Declaration of Neutrality of Laos Signed in Geneva
An agreement was signed in Geneva for the reestablishment of Laotian neutrality. The terms of the agreement called for Prince Souvanna Phoumato be reinstated as Premier of Laos. The agreement agreed to by the U.S. and the Soviet Union temporarily ended civil war in Laos.
When President Kennedy took office his main concern in Southeast Asia was Laos, where a civil war had been raging between Communist and non communist forces. The Geneva Accords that had ended the French Indo-China War had allocated most of the country to Kingdom of Laos while giving two provinces to the Pathet-Lao. In 1956 Prince Souvanna Phouma returned to power and created a coalition government that included the Pathet Lao. The US objected cutting off aid. The rightest opposition came to power and the two provinces that had briefly become integrated back into the central government came again under Pathet Lao control. The US and the Soviet Union agreed at the Geneva Conference in 1962 that Laos would in fact be neutral and Phouma would return as leader. They US this time was happy with the outcome the North Vietnamese who were using part of the Laos as a supply line were not.
Geneva Agreements of 1962 on Laos
documents signed in Geneva, Switzerland, during an international conference (May 16, 1961-July 23, 1962) on a settlement of the Laotian question. Participating in the conference were representatives of Laos, the USSR, the People&rsquos Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Poland, the USA, France, Great Britain, India, Burma, Cambodia, Canada, Thailand and the Saigon government. Representatives of the three political forces in Laos were invited to the conference on an equal basis (Prince Souvanna Phouma from the neutralists, Prince Souphanouvong from the Patriotic Front of Laos [Neo Lao Hak Yat], and Prince Boun Oum and General Phoumi Nosavan from the rightist grouping).
In June 1962, the three Laotian political groupings reached an agreement to create a coalition government in Laos. The cochairmen of the conference were the representatives of the USSR and Great Britain. The Geneva Agreements of 1962 include the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, part of which is the Statement by the Government of Laos on Neutrality (July 9, 1962), and a protocol to the declaration, which provided that the conference participants would respect the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity, and territorial integrity of Laos.
The USA flagrantly violated the Geneva Agreements of 1962 by granting economic and military aid to the right-wing grouping in Laos in its military operations against the patriotic forces of Laos, which were launched in April 1963. The USA invaded Laotian air space beginning in 1964 and bombed territories in the liberated zone. As a result, the implementation of the internal political settlement in Laos was upset, and the coalition government ceased to operate. In February 1971, American and Saigon troops invaded southern Laos from South Vietnam, but they were thrown back by the patriotic Laotian forces. In February 1973 an agreement was signed on the restoration of peace and the reaching of a national consensus in Laos.
The Laos Crisis, 1960–1963
The first foreign policy crisis faced by President-elect John F. Kennedy was not centered in Berlin, nor in Cuba, nor in the islands off the Chinese mainland, nor in Vietnam, nor in any of the better-known hot spots of the Cold War, but in landlocked, poverty stricken Laos. This was the major issue Kennedy and his foreign policy team—Secretary of State Dean Rusk , Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara , and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy —focused on during the days leading up to Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961.
Kennedy met with President Eisenhower the day before his inauguration with two goals in mind. He expected the meeting to “serve a specific purpose in reassuring the public as to the harmony of the transition. Therefore strengthening our hand.” His substantive focus was on Laos. “I was anxious,” he recounted to his secretary, “to get some commitment from the outgoing administration as to how they would deal with Laos which they were handing to us. I thought particularly it would be useful to have some idea as to how prepared they were for intervention.”
The Eisenhower administration was leaving Kennedy a confused, complex, and intractable situation. Laos was a victim of geography: a RAND study of the period summarized the nation as “Hardly a nation except in the legal sense, Laos lacked the ability to defend its recent independence. Its economy was undeveloped, its administrative capacity primitive, its population divided both ethnically and regionally, and its elite disunited, corrupt, and unfit to lead.” But this surpassingly weak state was the “cork in the bottle,” as Eisenhower summarized in his meeting with Kennedy the outgoing President expected its loss to be “the beginning of the loss of most of the Far East.”
The Eisenhower administration had worked for years to create a strong anti-Communist bastion in Laos, a bulwark against Communist China and North Vietnam. While attractive on a map, this strategy was completely at odds with the characteristics of the Laotian state and people. By 1961, Laos was fragmented politically, with three factions vying for control. The United States had thrown its support behind General Nosavan Phoumi, whose forces were engaged in combat with a neutralist force under Kong Le. Soviet aircraft were conducting resupply missions for Kong Le’s forces. Neutralist leader and former Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma had gone into exile in Cambodia, but remained influential and active in Laotian politics. His half-brother, Souphanouverong, led the Communist-dominated Pathet Lao, which had established control over an extensive area along the Laos-North Vietnam border. Phoumi’s forces had little popular support, had proven ineffective in combat, and appeared to be well on their way to a military defeat.
The Eisenhower administration had led the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization for precisely this sort of contingency. In this first major test, however, the United States was unable to secure the alliance’s support for intervention. Its major European powers, Great Britain and France, considered Phoumi an illegitimate ruler and supported Souvanna Phouma they were adamantly opposed to taking military action in Laos. An interagency analysis prepared in January 1961 summarized, “Since SEATO was created to act in circumstances such as that now existing in Laos but has not acted, it casts doubt not only on its own credibility but on the reliability of the United States as its originator . . . SEATO becomes a means by which restraint is imposed on us by our allies.” As the Eisenhower administration reached its final days, the United States was faced with the prospect of unilateral military intervention in a desperate attempt to salvage the situation. Beyond the vast logistics issues associated with intervention, the insertion of U.S. forces raised the substantial risk of a U.S.-Soviet military confrontation.
Kennedy faced a choice between two unpromising strategies: pursue a military solution, very likely demanding a unilateral intervention by U.S. forces or adapt a major shift in policy, seeking a cease-fire and a neutralization of Laos. He rejected the military option, though he encouraged an offensive by Phoumi designed to strengthen his negotiating position. It failed abjectly. Kennedy opened his press conference on March 23, 1961, with an extended discussion of Laos, calling for an end to hostilities and negotiations leading to a neutralized and independent Laos. The Pathet Lao accepted the ceasefire offer on May 3. This delay gave the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) the time to conduct an offensive in southern Laos, capturing the crossroad village of Tchepone and the terrain necessary to extend the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the western side of the Annamite Mountains on the border between Laos and South Vietnam. Laos was a major topic at the Vienna Summit on June 4, with Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev agreeing on a common goal of a ceasefire, neutrality, and a coalition government as Khruschev summarized, “the basic question is to bring about agreement among the three forces in Laos, so that the formation of a truly neutral government could be secured.” Kennedy considered Laos a test case for the prospects of U.S.-Soviet cooperation, in areas where the superpowers could reach common objectives and avoid confrontation.
