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CHAPTER 7

The Laotian Crisis, 1962

Genesis of the Problem-The American Response-The Marine Corps Role-Marine Participation: A Summary

 

 

Genesis of the Problem

Almost simultaneous with SHUFLY's deployment to Soc Trang in April 1962, U.S. Marine combat forces were ordered to Thailand in response to the growing crisis in Laos. Inhabited for the most part by peaceful hill tribes, the small, landlocked Kingdom of Laos seemed an unlikely setting for any significant military confrontation. Even more improbable was the possibility that a serious international crisis could stem from what had begun as a political rivalry among relatively obscure princes.

To be certain, the context of what should have been a rather meaningless political feud had been altered substantively by North Vietnam's drive to extend its control over the Republic of Vietnam. Recognizing Laos as a strategic stepping stone for their southward thrust, the North Vietnamese, joined by the Soviet Union, had begun providing military aid to the Pathet Lao army of the leftist prince, Souphanauvong, in the late 1950s. To counter these Communist activities, the United States had extended military assistance to the anri-Communist government of Prince Boun Oum. In the resultant struggle, Prince Souvanna Phouma, who previously had proclaimed neutrality, sided with the Pathet Lao. With the lines drawn and the contenders now reinforced by powerful allies, the conflict naturally escalated. Laos, like South Vietnam, had become a pawn in the Cold War.

Administered through a small USMAAG, the American military assistance to Boun Oum, however, did little to slow the advances of the Pathet Lao. Early in 1960, they had joined forces with North Vietnamese units to seize control of the eastern portion of the country's long, southward extending panhandle. In early 1961, again backed by North Vietnamese forces, the Pathet Lao had opened an offensive on the Plain of Jars in central Laos. Boun Oum's units, commanded by General Phoumi Nosavan, proved unable to contain this push into central Laos.

By March 1961 the situation had become critical enough for President Kennedy to direct that CinCPac alert U.S. military units for possible deployment. In response. Admiral Felt activated a task force headquarters and assigned Major General Donald M. Weller, who was then serving as Commanding General, 3d Marine Division, as its commander. Designated Joint Task Force 116 in accordance with existing CinCPac contingency plans, Weller's command was to consist predominantly of Marine air and ground forces with Army and Air Force units making up the balance. Simultaneous with the activation of Weller's headquarters on Okinawa, CinCPac alerted the scattered forces earmarked for assignment to the joint task force.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy administration managed to defuse the situation somewhat by securing Soviet assistance in arranging a cease-fire in Laos. The crisis cooled further when 14 governments, including the Soviet Union, Communist China, and North Vietnam, agreed to reconvene the Geneva Conference to consider neutralization of the Kingdom of Laos. This conference convened on 16 May 1961, and together with the shaky ceasefire, brought a modicum of stability to Laos. With international tensions eased, the alert of U.S. forces in the Pacific ended. Subsequently, General Weller's JTF 116 headquarters was deactivated. The negotiations in Geneva proved to be long and tedious. In Laos, frequent fighting, usually of a localized nature, punctuated the cease-fire almost from the day it was effected. Finally, in the first

 

 

Page 86 (The Laotian Crisis, 1962 )