Laos lies in a tucked away position within Southeast Asia. Encompassed on all sides by more threatening and powerful nations, Vietnam to its east and China to its north, it has often had to rely on guile, submission and its remote location to maintain a semblance of its freedom. It could easily have fallen under the influence of China, especially after World War II however it managed to buttress itself up against Vietnam and face down not only China, but also the United States. While it has suffered for its preferred isolation, violent political actions and near-complete reliance on Vietnam, it continues to exist to this day even if it is often noted as a mere Vietnamese colony. But what has brought it to this point? Between the initial French involvement in Indochina up to its eventual Communist coup, we will look into some detail as to how Communism rose and eventually overtook Laos through the early 1900s, World War II, the Vietnam War and their eventual victory after the Americans had largely left Indochina.
As it often begins, education was weak within Laos at the turn of the 20th century. That is also to say, that virtually everything was weak within Laos but education especially so. However, some effort was made when public education was established by the openings of an elementary school in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. This was also where the Buddhist following and religion within Laos began to alter as temples, as they had been used as a form of schooling, began to evolve with the state system.1 While education was important to modernize a society, removing religion or strong philosophies of any type which would seem in opposition to the state, would naturally clash against communist ideology. And melding both public school with the temple seemed to be this first step.
However, Communism and its ideas didn’t spread overnight. This took decades.
By October 1932 a communist cell was formed in Vientiane by seven Vietnamese. As noted in a previous article, the Vietnamese were profoundly overpopulated within Laos, perhaps, in part, due to the French influence. Through these seven agitators, they began to spread oral propaganda along with a bimonthly newspaper both edited int he Laotian and Vietnamese languages. Through these actions, by mid 1934, three other cells grew in other Laotian towns of Phontiou, Boneng and Thakhek. The numbers, however, weren’t as great as they may seem as the cells had only claimed 30 members of two trade unions in the tin mines and 29 members for the likes of woodcutters, teamsters and kitchen help. Some of the beginning popularity may have come through the Anti-Imperialist League and their infiltration of the Youth Sports Organization, the advancement of communism within Laos was difficult. Even they had to admit that, “a certain number of them were susceptible to being admitted to the Party.”2 Building a system of consolidated power in a region where it had rarely been seen in all of history was taking generations.
To understand how loose France’s grasp was, there were constant uprisings within Laos for decades since the French had introduced themselves. Beginning as early as 1910 the French went to war against Komadome near Phu Luong, near Vietnam. During that time the French had used everything from elephants to fighter planes to crush the rebellion and it didn’t come to an end until 1937 after a blockade of the main base near Phu Luong along the Vietnamese border. The resistance leader’s son retold the events, “In the final phase, the French bombed us from the air and moved up with three battalions of troops, 200 elephants, horse-borne troops and Alsatian dogs to track us down. My father and my eldest brother Si Thone laid an ambush for their advance party, but the French were shown another track by a traitor and surprised our headquarters from behind. We rushed out at the noise of dogs but my father had forgotten his pistol. As he ran to get it, he was shot in the back. The elephants were used to trample down our houses and the people inside them. Si Thone was wounded and taken prisoner with another brother. Three younger brothers were thrown into a ravine and three still smaller ones were shot or died later of starvation. The elephants were used to charge into the villages and any of our people who survived were shot or bayoneted.”3 While the French would often obtain control, they would rarely maintain it.
With the Communists on one side, naturally on the other rose the nationalists. The Free Lao Underground was aided along within Thailand toward the end of World War II, with the aid of the Thai, British and Americans.4 To say that it is not native to Laos, ironically enough, would not be difficult to argue. At the same time one must question, what is native Lao if most of Lao was built up of other nationalities? At the same time there was a Free Thai movement created in 1943 (Thai Seri) but as the war came to its conclusion, attention was only provided to the Thai and the Lao were largely ignored for now. Without a real opposition, especially after the war and a weakened, beaten French, the future of Lao was a larger question mark than even China had been.