Kennedy appointed W. Averell Harriman as Ambassador at Large in the first days of his administration, and then formalized Harriman’s policy role in appointing him Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs the following November. Harriman took the lead in orchestrating American policy toward Laos as an international conference on Laos convened in Geneva on May 16. The fourteen nations involved included the U.S.S.R., Laos, People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Poland, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, India, Burma, Cambodia, Canada, and Thailand. Meanwhile the three Laotian factions conducted negotiations on the composition of a coalition government. By the following March Harriman had become disenchanted with Phoumi, and decisively shifted American policy toward a coalition government led by Souvanna Phouma. The Laotian groups reached agreement on the composition of the coalition government on June 12, 1962, and the Geneva conference reached agreement on the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos on July 23.
These agreements provided for a coalition government in Laos under Souvanna Phouma , with cabinet positions distributed among the three factions. The Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos and its associated protocols called for the withdrawal of all “foreign regular and irregular troops, foreign para-military formations and foreign military personnel” under the supervision of the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Laos (ICC), comprised of representatives of India, Poland, and Canada. The ICC would operate on the principle of unanimity, a change from its practice from 1954 to 1958, when it operated under majority rules. Integration and demobilization of the three Laotian armies would be conducted by the coalition government, with neither the ICC nor other international parties overseeing or enforcing these critical activities.
These agreements broke down quickly, with lasting consequences for Laos and its neighbors. The NVA conducted a symbolic withdrawal of 15 troops on August 27, and on October 9 North Vietnam notified the Laotian foreign ministry that their troops had been withdrawn in accordance with the Geneva agreement. However, North Vietnam continued its advisory, logistics, and combat in support of the Pathet Lao in violation of the accords. North Vietnam also continued to extend its territorial control in southern Laos to secure its logistics lines to the battle areas in South Vietnam. The United States withdrew its military advisory teams in compliance with the Geneva agreement, but in its aftermath responded to the North Vietnamese violation by supporting Meo and Thai forces, and by providing economic and military support to the Phouma government and its army.
Declaration of Neutrality of Laos Signed in Geneva - History
After the surrender of the Japanese in World War II, the French attempted to reassert dominion over Laos and the rest of French Indochina, which included Vietnam and Cambodia. The Communist Laotian nationalist movement, the Pathet Lao, was an ally of the Vietnamese in the struggle with France. After the French were defeated by the Vietnamese, the Geneva Accords of 1954 established the sovereignty of Laos. Civil war soon broke out, however, as the Royal Lao government, supported by the United States, fought Pathet Lao insurgents, supported by the Communists in neighboring North Vietnam.
The Eisenhower government committed millions of dollars in aid and teams of military advisers to prevent the takeover of Laos by the Pathet Lao. Shortly before John F. Kennedy's inauguration, President Eisenhower warned his successor that the effort was on the verge of failure and the US military might need to intervene.
Kennedy moved cautiously. He rejected a variety of proposals to send American forces and concluded that a negotiated settlement with the Soviet Union and other interested parties was the best he could achieve. A 1962 peace conference in Geneva produced a Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos and a three-part coalition government divided between pro-American, pro-Communist and neutral factions. From Washington's standpoint, the arrangement was flimsy, but it was the best of unattractive options.
Soon after the accord was reached, civil war resumed. As American military involvement in Vietnam grew, Laos became another battlefield in that region. Running through eastern Laos, the Ho Chi Minh trail was a crucial North Vietnamese supply route for Communist forces in South Vietnam. To disrupt the flow of supplies, the United States bombed parts of Laos for nearly a decade, until a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1973. In 1975, the Pathet Lao took control of the country.
Level of Confidentiality: Top Secret
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Document
Record of Conversation between Soviet Union Deputy of Foreign Affairs [Georgiy Maksimovich] Pushkin and Ambassador Liu Xiao
&mdash Concerning the Soviet Representative Group Attending the Geneva Convention and Similar Issues&mdash
[Georgiy Maksimovich] Pushkin: [&hellip] First we believe that in practice, Beijing, Hanoi, and Warsaw are actually in agreement that during this conference, we should take advantage of the situation in Laos in order to come to a conclusion that best benefits the consolidation and development of the power of the Laotian people. If we approach it from this angle, we believe that we will be able to reach an agreement with the Western powers.
Second, the Laos problem involves issues of two nature: domestic and international. Issues that fall under the domestic category should not be discussed at this conference. These issues include: those concerning the organization of the Laos government, the reorganization of its military, the power of representation of three political parties, elections, etc. We cannot discuss issues of that nature at the Geneva Conference rather we can only put forth effort in the areas of promotion and aid. Issues of an international nature include: the neutrality of Laos, the insurance there of, the removal of foreign military and military personnel, prevention of interference in Laos' internal politics, etc. There are many issues of this nature. Of course, those that fall under the jurisdiction of the International Supervision and Control Commission do sometimes fall into this category and can be discussed.
However, there are some issues that fall under both categories simultaneously. If they come up, then we can discuss them. For example, issues concerning a ceasefire. This is a domestic problem because it requires negotiation and a resulting agreement among related parties in Laos, but the International Supervision and Control Commission should be provide supervision over the execution of the treaty. Another example is issues concerning an election. This should be a domestic problem, but if all parties express a desire for an international commission to supervise the election, then we can discuss and set the responsibilities of such a commission. There is a whole host of issues related to this.
As for the question of Laos' neutrality, we hope that we will be able to pass a document ensuring Laos&rsquo permanent neutrality during the conference, to be signed not only by Laos but by all of the participating nations. However, we have also anticipated another situation, one that [Souvanna] Phouma has expressed before. Laos may not be willing to be forced into a treaty of neutrality, but would rather, issue its own statement of neutrality. He hopes that Laos will be able to declare neutrality in a document similar to that published by Austria. However, we believe that under these circumstances, we must include their declaration of neutrality and related documents in those resulting from the Geneva Conference. This way, not only will Laos be charged with maintaining its own neutrality, but all participating nations will be forced to respect their neutrality. This way they won't have to issue a declaration of neutrality themselves.
