I always debate how to deal with terms some folks might not recognize. Normally if it’s short, then I’ll put the meanings inline and keep going so I don’t break the flow. But, where a longer explanation is needed, then this is the way I deal with it. Note that this will be a “living, and growing” list.
Air America – covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1950 to 1976. In this context, Air America flew a variety of cargo, observation, and rotary-wing (helicopter) aircraft supporting the Secret War in Laos
CAT – The Civil Air Transport was created by Claire Chennault (of Flying Tiger fame during WWII) to supply airlift to war ravaged China in 1946. The CIA bought the company in 1950. It was reorganized and renamed Air America in 1959.
Indochina – This is often referred to as French Indochina. It stems from the mid 1800s when the French colonized a large portion of the region. Although the borders have changed a little, this encompasses what is now Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Pathet Lao – The Communist forces and political organization that opposed the Royal Laotian Government in Laos from the 1950s to 1975. (They won and took over the Laotian government in 1975). The Pathet Lao were also organized, trained, equipped and led by the North Vietnamese Army. China also provided them with 115,000 guns, nearly a million grenades, 170 million bullets, and trained 700+ or its military officers.
RLG – Royal Laotian Government – From 1954 to 1975, the term “Royal Laotian Government” was almost indiscriminately used to mean Laos’s government. However, this government took many forms over the years.
Kong Le is probably the least understood and most misunderstood character of the Laotian Civil War. As a Captain in the Royal Laotian Army, he led a coup d’état against the Royal Laotian Government. When a counter-coup “ousted” him, he took his forces and joined with the Pathet Lao… only to flip-flopped sides, and rejoined forces with the Royal Laotian Army… all within a period of about three years.
Kong Le was born to a farmer. His father was a “Kha,” and his mother was Lao. The Kha were an ethnic minority and, at the time, considered the lowest on the “totem pole.” (Kha means slave.) Kong Le took over the “family business” when his father died… he was only six years old… or perhaps ten, depending on the source.
At 17, he joined the French Army to fight against the Viet Minh. After the French were defeated, he transferred to the Royal Lao Army. There he caught the attention of American advisors. He showed promise as a leader and was sent to Ranger school in the Philipines. He excelled at ambush and guerilla operations.
Back in Laos, Kong Le was promoted and became a leader of a “crack” Parachute Battalion. His battalion was used in an attempt to curb the Pathet Lao’s activity. The battalion was under-supplied, under-armed, and rarely paid. The United States was sending in arms, munitions supplies, and money for the Royal Lao Army. That US support should have been available to Kong Le and his troops. But corruption was rampant within the government. Military generals and government leaders were using foreign aid to line their own pockets.
Finally, Kong Le and his troops had enough. On 10 Aug 60, Kong Le let his parachute battalion into Vientiane and seized power. It was a nearly bloodless coup d’état. Only six were killed. It’s important to note that the arms Kong Le’s forces used were US weapons.
Kong Le was a “neutralist.” He wanted all foreign interference and the corruption it brought gone from Laos. He believed the ongoing Civil War was caused by foreign intervention and wanted to stop all the “infighting.”. He especially blamed the United States “aid” because of the corruption it was causing and wanted the United States out. As a Neutralist, Kong Le proclaimed:
“I am for Laos and the Lao people, for honesty and purity, and against corruption”
“This fratricidal fighting among Laotians must cease!”
Kong Le as reported in Time, 22 Aug 60
Kong Le accused that the Prime Minister at the time, Somsanith Vongkotrattana, had “exchanged our country for American Money” and wanted the U.S. military training mission out of the country. He also wanted the North Vietnamese out of the country’s affairs.
Kong Le wasn’t wrong. The government was corrupt, and outside interests were fueling the civil war. The United States supported the Royal Laotian Government to block Communist expansion while North Vietnam, along with their benefactors China, and Russia, supported the Pathet Lao to further their own interests.
When the coup succeeded, Kong Le did not name himself as the leader of the country. Instead, Souvanna Phouma was again installed as Prime Minister. Souvanna, who was in and out as prime minister four separate times from 1951-1975, was himself a Neutralist. Souvanna thought he could bring together a coalition government and, therefore, peace to Laos. He wanted to unify the country by “neutralizing” the government. This would mean that the Pathet Lao would have “a seat at the table.”
The U.S. Government (CIA, State Department, etc.) was concerned that with Souvanna as Prime Minister and the Pathet Lao allowed into the government, Laos would be lost to the “Reds.” Keep in mind, the “red scare” was still a great concern in the United States. (By today’s rhetoric, maybe it still is.)