The French were more troubled with Vietnam than they had been with Laos. After all, how could one even consider control over Laos without also having control over Vietnam? By 1954 the Communists were gaining further control in the region. Days after the arrival of US Ambassador Charles W. Yost arrived in Vientiane, Lao Defense Minister Kou Varavong had been assassinated, one who had favored reconciliation with the Pathet Lao, the Lao Communist movement.5 Yost noted that this poisoned the political feeling in the region, going so far as to blame RLG (Royal Lao Government) Foreign Minister Phoui Sananikone. But Rust cites that many RLG officials believed the assassination was carried out by Thailand. Responsibility for the assassination has never been established.
Before these moments, the RLG had been working with the Pathet Lao in an effort of power sharing. The Communists still didn’t have enough power and the instability within the region due to the aftermath of World War II raised further questions. But the Untied States had worked to prevent the formation of the Pathet Lao infiltrating the government. If France couldn’t have it, then at least it oughtn’t be Communist, the West seemed to have believed. What had truly turned the American attention against power sharing attempts in Southeast Asia were the consistent failures that had occurred in the late 1940s, such as in 1948 with Czechoslovakia.6 Eisenhower wasn’t going to permit a Pathet Lao agreement if he could help it as he foresaw a Communist takeover; meanwhile largely ignoring the events in Cuba.
Eisenhower wasn’t completely wrong. The Pathet Lao was a violent force when it chose to be, which was quite often. What was essentially going on in Laos during the 1950s was war between the established government and the Communists. Beginning in 1955 the Pathet Lao were winning a series of harassing attacks against isolated ANL (Lao Army) outposts in mountainous jungle outposts in Sam Neua where they could only be reinforced with supplies through airdrops. The Pathet Lao, while not having the same power backing them, were able to reinforce on the ground with horses through jungle trails.7 At the same time the Pathet Lao was committing itself to administering propaganda which furthered their movement among the population.
Through 1955 the Pathet Lao continued their forceful expansion. In July 1955 they drove government forces from Muong Peun using approximately 1800 men. They were then able to overlook a village while the Americans aided the ANL on 7 July, who were dropping in more men and supplies. Colonel Gordon, the US Army attache in Vietntiane at the time, hinted about a “small Dien Bien Phu” on the horizon.8 And in the process, some of the ANL’s best units would be destroyed in defending the village.
Yost’s hope was to strengthen the home government. Rather than demand war material, he asked for rice to help support the Lao government while they fought against the Pathet Lao. Three months after famine conditions began, rice was being sent through Laos, even northern Laos where air drops were a necessity to deliver the appropriate material. To do this, the Civil Air Transport, an airline secretly owned by the CIA, had to parachute rice and salt into drop zones where portions of the jungle had been hacked away. Accompanying the rice and salt were propaganda leaflets over communist-held areas.9
While the Lao had appreciated the American aid, they resisted efforts to be subjugated. Yost wrote, “We must give no solid grounds for allegations that we are interfering in Lao internal affairs, are dragooning the Lao Government into military pacts against its better judgment, are blocking ‘peaceful coexistence’ with her communist neighbors, or are expanding our presence and our numbers to a point beyond reason or necessity.”10 Whatever the reaction back at Washington, the Americans were worried about a Communist takeover and had developed a new habit of controlling government, most recently, in Guatemala in 1954. This further caused consternation when it seemed that the Lao Government had wanted to work with the violent Pathet Lao to settle their political disputes. After witnessing events in Asia, Eastern Europe and other rising flashpoints, the Americans had a low threshold for trusting Communist agreements with established governments.
