by Yale Richmond
When the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu fell to the Communist-led Vietminh on 7 May 1954, it marked the end of 90 years of French colonial rule in Indochina. Two months later, the Geneva Accords called for a temporary division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, to be followed by “free and fair elections” monitored by the international community. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Laos and Cambodia, the two other parts of Indochina, were also recognized.
Little landlocked Laos became a constitutional monarchy with a king, Sisavang Vong, resident in the remote royal capital of Luang Prabang in the north, and a government and parliament in Vientiane, a sleepy little town in the central region. Pending a political settlement with the Royal Lao government, the pro-Vietnamese Pathet Lao, who had fought with the Vietminh against the French, were allowed to regroup in the two northern provinces they already controlled. To monitor the provisions of the Geneva Accords, including a ceasefire, an International Control Commission, with members from Canada, India, and Poland, was established.
Laos itself had little real importance to the United States–then and now it was one of the poorest countries in Asia–but it was seen by Washington at the time as one of the “dominos” in Southeast Asia. According to the domino theory of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, if Laos or Cambodia fell to the Communists, Thailand would be next, and that could eventually mean the loss of all Southeast Asia. And that is how little Laos, with a population of perhaps only two million in 1954–no one is really sure of the number–became a bone of contention between its Communist, neutralist, and rightist factions, and another hot spot in the Cold War between the superpowers. And that is where Public Diplomacy became an important tool of US foreign policy.
I arrived in Laos in June 1954 one month after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The US mission was to support the Lao government in its efforts to prevent an insurgent movement, the pro-Communist Pathet Lao, from taking over the country. But most of the Lao people did not know that they lived in a sovereign state. Information about Laos and the rest of the world was sparse. The Lao government operated a few low-power radio stations and published a daily information bulletin in Lao and French, based on the Agence France Presse (AFP) wire service, but illiteracy was high and the reach of the radio and print media did not extend beyond the few provincial cities. Radio broadcasts from Thailand could be received but the low-cost transistor radio had not yet come to Laos. The term “nation building” had not yet been coined and we had no example to follow, but over the next two years my colleague Ted Tanen and I accomplished a few major achievements in Public Diplomacy.
First, we began publication of a Lao-language edition of USIA’s monthly photo magazine, Free World, featuring articles designed to strengthen the Royal Lao government’s public image and provide information about the history, culture, and politics of Laos and the other countries of Southeast Asia, as well as US aid to Laos. The magazine was printed at USIA’s printing plant in Manila, but I took the photos and wrote the copy in English.
In those years there were few Laotians who knew English, so we had the articles translated first into Thai by a local Thai employee, and then from Thai to Lao by a Lao local. To check the translation, a third Lao employee translated it into French, which we could read. That apparently worked because we never had any complaints about language or content.
Next, we produced a monthly Lao-language newsreel highlighting news of the Lao government, the royal family, and US assistance to Laos. With 16 mm projection equipment that we gave to Lao province chiefs, along with small gasoline-powered mobile generators, the newsreels, with a Lao-language sound track, were shown in villages where people had never seen a movie or even an electric light bulb. I had never produced a film, but until we were able to hire motion picture professionals from Manila and Saigon, I was camera man, script writer, and editor.
And third, we distributed large colorful posters with a photo of the Buddha and the Lao king, and distributed them throughout the provinces controlled by the Royal Lao Government where they became a fixture on the walls of village homes.
Another means of disseminating information was to use the Mekong River, one of the great rivers of the world, as a medium of communication. The Mekong rises in the highlands of Tibet and wends its way some 3,000 miles through China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before reaching the South China Sea. In Laos it is the main artery of the country, and along its banks and tributaries live most of the ethnic Lao people. To reach them we hired a boat and a team of singers, the traditional way of spreading the word in Laos. Our showboat cruised up and down the rivers, providing entertainment and information with film showings and songs of news to village people.
It was a tough, two-year, tropical tour. The skilled Vietnamese technicians and minor officials whom the French had brought with them to administer the government bureaucracy and maintain the public utilities had been driven or fled from Laos during the First Indochina War, which the French had fought 1946-1954, and public services were almost nonexistent.
There was no running water, and electricity supply was intermittent. We had more than our share of tropical diseases, limited medical care, and hazardous air travel. As Seymour “Max” Finger, later our deputy chief of mission in Vientiane, put it: “There are only two kinds of Americans in Laos – those who have amoebic dysentery, and those who don’t know it.” I was in the latter category and didn’t learn that I had amoebiasis until many years later.
