223. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Laos


  • The Secretary
  • Sir David Ormsby-Gore, British Ambassador
  • R.T.D. Ledward, Counselor of British Embassy
  • Charles T. Cross, Officer-in-Charge Laos Affairs

The British Ambassador, who was acting under instructions, called on the Secretary to express British concern over the recent developments in Laos. The Ambassador said that we are now within sight of coming to an agreement in Geneva, but that in order to complete our agreement, a coalition government must be formed in Laos in order to give assent to the decisions of the Conference. Therefore, everything would seem to hinge on how the three princes come to terms in Laos itself. World opinion believes that Phoumi’s reluctance to meet with Souvanna Phouma is the primary cause of holding up the agreement in Laos and the British themselves feel that Phoumi, by using the same excuses he did in 1960 when he refused to join Souvanna in stabilizing the situation in Laos, is contributing to a dangerous situation. There have been breaches of the cease-fire and evidence of increasing military action. There will be a crisis in Geneva unless there is progress in Laos. The Ambassador said that if negotiations collapse under these circumstances and hostilities break out, the UK would have difficulty in intervening militarily and presumes that the US would also. The British wonder whether the time has not come to tell Phoumi bluntly that if hostilities occur, he can expect no US or SEATO support. The next few days are vitally important.

The Secretary replied to this presentation by pointing out that we have gone to considerable lengths in pressing Phoumi to negotiate and to go to the Plaine des Jarres, but we have not seen very much evidence on the other side of any desire to negotiate themselves. He asked whether it was the British view that Phoumi should merely surrender at this point. For example, is the UK content with the 8–4–4 ratio which Souvanna Phouma is proposing? On our part, we do not see how a neutral Laos could come out of Souvanna Phouma’s formulation which [Page 505] does not provide for independent neutral representation from outside of Xieng Khouang. The issue of the non-Xieng Khouang neutrals in the central group actually goes to the heart of the problem of Lao neutrality.

Furthermore, there is the fact that Souphanouvong has not even been willing to make the gesture of going to Luang Prabang. We are taking some chances in pressing Phoumi hard to negotiate and to go to Xieng Khouang. If something happened to him in Xieng Khouang, it would not be the first time the Communists have captured or attacked representatives sent into their area. We are doing what the British would wish to have us do in trying to move negotiations forward, but we must not underestimate the strength of the opposition on the other side.

The Secretary asked whether London felt that, if Souvanna Phouma stands adamantly on the type of slate he has proposed so far, Phoumi must accept. The Ambassador replied cautiously that the British do not regard Souvanna Phouma’s slate as disastrous nor as indicative of a surrender to the other side. The Secretary then said that if Phoumi’s unwillingness to accept this slate as proffered was regarded by all as a demonstration of unwillingness to negotiate on his part, then we are in difficulties. Of course, if he accepted the slate automatically, he could solve everything by merely sending a cable to Souvanna saying so. Finally, the Secretary noted that we would have difficulty in accepting an agreement which we cannot believe would produce a neutral Laos. US public opinion is a very strong factor in our considerations, and how could we go to the US people on such a basis? We might even rather “leave the party” which would mean starting down the slippery slope of forgetting about Southeast Asia.

The Ambassador returned several times to the question of whether or not Phoumi was planning to have negotiations fail so that if hostilities resumed, he could maintain his position with US support. The Secretary replied that this was not the actual choice facing Phoumi. Phoumi must decide whether it was worthwhile from his point of view to play the game further or throw in the sponge. We have pressed Phoumi as hard as we have pressed anyone recently, and he should be under no illusions that we will support him whatever his decision.

In response to the Ambassador’s comments that the Soviets apparently wish for a rapid settlement in Laos and Geneva to avoid hostilities and future embroilment in the area, the Secretary said that after the events of the past spring, the Soviets probably are not overafraid of US intervention.

The Secretary closed with the remark that despite what he said of difficulties and problems involved, the US is actually doing what the British wished in pushing Phoumi forward on negotiations.

  1. Source: Department of State, Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330. Secret. Drafted by Cross and approved in S on November 26.