Through these years the ideas of the domino theory began, which can still be argued today. One writer wrote, “…an independent, neutral Laos simply cannot exist because it lies in the direct path of communist expansion and because this southward expansion is a part of the great communist master plan of encirclement. This great master plan, conceived by Lenin and placed in execution by Stalin, prognosticated that the final downfall of the United States could be best accomplished by seizing China, and then by sweeping south through the riches of southeast Asia and Indonesia, across India, across Africa, and thence to South America. … But these outposts cannot be linked up until the communists have direct access to South Asia, and this they cannot obtain until they have taken over Laos.”11 Whether the domino theory was true or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that there were enough people in the West who believed it to be true. And this is why Laos, let alone Vietnam, would not be left alone.
In spite of Yost’s request and how Washington claimed they would act, the United States would make an effort to control Laos. One way of control was to blast open the coalition government between the royalty and the Pathet Lao. As noted with Burchett, the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane paid roughly $100,000 per vote during election time.12 The government went back and forth. With men like Katay Don Sasorith, a Lao nationalist, in control, power was finally held over the Pathet Lao. There remained two battalions in open and defenseless positions and so Lao troops went to seal the frontier from Sam Neua to North Vietnam. The Pathet Lao was meant to be completely destroyed. And in the case of Phong Saly, every Pathet Lao member was destroyed.13 The heads of Pathet Lao were then shown to the public to display the power of the state over the Pathet Lao. It should be noted that in spite of these sudden victories, the government, as had been throughout Lao history, was incapable of patrolling and meeting every conflict within Laos.
Katay worked along with Sananikone in an effort to enact a complete coup by eliminating their rival counterpart. He had sought to destroy the movement completely, even ignoring the Geneva Agreements in 1959. This bothered all sides from the Soviet Union to Britain and India.14
In spite of the seemingly superiority, by 18 May 1959, even after having been completely surrounded, roughly 1/3 of the No. 1 Pathet Lao battalion had escaped through the enemy lines after having been handed an ultimatum for surrender. The No. 2 Pathet Lao Battalion had escaped entirely; General Rattikone having discovered an empty barracks the following morning. While there the local Pathet Lao leaders had then been imprisoned, this was an incredible blow to the Lao national army and their attempts to secure power. In response, Laos requested more help from the Americans to which they provided, offering advisors, technicians which expanded the Royal Lao Army from 25,000 to 29,000 men.15 As the decade of the 1950s had let out, America was becoming further entrenched in Southeast Asia.
The problem was further exasperated with the death of King Sisavang Vong. While the transfer went to his son Savang Vatthana, the burial wouldn’t take place immediately. Instead more than a year after his death, in August 1960, Lao officials gathered away from the capital to discuss burial arrangements at which point Captain Kong Le and 600 men from the Second Paratroops Battalion went into Vientiane and took control of important installations, in a coup attempt. While this power would be relinquished, it would only occur after another “agreement” was established which would eliminate the pro-Western government and invite Souvanna Phouma to lead the new government.16 The coup eliminated any possibility of maintaining Laos in the Western camp.
While Kong Le had established the coup, he laughably claimed that he wanted some sort of neutrality in spite of installing someone who wasn’t neutral at all. He noted, “I hope the Government will lead our country to the path of neutrality. That means a government that will incline neither toward the free world nor the Communist world… Corruption must be stopped… Leaders of government and the armed forces have more than once announced that those engaged in bribery, those living off the labor of others and those advancing their interests at the people’s expense would be punished.”17 But bloated government rarely handles corruption and neutrality very well. In fact, it often seems to be the most corrupt and biased when compared against governments attempting to govern least.
Laos was unfolding fast but the United States was typically slow to react. Roughly one month after the coup in Laos the Americans said, “The United States has in the past consistently supported duly constituted governments of Laos in their efforts to maintain the independence and integrity of Laos against Communist encroachment from without or within. It would regret a situation in which violence destroyed unity thereby increasing the danger of such encroachment. The United States has no desire to intervene in the internal affairs of Laos…. It would, however, be immediately concerned by the efforts of any other outside power or the agents thereof, to take advantage of the disturbed conditions prevailing and to intervene directly or indirectly.”18 The note is ridiculous if considering the interference of the past. And taking into account the actions taken within Latin America and certain portions of the world, not to mention within its own borders, the honesty of the American government was seriously in question. If it could not impose its own election integrity within its nation, how could it expect to do so in a nation as far, distant, remote and disassociated as Laos?
