6. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Laos


  • The Secretary of State
  • Dean Rusk, Secretary of State Designate
  • Livingston T. Merchant, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • Charles E. Bohlen, Special Assistant to the Secretary
  • J. Graham Parsons, Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs
  • Hugh S. Cumming, Jr., Director of Intelligence and Research
  • Christian G. Chapman, Officer in Charge of Laos Affairs
  • Thomas S. Gates, Secretary of Defense
  • James H. Douglas, Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • John N. Irwin, Assistant Secretary of Defense
  • Paul Nitze, Assistant Secretary of Defense Designate
  • General L. L. Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Allen Dulles, Director, Central Intelligence Agency
  • Richard M. Bissell, Jr., Deputy Director (Plans)

The Secretary opened the meeting by reading the agenda and asked General Lemnitzer to start with a military briefing.

Military Briefing

General Lemnitzer described on a map the movement south from Xieng Khouang Province of Communist forces estimated at 3300 which were opposed in the area by an estimated 2300 FAL and 1500 Meo [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. The General stated that it appeared both sides were building up their forces. Eighteen Soviet aircraft are involved in an airlift of supplies from Hanoi to the Plaine de Jarres. Reports have been received that an increase in Soviet airlift capacity may be expected shortly. [2 lines of source text not declassified] The General went on to say that Vang Vieng had been taken by the Lao Army against minimum resistance. This is a most important development as it opens the road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and should free the army for an attack against Kong Le’s base area in Xieng Khouang.

The General cited a report that Prime Minister Boun Oum had asked for the return of Seno and the replacement of the French Military Mission. The Secretary remarked that if the French Mission were forced [Page 13] out, the position of US technicians would be rendered very difficult, legally and politically, since their presence was linked to an agreement with the French and would otherwise be prohibited by the Geneva Agreement.

General Lemnitzer described the difficulties of carrying out reconnaissance missions. However, several had been flown by the Thai Airforce between January 9 and 11.

Four T–6s had been brought to Laos January 10, the General continued, and first priority had been assigned to intercepting the airlift. Instead, however, the planes had been used for close support of the troops. General Lemnitzer planned to send out a new message reemphasizing the importance of the lift as a target. Mr. Dulles remarked that the T–6 had a maximum air speed of 140 knots as against 165 knots for the IL–14.

Mr. Rusk inquired regarding the quality of the FAL and General Lemnitzer answered that it was not as good as we would like it to be. This army had not had as much training as it should. The French had primary responsibility in this field and the US did not have a clear-cut training mission. Mr. Rusk remarked that one of the problems it seemed was that our prestige rested on a flimsy basis. The General answered that we could do a better job if we had a clear-cut responsibility for training. A year ago he had sent a directive to General Heintges not to be bashful in moving in tactical training. Mr. Rusk asked whether the army had any French officers assigned to its combat units. The General answered that we had no positive indication to that effect but that if the French were doing their job, they should be. Mr. Dulles and Mr. Cumming remarked that they had seen no intelligence indicating that French officers were with combat units. Mr. Parsons noted that one of the army’s problems was the very poor quality of the leadership.

Intelligence Estimate

Mr. Dulles [1–1/2 lines of source text not declassified] summarized the National Intelligence Estimate of December 29. (SNIE 68–2–60).1

The Secretary asked whether Defense was planning to recommend any drastic military steps at this time. Mr. Gates answered that they would make several recommendations but these were heavily linked to political questions. General Lemnitzer read a paper of January 14 from the JCS to the Secretary of Defense2 in which the JCS made the following recommendations: a) establishment of a MAAG, b) furnishing the RLG [Page 14] with the necessary equipment and materiel, c) assumption of training responsibility by the MAAG, d) expanded [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] support of RLG to enable it to maintain control of main centers and means of communication, e) agreement within SEATO to support the Boun Oum Government, f) that an overt intervention by a third country will be less satisfactory than a SEATO action, g) that the US should not seek a UN intervention, h) that the US should not seek the reactivation of the ICC, i) that unilateral US action should only be undertaken after SEATO had failed and j) that US or SEATO intervention would provoke a bloc reaction. General Lemnitzer explained that the principal concern of the JCS was that we were not winning on the ground because we were not able to train and support the FAL fully. French responsibility for training was not good enough. We had no indication of lack of equipment.

The Secretary then referred to the escalation theory and asked how the airlift might be stopped without United States involvement and, in that event, how a general war could be prevented. General Lemnitzer agreed that escalation presented a problem. The JCS, he said, would like to see concerted action by SEATO. The T–6s were not going to stop the lift and we should consider giving the Lao AD–6s from South Viet-Nam. He remarked that such a step would, however, add a new dimension to the situation. Thailand has a good Air Force that could deal quickly and effectively with the lift. The United States of course has the means but this again raised the problem of escalation. The question is how far the other side is willing to go. Mr. Irwin remarked that, since both the PL and the FAL are not effective forces, the addition of Viet-Minh technicians and cadres to the PL gives them a decided advantage which cannot be offset by the materiel and equipment the United States is supplying to Phoumi. The question is how to reinforce the Phoumi forces. SEATO appears impossible in view of the French and British opposition. There is the possibility, however, of bringing in volunteers not only in the air but also on the ground. He expressed the view that, until the FAL is strengthened on the ground by foreign cadres, the situation will not be promising.

