The Laotian Problem

Laos 001No one foresaw any geo-political problems from the small backward and completely landlocked Kingdom of Laos in 1945.  It was a land inhabited for the most part by hill tribes who were generally peaceful and quite happy with their lifestyle.  But there developed a rivalry between somewhat obscure princes that evolved into a serious international crisis and ultimately, an East vs. West military confrontation.  A minor feud, generally meaningless to the rest of the world, was altered by North Vietnam’s policy of extending its control over the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and its use of Laos as a steppingstone to achieve undetected infiltration into South Vietnam.  Behind the scenes was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) who had begun supplying military aid to the Pathet Lao —the army of the leftist Prince Souphanauvong.  To counter these Communist-inspired activities, the United States had extended its military assistance effort to the anti-Communist Prince Boun Oum.  As this minor struggle continued (from around mid-1950), Prince Souvanna Phouma, who had previously proclaimed neutrality, sided with the Pathet Lao.  It was thus that the tiny Kingdom of Laos became a pawn on the chessboard of international politics.

US military assistance in Laos did very little to slow the escalation of Pathet Lao activities.  In early 1960, the Pathet Lao joined forces with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to seize control of the eastern portion of the country’s long, southward panhandle.  In 1961, aided again by NVA, the Pathet Lao opened an offensive on the Plain of Jars in central Laos.  Boun Oum’s forces proved unable to contain this Communist push into the Laotian central region.  By March 1961, the situation had become critical enough for President John F. Kennedy to alert the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), Admiral Harry D. Felt[1], for a possible military deployment to Laos.

Admiral Felt selected Major General Donald M. Weller[2], then serving as Commanding General, 3rd Marine Division, to additionally serve as Commander, Task Force 116.  Weller’s command primarily consisted of US Marine ground and air forces, augmented by selected (mission essential) units of the US Army and US Air Force.  As Weller organized his task force, President Kennedy successfully arranged a cease-fire in Laos.  The crisis cooled further when fourteen governments agreed to reconvene the Geneva Conference to consider neutralization of the Laotian kingdom.  Kennedy called off the alert and General Weller’s task force was deactivated.

Negotiations in Geneva proved to be long and tedious and the ceasefire was at best tenuous; sporadic fire fights continued to erupt in various areas, usually localized, but over time growing in their frequency.  In the opening weeks of 1962, widespread heavy fighting broke out again, precipitating a more intense crisis.  US observers agreed that by May 1962 the situation reached a critical point.  Pathet Lao and NVA forces routed a major element of anti-Communist Laotian forces at Nam Tha, a town located along the Mekong River in northwestern Laos.  As a result, General Phoumi Nosavanled his army in a general withdrawal into northern Thailand.  In doing so, Phoumi risked widening the conflict into Thailand.

Afterward in control of the east bank of the Mekong, the Pathet Lao were poised for a drive into Thailand, which at the time was a member in good standing of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).  Additionally, General Phoumi’s defeat threatened the US negotiating position at the on-going Geneva accords.  Accordingly, Kennedy ordered the re-activation of Task Force 116.  This time Admiral Felt selected Marine Major General John Condon[3] to serve as its commander.  A Marine battalion landing team (BLT) joined the US 7th Fleet amphibious ready group as its special landing force.  Combat elements of TF 116 promptly sailed into the Gulf of Siam.  The US demonstration had two purposes: (1) send an important signal to Pathet Lao and NVA forces that the United States would not countenance an invasion into Thailand, and (2) assure the government of Thailand that the United States was committed to its defense.

After President Kennedy authorized a deployment of US military forces to Thailand, US Army Lieutenant General John L. Richardson assumed command of TF 116 with orders to execute military operations in Laos.  Richardson’s orders were clear: exercise his command in a way that left no doubt as to American intentions to defend Thailand.  He would accomplish this by positioning his force in a manner that would allow them to respond to any armed Communist threat to Thailand.  At the same time, General Harkins (COMUSMACV) was ordered to also assume command of USMACTHAI and to exercise supervisory authority over TF 116.