The battle within the government of Laos would continue, in spite of the sudden reorganization. The Communists didn’t have enough real power to enact their desires. By December of 1960 a special session was called which passed a vote of censure against Souvanna Phouma’s government. The King then issued his royal proclamation to permit the Revolutionary Committee, headed by Phoumi and Boun Oum, to temporarily control the kingdom’s issues. Three days later, almost as though it were coordinated, the United States recognized the Revolutionary Committee as the government of Laos.19This introduced two governments within Laos; the Revolutionary Committee and Souvanna Phouma’s government with both claiming to be the royal government.
To coincide with this effort, Phoumi’s troops were just outside of the capital on December 13 with American-supplied artillery. Kong Le, predictably supplied by the Soviet Union, sat with their artillery on the opposite side of the city near the Vatthay airfield. Three days later the volleys began in a four day battle. By the end, Phoumi claimed the city and victory. Kong Le had momentarily lost but also made away with 9000 American-made rifles which were distributed to Pathet Lao irregulars.20 Kong Le lost roughly 24 men while Phoumi had fourteen killed; roughly 600 civilians were destroyed in the exchange, largely by artillery fire.21
The Americans still seemed to worry over Laos. There were constant debates about how much and if to give the Laotian government anything. There were risks of blank checks but also questions of offering far too little and much too late.
Laos was not to be given up. Eisenhower in noted meetings had wanted to do virtually everything to prevent a permanent Communist takeover in the land. There were meetings held in December with allies and without about how to handle the problem. Britain was less wary of intervention of any sort but Eisenhower saw the world in a different way. While he had wanted allies, he also noted that, “[If] war is necessary, we will do so with our allies or unilaterally, since we cannot sit by and see Laos go down without a fight.”22 Some of this would bleed into the Kennedy administration where he chose to go into Cuba and rearrange plans there and if it had been a success, likely would’ve sent more troops into Laos.23
Some positions were assuaged however when it was discovered that Vietnam hadn’t yet invaded Laos. Seven U-2 planes were sent to take photos over the contested regions bordering Vietnam and China but no supply lines were found. By late 26 January, RLG had no longer claimed there was a Vietnam invasion but the RLG was still in a dire situation. This is true as the Pathet Lao continued to move with Kong Le, taking control of a plateau just east of the Plaine des Jarres where FAL had retreated, leaving behind 57 mm reccoilless rifles and two 105 mm howitzers.24 With the US dipping back and forth and her bench-sitting allies, the situation in Laos was reddening.
By the time JFK had been inaugurated, little had changed in Laos. The Laotian government was continuing to lose and the Pathet Lao was continuing to gain. Furthermore, the White Star teams, the American special warfare in Laos, were only just beginning, and rather slowly. There is a note which states they advanced a mere 65 miles in 29 days, yet showed incredible speed when in retreat.25 The mistakes made in Laos would be the same ones made in Vietnam, among other places. In a standing military, the people must feel a need to fight for something. And as in Vietnam, that something was only skin-deep as American interests and little else. What else was there to live and die for? At least the other side would make national or cultural promises even if they never had any intention of keeping them.
Kennedy attempted to fearmonger the American people as by 23 March 1961 he showed himself in a televised news conference with a background of Nosavan’s defeats against a map of Laos. Again he berated the tired excuse of creating a neutral Laos which was all air, even during the Eisenhower administration, yet one no one except a naive public believed. If they even happened to care at all. This also went against Dulles’ phrase that Laos neutrality was “dangerous and immoral”,26 thus even if neutrality would be achieved, Laos would still be surrounded by Vietnam, China and receive materials from the Soviet Union. This would hardly lead to a neutral Laos without significant American aid to counter-balance the measure. This also wouldn’t create a neutral Laos. Such a thing would be fantasy as it would be likely that Laos would abuse both sides as often happens in such border-nations.
