Hope for a neutral Laos

Sisouk na Champassak
VPA 111
SR 2923 2924
Bleep. Clapstick
During the sixties was there some hope for a neutral Laos?
Sisouk Na Champassak:
Certainly, there was hope...
Could you repeat the question?
Sisouk Na Champassak:
During the sixties there was hope for a neutral Laos because at the time – I don't know whether you remember or not – there was the Troika, Khrushchev’s Troika, which was proposed by Khrushchev at the United Nations and everywhere.
That gave an exact idea of the situation with regard to that direction. And neutrality could work, could, at that time. There was Nehru, too, who was still alive. But there was a problem within Indochina itself, that was North Vietnam's pursuit of her own objectives. So for us... Already during the implementation of the Geneva Accord of 1962, there were only about ten Vietnamese who had officially left, their departure verified by the International Control Commission.
Meanwhile many more Americans, Thais, and Filipinos had left. This gave a foretaste of the non-implementation of the Accord on the neutrality of Laos, this Accord which had been the object of arduous negotiations for over thirteen months. Remember that, at the time, the Ho Chi Minh Trail had already been built. So there was a kind of beginning already in the execution of North Vietnam's policy to unify the South first, by subversion, and then, by open warfare.

Vang Pao and the defensive at Long Tieng

What was your relationship with Vang Pao and that of the United States with him?
Sisouk Na Champassak:
You know, at that time, my relationship with Vang Pao was quite vague. I was in charge of the Finances of the Royal government. Then at one point, from 1970 on, I was put in charge both of the Finances and of National Defense because the minister was not able... at the time he was already rather old, he was not able to take care of the national defense. So I had known him a little formerly, but it was mainly during the critical period that I knew him.
When I took charge of the national defense, from June 1970 on, I had a very close relationship with him, full of trust. But the most important moment in our relationship, between Vang Pao and myself, was at the fall of Long Tieng. One day, in the morning, around 9 o'clock, 9:30, he came to my house and said, "This is the end, Long Tieng has fallen. I have just seen the Prime Minister who has ordered me to withdraw from Long Tieng to Phu Khao Khuay." These are the mountains behind Vientiane.
The Prime Minister had already received the order from the mouth of the American ambassador to instruct Vang Pao to withdraw his troops. So he came to me almost in tears, and asked me, "This is the end. The Prime Minister has ordered me to withdraw my troops, in a complete rout. So has the American ambassador. What should I do?"
So I told him: "Listen. I was not in charge of your business because it is the business of the CIA, etc. It was between you, the Prime Minister, and the CIA. I don't know anything about it. But now, can you tell me the truth? How many men do you have left who are able to carry weapons and go on with the struggle? I am like a physician, if you don't tell me your illness, and the truth is your illness, I can't cure you. So give me the exact number because you have inflated it elsewhere, I don't know, but people, rumors have it that you have inflated the number of your troops. Now I want to know the truth if one wants to defend Long Tieng."