As the amoeba in our guts multiplied, so did the staff of the US mission. During my two years in Laos the number of Americans grew from five to more than a hundred, but Ted Tanen and I were the pioneers in Public Diplomacy. And we did it without any guidance from Washington, which was just as well because few in Washington at that time knew anything about Laos.
The Mekong River separates Laos from Thailand but the river, longer than the Mississippi, provides only an artificial boundary. The Lao and Thai people are members of the same ethnic group, and their languages are mutually intelligible. Moreover, in Laos people on both banks of the Mekong are ethnic Lao, speak the same language, and are often related by marriage. However, Siam, as Thailand was formerly known, had been able to maintain its independence from the British encroaching from India and Burma on their west, and the French on their east, advancing into what used to be called Indochina. And until the French came up the Mekong River into Laos in the 1860s, the King of Siam considered much of Laos to be under his suzerainty.
The people of Laos are a collection of many ethnic groups and languages. The Thai-Lao, who constituted some 70 percent of the population and are known as Valley Lao, live along the Mekong River and its many tributaries, and are growers and consumers of rice. The aboriginal Mon-Khmer, some 20 percent of the population, are highland people who live in middle-altitude areas of northern and southern Laos. The Sino-Tibetans, about 10 percent, and the most recent arrivals, are hill people who have migrated from southern China, Tibet, and Myanmar into Laos and Northern Vietnam over the past century. Moreover, each of the more than 60 minority tribes of Laos had its own culture, language, and way of life.
Out of that melange of cultures and languages the French had created a new nation, Le Laos, by cobbling together the northern provinces centered around Luang Prabang, the southern provinces of Champassak, and the central provinces around Vientiane and Savannakhet. Buddhism was the predominant religion of the country, with animism common in the mountain regions.
Having just completed five years as a cultural officer in Germany, not a typical Foreign Service assignment in those years, I was looking forward to a real Foreign Service posting. Little did I realize that Laos would be as atypical as Germany, but much more dangerous and far less comfortable.
Like many countries of Southeast Asia, Laos had some elements of a tropical paradise. The people were gentle, soft spoken, peaceful, and outwardly passive. They had a popular saying, boh pen nyang, roughly translated as “It doesn’t matter” or “It’s okay.” The staples of their diet– rice, fish, vegetables, and fruit–were plentiful, except in rare years of drought. Public health, however, as in most developing countries at the time, was rudimentary at best. Longevity for adults was only in the early forties, and half of all newborns did not live beyond two years.
The administrative capital, Vientiane, despite its sub-equatorial climate and high humidity, had been a comfortable post in French colonial days. But it had been neglected by the French during the First Indochina War, and in 1954 it was a run-down town of perhaps 20,000, lacking dependable public services.
The American presence in Laos in 1954 was a holding action, awaiting a US decision on what to do about Vietnam, and it seemed that no one in Washington cared much about Laos or the American staff there. A legation had been opened in 1951, and when I arrived the mission was headed by Chargé d’affaires Lloyd “Mike” Rives, an FSO-6, the lowest rank in those years. The staff included Ted Kobrin, CIA Station Chief; Ted Tanen, Public Affairs Officer; and Nan MacKay, representing the US Operations Mission (USOM), a field unit of what is now the US Agency for International Development (USAID). I was Information Officer, and junior officer at the post.
With such a small staff, housing initially was not a problem. Nan MacKay had her own “bungalow,” as the French called her little house, but the rest of us, four bachelors, shared a communal life in the chief-of-mission’s residence, a comfortable French-style villa on the bank of the Mekong River. The chancery, where official business was conducted, was located in the residence and consisted of one room and an adjoining lavatory that doubled as code room.
In the evening, after a hot, but not hard, day’s work, we gathered at the dinner table, dining on whatever our Vietnamese bep (cook) had managed to purchase that day. Much of what we ate came from across the Mekong in Thailand. The meat, we surmised, was water buffalo, served almost daily. Each evening, as dessert was being served–usually a French flan–a messenger from the Lao Post Office would arrive by bicycle bearing the day’s telegrams from Washington. Most of them were NIACT (Night Action), which had to be answered that night, and Mike Rives would retire to the code room to decode them by hand on the old “one-time pad” system.
A few days after my arrival, I was summoned to pay a courtesy call on Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, one of the few real statesmen in Southeast Asia in those years. Donning my crisp white linen suit, I set out on foot for the prime minister’s office and residence a few blocks away. After introductory pleasantries, Prince Souvanna asked if I had brought a message for him from Secretary Dulles. I disappointed him by replying that, unfortunately, Mr. Dulles had been unable to meet with me before my departure from Washington.
