22. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 50-61


The Problem

To analyze the basic political and social conditions and trends in mainland Southeast Asia;2
To identify potential political-military crisis situations and to estimate probable developments over the next year or so in domestic stability and international orientation of the countries of the area; and
To estimate the probable effects on the peoples and governments of these countries in the event there were significant Communist gains in Laos or South Vietnam.


Most Southeast Asian countries are either now experiencing or will encounter in the next year or two serious political crises arising out of foreign intervention, domestic strains, or a complex of factors attributable to their basically unstable and unhealthy political, social, and economic structure. By far the most serious problems are the deteriorating situation in Laos and the mounting Communist threat and precarious governmental situation in South Vietnam. (Paras. 22-68)
The Pathet Lao probably have a greater military capability than they have yet chosen to exercise. They could sharply step up the action at any time and probably achieve a series of local victories. This would increase the likelihood of the disintegration of the Laotian Army and the subsequent collapse of the non-Communist position. The Laotian crisis has become a matter of contention among the major powers and its resolution rests primarily in non-Laotian hands. (Paras. 28-30)
In South Vietnam, the situation of the Diem government seems likely to become increasingly difficult, not only because of rising Communist guerrilla strength and declining internal security but also because of widening dissatisfaction with Diem’s government. Since the coup attempt of November 1960, Diem has reasserted [Page 59] his control of the government and made some cautious moves toward government reform; he has taken action to improve the antiguerrilla capabilities of the army and stepped up military activities against the Viet Cong. Nonetheless, the factors which gave rise to the November 1960 coup attempt still exist, and we believe that the odds favor another coup attempt by non-Communist elements in the next year or so. The Communists would attempt to exploit any new efforts to unseat the government. We are not confident that the army would be able to keep the situation from getting out of hand. (Paras. 36-38)
There is deep awareness among the countries of Southeast Asia that developments in the Laotian crisis, and its outcome, have a profound impact on their future. The governments of the area tend to regard the Laotian crisis as a symbolic test of intentions, wills, and strengths between the major powers of the West and the Communist Bloc. (Para. 69)
Those countries which are in close alignment with the US favor stronger measures to assure at least a non-Communist and preferably an anti-Communist, western-oriented regime in Laos; neutralist Burma and Cambodia, as well as Malaya, favor a neutralist but not Communist-dominated government. These latter governments favor some form of international political agreement to end the crisis. They would be alarmed if Laos were lost under conditions which indicated to them that the US position in the area had gravely weakened. (Para. 70)
The loss of Laos to the Communists, or perhaps even the division of the country, would almost certainly incline the Thai toward accommodation to Communist power in Southeast Asia. A predominantly Communist-controlled Laos would vitally threaten South Vietnam’s independence: it would greatly extend the Communist frontiers with South Vietnam; it would bring substantially greater Communist military power to bear on the crucial Saigon defense complex; and it would greatly facilitate Communist infiltration and subversion. The close proximity of a Communist state would make more difficult Western efforts to starch up local resistance. In short, the loss of Laos would severely damage the US position and its influence in Thailand and South Vietnam. (Para. 72)
The future course of all of the countries of Southeast Asia would be strongly influenced by the actual circumstances in which the loss or division of Laos had occurred as well as the local appraisal of the attitude and actions of the US in response to the situation. The extent to which these countries would go in resisting Bloc pressures or in withstanding local Communist threats would depend in great degree on whether they still assessed that the US could stem further Communist expansion in the area. They would [Page 60] feel more keenly than before a strong temptation to take a neutral position between the two power blocs, even though they recognized that the US is the only country with sufficient power to oppose the Communist Bloc in the area. Although they probably would be deeply disillusioned regarding US resolution after the loss or division of Laos, they would nonetheless welcome demonstrations of US firmness and might in response modify their appraisal of their own future in due course. (Para. 73)
Although the Communist threat to South Vietnam has reached serious proportions, the chances of a Communist takeover in the next year or so are considerably less than they are in Laos. Nevertheless, Peiping and Hanoi almost certainly attach greater importance to their efforts in South Vietnam than they do to their efforts in Laos. US prestige and policy are particularly deeply engaged in South Vietnam. Diem’s policy of close alignment with the US is on trial in the current crisis. All countries of the area would attach great importance to a failure of the South Vietnam Government to cope successfully with the rising tempo of Communist subversion and armed insurrection. If South Vietnam were to fall to the Communists or be forced to swing toward neutralism, the impact upon the countries of Southeast Asia would be similar in kind but considerably more severe than that resulting from the loss or division of Laos. (Para. 74)

[Here follow paragraphs 9-74, a detailed discussion of the question.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, VP Security Files, Nations and Regions Series, Program of Action for Vietnam. Secret. Submitted by the Director of Central Intelligence and concurred in by the U.S. Intelligence Board on March 28.
  2. Laos, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and Malaya. [Footnote in the source text.]