail, replete with Vietnam People’s Army defense units, maintenance centers, and rest stops. The intelligence estimates, however, never distinguished between the two, whose functions were very different.

In addition, it is not clear whether the estimates included Hanoi’s infiltrators who were passing through Laos on their way to South Vietnam. In 1962, there were 500-1,500 DRV troops in passage at any given time. The People’s Army force permanently stationed along The Trail grew from 2,000 in 1961 to some 4,500 in early 1964. So, somewhere between a third and half of Hanoi’s forces were engaged in activity very different from helping the Pathet Lao fight the RLG. It is important to note that the United States had no expectation that the DRV would take its troops out of the panhandle and shut down The Trail.

While these facts do not excuse Hanoi’s failure to meet Geneva requirements, they do indicate that the DRV’s performance came closer than suggested by the accepted version, which almost uniformly ridicules North Vietnam for pulling out a mere forty soldiers. That number was due to the ICC’s establishing only two checkpoints to verify DRV withdrawals, one at a border village, the other an airfield on the Plain of Jars. The ICC teams witnessed an initial departure of seventeen soldiers across the border, a flight out of eighteen officers and men plus technical experts at the end of September 1962, and a final withdrawal of five unidentified North Vietnamese in late October.

American intelligence reported, however, the withdrawal of at least four People’s Army battalions, totaling about fifteen hundred troops. State Department intelligence and the CIA told Kennedy at a National Security Council meeting as early as August 1962 that “we do have evidence there is some genuine movement…as well as the staged withdrawals.” By March 1963 the CIA estimated North Vietnamese troops in Laos at 2,000-5,000.

The best data on Doan 959 credits it with a headquarters staff of about fifty at Gia Lam airfield, outside Hanoi, and a forward command center in Laos. The North Vietnamese had some planners and specialists at high levels among the Pathet Lao (PL). Attached to each PL battalion were one officer and one political adviser, with a staff of three to five men helping them. At this time the PL units probably also had military advisers at company level. This indicates a total size of the DRV advisory contingent in the hundreds. The balance of People’s Army troops were in supply services and combat units.

The official history of the People’s Army notes the dispatch to Laos of infantry, artillery, and engineer battalions of two different People’s Army brigades, one division, and one independent regiment, starting in November 1960—a total of 12,000 over the period, without specifying strength at any point in time. So, while Hanoi took only a fraction of its forces out of Laos, the contingent of relevant forces in northern Laos was smaller than usually claimed and the size of the withdrawal larger.

Meanwhile, a new American ambassador, Leonard Unger, arrived in Vientiane. Unger presided over a mission in which the CIA and American military had a larger-than-usual role due to their work with the right-wing faction and Royal Lao Government. This greatly diminished with the post-Geneva withdrawal, over which Unger presided. The Americans realigned, but did not eliminate, their mission.

The Program Evaluation Office (PEO), a disguised American military advisory group, had sixteen hundred personnel in mid-1962. By the deadline date in the Geneva Protocol, 665 had moved out. The United States, therefore, also did not meet its obligation. More importantly, the commander and many of these specialists merely moved across the border into Thailand, ready to intervene again.

According to Norman B. Hannah, the State Department desk officer for Laos and Cambodia, Harriman and Roger Hilsman, State director of Intelligence and Research, concocted an approach that called for American violations of the protocol in the expectation that DRV participation would not exceed that which existed in mid-1962. According to Hilsman, the National Security Council met shortly before the protocol deadline, and he and Harriman briefed President Kennedy together. Their judgment was that the DRV would keep its military presence small and inconspicuous if “there was continued evidence of an American determination to prevent their taking over.”

On September 28, 1962, JFK approved National Security Action Memorandum No. 189, which provided for the withdrawal of the remainder of the American advisory group, the maintenance of American combat troops in Thailand, extra money for the Souvanna government, and a special intelligence watch on the North Vietnamese.

The significant American subversion of the Geneva Protocol came not over the minutiae of troop withdrawals, but with the CIA paramilitary project that had created a large force of mountain tribesmen, who were the most effective fighters on the non-communist side. This initiative, Project Momentum, had begun under Eisenhower in 1960 and recruited an armée clandestine, a “secret army” that fought the Pathet Lao and its North Vietnamese allies on their own ground. Based primarily among the Hmong tribe and led by a Hmong RLAF officer named Vang Pao, by 1962 the secret army numbered about 17,000 troops, a force almost as large as the Pathet Lao.