Soon after Kong Le’s coup d’état, a sort of shadow government was formed in Savannakhet (Southern Laos) by General Phoumi Nosavan. General Phoumi, who had been the head of the Royal Lao Army at the time of the coup, was right-wing pro-western, and pro-American. The United States, still under President Eisenhower, immediately began to supply General Phoumi with arms and munitions to counter the new government. General Phoumi organized the “Committee Against the Coup d’état” and vowed to remove Kong Le from Vientiane. Note that General Phoumi had been Kong Le’s “boss” at the time of the coup, and Phoumi was not a happy general.
Interestingly, a 6 Dec 60, a CIA secret analysis of the situation predicted, “If Souvanna were to lose out and the anti-Pathet Lao government takes over, Kong Le would probably join the Pathet Lao.” The analysis suggested that a quick counter-coup victory was unlikely and that Laos was headed toward civil war.
However… a successful counter-coup a few days later is exactly what happened.
Having seen the “writing on the wall,” Prime Minister Souvanna fled to Cambodia on 9 Dec. On the next day, one of Souvanna’s ministers flew to Hanoi to conclude an agreement with the USSR to provide arms and supplies to Kong Le. All was arranged with the agreement that Kong Le would join forces with the Pathet Lao.
I don’t know if Kong Le himself had knowledge or agreed to this at the time. In any case, on 11 Dec, Russian aircraft landed at Watty airport with arms, munitions, supplies, and… six 105mm Howitzers. None in Kong Le’s nor the Pathet Lao’s soldiers knew how to operate the cannons, so they were manned by North Vietnamese troops. The Soviet Aircraft continued the build-up over the next days.
On 13 Dec, General Phoumi launched the counter-coup. After a short but fierce battle for the Capital of Vientiane, Kong Le and his forces withdrew to the Plain of Jars (PDJ). Between 15 Dec and 2 Jan, the Soviets made 184 airlifts to the PDJ in support of Kong Le. During this time, the Pathet Lao claimed to support the Neutralists against the “Right-Wing American stooges.”
Souvanna was out, and a new Prime Minister was in. General Phoumi was made head of the new armed forces.
Most sources agree that while Kong Le likely had Laos’s interests at heart, he was naive to the realities of the larger world. The Communists duped him into believing that they too wanted a neutral Laos. Not realizing that they were telling him what he wanted to hear, he joined forces with the Pathet Lao.
Laos continued in turmoil and intermittent fighting until another Geneva conference established a “new” “Neutralist” government, taking over in July 1962. The United States was one of fourteen nations signatory to the agreement. Once again, Right-wing General Phoumi was out, and Neutralist Souvanna was back in.
In November, Souvanna appointed Kong Le as head of the Neutralist Army. For the time being, the forces of all three factions (Right-wing, Neutralist, & Pathet Lao) were merged into one army. However, there were right-leaning Neutralists and left-leaning Neutralists. There was a series of assassinations in the early spring of 1963. Kong Le’s deputy was one of those killed. Other assignations followed. The Pathet Lao government ministers feared for their lives, causing them to flee Vientiane.
Sources seem to be all over the place on exactly when Kong Le split with the Pathet Lao and again sided with the Royal Laotian Government’s Right-Wing arm. New York Times or “Time” articles use weasel words like “before long” to describe the time frame when things happened. In this case, “before long” means sometime between July 1962 and March 1963.
So… “before long,” Kong Le made agreements for his Neutralist forces to be supplied by the United States. And “before long,” the left-leaning Neurtalists left Kong Le and joined forces with the Pathet Lao. And “before long,” Kong Le once again aligned with General Phoumi. And “before long,” the Pathet Lao / North Vietnamese began attacking Kong Le’s positions. Vang Pao’s forces were brought in to support Kong Le. In fact, the only thing that saved Kong Le’s position was the support provided by Vang Pao’s Hmong forces.
Pewwwwww! Like everything in Laos, turmoil prevailed throughout. Changing loyalties and infighting continued until outright civil war broke out again in 1963.
