Statement About the Situation in Laos
IN LIGHT of the increasingly massive presence of North Vietnamese troops and their recent offensives in Laos, I have written letters today to British Prime Minister Wilson and Soviet Premier Kosygin asking their help in restoring the 1962 Geneva agreements for that country.
As Cochairmen of that conference, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union have particular responsibilities for seeing that its provisions are honored. My letters note the persistent North Vietnamese violations of the accords and their current offensives; support the Laotian Prime Minister's own current appeal to the Cochairmen for consultations; urge the Cochairmen to work with other signatories of the Geneva accords; and pledge full United States cooperation.
Hanoi's most recent military build-up in Laos has been particularly escalatory. They have poured over 13,000 additional troops into Laos during the past few months, raising their total in Laos to over 67,000. Thirty North Vietnamese battalions from regular division units participated in the current campaign in the Plain of Jars with tanks, armored cars, and long-range artillery. The indigenous Laotian Communists, the Pathet Lao, are playing an insignificant role.
North Vietnam's military escalation in Laos has intensified public discussion in this country. The purpose of this statement is to set forth the record of what we found in January 1969 and the policy ,of this administration since that time.
I. WHAT WE FOUND
A. THE 1962 ACCORDS
When we came into office, this administration found a highly precarious situation in Laos. Its basic legal framework had been established by the 1962 accords entered into by the Kennedy administration.
Laos has been a battleground for most of the past 20 years. In 1949 it became a semi-independent state within the French Union. The Pathet Lao Communists rebelled against the government in the early 1950's, and fighting continued until the 1954 Geneva settlements ended the Indochina War. Laos at that time became an independent neutral state. The indigenous Communists, the Pather Lao, nevertheless retained control of the two northern provinces.
Since then, this small country has been the victim of persistent subversion finally invasion by the North Vietnamese.
By 1961 North Vietnamese involvement became marked, the Communist forces made great advances, and a serious situation confronted the Kennedy administration. In his news conference of March  1961, President Kennedy said: "Laos is far away from America, but the world is small....The security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence."
In May 1961 negotiations for a Laotian settlement opened in Geneva, with Governor Harriman as the chief American negotiator.1 During the course of those long negotiations fighting continued, and the Communists made further advances. Faced with a potential threat to Thailand, president Kennedy ordered 5,000 Marines to that country in May 1965.
1 W. Averell Harriman, Governor of New York State 1955-1958.
Finally, in July 1962, after 14 months of negotiations, 14 nations signed the Geneva accords providing for the neutralization of Laos. Other signatories besides the United States included the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Vietnam, the United Kingdom, France, the Southeast Asian nations most directly involved, and the members of the International Control Commission [ICC], Canada, India and Poland.
These accords came one month after the three contending forces within Laos announced agreement on the details of a coalition government composed of the three major political factions and headed by the neutralist, Prince Souvanna Phouma. North Vietnam claimed that it favored a coalition government. Both North Vietnam and the Soviet Union backed Prince Souvanna for his new post. The present government of Laos thus has been the one originally proposed by the Communists. In approving the 1962 arrangements, the Kennedy administration in effect accepted the basic formulation which had been advanced by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union for a Laotian political settlement.
B. THE RECORD 1962--1969
Before the ink was dry on the 1962 Geneva documents, and despite the fact that they embodied most of its own proposals, North Vietnam started violating them. In compliance with the Accords, the 666 Americans who had been assisting the Royal Lao Government withdrew under ICC supervision. In contrast, the North Vietnamese passed only a token 40 men through ICG checkpoints and left over 6,000 troops in the country.
A steadily growing number of North Vietnamese troops have remained there ever since, in flagrant violation of the Geneva accords. They climbed to about 33,000 in mid-1967, 46,000 in mid-1968, and 55,000 in mid-1969. Today they are at an all-time high of some 67,000 men.
These are not advisers or technicians or attaches. They are line units of the North Vietnamese army conducting open aggression against a neighbor that poses no threat to Hanoi.
In addition, since 1964, over a half-million North Vietnamese troops have crossed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos to invade South Vietnam. This infiltration route provides the great bulk of men and supplies for the war in South Vietnam.
The political arrangements for a three-way government survived only until April 1963 when the Pather Lao Communist leaders departed from the capital and left their cabinet posts vacant. Fighting soon resumed and since then, there have been cycles of Communist offensives and Royal Laotian Government counteroffensives. The enemy forces have been led and dominated throughout by the North Vietnamese. In recent years Hanoi has provided the great majority of Communist troops in Laos.
North Vietnam appears to have two aims in Laos. The first is to insure its ability to use Laos as a supply route for North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. The second is to weaken and subvert the Royal Lao Government---originally established at its urging--to hinder it from interfering with North Vietnamese use of Laotian territory, and to pave the way for the eventual establishment of a government more amenable to Communist control.
Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma has tried a variety of diplomatic efforts to restore peace in Laos. He has repeatedly appealed to the Cochairmen and others to help arrange for restoration of the 1962 Accords. He and the International Control Commission, hampered by lack of authority, have reported and publicized North Vietnamese violations of the Accords. And Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma has made several attempts to achieve political reconciliation with the Pather Lao and to reconstitute a tripartite government.
None of these efforts has borne fruit. Frustrated in his diplomatic efforts and confronted with continuing outside aggression, Souvanna has called upon three American administrations to assist his government in preserving Laotian neutrality and integrity.
By early 1963 the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao had openly breached the 1962 agreements by attacking the neutralist government forces in north Laos and by occupying and fortifying the area in southeast Laos along what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In these circumstances, the Laotian Prime Minister requested American aid in the form of supplies and munitions. The Kennedy administration provided this assistance in line with the Laotian Government's right under the Geneva Accords to seek help in its self-defense.
In mid-May 1964 the Pathet Lao supported by the North Vietnamese attacked Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma's neutralist military forces on the Plain of Jars. North Vietnam also began to increase its use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to further its aggression against South Vietnam. The Johnson administration responded to Royal Laotian Government requests to meet this escalation by increasing our training and logistic support to the Royal Lao Government. In May 1964, as North Vietnamese presence increased, the United States, at Royal Lao Government request, began flying certain interdictory missions against invaders who were violating Lao neutrality.
Thus, when this administration came into office we faced a chronically serious situation in Laos. There had been 6 years of seasonal Communist attacks and growing U.S. involvement at the request of the Royal Laotian Government. The North Vietnamese had steadily increased both their infiltration through Laos into South Vietnam and their troop presence in Laos itself. Any facade of native Pathet independence had been stripped away. January 1969, we thus had a military assistance program reaching back over 6 years, and air operations dating over 4 years.
II. THE POLICY OF THIS ADMINISTRATION
Since this administration has been office, North Vietnamese pressure has continued. Last spring, the North Vietnamese mounted a campaign which threatened the royal capital and moved beyond the areas previously occupied by Communists. A counterattack by the Lao Government forces, intended to relieve this military pressure and cut off supply lines, caught the enemy by surprise and succeeded beyond expectations in pushing them off the strategic central plain in north Laos known as the Plain of Jars.
The North Vietnamese left behind huge stores of arms, ammunition, and other supplies cached on the Plain. During their operations in the Plain of Jars last summer and fall, Lao Government forces captured almost 8,000 tons of Communist equipment, supplies and weapons, including tanks, armored cars, artillery pieces, machine guns, and thousands of individual weapons including about 4,000 tons of ammunition. The size and nature of these supply caches the Communists had emplaced on the Plain by the summer of 1969 show clearly that many months ago the North Vietnamese were preparing for major offensive actions on Laotian territory against the Royal Lao Government.
During the final months of 1969 and January 1970, Hanoi sent over 13,000 additional troops into Laos and rebuilt their stocks and supply lines. They also introduced tanks and long-range artillery.
During January and February, Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma proposed to the other side that the Plain of Jars be neutralized. The Communists' response was to launch their current offensive which has recaptured the Plain of Jars and is threatening to go beyond the furthest line of past Communist advances.
The Prime Minister is now once again trying to obtain consultations among all the parties to the Geneva accords, envisaged under Article IV when there is a violation of Lao sovereignty, independence, neutrality, or territorial integrity.
In this situation, our purposes remain straightforward.
We are trying above all to save American and allied lives in South Vietnam which are threatened by the continual infiltration of North Vietnamese troops and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hanoi has infiltrated over 100,000 men through Laos since this administration took office and over 500,000 altogether. Our air strikes have destroyed weapons and supplies over the past 4 years which would have taken thousands of American lives.
We are also supporting the independence and neutrality of Laos as set forth in the 1962 Geneva agreements. Our assistance has always been at the request of the legitimate government of Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma which the North Vietnamese helped establish; it is directly related to North Vietnamese violations of the agreements.
We continue to be hopeful of eventual progress in the negotiations in Paris. But serious doubts are raised as to Hanoi's intentions if it is simultaneously violating the Geneva agreements on Laos which we reached with them largely on the basis of their own proposals. What we do in Laos has thus as its aim to bring about conditions for progress toward peace in the entire Indo-Chinese Peninsula.
I turn now to the precise nature of our aid to Laos.
