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

7403. Subject: Operation Commando Lava.

During Udorn meeting last Saturday,2 I had my staff give Generals Westmoreland and Momyer a briefing on operation Commando Lava, which we have been conducting in Laos. This operation is an experiment in soil destabilization, for the purpose of producing impassable mud on enemy lines of communication. In our view, experiment has proved successful and we believe it should be given expanded military application.3
Essentially, operation involved air-dropping common chemicals on two interdiction points along Route 96 and Route 110. Rain falling on these chemicals results in chelation and dispersion of soil, in such measure that mud loses all consistency and becomes incapable of supporting vehicles or any other substantial weight. This not only vastly enhances nature’s own mud making in quality, but also extends the effect of the rainy season because of the chemicals’ persistency.
We believe this could prove a far more effective road interdiction device (at least in rainy season) than iron bombs and infinitely less costly. Chemicals are commercially available, paper sacked, and air dropped from cargo type aircraft. We would hope that, in proper application, we could close all the main routes into Laos for vehicle traffic during the rainy season, and, perhaps extend that effect for a month or so beyond the normal scope of that season. We also believe program has considerable application in Vietnam.
Moreover, I have asked that another experiment be carried out concerning hand application of these chemicals to defense perimeters where soil is also protected by vegetable roots and matting. If this is successful, [Page 581] we may be able to develop some use for this technique in an anti-personnel sense as well.
General Westmoreland has expressed considerable interest in following up this program. Therefore, our control team, which consists of three representatives from CAS Headquarters, will visit Saigon later this week, then CINCPAC and then back to the putty-knife factory at Langley.
I believe this program demands immediate, high level attention in Washington. I would hope that both Secretary McNamara and Joint Chiefs will have opportunity to be briefed. I would like to make mud on several routes in Laos, starting from 19 in north, through 6, 7, and 4, plus the entire Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trail structures. If the drop aircraft are available and if the chemicals can be shipped, I feel that we can close more routes more effectively, and at a minute fraction of the current cost, than we can with our bombing efforts.
I also feel that, if we could combine these techniques with techniques of Operation Popeye, perhaps within concept of Practice Nine, we might be able to make enemy movement among the cordillera of the Annamite chain almost prohibitive. In short, chelation may prove better than escalation. Make mud, not war!
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS. Top Secret; Priority; Limdis. Repeated to Bangkok, Saigon,CINCPAC, COMUSMACV, CINCPACAF, and JCS.
  2. Westmoreland describes the full range of discussion on common operational matters among Ambassadors Sullivan and Martin, Lieutenant General Momyer, Counselor Calhoun of the Embassy in Saigon, and General Westmoreland. (Telegram MAC 5039, Westmoreland to Sharp; Center of Military History, Westmoreland Papers, Message Files,COMUSMACV, 1 Apr-30 June 1967)
  3. In telegram 206487 to Vientiane, June 1, the Department of State expressed interest in reviewing operational proposals for Commando Lava. The Department asked if this was a project for which Souvanna should be consulted, suggesting that from a political and psychological point of view consultation would seem important. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS) The Embassy responded in telegram 7481, June 2, that as the operation was purely experimental, Souvanna had not been consulted, but if it was executed in military application, Sullivan would consult with the Lao Prime Minister. (Ibid.)