110. Letter From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Harriman) to the Director of the United States Information Agency (Murrow)1

Dear Ed:2

Thank you for your note of January 5,3 indicating your concern about the situation in Laos and forwarding Mr. Moore’s memorandum of December 13, 1962.4

As you are well aware, Laos’ problems continue. The Communists are attempting to secure the political control of the areas they now occupy and to thwart any implementation of the Geneva Agreements5 which might affect their position adversely. They are doing everything they can to divide neutralist support for Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma and to win dissident neutralists over to the Pathet Lao6 cause.

Our efforts, on the other hand, are aimed at building neutralist and conservative support for Prince Souvanna Phouma, and working through the ICC and other appropriate channels to achieve the implementation of the Geneva Agreements. To this end, we are encouraging the ICC to increase its activity in making unrestricted investigations of areas known to contain Vietnamese troop concentrations. The going is slow but we are making some headway and the first investigations, limited though they were, have been made. We have hopes that further investigations at Canadian-Indian initiative will be undertaken shortly.

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The formation of the new coalition government in Laos made it mandatory that we re-examine our aid program to Laos in order to assure that the funds would not be used by the Pathet Lao or for purposes other than those intended. As a result of our re-examination last summer, we decided that the most effective way to provide financial aid to the new government would be a commodity import program by which the U.S. would pay for the costs of essential Lao imports. Accordingly, we have revised our program and have entered into negotiations with the Lao. Partially because of inherent delays in organizing a new program and partially because of Lao hesitation and reluctance to accept certain necessary but very mild controls (which incidentally was as strong among the conservative elements as the left) it has taken considerable time to negotiate. However, as you probably have noted from the newspapers,7 the program is about to be signed and we hope that there will be no further objections and delays. During the period of negotiations the U.S. has continued to provide financial assistance to the Lao government. Since July 1962, 7 million dollars have been placed in the Federal Reserve Bank for use under the new commodity import program, and at the same time, project assistance has been continued without significant interruption.

As Mr. Moore points out in his memorandum, the Communist Minister of Information, Phoumi Vongvichit, has, in recent months, been attempting to take over control of all radio and press facilities in the country. Our policy, consistent with our overall objectives outlined above has been, where possible, to block the Communist’s take over of important informational facilities and to encourage the continuation of their use in the support of Souvanna Phouma and the neutralist leadership of the coalition government. As Minister of Information, however, Phoumi Vongvichit is in an excellent position to exert considerable control over the output of the Lao Presse (a daily news bulletin published by the Ministry), and the Ministry’s radio station, the Lao National Radio. The Country Team is therefore engaged in continuous skirmishes with the Minister over the output of these two facilities and it is perhaps an indication of the success of Ambassador Unger’s recent efforts that Mr. Moore is able to say that the Minister “is so far using them with some caution and not employing them for blatant pro-communist propaganda.”

Phoumi Vongvichit has also been trying to gain control of the U.S. supported Lao Photo Press and the Khao Phap Hob Sapda which is the weekly pictorial news bulletin published by the press. While the [Page 287] Country Team has been careful not to use them in any way which could be criticised by the Communists, these two operations have been extremely effective in providing support to Souvanna Phouma. Mr. Moore’s memorandum describes Phoumi Vongvichit’s intention to force the U.S. to either turn the press over to the RLG (i.e. the Ministry of Information) or make it clear that it is still the property of the U.S. so that the Ministry of Information can take “appropriate steps at the appropriate time.” While Phoumi’s threats are vague (primarily because the physical location of the press in conservative controlled Vientiane makes a Communist takeover at this time extremely difficult) they must be met and countered. By a variety of measures the Country Team in Vientiane has so far succeeded in meeting these threats and in preventing the takeover of the press by the Communists. Moreover, in anticipation of a possible Communist takeover the Country Team has arranged to limit the amount of supplies kept on hand at the press. In case the Communists do take it over, limited supplies and the withdrawal of U.S. technical assistance will stop the press at least until bloc technicians and supplies can replace our own. In an effort to find a satisfactory long range solution to this problem, Ambassador Unger has suggested to Souvanna Phouma the formation of a tripartite committee with an American observer to supervise the output of the press. Phoumi Vongvichit naturally opposes this because it would not give him unfettered control of the press but Souvanna has taken rather well to the idea.