A-4 Skyhawk 001One element of TF-116 already in Thailand was 1st Brigade, US 27th Infantry Division.  US war plans called for an additional Marine Expeditionary Brigade.  The Brigade would consist of a regimental landing team (RLT) (three BLTs), an attack squadron, a helicopter squadron, and various other supporting units of varying size.  Marine air assets would operate out of the air base at Udorn, Thailand, which also served as the country’s provisional capital some 350 miles northeast of Bangkok.  Udorn hosted a 7,000-foot runway suitable for high performance aircraft and aviation support units.  The first attack squadron to arrive in Thailand was VMA 332, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harvey M. Patton, who’s 20 A-4 Skyhawks arrived at around noon on 18 May 1962.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Adams, commanding BLT 3/9[4] and Lieutenant Colonel Fred A. Steele, commanding HMM-261, both units forming a key element of the Special Landing Force, disembarked from ships of the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) at Bangkok.  Aviation support detachments began arriving at Udorn from Okinawa.  To coordinate all aviation units and responsibilities, a provisional Marine Air Group was formed under Colonel Ross S. Mickey.  On 19 May, Brigadier General Ormond B. Simpson[5], commanding the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (3rdMEB) (formerly, Assistant Division Commander, 3rdMarDiv) arrived at Udorn.  As the brigade commander, Simpson would command all USMC air and ground elements deployed to Thailand.  Simpson additionally carried the designation Naval Component Commander, which gave him responsibility for all Navy and Marine forces operating under JTF-116.

Elsewhere, US forces increased with additional USAF tactical fighter bombers, refueler aircraft, and two air transport squadrons.  The US 27th Infantry was reinforced by Hawaii-based units and a logistics support command was activated near Bangkok.  Major General Weller joined the staff of JTF-116 as LtGen Richardson’s chief of staff.

With the numbers of American forces sharply increasing, General Simpson implemented a civic action program with the people of Thailand.  Civil action programs were performed by Marines when they were not involved in field or weapons training programs.  Officers introduced local citizens to the English language while Marine engineers and Navy Seabees helped to repair buildings.  Navy medical and dental personnel attended to physical ailments and injuries.

In Laos, Communist forces cautiously observed an ever-enlarging US military footprint in Thailand.  The Pathet Lao and NVA halted their advance toward the Thai border.

JTF-116 headquarters was set up at Korat.  General Weller established a rear-element in Bangkok and concentrated on coordinating the activities of the JTF with the Joint US Military Assistance/Advisory Group (JUSMAAG), Commander, US Military Assistance Command, Thailand (COMUSMACThai), and the US representatives of SEATO.  At this time, Colonel Croizat, formerly the first Marine Corps advisor to the Vietnamese Marine Corps, served as senior US military representative to the SEATO planning staff in Bangkok.  Weller and Croizat were familiar with the JTF structure, its capabilities, and its functions.

Portions of the Marine Corps contingency operation plan for Laos were later incorporated into operational planning for service in the Republic of Vietnam.  One key provision of the plan was its emphasis on command relationships, an important aspect of Marine Corps and Air Force tactical support operations.  In Laos, the CG 3rdMEB exercised operational control over all Marine tactical aircraft, an integral part of the air-ground team, which the Marines had nurtured since the mid-World War II period.

In Laos, training and acclimatization for combat operations began almost immediately at Udorn and Nong Ta Kai.  While aviators became accustomed to working in the joint-tactical environment, ground pounders familiarized themselves with the terrain, working alongside Thai army units.  Coordinated air-ground maneuvers publicized the presence of the Marines.  Throughout this period of area familiarization, the Marines confined themselves to areas approved by the government of Thailand so as to minimize their contact or interference with local populations.

Once Pathet Lao and NVA commanders realized that the United States was seriously committed to Thailand, their offensive operations in northwest Laos came to a screeching halt.  By late June 1962, US officials reported progress in negotiations in Geneva and Vientiane.  President Kennedy, in a show of good faith, ordered major combat elements of JTF-116 to withdraw from Thailand.  A month later, quarreling factions in Laos agreed to participate in a coalition government headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma and form a neutralist state.  Within this protocol, agreed to and signed by the United States, Soviet Union, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Burma, Great Britain, France, Canada, India, China, Thailand, Poland, the Kingdom of Laos, and Cambodia, all foreign troops were prohibited from entering or operating within the borders of Laos[6].  By 31 July 1962, all Marine Corps combat forces were withdrawn from Thailand/Laos, the 3rdMEB was deactivated, and the first deployment of the Marine Air-Ground task force to Southeast Asia came to an end.