As for some military affairs, there are several issues of this nature. In reality, they are related to the insurance of Laos&rsquo neutrality, for example the elimination of military bases and removal of foreign militaries. On this side of things, we think that some resolutions should be passed and a document made up, a portion of which should include a definition of the scope of the International Supervision and Control Commission's jurisdiction in this matter.
Aside from this, there are also a number of issues of a procedural nature.
According to the opinions put forth by our Chinese comrades, we believe that this conference should be linked to the previous one. The 1954 Geneva Convention was a foundation for the consolidation and development of the power of the Lao people.
We think that, concerning the question of who will chair the conference, we can agree with England's suggestion that the conference be chaired by them and by the Soviet Union. If we change the number of chairs this time, then there will certainly be those who call for a neutral nation to be added, and they will suggest India. While India flaunts neutrality, in reality they are not at all politically neutral. At the same time, if this is brought up, we cannot conveniently oppose it as we have pushed for third neutral parties to be added to the Chair of several international organizations and unions. We also feel that Britain remaining as one of the Chairs is fitting and advantageous for us because Britain&rsquos stance on the Laos issue conflicts with that U.S. and some other Western countries. Britain is more willing to resolve the problem. They have expressed dissatisfaction with America's unseating of Phouma's government, believing that they created an even worse situation for Western countries by unseating him. They frequently grumble about America over this. British suggestion has some wisdom to it as Britain is not always willing to listen to America on some issues. From my personal conversations with the British ambassador, I believe that the British tend to be more flexible, easier to convince and more willing to give way. Sometimes, on issues that he could discuss with America first, he instead agrees immediately. Judging by such situations, Britain will sometimes act independently out of its own interest rather than discussing it with America first. Perhaps after they have expressed agreement and go back to discuss it with America, they will emphasize their own difficulties and reasons for agreement.
As for the question of the International Supervision and Control Commission, we have been thinking over whether or not it would be worthwhile to change the members of the commission, whether or not it would be better to consider another side: Limit the jurisdiction of the commission and make it impossible for them to interfere in the domestic government of Laos under any circumstances. This is a formidable task, and we think that our decision will be beneficial for the development of the power of the people of Laos. If this issue is brought up, we can suggest two courses of action: the commission can be made up of two members from each socialist, imperialist, and neutral countries or representatives from socialist and imperial nations can each nominate two people and Neutral nations can nominate one. Related problems can still be discussed.
Concerning the question of who will represent Laos, our position is of course that Phouma's government should be recognized as the only legal government in Laos. Only this government can represent Laos, but its representing delegation can include members of other political powers, such as the Lao Patriotic Front, or members of the rebel faction.
Speaking of legal governments, since there are several members of Phouma's government participated in the rebellion, we'd like to mention that the term &ldquolegal government&rdquo refers to Phouma and those cabinet members who are against the rebellion. We should think of what we will do if America agrees to recognize Phouma's government but insists that it must consist of the original members. This possibility is certainly not out of question. If this happens, then the Phouma government will include a large rebel faction as majority and will not have representative of the Patriotic Front. That is dangerous for us. Under this situation, we have to maintain that there should be either the Patriotic Front members or a 3rd party involved in Phouma's government.
We have received word from Hanoi saying that our Vietnamese comrades hope we won't forget to fight for the Patriotic Front representation. They hope that the two chair nations will send an invitation. In relation to this issue, we've thought of it too. Britain will not agree to issue an invitation to the Patriotic Front on behalf of both chair nations. They will not be persuaded. However, we will still fight for it. This afternoon the British ambassador came to speak with me. In the beginning I thought of the following way to bring up this matter: If we do not allow the legal government to send its own delegation, then we should invite a 3rd political power to participate in the conference. Of course, the question of them participating in the conference will be discussed in the conference itself, but when we talk about that, these representatives should be able to wait in Geneva otherwise their coming will be a waste of time. Aside from that, I would still like to subtly point out to the British ambassador that he should take notice of the issue of the Patriotic Front's attendance. I'm not bringing these things up with the hope that he will agree immediately, but I at least want to make him express even a little bit of agreement and then make a fuss over little things. We are aware that if we fight hard for this, we will definitely win the ability to allow the Patriotic Front to attend the conference and allow them to wait in Geneva, Prague, or Moscow. As for the representatives from the rebels, the Western powers will certainly bring them to Switzerland. It's quite convenient for them. If they do not allow the Patriotic Front representatives to attend, then we will certainly oppose the attendance of the rebels.
The International Supervision and Control Commission has already held a meeting in Germany and passed a resolution to only allow two chair nations. The British and we have already received this report and we are currently researching with the British and discussing the question of the instruction of that commission. Before the Polish representatives went to Germany I spoke with them in detail and told them which issues we must remain firm on and on which we can afford to be flexible. It appears that our Polish comrades did well there. This meeting was very well done and there were only a few places that turned out less than ideally, but that's not a big problem. The British embassy was not pleased with the report they brought up to instructional drafts. During discussion we opposed the idea of passing two documents and they eventually agreed to pass only one. I pointed out to them that the drafts were too long and tedious and that several details could be done away with. We are going to continue negotiations today. I estimate that today we should be able to resolve the question of the commission's instructions. If so, the committee will be able to leave for Laos tomorrow. Once everything is settled concerning the commission's report and instructions, we will immediately notify Beijing.
The British ambassador asked if I know that Sihanouk has already expressed that he will not be attending this conference, and what I think of that. I answered saying that 14 countries minus 1 equals 13. I have no other opinion. I then replied, "I should ask how you feel about it, as he wasn't our guest but yours." The ambassador immediately replied saying that Sihanouk's recent behavior has nothing to do with Britain. I said, if it really has nothing to do with you, then it definitely has something to do with your allies. It appears that England is a little uncomfortable with Sihanouk and they were afraid that we would reconsider holding the conference over this.
Ambassador Liu [Xiao]: What do you think of Sihanouk's statement?
