Learn about the beta

377. Letter From the Ambassador in Laos (Unger) to the Secretary of Defense (McNamara)1

Dear Mr. Secretary: I very much appreciated the chance to talk with you last week and to review what we here can usefully do about the problem of Viet Minh infiltration in South Viet-Nam via Laos.

Toward the close of our conversation, you very naturally asked why it is that Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma would react so negatively to South Vietnamese and U.S. intervention in Laos to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail when he well knows that the North Vietnamese are every day violating the Geneva Accords by their use of the trail. There was little time to pursue that question, an important one, and I would like to try therefore to explain to you Souvanna's thinking in this regard as I understand it.

His entire emphasis is, as it has been for some time, to keep his country together and to bring to an end the civil war which has been plaguing it on and off for 20 years or more. Souvanna is persuaded that the civil war would long since have come to an end if it were not [Page 740]for outside stimulation and he recognizes that the most persistent and pernicious stimulation has come from the communist side. The Geneva Accords were specifically designed to bring such interference to an end and it is on these Accords that he, and increasingly other Lao as well, rest their hopes for their country's future.

The Prime Minister is optimistic but he is not naive, and he is well aware of the Viet Minh failure to live up to the Geneva Accords. He knows in general at least about their use of Laotian territory in their aggression against South Viet Nam. While he deplores this, his central aim remains, as noted, to hold his country together and damp down if not extinguish the civil war. Therefore, he has the most profound misgivings about any actions which risk making Laos again an international battleground, however much he might recognize Viet Minh responsibility for the problem. I am sure he is persuaded, and past history supports his view, that South Vietnamese or American intervention would not end the problem but would more probably again lead to a new round of fighting from which the Lao would be the principal losers.

This does not mean, in my opinion, that we have to stand by and take it. As you know, I am persuaded there is a good deal we can accomplish through covert teams which are Laotian, even though considerably supported and guided by us. I am persuaded, too, that there is a chance of modifying Souvanna's view, as outlined above, to the extent we can have the Viet Minh intervention in Laos publicly exposed and condemned by responsible international authority, such as the ICC. This is easier said than done as the record of the past 18 months shows, but I believe that international condemnation of the Viet Minh might give Souvanna more confidence than he has today that they can be opposed, perhaps even with some outside help, without risking escalation and a new war in Laos. We are, of course, working on both these lines; meanwhile we will also do our best to help with those of the other actions discussed during our recent meeting which do not appear seriously to risk the undoing of the Geneva Accords and the structure built upon their foundation.

Sincerely,

Leonard Unger
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 69-A-3131, Vietnam 381. Secret. A note on the source text indicates that McNamara saw this letter.