The Laos Problem illustrated the value of the U. S. Marine Corps (a) as a force capable of supporting American foreign policy objectives on short notice, (b) its ability to partner with Navy, Army, Air Force units, and the militaries of foreign allies, (c) its ability to operate at will within remote areas, and (d) its ability to establish culture-sensitive civil action programs.  The lessons learned by the Marines in Thailand/Laos would be taken off the shelf in another war in the not-too-distant future.

Pathet Lao 001
Pathet Lao (still alive)

Diplomatically, Kennedy’s solution to the Laotian problem was a failure on many levels —not least of which were the convictions of both South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem and U. S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Frederick Nolting, that a neutral Laos would only serve the interests of North Vietnam.  Both Diem and Nolting knew that Prince Phouma was weak and untrustworthy.  Diem’s solution was hardly realistic, however: he wanted to partition Laos into a pro-communist/pro-capitalist country.  President Kennedy wanted a diplomatic solution to the Laotian problem —sooner rather than later— and that’s what he got.  Despite the agreement on Laos, which North Vietnam almost immediately violated, Laos did become the primary infiltration route of North Vietnamese men and materials into the Republic of (South) Vietnam.  Equally significant, perhaps, was the fact that Ho Chi Minh had taken an adequate measure of John F. Kennedy and the man who would succeed him: Lyndon B. Johnson.

(Next week: Marine Advisors in Vietnam)

Sources:

  1. Castle, T. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975.  Columbia University Press, 1993.
  2. Conboy, K. J. War in Laos, 1954-1975.  Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994.
  3. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  4. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  5. Hitchcock, W. The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World of the 1950s.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018
  6. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  7. Sturkey, M.F. Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.  South Carolina: Heritage Press International, 1996
  8. Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964.  History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977

Endnotes:

[1] Admiral Felt (1902-92) was a naval aviator who led US carrier strikes during World War II.  He served as CINCPAC from 1958-64.  Felt, was an unremarkable graduate of the US Naval Academy.  He spent five years at sea before applying for flight training.  Felt went on to become one of the more accomplished Navy aviators in its entire history.

[2] Weller, an artillerist, became the Marine Corps’ foremost expert on naval gunfire support and authored several books on the topic.  During World War II, Weller served under (then) Brigadier General Holland M. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Brigade, as his artillery and naval gunfire support coordinator.  Weller retired from active duty in 1963 while serving as Deputy Commander, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific.

[3] Commanding General, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.

[4] A battalion landing team is an infantry battalion reinforced by additional units sufficient to enable the team to accomplish its assigned mission.  In this case, 3/9 was reinforced by an artillery battery, a tank platoon, an amphibious tractor platoon, a pioneer platoon, a motor transport platoon, an anti-tank platoon, and air and naval gunfire liaison teams.

[5] General Simpson (1915-1998) later commanded the 1stMarDiv during the Vietnam War.

[6] See also, final paragraph.  Had the North Vietnamese adhered to their agreement, they would not have established the logistics corridor through the eastern length of Laos that became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.  Without it, the War in Vietnam might well have had a different outcome.

Published by

Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

7 thoughts on “The Laotian Problem”

  1. In late 1945 the United States was the strongest military power the world had ever seen. And then political weaklings took it all back. Amazing. China was weak. Look at where we are today. Meanwhile in self impose lock down in house. I keep getting calls from people claiming to represent Microsoft and others telling me my computer has been hacked and they will shut off service in 48 hours unless I follow instructions of their IT guy. Interesting, background noise sounds like a call center and English speaking people all have accents leading me to believe they are Asian. Hmmm. We’ve lost about 35% of our many mutual funds. The economy is shutting down due to orders for people to stay home. All the schools are closed. And now a Cyber War is about to begin? Only semi safe place is in deployed submarines. Shades of the movie ON THE BEACH with G. Peck and Ava Gardener. Can a Democratic Republic beat a well organized dictatorship? I miss the better times we had so long ago. Tad

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for your wonderful commentary, infused with personal experiences. You take me back to a time when I spent many hours a week studying about Southeast Asia. It’s always good to revisit history – There are so many lessons to be learned from the past. Stay safe and healthy, Mustang.

    Like

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