The Hollow Order
Rebuilding an International System That Works
The debate over Laos, almost as intense if not as bitter as the Vietnam debate, has done more than clarify the nature of the American involvement in that patchwork kingdom which has played a secondary but significant role in the Vietnam war while also engaging in its own struggle to survive as a unitary nation. The Senate's dual actions in prohibiting the use of ground combat troops in both Laos and Thailand, and in curbing the right of the President to make a "national commitment" to any country without prior Congressional approval, have temporarily satisfied the common determination to avoid "another Vietnam." But the fundamental problem of how American policy should be made and conducted in Southeast Asia has only begun to be reëxamined.
The broad outlines of our future policy in Asia were given by President Nixon during his Asian trip last year, most fully at his preliminary stopover in Guam, but much remains hazy about the nature of our current commitments and responsibilities there. The President and other administration officials in speeches and press conferences since then have reëmphasized that, in line with reducing "our involvement and our presence" around the world, as Mr. Nixon put it in his State of the Union Message, the nations of Southeast Asia will henceforth have to bear the main burden of defending themselves against all but the most flagrant-including nuclear- forms of aggression. Still unclear and requiring further reappraisal are such substantive matters as the prerogatives of the Executive and the Departments of State and Defense to make agreements or pledges short of treaties with foreign countries without "the advice and consent" of the Senate.
What must be gone into thoroughly, moreover, are such complicated and specific questions as the advisability and legitimacy of using certain methods, especially clandestine ones, to achieve limited purposes. This includes the question of what sort of assistance the Central Intelligence Agency or any other intelligence branch of the government can or should give to nations engaged in counter-insurgency campaigns or wars within or even beyond their borders, Also involved is the peaceful role that the CIA vis-à-vis the State Department or the armed forces should play in the internal affairs of other nations in such matters, for instance, as helping build political parties and institutions and encouraging or discouraging certain forces and events to the advantage of our own national interests and the interests of the concerned countries. Ultimately and inevitably, these attributes of foreign engagement raise the question of the morality as well as the practicality of henceforth "interfering" in the affairs of other countries, as set against our continuing obligations as a world power seeking to promote peaceful change and progress without acting as a "policeman" in situations where it ostensibly behooves us to remain aloof.
Our Laos involvement, against the backdrop of Vietnam, peculiarly lends itself to a discussion of these questions. Virtually all of the above factors, or choices, have been brought into play there over a period of many years under conditions of conflict that, while not as violent as those in Vietnam, have been even more tantalizing and confounding. In addition, the major powers, including especially Russia, Communist China and the United States, as well as Britain and France, have all been directly concerned with the Laotian situation, both diplomatically and militarily. The cocktail circuit in Vientiane is famous for bringing together a congeries of diplomats unequaled in any other small capital, with the exception perhaps of neighboring Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Along with representatives of the countries mentioned, elbows are rubbed (even if toasts are not always exchanged) among delegates and guests from both North and South Vietnam; Lao communists, neutralists and right-wingers; Poles and Canadians and Indians (all three nations being members of the moribund International Control Commission) ; and Japanese and other Asians and Europeans whose political complexions differ far more than the common glow on their faces would indicate in a gay Laotian evening.
The gaiety of the Lao as a people, their disinclination for violence and their desire to be left alone, even as a partitioned nation if need be, have unfortunately not prevented their being increasingly drawn into the revolutionary power vortex in the former Indochina area. It would have been difficult to guess, when the French belatedly recognized Laotian sovereignty 17 years ago that the fledgling former kingdom-protectorate of a scant two million population would become an integral part of a protracted new Vietnam conflict Yet, as some historians have noted, if Laotian neutrality had been firmly agreed upon and enforced by the United States and the communist powers between 1957 and 1959, as was then possible, the North Vietnamese might not have been able as readily to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail passing through eastern Laos as their major infiltration route into South Vietnam, and the Vietnamese war might have been confined to a long guerrilla contest which the South Vietnamese might have settled themselves, one way or another, without direct American military intervention.