Pushkin: It's childish! His behavior isn't serious in the bit, he's playing a clown! Here's the situation: the king of Laos felt uncomfortable because the power of the Lao Patriotic Front was growing continuously. He thought up some tricks. He wanted to hold a conference on the 1st, dissolve the government, and organize a government without Phouma's participation. It appeared to also have some participants who did not take part in the rebellion. In reality they were also his people. He put pressure on Sihanouk, and Sihanouk might have agreed to some of his suggestions, he may have done some foolish things under that pressure. However, this is unimportant the conference can still be held on time. His refusing to participate will not affect the conference. We can save three seats for them that they can occupy if they wish.
Ambassador Liu: According to the latest information, how is America's attitude toward the Geneva Conference?
Pushkin: America has already stated that they will attend the conference. There is no newer information.
International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos
The International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos is an international agreement signed in Geneva on July 23, 1962 between 14 states including Laos. It was a result of the International Conference on the Settlement of the Laotian Question which lasted from May 16, 1961 to July 23, 1962.
Burma, Cambodia, Canada, the People's Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, India, Poland, the Republic of Vietnam, Thailand, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed a Declaration which together with the statement of neutrality by the Royal Government of Laos of July 9, 1962, entered into force as an international agreement on the date of signature July 23, 1962. 
The 14 signatories pledged to respect Laotian neutrality, to refrain from interference — direct or indirect — in the internal affairs of Laos, and to refrain from drawing Laos into military alliance or to establish military bases in Laotian territory. The Laotian government pledged to promulgate constitutionally its commitments which would have the force of law.
However, the agreement was violated in when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam established a supply line through "neutral" Laotian territory for supplying the Viet Cong insurgency against the government of South Vietnam.
More specifically, during the Second Indochina War the North Vietnamese obtained the cooperation of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (Pathet Lao) in constructing and maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail which passed through the length of Laos. Thousands of Vietnamese troops were stationed in Laos to maintain the road network and provide for its security. Vietnamese military personnel also fought beside the Pathet Lao in its struggle to overthrow Laos' neutralist government. Cooperation persisted after the war and the Lao communist victory.
Harrison Manlove is a Cadet in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Kansas and is currently studying History and Peace and Conflict Studies. Harrison has also written for The Strategy Bridge, where he examined Russia’s strategy in Syria and the Middle East. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of U.S. Counterinsurgency Efforts in Laos 1954-1962
Date Originally Written: June 21, 2019.
Date Originally Published: September 30, 2019.
Author and / or Author Point of View: This article is written from the point of view of the U.S. National Security Council after the 1962 Geneva Accords to determine the effectiveness of programs in Laos and their use in future foreign policy actions.
Summary: From 1954-1962 the deployment of U.S. Army Special Forces teams, Central Intelligence Agency officers, economic and military aid prevented a communist takeover of Laos, considered a strategically important country in Southeast Asia. A pro-West Laos was desired under Eisenhower, but the transition to a neutral coalition government was ultimately supported by the Kennedy administration to keep Laos from becoming a Communist foothold in Indochina.
Text: Counterinsurgency (COIN) can be defined as government actions to counter the “organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region”. U.S. COIN in Laos had a broad focus to include: building the capacity of the Forces Armées du Royaume (FAR) – the Lao Royal Armed Forces, training a thousands-strong Hmong paramilitary force, economic and military aid packages, and defeating insurgent threats within Laos. Despite little strategic value, the French war in Indochina had convinced the Eisenhower administration that Laos could be the first potential ‘domino’ to cause Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam to fall to communism.
In 1954, economic aid began flowing into Laos through a United States Operations Mission (USOM) based in Vientiane. The 1954 Geneva Agreement brought the fighting to a (relative) end, established an independent and neutral Laos, and issued a withdrawal of French military units and Viet Minh elements, leaving only a small French force to train the FAR. The Pathet Lao, a communist political movement and organization in Laos, would move to the northeast for eventual demobilization.
The Programs Evaluation Office (PEO) was established in 1955 as an element of USOM to facilitate defense aid to the FAR, supporting the fight against the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) presence in northeastern Laos. Laotian neutrality meant the PEO was staffed and led by civilians who were almost all former military. The Vientiane Agreements, signed in 1957, incorporated the Pathet Lao into the FAR. However, a 1959 coup conducted by Laotian General Phoumi Savanna signaled the continued tenuous situation in Laos.
In 1959 U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) personnel deployed to Laos as part of Project Hotfoot to train FAR personnel. Hotfoot was spread across the five military regions within Laos. Led by U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Arthur ‘Bull’ Simons of the 77th Special Forces Group, training responsibilities for Hotfoot were divided in two. “France would provide the tactical training to Laotian forces while non-uniformed U.S. SF would equip and provide technical training[Emphasis in original].” Hotfoot transitioned and expanded after Kennedy took office.
In August 1960, Laotian Captain Kong Le led an FAR airborne battalion to Vientiane in a coup against the Royal Lao Government (RLG) to form a neutralist government. Lack of pay and the burden of continuous operations led to the coup. While U.S. efforts under Hotfoot became Operation White Star in 1961, SF began Operation Pincushion, a training program for the Kha tribal areas with village defense units each up to 100 strong. The PEO also became a Military Assistance Advisory Group with personnel donning uniforms, signaling the transition to an overt military presence. During French rule the Auto Defense Choc (ADC), or self defense units, were established at the village level and filled by local populations. CIA began a covert operation, called Momentum, to build off the ADC program and establish a large paramilitary force of ethnic Hmong to fight the Pathet Lao insurgents and Kong Le’s forces.
Vang Pao was a Hmong officer in the FAR who had earlier received assistance from SF to create an irregular Hmong force. In 1961, CIA paramilitary officer James W. Lair approached Vang Pao to expand the operation which became Momentum. The second White Star rotation in the spring of 1961 became part of Momentum. The operation would equip and train nearly 10,000 recruits who proved extremely effective in the field.
CIA used its proprietary airline – Air America – to support operations taking place throughout Laos. H-34 helicopters (replacing the weaker H-19), C-46, C-47, C-123 transport aircraft, and single-engine short take-off and landing aircraft provided airlift capabilities to CIA officers moving throughout the country, and FAR and Hmong units who received supplies through airdrops.
