Amb Dean carries American flag during evacuation of US Embassy Cambodia April 12, 1975
Eyewitness Oral History
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Foreign Affairs Oral History Project Information Series
Ambassador John Gunther Dean
Interviewed by: Charles Stuart Kennedy
Initial Interview date: September 6, 2000
Copyright 2004 ADST http://adst.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Dean-John-Gunther.pdf
DEAN: There was a huge French military Expeditionary Corps. The American Embassy and Economic Mission were small. It was to a large extent a French show of fighting the Viet Minh. The fighting basically took place in North Vietnam.
DEAN: The first job was to work with the Financial Adviser of the French High Commission. Few people realize today that the French Expeditionary Corps, the Vietnamese Armed Forces, the Cambodian Armed Forces, as well as the French advisers to these Indochinese forces, were all financed by the United States. That year, 1953-1954, the United States spent $875 million in support of the French and Indochinese armies to fight the communists. My job was to document how the money was spent, I had a counterpart who I have met again many years later, Pierre Hunt, who became a well-known French Ambassador to Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. He was on the side of the French. The French military would give us details on how they spent the money, for example for pay, for ammunition, for training of Vietnamese or Cambodian pilots, etc… In Cambodia, there was not much fighting. My official title was "Economic Commissioner."
We also worked on development projects in the 3 Indochinese states. I was at hand when the French Commanding General of the Expeditionary Corps, General Navarre, came to see Ambassador Donald Heath to ask for American air strikes to silence the North Vietnamese artillery which was installed on the hills overlooking the French camp of Dien Bien Phu.
DEAN: I remember one occasion when the French Forces were surrounded in Dien Bien Phu. He had a party for the French High Commissioner. Ambassador Heath climbed on the table and toasted the French "heroes" defending the Free World. As I said before, one day, I was asked to go to the Embassy. The Commanding General of the French Forces, General Navarre, was going to come to see the American Ambassador, and in case of need for an interpreter, I was there. Fortunately, the embassy had other competent interpreters and the First Secretary was asked to attend the meeting. It was at that meeting that General Navarre requested U.S. air support for the encircled French Forces at Dien Bien Phu. The request to bomb the hills overlooking Dien Bien Phu was turned down in Washington a few days later. It should be added that during the campaign at Dien Bien Phu, American pilots flying Air America, risked their lives to deliver precious ammunitions and supplies to the beleaguered French troops. So, the U.S. was helping France in this war. At one point, since the ambassador was accredited to all three countries, I was asked by the American authorities to go to Phnom Penh with my wife for two months. The Chargé had left on home leave. Having no children yet, we were available to spend 2 months at a neighboring posting. It was on that occasion that I first met Sihanouk.
DEAN: He is still around. Sihanouk played a major role in my efforts, 20 years later, to find a negotiated solution in Cambodia - something I achieved in Laos. My role in Cambodia in October 1953 consisted largely of looking after the few economic aid projects we had in Cambodia. But I got an insight into Cambodia and how Sihanouk functions, which later on was going to be helpful. When I see Sihanouk today, nearly 50 years later, he still remembers some of the events that occurred at that time.
DEAN: He was extremely Frenchified but he was truly the "father" of his people. That role he took seriously. When Sihanouk mounted on the throne in 1941 or 1942, he was a young man of 18 or 19 years of age. He was not the logical choice to become king. On his mother's side, Sihanouk was a Sisowath, the other royal family. On his father's side, he was a Norodom. The Sisowaths were more nationalistic and more independence-oriented. But the Cambodians, whose territory had been reduced both by the Thais and the Vietnamese, had to worry about two tigers, one on the East, and one on the West, who had designs on the remaining Cambodian Empire. So, the Cambodians turned to the French who were far away but had no territorial designs on the country.
Cambodia was under French tutelage but also protection against encroachment by Cambodia's neighbors. Between all the evils they faced, French influence was the lesser of the evils. Sihanouk Norodom was a young man well prepared by French military and civilian advisers to assume his duties. While he, the Prince of Cambodia, had never read Machiavelli, he received a good education in what it means to govern. There was no doubt that over time Sihanouk became truly the father figure of his country. The average Cambodian saw in him the incarnation of the nation. In America, we have had a difficult time understanding Sihanouk. During my long career, I stood up for Sihanouk many times. We will get to this. I always thought Sihanouk's primary interest was to defend Cambodia's national interest. I recall that in 1954 Sihanouk left his capital Phnom Penh, went to Bangkok, and said to the French: "I will not return unless I get full independence." He insisted on it and he got it. When students study the Geneva Conference of 1954, it was Sihanouk who absolutely refused any mention in a treaty which alluded to organized opposition within his country (i.e. Khmer Rouges). Both Vietnam and Laos had to sign a document which discussed the Viet Minh and the Pathet Lao.
