129. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Laos


  • Major General Phoumi Nosavan, Deputy Prime Minister of Laos and Minister of National Security and Veterans’ Affairs
  • Brigadier General Ouane Ratrikoun, Chief of Staff of the Lao Armed Forces
  • Sisouk Na Champassak, Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office
  • Tianethone Chantharasy, Chargé d’Affaires a.i., of the Embassy of Laos
  • The President
  • W. Averell Harriman, Ambassador at Large
  • Walter P. McConaughy, Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs
  • Christian G. Chapman, Officer in Charge of Laos Affairs
  • Edmund S. Glenn, Chief of Interpreting Branch of Language Services

After being welcomed by the President, General Phoumi gave him an oral message from the King who was very worried about his health. The King hoped the President would recover promptly. The King also wanted to express his high gratitude for the President’s efforts since assuming office. The King was very touched by the President’s good will in saving Laos from Communist domination. He hoped this collaboration would continue until Laos emerged from its difficult situation. Phoumi then thanked the President in the name of his party and himself for granting them this visit.

The President said he knew Phoumi had been through a difficult time and had acted courageously. The problem now was to find the means of working out a solution for a neutral and fully independent Laos; part of our effort is being carried on in Geneva and part in Laos. The President hoped that Phoumi had good talks with the Secretaries of State and Defense1 and that we could continue to maintain very close contacts, particularly on Phoumi’s coming talks with Souvanna and Souphanouvong.

The President then asked whether Phoumi was continuing to train the FAL in case efforts to find an agreement failed.

[Page 284]

Phoumi answered that he had discussed this matter with the Secretaries of State and Defense and American military leaders.2 He had given them his own personal ideas regarding the solution in Laos and now he wanted to inform the President of the serious concern he felt over the very near future. He considered that a government of national union was only one more possibility for Communist penetration of Laos. If such a government is formed, Phoumi said, they will take measures to continue this penetration. If a government is not formed the RLG will be confronted by a difficult situation. Therefore he requested the President to give exactly his point of view so that on his return to Vientiane he could give a full report to the King.

The President understood that the Secretary of State had discussed these matters in detail and added that our ideas would be the subject of a message which we would send to Ambassador Brown. Given the difficult balance of forces, the President said, we were anxious to have a government that would maintain Lao neutrality and independence. He wanted, therefore, to maintain close contact with the General through Ambassador Brown. The President then asked Phoumi what the military result would be if the cease-fire broke down.

Phoumi answered that he had fruitful conversations with the Chiefs of Staff3 and had given them details on the FAL potential and on that of the enemy. He said that he could maintain the situation if the Viet Minh did not reinforce the other side. However, the RLG could not hold out without supplementary assistance if the enemy received additional aid from the Viet Minh. As far as resolving the Lao problem by peaceful means was concerned, Phoumi said, the Lao foresee a very difficult situation and do not believe in the success of such an approach. At Zurich the other side maintained their position. The RLG, on the other hand, offered a compromise which would be the subject of future discussions. If the President wanted success by peaceful means, Phoumi stated, the RLG would have to try to find a solution.

Then Phoumi bluntly asked what would be the President’s attitude if they accepted a government presided over by Souvanna Phouma.

The President answered that before making a judgment we would have to know the details of the distribution of portfolios. Close contact should be maintained on the subject between the United States and the RLG. Phoumi was better informed and could discuss this matter with Ambassador Brown. He himself, the President said, was not sufficiently aware of the different personalities to make a judgment at this distance. [Page 285] The kind of government we would like to see emerge was one strong enough to insure the independence and neutrality of Laos; that is the objective of our policy, the President said. We want to make every effort to search every avenue of approach. If negotiations break down, we shall then have to re-examine what measures need be taken. The President then asked Phoumi whether any government headed by Souvanna Phouma would remain neutral.

Phoumi said he thought it would be quite difficult. Souvanna is not the true leader of neutralism. He used the Communists to fight the RLG and used Communist arguments to prevent the national reconciliation that could otherwise easily have taken place. That is the reason, Phoumi continued, that the RLG had put forward a proposal for a royal government. Phoumi then inquired whether, if the President could not give them a precise opinion on a Souvanna government, the RLG could count on United States aid to insure the success of the King’s government.

The President reiterated that we would maintain contact with Phoumi in order to be able to evaluate developments. He remarked that the British and French look more hopefully on Souvanna to maintain neutrality than do others. The President then summarized our position: The United States will be influenced by Phoumi’s judgment; the objective is an independent and neutral Laos; the United States wants to maintain intimate contact with the General through Ambassador Brown; Ambassador Harriman will return to Geneva to seek to obtain an effective ICC; the makeup of a future government will depend on the General’s firmness and judgment; we cannot get everything we want in Laos; in view of the military situation, we do not want to resolve the situation by purely military means; we must therefore seek the best arrangement we can obtain; the evolution of the situation will depend on the General, on the FAL, and on the King. One of the difficulties in answering General Phoumi on the question of whether Souvanna might be Prime Minister, the President added, depended in part on whether Phoumi, for instance, obtained the Ministry of Defense. In sum, in judging a new government one had to consider the whole package.

General Phoumi assured the President that he would try to remain as Minister of Defense.

The President continued his summation by saying that we could not give the General precise answers to the questions he raised. We are faced with problems of our own such as relations with our allies the British and French and American public opinion. It is therefore important that we make every effort to find a peaceful solution. The President hoped the General would leave Washington realizing that Laos is a matter of greatest importance to us. Laos and Berlin are two priority problems confronting the President. We cannot make a judgment today and [Page 286] we shall see how things develop at Geneva and in the future conversations among the three Princes.

General Phoumi thanked the President for his very clear explanation and assured him of maintaining close collaboration. He said that he considered Ambassador Brown an “excellent comrade.” He thought the President’s attitude reinforced their position and that they could therefore tackle the problem.

The President again expressed satisfaction in seeing the General. The President knew that the General had a very difficult twelve months, that he was involved right at the site while he, the President, was 8,000 miles away. He therefore recognized the General’s difficult position. Therefore, while Phoumi may not agree and we cannot always do as he wishes, we are conscious of the fact that the General is carrying a very heavy burden and that much hangs on his judgment and vigor. The President realized how difficult the negotiations would be and reminded Phoumi what Talleyrand faced at Vienna when he represented a France which had no power and was in complete collapse after losing a war. Yet Talleyrand succeeded in obtaining a stronger France out of these negotiations. The President added, of course, that France was in a much worse state then Laos is today. Therefore Phoumi, the President said, should conduct his negotiations with perseverance. He hoped that Phoumi might achieve a favorable solution.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Laos: General, Phoumi Visit, 6/29/61–6/30/61. No drafting information appears on the source text, but it was probably drafted by Glenn. The conversation took place at the White House.
  2. For the talk with Rusk, see Document 128. No record has been found of Phoumi’s discussion with McNamara.
  3. Regarding Phoumi’s discussion with U.S. military leaders, see footnote 2, Document 126.
  4. No other record of Phoumi’s meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been found.