U.S. activities were critically challenged by Pathet Lao radio broadcasts (with Soviet support) which “were convincingly portraying the U.S. as obstructing peace and neutrality in Laos (while downplaying their own efforts to do so).” The U.S. Information Agency field office in Laos “had two main objectives: improve the credibility of the Laotian government in the eyes of the population, and counter-Communist propaganda.” Small radios were distributed to provide pro-government messages in the Lao language, which was limited by the various local dialects around the country. In 1961 the U.S. Army deployed the 1st Psychological Warfare Battalion consisting of 12 men, whose “primary role was augmenting the U.S. Information Service (USIS).” and their under-resourced staff.
Under U.S. policy from 1954-1962, COIN efforts to support the RLG were a relative success. In 1962 a neutralist-majority coalition government was formed including rightists (from the RLG) and members of the Pathet Lao. The 1962 Geneva Accords again declared Laotian neutrality and barred any re-deployment of foreign forces to Laos. Fighting had slowed, but the Kennedy administration was disappointed with the political result. Neutrality was not a complete policy failure for the Kennedy administration, as a communist government would not be in place. In accordance with the agreement SF teams withdrew from Laos, while Air America flights slowed. However, future American operations would be covert, and conducted primarily by the CIA beginning after the coalition collapse in 1964 to the Pathet Lao defeat of the RLG in 1975.
From a policy perspective, the American commitment to Laos was consistent with containment and halting the global spread of communism. The covert nature of U.S. operations reflected not only the declarations of neutrality by the RLG, but the larger possibility of U.S. embarrassment on the domestic and world stages if U.S. objectives did fail. Even with no discernible strategic interests in the region, particularly Laos, “National prestige was, as always, closely linked to its apparent success or failure in foreign policy.”
 United States, Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2018). Joint Publication 3-24 Counterinsurgency (p. ix)
 Mcnamara, R. S. (1996). In retrospect. Random House Usa. (pp. 35-37)
 Leeker, J. F. (2006). Air America in Laos II – military aid (p. 1, Rep.). Part I
 Adams, N. S., & McCoy, A. W. (1970). Laos: War and revolution. New York: Harper & Row. (p. 128). United Nations. (1954). Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Laos 20 July 1954.
 Castle, T. N. (1991). At war in the shadow of Vietnam: United States military aid to the Royal Lao government, 1955-75 (Doctoral dissertation).
 Adams, N. S., & McCoy, A. W. (1970). Laos: War and revolution. New York: Harper & Row. (p. 147).
Blood on His Hands: JFK’S Costly Blunders
Although Vietnam War historians have been quick to criticize Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon for their errors in strategy, policy and judgment regarding America’s involvement in the war, John F. Kennedy often gets a “pass”—his name seldom appears on the “short list” of presidents who “lost” Vietnam. Geoffrey Shaw’s The Lost Mandate of Heaven, however, makes a solid case that Kennedy and his top advisers—particularly W. Averell Harriman’s influential State Department clique—orchestrated “a political disaster that led America into a protracted and costly war.” Shaw’s book reveals Kennedy’s disastrous blunders that may have lost the Vietnam War before the United States began fighting it in earnest.
As its subtitle promises, Shaw’s book principally focuses on the Kennedy administration’s “betrayal” and collusion—at the very least its acquiescence—in the Nov. 1-2, 1963, military coup that resulted in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Shaw’s image of Diem, based on extensive research, original sources and declassified documents, sharply contrasts with the widely accepted view of South Vietnam’s first president. Diem has typically been portrayed as a corrupt despot who, stubbornly ignoring American advice, mercilessly persecuted the country’s Buddhist majority in favor of his fellow Catholics. Critics also pointed to his heavy-handed rule, which alienated South Vietnam’s population and increased the risk that the war would be lost to North Vietnamese–sponsored Communist guerrillas. According to this conventional view—notably, as Shaw shows, relentlessly promoted at the time by Saigon’s American press corps, which despised Diem—the South Vietnamese president had to go and therefore the Kennedy administration justifiably colluded in his removal.
Shaw presents Diem as a dedicated leader of integrity, a popular Vietnamese nationalist deeply committed to his Catholic faith’s tenets, firmly resolved not only to protect his country against North Vietnamese aggression but also to resist becoming merely a figurehead and pawn of the Americans. Calling Diem’s murder “a mistake of unparalleled proportion,” Shaw asserts that it robbed South Vietnam of the only leader whose fame, stature and nationalist credentials rivaled those of the North’s Ho Chi Minh. No subsequent South Vietnamese leader proved capable of inspiring the country’s population with the fervor necessary to successfully resist North Vietnam.
Even if you are unswayed by Shaw’s revisionist presentation of Diem’s character and leadership, you have to question the Orwellian logic of the Kennedy administration’s support for his removal: Led by the Harriman faction, Kennedy’s top advisers concluded that Diem was not “democratic enough” to suit them, so they colluded in a bloody coup d’état that murdered Diem and replaced his elected government with a military dictatorship! The Kennedy administration’s complicity in the military cabal’s coup was hardly a shining example of democracy in action. Even North Vietnam’s leadership was astonished that the United States had conspired to eliminate the South Vietnamese leader the Communists most feared.
Shaw also recounts another inexcusable Kennedy blunder that arguably was his administration’s worst mistake directly influencing the war: the egregiously inept decision binding the United States by international treaty to officially honor the “neutrality” of Laos. Signed in Geneva on July 23, 1962, by the United States and 14 other nations—notably North Vietnam and its principal Communist supporters, China and the Soviet Union, who enthusiastically approved it—the one-sided treaty, based on “unenforceable neutrality,” was a farce from inception.
Hanoi immediately violated the agreement, sending thousands of North Vietnamese Army troops (joining Laotian Communist allies, the Pathet Lao) to occupy Laos’ entire eastern half and construct the extensive logistical network, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was vital for North Vietnam’s prosecution of the war. North Vietnam had maintained logistical routes and bases in Laos since at least 1958 to supply Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam.
It is hardly an exaggeration to state that every American killed in ground combat in South Vietnam during the war died from a bullet, rocket-propelled grenade, mortar round, artillery shell or hand grenade brought south via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There was no other practical means for Hanoi to get the instruments of death south other than through “neutral” Laos.
Thanks to Kennedy’s unconscionably foolish Laos treaty—“forged by Harriman,” Shaw points out—North Vietnam had free rein to exploit this monumental advantage. Although the United States bombed the Laotian trails, the massive effort was disappointingly ineffectual. And the ill-fated 1971 Laos incursion by U.S.-supported South Vietnamese ground troops proved far too little and much too late.