So he told me, "I have left about three thousand, or 3,400 able to do something, to carry arms, but the morale is very low." I said, "If that is the way it is, we must do something. We must resist. With 3,000 you can resist. As for me, I am going, going to Bangkok to ask for reinforcement, two battalions of Thais, of Thai troops as reinforcement." With this he left quite satisfied to go directly to Long Tieng. So, on that day, we did not follow the order of the Prime Minister.
I told him, "The two of us are taking the responsibility for this. If there is a hitch, we run the risk of a court martial because we have refused to obey orders which have been given. But we are going to do it." I went to Bangkok to ask for two battalions of the Thai Special Forces. I met Marshal Thanom, Thavi, and Papat, etc. I asked them... I explained to them the situation. I told them that it is absolutely necessary to defend Long Tieng, because if Long Tieng falls into the hands of the Viets, the North Vietnamese, then it is the end, it is the rout of Vientiane. Vientiane will be under siege, surrounded by the North Vietnamese forces. And after Vientiane, it will be the Thailand’s turn, your turn, to be in charge.
Fortunately, Thanom immediately gave the order to make ready one battalion, one battalion right away as reinforcement for Long Tieng. And before leaving for Bangkok, I had given the order to the government to dispatch two GM from the Third Military Region, that is from Savannakhet, to defend Long Tieng. To use these two GM, one had to ask the Americans, because one had to go through the Americans before using the Special Forces. So I went to the American ambassador and told him that we must do something to defend Long Tieng.
He said, "But you are crazy? Long Tieng is gone." I told him, "No. It is not the end yet. There is Vang Pao who is defending it. We are going to do something. Do you realize the situation, to bring a population of 60,000, soldiers and every one from Long Tieng to Phu Khao Khuay. It’s a story without end. The retreat of these 60,000 men, this population, the children etcetera, it’s not possible. We must defend them." He said, ”That’s your opinion?” And I said, “I would like to have the two mobile gendarmeries of Savannakeht. After that, we discussed the situation and he gave his agreement. So I telephoned to Vang Pao and Vang Pao was completely on board.
And at this point I left, and at the time I departed, the Americans had already bombarded their military base. What they had found next to the house of Vang Pao were telephone installations, installations of their equipment, which were very obvious and that they did not want to leave in the hands of the Viets. And for the Americans Long Tieng was finished, because the non-Vietnamese soldiers were already in the valley.
There was a battle in the valley and all the soldiers of Vang Pao had already gone, at least ten to twenty kilometers away. So we readvanced with the troops who had just arrived, the third military from Savannakhet, the battalion of Thai Special Forces and we recovered Long Tieng after a battle. So then, we asked the other base to intervene, we asked for the FCAT. And with their aviation, we threw in all the foreign forces, the Thai forces included. The total came up to about 4,200 men. Fortunately, there was a very effective American bombing mission, I believe by B-52s.
They hit the headquarters of a Vietnamese regiment which was completely annihilated. From that point, the Vang Pao troops, who were still resisting, went forward and we took back Long Tieng. From that time on, our relationship became much closer, with much more trust. After that battle, he greeted me with the introduction, "It is thanks to this man, this minister, that we, that Long Tieng was not totally lost, that we were able to take it back. It is thanks to him that you are here now."

