JFK and Laos (1961–1962)

Chapter 3: Endorsing Souvanna

This chapter will examine the factors surrounding the Kennedy Administration’s eventual sponsorship of a neutralisation scheme based on the leadership of Souvanna Phouma and the abandonment of Phoumi. In particular, it will look at the controversy surrounding the dealing with Phoumi amongst U.S foreign policymakers in pressuring him to support the Souvanna solution. In addition, assessing policy options still considered by the Administration. Furthermore, the impact of the Nam Tha military debacle on the military question in Laos and the overall Geneva negotiations. Thus, establishing whether decisions taken were because of the Administration’s flexible decision-making or a temporary retreat. In the period from June 1961 onwards, the Kennedy Administration was already engaging in negotiating sessions at the Geneva Conference on Laos, which opened on May 16. Publically, the Administration was still committed to a political solution in Laos in the form of a coalition government whilst considering different military and non-military responses in case an agreement was not worked out.

By August 1961, the policy dilemma the Kennedy Administration continued to confront on Laos was between military intervention to support Phoumi’s anti-communist forces and diplomatic support for Souvanna Phouma as head of a coalition government, who was already endorsed by Britain and France. The main problem that more hard-line members of the Administration had with Souvanna remained his determination to withstand communist pressures. Coupled with the vulnerable military positions by FAR forces against the Pathet Lao, one of the options presented was the possibility of the partition of Laos, along the line of Korea and Vietnam, and this was advocated by more militant policymakers, such as Rostow. The arguments for a division of Laos were based the certainty of the communists’ control of the North and a political base in the strategic South would allow continued U.S. military presence to preserve non-communist identities of Thailand and South Vietnam.58 At the same time, the option was only presented as a last resort, which was still depending on progress in the Geneva negotiations. Furthermore, the viability of a government in Southern Laos headed by Phoumi raised more questions than answers, which might have prolonged U.S. military commitments and it would have been a situation that Kennedy wanted to avoid.

At the same time, the Administration was moving closer towards supporting a coalition government headed by Souvanna and this was done through roving Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. During the Geneva Conference, Harriman was becoming the most influential person in the formation of U.S. policy in Laos. He gained President Kennedy’s trust due to his seniority, extensive knowledge of Soviet politics and connections to the highest echelons of the Democratic Party.59 In the process, he would also be the Administration’s biggest patron of Souvanna. This endorsement was shown in a meeting on September 12 between him and Giorgi Pushkin, the Soviet delegate to the Geneva Conference. During the meeting, the latter stated that the Soviet Union also desire a truly independent and neutral Laos and was ready to come to an agreement with the U.S. to establish a neutral government under Souvanna and maintain it after a proposed election.60 Despite the diplomatic breakthrough, it was based on the assumption of high-level diplomacy as key to solving the problems in Laos whilst it had been established that the Soviets did not have any strategic interests in Laos, unlike North Vietnam. In the final months of 1961, it became apparent that the Administration was moving towards endorsing Souvanna as part of a political solution for Laos. On the other hand, there were increased distrust of Phoumi as a hindrance for the Administration in achieving its aims in Laos as a result of Harriman’s influence.

In a telegram delivered to the State Department from the Conference, Harriman argued that strengthening Souvanna against the Pathet Lao, rather than undermining him was key to ‘successfully neutrality and independence for Laos.’ On the other hand, Phoumi was seen as ‘an inadequate instrument’ in furthering U.S. objectives in Laos.61 Harriman’s observations would have confirmed the frustrations that the Kennedy Administration had had with Phoumi in the last few months as a result of the lack of tangible military results against communist forces. Whilst State officials were in line with this thinking, Phoumi was still supported by the CIA and the Pentagon. According to Hilsman, the influence of the former was reduced as a result of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Administration’s desire for a better balance between different departments and agencies. This left with the Pentagon as the stronger of Phoumi’s allies in Washington but their endorsement also weakened due to military incompetence of Phoumi’s forces.62 Despite the Administration’s public intentions of attaining the neutrality of Laos and supporting Souvanna, there remain differences between State and Defense officials in the decision-making process, particularly surrounding actions toward either Souvanna or Phoumi.

