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Laos: Rout in the Jungle

4 minute read

Just north of the opium trading center of Nam Tha lies a wood that local Khalom tribesmen believe is inhabited by the spirit of the sacred princess. The wood last week was inhabited by more than spirits. Out of its leafy shadows poured battalions of Communist Pathet Lao troops, stiffened by regulars from Red North Viet Nam and supported by a withering barrage from two dozen 105-mm. howitzers. The sudden attack not only decimated the Royal Laotian Army; it also allowed the Reds to reach the banks of the strategic Mekong River and made a shambles of the already fragile U.S. position in Laos.

Over the River. According to U.S. military advisers, the Communist assault on Nam Tha was “well planned, well organized and up to Western standards.” Five U.S.-trained battalions of the Royal Laotian Army broke and fled past the old French fort and down the dirt streets lined with wooden houses on stilts. Their commander, who two months ago vowed, “Nam Tha will be taken over my dead body!”, clambered aboard a U.S. helicopter and was flown to safety.

His 4,000 men stumbled southward in a panicky rout through jungle, swamp and tall elephant grass. Four days later, their bleeding feet wrapped in rags, fewer than 1,500 men reached Houei Sai on the Mekong River. Most of them kept right on going, either commandeering boats or swimming the 150-yd. stream to Thailand, where they were disarmed and interned by Thai police. In one brief battle, all northwestern Laos had fallen into Communist hands. After taking Houei Sai (see map), the Reds for the first time stood on the border facing Thailand, the strongest U.S. ally in Southeast Asia.

Traveling Rivals. The stunning fall of Nam Tha made Red Prince Souphanouvong, leader of the Pathet Lao, the strongest man in Laos. It came at a time when all potential rivals were out of the country. His half brother and supposed ally, neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma, was relaxing in France; Souvanna’s military commander, Captain Kong Le, was being feted in Czechoslovakia. The anti-Communist team of Premier Boun Oum and Defense Minister Phoumi Nosavan were junketing through Southeast Asia. Strongman Phoumi was vainly looking for money to replace the $3,000,000 monthly economic aid check from the U.S., cut off in February in an effort to bring him into line with U.S. policy, which is committed to bringing about a neutral Laos.

The capture of Nam Tha upset applecarts, big and little. In Singapore, on his way home, Strongman Phoumi at first refused to believe the news of another humiliating failure of his army. From Paris, Prince Souvanna Phouma sent a cable to his half brother begging him to pull back his men to pre-attack positions. Red China and Communist North Viet Nam were delighted. Russian embassy officials in Laos played the role of bewildered bystanders; reportedly, the Soviet Union was under pressure to support the Communist drive because of North Vietnamese resentment of the big U.S. buildup against Red guerrillas in South Viet Nam.

Clear Breach. For the record, President Kennedy denounced the “clear breach” of the Laotian cease-fire by the Communists, but his coldest anger was reserved for anti-Communist Phoumi because he refused to enter a neutralist coalition. Phoumi said this would lead to a Red takeover, which now is on the verge of being accomplished by arms anyway.

What is left to be done? Little enough. The U.S. had long ago widely advertised its decision not to put troops into Laos, thus in effect giving the Communists a free hand. To restore at least a limited threat of U.S. intervention, Kennedy last week ordered an aircraft carrier task force of the U.S. Seventh Fleet to move into the Southeast Asia area. This gesture could scarcely change the military situation in landlocked Laos. However, a battle group could be put ashore in Thailand, and U.S. bases there are certain to be reinforced.

The Mekong valley, as the vital boundary between Thailand and Laos, might still be denied to the Communists. But as the Reds move even farther south in Laos, they will make it tougher to achieve an eventual anti-Communist victory in South Viet Nam, and easier for them to step up harassment of Thailand.

It was a big week for the Communists in Southeast Asia.

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