444. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Laos


  • The United States:
    • The President
    • W. Averell Harriman, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs
    • Leonard Unger, United States Ambassador to Laos
    • Michael V. Forrestal, The White House
  • Laos:
    • His Majesty Sri Savang Vatthana, King of Laos
    • His Highness Prince Souvanna Phouma, Prime Minister of Laos
    • His Royal Highness Prince Tiao Khampan, Laos Ambassador to the United States

After an exchange of pleasantries, the President asked the King about the latter’s impression of his visit in Moscow.

[Page 937]

The King said that the Laotian Delegation had talks with Chairman Khrushchev, President Brezhnev, and other Soviet personalities. The King believes that the Soviets tried to prove their intention to establish a zone of peace in Laos. The popular manifestations in the Soviet Union on the occasion of the visit also had as their theme the desire for peace.

The President said it is our impression that the Pathet Lao does not share such peaceful intentions. Everybody has a lot at stake in Laos, and we feel that the Pathet Lao has not demonstrated its willingness to obtain military and civil integration.

The King said that this is not surprising, since the problem of Indochina has to be considered in its totality. We have tried to remove Laos from the quarrels in the other parts of Indochina, first by isolating it from the French strife with Viet-Nam and later among the Vietnamese themselves. This was tried in the 1954 Geneva conference without full success, however, since this conference did not succeed in embodying the real will of the Lao people. As far as the agreements are concerned, Pathet Lao adherence depends on the solution not only of the purely Lao problem, but also of that of Viet-Nam, the two problems being tied together. It was the will of the United States and of the other signatories of the treaty—at least in appearance—to obtain a neutral Laos. This would be very good if the agreements were respected by everybody. Since the signature of the agreements, however, it has appeared that they might not be respected by all sides. This is because the verification of the withdrawal of foreign troops depends on a government which is tripartite. The source of difficulty is that the verification of the withdrawal of troops can be carried out only on a very small part of the territory of Laos at any one time. Thus, those who do not intend to respect the agreement have every possibility to move their troops from the area about to be inspected and place them temporarily elsewhere. The King has felt already a tendency in this direction and cited as cases in point two investigations of little consequence which have already been undertaken.

The difficulty is that the point of departure is not the same for the two sides. The United States has stated with precision the exact number and location of its military in Laos. The other side said that they had no troops in Laos and therefore verification became immediately necessary. This is an unequal situation.

The President said that the question is now what can the United States do in order to help. What action can be taken to strengthen the friends of the Prime Minister, that is to say, those who represent a neutralist tendency? What for example can be done to help Kong Le, an important support for Prince Souvanna, whose situation at present seems to be exceedingly difficult?

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The King said that up to the present the Crown has kept outside any partisan politics. It will therefore be up to the Prime Minister to say what he wishes, by what means the United States can help him to carry out his tasks, and, as a matter of fact, to save the country, and to carry out his promises made to the entire world, to the King, and to the people of Laos.

As for the Pathet Lao and the Communist Party, it shouldn’t be expected that they will give up their long-range plans which are directed from abroad. It is difficult to see a final solution in Laos without one in Viet-Nam, in spite of the status of neutrality. If the Communists have hidden their troops and made the verification of their withdrawal so difficult it is for the purpose of carrying on their policies in regard to South Viet-Nam, since the easiest route of access is through Laos.

The President said that, in furtherance of the King’s suggestion, he would like to ask the Prime Minister how the latter estimates the present situation. Has the situation remained more or less what it was or has it worsened? What action needs to be taken?

The Prime Minister said that on the whole the situation has not deteriorated. The atmosphere in Vientiane has improved. There were difficulties at the beginning because of a lack of caution on the part of General Phoumi to which the other side reacted. This was when a number of the Prime Minister’s officers as well as Pathet Lao (Neo Lao Hak Xat) soldiers were arrested. These arrests almost led to the break-up of the government. The Prime Minister was forced to make the two sides understand better what the situation was and in particular that as long as the government did not yet have enough power to carry out police functions such incidents would be unavoidable. However, since September, October, or November the atmosphere in Vientiane has improved and there seems to be more reciprocal understanding on both sides (i.e., Neutralist and Phoumi).

As for the remainder of the country, there is no need for alarm. It is true that Neo Lao Hak Xat attempted to destroy neutralist forces so as to face only the Vientiane forces. They failed, however, at Phong Saly as well as at Xieng Khouang, and it is doubtful that they will repeat their attempts. After all they also want peace. They don’t want war to break out again as this time they would be isolated and deprived of all the aid which they were receiving previously.