Therefore, the decision-making process by the Kennedy Administration toward a neutralisation solution based on support for Souvanna was not a sign of flexibility but rather concessions being made as results of hindering factors within Laos. Moreover, the diplomatic-military endeavours envisioned by President Kennedy were imbalanced due to differing interpretations of the Laos situation between military officials and State Department diplomats. One example was interpretations of the military situation. In a memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to McNamara that was also addressed to the President, the military position of FAR was seen as stronger than at the beginning of the cease-fire, which allowed for stronger bargaining position on the side of anti-communist factions in Laos.63 Thus, the recommendation was to continue strengthen those positions of the anti-communist element whilst not overcommitting towards a negotiated settlement, hence, more emphasis on the military aspects. 64 On the other hand, State officials would have had the opposite interpretation of the military situation, which led to further endorsement of a Souvanna-led coalition government and reducing support for Phoumi. In a telegram from the State Department giving instructions to the U.S. Embassy in Laos in preparing for an upcoming meeting with Phoumi, the military situation in Laos at that point was seen as ‘inconvertible proof of FAR’s fundamental military weakness’ compared to the relative strength of the Pathet Lao and Việt Minh (North Vietnamese) forces.65 Therefore, State’s assessment reinforced the pre-existing views within members of the Administration of the military capability of anti-communist Laotian forces, in contrast to Defense’s assessment. Hence, recommendations were to put emphasis on diplomatic efforts over military actions by early 1962.

During this period, despite the differences between different departments and agencies, the consensus in the Administration was that Souvanna to head a neutral coalition government in Laos as part of a political settlement. At the same time, the main problem for the Administration was the intransigence of Phoumi regarding U.S. pressure to be part of the Souvanna solution. Furthermore, the endorsement of a political solution in Laos was based on the premise that a neutral Laos would serve as a buffer zone between the communist and non- communist states in Southeast Asia. Thus, Laos was only part of the strategic calculations regarding Thailand and South Vietnam, which were greater priorities for the Administration’s Cold War policy in Southeast Asia. These views were part of a meeting between President Kennedy and 30 other figures, which included bipartisan Congress leadership and members of the Administration. The presence of members of Congress from both political parties would have given a semblance of national unity and transparency, in which the President going beyond bipartisan politics to achieve national consensus on foreign policy issues. In the meeting, SEATO Plan 5 for military intervention was discussed, in which there were difficulties in term of communication and logistics and the military prowess of Laotians on both sides was questioned, particularly State Secretary Rusk.66 In addition, Senator Mansfield of the Democrats who, as previously mentioned, had been in favour of a political solution in Laos, also re-emphasised on the importance of Souvanna to a political solution and that the main focus was on preserving South Vietnam and the regime of Ngô Đình Diệm.67

By the end of February 1962, President Kennedy officially approved the decision to transfer U.S. support to a Souvanna-led neural government from Phoumi whilst continuing strengthening the anti-communist elements to deter communist influence.68 This decision, however, did not indicate a complete shift to diplomatic methods and complete abandonment of the military question due to the strategic need to reduce communist influence and bargaining position. Furthermore, the dilemma the Kennedy Administration faced between withholding support for Phoumi to pressure him into supporting the Souvanna solution and the risk of a weakened FAR which could be taken advantage by the Pathet Lao. According to Stuart-Fox, due to the possibility of renewed fighting following the cease-fire, the Administration was reluctant to withdraw either military or economic aid.69 Government documents between March and April 1961 confirmed this dilemma and based on several factors. There was the possibility of Phoumi accusing the U.S. of abandoning its allies and contributing the decimation of Laos’ freedom in times of need.70 Thus, it would have been damaging to the U.S.’s credibility in the eyes of anti-communist Allies. Furthermore, depending on internal and external developments, there was also the possibility of the U.S. reversing to support Phoumi if he continued to stay on regardless of effects of the sanctions, which might require U.S. troops to be deployed.71 Thereby, the reversal would have also affected the Administration’s credibility in committing to a neutral solution in Laos, particularly from the perspective of communist adversaries such as the Soviet Union. Despite the arguments against, the Administration was committed to military sanctions due to a lack of viable alternatives to the Souvanna solution and to reserve international credibility in terms of commitment to a neutralist solution.