As low man on the American diplomatic totem pole in Laos, I had only a few direct dealings with Souvanna during my two-year tour of duty in Laos. But when Souvanna visited Poland in 1961, I was in the reception line at the Warsaw airport and, as the only familiar face, I was greeted by him with a big smile and a hearty handshake.
In summer 1954, Charles W. Yost, a veteran career Foreign Service Officer, arrived as minister and chief-of-mission. Yost was soon followed by other officers–political, economic, and administrative–and military attachés, communication clerks, secretaries, Marine guards, and a large economic assistance mission. The one-room chancery became rather crowded–probably the first time a minister had to share an office with his entire staff–and a US army field tent was set up in the residence garden as legation annex.
To that primitive post in February 1955 came Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, with a large entourage of officials and journalists. Among the many problems facing the new Lao government was its army, which provided security against the Vietminh and Pathet Lao but had not been paid for months. After the Dulles visit, Washington moved quickly to support the Lao government and give aid directly, rather than through the French. The first payment soon arrived–a $2 million check, the first of many that were to follow.
Yost wanted to make a formal presentation of the check to symbolize American support, and I went along to take photos. Our lone legation vehicle was a battered Jeep station wagon, which we drove ourselves since there was no legation driver. But the latch on the driver’s door was broken, making it necessary to drive with the right hand and hold the door closed with the left. Yost pocketed the check and we piled into the Jeep, with the minister in the driver’s seat. I thought it would look bad enough for the United States to be delivering two million dollars in an old Jeep, but even worse for the minister to be driving it, so Yost accepted my offer to drive. Thus, we arrived more or less in style for the presentation to Lao Premier Katay Don Sasorith, a pro-Thai Lao nationalist who had succeeded neutralist Souvanna Phouma.
Another member of the Lao royal family I met was Crown Prince, and later King, Savang Vattana, a cousin of Souvanna Phouma. When Minister Yost made his introductory call on the crown prince in Luang Prabang in January 1955, I went along and took with me one of our 16 mm film projectors and a film to show after dinner in the royal palace. The crown prince had once expressed a desire to travel across the United States by Greyhound bus, and USIA obliged by sending us a Greyhound documentary film of such a journey. I had never before dined with royalty, and I still remember the delicious cuissot de chevreuil roti (roasted haunch of venison), which we washed down with a Mouton Rothschild. The following day, on an excursion up the Mekong by pirogue, we saw the miniature Buddhas in the famed Pak Ou caves upstream from Luang Prabang, and had a pique-nique on a river sandbar on the return trip. The Lao are well known for their hospitality.
Back in Vientiane, funds became available to lease a chancery building and provide housing and support for the American staff, which was increasing day by day. Housing was the immediate need. Initially, we bachelors continued to share the residence with Yost, doubling and tripling up in the few bedrooms. But when Mrs. Yost arrived, the first American spouse in Vientiane, we had to find other quarters. The few French-built villas were occupied by Lao government ministers and other diplomatic missions, and what was left were mostly thatch and bamboo houses on stilts.
I moved into a temporary USIS office, formerly a shop just off the marketplace, and there I worked and slept for several weeks, although the nearest toilet was two blocks away in the legation. Eventually, the legation found two villas, one for single men, and the other for single women. Beds could not be purchased locally, so our Army attaché had canvas folding cots flown in. Because there were not enough cots to go around, our two Marine guards had to share one, which was not as unusual as it may sound since each worked a 12-hour shift seven days a week.
The French-built villas were designed for the tropics, with thick masonry walls, high ceilings, tile floors, lots of open windows–no glass or screens, of course–but few basic conveniences. We slept under mosquito nets, sharing our bedrooms with ten-inch alligator-like gecko lizards that would stare at us at night from walls on the other side of our nets. Laotians told us not to worry–geckos in the house are a sign of good luck.
Electricity was available only in the center of town and not where we lived, but the old generator, when it worked, provided 50-volt current for only a few hours in the evening. Our refrigerator burned kerosene and cooled very efficiently. Water was delivered by truck, dumped into an open cistern at the rear of the house, and pumped by hand to 55-gallon drums on the roof, which gave us a gravity feed for a shower and toilet. When there was no truck, which was quite often, there was no shower and no flush. Fortunately, the Mekong was only one block away. Eventually, a gasoline-powered US Army field generator arrived that gave us 110 volts but created an awful roar in our backyard. The water problem was never solved.
Vientiane in those years was a calm and peaceful post. The Lao people like to party, and our social life was active. We had no need for house guards, and slept with doors and windows wide open. It was a relatively safe post, except for the time when I was almost killed.
