250. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State1

170. Deptel 89.2 Saigon for Ambassador Taylor. No other distribution whatsoever. Air attacks on Viet Cong supply lines in Laotian Panhandle, while helping morale South Vietnam and diverting government there from its proposals to strike North Vietnam, would have only marginal effect on problem of infiltration via Laos and would greatly complicate Laotian situation which already threatens get out of hand as result Soviet threat withdraw from co-chairman role.

When various cross-border actions proposed earlier, also including air strikes, I pointed out fundamental attitude of Souvanna, which generally shared by Lao, that use of corridor, even though involving Lao territory, not primarily their problem, and anyway they have their hands full trying to protect heart of their country for defense of which corridor not essential. Our creating new military as well as international political conflict over corridor will be regarded by them as another instance Laos being involuntarily involved in struggle among big powers on matter outside Laos’ own prime interests. There is also Souvanna’s view (no doubt nurtured by French) that GVN is fighting a hopeless war.

Souvanna Phouma and other Lao leaders want help in immediate present to assure they can continue in secure possession of present territory of free Laos. If any new military initiatives are contemplated with attendant risk of escalation they would wish above all that they [Page 580]be directed at retaking Plaine des Jarres. More immediately they want maximum effort be made to cut Route 7 and they also wish be assured of fullest support for Muong Soui if again actively threatened, to say nothing of protection of routes toward Mekong if Muong Soui falls.

Likely reaction to proposals for air attacks in corridor would be: Why complicate our problem and risk creating dangerous military threat in central and southern areas where it does not now exist; why does not US apply its power to source of problem and bomb Hanoi or move effectively in some other way against North Vietnam? North Vietnam is cause of trouble and ought to be target; moreover we are not bound by international agreements there as we are in Laos. Department will recall this line of thinking has been pressed by King and Souvanna Phouma and is undoubtedly view even more strongly held by right-wing leaders.

In this connection, wish point out with respect pare g reftel that there are virtually no uncommitted Lao resources to deal with whatever PL/VM reaction may be. Energies and staff capacity as well as troops and planes are tied down in Operation Triangle and literally only reserve in country is two DNC pare battalions which for political reasons unlikely leave Vientiane. Therefore “preparedness measures in Laos” would have to be taken by US.

Thus if we proceed with projected action Panhandle we must be prepared also to meet any responsible Lao request for help in defending what they regard as heart of their country. If we hesitate under such circumstances Souvanna’s occasional dissatisfaction with what he has regarded as foot dragging by us will be greatly accentuated and arguments on our part that certain actions should be avoided because of international complications or risks of escalation will not carry much weight. Nothing could illustrate point better than question napalm, which being proposed for use in corridor operation at same time I am obliged turn down request from Souvanna to use it in area he considers vital for defense his country.

In view foregoing I believe proposed action would probably bring to an end possibility our preserving even facade of government national union under Souvanna and Geneva Accords, keeping open possible road back to peaceful solution and avoiding resumption full-scale civil war. There certainly has been no sign from Pathet Lao, DRV or ChiComs of any change in their attitude to encourage us to believe they are ready to start living by Geneva Accords and end their interference in Laos. Nevertheless it has been our hope that our recent assumption of stiffer political posture and careful application of stronger military measures would at least bring nibbling to an end. However, as result initiatives in corridor we may find ourselves turned entirely away from guiding principles of last two years under which we have accepted uneasy equilibrium of de facto division of Laos as best we [Page 581]could get for present and better than resumption large-scale fighting. Following strikes in Panhandle we might even find ourselves being pressed hard into a major military effort aimed at pushing North Vietnamese out of Panhandle (when it becomes clear air attacks do not halt infiltration) and eventually entirely out of Laos and reestablishing authority of RLG throughout country.

I realize proposed action envisages employment primarily GVN personnel but from international point of view we must be prepared accept full responsibility. Action will also solidly link questions Laos and South Vietnam which at earlier date we appeared to be intent on keeping separate as possible, at least in context any international discussion.

From here it is difficult to see what all international repercussions of projected Panhandle action might be but I can foresee serious complications with British and Canadians, on whom we depend for cochairman and ICC help. They may well ask us to demonstrate that the installations to be hit have some important connection with infiltration problem and that strikes will appreciably improve situation South Vietnam. On other hand they will be most apprehensive about dangers of escalation as well as major complications in handling international aspects of problem as illustrated by Soviet note just received.

Souvanna’s acquiescence in proposed action [may?] not be enough. If we proceed he will undoubtedly be besieged by press and posture of PriMin of Laos can hardly be acquiescence in other countries’ taking action on his territory. If we are to make effort to bring him along, his position would have to be fortified in advance by buildup of public evidence of use of corridor and its aggravation of problem in SVN. Public indications that corridor problem really much less than represented (for example see July 26 Wireless File story by Robert Brunn, C S Monitor) must also be overcome. Against this background we might try sell Souvanna on line that action against corridor is fundamental to resolving what is basic cause of Laos’ present plight, namely war in South Vietnam. In other words, block corridor so that GVN can again resume full authority over its territory at which point DRV can make no further use of corridor. Unless Souvanna can be persuaded action in Panhandle really serves his cause more than it endangers it, his support will be very hard to secure. Even if support is squeezed out (perhaps only as result of right wing pressure), his remaining on the job becomes problematical.

Specific comments follow:

(1)
Delete Muong Phine from target list pare 2b because of probable presence there of C–46 survivors.
(2)
Foregoing reservations do not apply to Mu Gia control point or other points inside North Vietnam.
(3)
Attacks of opportunity on convoys (if related to recce flights) and responsive strikes to ground fire would be less objectionable than proposed action, and this would be even truer of T–28 strikes.

In summary, I believe it would be exceptionally difficult to persuade Souvanna Phouma to approve stepped up military actions in Panhandle without triggering virtually irresistible pressures for similar escalation in this part of Laos, involving increased commitments here of sort we have thus for shied away from. Perhaps we can successfully withstand these pressures, but more likely outcome, in my judgment, would be heightened political instability and a situation in which we might well lose Souvanna and the international recognition his government commands, ending up with albatross around our neck in form of rightist regime lacking in international support and able to survive internal and external pressures only with our outright military support.

Unger
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Flash; Exdis. Repeated to Saigon. Passed to the White House, Department of Defense, and CIA on receipt in the Department of State. Also printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. 111, pp. 515–517.
  2. Document 248.