Another controversial episode in the lead-up to a final agreement was the military debacle caused by Phoumi’s forces in Nam Tha, which impacted upon the military question of the Laos crisis. On May 6, 1962, communist forces composed of North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao seized the provincial capital of Nam Tha in Northern Laos, which virtually eliminated all of the authority held there by the royal government.72 According to Rust, the debacle in Nam Tha seriously hindered President Kennedy’s hopes of resolving the Laos crisis without conceding Laos to communism, which would have damaged the Administration’s credibility, and opting for U.S. military intervention. The debacle also created domestic political problems as it was utilised by Kennedy’s Republican opposition to criticise the Administration‘s “vacillation, indecision, (and) uncertainty in world affairs”, as representative Gerald E. Ford had done on U.S. television.73 Furthermore, the military failure would have been seen by domestic critics as an immediate negative consequence of the military sanctions imposed upon Phoumi earlier. At the same time, the Administration would be viewed as more interested in making concessions and not vigorous in supporting anti- communist efforts in the Third World. On the other hand, the debacle also reinforced the perceived fundamental weaknesses of FAR, which prevented policymakers to aim for a Laotian neutrality on U.S. terms. Furthermore, it also limited options available to the Kennedy Administration in the final months of the Geneva negotiations and also reduced their bargaining position relative to the communist sides. Thereby, Nam Tha represented a temporary retreat for the Administration.

Whilst Nam Tha represented a serious setback, it was necessary for the Administration to maintain a façade of serious commitment to a political solution in Laos whilst preserving the non-communist nature of the Laos government. Following on from the debacle, in a White House meeting on May 10, it was decided that appropriate units of the Seventh Fleet was to be moved into the Gulf of Siam without any public pronouncements.74 Most historians have observed this decision as example of Kennedy’s flexible decision-making, in terms of a more vigorous response to communist advances without provoking the possibility of all-out war and jeopardising the Administration’s commitment to a political solution. In addition, on May 25, Khrushchev affirmed Soviet support for a neutral Laos, which the Administration believed the Soviets would take actions to prevent the Pathet Lao from taking over all of Laos.75 At the same time, despite their military gains, the Pathet Lao did not want to risk U.S. intervention and were committed to re-opening negotiations.

On the other hand, as shown through documents between June and July 1962, there were still outstanding issues to be resolved such as composition of the Laos cabinet and strengthening Souvanna’s non-communist credentials. During this period, the Three Princes of Laos who represented the competing factions in Laos, Boun Oum (rightist); Souvanna Phouma (neutralist); and Souphanouvong (communist) had agreed on a cabinet for a coalition government. The composition of the government had been described by members of the Administration, particularly those of the NSC as ‘not ideal’. In particular, the portfolios of Foreign Affairs and Information being held by communists.76 Therefore, the Administration’s reactions showed that the military-diplomatic endeavours envisioned by Kennedy to pursue a neutrality on U.S. terms had only achieved limited goals. During the period in the lead-up to the final agreement, there had been more emphasis in the decision-making process, on strengthening the non-communist nature of the Souvanna government through less direct military means in the form of economic assistance, which the Administration agreed was the best instrument available.77 Furthermore, there was greater share of responsibility with key Western allies in Britain and France. For France, this included greater efforts in supporting military and police forces in Laos.78 Whereas for Britain, as they were one of the co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference, they were to exert diplomatic pressure on its Soviet co-chairman to police communist North Vietnamese and Chinese observance of the final agreements.79 As mentioned before, part of the attempts to achieve an agreement was based on the assumption of Soviet control of its communist subsidiaries in the region which did not take into account different agenda and their independence in action. On the other hand, this greater share of responsibility was based on the Kennedy Administration’s switch of endorsement from Phoumi to Souvanna, which appealed to Britain and France. This would have potentially left the U.S. to concentrate on containing communism in more worthwhile places such as South Vietnam.80 Moreover, the choice of economic assistance over more confrontational measures demonstrated that military actions were no longer suitable for a place for Laos, hence, represented a combination of flexible decision-making and temporary retreat for the Kennedy Administration.