Shortly after my arrival I received two invitations for a Saturday night dinner. One was from Deputy Prime Minister Phoui Sananikone, who wanted to meet the new American diplomat in town. The other was from a French archaeologist named Charles Archambault, married to a beautiful princess of the Shan tribe of northeast Myanmar who are related to the Lao and speak a similar language. The Archambaults, visiting in Vientiane, were authorities on Laos, and very pertinent for me, so I accepted their invitation and “regretted” the one from Sananikone, which may have seemed unwise but may have saved my life.
The Frenchman and his wife gave me a great introduction to Laos. But at the home of the deputy prime minister, as the guests were chatting after dinner, someone tossed two hand grenades through an open window and opened fire with a pistol, killing Minister of Defense Kou Voravong and wounding several other guests. The assassination was never solved, although I came very close to having my name on the plaque in the State Department lobby inscribed with names of Foreign Service personnel who have died in the line of duty.
Isolation was Vientiane’s main hardship. The French had built a good road network, but much of it had been destroyed during the war or had deteriorated through lack of maintenance. The roads that remained were threatened by the Communist-led Pathet Lao guerrillas and were impassible during the rainy season. Air was the only sure way to travel, but it was not always safe or dependable.
The legation was served by two flights a week from Saigon, via Phnom Penh, by Civil Air Transport, the airline started after World War II by US Gen. Claire L. Chennault of “Flying Tigers” fame. The pilots were American and Chinese who flew sturdy, dependable, and well-maintained DC-3 aircraft – known in its military version as the C-47 – that could accommodate passengers as well as freight. What was not publicly known at the time–but which we all surmised–was that the CIA had purchased the airline which later became known as Air America and would play a major role in America’s secret war in Laos.
For flights within Laos, the local airline, Air Laos, provided service to the provinces, as well as to Phnom Penh and Saigon, flying DC-3s that the French called Dakotas. The pilots were French, very experienced, who knew the terrain well and where to land in an emergency. Maintenance, however, was at best haphazard. The planes had bucket seats along the sides but no seat belts. When we took off, laden with passengers and freight, the passengers often had to stand forward, bunched up behind the bulkhead to move the center of gravity forward and give us better lift. Flying during the monsoon season could be even scarier as a plane might suddenly drop in altitude, and you wondered whether the wings were going to fall off. The landing strips were grass or perforated interlocking sections of metal that the US Seabees had used in World War II.
I vowed never to go on an inaugural flight after a close call with an Air Laos flight initiating new service to a province deep in the mountains of northern Laos. It promised to be an interesting trip, and each diplomatic mission in Vientiane was invited by the Lao government to send one person on the flight. After everyone else in the American Legation had declined, the invitation came down to me. I also declined, a fortunate decision because the plane smashed into the side of a mountain, killing all twenty-six on board.
Vientiane was a tropical post where we sweated eleven months of the year but froze on the twelfth. For most of the year, the weather in Laos made Washington’s August weather seem temperate by comparison, but we had a one-month cold season in January, during which we froze because we were not equipped with proper clothing or blankets. I recall driving my Vespa motor scooter to work in the morning with one hand to steer, and the other hand in my pocket to keep it warm, and then, when the steering hand was about to freeze, I shifted hands. At night, like a homeless person, I slept under newspapers rather than blankets. Since Laos had no newspapers, I used the Paris International Herald Tribune which came by mail. And when we had no electricity, I would read my “blanket” with the aid of a flashlight until I dozed off. The real challenge, however, was to take a shower during that cold month. We had no hot water but I learned that if I had two or three gimlet cocktails – made with gin and lime juice – before dinner, I could jump into a cold shower and wash enough of myself to prepare for dinner.
Vientiane was a tough post, physically and psychologically. We all suffered from heat rash. More serious tropical diseases were rampant, and medical evacuations frequent. The nearest civilian medical care was in Saigon, hours away by plane. Some left on stretchers, and others in straitjackets.
Local medical care was for emergencies only. However, a small French military hospital, with a few French army doctors, was available for emergencies. Once, I had the temerity to visit a French army dentist. Before beginning his examination, he poured gasoline into a portable generator to power his electric drill, and without washing the gasoline from his hands, put them into my mouth. I had not tasted gasoline since my earlier years in Germany when I often had to use a rubber tube to siphon gasoline into my car tank.In Laos, it was far more interesting, as well as comfortable, to travel in the provinces and live more or less like the Lao people, sleeping in the homes of Lao officials, and dining on a rice-noodle dish called Khao Poon, a highly seasoned soup made from whatever was available locally. I also bathed, as they did, in a river in early evening, clad only in a traditional black-and-white checkered cotton sarong, the men in one group and the women in another. I made many such trips into the countryside, and I learned enough Lao so that I could talk with people in the villages I visited, and where at times I had some interesting encounters.