Somehow, by 1964 Kong Le emerged as some kind of superhero to the Lao people. His position of neutrality, demand to get rid of foreign interference, and anti-corruption stance brought him widespread support. Realizing he had been tricked into supporting the Pathet Lao, he also became staunchly anti-communist and anti-North Vietnam. At the time, he was quoted as saying:
The pro-Communist lackeys of North Vietnam evil policy is to make the Kingdom of Laos a new kind of colony of international Communism
May 23, 1964 New York Times Article, Man in the News; Key Laotian General; Kong Le
Many Laotians believed he was the return of the legendary (mythical) King Setthathirath. The belief was that when Vientiane was in trouble, King Setthathirath would return to save the day. The May 23, 1964, issue of the New York Times article said, “To them, Kong Le is 10 feet tall, rides a great white horse and is indefatigable, unbeatable and immortal.”
That New York Times article concluded with, “… he appears destined to play a major role for years to come.”
Some have likened Kong Le to an “Asian Napolean.” With many of the Lao people seeing him as Setthathirath, he likely saw himself as the Napolean for his country. He believed it was his destiny, and the spirits were giving him signs. He told of being given confidence when he saw an omen: it was raining lightly and unexpectedly saw a frog swallow a snake! Perhaps he believed it meant he was the frog and the snake was the corruption and foreign interference he sought to eliminate. Personally, I suspect it was opium… the one cash crop of Laos.
Despite his notoriety and popularity in 1964, his successes were short-lived. While he was an excellent small unit field commander, he didn’t fare well as a self-appointed General at the head of the “Neutralist” army. When things were going well, he was upfront, “leading the charge.” When battles weren’t going well, he would excuse himself with migraine headaches. There were also occasions where he “retired” from battles to serve as a Buddhist monk.
His shortcomings as a General led to distrust and discontent among his subordinate commanders. The “Neutralist” army began to divide into pro-Pather Lao and pro-Right Wing supporters. Four battalions broke off, calling themselves the Patriotic Neutralists, and joined forces with the Pathet Lao.
As things degenerated, battalions began to mutiny in protest to Kong Le’s leadership. By late summer, 1966, he had lost the confidence and support of most of his officers. After some infighting, three of his officers rose to the top and took control of the remnants of Kong Le’s Neutralist army. Kong Le fearing his life was in danger, took refuge in the Indonesian embassy in Vientiane. On 17 October 1966, he left Laos. He spent the rest of his life in exile, living in the United States for a while and then France.
I think there is no doubt that Kong Le truly had Laos’s best interests at the core of his beliefs. Unfortunately, he was an idealist. His lack of political savvy in the government and lack of effective leadership at the military’s highest levels failed to bring about his dream of a Laos free from foreign intervention.
Upon his death, in January 2014, an article in New Mandala said of him,
“Kong Le went from soldiering to politics, only to discover that he was no politician; being a patriot was not enough to save his country from itself.
The spirit and the dream continued while history took another path. May his spirit rest in peace while his dream lives on.”
New Mandala- The colonel from Savannakhet – 24 Jan 2014
So… was Kong Le a Super-Hero or Super-Viillain ? You be the judge.
From 1954 to 1975, the term “Royal Laotian Government” was used indiscriminately. This government took many forms over the years, depending on the latest peace agreement or latest coup d’état. This adds to the mess and difficulty in understanding Laos and the Second Indochina War. To try and clear it up just a little bit, I’ll divide it into three different governments: RLG1, RLG2, and RLG3. (There were actually more than this as a result of coup d’états, but these were short-lived, so I’ll stay with the three.)
Laos was established in 1953 and further confirmed as an independent country in the 1954 Peace Accords, which divided up French Indochina. RLG1 began as a “constitutional monarchy.” In practice, this meant that the King would give his “approval” for stuff, but the real power rested with the Prime Minister (parliamentary elected) and his Cabinet. The United States supported this government. However, it was never stable. From 1953 to 13 Dec 1960, there was a succession of nine Prime Ministers. (There were only seven different individuals as two were in and out of office during the period.)
There was never any real unity in this government. The King tried to use his influence to establish a coalition government with the “Three Princes” leading the government: Prince Souvanna Phouma, who would end up being Prime Minister four different times; Prince Souphanouvong, who supported the Pathet Lao; and Prince Prince Boun Oum who was a neutralist.
The Three Princes held most of the power. Unfortunately, they were given their positions because of their relationship to the King and not because of any ability to govern. Moreover, ministers were appointed under the Princes based on nepotism, alliances, and friendships. Again, abilities had nothing to do with appointments to positions of importance and influence. Perhaps the most damning feature of this government was the rampant corruption. Those appointed only wanted to advance their own interests and not that of the country. This served to destroy rather than bolter any national unity that was supposed to be developing.