On July 23, 1962, after more than a year of diplomatic-military intrigues, representatives of fourteen nations signed the ‘Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos’ at Geneva. The final declaration internationally ratified the neutralisation of Laos and a coalition government with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister. It also established a protocol to monitor compliance with the Declaration.81 Despite the semblance of neutrality and peace, the final agreement was only a compromise between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that Laos was not to be a primary theatre of the Cold War.

58 Memorandum From the President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Rostow) to the President’s Miltary Representative (Taylor), Subject- A Split vs. Unified Laos, Washington, August 8, 1961 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): pp. 356–357.

59 Sutayut Osornprasop, “Amidst the Heat of the Cold War in Asia: Thailand and the American Secret War in Indochina (1960–74),” Cold War Politics 7, no. 3 (August 2007): p. 358.
60 Telegram From the Embassy in Italy to the Department of State, From Harriman, Rome, September 13, 1961, 8 p.m. in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 411.

61 Telegram From the Delegation to the Conference on Laos to the Department of State, From Harriman, Geneva, November 19, 1961, 5 p.m. in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 519.
62 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, p. 138.

63 Memorandum From the Deputy Secretary of Defense (Gilpatric) to President Kennedy, Subject- Reassessment of U.S. Policy in Laos ©, Washington, January 12, 1962, (Enclosure) Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense McNamara, JCSM — 12 -62, Subject- Reassessment of U.S. Policy in Laos ©, Washington, January 5, 1962 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 581.
64 Memorandum, p. 582.
65 Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Laos, Washington, January 27, 1962 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 597.

66 Memorandum of Conference With President Kennedy, Washington, February 21, 1962, 9.30 a.m. in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): pp. 628–629.
67 Memorandum of Conference, p. 630.

68 Instructions Approved by President Kennedy, Washington, February 28, 1962 in in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 640.

69 Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos, p. 122.
70 Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Thailand, Washington, March 23rd, 1962, 10 a.m. in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): pp. 665–666.
71 Memorandum From Michael V. Forrestal of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy), Subject- Laos, Washington, April 6, 1962, (Attachment) Draft Memorandum to President Kennedy, Subject- Laos, Washington, April 6, 1962 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 684.

72 Special National Intelligence Estimate, Implications of the Fall of Nam Tha, SNIE 58–3–62, Washington, May 9, 1962 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 727.
73 Rust, So Much to Lose, p. 115.

74 Memorandum for the Record, Subject- Presidential Conference on Laos, Washington, May 10, 1962. 4:30 p.m. in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 735.
75 Verrone, “Behind the wall of Geneva,” p. 117.

76 Memorandum From Michael V. Forrestal of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy), Subject- Laos Planning, Washington, June 11, 1962 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): pp. 837–838.

77 Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Ball to President Kennedy, Subject- Laos: United States Government Actions with Respect to Geneva Conference and the Souvanna Government, Washington, June 28, 1962 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 858.

78 Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Ball to President Kennedy, p. 857.
79 Ibid, p. 359.
80 George Christopher Eliades, “United States Decision-Making in Laos, 1942–1962” (PhD Diss., Harvard University, May 1999), p. 407.

81 “Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos. Signed at Geneva, on 23 July 1962- Protocol to the above- mentioned Declaration. Signed at Geneva, on 23 July 1962,” United Nations Treaties Collection, accessed April 13, 2018. https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/unts/volume%20456/volume-456-i-6564-english.pdf

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Nghia Mai

Nghia Mai

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Ireland-based Vietnamese humorist interested in making people of all creeds and species laugh and think. Cultural Ambassador (Whatever that means).