353. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State0

1534. The seizure of Nam Tha and its subsequent rapid exploitation by PL/VM forces has transformed what just prior to May 5 had begun to be a somewhat encouraging situation, into a dangerous and ugly one. The collapse of the FAR on their retreat from Nam Tha has left the whole of northwest Laos open to PL/Vietminh seizure at their option. It will also have its effect elsewhere in the country, as the defeat of these relatively [Page 736] elite troops will add to the legend of Vietminh-Pathet Lao invincibility which already so greatly handicaps us.

There is no assurance (in fact the atmosphere at Khang Khay as reported by returning visitors of all kinds is quite the contrary) that the PL/VM will not continue its exploitation of this military advantage, in the south as well as in the northwest. Investiture of, if not attack upon, Ban Houei Sai now appears imminent, as does placing of hostile troops in a position to dominate Luang Prabang (for example, the interdiction in force of the river at Pak Beng). Seizure of Saravane and Attopeu, further activity in the Bolovens Plateau and pressures north of Paksane, cannot be ruled out. In all this, of course, the presence of the Vietminh in large numbers is of controlling importance.

On the psychological and political side, the continued suspension of US aid and the fact that the Communists have blatantly breached the cease-fire apparently with impunity, adds to a general sense of frustration which can not but have its effect on the FAR as well as in political circles.

The cumulative effect of these factors, added to the known weakness of the FAR in relation to the forces opposing them and the disadvantages of their defensive position, would indicate that as a practical matter Laos is now in a position where it can be overrun at any time and to the extent of the other side’s choosing. This choice will be a PL/ Vietminh choice, since the neutralists in Khang Khay now appear to have little or no military or political influence, especially in absence of Souvanna. Politically these developments cast a shadow over the incipient negotiations for a coalition government, since they place the RLG in the position of negotiating under a gun, reinforce their suspicions about the good faith of the other side and send the RLG to the negotiating table in a greatly weakened physical and psychological position.

The refusal of the Soviets thus far to help rectify this situation is entirely consistent with the theory (Hong Kong’s 1110 to the Dept)1 reinforced in my mind by Abramov’s departing talks with the British and French Ambassadors (Embtel 1446)2 that the Soviet desire for a peaceful settlement here has, to say the least, substantially diminished. What this attitude really means and how the problem which it presents fits into the overall scheme of our relations with the Soviet Union is, of course, beyond my sphere of knowledge or responsibility. But so far as Laos is concerned, and I would think also our other Asian friends, I do not see how we can let this breach of cease-fire agreement and personal undertakings go without some form of positive reaction if the Russians remain [Page 737] indifferent to our protests and particularly if PL/VM military activity expands. If we do not react in some convincing way further aggression will be encouraged. We have certainly shown our good faith by wide-spread and almost Herculean efforts to bring about the peaceful solution for which the framework has been hammered out, in apparent good faith, at Geneva. These efforts have now been greatly compromised. If they no longer want a settlement, all our efforts will be unavailing. If they do want a settlement some action by US should help.

It seems clear that whatever we do in reaction to the breach of the cease-fire, we should continue in every way possible to stimulate and nourish the exchanges between Phoumi and Souvanna. We should emphasize to each that the developments at Nam Tha vividly emphasize the need for a speedy political settlement. I have taken this line with Phoumi with the encouraging results reported Embtel 1530.3

I would hope that pressures would also be brought upon Souvanna and everything possible done to get him back to Laos as soon as possible.

If it is not already too late, we should also give every possible assistance to the reorganization, re-equipping and retraining of the FAR forces which escaped from Nam Tha and support to these and other FAR troops—in event forces of other side do not voluntarily withdraw in response to diplomatic pressures now being exerted—in any effort which MAAG considers reasonable then [that?] they may make to recover at least some of ground lost since cease-fire breach. Same should hold for any effort to drive the enemy out of Pak Beng in order to free river access to Luang Prabang for food which MAAG considers reasonable. I have not great confidence that this will produce such military result, but I feel we should do this for its effect on the Russians, Souphanouvong, the Lao conservatives, and the public. Phoumi should be informed that this sawport [sic] is with the condition that he must at the same time continue and accelerate the discussions with Souvanna. [Page 738] By the same token I think it should be made known that we are also accelerating our military aid to other areas in which the FAR is threatened e.g. Saravane, and improving our techniques for ensuring its more effective use.

I think Souvanna should be urged to declare himself publicly as disapproving this breach of the cease-fire. This would be valuable support to Lord Home’s efforts. (Morsky seemed surprised and much impressed when Mayrand told him that Souvanna had stated his disapproval of this action.) While risking trouble with Souphanouvong this should have some effect on the Russians and would help with RLG.

The $64 question, of course, is whether we should, in the light of the events of the past few days, resume our economic aid to the RLG and if so to what extent and under what conditions.

Sarit has suggested (Bangkok’s 1691 to Dept)4 that we do so as soon as we have some agreement which we consider reliable with Phoumi (and hopefully with Souvanna also) as to the basis on which a coalition government could be formed. Presumably in such case we would simply inform the Soviet Union that having carried out our obligations in good faith by pressures upon Phoumi and having been rewarded by this clear breach of the cease-fire, we feel released from these obligations and while continuing to work for a negotiated Souvanna settlement we plan to resume aid since we cannot accept a position in which advantage is taken of our good faith.

We have also toyed with the idea that if the other side continues their military pressures and tripartite negotiations fail or cannot be arranged, there might be reorganization of the RLG to eliminate weak and undesirable members, perhaps with a new Prime Minister, pledged to a policy of national reconciliation with Souvanna and Souphanouvong (see Embtel 1457).5 I have not thought through the mechanics, implications or even the possibility of such a move, but believe it to be an idea which deserves careful and rapid study. It might, if it proved feasible and were properly handled, provide a means of holding negotiations for a Souvanna government, and while saving face all around, permit the resumption of the economic support which this country is beginning sorely to need.

I have not had time to think all these matters through nor the advantage of your thoughts as to next steps. Events may well overtake the above recommendations in a few hours or days. Nevertheless, I consider the situation here serious and submit these thoughts for consideration [Page 739] in the light of our overall strategy and expert views as to Soviet angles.

I think it unlikely that we can achieve our objective of a government in which neutralists and anti-Communist forces will have sufficient influence to have a chance of keeping this country really neutral if we do not react in some unmistakable fashion should the other side refuse to act in response to our protests on the seizure of Nam Tha.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/5–1062. Secret; Niact. Repeated priority to Bangkok, London, Paris, Saigon, Geneva for Fecon, CINCPAC for POLAD, and Moscow.
  2. Dated April 24. (Ibid., 751J.00/4–2462)
  3. Dated April 8. (Ibid., 751J.00/4–862) On the brighter side, we have the fact that Souvanna has declared himself, at least privately, in opposition to this breach of the cease-fire and in favor of a restoration of status quo at the time of the cease-fire. We should exploit this as much as we can. Phoumi has indicated a willingness to continue, again at least privately, his efforts to bring Souvanna back with a view to serious tripartite negotiation. (I confess that I am surprised by this reaction from Phoumi as I expected a declaration that the seizure of Nam Tha had demonstrated Souvanna’s impotence, Souphanouvong’s bad faith, and the worthlessness of Soviet assurances and rendered further negotiations out of the question.)
  4. See footnote 4, Document 346.
  5. Document 337.
  6. Dated April 30. (Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/4–3062)