The United States sent foreign aid with the intention of nation-building so that the “hearts and minds” of the people would be pro-western in general and pro-US in particular. This included military aid sometimes sent directly to the Generals. Note once again that the Generals were appointed to their positions based on relationships, etc. It had nothing to do with the General’s military ability. These generals and the rest of most in government we mostly interested in advancing their own interests. Foreign aid was used for advancing their position for status and lining their own pockets.
The United States fueled the situation by threatening to withhold aid or actually did withhold some aid when the various officials didn’t do what they were “directed” to do. This simply added fuel to the fire as opposing sides used this to levy accusations of corruption at each other. (Usually, the claims of corruption were absolutely true.) Still, the United States continued to supply aid to those favorable to the United States.
Throughout this time frame, the North Vietnamese backed Pathet Lao attempted to establish themselves. Starting immediately after the 1954 accords, the Pathet Lao engaged in a low-level guerrilla war against the Royal Laotian Government. There were attempts to integrate the Pathet Lao into the government, but none succeeded.
By 1959 an ongoing Civil War had broken out between the Pathet Lao and the remaining Royal Laotian Government (RLG1). By this time, RLG1was mostly in disarray. Those Pathet Lao who had been participating in the government pulled out. The civil war continued, and RLG1 remained in turmoil into 1960. In mid-1960 Kong Le’s coup was followed by a counter-coup led by General Phoumi.
General Phoumi was a Right Winger, and controlled Southern portions of Laos still under RLG control. (The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao had gained large portions of the region to be used for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.) Phoumi had the support of the third prince (Prince Bunum). Since General Phoumi was staunchly pro-western, the United States sent him massive aid… especially military aid. In December 1960, Phoumi’s counter-coup successfully ran Kong Le out of Vientiane. General Phoumi installed Prince Bunum as prime minister.
The civil war between the re-constituted RLG1 and the Pathet Lao raged on. The Pathet Lao, with the North Vietnamese Army leading the way, believed they could conquer the whole country. General Phoumi, on the other side, wanted a victory, but his forces never faired well against the North Vietnamese Army.
(See what a mess all this was. Even RLG1 was a mish-mash of differing factions and ever-changing government. The government was reformed in some fashion of another ten times between 1954 and the middle of 1962.)
When President Kennedy took office in 1961, he pursued a negotiated peace in the civil war. The superpowers (the USSR supporting the Pathet Lao & the US supporting the RLG) coerced their “puppet forces” into accepting the 1962 accords, thus creating another tripartite government. This time Prince Souvanna, representing the Neutralists, became Prime Minister for the 4th time. Prince Souphanvong, representing the Pathet Lao, and General Phoumi, representing the right-wing, becoming deputy prime ministers.
For a short period between July 1962 (Geneva Accords) and May 1964, the RLG was a coalition tripartite government. The Right-Wing was headed by Prince Boun Oum but mostly controlled by Laotian Army Generals, a Neutralist Wing with Prince Souvanna Phouma as the country’s Prime Minister, and a Left Wing headed by Prince Souphanouvong but controlled by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnam. (Note that Prince Souvanna and Prince Souphanouvong were half brothers.) The United States always supported the Right-Wing and Souvanna Phouma… but only gave “lip service” to supporting the tripartite government.
As before, aid (especially military aid) was sent to those who were at least “western leaning.” There was a continued attempt at “nation-building” with civic works and educational projects. When he was assassinated in November 1963, whatever scheme President Kennedy had for Laos was lost. Things went downhill for RLG2 after that. By 1964, actions in South Vietnam were gaining more attention, so Laos became of less importance. The US had deployed the Air Commandos to Bien Hoa airbase in South Vietnam. As that operation grew, the USAF 1st Air Commando Wing was established to give direct US air support to South Vietnam.
In May of 1964, full-scale civil war broke out (again) in Laos. There had never been complete peace among the factions, but until this time, there were continuing attempts at conciliation and compromise to make RLG2 work. However, after May 1964, the tripartite government fell apart. Although there was never an “official” end of the tripartite government, for all intent and purposes it ended over the next couple of months.
The Pathet Lao, under Prince Souphanoubong, became a separate entity and claimed the remaining Royal Laotian Government to be invalid. Without saying it “out loud,” the Pathet Lao broke ties with the King. The Right-wing and Neutralists unified (sorta) and stayed with the “Royal Laotian Government.” North Vietnam, China, the USSR, and most Communist countries did not “recognize” the Royal Laotian Government. For the remainder of the war and until 1975, the United States only “recognized” the Royal Laotian Government with Souvanna continuing as the Prime Minister till the bitter end. In fact, the United States continued to recognize the RLG under the pretense of respecting the 1962 accords establishing Laos as “Neutral”.
