351. Memorandum From Michael V. Forrestal of the National Security Council Staff to President Kennedy0

Meeting on Laos

There will be present at the meeting this afternoon the following: Secretary Ball, Assistant Secretary Harriman, General Taylor, General Decker, Mr. Hilsman, Mr. Bundy.1

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The most recent reports indicate that the situation in Northern Laos is deteriorating rapidly. Ban Houei Sai may already have fallen (Vientiane 1529 attached).2 This city is on the Mekong River at the Thai border. CAS and Ambassador Brown report that other areas are threatened (see CIA 32201 attached).3

In view of this situation the State Department, Governor Harriman concurring, has prepared a discussion paper (attached) recommending that the U.S. make certain military moves designed to impress the Russians and Chinese with the seriousness with which we view the situation. The recommendations are, first, to move a naval task force into the Gulf of Siam, and second, to send the 1000-man battle group now in Thailand up to the border opposite Vientiane.

Such steps would be designed to impress the Russians and Chinese with our concern without at the same time threatening China’s sensitive interest in the northern provinces or leading Phoumi to believe that we are about to pull his chestnuts out of the fire.

If such actions are taken, the question arises of what to do if they failed to achieve the desired result of re-establishing a cease fire. I do not believe that you have to make a decision on this point, since the type of action suggested by State does not commit us to a follow up.4 Whether or not we make a show of resistance, we are going to get a black eye if the Communists take over the country.

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Discussion Paper for White House Meeting, May 10, 1962


  • Laos

We believe that the deliberate violation of the cease-fire in Laos and the continuing military encroachments raise the possibility that the Communists may move on toward a military takeover of most of the country. We believe that fear of US intervention has in the past been the principal factor deterring the Communists from more aggressive military actions in Laos. We also believe recent actions imply a downgrading in their estimate of the risk of US intervention to check them and that a further downgrading is likely unless the United States takes action to reestablish the deterrent.

We have prepared for your consideration the following discussion of the current situation in Laos and its implications for US policy.5


We conceive present US objectives to be:

To prevent a Communist takeover of all of Laos.
If possible, to avoid putting US forces in major combat in Laos while seeking a political settlement through an agreed neutralization formula or a de facto partition.


The immediate problem is to obtain prompt reestablishment of an effective cease-fire at a minimum along a new line reflecting the existing situation.
This is a prerequisite to further consideration of, let alone progress toward, a government of national union and neutralization of Laos.
It is also a prerequisite to the major alternative course, if a government of national union and neutralization prove impossible, of seeking stabilization in a de facto partition.
To reestablish a cease-fire the primary requirement is to reinvigorate the US deterrent, and make it a more effective factor in Communist calculations than it apparently is at present.
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Phoumi indirectly invited the Nam Tha attack but the Pathet Lao/Viet Minh success means the probable loss of all of Northern Laos. The RLG is losing its best battalions.
Phoumi’s support within the RLG will probably be weakened unless there is evidence of increased US support for him or diminished US interest in a government of national union. RLG moderates will look to the US to make a decision on whether to continue to pursue a government of national union seriously. Souvanna’s impotence has been demonstrated, so there will be less desire for coalition solutions. However, if the US shows clear intention to bring about a government of national union, RLG moderates will be more receptive to US interest in replacing Phoumi.
Communist subversion in northeast Thailand through a newly established corridor in northwest Laos may well be begun with increasingly grave effects on Thai security.


The Communist action raises doubts that the communists are still seriously interested in a government of national union. However, we believe the Communists and particularly the Soviets still prefer a negotiated settlement to an all-out military solution.
However, the success of Nam Tha is being pursued with further encroachments in northern Laos and, in the absence of effective RLG resistance or convincing evidence of US determination to intervene if necessary, it is impossible to say with any assurance where these encroachments will stop.
The Chinese Communists are undoubtedly pleased at obtaining a Communist-controlled buffer zone along the entire Laos border and will be opposed to any Communist retreat from the Nam Tha area.
We do not believe the Communists (including the Chinese) want to accept any significant risk of US intervention in defense of the RLG. Nor do we believe that the Communists will be provoked into further escalation by US moves that clearly do not threaten their position in North Vietnam or Northern Laos but point only to a determination to defend that portion of Laos now held by the RLG. Evidence of this level of US determination would, we believe, simply make them more cautious.