While it was a key American goal in the Geneva negotiations to preserve this armée clandestine, the CIA intended to maintain it regardless. As early as May 1961, when a provisional ceasefire was extended over Laos in anticipation of negotiations, a CIA paper on Project Momentum foresaw that under conditions like those of the Geneva protocol, “The Meo [a slang pejorative name for the Hmong used at the time] could be instructed…to make a show of disarming and being pacified. The actual arms they would turn in, however, should be only a small percentage of their total armaments.”

The paper, likely prepared by the Laos branch chief at CIA headquarters, Charles S. Whitehurst, presented CIA’s view that the United States had to commit to “full support of the [Hmong] position at Geneva” and to “resupply of [Hmong] units and their families.” A month later the State Department Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs reported on contingency plans for helping the Hmong, including one to use the International Red Cross so the aid would be multilateral. Nothing seems to have come of this idea. The United States already was using the CIA airline Air America to supply the armée clandestine with emergency food aid and its arms and ammunition as the Hmong, under Pathet Lao military pressure, migrated from their old villages to new ones.

Another problem with the secret army was that General Phoumi, Washington’s key ally, feared it. His CIA case officer and next-door neighbor, John Hasey, who often seemed to lead Phoumi in directions antithetical to American and CIA policy, did little to change Phoumi’s opinion. Washington’s antipathy rose to such a level that the 5412 Special Group, Kennedy’s covert operations managers, discussed removing Phoumi on January 5, 1962.

Averell Harriman engineered Hasey’s replacement, while agency station chief Gordon L. Jorgensen was transferred to Saigon. His successor, “Whitey” Whitehurst, solidly backed the armée clandestine. Meanwhile, Phoumi’s military debacle at Nam Tha left Vang Pao’s army as the only significant RLG resource in the Laotian uplands, forcing Phoumi to moderate his jealousy. It was in 1962 that the CIA first briefed Congress—the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—on Project Momentum.

When the Geneva protocol was signed, President Kennedy carefully provided for the secret army along the exact lines recommended by the CIA in 1961. Souvanna came to Washington soon after the agreement. Kennedy first conferred with his top advisers on July 27, and Harriman reported that the Laotian prime minister had a more favorable opinion of the CIA.

But Souvanna thought of the Hmong as bandits. Harriman asked CIA director John McCone to take up the issue with him but to “not reveal our first alternative to hold Meos intact with arms hidden.” As for Hanoi’s use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, “It was felt Souvanna would not have the capability of policing this.” Harriman and McCone met with Souvanna. The Americans felt they succeeded in clearing the air on the CIA role and got Souvanna to agree to “continued supply of rice and non-war materiel.”

The Kennedy administration fully understood that it was violating the Geneva Protocol. In preparation for a late-August NSC review of American actions in that context, staffer Michael Forrestal cited language from the 1954 and 1962 agreements forbidding the introduction of foreign forces or war materiel. At the meeting on August 28, the president asked what was being done about Vang Pao. Harriman answered that the United States had agreed with Souvanna on food shipments. Deleted text in the document undoubtedly refers to military supplies. Harriman also noted that the CIA still had advisers with the Hmong, and that “their presence would not constitute violation of the Geneva Accords until after October 6” (the withdrawal deadline).

Air America received the contract for supply drops (contract AID-439-342). Souvanna Phouma also requested help, as he did on September 24, to aid starving refugees. Air America always benefited from the work, and the CIA appreciated the contract as cover for Hmong flights.

In late September, when the idea arose of demanding that the Russians formally renounce their airlift supporting the Pathet Lao and neutralists, Ambassador Unger advised: “To safeguard our efforts to maintain Air America as unobjectionable civilian-type airlift operation≤it would be prudent not to object.”

Another issue was getting supplies to remote locations—such as Hmong villages. Souvanna worried Unger by suggesting that the supply arrangements exclude “any commercial firms under contract,” that is, Air America, and that the flights operate under direct RLG control. Unger warned Washington about the danger of “interference and distortion by unfriendly officials.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk agreed that no one should compare Air America to the Russian airlift, publicly or privately. He also directed the embassy to “begin immediately to build up as much public support as possible among allies, Souvanna, and ICC for continuation [of Air America] operations.”