By the time Laotian neutrality was formally created, at the Geneva Conference in 1962, following talks between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961, it was too late. The communists, by then fully aware of the developing new revolutionary situation in Vietnam, had cast their eye on Laos. Under the terms of the Geneva Agreement, the Americans withdrew their approximately 700 military advisers, including "White Star" Special Forces teams, but the North Vietnamese withdrew only 40 civilian advisers through the checkpoints set up by the International Control Commission, They also maintained their hold on the two northern provinces of Sam Neua and Phong Saly which had been established as "regroupment areas" under the earlier 1954 Geneva Agreement at the end of the French Indochina War, and left an undisclosed number of political and military cadres elsewhere in the country to guide the Pathet Lao, It would also have been difficult to foresee that Prince Souvanna Phouma, who in 1960 headed the pro-Left neutralist coalition that turned to the Russians and Chinese for military assistance-and at first received it, but was then denied fresh ammunition and other replacement matériel-would today be the right-wing neutralist head of a government dependent on American aid in his struggle against the North Vietnamese invaders of Laos and their Pathet Lao followers. By 1964, the shaky and fluctuating coalition of neutralists, communists and conservatives in Vientiane and in Khang Khay on the Plaine des Jarres in north-central Laos had fallen apart, chiefly because of communist subversion of Souvanna's neutralist elements. The polarization of right- and left-wing forces, thereafter exacerbated by a series of coups and countercoups, had begun.
The significance of the earlier lost opportunity to put teeth into a formula for neutralizing Laos was fully attested by 1965, when the pace of the Vietnamese war was increased by the entry into it of the North Vietnamese and of American troops. Soon after, convinced of the inability of their Pathet Lao surrogates to carry the war by themselves, the North Vietnamese began putting more sizable numbers of troops into Laos; and ever since then the pattern of communist attacks and government counterattacks, alternating according to the dry and wet seasons, has increased in tempo. A semantic game of subterfuge also began as the "double war" situation developed. One war, along the eastern border and including the Ho Chi Minh Trail areas, concerned Vietnam. The other war, unlike the essentially unconventional one in Vietnam, was an almost conventional annual contest for control of Laotian territory and, to a lesser degree, of population. In the dry season, the communists advanced, while in the wet season the government, supported by American-donated fighter-bombers flown by Thai as well as Lao pilots, retaliated. Gradually, however, the communists gained ground in the southern and central parts of Laos as well as in the northeast. The key to their position was their sustained control of the Plaine des Jarres. In return for American help in holding off the communists within Laos-including CIA support of the now widely publicized "secret army" of General Vang Pao in the northeast and military assistance and advice to the rest of the Royal Lao Army, as well as economic and financial aid-Souvanna Phouma allowed the Americans to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Thai air bases as well as from Danang in Vietnam, and from American aircraft carriers off the Vietnam coast and from B-52 bases in Guam. These bombings, described as "reconnaissance flights," were never officially admitted either by the Lao or the Americans, but correspondents in Southeast Asia mentioned them frequently. And just as Hanoi mocked the official denials, so Souvanna and the Americans drew constant attention to the bland denials of Hanoi that there were any North Vietnamese troops in the country, let alone in South Vietnam.
The truth of the matter, which bears directly on the current situation and on the fuss and fury that have attended the secret Laos hearings held by the Symington subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is that nobody was fooled by anything, including that portion of the American public willing to read the newspapers and magazines with a modicum of care. Throughout Asia, let alone in the United States, the bombings of the Ho Trail were a matter of common knowledge, and there were repeated articles in the press about the so-called "secret war" in Laos backed by the CIA and the "hush-hush" airlines, Air America and Continental Airlines. (Two years ago, for example, two other correspondents and I interviewed General Vang Pao at Sam Thong, one of his northeastern headquarters, and wrote about the CIA support he was being given.)
