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World: Laos: Deeper Into the Other War

6 minute read

RELENTLESSLY, almost at will, Communist North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops advanced last week against Laotian government forces. As they swept forward, concern mounted among U.S. officials. On Capitol Hill, critics of the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia protested that Washington seemed to be plunging deeper into Laos just as it was pulling back from Viet Nam—though of course the U.S. commitment in Viet Nam is incomparably larger. The Administration denied the charges, but the evidence appeared to confirm them (see box following page).

Familiar Pattern. U.S. support, however, proved inadequate last week. Fresh from their easy victories on the Plain of Jars, the Communists took Xieng Khouang, then moved south and east toward the government position at Muong Soui. When Communist guns neutralized Muong Soui’s airstrip, making reinforcement impossible, the 100-man government garrison pulled out under cover of darkness.

Few observers in the sleepy little government capital of Vientiane had expected the Plain, which has changed hands repeatedly for years, to be held in the face of a determined Communist attack. There was good reason for their pessimism. Hanoi has 50,000 troops in Laos, some 16,000 around the Plain, and the Pathet Lao have another 50,000: the government, by contrast, has a total of 63,000 regulars and another 10,000 Meo guerrillas under General Vang Pao.

What alarmed U.S. officials was the possibility that this time the Communist forces might not be satisfied with the usual gains. In the past, the war has had a special, almost ritualistic quality, with Communist and government forces swapping occupancy of the Plain of Jars and refraining from probing deeper into territory generally conceded to the foe. Now, however, there is concern that the Communists might change the nature of the war by changing the old seesaw pattern. They could do so by moving west and cutting the road link between Vientiane and the royal capital of Luangprabang, or by driving south against a pair of other targets.

A Look at Long Cheng. These were Sam Thong, headquarters for the U.S. aid operation in northern Laos, and Long Cheng, a top-secret, CIA-supported base for guerrilla operations against the Communists. Sam Thong, which serves as a center for refugee assistance as well as standard aid programs, has occasionally been opened to newsmen. Long Cheng, however, remained sealed until last week, when TIME Stringer Timothy Allman, a LIFE correspondent, and a French reporter paid an unauthorized visit. Allman’s report:

After strolling 15 kilometers along the U.S.-built dirt road that links Sam Thong and Long Cheng, the three of us were picked up by a Jeepload of Meo troopers and driven the rest of the way to CIA-land. They assumed, of course, that we were agency men—no one else is allowed in. The first sight in Long Cheng was encouraging: a barbershop with a sign reading “Welcome.”

Five years ago, the valley was deserted; now American money and officials have created a town of 40,000 people dedicated to war. We saw Americans in civilian clothes working on aircraft engines, taxiing unmarked T-28 fighter-bombers up and down the runway and teaching Asians the art of engine maintenance. Although Asians—presumably Laotians and Thais—fly the T-28s, Americans fly rescue helicopters bearing U.S. markings, one of which always has its rotors turning in readiness for a rescue mission. As we watched, U.S. aircraft took ofl and landed at 60-second intervals.

At last we were discovered. An angry Laotian colonel ordered us into his Jeep. Soon afterward a khaki-clad CIA man appeared, seized the French correspondent’s notebooks, then left to make arrangements for our departure.

Finally, a light aircraft arrived bearing a USIS man who was crimson with rage. He told us the ride back was going to cost us $450—a method chosen by the U.S. embassy to fine journalists who stray from the official path.

Fallback Base. Would there be an all-out attack on Long Cheng? No one really knew—but Americans were preparing a fallback position farther south. There are at least three months of the dry season left, and in previous years the Communists have waited until early spring to mount their offensives.

Tactical considerations aside, the basic question seemed to be one of Hanoi’s intentions. The reconquest of the Plain was expected, partly because it gives the North Vietnamese a greater buffer around their own frontier, partly to protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex, which fuels the war in South Viet Nam. Official Saigon sources say, in fact, that there is more North Vietnamese traffic along those trails now than at any time during the war. To counter it, the U.S. has launched the most concentrated B-52 raids ever directed against the area. The raids, together with the unprecedented use of B-52s near the Plain of Jars and the influx of U.S. advisers and CIA agents, prompted a warning from Hanoi last week. Complaining of the use of “bombardiers stratégiques B-52” and the introduction “des spooky,” the North Vietnamese said: “The American imperialists and their valets in Laos must be held responsible for the consequences following their intensification of the war.”

Less Than Candid. One reason for the increased interest in Laos was the relative quiet in South Viet Nam. Officials called it a lull, even though 666 Americans and 2,461 South Vietnamese troops have died in Viet Nam in the first eight weeks of the year (compared with 1,380 Americans and 1,725 South Vietnamese in the same period last year). While those figures reflected a far hotter war than the current skirmishing across the border, what worried U.S. politicians most deeply was the growing scope and secrecy of the American involvement in Laos.

It was the Administration’s secrecy on Laos that particularly rankled the critics and stirred disturbing memories of the steady, clandestine buildup of the U.S. presence in South Viet Nam. Washington’s doves, however, might be accused of overstating their case. Compared with the U.S. presence in Viet Nam today, the Laos effort is minuscule. Moreover, it can be argued that the continued U.S. effort in Laos is a logical consequence of the Nixon program in Viet Nam; if a gradual, orderly withdrawal from Viet Nam is to proceed, it is obviously important to keep neighboring Laos from collapsing. Besides, some U.S. officials maintain that the U.S. effort in Laos represents precisely what the U.S. should have stuck to in Viet Nam: an American training and logistics operation combined with air support, but without ground troops.

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