American plans did not forestall the Laotians. The next day Prime Minister Souvanna presented a formal letter to Unger declaring that aid to the Hmong must flow through the RLG, for “to take any other course would be to give the ethnic minorities the impression that the central government is weak and without any real authority.” A second letter asked for American help getting supplies to the three Lao armed forces—the regular army, the neutralists, and the Pathet Lao.

Rusk instructed Unger to respond with two letters, one accepting the request to do the supply work (and inviting the RLG to inspect Air America aircraft), the other specifically on the Hmong. Unger’s reply said that “assistance provided…will be carried out through USAID/Laos and will of course be conducted in a manner consonant with the civilian status of that agency and in conformity with the provisions of the Geneva Accords of 1962.” That meant Air America. There was no offer to inspect its supply flights.

The Americans breathed a sigh of relief. On October 5, Unger told Washington that he had had subsequent conversations with Souvanna, who had not stated any reservations. “This would suggest we are in the clear on continuation of Air America operations,” Unger said. He had said nothing to indicate that Vang Pao’s secret army would be excluded. Unger told Souvanna that a direct RLG-Air America contract could be worked out “later,” and it would be funded by the United States. The Russians, to whom Souvanna sent similar letters, handed over some planes for Laotian use, terminating their airlift.

So the Air America lift to the armée clandestine continued in the face of the Geneva Protocol. The Pathet Lao denounced the supply flights. This operation remained very sensitive at all times, and the provision of weapons and ammunition was particularly delicate. The CIA’s Far East division chief, William E. Colby, had weekly meetings with Harriman, who was now undersecretary of state, at which arms for the Hmong was a recurring subject.

“My arguments became more forceful, reflecting the intense cables I was receiving,” Colby said. Harriman approved flights individually, along with packing lists. He also demanded that the weapons be used solely for defense against the Pathet Lao, who continued fighting Vang Pao, saying that the Hmong were bandits. Flights bearing weapons were double-documented, with one set of papers indicating they contained rice or non-military supplies. As a result, the weapons became known as “hard rice.” Eleven CIA arms flights took place between October 1962 and February 1963, in addition to the AID supply deliveries.

At the time, Air America employed 275 people in Laos, among them 17 American supervisors. The Vientiane station manager was Mason L. Stitt, formerly of the U.S. Navy. The flow of supplies to the Hmong averaged 40 tons a month by mid-1962, even though Air America operations in Laos overall were down by more than two-thirds since Geneva. Aircraft leases were cancelled. Helicopters went to South Vietnam, but 14 transport aircraft continued active.

Like Air America, the CIA reconfigured its project with the secret army to minimize visibility. Only two officers stayed at Hmong headquarters at Long Tieng. Vint Lawrence was the senior adviser to Vang Pao. Anthony Poshepny was the tactical adviser, with strict instructions, which he ignored, to stay out of the field. In most accounts this is the entire story, but there was more.

The CIA men retained the services of two teams of a dozen Thai special forces advisers. Three other teams of Thais moved to bases on the border, from which they operated inside Laos. Another CIA case officer, Art Elmore, remained for a time to build supply dumps, then relocated with Jack Shirley elsewhere in Thailand to run a training camp for Laotian irregulars. In December they got their first group of trainees, mostly Hmong, with a handful of other tribesmen.

Simultaneously, Vang Pao concentrated at Long Tieng the five hundred soldiers trained out-of-country and formed a “Special Guerrilla Unit,” a formation that became the mainstay of the armée clandestine. Project Momentum continued under the direct control of CIA’s Bill Lair, who left Vientiane to work from a village across the Mekong in Thailand, then from Udorn. There was no question of including the CIA army in the integrated RLAF envisioned by Geneva.

Air America flew a lot and suffered losses. The best known occurred on November 27, 1962, when a C-123 on one of the Souvanna-authorized flights, piloted by Fred Riley and Don Heritage, was shot down by neutralists while on final approach to the airfield in the Plain of Jars. Americans at first blamed the Pathet Lao. Ironically, the plane carried supplies for the neutralists—flights approved by JFK just three weeks before. The Pathet Lao shot down an Air America plane over Padong, Vang Pao’s old village, and one from a different transport company, Bird & Sons, over the Laotian panhandle in January 1963.