Mr. Rusk asked whether by general war it was meant an all out Soviet-United States war or a large-scale war in SEA. Mr. Gates answered that it meant the latter. Mr. Rusk expressed the opinion that war in Laos would result in a larger affair than Korea. General Lemnitzer answered that large forces had been engaged in Korea.

Mr. Rusk inquired whether the situation in Korea was reasonably satisfactory from the military point of view. General Lemnitzer assured him that we were in good shape with 20 divisions—18 Korean and 2 American. We were ready to meet any diversionary move there.

[Page 15]

Mr. Gates expressed deep concern that we were losing the propaganda war and felt that we should organize our resources in Washington. He cited all the stories that had come out on the T–6s and nothing on the Soviet airlift. He said that Defense had prepared a paper on the subject.

[1 paragraph (5 lines of source text) not declassified]

[2 lines of source text not declassified] Mr. Cumming also mentioned that we should not overlook the possibility of the Communists introducing helicopters into Laos where the terrain is suitable for their use.

[1 paragraph (4 lines of source text) not declassified]

Soviet Intentions

The Secretary then asked Mr. Bohlen to give an estimate of Soviet intentions. Mr. Bohlen expressed the view that the Soviets don’t want to turn the Lao situation into a large operation. He agrees with Ambassador Thompson that the Soviets are not seeking a complete victory but, at the same time, that they would not accept a complete defeat.3 They consider that they are acting on a pretty good basis of continuing to recognize the Souvanna Government. This is one reason that they have not troubled to disguise the airlift. Mr. Cumming noted, in this regard, that the PL and Quinim had announced a joint military commission to carry on the fight against the “rebels”. Mr. Bohlen then went on to say that Menshikov had probably gone further in denying the Soviet airlift than he intended, while Kuznetzov had ducked the issue in his conversation with Ambassador Thompson.4

[Page 16]

Mr. Bohlen then outlined two possible courses of action:

A clear plunge into the situation with overt assistance in men and materiel to Phoumi. If this course is decided upon, we must go through with it. It will probably end up with a Korean-Indo-Chinese type of war. However, Mr. Bohlen noted, since World War II, there is not a single recorded case of a colonial war, such as would develop in Laos, that has been brought off successfully by a Western power; he cited Indo-China and Indonesia as examples.
A diplomatic solution—Mr. Bohlen asked: If the Soviet airlift could be halted, would we be prepared to accept a status quo in which neither side would receive military assistance? Mr. Gates and General Lemnitzer answered that such a status quo would be to our disadvantage.

In answer to a question from Mr. Gates for an explanation of the Soviet airlift, Mr. Bohlen answered that the Soviets had an Ambassador in Vientiane under Souvanna who requested aid from them. After Souvanna had been kicked out by the rebels, the remnants of his Government were in position to request a continuation of the lift. This request gives the Soviets a good basis for their action.

Diplomatic Proposals

Mr. Herter then turned to Mr. Parsons for a review of the diplomatic proposals. Mr. Parsons first reminded the meeting that there was no diplomatic proposal which led to a safe haven. The major difficulty is that any form of international mechanism which the Communists might possibly accept would be one that would perforce have to recognize their present position of strength and thus lead to equating the two sides, eventually bringing the Communists into the government and thus leading to the probable loss of the country peacefully instead of militarily.

In this international jungle, Mr. Parsons continued, we had first a sizeable record of discussions with the Soviets which Mr. Bohlen had discussed. Then there was the question of the revival of the ICC. At the present time, we are discussing with the British and Canadians means of safeguarding an ICC approach. The Secretary noted that Mr. Nehru’s proposal to the Co-Chairmen was sent on December 15 and that no reply had ever been given to the Indians. Mr. Parsons recalled that Khrushchev had expressed to Ambassador Thompson the Soviet preference for the 14-nation conference over the ICC. The Thais and all the anti-Communist Asians are distrustful of the ICC. They pointed out the record of the Indians and Poles on the Commission of which we too were very mindful. Sihanouk himself has expressed doubt regarding its effectiveness.

Mr. Parsons then described the proposal we are now discussing with the UK and Canada to have the Indians send a representative to the [Page 17] King of Laos to explore whether the ICC could usefully return to ascertain the facts of the situation and help reestablish peace.5 If favorable terms of reference, including proper recognition of the Government of Laos, can be agreed upon, then the ICC would return. More recently Boun Oum and Phoumi had indicated their willingness to have the ICC return but with limitation of time and scope. One trouble with the proposal is that it places the onus on the Lao Government to accept or reject the return of the ICC rather than on the Russians.

