Laos: Anatomy of an American Involvement

When President Kennedy came to office in 1961, he was startled to learn that almost 700 American soldiers, more than half of whom were members of the Special Forces, were in Laos, while about 500 Soviet troops were there providing logistics support to the local communist forces, the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese allies.

Fearing the possible consequences of such a confrontation and considering American interests in Laos to be small, President Kennedy sought to disengage. Negotiations ensued at Vienna, at Geneva, in Laos and elsewhere. The result was the ambiguous compromise set forth in rather unambiguous language in the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos and the Protocol to that Declaration, signed by 13 communist and non-communist countries in July 1962, commonly known as the Geneva Accords of 1962.

Under the mantle of this agreement, the Laotians themselves established a tripartite government composed of right-wing royalist elements under General Phoumi Nosavan, neutralist elements under Prince Souvanna Phouma and communist elements whose nominal leader was Prince Souphanouvong (Souvanna Phouma's half brother). The balance of power in the government was given to the neutralists, and their leader Souvanna Phouma became Prime Minister, a post he holds today.

The Geneva Accords themselves required Laos to disassociate herself from all military alliances, including SEATO, prohibited the introduction of foreign military personnel and civilians performing quasi-military functions (except for a small French training mission), precluded the establishment of any foreign military installations in Laos and forbade the use of Laotian territory to interfere with the internal affairs of another country. Pursuant to this agreement the Americans and Soviets withdrew their military personnel. The North Vietnamese, however, failed to withdraw most of their 6,000-man force that was then in Laos.

Nevertheless, a relative peace settled over this somnolent "Land of the Million Elephants" for about one year, to be shattered in 1963 by an exchange of assassinations. The non-communist officer Colonel Ketsana was murdered and shortly thereafter the pro-Chinese Foreign Minister Quinim Pholsema was killed. These sparked a renewal of the fighting in Laos, which has raged ever since.

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