The situation came to a sudden head late last year and early this year chiefly for two reasons. First was the disillusion over the Vietnam war in the United States and the determination of a number of Senators to make sure that we would not slip into another Vietnam situation in Laos.
The result was secret senatorial hearings to determine the full extent of our commitment, clandestine and otherwise, in Laos and in several other Asian nations. This was a legitimate pursuit in light of the fuzzy commitments and pledges, over and above our "legal" responsibilities in the framework of the 1954 Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which led us into the Vietnam morass (from which we probably should have stayed out, militarily, once it had proved impossible to reform the dictatorial mandarin régime of the late Ngo Dinh Diem). It was one thing, however, to maintain that the American people had the right to know more about what was happening in Laos and what the extent of our operations was, and something else to charge that "secrecy" had shrouded our whole operation there, which was simply not so. The second reason why the hearings were held and received so much attention was the result of an acceleration of the main war in Laos that began last summer. This seems a more important reason for studying the Laos situation, because it bears directly on the war in Vietnam, on the Paris peace talks and on a possibly missed signal that was given last year by the North Vietnamese for a reduction or even an end to the hostilities in Laos in return for a halt in our bombing of the Ho Trail.
It may be helpful here to deal in some sequence with the military and diplomatic events of the last year within the larger framework of both the Laotian and Vietnamese wars. It has been generally argued that a settlement in Laos will necessarily have to be part of, or shortly follow, a settlement of the Vietnam war. However, just as a secure establishment of Laotian neutrality in the late fifties might conceivably have reduced the scope of a major war in Vietnam, it is conceivable now that an opening wedge toward settling the Laos conflict could speed action on settling the Vietnamese war. Here the "double war" situation must be considered further. Just as the communists have insisted that the bombing of the Ho Trail and other parts of Laos be halted completely and that at least the principle of complete American troop withdrawal from South Vietnam be firmly established, so the Americans, the South Vietnamese and the Laotian government have insisted that the North Vietnamese stop infiltrating Laos and South Vietnam and begin withdrawing from both countries as well as from their Cambodian sanctuaries before any meaningful peace talks can be held.
In some ways, a political settlement might seem easier to obtain in Laos than in Vietnam. The basis for a legal settlement already exists in the tripartite formula of 1962. Despite the continuing communist excoriation of Souvanna as "a traitorous imperialist tool," he is still pretty much the indispensable man in Laos and the communists would undoubtedly still accept him as Prime Minister if they and their neutralist adherents received more seats in a newly created coalition government. Under the 1962 formula, the Pathet Lao as represented by the communist Front, the Neo Lao Hak Sat, had four seats, and Souvanna's half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, the official leader of the front, was one of two Deputy Prime Ministers. Souvanna and his neutralists, some of whom were middle-of-the-road and some oriented to the Left, had eleven seats, and the right-wingers held four seats and the other Deputy Prime Ministership. Ever since the Pathet Lao members quit the cabinet in 1963, Souvanna has held open their four seats, and a number of attempts have been made to reconcile him and Souphanouvong, who remains the tool of the Pak Pasasson Lao, the communist party in Laos, and of the Laotian Patriotic Front, which the communists also run. The Russians and the Americans, as well as the Japanese, the French and the British (who co- chair the ICC with the Russians), have all wanted to find a solution in Laos; and in February 1969 the Soviet ambassador went to Sam Neua to see Souphanouvong and his communist superiors. Souphanouvong replied insolently to a temporizing letter sent by Souvanna. The Russians, however, have been eager to deëscalate the Laos war because, among other reasons, they feel it plays into the hands of Peking. They therefore have retained their role as potential mediators, implying that they would be willing to bring pressure on the North Vietnamese to compromise with the Laotian government if the Americans could persuade Souvanna to lower his demands and stop insisting on a complete re-implementation of the 1962 Geneva Agreement, and further if the Americans would stop bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