Kennedy was intent on Laos. As mentioned though, the failures in Cuba led to the lack of support in Laos. Professor Schlesinger, a Kennedy historian and Special Assistant to the president, mentioned that, “The Bay of Pigs finally destroyed any possibility of military intervention in Laos.”27 While it would have been a great benefit to the Americans if Kennedy hadn’t ruined the effort to invade Cuba, it would’ve dramatically changed the oncoming Vietnam War and likely would’ve immensely enhanced the arena. Furthermore, there was a very real possibility of reliving the Korean War but this time in the jungle and likely with much more Chinese support since this would open up a potential second Westernized border on her frontier which history had proven she wasn’t willing to permit easily.
But Kennedy ramped up the American effort, raising the number of military advisers from 685 to nearly 17,000. In spite of these efforts, shortly before his death, Kennedy told his aid Michael Forrestal that he gave 100-1 odds that the US would fail in southeast Asia.28 But why did Kennedy refuse to distance himself from Laos? Part of it was a need to be re-elected and with failures elsewhere in the world under his watch, he couldn’t necessarily watch Laos or Vietnam fall to the wayside and continuing and raising the alarm. Even if he had won, it would’ve been difficult to pull himself back after scoring the fear and the number of American personnel in the area. By the point of his odds-making guess, Kennedy would’ve been too far gone and was not going to be able to pull himself, or the nation back from disaster.
Aside from directly intervening in the Laotian War and the Communist rise, there were many talks between other nations. The Americans and Soviets had attempted to iron out an agreement. Some of the noted points were:
(1) Both countries would support a neutral Laos;
(2) “Neutrality” was illustrated by reference to Finland;
(3) The USSR would be responsible for compliance by the Communist side, including North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao. The UK and US would be responsible for the non-Communist side.;
(4) The USSR would ensure that Hanoi would observe Lao neutrality to include preventing North Vietnamese use of Laos as a corridor to South Vietnam. Pushkin assured Harriman that North Vietnam was ready to live up to the agreement as were the Pathet Lao;
(5) The USSR would support neutral Laos against any political or military aggression by the Pathet Lao;
(6) The royalist, neutralist and Communist armies of Laos would be consolidated under a neutral government to be formed by Prince Souvanna Phouma;
(7) An International Control Commission (India, Canada and Poland) would monitor and enforce compliance with the agreements. But Pushkin assured Harriman the Soviets would seek to make the agreements so effective that the Commission would have little to do.29But a true neutral Laos would be a fantasy considering its surroundings.
As the Vietnam War began to pick up strength, the Vietnamese were able to support the Pathet Lao. General Taylor noted, “The Geneva Accord did not result in the Withdrawal of the North Vietnamese troops supporting the Pathet Lao or the cessation of the use of the Ho Chi Minh trails to supply the war in South Vietnam. There seemed to be a tacit understanding [italic in original] on both sides that the fate of Laos would be resolved in Vietnam. For that reason the Pathet Lao took as a primary objective the protection of the supply lines in the Laotian Panhandle, and maintained a de facto [italic in original] partition of the country on a north-south line which prevented any effective military action from the Mekong Valley against their communications.”30 Laos was shaping up in the same way that Vietnam had and due to its recent history, it would be tied completely to the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese, as history would show, had no interest in permitting a neutral Laos to simply exist on their borders any more than the Americans had.