Mr. Parsons then briefly mentioned the French proposal for a tripartite approach to the Soviets to negotiate the Lao problem.6 In our view, this proposal of the French equated the RLG and PL and, furthermore, we could not agree to try and settle SEA problems behind the backs of SEA countries. In this regard, Mr. Merchant expressed the view that the role of the French in this situation had been almost as damaging as that of the PL in refusing to acknowledge the Boun Oum Government and to approach Souvanna to resign.

Remarks by Mr. Rusk

Mr. Rusk then made certain comments about which he asked the conferees’ views. Mr. Rusk also expressed considerable concern that the Boun Oum forces might be spread out too much and be in danger of being picked off. He asked whether they should not consolidate or whether the situation was too fluid to permit such a move. General Lemnitzer answered that the Boun Oum forces were not out where they could be picked off but that the PL controlled a very strategic central area.

Mr. Dulles recalled Khrushchev’s statement [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] that the Soviets would continue to supply the PL and that the fighting would go on for 7 years.

Mr. Parsons inquired into the military evaluation of Communist intentions. He recalled that Nehru had stated that it was nonsense to talk to the Souvanna Government which “could not be found” and, if such was the Indian position, maybe the Soviets’ legal situation was going to collapse. In this situation the Soviets might be seeking a military decision and collapse of the Boun Oum Government in very short order. General Lemnitzer stated that the Communists could cut the country in half at Paksane.

Mr. Bissell [5–1/2 lines of source text not declassified] supported General Lemnitzer’s comment that the real weakness of the FAL was in its leadership and this could only be helped if our legal position permitted [Page 18] it. He thought it would not take a large MAAG to do the job with the United States military being thus placed along the whole Mekong River.

Mr. Rusk asked whether the Filipinos could come up with a good quality MAAG. General Lemnitzer answered that they would be better than the present arrangement, but Mr. Bohlen remarked that such a MAAG could only be a front for us, because the Philippines alone could not provide a good group. Mr. Bissell said that among the Asians, the Thais have a great advantage in having a common language with the Lao.

Mr. Gates expressed grave concern regarding SEATO which appears to be a paper tiger and regarding our permitting the French and British to run the organization.

Remarks by the Secretary

Mr. Herter then described in some detail our discussions with the British and Canadians on a draft note from the Co-Chairmen on which we could agree. The Secretary finished by stating to Mr. Rusk that “we do not want to take any action which would limit your freedom of action”. Mr. Herter added that we will proceed with diplomatic moves presently underway. We will strengthen the Meo people, but the legal situation cannot be cleared up unless an approach to SEATO is made and he reiterated that he was not willing to take any such action now with only three days to go before the new Administration came in. Mr. Rusk said that it was very important if, in the next few days, the ICC were reactivated, it should not affect the factual situation and we should not agree with this reactivation unless we had at least guarantees that the ICC can function throughout Laos. Mr. Herter answered that it was doubtful that the ICC would be reactivated in that time since there would be delays in negotiating its return.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/1–1761. Top Secret. Drafted by Christian Chapman and approved in Herter’s office on January 25 and in Rusk’s office on February 3.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, vol. XV/XVI, Microfiche Supplement, Part 2, Document 702.
  3. JCSM 13–61, derived from JCS 1992/890, January 14. (National Arhives and Records Administration, RG 218, JCS Records, JMF 9155.2/4060 (16 Dec. 60))
  4. As suggested in telegram 1633 from Moscow, January 14. (Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/1–1461) Mr. Bohlen suggested that there was a possibility of stopping the airlift by going to the Soviets and stating “either you admit this lift or we shall be quite entitled to go in and shoot down the planes”. Soviet involvement in Laos, Mr. Bohlen continued, is also in part a function of the Soviet-Chicom row. Following the Communist meeting in Moscow last November, the Soviets probably have to demonstrate their Bolshevik revolutionary zeal. However, by operating the lift, they can at least control by Soviet presence in Laos. In support of this theory, Mr. Bohlen cited an intelligence report which reported the Polish Ambassador in London as stating that the Soviets are in Laos because they want to control the situation, and that they are prepared to go to the brink but not over it. Furthermore, they do not want to start off on a bad footing with the new Administration.
  5. The conversation between Herter and Soviet Ambassador Menshikov is reported in a memorandum of conversation, January 10. (Ibid., Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330) Kuznetsov’s discussion with Thompson is reported in telegram 1640 from Moscow, January 14. (Ibid., Central Files, 751J.00/1–1461)
  6. As reported in a memorandum of conversation, January 17. (Ibid., 751J.00/1–1761)
  7. See footnote 2, Document 5.