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

437. 1. A good deal of evidence has accumulated in recent past to justify conclusion that Soviets have undertaken fundamental change in their policy towards Southeast Asia. While in larger strategic sense, I believe we should welcome this change, I think we should also be aware that, in detailed, tactical situations, it will give US problems of a practical nature. This cable is effort analyze situation as seen from perspective of Laos.

2. I will start with my own vivid recollection of evening in Kremlin, during spring of 1963, when I sat with Averell Harriman and listened to Khrushchev tell us quite flatly that he had written off and given up Southeast Asia.2 Implicit in his remarks was the assumption that this part of world would be a theater of major confrontation between U.S. and ChiComs, upon both whose houses he would welcome a proper plague.

3. This nadir of Soviet interest was characterized by a virtual moratorium on their activity as co-chairman for both Geneva Accords, and by intimations which British interpreted as marking their intention abandon their co-chairmanʼs role altogether. After Khrushchevʼs removal from office,3 policy and action went into a sort of deep freeze and it was difficult determine any motion one way or another.

4. First tentative feelers of change came with exchange missions between Moscow and Hanoi; and, despite ChiCom efforts sabotage, developed into supply equipment (and presumably personnel) to DRV. This was accompanied by increasing confidence of Soviets in dealing quietly with other areas (such as North Korea) which Khrushchev had implicitly abandoned to ChiCom hegemony. Change accelerated as ChiCom international troubles multiplied, and has seemed to reach its most satisfactory results (from Soviet perspective) in aftermath of Indo-Pakistan [Page 174] armed border conflict. Looking at position in which USSR emerged from that imbroglio, the foreign affairs specialists in the Kremlin could only conclude that their policy on subcontinent had proved itself sound and had, indeed, withstood the shock of combat better than the policy of any other major power.

5. This experience has seemed to underline, and give impetus to, the basic policy change which was being tentatively set in motion with respect Southeast Asia. In this regard, I think it important to note that many key Soviet personnel in Southeast Asia (such as Ambassador Kirnassovsky in Vientiane) have spent a few years in India during formative period of Soviet policy in sub-continent. I believe, therefore, that we can consider Soviet policy being applied currently in Southeast Asia is based in part on what they conclude to be correctness of their policy in subcontinent.

6. With respect to Laos, this rationale can explain the sudden reasonableness of line Soviets have taken on such issues as finances for ICC, Article 19 re continuation of ICC and in general functioning co-chairman role. At same time, it explains sudden interest in travel grants for Lao journalists in Soviet Union, augmentation of cultural and political staff at Soviet Embassy, conspicuous support for Souvanna Phouma and ostentatious ignoring of Pathet Lao. It also explains willingness tacitly accept a great deal of action which results in direct and severe punishment of Viet Minh/Pathet Lao, without, to best of my knowledge, even a whimper of protest directed towards Souvanna and his government.

7. In analyzing what all this means for Laos alone, I think we can conclude that Soviets have reversed Khrushchevʼs previous policy of cut-and-run, that they intend to stay extremely loose in their operations here, and that they will avoid doctrinaire commitments which might prejudice their opportunities to play for the breaks. I think it means more than half a conviction that U.S. endurance in Vietnam will outlast the DRV, and that the Soviets feel they have good opportunity, once Viet threat to Laos fades, to move into same posture of sharing influence here with U.S. as they have already achieved in India, and at very little economic, military or political cost. In short, I think they are prepared to extend their sub-continent policy eastward, at least into this edge of Indo-China. (Perhaps also to Cambodia, in light of recent happenings there.)

8. For long-run U.S. relations with Laos, this prospect should not displease us. It means (assuming we are successful in Viet Nam) the possibility of a tacit U.S.-Soviet undertaking which would guarantee the continued existence of Laos against ChiCom (or DRV) encroachment. But at same time it means the probable development of an attitude of “neutrality” among the leaders of Laos that will parallel the worst of the casuistic serendipity which obtains in Delhi. These little Laotian rascals [Page 175] unfortunately have a natural predisposition to such frailties, and I suppose we will have to accept it as the general price of containing the ChiComs. I only hope I am long gone from here when they perfect this loss of innocence to an art.

9. As for larger implications in Southeast Asia, we can, if reckless, interpolate this Soviet policy manifest in Laos, to include the shape of things to come in Vietnam. There is already evidence that East European satellites (presumably with Soviet blessing) are seeking to act as handmaidens for U.S.-DRV negotiations. If they (plus the unremitting continuation of our bombing raids and the military pressure in the south) are successful in persuading the DRV to look for a negotiated way out, there will predictably be a sharp break between Hanoi and Peking. And who would then stand ready to move in to hold the heads and swab the wounds in Hanoi but those jolly old green giants from the Kremlin. This would, of course, be a far more significant undertaking and entail greater costs and risks than their maneuvers in Laos; and would presumably be taken only after the most careful scrutiny of circumstances, but, their loose, mobile policy in Laos certainly puts them in posture to move that way if opportunity knocks.

10. My conclusion from all this speculation is that we should treat Soviet policy in Southeast Asia as something that is generally on the make. They see a fluid situation emerging and want to be ready to exploit it. They feel they have been successful in similar circumstances in the sub-continent and can afford, with very little risk, to try it here. This situation will give us certain latitudes strategically and certain problems tactically; but on the whole it is better for us than Khrushchevʼs policy of 1963. Above all, it will be a lot more interesting.4

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 1 ASIA SE-USSR. Confidential; Limdis. Repeated to Bangkok, Moscow, London, Saigon, Paris, Tokyo, New Delhi, Hong Kong, USUN, and CINCPAC. McGeorge Bundy had this telegram retyped and sent it to President Johnson who saw it. Bundy described it as an “extremely thoughtful telegram from Bill Sullivan suggesting a shift of Soviet Policy in Southeast Asia.” Bundy summarized Sullivanʼs argument as “the Soviets may be moving with some confidence back into Southeast Asia with the double purpose of expanding their own influence in the East and containing the Chinese.” Bundy stated that he shared “Sullivanʼs implied feeling that if this happens, we can probably make a little money on it.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Laos, Vol. XV, Cables, 4/65–1/66)1
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XXIV, Document 466.
  3. On October 15, 1964, the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet removed Nikita S. Khrushchev as Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union.
  4. In telegram 1606 from Saigon, November 7, the Embassy in South Vietnam concurred with Vientianeʼs analysis, but suggested that for the time being the United States should not expect too much from the Soviet Union or overestimate its influence in Southeast Asia and with North Vietnam. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 1 ASIA SE-US)