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

1511. ReDeptel 809.2

Before I consult with Souvanna and prior receipt anticipated JCS message re Steel Tiger,3 I should like to make a few observations and pose one or two questions on this program.
It should be recognized that our air operations in Laos are entirely dependent upon the political authority granted us by Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma. The fact that this card carrying neutralist permits US aircraft to conduct combat missions against enemy targets on Laotian soil is the result of very carefully nourished relations which my predecessor skillfully began and which I have attempted perpetuate. It bespeaks not only Souvanna’s total disgust with North Vietnamese but also his remarkable confidence in United States.
This confidence in US was not always present in Souvanna’s calculations. Our policy in 1960–61 evaporated it in his mind almost to vanishing point. Even today, it is constantly under attack especially by such “friendly” elements as the French.
To my mind, the continued nourishment of Souvanna’s confidence in US requires several things:
Absolute frankness with him;
Correlation US operations with Laotian national interests;
Assurance that US air operations will be conducted in meticulously careful manner, aborting missions when there exists any question of damage to friendly villagers;
Close and careful coordination with Royal Lao forces;
Careful observance of conditions stipulated by Souvanna (e.g. publicity).

While, in this catalogue all elements are important, 3 (c) is perhaps the single point on which I would bear down most heavily. Laos is not North Vietnam. It is not even Viet Cong held territory in South Vietnam. Laos is a friendly country and the villagers are a considerable asset to us. The Viet Minh (even to a large extent the Pathet Lao) are an enemy expeditionary force operating in territory which is hostile to them. The [Page 355] guerrillas in this country are not only friendly to us, they are our guerrillas. This mission is not only their paymaster and their quartermaster; we give them their orders and direct their operations; it is therefore highly important that any air operations conducted in Laos be carefully mindful of our valuable assets here.

This means, in my opinion, that we must bend over backwards in executing our military missions so that we maintain this unique and essential political foundation for our operations. It means that we must sometimes sacrifice maximum military opportunities, in order to temper them to the political climate. For example, we have, since beginning of this program, denied ourselves use of napalm “until it is absolutely required for significant military reasons in highly critical situation.” This sort of situation is unlikely arise in purely interdictory-type missions and we must therefore maintain this self-abnegation until it does.

In elaborating on point 3 (d) I would like to correct the apparently erroneous assumption in reftel that there is “boundary” between US and RLAF operations in Panhandle. This is not so. RLAF is free to operate anywhere in Panhandle. There is, however, unilateral restriction against US operations along and west of Route 23, south of Route 9. But it must be borne in mind that RLAF, which takes highly deserved pride in its own operations, reserves its priority to strike targets anywhere in Laos. In principle, our operations have to be fitted around theirs. In practice, careful handling of General Ma reduces this problem to manageable proportions.

Having recited this preamble, I wish to say that I welcome concept of dividing our air missions into “Barrel Roll” and “Steel Tiger” categories. I think operations can be managed somewhat more effectively if they are so configured. I would warn, however, against any indications to Lao, or others, that we are making this distinction. In order have full support and coordination, we need preserve identity Lao national interests with all we do.

There follow certain questions and suggestions which flow from proposed program:

How would geographic boundary between Barrel Roll and Steel Tiger be defined? I would suggest Routes 6, 7 and 8 fall within Barrel Roll; Routes 12, 9, 23 and trail complex south of Route 9 within Steel Tiger.
How would SAR for Steel Tiger be managed? I would suggest USAF assume primary operational responsibility from Nakorn Phanom, supplemented by Air America, RLAF and other in-country assets as necessary.
How would Barrel Roll be managed to be “solely responsive to RLG requirements” as defined by this Embassy? I would renew my suggestion that special unit of aircraft and pilots be stationed Thailand [Page 356] (preferable Udorn) to carry out bread-and-butter portion Barrel Roll, supplemented as needed from time to time by PACFLT and Second Air Division assets for bigger operations.
Foregoing questions, plus several other features Steel Tiger program, would seem to require conference among principal responsible elements to achieve closer understandings than we can accomplish by exchange cables. I would therefore propose meeting appropriate author-ities at Udorn sometime later this week (perhaps Saturday, March 27). Believe this should involve senior reps from Embassies Bangkok and Vientiane, CINCPAC, CINCPACAF, CINCPACFLT, COMUSMACV and such subordinate commands as CINCPAC may designate.4

If State/Defense concur, please advise soonest, with appropriate guidance.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Priority; Limdis. Repeated to Bangkok, Saigon, and CINCPAC. Beginning in spring 1965, the dates and transmission times of all incoming Department of State telegrams were in six-figure date-time-groups. The “Z” refers to Greenwich mean time.
  2. Document 174.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 174.
  4. A March 27 report of that meeting is in telegram 1554 from Vientiane, March 27. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)