Shaw’s insightful book shows that Vietnam War historians must stop giving Kennedy a pass. Clearly, Kennedy has blood on his hands—Diem’s and that of an untold number of American GIs.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s August 2016 issue.
Presidents and the Vietnam War
The road that led to the Vietnam War started before World War II even ended. Franklin Roosevelt supported national self determination in Indochina and was apposed to France reclaiming its former colonies after the war, but when Roosevelt died, and Harry Truman became president, that support died with him. State Department officials in Asia warned Truman that French rule of Vietnam would lead to “bloodshed and unrest”. Truman did not share his Roosevelt’s anti-colonialism and ultimately accepted France’s reestablishment it’s prewar empire. Truman thought that by retaking Indochina, France would shore up it’s economy and buoy its national pride. At the 1945 Potsdam conference in Germany, the Allies agreed that France was the rightful owner of French Indochina, and they would help the French re-establish control over their former colonial possession. Once the Soviet Union and Communist China started aiding North Vietnam, Truman started funding the French war effort.
By the time Dwight Eisenhower became president, the United States already had advisors in Vietnam and they were paying over half of the cost for France’s war there. When the French were on the brink of collapse in Indochina at Dien Bien Phu they begged the United States to intervene. Most of Eisenhower’s advisors wanted him to enter the war, some even suggested the use of nuclear weapons to save the French. Eisenhower was dead set against going to war in Vietnam, stating “This war in Indochina would absorb our troops by divisions!” After France’s failure at Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 Geneva Accords were signed that split Vietnam along the 17th parallel. Elections were supposed to take place to reunify Vietnam, but Ho Chi Minh would not allow any monitoring of elections in the north, even refusing the United Nations. Knowing that the communist barring the UN from monitoring elections in the north was likely a pretense for fraud, South Vietnam decided to not hold elections on the referendum. Eisenhower continued to aid South Vietnam in their struggle against the Communist North, but he bequeathed to John Kennedy pretty much the same situation in Vietnam that Truman left to him. Eisenhower wisely stayed out of war in Vietnam, unfortunately those that followed him weren’t as wise.
Though not a part of Vietnam, the country of Laos held the key to it’s defense. It bordered both North and South Vietnam to its east. During the Eisenhower administration the United States government had been sending aid to Laos to keep it from falling under Communist control. Kennedy failed to see the importance that Laos played in Vietnam’s defense and he agreed to the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, which created a three party coalition government of Laos. The United States withdrew support from Laos as part of the agreement, but North Vietnam soon broke the agreement, which eventually led to the fall of Laos to Communism. The loss of Laos to communism allowed North Vietnam to set up the Ho Chi Minh trail, which allowed communist troops and aid to flow through the back door into South Vietnam.
Whereas Eisenhower was smart enough to buck his military aides and avoid sending combat troops, Kennedy listened to his military aides, and sent the first combat troops to Vietnam under the guise that they were “advisors”. Kennedy increased the presence in South Vietnam from 800 advisors to 16,000 troops by the time of his death. Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem had told the United States that he didn’t want U.S. troops sent to his country, as he felt it would make it look like he was bowing to colonialism. Kennedy sent General Maxwell Taylor and Deputy National Security Advisor Walt Rostow to Vietnam to assess the situation. Despite Diem insisting against U.S. soldiers, Taylor and Rostow advised Kennedy to send combat troops. Diem was right, and the introduction of American troops eroded his popularity. In October of 1963, Kennedy told U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to give General Duong Van Minh covert assistance in a coup to overthrow Diem. On November 1st 1963, Diem was overthrown and eventually assassinated by Minh. The overthrow of Diem is one of the key events in the war, as it put the United States on a path to much deeper intervention, which would be very difficult to extract itself from. Before Diem’s overthrow, Kennedy had approved NSAM (national security action memorandum) 263 on October 11, 1963, which called for the withdraw of 1000 troops by the end of 1963, with most U.S. personnel removed by the end of 1965. Historians use NSAM 263 to state that Kennedy had decided to remove the combat troops from Vietnam, but that was before the November 1st coup. It is a great unknown what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam, but one cannot assume he would have made the colossal mistakes the Lyndon Johnson did. By the end of 1963, however, 1000 troops were removed from Vietnam in accordance with NSAM 263.
Kennedy’s death led to a major change in Vietnam policy much the same way that Roosevelt’s did nearly two decades earlier. Lyndon Johnson went all in on Vietnam. When Johnson took office there were only 16,000 troops in Vietnam, but by the time he left office that number had ballooned to over 500,000. During the 1964 presidential campaign Johnson promised the American people that he wouldn’t go to war in Vietnam stating “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Johnson’s used the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 4th 1964 as justification to declare war. The Destroyer, the USS Maddox, thought that it was being attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, and radioed in reporting the attack and asking for air support. The air support verified that there were no torpedo boats in the area. Even Captain Herrick of the Maddox determined that there were no torpedo boats there and that his sonar operators had made a mistake. Herrick sent a high priority message that stated “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.” When Johnson presented the public and Congress with the “attack” he deliberately omitted the evidence that proved that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was nothing more than a phantom attack. Johnson and his staff knew that no attack happened, but they used it as a pretext to go to war, and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed through congress on August 7th. Johnson put domestic political considerations ahead of military concerns in Vietnam. He didn’t want to look weak in the eyes of his political opponents or be seen as “losing Vietnam” the way Truman was seen as “losing China”. He also felt that a loss in Vietnam would hurt his reelection chances in 1968. In February of 1965 Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder, which was a sustained bombing campaign of Northern Vietnam. Johnson steadily increased troop levels until the end of his term. Even though Johnson saw the war as unwinnable, he persisted due to fear of the possible political fallout. The war became so unpopular that it led to a peace movement and it cost Johnson any chance at reelection.
In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and The Washington Post. The Pentagon Papers demonstrated that the Johnson Administration systematically lied to both the American people and Congress about the war in Vietnam. The Pentagon papers covered the U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1963. They revealed many things that were hidden from the press about the war, including Kennedy’s involvement in the 1963 coup, as well as bombings in Laos and Cambodia. Since the war was ongoing at the time, President Richard Nixon wanted to stop their publication for national security reasons.