Seeking a new perspective, in January 1963 President Kennedy sent his NSC staffer Forrestal and State INR chief Roger Hilsman on a survey mission. They visited the Plain of Jars and Long Tieng in addition to other stops. Forrestal studied the supply problem in some detail. He concluded that “some new arrangement must be worked out if we are to continue supplying the Meo during the next year,” partly because “despite…our official position…to the contrary, we do not have a firm agreement with Souvanna on supply flights to the Meo.”

Under continuing Pathet Lao protests, Souvanna had begun backing away from his agreement of October 1962, and Forrestal found problems with Air America itself. Pilot morale had dropped and “Air America has become politically about the most unpopular institution in Laos. Its past associations are public knowledge…Souvanna Phouma and Sophanouvong [his half-brother and a Pathet Lao leader] both dislike it because its personnel have grown so accustomed to behaving as if Laos were not a sovereign country, that they have behaved…in an arrogant way even toward right-wing officials.”

Forrestal was right. Before he left Laos, Souvanna gave an interview in which he claimed no knowledge of Air America supplies to the Hmong and proposed that the U.S. (like the Soviets) give the Laotians aircraft, which would be flown by American crews. The Embassy in Vientiane knocked Souvanna down hard, publicly referring for the first time to the October exchange of letters.

The Hmong lifeline was in danger. Forrestal pressed for making Hmong supply a subject for negotiation. He also liked Unger’s idea to draw up a white paper on Air America relief operations, claiming that they were permissible and required for moral and humane reasons. Released toward the end of January, the paper argued (without visible basis in fact) that support for the Hmong had been a condition of American adherence to the Geneva Protocol. Unger and CIA station chief Whitehurst were simultaneously attempting to come up with plans for Hmong resettlement and self-sufficiency. Souvanna reiterated his claim not to have known of the Air America flights but did nothing to stop them.

By February the issue had risen to the level of the International Control Commission. The Polish ICC member demanded an investigation into whether Air America was a “paramilitary formation” violating the Geneva Protocol. In an effort to counter this, Forrestal recommended and Harriman ordered an extensive State Department study of Air America. Forrestal believed that the approach should be that of a trial lawyer. The task was assigned to John J. Czyak. By the time his analysis was finished, however, the situation in Laos had gone beyond redemption.

As Washington and Hanoi eyed each other warily, both missed the real developments that compromised Geneva. The story of Laos between 1960 and 1963 is of the struggle to define “neutralism” and give it application. What happened in Vientiane between July 1962 and April 1963 was the denial of the legitimacy of neutralism. And both sides, because of their efforts to evade the Geneva protocol, had forces ready to take advantage.

As a political movement in Laos, neutralism began in 1955, when Quinim Pholsena, a figure from the movement that opposed the Japanese and French and prefigured the Pathet Lao, formed a political party called Peace Through Neutrality (Santhiphap Pen Kang). It was the major non-military, non-communist faction in Laos. His political base was in Sam Neua Province, which became a Pathet Lao hotbed. Pholsena’s Santhiphab, a leftist non-communist movement, nevertheless joined with the Pathet Lao for 1958 elections, because Pholsena had many links to communist leaders.

Neutralism became militarized with the defection of the 2nd Paratroop Battalion of Captain Kong Le in 1960. He overthrew the government that Phoumi Nosavan had empowered after ousting Souvanna Phouma the first time. Souvanna left, accompanied by his CIA case officer, R. Campbell James.

Kong Le reinstalled Souvanna in August 1960, but only a few months later General Phoumi roared back with more troops, recapturing Vientiane. Kong Le retreated to the Plain of Jars. Phoumi then made war on the neutralists, not just the Pathet Lao.

Quinim Pholsena had been minister of information in the Souvanna cabinet and became foreign minister in the rump government Souvanna ran on the Plain of Jars. Pholsena went to Hanoi to ask for help. The Soviet airlift that began in 1960 was originally meant to help the neutralists.

Much as the Americans tried to recruit everyone in sight, the Pathet Lao attempted to propagandize and convert the neutralists. This led to such odd combinations as Kong Le units being “left-wing” or “right-wing” neutralists. The anti-aircraft crews that shot down the Air America plane in November were widely reported to be left-wing neutralists. The Pathet Lao preferred to view Kong Le’s forces as a wholly owned subsidiary, which General Kong Le did not like at all.

