132. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Situation in Laos
- The President
- Prince Souvanna Phouma, Prime Minister of Laos
- Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
- Mrs. Sophia Porson, Interpreter
Asked by the President to give his views on the outlook in Laos, the Prime Minister said he expected a major offensive by the North Vietnamese, (1) because they always have an offensive at this time of year at the beginning of the dry season and (2) to reaffirm their adherence to the policy of Ho Chi Minh after his death. He was certain that the 312th Division now moving into Laos would attack the Plain [Page 440] of Jars. General Giap had told the Prime Minister in Hanoi in April 1964 that the North Vietnamese could not tolerate the presence of any troops other than Pathet Lao in the Plain. Therefore, this offensive will be designed to retake the Plain of Jars. The Prime Minister hoped that with US support the RLG could contain the offensive. He stated that the RLG does not need troops apart from its own; it only needs weapons, and air support. He had discussed obtaining weapons with Ambassador Godley before coming here—they need tanks, armored cars, and small planes, especially T–28s.
The Prime Minister then said he had sought to make it clear in public statements that there were no US troops in Laos despite what the New York Times has reported. He tried to correct the misinformation given by the Times when in Tokyo recently.
He explained that Laos asked for US military assistance starting in 1964 and it was only natural that US Government representatives supervise such assistance. It was the presence of the military personnel supervising military aid to Laos that had given rise to reports that US troops were in Laos.
The Prime Minister added that US aid to Laos is consistent with the Geneva Agreements. The US has not violated the agreements because there is an article that provides that Laos may import conventional weapons for its own defense. Laos has been attacked by the North Vietnamese and is merely defending itself. These weapons were requested not to wage war against its neighbors but to ward off enemy attack.
Moreover, the Prime Minister stated, it is the duty of all signatories of the Geneva Agreements to ensure and guarantee the respect of Laos’ independence and neutrality. This commitment was undertaken by all in Geneva in 1962.
The President asked for the Prime Minister’s view of recommendations by some that the Prime Minister should try to enlist Soviet help to obtain adherence to the Geneva Agreements. He was not recommending it himself, but wondered whether the Prime Minister was sympathetic to such recommendations or felt that the USSR’s hands were tied owing to its obligations to North Vietnam.
The Prime Minister replied that he had repeatedly asked the USSR to intervene to ensure respect of Laos’ neutrality. Unfortunately, Moscow has always answered that it was necessary to wait until the Vietnam problem had been solved before considering a solution to the Laotian problem. However, as the Lao see it, the Laotian problem was settled by the 1962 Geneva Agreements and they think it unfair that Laos be forced to bear the consequences of the Vietnam war. Additionally, there has been flagrant violation of the Geneva Agreements by North Vietnam. In that connection, the Prime Minister had written [Page 441] to the Co-Chairmen calling for implementation of Article 4 of the Protocol to the Geneva Agreements. He was certain that a number of the signatories would endorse the need for application of that article. (He then read the text of Article 4 to the President.)2
The President remarked that there was no doubt about the legal commitment, but the tragedy was that except for the US no one is paying attention to it, viz. Peking, the USSR, North Vietnam.
The Prime Minister said the French Government had undertaken several démarches in Moscow at his request, but always got the same reply (wait till the Vietnam problem is resolved).
However, the Prime Minister continued, if the US, as the principal party concerned, were to take the initiative and contact other signatories (he cited France, UK, Canada, Cambodia, South Vietnam, Burma, India, Thailand) a majority could be mustered to present a resolution to the Co-Chairmen which would put pressure on the North Vietnamese.
The President asked the Prime Minister whether he thought we should take this initiative directly. The Prime Minister said yes, because the US is the primary country concerned and because the US is being accused of violating the Geneva Agreements.
The President then asked what the Prime Minister’s view of the long-range situation in Laos was. Did he think that the North Vietnamese would inevitably overrun Laos or go back and forth?