Nixon entered the White House with the promise to end the war in Vietnam with an honorable peace. Having a large number of troops in an ongoing war made safe and quick extraction impossible. Nixon’s plan in Vietnam was to drawn down US troops while replacing them with Vietnamese troops in what was called Vietnamization, while negotiating a peace agreement with North Vietnam. In 1969 Nixon began a campaign bombing Cambodia due to it’s allowing the North Vietnam and the Viet Cong to use the Ho Chi Minh trail to funnel soldiers and supplies into the south. The bombing of Cambodia was controversial, but justified as part of a strategy to end the war. It was also the right thing to do to support the American soldiers on the ground. In January of 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed between the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong. The agreement included a cease-fire, a promise to remove all US soldiers and advisers and the North Vietnamese agreed to release all POWs. Nixon got the best settlement possible considering the war had long been lost due to Lyndon Johnson’s total lack of a winning strategy. The agreement was meant to end the war between the north and the south, but in December of 1974 North Vietnam broke the agreement and launched an invasion of South Vietnam. By this time Gerald Ford had taken over as President after Nixon’s resignation. As North Vietnamese forces advanced, Ford asked for a $722 million aid package from Congress. The proposal was voted down by a wide margin. Saigon fell in April of 1975, with the United States evacuating over 1300 U.S. citizens and over 5500 Vietnamese nationals. The final fall of South Vietnam was a bitter pill for many to swallow after all the blood and treasure spent to save it. Over 100,000 Vietnamese refugees emigrated to the United States to escape the evils of communism.
The Vietnam war left a scar on the psyche of many Americans. Many veterans were mistreated by portions of the public upon returning home and several suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome. Every time there was a new foreign confrontation would come up there would be cries of “another Vietnam”. Johnson’s misuse of the Gulf of Tonkin incident also led to congress passing the War Powers Act, which is a constitutional infringement upon a presidents power as commander in chief.
Lao People&aposs Democratic Republic - History
Although archaeological evidence indicates that settlers along the Mekong had learned agriculture, metallurgy, and pottery making by 3000 BC , little is known about the early history of the land that today bears the name of Laos. The lowland Lao are believed to be the descendants of Thai tribes that were pushed southward in the 8th century. According to tradition, the kingdom called Lan Xang (Ȫ million elephants") was established in 756 by King Thao Khoun Lo. In 1353, it was reunified by Fa-Ngoum, who had been raised at the court of Angkor in Kampuchea and returned with a force of Khmer troops. He is also credited with the introduction of Hinayana Buddhism into Laos. Lan Xang waged intermittent wars with the Khmers, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai and developed an effective administrative system, an elaborate military organization, and an active commerce with neighboring countries. In 1707, internal dissensions brought about a split of Lan Xang into two kingdoms, Luangphrabang in the north (present-day upper Laos) and Vientiane in the south (lower Laos). Strong neighboring states took advantage of this split to invade the region. Vientiane was overrun and annexed by Siam (Thailand) in 1828, while Luangphrabang became a vassal of both the Chinese and the Vietnamese. In 1893, France, which had already established a protectorate over what is now central and northern Vietnam, extended its control to both Vientiane and Luangphrabang, and Laos was ruled by France as part of Indochina. Although French control over Luangphrabang took the nominal form of a protectorate, the French colonial administration directly ruled the rest of Laos, legal justification being ultimately provided in the Lao-French convention of 1917.
During World War II, Laos was occupied by Japan. After the Japanese proclaimed on 10 March 1945 that "the colonial status of Indochina has ended," the king of Luangphrabang, Sisavang Vong, was compelled to issue a declaration of independence. The nationalist Free Lao (Lao Issarak) movement deposed the monarch soon after, but French forces reoccupied Laos, and on 27 August 1946, France concluded an agreement establishing him as king of Laos and reimposing French domination over the country. In May 1947, the king established a constitution providing for a democratic government. On 19 July 1949, Laos nominally became an independent sovereign state within the French Union. Additional conventions transferring full sovereignty to Laos were signed on 6 February 1950 and on 22 October 1953. All special economic ties with France and the other Indochinese states were abolished by the Paris pacts of 29 December 1954. In the meantime, Vietnamese Communist (Viet-Minh) forces had invaded Laos in the spring of 1953. A Laotian Communist movement, the Pathet Lao (Lao State), created on 13 August 1950 and led by Prince Souphanouvong, collaborated with the Viet-Minh during its Laotian offensive. Under the Geneva cease-fire of 21 July 1954, all Viet-Minh and most French troops were to withdraw, and the Pathet Lao was to pull back to two northern provinces, pending reunification talks with the national government under the leadership of Souvanna Phouma (Souphanouvong's half-brother). The negotiations were completed on 2 November 1957, and the Pathet Lao transformed itself into a legal political party called the National Political Front (Neo Lao Hak Xat). However, a political swing to the right that led to the ouster of Souvanna Phouma as prime minister, coupled with the refusal of the Pathet Lao forces to integrate into the Royal Lao Army, led to a renewal of fighting in May 1959.
A bloodless right-wing coup in January 1960 was answered in August by a coup led by paratroops, under the command of Capt. Kong Le in the ensuing turmoil, Souvanna Phouma returned to power. After a three-day artillery battle that destroyed much of Vientiane, right-wing military elements under Gen. Phoumi Nosavan and Prince Boun Oum occupied the capital on 11 December. A new right-wing government under Prince Boun Oum was established, but further military reverses, despite a heavy influx of US aid and advisers, caused the government to ask for a cease-fire in May 1961. An international conference assembled in Geneva to guarantee the cease-fire. All three Laotian political factions agreed on 11 June 1962 to accept a coalition government, with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister. On 23 July, the powers assembled at Geneva signed an agreement on the independence and neutrality of Laos, which provided for the evacuation of all foreign forces by 7 October. The United States announced full compliance, under supervision of the International Control Commission (ICC), set up in 1954. Communist forces were not withdrawn. Fighting resumed in the spring of 1963, and Laos was steadily drawn into the role of a main theater in the escalating Vietnam war. The Laotian segment of the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail emerged as a vital route for troops and supplies moving south from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), also known as North Vietnam, and was the target for heavy and persistent US bombing raids. While the Vientiane government was heavily bolstered by US military and economic support, the Pathet Lao received key support from the DRV, which was reported to have 20,000 troops stationed in Laos by 1974. Efforts to negotiate a settlement in Laos resumed with US backing in 1971, but a settlement was not concluded until February 1973, a month after a Vietnam peace agreement was signed in Paris. On 5 April 1974, a new coalition government was set up, with equal representation for Pathet Lao and non-Communist elements. Souvanna Phouma, 73 years old and in failing health, stayed on as prime minister, while Prince Souphanouvong was brought closer to the center of political authority as head of the newly created Joint National Political Council.