There have been a number of indications in the last year or so in Laos that, despite the increased pace of the fighting, the North Vietnamese would like to end or at least stalemate what they regard as a surrogate war there so as to be able to concentrate on South Vietnam. However, they have sought to make sure that they were first in a desirable military-political posture, and this raises the question of who bears most responsibility for escalating the Laotian war. In 1968, for the first time in several years, the North Vietnamese, who at present have an estimated 50,000 troops in the country, followed up their usual dry season offensive in the northeast, during which they seized some thirty "sites" or small airstrips in the Meo tribal regions, by attacks that continued into the wet season. They struck westward toward Luang Prabang, the royal capital and administrative capital north of Vientiane. They also threatened Attopeu and other towns in the south, seemingly going further than protection of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in that area warranted. The implication was that they were trying to grab as much territory as possible prior to a possible political settlement
In March 1969, when the North Vietnamese again began their dry season attacks, they seized Na Khang, a town in Sam Neua province with an airfield that was the government's main supply center and a principal factor in its tenuous hold on the northeast. They followed this up, too, with a series of probes and attacks to the west and in southern Laos that extended into the wet season. They did this despite an increase in American-supported bombing sorties to between 200 and 300 a day within Laos, over and above the more than 12,000 being made daily by American planes over the Ho Trail (which is guarded by about half the number of North Vietnamese soldiers assigned to Laos). By May, the North Vietnamese and their Pathet Lao satellite forces were threatening the key town and airfield of Muong Soui on the western edge of the Plaine des Jarres. It was then that the Americans acceded to Souvanna's request to bomb the town of Xieng Khouang, a long-time communist stronghold off the southern edge of the Plaine. General Vang Pao moved his troops into the town following the bombing but was unable to hold it. When heavy rains curtailed the bombing, action on the ground also came to a temporary halt.
Now the diplomatic thread must be picked up again. Early in June of last year, the North Vietnamese ambassador to Laos, Le Van Hien, who had long been absent from Vientiane, paid his second visit to the capital in four years; he had left when Souvanna gave the Americans permission to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail and had returned to the country only once, in the summer of 1968, to attend a royal wedding in Luang Prabang. On that occasion he had snubbed Souvanna, but this time he met with the Prime Minister for an hour in what was described as a "special mission." He went so far as to say that, "We have always recognized Souvanna Phouma as Prime Minister of a tripartite coalition," and, from what I have since learned, he apparently made Souvanna an offer: the North Vietnamese would stop their offensive where it was, removing any threat to Luang Prabang, Vientiane and the Mekong valley, would begin to withdraw some troops and would be willing in due time, though not necessarily immediately, to discuss a political compromise-provided Souvanna would withdraw his permission for the Americans to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hanoi was thus willing to bargain in Laos in exchange for the right of unmolested entry into South Vietnam in order to retain the initiative there and diminish the impact of Vietnamization as the Americans continued to withdraw. This meant the communists were willing to consider at least a stalemate in Laos, a diminishment of activity there and perhaps a resolution of that conflict, in order to obtain their Vietnam objectives first. Souvanna, however, rejected the offer. In effect, he told the North Vietnamese what he had told them before-"You withdraw from Laos first." It is not known to what degree he consulted the Americans, but presumably he was in regular touch with them, as he always is.
The question may legitimately be asked whether a signal was missed that might have helped end the war in Laos and perhaps have hastened a settlement in Vietnam too. The argument has long been made by some prominent Americans, including several who held high-ranking posts in the Johnson administration, that the bombing of the Ho Trail, while it has caused the North Vietnamese high losses in matériel, has never seriously affected their ability to infiltrate troop reënforcements into South Vietnam, and that it has not interdicted their logistic capabilities either, simply making it harder for them to move supplies into South Vietnam. Supposing the North Vietnamese offer to Souvanna had been accepted, and the Trail bombing stopped, the question arises whether Hanoi would have started talking seriously in Paris, even as some additional North Vietnamese forces unmolestedly entered South Vietnam. Then would the Americans have agreed to negotiate if and as the rate of infiltration slowed down and as American forces continued to be withdrawn? A corollary question concerns Hanoi's objectives in both Laos and South Vietnam. Given their considerable domestic problems, especially in agriculture and small industry, and the problems of party morale and discipline in the wake of Ho Chi Minh's death, were the North Vietnamese ready to reduce the level of fighting in both countries to guerrilla proportions and concentrate on winning the political war which they have always maintained is their principal goal?