What held Vietnam off of aiding in the complete communist takeover of Laos? It was the threat that the Americans would open the Laotian border and the Vietnamese supply lines in that area to war.31This would be noted more earnestly by later Ambassador Taylor, “There seemed to be a tacit understanding on both sides that the fate of Laos would be resolved in Vietnam . For that reason, the Pathet Lao took as a primary objective the protection of the supply lines in the Laotian Panhandle and maintained a de facto [italic in original] partition of the country on a north-south line which prevented any effective military action from the Mekong Valley against their communications..”32 While this would happen secretly later, it is one thing to operate in secret and quite another to do so in the open. Laos would not be permitted to be taken without the say so of South Vietnam. Therefore, to get Laos, North Vietnam had to take Saigon.
Meanwhile, the governments and people within Laos were still in negotiations. In May 1962 an agreement was near when the Pathet Lao, aided by the North Vietnamese, attacked Nam Tha, a provincial capital within Laos near China. The RLG’s best troops were routed (eight battalions, three parachute and five infantry) causing 4500 soldiers to flee while abandoning their weapons and other materials. While Kennedy would say that this was a breach of the cease-fire and that it wasn’t “a satisfactory situation,” he still tried to maintain the notions of diplomacy.33 This attack had virtually removed all RLG power in northern Laos and put the future of a “neutral” Laos in jeopardy without real American intervention.
An agreement for Laos was eventually obtained. As Rust notes, “The declaration called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, with the exception of the largely irrelevant French Military Mission, and prohibited the use of the Lao territory to interfere in the affairs of other countries, a reference to infiltration from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Compliance with the agreement was uneven, at best, with the more egregious violations committed by North Vietnam, which withdrew only a small fraction of its estimated 6,000-9,000 troops in Laos and continued to use the infiltration trails into South Vietnam. The Soviet Union ended its airlift, but this caused little hardship for the Pathet Lao, which still received weapons and equipment by road from North Vietnam.”34 The US government was also to withdraw nearly 1200 advisors (even though it acknowledged only 666r), and 200 Thai military volunteers with the MAAG and 400 Filipino technicians.35 This move had prevented an overt superpower altercation but did little to fix the problems on the ground for the Americans or the RLG. By this time in 1962 the Pathet Lao had grown in size, occupying roughly one half of the country and the west no longer had nearly the influence it had before, as small as it was.
Later in 1962 the uneasy alliance between Kong Le and the Pathet Lao was beginning to fracture. It wasn’t necessarily an agreement based on ideology but against hatred of Phoumi. In turn, Vietnam supplied Kong Le less and less and the Pathet Lao offered defections to Kong Le’s troops, assassinated a field commander and began a number of skirmishes near the Plain of Jars. This oddly put the Hmong fighters, who had fought on the side of the Americans, closer to Kong Le.36 The very blurry lines were becoming even more hazy.
In an effort to keep the Pathet Lao from continuous expansion and since the previous agreement had only been paid lip service to, the Amercans sought out Khrushchev to keep southeast Asia in order. To this, Michael Forrestal who traveled with Harriman to speak to Khruschev, noted that, “”Khrushchev did not have the foggiest notion of the geography of Laos and, when Harriman mentioned a few Laotian personalities, Khruschev impatiently exclaimed that he did not know all those silly Laotian names or the individuals to whom these names belonged.”37 Khrushchev likely did have power but probably wasn’t paying nearly as close attention as the Americans were. Or if he had, then ignoring the American problem was also favorable to him. Why would he want to help the Americans’ sphere of influence while damaging his own? It was yet another naive move on the part of the Kennedy administration.
The CIA was also in the early 1960s was firmly involved in Laos in spite of any agreements. Previously the French had created a Meo commando force at roughly 3000 after the end of the First Indochina War headed by two opium-dealer tribal chiefs, To Bi and To Jeu. But by the CIA era, the CIA took over these commando forces and made them the basis for the Laotian Special Forces which were “racially conditioned against the Lao Lum.” They were essentially designed to fight against even the neutralist forces if needbe, proving the United States had no desire in actual neutrality. And they were not afraid to carry out destructive or deadly activities against the even more violent Pathet Lao. Hilsman noted, “there were occasions of tension in 1962 and 1963 when it was useful to have the Meo blow up a bridge or occupy a mountain top as a move in the deadly game of ”signaling’ that the United States had to play to deter the communists from adventuring with the Geneva accords. But arming the tribesmen engendered an obligation not only to feed them when they were driven from their traditional homelands but also to protect them from vengeance.”38 Laos would never be neutral.