On one trip, to Luang Prabang, I dined with the French military. The French had troops in Luang Prabang, only 90 miles from the North Vietnam border, and when the commanding officer, a commandant (major) heard that there was an American in town, he invited me to lunch with his staff. It was like a scene out of a movie on the French Foreign Legion. It being a very hot day, as usual in Laos, we dined en plein air (outdoors), seated at a large table under a tarp to shield us from the sun. The conversation was cordial until the French major, speaking of the position of France in the world, commented that France was “caught between Russian communism and the American machine.”
On another trip, I visited SENO (the acronym for Sud, Est, Nord, and Ouest), the French military base near Savannakhet, to attend the graduation ceremony of a class of Lao officer candidates. And it was there that I met another Lao prince, Boun Oum of Champassak, patriarch of the ruling family of southern Laos, who was to play an important role in the future of his country.
After the new Lao lieutenants were given their officer insignia, there was a traditional French coupe de champagne, and I must have lingered too long over my second or third “cup” because by the time I realized that I had not arranged for a ride back to Savannakhet, most of the VIP guests had already departed. What to do?
A Jeep rolled by, and I flagged it down. “A Savannakhet?” I asked. “Oui monsieur,” said the Lao driver, and I hopped in. But, as the driver explained, he had to make another stop for a passenger, who turned out to be Prince Boun Oum. The Prince, a well-built man with an air of authority, took over the wheel of the Jeep, but not before he had buckled a US army web belt with a Colt .45 caliber pistol around his ample girth, and off we went to Savannakhet in a cloud of dust.
In a few minutes we caught up with the convoy of cars with the other official guests who were being escorted by truckloads of armed Lao soldiers at the head and foot of their convoy. But rather than join the convoy and take advantage of its security, Boun Oum stepped on the gas, overtook the convoy, and soon left it far behind.
“Tres mauvais ici” (very bad here), said the Prince. “La route?” (the road), I asked. “Non,” he replied, “les Vietminh.” That part of the country was under the control of the Communist Pathet Lao forces, and I never learned why he had chosen to pass up the security of the convoy and barrel unescorted down a road infested with Communist guerrillas, but it told me something about his personality and behavior.
A few years later, Boun Oum would play a key role in a political-military conflict with two other Lao princes that would eventually determine the future of their country. Boun would support Lao General Phoumi Nosavan, a southerner and cousin of Thai strongman Sarit Thanarat, who favored a Western-oriented, anti-Communist Laos. Prince Souvanna Phouma sought a neutral Laos, and would be supported by a Lao military faction headed by Kong Le, a captain who staged a coup-d’etat in 1960. Souvanna’s half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, would continue to be leader of the Communist Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam. If you are still with me, that typified the political and internecine rivalries of Laos.
The other prince I knew, Savang Vattana, who later succeeded his father as king, abdicated after the Communist takeover of Laos in May 1975, the same year in which Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge. The king, his queen, and his young son, the new crown prince, would die three years later in a “reeducation camp” of the Pathet Lao.
Our public diplomacy effort in Laos was intended to build national consciousness in a new country, a process which later came to be called “nation building.” Eventually, we had an information center in Vientiane and branch posts in three provincial centers, each staffed by an American, in Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Pakse. Our modest program was the start of a soon-to-be massive American effort to maintain the independence of a small country whose people had been under foreign rule for most of their recent history.
When I left Vientiane in June 1956, two years after my arrival, there were more than 100 Americans at the post, and the number was rapidly rising, eventually to reach more than a thousand. An independent and sovereign Laos had been established, but through no fault of its own it became caught up in the politics and violence of the Vietnam War. Laos would be in a state of continuing conflict for the next twenty years, a pawn in the rivalry between the superpowers.
Today Laos is nominally under a Communist regime but the United States has an embassy in Vientiane, and relations are cordial. Vientiane has grown from a sleepy town of some 20,000 to close to 200,000, and the population of Laos is now estimated to be some 6 million. But recent visitors report that the Lao people have not changed much. They are still kind and hospitable, especially to Americans. And it’s still boh pen nyang.
Yale Richmond is a writer and former Foreign Service Officer who lives in Washington, D.C. His latest books are Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (Hippocrene Books, 2009), and From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia 4th edition (Intercultural Press, 2009). He served in Moscow as Counselor for Press and Culture, 1967-69.