The fact remains that it is difficult to obtain, from one day to the next, assurance that former jailers and former prisoners will agree among themselves. There is a lack of trust between them. The Pathet Lao do not wish to see the repetition of the events of 1959. They have reproached the Prime Minister for having delivered them through his political actions to the government of Phoui Sananikone in 1958. They do [Page 939] not wish to see this experience repeated, and, as long as the other side keeps its forces, they will find it necessary to keep their own.

As for General Phoumi, there are two difficulties on his side. First, a number of senior officers want to retain their positions. Second, he does not trust the Pathet Lao any more than the Pathet Lao trusts him. This mutual mistrust slows down the task of national integration.

It will be possible, however, to arrive at a solution if everybody puts his cards on the table in good faith. In order to obtain that, a certain amount of pressure on the part of the great powers may be necessary. If the United States puts some pressure on Phoumi while the Soviets put some pressure on the Pathet Lao (as the Prime Minister has requested Chairman Khrushchev to do through the Soviet Ambassador in Vientiane) the situation will improve.

The President said that it seems to us that there exists a possibility of action within Laos itself in order to strengthen the neutralist forces. In order to strengthen these forces it will be necessary for the Prime Minister to make great efforts to create a pole of attraction in the center so as to rally support, thus making the two extremes less tempting.

The Prime Minister said that this is indeed his aim but that he lacks the necessary means to do so. For example, General Phoumi’s troops are paid on time, but General Kong Le’s troops have not been paid for seven or eight months. This is a source of difficulty at present which might be helped by a transfer of funds from General Phoumi. Such help, however, is not easy because if it became known that General Phoumi transfers funds to pay Kong Le’s troops, Prince Souphanouvong would also ask for funds. Where would the money come from? It is for that reason that the Prime Minister has not acted, except, of course, in the case of civil servants. There is no problem in regard to this group since nine-tenths of them, even those in the provinces of Phong Saly, Sam Neua, and Xieng Khouang, were in place before the 1960 event. Where the difficulty resides is in the military, who constitute the only pole of attraction and strength for the Neutralists. That is why additional means are necessary to create a pole of attraction as described by the President.

Ambassador Unger pointed out that since the King has left Laos, General Phoumi has made 40 million kip available to the Kong Le forces.

The King said that of course questions of partisan politics are not within his domain and he always remained above them. He would like to mention, however, as a friend of the United States, that the entire question is not one which is exclusively within the field of partisan politics. There are also racial elements in it, and there are also elements which involve the great powers. The Pathet Lao is not very much under Soviet influence, but is rather dominated by China; China is the third major element in this picture, one which must be taken into account. As [Page 940] for General Phoumi, too severe pressure upon him on the part of the United States might alienate him from the United States. The King does not wish to enter into anything that smacks of partisan politics but he feels that he must draw attention to the fact that the Laotian problem is a part of a broader context.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Laos: General, 1/63–2/63. Secret. Drafted by Edmund S. Glenn and approved by the White House on February 28. According to Kennedy’s appointment book, the meeting ended at 1 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Appointment Book) The Department of State prepared a briefing memorandum for the President in conjunction with the trip of King Savang and Souvanna to Washington, February 25–27. As the briefing paper made clear, Savang and Souvanna were on an initial round of visits to countries which had signed the Geneva Accords of 1962. Immediately before coming to the United States, they were in the Soviet Union. They would next visit Poland, China, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam before returning to Vientiane. (Memorandum from Brubeck to McGeorge Bundy, February 21; Department of State, Central Files, POL 7 Laos)

    On February 25 while the President was meeting with Savang and Souvanna, Rusk met with Foreign Minister Quinim Pholsena. Rusk and Quinim disagreed on their assessments of how well the control mechanism of the Geneva Agreements was working. Rusk specifically noted that North Vietnamese troops were still in Laos as were Chinese road builders in the northwest. Quinim countered that the ICC had investigated these North Vietnamese withdrawals and was satisfied. As for the Chinese workers, they were there by invitation and were not troops. (Ibid., POL Laos) On February 26, Harriman met with Quinim and asked him why the Royal Lao Government did not ask the ICC to investigate the presence of foreign troops in Laos, who ordered the Air America plane shot down, and who killed Colonel Ketsana. Harriman then said that he wanted to be absolutely frank: why were the Pathet Lao starving out Kong Le and attempting to destroy his forces loyal to Souvanna? (Ibid.)