378. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Laos1

222. Reference Deptel 696 to Paris rptd Vientiane 196.2 As set forth in reftel important part of US concept during current Lao crisis has been effort avoid military clash between forces which should be preserved for defense against Pathet Lao. Embassy Vientiane has been properly concerned with avoidance of pitched battle for Vientiane and in favor of peaceful resolution which Lao generally desire. Nevertheless important as is avoidance of an armed clash, this objective must remain subordinate to our over-all objectives in Laos and we must continue be alert avoid its becoming an end in itself (which it probably is in case of British, French and Zellweger).

In furtherance our basic purpose preserving independence and integrity of Laos, a key objective must be establishment nominally neutral government friendly to West which will not mortgage itself to bloc or risk security of Kingdom by repetition of earlier fruitless flirtations with Pathet Lao and Viet Minh. Government of Souvanna Phouma as presently constituted would hardly meet this test. Souvanna’s softness as well as his persistent and sometimes deceptive over-optimism need to be balanced by strong Foreign and Defense Ministers even in a government of temporary and provisional character. No one presently in Cabinet fills this specification and its members, except for dangerous Leftist Quinim, are mostly nonentities without prestige or top level experience. Therefore if we have to resign ourselves to working with Souvanna for a time, we will need at very least a substantial reshuffling of his Cabinet. This could perhaps best be arranged coincident with resolution of current crisis (as indeed your 3553 suggests).

Another factor in situation is importance of avoiding any tendency to equate Phoumi with Kong Le as merely rival military leader. We remain most uncertain as to whether Kong Le has been truly downgraded as “adjutant” to General Ouan. We also find it hard to reach any conclusion as to Ouan’s true position in relation to Souvanna, Phoumi, King Le and the coup.

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Another key objective in resolution of present crisis is preservation of Thai and Vietnamese faith in efficacy of US alliance. In our efforts armed clash which would only increase opportunities for Pathet Lao we must take care not have it appear to Thai and Vietnamese that we are any less staunch in our determination to contain Communists in FE than we were in 1959 and 1958. Therefore in seeking to play our hand adroitly in present confused Lao situation, we must at same time take care to reassure Thai and Vietnamese, because their reactions are of basic importance in connection with whole free world posture in Southeast Asia. It is in fact so important that we carry conviction with them that we must if necessary risk displeasing UK and French whose attitudes suggest they would go a long way to avoid trouble in Laos. They do not carry major responsibility in FE and we must view with concern any proposals from them which would make our basic task more difficult either now or later.

We are not overlooking fact that naive appeal, if such it be, of Kong Le for cessation of fractricidal strife, elimination of foreigners and friendship with everyone strikes popular note in Vientiane and perhaps more widely in Laos. His youthful and demagogic appeal to neutralism is in fact most dangerous and particularly so in a country situated as is Laos. Whether his coup was a reflection of naivete and irresponsibility or is allied with more sinister motivations, elimination of Kong Le from position of power would seem to be requirement for any resolution of crisis. This especially pertinent if Souvanna is to head government. General Phoumi has never had broad popular support even in Army. However events past two weeks may have enhanced his prestige. Whenever feasible we should exert our influence to associate with him maximum number of Lao who do command popular respect and liking.

If situation not soon resolved, foregoing considerations likely lead us to conclusion that our policy should evolve further in direction of forthright support of Phoumi. If PL and Viet Minh have thus far refrained from overt exploitation of Laos situation, one reason could be that they are satisfied with situation to date and do not wish provoke us into open support of Phoumi.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/8–2060. Secret; Priority. Drafted by Parsons, cleared with SEA, and approved by Dillon. Repeated to Paris, London, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Canberra, and CINCPAC for POLAD.
  2. In this telegram, August 18, the Department explained to six interested Embassies including Paris that U.S. policy sought to maintain the maximum integrity of the anti-Communist groupings in Laos and to minimize the opportunities of the Pathet Lao to exploit the confusion resulting from the surprise capture of Vientiane by Kong Le’s forces. (ibid., 661.51J/8–1860; included in the microfiche supplement)
  3. See footnote 2, supra.