Lam Son 719

When did you first hear about Lam Son 719 and what did it mean for you?
Sisouk Na Champassak:
I heard about Operation Lam Son 719 –an operation started by the South Vietnamese forces when I was in my airplane on my way back from Champasak where I had gone to celebrate Vat Phu. It was the representative of the AFP who told me inside the plane.
He said that it was very serious and asked for my reactions, I answered, "What can we do? It is Tchepone. We do not have any control over Tchepone." It was in Tchepone where Operation Lam Son was conducted. We had lost control over it for many years. And there was no inhabitant in that area. When I arrived in Vientiane I went to see the Prime Minister to discuss the possibility of issuing a communiqué.
And that is what we did, issue a communiqué which was without any flavor, totally lukewarm. The Prime Minister said to me, "I did not have any knowledge of this either. It was the American ambassador who just told me about the operation." I answered, "This is quite serious." He replied, "Yes, quite serious. Military operations are being conducted in our country. It is very serious. But what can we do? They have taken the decision. The only thing we can do is to lodge a protest. That is all." But the protest was just a verbal protest, without too much strength. The reason was that the operations were being conducted in an area over which we did not have any control at all. There were no inhabitant. It was the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That is why... We issued a communiqué which was made public.

Subversion and downfall of the Kingdom of Laos

What did you think of the American presence in Laos since that presence was so important? What problems did it create for you as a government?
Sisouk Na Champassak:
Ah well, the American presence in Laos... During the 1960s there was an increase, a constant increase in that presence. For us especially, we thought that it was a good thing in order that... Since the United States were signatory to the Geneva Accord on the neutrality of Laos, and since we did not have the means to do so, the United States must carry on the verification over the areas where we were not able to go, where we did not exercise control.
That is the reason why the Prime Minister asked that the United States bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail during that period. But that presence weighed more and more heavily with the worsening of the war situation in Vietnam and after the engagement of Cambodia. And it became... If you remember McNamara even wanted to have American troops intervene in Lower Laos, on the 17th Parallel. We said "No." And the American ambassador agreed with us at the time, that is the American ambassador in Laos.
We said no because if the Americans spread their war to Laos, that would have been the end for the neutrality of Laos. And we especially wanted... Since we had just signed, just obtained a neutral status for our country, we wanted to go on living with that status. That is the reason why we clinged on to that... even that fiction of neutrality.
For us, that was the only means of survival for our country. So, as you see, as the years went by, there was an increase in the military aid, the economic and military aid. But that military aid was not similar to the aid for Vietnam. Military aid to Laos consisted of guns, airplanes, spare parts... even money. But we... But, unlike Vietnam, there was no American soldier, no American fighting forces in Laos. We did not want them because that would be contrary to our neutrality. The Americans themselves were conscious of that fact. They did not want either... They wanted to maintain the framework, even a loose one, of this neutrality, instead of cutting up that framework, or violating that neutrality in a flagrant manner.
Since this is what they were saying since the Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese were not respecting the Accord we could do the same thing, too. But we don't want to because we do not want to drag Laos into the Indochinese War, drag her in completely. That is the reason why there was the creation of the Special Forces in Laos.
That is the reason why there were interventions...The only thing the Americans wanted was to be able to cross the air space over Laos to bomb Hanoi, to rescue their men whose planes had been shot down by the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defense. It was for these reasons that they took hold of Vang Pao. General Vang Pao was in the hands of the CIA for these reasons. Seasoned troops, Hmong troops were needed to carry out missions to rescue American pilots.
Why did your government sign the Accord of Vientiane since it was not so much to your advantage?
Sisouk Na Champassak:
We signed the Accord of Vientiane of February 21, 1971, no - 1973 - because there was no other recourse for us. We had to swim with the tide. There was also a pretty strong pressure from the Americans. They often told us, "We have signed the Vietnam Agreement in Paris, the Paris Accord on Vietnam.
Now, it is your turn to do something. You have to sign your Accord. You have to do something because, as you know, we have disengaged ourselves from Indochina, we are following a policy of disengagement. If you take too much time, you risk to find yourselves all alone, and the United States will not be in a position to help you." So we did not have any other choice. Furthermore, we thought that we could get along with the Pathet Lao because we thought that among the Pathet Lao there were other nationalists like us, who would think the way we did, and we could...
Many people thought the way we did. We might be able to discuss with the Pathet Lao, to come to an agreement with them even, in order to keep our country neutral, to achieve a Laotian reconciliation, the third reconciliation. But there were the Vietnamese behind. The Vietnamese completely demolished the Geneva Accord. They violated the Geneva Accord of 1962 and ruined the Vientiane Accord. And that is why we were defeated in 1975. We only signed that Accord because we did not have any other choice. We had to do it. We had to sign.
Why did the government fall in 1975?
Sisouk Na Champassak:
The coalition government fell because behind the Pathet Lao there were the firm hands of the North Vietnamese who controlled the situation. The North Vietnamese troops were already in Laos. They never did withdraw despite the Accord we had just signed. These Vietnamese forces which were estimated to be 70,000 strong at that time, surrounded all the larger cities of Laos.
That was an indirect pressure on everything that occurred in Laos. Force was being used. That is the reason why I said that, I explained that, in Laos, force was being used, just like in Cambodia. But the difference was that, in Laos, the aggressor was already inside the house. Indeed, the Vietnamese never did withdraw their forces.
They went on using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They continued to exert pressure on the Pathet Lao, pushing them to conquer... to very rapidly seize power because they wanted total power. The measures in the Vientiane Accord were favorable to the Pathet Lao. We shared responsibilities fifty fifty. I was minister for national defense. Below me there was a Pathet Lao general who was secretary of state in charge of national defense, and vice versa. The government fell first because of demonstrations in the streets power resided in the streets and was manipulated by the North Vietnamese and second, because of dissension within the government itself, but most of all because of the fall of Phnom Penh and that of Saigon.