What actually happened was a rapid escalation of the Laotian war. When the rains slowed down, the communists resumed their assault on Muong Soui, capturing it at the end of June last year. The whole western plain southward to Vientiane was then directly threatened, particularly as the North Vietnamese went on to take some vital road junctions. However, they had overextended themselves. The long, heavy rains had damaged their supply lines, and they were having trouble bringing food, ammunition and medicines all the way across the Plaine des Jarres-in fact, they were using coolies from North Vietnam to reënforce their flagging Lao supporters. Moreover, they were suffering from malaria and from a severe hemorrhagic form of dengue. More importantly, however, they had not expected the forceful American-Lao response, For the first time since the war began, acting at Souvanaa's request, American fighters from Thailand struck throughout the area of the Plaine, attacking Khang Khay and Phongsavan on the plateau as well as Xieng Khouang and key roads and supply centers. Thousands of refugees fled to Sam Thong and other havens to the south and west. Some 8,000 troops of Vang Pao and additional elements of the Royal Lao Army thereupon swept into the Plaine and regained it for the government for the first time since 1964. The remnants of the fleeing North Vietnamese holed up in the mountains around the plateau, throwing down occasional mortar barrages and waiting for reënforcements. The government captured thousands of tons of military and medical supplies stored on the Plaine, most of it in caves and much of it still unwrapped and unused, including a single cache of 2,500 AK-47 guns and 122 millimeter rockets, and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, several score trucks and a dozen heavy Russian PD- 76 tanks.
The angry charge of the communists that 12,000 Thai and American troops had taken part in the counterattack was not true. There are no American combat troops in Laos and no more than a few hundred Thai technicians and advisers, although Lao-Thai from across the Mekong sometimes serve in the Lao army; Thai pilots are still flying in Laos and a battalion of Thai artillery that fought at Muong Soui may be returned to duty. There was no doubt, however, that American fighters and bombers, including Phantom and other modern jets, had made it possible for Vang Pao to recover the Plaine. Nor was there any doubt that in this instance the communists had escalated the war first. It seems unlikely that they would have been willing to risk an attack all the way to the banks of the Mekong, but it is possible if not probable that they had at least wanted to force Souvanna's back to the wall and make him accept their earlier offer or a less advantageous one.
I flew around the Plaine in late September, and set down in a helicopter at several places, including the site of the large ceremonial funeral jars that give the plateau its name. By then the communists had fled Muong Soui, which had also been bombed out, and the government troops had walked back in. The Plaine, which is 3,500 feet above sea level, is unbelievably beautiful. Although the hot weather of the dry season sears it yellow, on the sunny day after a rainfall when I was there it was a magnificent emerald green savannah, except for a few undulating slopes and ravines with trees which cast oblique shadows. Pools of water glistened like broken mirrors. We landed and examined one of the abandoned Russian tanks and visited one of the command headquarters of the Royal Lao Army in the west where fighting for control of two nearby hills was still going on. A light spotter plane for the bombers circled the hills, and large helicopter transports ferried Lao troops in and out-there was no doubt about the difference American support had made. The scars of the long war were everywhere visible-the remains of half a dozen varieties of American and Russian transport and light passenger planes? as well as tanks, trucks, artillery guns and jeeps. Herds of cattle and wild ponies roamed the area, but except for one refugee camp the plateau was otherwise deserted. Xieng Khouang was mostly rubble, except for a pagoda, in the empty waste of which stood a large and a small Buddha; and Khang Khay was a shell of houses.
