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.)