While the eyes of America were on Vietnam, another war was being fought next door in Laos. Involvement of the United States in the war was frequently denied, leading to the name of the “Secret War in Laos” in the American press. The Laotian Civil War began when the Communist Pathet Lao challenged the Royal Lao Government, and they continued to fight for power throughout the 60s and 70s. Here, John Gunther Dean (Deputy Chief of Mission in Vientiane, Laos in 1972-1973) tells the story of how he had to resort to unusual methods to topple an attempted coup of the neutralist government in Laos on August 20,1973. Dean was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in September 2000.
Prelude to a Coup
DEAN: In August 1973, General Tao Ma, a Lao dissident Air Force General, sneaked across the Mekong River and occupied the Vientiane Airport. He was supported by a group of dissident Lao military officers who had come from northern Thailand in an effort to topple the neutralist government of Souvanna Phouma. That group of coup plotters undoubtedly had the support of some branches of the U.S. Government and also perhaps the support of Asian countries which opposed the neutralist policies of Prince Souvanna Phouma.
After they had also taken control of the Vientiane Radio Station, they went on the air to alert the public that their mission was to evict Souvanna Phouma from power. They took full control of the Vientiane Airport and control tower, and wanted to use the small American-supplied military planes given to the Royal Lao Air Force, to subdue the Souvanna Phouma Government and force the Royal Lao Government to turn over the government to them.
When I was notified of this development, I first found a safe house for Souvanna Phouma, and he was out of harm’s way. I then had my driver take me to the airport to confront the coup plotters. I then tried to organize Americans to help me to put down the coup, but all of them saw their role as reporters or observers. My staff was very generous in writing up the events. One of them was Frank Franco who was in charge of fire security at the airport. Colonel Bailey, the Military Attaché, was equally active in keeping abreast of developments, but was reluctant to be directly involved in defending the Prime Minister or putting down the illegal coup d’état hatched outside Laos.
“Get your butts back over the Mekong River! This thing is over!”
I felt pretty much alone in crushing the coup. When we arrived by car at the airport, I got a bull-horn and, standing below the Airport Control Tower, I shouted in French to the coup plotters: “Go back across the Mekong. If you are not going to go back, I’m going to cut off the gasoline supplies and all other items needed by the Lao military and provided by the U.S. Get out of here! My job is to support the Government of Prince Souvanna Phouma and this coup is against this government. I will not have you undermine the legal and internationally recognized Lao Government!”
Nobody moved, except some plotters who were getting the small military propeller-powered planes ready to fly over the city and take over the government. So, I asked my driver to drive the car to the middle of the runway in order to block the planes from taking off. I sat in the car with my chauffeur. The latter was shivering with fear. He wanted to get out. I said: “You stay here. I am staying in the car with you. Put the flags on the car.” The two flags (the American flag and the Presidential flag) were flying on the car and we were blocking the runway.
Well, General Tao Ma was not going to be put off by this show of bravado by a young civilian officer. He fired up his plane and he tried to take off. Since I was about midway on the airstrip, he tried to avoid the car. He did not have enough height. In the process of avoiding a collision with my car, he veered off to the right and crashed. He was killed instantly.
I must admit that at that point, I was also a little shaky myself. So I told the driver: “Let’s go back to the Control Tower.” There, I took my bull-horn again and shouted: “Get your butts back over the Mekong River! This thing is over!”
At that point, there was a Royal Lao Army detachment waiting near the airport for the outcome of this confrontation. Sisouk Na Champasak, the Lao Minister of Defense, and a good friend, was heading the troops, but he was still waiting to see how this struggle was going to end. Was it going to be neutralist Souvanna Phouma or hard-liners? At that point, a putschist colonel, second in command to General Tao Ma, took off by plane and left for across the Mekong River. The rest of the coup plotters followed by boat. Finally, seeing the failure of the coup plotters, the Royal Lao military detachment decided to move and take control of the airport. The coup was over!
They went back to Thailand. This was the last attempt to stop the negotiations for a coalition government which would bring the Pathet Lao out of the bush and into the Royal Lao Government.…
There was a major U.S. support operation in Udorn, in northeastern Thailand to assist the Royal Lao Armed Forces and the Royal Government…. General Tao Ma was an officer in rebellion against the political leadership of Prince Souvanna Phouma. He and his coup plotters could not have undertaken this entire operation unless they had support from other well-organized foreign groups. There is no doubt that there existed at the time elements on the American and Thai sides who opposed the neutralist policies of Souvanna Phouma.
My instructions were very clear; to support the government of Souvanna Phouma. I was there to carry out that policy. I did not have time to ask for guidance from Washington or from anybody else. In any case, had the coup plotters succeeded in their takeover, there would have been elements in the U.S. who would have blamed me for failing to support Souvanna Phouma, and others for trying to stop the plotters from doing what was needed to stop Laos’ sliding toward communism. I thought I was carrying out the official U.S. policy and I threw my own life in the balance to achieve our objective.
After the Coup
Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma was now free to continue his efforts to bring the war to an end through negotiations. My superiors in Washington were generous in praising my actions. There were undoubtedly factions back home who regretted that the coup had failed. While most of the action centered around the airport, I also had to think about the safety of the Pathet Lao delegation who had come to Vientiane for the negotiations and who lived in a large house in town. Knowing that these Pathet Lao negotiators were very much a target of the coup plotters, I asked some of the American Marines guarding our embassy to send a few Marines to the Pathet Lao house to protect them against those who wanted to harm them.
After General Tao Ma was dead and after all coup participants had fled across the border, I went over to the Pathet Lao Delegation where its chief negotiator, Phoumi Vongvichit, thanked me for the protection. The Pathet Lao Delegation members and their American protectors all joined in a glass of sparkling wine, the closest thing to Champagne, to celebrate the success of our intervention. The road for a negotiated solution was free. The Pathet Lao Delegation members understood that their lives had been in the balance if this coup had succeeded. At that point, we continued working with the two negotiators, Peng Pongsavan for the Royal Lao Government, and Phoumi Vongvichit for the Pathet Lao. They signed the famous Protocol which opened the door to a coalition government a few weeks after the aborted coup.
On October 18, 1973, I received a personal, signed, letter from the President of the United States which reads as follows: “Dear John, You have my warm congratulations and my sincere thanks for the outstanding contribution you made to this successful completion of the Lao Protocol which was signed on September 14.…You vigorously and skillfully represented the United States and thus helped fulfill the earnest desire of the American people to advance the cause of peace for the people of Indochina and the world. Sincerely, Richard Nixon.”
We never broke relations with Laos after 1975 when we left Vietnam and Cambodia. Christian Chapman was then in charge of our Embassy in Vientiane and he and Charlie Whitehouse knew how to build on what we had accomplished.