The recapture of the Plaine des Jarres primarily cost the communists heavy losses in matériel and bought Vientiane four or five months' time. By mid- January of this year, the expected communist counteroffensive had begun. Though the North Vietnamese were still having logistic problems and were suffering from sickness, including cholera, and their Pathet Lao elements as well as Lao porters showed increasing signs of being tired of the war, they quickly recaptured some key ridge-lines on the eastern and northern edges of the Plaine. They were obviously building slowly for a new thrust westward, but the continuing American bombings were making it harder for them than in previous years. For much of the time, they were forced to keep under cover, hiding in caves and moving carefully through the mountains. It seemed doubtful at first that they would try to take and hold the open plateau again. But as I write they have forced the government troops to abandon their last positions there, putting the situation back to roughly where it was a year ago. It remains to be seen how seriously they threaten Sam Thong, Xieng Khouang and Long Cheng, Vang Pao's headquarters south of the plateau. They may even press to the northwest and threaten Luang Prabang, the capital of King Savang Vatthana, to whom the communists now look as a symbol of possible future unity under their dispensation.
In the southeast, moreover, the North Vietnamese, also in January, retook Muong Phine, a town near the Ho Chi Minh Trail that the government captured last summer; in the central part of Laos, they seized most of the Savannakhet province; in the west they were successfully ambushing Route Thirteen, the nation's principal north-south highway, and sporadically cutting it both north and south of Vientiane. Rockets had been thrown into Pakse on the Mekong below Vientiane, while all along the river to the north of the capital both road and river traffic were interdicted. The continuing American bombing was unlikely to keep the communists from holding any key areas, but, while the strategy of the war had not changed, its scope and pace had; it definitely had become a war of fresh escalation. The government, aided by the wider scope of American bombing, was doing its best to keep the communist supply lines cut and to destroy the social and economic fabric in the Pathet Lao areas. The communists were moving more widely in guerrilla fashion to disrupt the government administration in every way, especially in the upper Mekong valley. The ordinary Lao were the chief victims, and, as in Vietnam when the war spread, the number of refugees swelled; the total since the Laos conflict began was now 600,000 though only about a third of these were new, most of those from the period prior to 1968 having been resettled. The majority of the refugees who fled the communist areas under the impact of the bombing voiced strong grievances against having been impressed as porters for long hours and subjected to harsh disciplinary measures and stiff indoctrination by political cadres; but they were also increasingly resentful over being forced to flee their homes because of the American air attacks.
Another factor of some concern as the Laos war has widened has been the resumption of roadbuilding by the Chinese communists in the far northwest. Some years ago, with Souvanna's approval, the Chinese began building a road down from Yunnan, in China; it reached 50 miles into Laos, to Muong Sai. From there they built a spur eastward toward Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, and started another section south toward the Mekong near the Thai border. They then stopped, but late last year they resumed work on both sections, with some seven thousand engineer troops supported by several battalions of infantry and antiaircraft units. Souvanna remained strangely silent, but the general feeling among the Americans was that the Chinese were simply taking advantage of the situation to let the Lao and the North Vietnamese know that they intended to maintain a position in Laos. At the same time they wanted to scare the Thais enough to reassess their relationship with the United States.
It seems apparent that, whatever form American policy takes in Southeast Asia as the Vietnam conflict diminishes, insurgency situations will continue to arise. Neither President Nixon nor anyone else in the U.S. administration has so far made clear the distinction between insurgency within a nation and support of it from without to the degree where it constitutes an "invasion"-this point having been left particularly obscure during the President's post-Guam visit to Bangkok. As in Vietnam, for example, how many communists infiltrated from the North to the South did it take to constitute an invasion? And in the future what will determine, in the words of a top presidential spokesman at a background session in Bangkok, the actual extent of our obligations to respond to an invasion under "existing treaty obligations," and who will define what he described as "the importance we attach to the threat and the significance of the threatened country"?