In fairly short order, several things happened. First, in late 1964, William H. Sullivan became the ambassador to Laos. Taking control, Sullivan used Kennedy’s presidential order that “all U.S. military operations in Laos were under the direct supervision of the Ambassador.” Then-President Lyndon B. Johnson did nothing to dissuade Sullivan from operating upon that premise. From that point and forevermore, the “secret war” in Laos also became known as “Sullivan’s war.” He controlled all aspects of military operations, including those covered by the CIA, US airpower, and other covert operations.
Second, the North Vietnamese increased their use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Sullivan thought Laos should be handled as part of the total Southeast Asia problem. To that end, he set up the rules of engagement for US air operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail… which areas could be bombed, which could not and granted/denied permissions for air operations.
Third, the Pathet Lao were making gains throughout the country. By late 1964 they had occupied most of the PDJ. Laos was in danger of being taken over by the Communists.
To stay in power, RLG3 needed the support of the United States. Without that, they would have been taken over by the Pathet Lao/North Vietnam in fairly short order. The United States needed to keep RLG3 in power to obtain tacit approval for the effort to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail (#1). The United States was able to say they were requested by and had permission from the Laotian Government to take “certain limited actions.”
So the relationship between RLG3 and the United States continued as one of necessity for the two countries. As long as the US helped keep the Pathet Lao from taking over in Northern Laos, the US was allowed to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail. Indeed, the bombings to support the Royal Laotians in the North, combined with the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, made Laos the most bombed country in the world… ever.
The US continued to support operations, albeit dwindling support, in Laos even after the Vietnam War ended with the Paris Peace Accords of 27 Jan 73. When the Case-Church Amendment effectively cut off US Military support (air support) in Laos on 15 Aug 73, the CIA and Air America continued to support RLG3 into 1974 when even that support ended.
RLG3 managed to survive until the Pathet Lao took over in April 1975. Soon after, the King, his family, and officials of RLG3 were sent to “re-education” camps where most died.
#1 – While researching, I found an interesting report. In July 1965 Ambassador Sullivan stated in a secret meeting, “… that he was prepared to encourage the use of overt U.S. or Vietnamese force Westwards along Route 9, gradually extending the SVN border, while publicly denying that the troops were in Laos, all the way to Tchepone (Xepon) if necessary.” Throughout the existence of RLG3, Prime Minister Souvanna was adamant that while permitting certain limited US involvement, he would never permit US ground troops in Laos. Therefore, Sullivan went on to say that the operation would have to be secret and the US would deny any such operation.
It wasn’t until nearly six years later that there was any attempted operation to “take” Tchepone. Operation Lam Son 719 was a South Vietnamese Army (with limited US Air Support) attempt to interdict Route 9 and capture Tchepone. The operation failed. But… this is another story and I’ll leave it at that for now.
(Route 9 ran from the NVA transportation hub at Tchepone into South Vietnam. It is still a major transportation route from the border at Lao Bảo Vietnam into Laos. Today is paved all the way from the border to Xepon.)
This is just a quickie post to point you to a video Don Duval (AKA the Midnight Mapper) posted recently. It is the first part of a ride through the PDJ and up to the Northeastern Part of Laos. Check out the bamboo bridge crossings at about 4:48 into the video. Click on the image below. It will open in another tab.
P.S. A new series about the best allies the US ever had is coming soon.
I have been holding hope that we could make our November date for the HCMTrail Ride. But it appears that the Cootie Bugs have foiled us again.
Even though Asia is opening up for travel, it appears as of today that Laos is still not issuing tourist visas. While I suspect that may change soon, I don’t think it will change soon enough to make the advanced reservations, airline, overnight stays, etc, that we would all need for this adventure.
So… I think it will be best to further postpone the HCMTrail Ride. For now I am looking at the last part of February or through March, 2021 as the potential time frame. Before I pick specific dates, I would like to hear from anyone still interested in this trip. You can post here in the comments or contact me directly at:
In the meantime, I will begin posting more about places to go, things to see, and information about Laos in general. I will be writing more about places and events of the HCMT as well as the Laotian people.
My first new posts will be a series about the Hmong… the best allies the United States ever had. Since there are many books written on the subject, I can’t possibly tell a lot in a few 2000 words or less posts. But I will at least tell you something about these brave people and post some places where you can find out more.
Again, please contact me if you are interested in making this trip.