413. Memorandum of Conversation0
- Meeting with Prince Souvanna Phouma1
- His Highness Prince Souvanna Phouma, Prime Minister of the Royal Government of Laos
- His Excellency Quinim Pholsena, Minister of Foreign Affairs
- The President
- Hon. W. Averell Harriman, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs
- Mr. M.V. Forrestal, White House Staff
- Mr. H.L.T. Koren, Director, Office of Southeast Asian Affairs
The President told the Prime Minister he was very glad he had come to the United States since he was anxious to talk with him and find out how the United States could help make the Geneva Agreements a success and also assist Souvanna in his tasks. Souvanna replied that he was very pleased at the opportunity to thank the President personally for the President’s understanding and support of his policy of neutrality which he had consistently pursued.
The President said it was too bad that the United States and other Governments had not supported this policy of neutrality more actively during the late 1950’s. From the beginning his administration had pursued the goal of a neutral and independent Laos and was now committed to and very closely identified with Souvanna, his policy and his Government. This Administration policy had been under some opposition within the United States and the prestige of the United States was now tied to this policy, so we were most anxious for it to be successful.[Page 875]
The President asked Souvanna the following three questions:
- How did he feel integration of the Armed Forces would take place.
- What would happen politically. (The President noted that the Communists seemed to be working very hard already. It was important for the non-Communists to function effectively.)
- How did Souvanna view the role of the ICC. (The President said it would be a very serious situation for us if the Lao Agreements did not mean the closing of the corridor but should open the way for greater infiltration.)
Souvanna said his reputation and his honor were at stake in the implementation of the Geneva Agreements. Regarding the specific questions he replied as follows.
- Integration. It was not easy to bring together those who had been fighting each other. He would appeal to the good sense and patriotism of all. There would be no “private armies.” He visualized gradual integration and also a large scale civic action program using the troops for public works programs. As integration progressed so would demobilization. The National Army would have a strength of 15 to 20 thousand.
- ICC. Souvanna said he would make maximum use of the ICC in accordance with the Agreements. He visualized the ICC as the arbiter between the three Armed Forces but he hoped he would not have to appeal to the Commission to arbitrate over an extended period. Its major role was to check on foreign Armed Forces and keep them out of the country.
- Political Situation. Souvanna’s idea is to form a single non-Communist political party. Disunity among the non-Communists would mean defeat. Phoumi could not win politically and the NLHX did not want to. In answer to the President’s question as to why the PL would not wish to win, Souvanna said that according to the Lao constitution the King would have to choose the Prime Minister from the winning party. The PL realized that the West would not accept them. Similarly the other side would not accept Phoumi; therefore, the only hope was a Prime Minister from the neutral party. The President agreed, but expressed concern that demobilized PL were already carrying out political operations to reverse the situation and gain ascendancy. Souvanna felt they would not be successful since a major part (80%) of the population was behind him and against policies of the Pathet Lao.
The President said we intended to withdraw our MAAG people in accordance with the Agreements. We were more conspicuous than the Viet Minh and our withdrawal would be obvious. Did Souvanna think there would be any problem with the Viet Minh withdrawal? In reply, Souvanna said he had been disturbed over this question but on his June [Page 876] visit to Hanoi, Pham Van Dong had assured him that he would do nothing to make it difficult for Souvanna internally or externally. Souvanna had asked Pham whether he had sent troops to South Viet-Nam. Pham had answered he had sent no troops but had helped the South Viet-Namese who had revolted against Diem with cadres. The President said that the difference between cadres and troops was only a matter of dialectics. Souvanna said that he did not think that the Viet Minh would use the corridor to send troops, since it would be easy to control this.
The President asked Souvanna his opinion as to why the Communist side accepted a neutral Laos since communism traditionally pushed outward whenever it could. Souvanna said they needed peace. Both Mao and Chou En-lai2 had told him they feared US presence in Laos and needed a buffer between SEATO and themselves. They had consistently repeated this, and that they needed time to consolidate and build their regime. Souvanna could not guess how long this would last but he thought perhaps 10 to 15 years, and this time could well be used by Laos.