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was exercised last year over a 1965 "secret" agreement between the Pentagon and Thai officials, which apparently was nothing more than a military contingency plan, based on the outdated 1954 SEATO agreement, to meet a possible variety of situations. Such planning is, or should be, pro forma in any nation. Limits and restraints can be set by the Senate constitutionally and should be observed; but it has been argued, mostly by military men, that in certain emergency situations, and in meeting obligations already spelled out, there may not be enough time to consult the Senate. In the Thailand case, confusion was confounded by the statement of Defense Secretary Melvin Laird that, while the 1965 agreement was still on the shelf at the Pentagon, it was not regarded as "operative" by the present administration since it had been drawn up during the administration of President Johnson.
In Laos, a somewhat similar situation has developed as a result of undertakings apparently given to Souvanna Phouma in 1964 by our ambassador at the time, William. Sullivan, concerning American responsibilities in supporting the country's defenses against further communist encroachments. Whatever Ambassador Sullivan, acting on orders from Washington, told Souvanna, then and afterward, was gone into by the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee when he was called as a witness during the recent hearings. (As of this writing the testimony has not been released to the public because of the State Department's insistence that part of it be censored,) Sullivan, a highly competent and literate career diplomat, was given "a rough time" by his Senate interrogators, according to those who have read the record, undoubtedly due to his having been placed under certain restrictions by his State Department superiors. On the other hand, Richard Helms, the chief of the CIA, being less restricted, primarily detailed the history of the much-maligned "secret war" in Laos and explained what the CIA has been doing there all these years. At the end of the hearings, Senator Fulbright, chairman of the committee, admitted that "the Agency is just following orders," although he expressed the opinion that the National Security Act under which it operates "never contemplated this function." In adding his disapproval of the kind of activity in which the Agency had been engaging, referring obviously to its assistance to Vang Pao, the Senator rather bleakly said that, "If it is in the national security to do this, it seems to me it ought to be done by regular United States army forces and not by an intelligence-gathering agency."
There are many, both in and out of government, who would disagree. Whatever the success or failure of the CIA in specific instances, the background and training of its personnel would seem to qualify it uniquely to carry out operational duties dependent on information gathered and analyzed secretly before action is taken. To argue otherwise is to deny the advantage of ever adopting covert means, something the communists nowhere in the world would admit.
In Laos, at any rate, the CIA's low-level counterinsurgency operation was successful in the "pre-escalation" period prior to last summer. I doubt that it could have been as efficiently implemented by any other government organization, since it enjoys a mobility and applies a flexible approach that the bureaucratic hierarchy of the army lacks. Its agents saw in the Meos a people willing to fight for their territories, their hills. Out of a rather motley total of about 250,000 tribesmen they formed a "secret army" of 15,000 regulars and another 25,000 part-time soldiers. And in Vang Pao the CIA found a leader who often proved to be as intractable as he was amenable to guidance but who never lacked courage or imagination. It gave him and his men assistance ranging from modern M-16 rifles and ammunition to highly sensitive communications equipment, some of which was used to guide and protect American bombers over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Whether it was in "the national security interest" to do this (in Senator Fulbright's phrase) will ultimately be decided by the historians.
In any event, the "secret war" that never was very secret has by now become a matter widely reported in the world's press, and of national concern. There are bound to be similar situations arising in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world in the coming years, and it must be decided how we are going to handle them. That kind of decision promises to be more complicated than the making or breaking of treaties and the ordinary conduct of diplomacy. Our failures in Vietnam have been essentially political failures. Our current soul-searching resulting from that circumstance demonstrates the need for such questions to be determined not only by Congress but at the executive level of the White House and the National Security Council, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department, and by the CIA itself. The resolution of these policy-making problems entails the settlement of some deep-seated intragovernmental rivalries.
If we are to do more than verbalize the reformulation of foreign policy, or simply indulge ourselves after Vietnam in our predilection for self- expiation, the process of sorting out these matters must be carried beyond bureaucratic housecleaning, though that is also necessary. In this process of revising the philosophy of our foreign relations the voice of the American people clearly should be heard.