In response to press conference questions on September 26, December 8, and January 30, I have indicated:
--that the United States has no ground combat forces in Laos;
--that there were 50,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos and that "more perhaps are coming";
--that, at the request of the Royal Laotian Government which was set up by the Geneva accords of 1962, we have provided logistical and other assistance to that government for the purpose of helping it to prevent the Communist conquest of Laos;
--that we have used air power for the purpose of interdicting the flow of North Vietnamese troops and supplies on that part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail which runs through Laos;
--that, at the request of the Royal Laotian Government, we have flown reconnaissance missions in Northern Laos in support of the Laotian Government's efforts to defend itself against North Vietnamese aggression and that we were engaged in "some other activities."
It would, of course, have posed no political problem for me to have disclosed in greater detail those military support activities which had been initiated by two previous administrations and which have been continued by this administration.
I have not considered it in the national interest to do so because of our concern that putting emphasis on American activities in Laos might hinder the efforts of Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma to bring about adherence to the Geneva agreements by the Communist signatories.
In recent days, however, there has been intense public speculation to the effect that the United States involvement in Laos has substantially increased in violation of the Geneva accords, that American ground forces are engaged in combat in Laos, and that our air activity has had the effect of escalating the conflict.
Because these reports are grossly inaccurate, I have concluded that our national interest will be served by putting the subject into perspective through a precise description of our current activities in Laos.
These are the facts:
--There are no American ground combat troops in Laos.
--We have no plans for introducing ground combat forces into Laos.
--The total number of Americans directly employed by the U.S. government in Laos is 616. In addition, there are 424 Americans employed on contract to the Government or to Government contractors. Of these 1040 Americans, the total number, military and civilian, engaged in a military advisory or military training capacity numbers 390. Logistics personnel number 323.
--No American stationed in Laos has ever been killed in ground combat operations.
--U.S. personnel in Laos during the past year has not increased while during the past few months, North Vietnam has sent over 13,000 additional combat ground troops into Laos.
--When requested by the Royal Laotian Government, we have continued to provide military assistance to regular and irregular Laotian forces in the form of equipment, training and logistics. The levels of our assistance have risen in response to the growth of North Vietnamese combat activities.
--We have continued to conduct air operations. Our first priority for such operations is to interdict the continued flow of troops and supplies across Laotian territory on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces, I consider it my responsibility to use our air power to interdict this flow of supplies and men into South Vietnam and thereby avoid a heavy toll of American and allied lives.
--In addition to these air operations on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, we have continued to carry out reconnaissance flights in Northern Laos and to fly combat support missions for Laotian forces when requested to do so by the Royal Laotian Government.
--In every instance our combat air operations have taken place only over those parts of Laos occupied and contested by North Vietnamese and other Communist forces. They have been flown only when requested by the Laotian Government. The level of our air operations has been increased only as the number of North Vietnamese in Laos and the level of their aggression has increased.
Our goal in Laos has been and continues to be to reduce American involvement and not to increase it, to bring peace in accordance with the 1962 accords and not to prolong the war.
That is the picture of our current aid to Laos. It is limited. It is requested. It is supportive and defensive. It continues the purposes and operations of two previous administrations. It has been necessary to protect American lives in Vietnam and to preserve a precarious but important balance in Laos.
III. THE FUTURE
Peace remains the highest priority of this administration. We will continue our search for it in Vietnam. I hope my appeal today to the Geneva conference cochairmen will help in Laos. Our policy for that torn country will continue to rest on some basic principles:
--We will cooperate fully with all diplomatic efforts to restore the 1962 Geneva agreements.
--We will continue to support the legitimate government of Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma and his efforts to deescalate the conflict and reach political understanding.
--Our air interdiction efforts are designed to protect American and allied lives in Vietnam. Our support efforts have the one purpose of helping prevent the recognized Laotian government from being overwhelmed by larger Communist forces dominated by the Noah Vietnamese.
--We will continue to give the American people the fullest possible information on our involvement, consistent with national security.
I hope that a genuine quest for peace in Indochina can now begin. For Laos, this will require the efforts of the Geneva conference cochairmen and the signatory countries.
But most of all it will require realism and reasonableness from Hanoi. For it is the North Vietnamese, not we, who have escalated the fighting. Today there are 67,000 North Vietnamese troops in this small country. There are no American troops there. Hanoi is not threatened by Laos; it runs risks only when it moves its forces across borders.
We desire nothing more in Laos than to see a return to the Geneva agreements and the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops, leaving the Lao people to settle their own differences in a peaceful manner.
In the search for peace we stand ready to cooperate in every way with the other countries involved. That search prompted my letters today to the British Prime Minister and the Soviet Premier. That search will continue to guide our policy.
Note: The statement was released at Key Biscayne, Fla.
Richard Nixon, Statement About the Situation in Laos Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/240966