The Pathet Lao had by this time asserted its control over three-fourths of the national territory. Following the fall of the US-backed regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia in April 1975, the Laotian Communists embarked on a campaign to achieve complete military and political supremacy in Laos. On 23 August, Vientiane was declared "liberated" by the Pathet Lao, whose effective control of Laos was thereby secured. On 2 December 1975, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established, with Prince Souphanouvong as president and Kaysone Phomvihan as prime minister. King Savang Vatthana abdicated his throne, ending the monarchy that had survived in Laos for 622 years. Elections for a new National Assembly were called for April 1976 however, voting was put off indefinitely, amid reports of civil unrest and sabotage. A Supreme People's Council was convened, meanwhile, with Prince Souphanouvong as chairman, and was charged with the task of drafting a new constitution.
During the late 1970s, the Communists moved to consolidate their control and socialize the economy. Private trade was banned, factories were nationalized, and forcible collectivization of agriculture was initiated. "Reeducation" camps for an estimated 40,000 former royalists and military leaders were established in remote areas as of 1986, the government maintained that almost all the inmates had been released, but Amnesty International claimed that about 5,000 remained. A 25-year friendship treaty with Vietnam, signed in July 1977, led to closer relations with that country (already signaled by the continued presence in Laos of Vietnamese troops) and with the former USSR, and also to the subsequent dismissal from Laos of all Chinese technicians and advisers. China, for its part, began to give support and training to several small antigovernment guerrilla groups. With the economy in 1979 near collapse, in part because of severe drought in 1977 and flooding in 1978, the Laotian government slowed the process of socialization and announced a return to private enterprise and a readiness to accept aid from the non-Communist world. Throughout the 1980s armed opposition to the government persisted, particularly from the Hmong hill tribe rebels. At the Fourth Party Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), in December 1986, a "new economic management mechanism" (NEM) was set up, aiming at granting increased autonomy in the management of formerly state-run enterprises to the private sector.
In 1988 the Lao national legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), adopted new election laws and the first elections since the formation of the LPDR in 1975 were held. Local and provincial elections were held in 1988, and on 27 March 1989 national elections took place for an enlarged Supreme People's Assembly. In March 1991 the Fifth Party Congress of the LPRP changed Kaysone Phomvihan's title from prime minister to president, elected a new 11-member politburo, pledged to continue economic reforms in line with free-market principles while denying the need for political pluralism, and changed the national motto by substituting the words ⋞mocracy and prosperity" for "socialism." The newly elected SPA drafted a constitution adopted on 14 August 1991. The constitution provided for a national assembly functioning on principles of ⋞mocratic centralism," established the LPRP as the political system's "leading organ," created a presidency with executive powers, and mandated a market-oriented economy with rights of private ownership.
President Kaysone Phomvihan, longtime LPRP leader, died on 21 November 1992. A special session of parliament on 24 November 1992 elected hard-line Communist Nouhak Phoumsavan as the next president. Gen. Khamtai Suphandon, who had been prime minister since 15 August 1991, remained in that post. National Assembly elections were held in December 1992. One day before these elections, three former officials who called for a multiparty democracy and had been detained in 1990 were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. The National Assembly convened in February 1993 and approved government reorganization designed to improve public administration. On 9 January 1995, longtime leader Prince Souphanouvong died, unofficially marking an end to Laos' long dalliance with hard-line Marxism. Although the NEM had initiated an opening up to international investment and improved relations with the rest of the world, there remained elements of the old guard in positions of power. With the death of Souphanouvong, the only old-time hard-line Marxist still in power as of 1996 was the country's president, Nouhak Phoumsavan. Khamtai Siphandon, prime minister and party chief, was more powerful than Nouhak and is largely credited with exerting a moderating influence on the hardliner. Nonetheless, there remains a strongly conservative mindset among the politboro members that still pulls the government back from economic flexibility or any hint of political liberalization.
Laos has actively improved its already "special relations" with Vietnam and Cambodia, while always seeking to improve relations with Thailand, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the United States. Periodic meetings are held to promote the cooperative development of the Mekong River region by Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Laos and the People's Republic of China restored full diplomatic relations in 1989 and are now full-fledged trading partners. Mutual suspicions, characterizing the relationship between Laos and Thailand, improved with agreements to withdraw troops and resolve border disputes, and agreements between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to repatriate or resettle nearly 60,000 Lao refugees in Thailand. Laos has cooperated with the United States in recovering the remains of US soldiers missing in action in Laos since the Vietnam War and in efforts to suppress drug-trafficking. The US Department of State objects to Laos' restrictions on free speech, freedom of assembly and religious freedom. US Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth commented in March 2000 that Laos is unlikely to gain Most Favored Nation trading status unless it accounts for the fate of two naturalized US citizens, Hmong activists who disappeared in Laos during 1999. The debate over whether to grant Laos normal trade relations status was ongoing as of early 2003.
On 26 February 1998, Khamtai Siphandon was elected president, and he was reelected in March 2001. Beginning in 2000, Vientiane was hit by a series of bomb blasts, attributed to anti-government groups based abroad. Beginning in the late 1990s, tensions emerged between rival groups of ethnic Hmong in the highlands. Triggered by Thailand's closing of refugee camps on its side of the Laos-Thai border, tens of thousands of exiles were forced to return home. Most were expected to be jailed or executed for their anti-government activities, but instead, the government encouraged their peaceful settlement among the lowland population. Certain right-wing guerrilla factions among the Hmong, long fighting the Pathet Lao, subsequently reacted violently to the government's pacification efforts to integrate moderate Hmong villagers. On 6 February 2003 near Vang Vieng, a bus and 2 Western bicyclers were attacked by gunmen, who killed twelve people. Militant Hmong were blamed for the attack.
On 24 February 2002, parliamentary elections were held, but all but one of the 166 candidates were from the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The LPRP won 108 of 109 seats in the National Assembly.