The success of our efforts to achieve a stable and neutral Laos and to so avoid a costly war under disadvantageous conditions will, of course, depend a great deal on our success in stiffening and bolstering the Prime Minister. Souvanna must be encouraged to take firm control of the coalition and we must be flexible enough to provide him quickly with the assistance he needs to deal with the Pathet Lao. In this effort we will need all of our resources and cannot be hamstrung by mere name and form. If it will better achieve our objectives to change the name of USOM (our AID mission in Laos) or the Air America Corporation (our air supply organization) then we must be willing to consider it and if necessary do it quickly.

We are involved in what I believe will be a long and frustrating series of battles with people like Phoumi Vongvichit and Quinim. We will succeed if we continue to work with all the means at our disposal to stiffen Souvanna and block the Communist’s attempts to expand their position at the expense of the conservatives and neutralists. An extremely important factor in preventing the Pathet Lao from resorting to open warfare to achieve its goals is the Soviet Union’s concern least the struggle in Laos escalate into something larger. It remains to be seen just how the present Sino-Soviet difficulties will affect this situation [Page 288] but we have reason to believe that the Soviets desire to keep the struggle on a political basis. The situation is far from resolved and our problems continue; but it is by no means a lost cause as yet.

I appreciate your taking time to write to me on this and would like to hear how you feel we can best achieve our objectives, particularly with regard to the informational aspects of the problem.8

Sincerely,

W. Averell Harriman 9
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, DIRCTR Subj Files, 1963–69, Bx 6–29 63–69: Acc: #72A5121, Entry UD WW 257, Box 8, Field—Far East (IAF) 1963. Confidential. In the upper right corner of the first page of the letter is a notation in Murrow’s hand requesting “Pass to D.W.” To the right of Murrow’s notation, Wilson wrote his initials “DW.” Next to Wilson’s initials, Harris also wrote his initials “RH,” and the date “1/29.” Above Murrow’s notation, Ryan signed his initials “HAR.” Below it, an unknown hand wrote: “copy passed to IAFDan Moore.”
  2. Next to “Dear Ed,” Harriman wrote: “(Note last Page WAH).” For Harriman’s note, see footnote 8, below.
  3. See Document 103.
  4. Printed as an enclosure to Document 103.
  5. The Geneva Agreements of July 23, 1962, brought to a close the hostilities between left and right wing factions in Laos. It called for the country to become neutral and for the formation of a tripartite government that represented the conflicting factions. It also authorized the International Control Commission to observe violations of the agreement. The agreement, however, did not hold and the situation in Laos continued to deteriorate over the course of 1963. For documentation on the agreement and the crisis in Laos, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XXIV, Laos Crisis.
  6. The Pathet Lao was the Communist, nationalist faction in Laos that formed in the 1950s. For information, see Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. XXI, East Asian Security; Cambodia; Laos, Document 306.
  7. Presumable reference is to newspaper articles such as the following: “U.S. Resumes Laos Aid, But Tightens Grip,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, January 21, 1963, p. 3; and “Laos Leftists Again Assail Aid Mission,” The Washington Post, January 24, 1963, p. B8.
  8. In 1950, the Central Intelligence Agency purchased the assets of Civil Air Transport (CAT) from Claire Chennault, a renowned U.S. military aviator and leader of the famous “Flying Tigers” airborne military unit in China during World War II. CAT was used by the CIA to fly covert missions throughout Asia, but especially in Southeast Asia, in the guise of a private commercial air carrier. In 1959, CAT changed its name to Air America and continued to operate until the CIA shuttered the enterprise in 1976.
  9. Harriman signed “Averell” above his typed signature. Below his typed signature, he wrote the following: “P.S. As a matter of policy decision, we have transferred the shooting war in which the side we were backing was getting licked in to a political war in which [the words “we can’t” are crossed out] our side can’t do worse. Tell your man to put all his energies & imagination into waging the political battle—the outcome of which is still in doubt. W.A.H.”