Adoption of courses such as the following would, we believe, result in a new cease-fire and a temporary stabilization of a new de facto partition without precluding the possibility of continuing to seek a government of national union and neutralization of Laos: [Page 733]

We should notify the Soviets, Souvanna, and Souphanouvong that we are still committed to the idea of negotiations for a neutral Laos through the agreed mechanism of a government of national union, but we cannot tolerate unilateral Communist military advances.
This diplomatic approach, to be effective, must be backed by plausible evidence that the US will not tolerate a Communist military takeover. The following moves are proposed:
Initiate appropriate 7th Fleet movements toward the Gulf of Siam (including special forces from Okinawa), as in 1961.
Send the US battle group now in the Korat area of Thailand (about 1,000 men) to the Thai border opposite Vientiane seeking parallel Thai action. Plan with the Thais for possible future joint action.
Toward the longer range objective of facilitating possible Thai participation in action in Laos, improved communications within Thailand are required. Roads to the Mekong River loop are critical to operations in that area of Laos (Sayaboury Province). So are access routes from Thailand to Southern Laos. Steps should be initiated toward improving these communications.
Begin on longer range improvements in port and transit facilities in Northern South Vietnam which would be needed for access to and support of possible operations in Southern Laos.


If US actions of the sort described above have the effect we expect, the way will be open to further attempts to obtain a government of national union and agreed international neutralization of Laos. The following additional moves should be taken:

Get Souvanna to return immediately to Laos.
Increase pressure on Phoumi to enter realistic negotiations.
At the same time take immediate steps designed progressively to undermine Phoumi’s prestige and political influence and to encourage opposition to Phoumi especially in the Assembly and the Army—laying the groundwork by these and certain other actions for Phoumi’s removal and replacement.
Consideration should also be given to the manner of notifying SEATO, and to the question of what role SEATO should play in any possible future moves.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, Countries, Laos Security, 4/16/62–5/10/62. Top Secret. Drafted by Forrestal.
  2. In a telephone conversation between Ball and Bundy, May 8, 6:20 p.m., Ball stated that the President indicated he wanted to have a meeting to talk about Laos. Bundy remarked that “The President shares Averell’s view we have to keep the hook to Moscow on this. This is a violation of the ceasefire.” (Memorandum of telephone conversation, May 8; ibid., Ball Papers, Laos)
  3. Dated May 10, received at 8:37 a.m.; not printed.
  4. Not printed.
  5. At the White House daily staff meeting on the morning of May 9, with Bundy presiding, the following discussion on Laos took place:

    “Laos: Forrestal said there is some thinking that the Russians and Communists were misled by the U.S.’s letter to the King which said we would not intervene in Laos. Forrestal wondered whether we could move a battle group to Vientiane as an indication of our determination. Kaysen said that the war game demonstrated that when we did this it led to a partition of Laos, and he didn’t want this. He thought it was more useful to consider what we could do to pressure Moscow and Hanoi and to take certain steps within Laos short of intervention. He was skeptical of what we could do except to just hold South Laos. Clifton chimed in, saying you could put 30,000 troops into Laos and accomplish nothing, besides, Congress wouldn’t support it; the best thing is to just let it boil.” (Memorandum for the Record, May 9; National Defense University, Taylor Papers, White House Daily Staff Meetings, May to Sept. 1962)

  6. Sections I–IV of this paper are derived in most part from a memorandum from Hilsman to Harriman, May 9. (Department of State, EA/Laos Files: Lot 66 D 457, 400.12 Laos 62, INR)