273. Note From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

Mr. President:

Here is a lively cable from Bill Sullivan describing the political situation in Laos after the recent elections.

I though it might provide a sense of the situation on our Viet Nam flank, which may become important in the year ahead whether Viet Nam moves towards negotiations or towards more intense conflict.

On the whole, the situation is much better than anyone might have guessed a few years ago.




When the National Assembly was dissolved early last fall and elections for the new Assembly were scheduled for January 1, the Department expressed concern over developments and asked my views on probable consequences. At that time, I speculated that Souvanna would survive, although his neutralists would suffer; and that the Lao army would emerge as the most powerful and successful sponsor of the new Assembly members. I assumed that the army would be acting very largely under General Kouprasith’s inspiration.

Most aspects of this reckless prophecy have indeed come to pass as the result of last Sunday’s election. Souvanna seems intact and at least for the time being in better political shape than ever; his neutralists are a shadow of their former selves; and the army has emerged as the most important force behind the scenes. However, in one significant respect, my prophecy was well wide the mark. Kouprasith has not functioned as the primary inspiration of military politics. If anything, he has been very largely isolated and his influence restricted to the Fifth Military Region.

It is, I believe, instructive to examine why Kouprasith slipped. If I were to fix any one causative event, I would suggest the October 21 abortive coup of General Ma. This coup was, of course, aimed primarily at [Page 544] Kouprasith, who had harassed General Ma into extremis. And although Ma failed in his immediate quixotic goal of killing Kouprasith, he nevertheless can take some satisfaction that his rash attack eventually resulted in cutting Kouprasith down to size.

This consequence came about partly because other generals in the army were shocked by the disruption which Kouprasith’s harassing tactics had produced, and partly because, in the aftermath of Ma’s affair, Kouprasith very decidedly “blew his cool”. He lashed about so extravagantly that he produced reactions. My own rather conspicuous rebuff to him on that occasion made it plain to the other generals that Kouprasith was not our “chosen instrument,” as some rumors had pretended. All these factors therefore stirred the other generals to more foresighted and more deliberate action in the political field to forestall Kouprasith’s expected initiatives. They also caused the Sananikone family, which has always had a healthy respect for American power, to decide that Kouprasith was not necessarily the best standard bearer for the family’s fortunes.

The final result has been that General Ouane Rathikoun, General Van Pao and General Phasouk Somly (especially General Phasouk) with their broad-based regional influences, have developed a political presence that overshadows Kouprasith and leaves him very decidedly just one among the group. The case of General Phasouk is particularly interesting, since he has always been (with good cause) the most respected officer in the army. The fact that he has now also emerged as a political figure in his own right (largely assuming the neglected mantle of Prince Boun Oum) provides a new dimension which we will wish to study and upon which we will wish to comment with some deliberation.

Before closing this retrospection, I feel I should emphasize two caveats. A) Kouprasith may be currently somewhat down, but his ambitions are by no means out, and he can still be expected to press for greater leverage. B) The new Assembly, girded as it is by the army and rather loosely pledged to support Souvanna, is a totally untried animal. We don’t know how seriously its members will take their pledges to Souvanna, how united the United Front will be, or how the army will exercise its newly acquired political influence.

These several unknowns should assure us that political life in Laos will remain interesting.3

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Laos, Vol. XVI, Memos, 2/66–1/67. Confidential. The source text indicates that Johnson saw it.
  2. The substance of the attached cable was retyped in the White House. The original, January 5, is in Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 LAOS.
  3. In telegram 4177 from Vientiane, January 12, also seen by the President, Sullivan reported that Souvanna asked that Sullivan express to Washington the hope that the Johnson administration continue the bombing of North Vietnam. Souvanna believed that the North Vietnamese were hurting and wanted a pause. Souvanna wanted Washington to know that Laos “profits enormously” from U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. (Ibid., POL 15–1 LAOS) A retyped copy is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Laos, Vol. XVI, Memos 2/66–1/67)