The President observed that in order to assure that there would be no pressure on Laos from the Communist side we should probably maintain a degree of presence in areas surrounding Laos such as Thailand. If there were a power vacuum in the area the Communists would assuredly move to fill it. Souvanna said that he did not think that SEATO intended to disband, and its continuation (even without its being an official guarantor of Laos) should be enough to restrain the Communists.
Further, he felt that Communist pressure could be controlled. It was a peaceful struggle and could be won in Laos if it were possible, with the help of friendly countries, to raise the standard of living and give the people a chance to work. That, combined with the people’s basically stable nature and respect for the monarchy, would bring victory for him and his policies. He said that the population was not unhappy; however he was concerned over the hill people, 80% of whom were not even earning one kip a day and had barely enough to live on. He wanted to bring them down and establish them on the fertile lands of which there was abundance. He was concerned over his people’s susceptibility to propaganda. Their present orientation might change if they heard propaganda only of one kind. He had in mind using the compulsory military service law to bring young men from the hills and remote districts to the cities for a year to educate them, show them something of modern urban life then to return them home. This would be good propaganda for his government. The President asked whether he was referring to the Meo or others. Souvanna said he was not referring only [Page 877] to the Meos, but to the Khas and all others. There were many tribes in Laos, which in reality was a crossroad of races.
The President inquired when the US prisoners would be released, noting that the Agreements called for their release within 30 days of the signing. Souvanna said he was sure they would be released soon and read a telegram he received from Souphanouvong in Geneva to the President. In the telegram Souphanouvong said he would make double effort despite rains and other difficulties so that US prisoners could be freed as soon as possible.
The President asked Souvanna how the US could be useful in the coming months, for instance to assist in economic programs. Souvanna said that he would take up this question in Vientiane through the normal channels. He wished to restart public works that had been suspended on highways and bridges. He mentioned the previous US commitment to rebuild the Thakek-Paksane road on which the French had agreed to rebuild the bridges. He would look into this when he got back because there were still two months to plan before the end of the rainy season.
Regarding political assistance, Souvanna said he would be very happy if the US could get the Thais to refrain from interference in Lao internal affairs as they had done in the past. If there were unrest in Northeast Thailand it was only a local uprising. The PL had been accused of fomenting this, but it was not true. The President agreed in the importance of non-interference of one country in the affairs of another. There were many problems in the area. We were concerned over the internal security of Thailand. He did not think that the Thais would interfere in Laos and it was important not to give the Thais any occasion to claim subversion from Laos. We were going to work very closely with Souvanna and also with Sarit. In this connection the President said we were taking some more troops out of Thailand, but we were going to continue to assist the Thais since we were convinced that the more stability in Thailand the more stable Laos would be.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/7–2762. Secret. Drafted by Koren and approved by the White House on August 6. Following the meeting, the participants went to a White House luncheon in honor of Souvanna. (Kennedy Library, President’s Appointment Book)↩
- Souvanna Phouma and his party arrived at 5 p.m. on July 26 for a 4-day official visit to Washington. In telegram 105 from Vientiane, July 22, the Embassy listed a series of topics which it recommended that the President and other U.S. officials should raise in their meetings with Souvanna and other Lao officials. Listed as high priority items were non-Communist cooperation in forthcoming elections, Laos’ economic aid relationship with the United States and the Soviet bloc, release of American and Philippine POWs held by the Pathet Lao, Lao cooperation with the ICC, diplomatic recognition to prevent as much contact with the non-Communist world as possible, restoration of the Lao national police, and relief operations, especially to the Meo. (Department of State, Central Files, 033.51J11/7–2262)↩
- Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the Central Committee, and Chou En-lai, Premier of the State Council, People’s Republic of China.↩