Some reports allege that Pholsena was involved in the Pathet Lao schemes. Others believe Pholsena was a left-wing neutralist more by resignation than conviction, and a nationalist fearful of Chinese encroachment. Pholsena may have been capable of conspiracy, but were these conspiracies he wanted?

He began supporting Colonel Deuane Sounnalath, Kong Le’s artillery commander and another left-wing neutralist, whose crews had destroyed the C-123. Souvanna meanwhile threw his backing to Colonel Ketsana Vongsouvan, Kong Le’s chief of staff and longtime friend. On February 12, 1963, in an act very unusual in Laotian politics, assassins murdered Ketsana. On that very day Souvanna and Pholsena left Laos with the king to tour all the countries that had signed the Geneva Protocol.

General Kong Le responded by moving to suppress Deuane. The five people he ordered arrested in the wake of the Ketsana murder were all Deuane soldiers. According to Hugh Toye, a close observer of the Lao scene at the time, the real murderer sought refuge with the Pathet Lao.

Before long, Kong Le privately asked the Americans to expand his aid to include arms and ammunition. Kong Le’s moves caused a split within the neutralist armed forces. Deuane openly joined the Pathet Lao. Colonel Khamouane Boupha, with 1,500 or more men in far northern Laos, joined Deuane. Together they formed the “Patriotic Neutralists,” accusing Kong Le of “deviationism.” With only about 5,500 troops, this split seriously weakened neutralist power. The bulk of Kong Le loyalists were in the Plain of Jars.

During this interval, General Kong Le had contacts with Ambassador Unger and Phoumi Nosavan. He told Unger that Souvanna and the king had received assurances that Beijing and Hanoi would stop interfering in Laotian internal affairs. Kong Le told Phoumi—and the general repeated to Unger—that he had “liquidated” Deuane and had the Plain of Jars well in hand. When an ICC delegation visited the Plain, Kong Le told them that Phoumi must realize that if he went under there would be no barrier between the Phoumist forces and the communists. He also reported that Hanoi’s troop strength near the Plain—the most important war zone in northern Laos—stood at two battalions. On March 29 Deuane and Kong Le troops began shooting at each other after a fight broke out at the marketplace in Xieng Khouangville.

That morning in Vientiane, before the first reports of fighting, Unger met his Western counterparts to discuss giving weapons to Kong Le. The American appealed to the French for the use of their weapons stockpiled at Seno in the Laotian panhandle. Using these would avoid a Geneva violation. The weapons were old and scheduled for shipment home, but the French ambassador agreed to consider the proposal.

Ambassador Unger had instructions from Secretary Rusk not to “tie ourselves down with technicalities so that we fail to support non-communist elements to the extent necessary.” Rusk had singled out Kong Le in that regard. Kong Le himself had told Unger that he was going to connect more closely with Vang Pao’s CIA secret army. Unger made no objection.

On April 1 King Savang Vatthana held a reception in Vientiane to mark the success of his foreign tour. Quinim Pholsena left about 9:30 that night. As he alighted from his car, a corporal from his own bodyguard cut Pholsena down with a burst from his automatic rifle. Although Pholsena’s stark white house stood at the corner of Samsenthai intersection, one of the busiest in Vientiane, when a CIA officer reached the scene within five minutes, he found vehicular and pedestrian traffic normal. Passersby reported hearing two bursts of automatic fire but saw nothing unusual. People assumed guards had shot at an imaginary intruder.

One witness was pilot Mike LaDue, sitting with a friend at a corner table across the street, on the veranda of the Lido Bar, a favorite Air America watering hole in Vientiane. LaDue remembers the sights, sounds, and smells of the moment—including the mosquito repellant spirals burning on the tables of the Lido. He saw Pholsena’s car, an expensive-looking Mercedes, pull up, and he heard a burst of about eight shots, then two or three single shots a moment later. The Air America men were so surprised they spilled their beers.

In fact, the assassin had been picked up by a car almost instantly and driven to Wattay Airport, where he was arrested. He claimed to have acted on his own. It turned out that he had previously been on Colonel Ketsana’s bodyguard detail and supposedly was bent on revenge. Senior members of Pholsena’s own political party, though surprised at the killing, blurted out references to something they called “the plan.”