The Prime Minister thought that the intention of North Vietnam was to take over Laos through the Pathet Lao. As he saw it, the 5-pointed star chosen by Ho Chi Minh as his emblem was significant. The five points stood for Tonkin, Annam, Cochin China, Cambodia, and Laos, i.e., the five countries in the old Indochinese Federation. North Vietnam cannot survive on its own, as it is overpopulated. Prior to 1945, Tonkin depended on Cochinchinese rice to feed itself. Annam was of little interest because that was just a small strip of arid land between the sea and the mountains. Therefore, North Vietnam has always looked to the Mekong Valley for the fertile lands it needs to feed itself. This was not a new phenomenon dating from Ho Chi Minh, but had obtained under the French. In fact, when Indochina was under French domination, in the office of the Governor General in Hanoi there was a special bureau for the colonization of Laos by Vietnamese. Hence, in 1945, there were 200,000 North Vietnamese in Laos. Some took refuge in Thailand with certain Lao, others returned to North Vietnam.[Page 442]
At present, there are between 40,000 and 50,000 North Vietnamese in Thailand. They are the ones that are creating problems for the Thai Government. These are people who opted to return to North Vietnam but whom Ho Chi Minh refused to take back owing to the presence of the 7th Fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin.
President Nixon then asked the Prime Minister for his views and advice about our policy in connection with the Vietnam war—commenting that we received lots of advice, including from the New York Times which the Prime Minister had mentioned earlier. He wondered whether the Prime Minister thought we were pursuing the right course, whether we ought to do more or less militarily or diplomatically.
The Prime Minister said it was hard for him to define his thinking because he did not have enough information about the domestic situation in South Vietnam. However, in view of US public opinion, he thought the war must be ended quickly, by diplomatic and military means. The diplomatic measures were difficult owing to the Saigon Government’s refusal to form a government of national union which the other side demands. It would be difficult to act unless the Government of President Thieu feels sufficiently strong to agree to a coalition government.
The President said that they would not do that, and remarked that a coalition government might pose problems, as it did in the case of Laos.
The Prime Minister disagreed, saying that the Laotian situation was somewhat different from the South Vietnamese. In the case of Laos, it was because there was a war between the North and the South that Hanoi took its Pathet Lao ministers out of Vientiane; Hanoi feared that the government might succeed in taking control of all the territory of Laos, thus preventing North Vietnam from sending troops south.
The Prime Minister stated that his government was not afraid of the Pathet Lao. He was certain that once peace was restored and the domestic situation was settled general elections would be held and that his government would win. To support his contention, he said that his government controls 700,000 refugees from the other zone. If you subtract them from the total population of 3,000,000, the number of Pathet Lao supporters was infinitesimal. He was certain that he would win in a general election, and reiterated that he had no fears from the political standpoint. If North Vietnam were not helping the Pathet Lao, there would be no Laotian problem. That problem is created by Hanoi. Hence, the situation in Laos was not the same as in South Vietnam.
The President said that it was a pleasure for him to see the Prime Minister again. He recalled having met him when he was Vice President, once at Blair House and once in Vientiane in 1953.
He said he had very pleasant memories of that visit. He added that we are vitally interested in seeing that the government and people of Laos remain independent and be able to choose their own way. [Page 443] We want to help not only because of our obligations under the Geneva Agreements but because of our interests in Laos’ future.
The Prime Minister thanked the President heartily for the US Government’s support, past, present, and future. His country had been dominated by others in the past and was smaller than it ever had been, in fact there were more Lao outside Laos than inside. What little they had left they wanted to preserve. He had always been aware that only a policy of neutrality could protect Laos. Unfortunately, Laos’ geographic position placed it between Communist countries and SEATO countries. Therefore, the Prime Minister had sought this neutrality for 10 years. He was happy it had been achieved at last and hoped that with the help of friendly nations it could be made a reality so that Laos could develop its economy (which it needed to do) and its culture, which had been sorely disrupted by the years of war.
- Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 63, Memoranda of Conversations, Presidential File, 1969. Top Secret; Nodis. Copies were sent to Rogers, Laird, and Helms. The President, Souvanna Phouma, and an interpreter met in the Oval Office from 10:51 a.m. to 12:04 p.m. Kissinger joined them at 11:25 a.m. (President’s Daily Diary, October 7; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) On October 2 Acting Secretary of State Richardson sent Nixon a memorandum on the Souvanna visit and enclosed talking points. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 7 LAOS) On October 6 Richardson sent Kissinger additional talking points for the President. (Ibid.) Souvanna met with Rogers, Green, and Corcoran at noon on October 7 in Rogers’ office. A memorandum of conversation of that meeting is ibid. On October 6, from 4 to 4:45 p.m., Souvanna met with Vice President Spiro Agnew; the memorandum of conversation of that meeting is also ibid.↩
- Article 4 of the Protocol to the Declaration of Neutrality of Laos, July 23, 1962, reads: “The introduction of foreign regular and irregular troops, foreign para-military formations and foreign military personnel into Laos is prohibited.” (American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1962, p. 1079)↩