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99. Memorandum From Director of Central Intelligence Helms to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • The Situation in Laos

In connection with your upcoming trip to the Far East,2 I want to bring to your attention what I see to be a deteriorating situation in Laos. While in Southeast Asia, you may well want to examine what is occurring there in the context of its effects on American equities in Vietnam.

Since 1962, this Agency has played a major role in support of United States policy in Laos. Specifically, we have developed and maintained a covert irregular force of a total of 39,000 men which has borne a major share of the active fighting, particularly in Northeast Laos. In this latter area, under the leadership of General Vang Pao, guerrilla units formed of Meo tribesmen have been engaged for more than eight years in a seesaw battle with the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao troops.

Up until this year the fighting in North Laos has had a cyclical nature with friendly forces advancing during the rainy season from July until November and enemy forces advancing during the following dry season. This year the pattern has been broken. We are several weeks into the rainy season and the North Vietnamese have continued to attack. They have captured and held, using elements of two North Vietnamese Divisions, including tanks, the former neutralist stronghold of Muong Soui on the edge of the Plaine des Jarres and they are now advancing west along Route 7 toward its junction with Route 13 which links the capital city of Vientiane with the royal capital of Luang Prabang. (See attached map.)3 There are also indications that enemy units are moving south and west of the plain in a direction which would threaten the major Meo bases of Long Tieng and Sam Thong. The Lao Cabinet, somewhat leaderless with Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma [Page 306]vacationing in France, is in a panic over this situation and has been belaboring the United States Embassy in Vientiane with requests for action, particularly heavier air strikes against the enemy.

The Embassy is working with the 7/13th Air Force to provide a considerable increase in tactical air strikes directed against enemy lines of communication in hopes of inhibiting any major enemy move west of Muong Soui. Although air strikes in the past have exacted a heavy toll, the North Vietnamese forces appear so far in their current campaign willing to pay the price. They may also have chosen to keep moving because tactical air sorties are limited by the extremely bad weather prevailing in the area at this time of year.

On the ground, the neutralist forces which formerly occupied Muong Soui are dispersed and completely ineffective as a fighting force. The Force Armes Royale (FAR) is tied down in defense of other areas and incapable of stopping regular North Vietnamese divisional units. The Meo units under Vang Pao have been forced into a defensive position to protect their key bases. Moreover, these irregular forces are tired from eight years of constant warfare, and Vang Pao is unable to find the manpower resources to do more than keep up with his losses. Already he has been forced to use 13 and 14 year old children to replace his casualties. We think Vang Pao will fight hard to maintain his Headquarters in the Northeast highlands, but as the military pressure on it increases, it will be more and more difficult for him to control his tribal elders, some of whom are already talking about evacuation to safer areas in western Laos.

The Department of State is aware of the problem and is moving diplomatically to urge the Soviets to intercede with the North Vietnamese to slow their advance.4 Preliminary Soviet reactions are not encouraging.

North Vietnamese intentions are unclear and their current advance may have only limited aims but there are many Lao, including Vang Pao, who believe the North Vietnamese plan to encircle and threaten the royal capital at Luang Prabang and move down Route 13 to Vang Vieng and the edge of the Vientiane plain. Should they do this, they would be able to negotiate from a position of strength. In these circumstances the Lao Government might not be able to hold together and Souvanna could be forced to make some accommodation with the Communists. The North Vietnamese goals may be (1) either a partition of Laos giving them full authority over the areas they control at the [Page 307]point of a future cease fire or (2) the reconstitution of the Tripartite Government but consisting this time of a coalition they control: Souvanna Phouma on the right, Communist controlled neutralists in the middle, and the Neo Lao Hak Sat front group on the left.

The North Vietnamese now have the option, if they choose to exercise it, of provoking a most serious political crisis in Laos. In this situation the limits have largely been reached on what this Agency can do in a paramilitary sense to stop the North Vietnamese advance in Laos which is now threatening.

Richard Helms 5
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, DCI Executive Registry, Job 80–B01284A, Laos, 1 Jan.–31 Dec. 1969. Secret. Copies were sent to Rogers and Laird.
  2. On July 23 Nixon flew to the South Pacific to witness the splashdown of the Apollo XI moon flight. This began a world tour that included stops in Guam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, South Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Romania, and Great Britain.
  3. Attached but not reproduced.
  4. As outlined in telegram 118077 to Vientiane, July 16. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1969–73, POL 27 LAOS)
  5. Printed from a copy that indicates Helms signed the original.