The Pholsena assassination triggered the final breakdown of the Geneva Protocol. Some saw it as a right-wing plot, but the context of the power struggle among neutralist forces seems quite clear. Pathet Lao ministers fled from Vientiane. Fighting flared on the Plain of Jars. In Washington, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research predicted: “Quinim’s assassination is unlikely to lead to an immediate change in Pathet Lao tactics” because anything like an all-out offensive on the Plain of Jars “would presumably require advance consultation with Moscow, [Beijing], and Hanoi.” But, in fact, the Pathet Lao intervened in force alongside the left-wing neutralists on April 6. Colonel Deuane took refuge with them at Khang Khay. Augmented by Pathet Lao forces, his troops forced Kong Le back until he was holding on to just a few defense positions.

Enter Vang Pao. It appears that the advance consultation that occurred was between Kong Le and the Hmong leader, not on the other side. Within 24 hours of the Deuane-Pathet Lao offensive—while Ambassador Unger was still referring to Hmong action as something to discuss with General Phoumi—Vang Pao activated a plan in concert with the Kong Le forces. His heavily armed Special Guerrilla Unit moved to a spot near the Plain from which it could intervene. Other Hmong forces took control of a bridge over which Kong Le could retreat and, if necessary, move to block Pathet Lao supply lines, and detachments joined up with Kong Le’s forces to reinforce posts north of Xieng Khouangville. Vientiane CIA station chief Charlie Whitehouse commented on Vang Pao’s plan, accurately observing that while the secret army maneuvers were being called “screening actions,” in reality “the planning carries much further” to the point of “aggressive counter-P.L. action.”

What was Vang Pao’s angle? The mere opportunity for alliance with Kong Le’s weakened forces cannot have moved him. The surprise indicated in American documents suggests he was not acting at the behest of Washington or the CIA. The delicacy of the Hmong relationship with General Phoumi, and the fact that Phoumi and the American embassy had yet to decide upon any action, suggest that this operation was not carried out under RLAF orders.

The best way to view these actions is as Vang Pao’s bid to escape the straightjacket imposed by Geneva. Instead of small and infrequent consignments of “hard rice,” Vang Pao could transform his situation with Washington through an overt military response along lines he knew corresponded to American policy preferences. Then the CIA would be obliged to back the armée clandestine to the extent of its capability. The tragic aspect of the Hmong operation is that Vang Pao, in effect, dragged the United States in behind him, eliminating whatever chance there might have been to preserve the integrity of neutralist government in Laos.

Vang Pao’s scheme worked well. On April 10 there was a meeting of the National Security Council at the White House. The State Department planning paper listed continued supply efforts to Kong Le and the Hmong as the lead recommendation, with inserting Phoumi forces into the neutralist army disguised as “volunteers” immediately behind, and approving Vang Pao’s “tactical redeployment” as the third.

Averell Harriman supported the supply recommendation and JFK approved. In a dispatch on April 19, undersecretary of state George Ball warned that any effort by Kong Le with Vang Pao’s help to recapture the whole Plain of Jars would destroy anything left of the Geneva cease fire, but the CIA’s Whitehouse countered the next day that Kong Le was in extremis and his position would be lost “if not for flexibility now authorized to Meos.”

On April 20 the National Security Council approved initiatives to secure support for Vientiane from London and Paris, along with an approach to the Russians, the dispatch of a carrier task force to the South China Sea, and preparation of plans for coercive actions against North Vietnam. There was further talk of supplies to Kong Le and Vang Pao at the NSC on April 22.

Shortly after noon on April 21, President Kennedy telephoned Harriman. “Am I talking to the architect of the Geneva Accords?” Kennedy asked. “I have been willing to say that,” Harriman answered, “And if it goes down, to take the blame for it.” Jack Kennedy replied: “I have a piece of it, [too].”

War in Laos had resumed and would continue throughout the Indochina conflict.

Available records contain no evidence indicating that Hanoi exercised direct control over the Pathet Lao and none that the Pathet Lao deliberately tried to destroy the cease fire. Records also do not show that Washington purposefully attempted to return to a state of war. On the other hand, there is plentiful evidence that both sides assumed that their adversaries had no interest in abiding by the protocol and therefore took actions at the margin, subverting it as a hedge to counter the enemy.

The sides created a superheated situation in which the fight for domination among Laotian neutralists ignited a spark. North Vietnamese and American clients—in this case the CIA secret army of Vang Pao—could pull their sponsors into war. The first casualty became the neutralist government in Laos. As for the Geneva protocol, the sides chose to pretend that it worked just fine. Laos became a secret war.

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