The coalition government soon came to an end in part because of Pathet Lao aggression. After assassinating Kong Le’s previously mentioned officer, a neutralist assassinated Quinim Pholsena, the foreign minister in the coalition government and who was important in funneling influence overseas which heavily favored the Communist movement.39 The Pathet Lao withdrew from the government, leaving it fractured and they continued on their warring offensive. In a battle that lasted over a year, beginning in April 1963, the Pathet Lao won a victory over the strategically important Plain of Jars in May 1964.
Through their own action, the Pathet Lao reopened the war. Politically they also attempted to convert the neutralists which were still in the Laotian government; it was easy to find that many were neutralist in name only with the exception of the likes of Colonel Deuane. As a result of this political maneuver, two conservative generals in April 1964, Siho Lamphouthacoul and Kouprasit Abhay, committed a counter-coup and suspended the fractured coalition government. The two immediately sought aid from the United States but the United States rebuffed their efforts. The Americans demanded the reinstatement of Souvanna, whom the generals were ready to assassinate. Without any outside aid, the generals capitulated and reinstalled the former, fractured government with Souvanna at its head.40 But now the government had been inflicted with wounds from both the extreme left and the right.
The American moves were baffling, but so were many made in the Kennedy era. Nosavan further suffered defeats after failing to retake the Plain of Jars which would open the south. The Americans, while they wouldn’t recognize the temporary coup, were training their Meo forces and raising the number from 3000 to 15,000 throughout all of Laos. A training school was even setup at Long Cheng which was not only for military training but also for giving instruction in spying and sabotage. Another was established in Lopboury, Thailand with experts finalizing training in Japan and the United States.41 But the Meo were not entirely faithful to western aims. It didn’t take long before the Pathet Lao understood everything about the Meo, their training and habits which would naturally reduce their effectiveness.
Looking at the Laotian situation objectively, it is difficult to say that the North Vietnamese were wrong in using Laos as a route to attack South Vietnam. Burchett succinctly writes, “…an installation on Laotion territory, directing bombing attacks on targets in North Vietnam, the latter had every right under international rules of war to go in and try to knock it out. Furthermore, as 80 per cent of the bombing attacks against the North were flown across Laotian air space from Thailand, North Vietnam also had every right to traverse Laotian ground space to get at those bases in Thailand and try to destroy them.”42 While in this instance he argues in favor against being able to go into Laos to attack a radar station, if the Americans are utilizing any other country other than South Vietnam itself, then the US couldn’t necessarily be surprised that North Vietnam was doing the same thing especially at the height of the war.
The Americans and the west had all but lost the war in Laos. The Pathet Lao continued making incursions until they all but had control. On 5 February 1970 the Americans sent out C-130 planes in an effort to move out the 23,000 civilians stuck in Laotian concentration camps. The scattering of civilians was an effort to save their lives before a bombing raid on the 13th. This one utilized heavy artillery and 400 fighter-bombers attacking “North Vietnamese troops, trucks and supply lines in Laos.” B-52s would also be sent the following day.43 But these were desperate attempts within Laos and in the dying days of the Vietnam war. While the Pathet Lao had been ousted from the Plain of Jars, they would reaffirm control over the area 21 February within hours of the attack, proving just how fruitless the efforts of the Americans were throughout their entire Laotian endeavor.
When the Vietnam War ended, so did any semblance of a neutral government. The Communists seized control immediately in 1975 and refused to look back. There were numerous agricultural problems due to logistics, weather and blockades. Some of this was also self-inflicted with burdensome taxes upon even the lowest earners of the nation. It became such a problem that in December 1976 Phoumi Vongivichit spoke, “Some people have rejected the collection of agricultural taxes. They want the government to pay these taxes and the people not to pay for anything. However, they say the country must be built.”44 But the people had been through decades long war going back to before World War II. In addition, they were not a rich people even then but quite backwards, having only their first printing press established in the 1920s. Literacy, education and money was low. And the government managed to somehow make it worse.
The standard of living dropped throughout the country, principally in cities. The educated fled. There were tens of thousands of refugees who tried to escape through the borders of Laos after the occupation of the government. This created a swift brain drain of what little educated elite the country had obtained. What had taken generations to built up, had been lost virtually overnight.
The Pathet Lao and Communist government showed its destructive forced by ripping down old statues to the previous government and to the preceding monarchy. Of the former King of Bassac, Khamsouk (1863-1900) was erected by Boun Oum, the Pathet Lao sought to throw this statue into the Mekong River but the people saved it, placing it alongside the main altar for the Buddha in Vat Thong.45 Other statues and the like weren’t so lucky.
Without a victory in Vietnam, Laos was a foregone conclusion. There was virtually nothing that was going to prevent it from going Communist, the only argument could’ve been if it would fall into the Soviet or the Chinese camp. But after receiving so many donations from the Soviets and having a violent Vietnam on its doorstep, there was little Laos could do even if it had wanted. Laos, guided by the Communist Pathet Lao, guided the country directly into near-permanent poverty and put the nation in a puppet-like status with the Vietnamese and have yet to escape this condition, and seemingly, have no desire to even try.
1 The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance p 155
2 Apprentice Revolutionaries pp 13-4
3 The Second Indochina War p 94
4 Apprentice Revolutionaries p 23
5 Before the Quagmire p 19
6 ibid. pp 20-1
7 ibid. p 34
8 ibid. pp 34-5
9 ibid. pp 367
10 ibid. p 42
11 ibid. p 62
12 The Second Indochina p 127
13 ibid. p 127-8
14 ibid. 128
15 ibid. 128
16 American Policy Toward Laos p 204
17 ibid. p 205
18 ibid. p 211
19 ibid. p 217
20 ibid. p 218
21 Before the Quagmire p 246
22 ibid. pp 251-2
23 The Bay of Pigs
24 Before the Quagmire pp 253-4
25 The Second Indochina War p 138
26 ibid. p 139
27 The Key To Failure p 12
28 ibid. p 26
29 ibid. pp 37-8
30 ibid. p 60
31 ibid. p 121
32 ibid. 146
33 Before the Quagmire pp 261-2
34 ibid. p 265
35 ibid. p 266
36 ibid. p 266
37 ibid. p 266-7
38 The Second Indochina War p 160
39 American Policy Toward Laos p 293
40 ibid. p 294
41 The Second Indochina War p 160
42 ibid. p 179
43 ibid. p 175-7
44 Laos: Beyond the Revolution p 94
45 The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance pp 117-8
Brown, MacAlister, and Joseph J. Zasloff. Apprentice Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Laos, 1930-1985. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1986.
Burchett, Wilfred G. Second Indochina War: Cambodia and Laos Today. London: Lorrimer Publishing Ltd., 1970.
Evans, Grant. The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance Laos since 1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʿi Press, 1998.
Goldstein, Martin E. American Policy Toward Laos. Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973.
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Joiner, Dustin. “The Bay of Pigs: How Kennedy Failed Cuba and the Spirit of America.” Just About History, May 12, 2022. https://justabouthistory.com/2022/05/12/the-bay-of-pigs-how-kennedy-failed-cuba-and-the-spirit-of-america/.
Rust, William J. Before the Quagmire American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
Zasloff, Joseph Jermiah, and Leonard Unger, eds. Laos: Beyond the Revolution. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991.
Header Picture by Dustin Joiner. Copyright 2023.