In 1953-54, we knew relatively little about Cambodia. We considered Cambodia to be part of the zone of French influence.
Cambodia had a small, well educated upper class. It was small, but the French had helped Cambodia to have their own military, their own doctors, their own atomic scientists, their own lawyers, etc. In 1975, I took a Cambodian atomic scientist with me out of Cambodia. (He ended up in France). If needed, Sihanouk would also stand up against the French. In 1970, when he was deposed by a coup d'état of Lon Nol and Sirik Matak, Sihanouk spent a couple of days in the Soviet Union, but from there he went on to Beijing to await the end of the conflict. Sihanouk had a sense of history. He knew that for centuries China had been the protector of Cambodia.
Cambodia is first mentioned in the diplomatic annals by a Chinese emissary who visited Angkor Wat in about the 10th century. Cambodia was a vassal of the Chinese Emperor. Sihanouk knew that if he wanted to return to Phnom Penh, he had to work with the Chinese. He did return to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouges had occupied Phnom Penh in 1975. Sihanouk always understood power, but we made little effort to see the area through his eyes.
DEAN: Our ambassador at the time, who was one of my bosses, McClintock, always called him the "Little King." He made fun of Sihanouk and Sihanouk knew it. This was poor psychology. Sihanouk also had an ego and he did not appreciate any gesture or remark which did not give him his due as Chief of State of an ancient kingdom.
DEAN: Yes. He was the first American ambassador to Cambodia. He was a very able man, but he saw Cambodia as an operetta state. Sihanouk, at one point, was King, then he put his mother on the throne, but he always remained the real power behind it. He established the "Royal Socialist Boy Scouts." He saw no contradiction in terms. He was surrounded by French advisers. Sihanouk did not listen to the U.S. a great deal. Even back in 1953-54, Sihanouk was basically a neutral and a neutral at the time of Secretary of State Foster Dulles, was not the best way to endear oneself to the U.S.
DEAN: Basically, Secretary Dulles preferred to see the small states being either in one camp or another, i.e. communist or free world. The advisers to Sihanouk realized that Thailand and Vietnam were the real long-term threat to Cambodia's territorial integrity. They favored a middle road, a neutralist policy, as the best way for Cambodia's survival. Sihanouk was one of the founding fathers of the Bandung Non-Aligned Nations Conference in Indonesia, and he may be the last surviving one. That policy was anathema to American diplomacy at the time. I was, at the time, at the dawn of my 45 Year Foreign Service career. I honestly felt that it was okay for small states to be neutral. I was not convinced that every nation had to choose sides. I remembered that Belgium had been neutral in World War I. Belgium was invaded and Herbert Hoover made his name by helping the starving Belgians during the German occupation to survive. The Belgians, still today, so many years later, are grateful to Herbert Hoover. For many years, neutrality had been a respected principle. The Swiss had neutrality in 2 wars in the 20th century.
After the Second World War, Austria was given neutral status. Sweden was neutral during World War II and they were helpful to all sides. Portugal was neutral in the Second World War. The U.S. had remained neutral from September 1939 to December 1941; I felt at the time that Cambodia was a rich country, agriculturally. It had a unifying cement: Sihanouk. People did not go hungry. It was not a democratic republic but a Monarchy where King and deity were somewhat linked. But the people of Cambodia also remembered that nearly 100 years earlier, the Vietnamese had put a puppet as Viceroy in Phnom Penh to rule on behalf of Vietnam. During the Second World War, the Thais had annexed all the rich provinces west of the Mekong. Who remembers that the price for Thailand's entering into the United Nations was to give back to Cambodia and to Laos the areas annexed during the Second World War?
Neutrality made sense to me at the time because some of the small countries did not want to be dragged into the Communist-Free World conflict. And Vietnam was already looming on the horizon as a conflict between two ideologies and a war of independence as seen through Vietnamese eyes. After all, Cambodia had independence and did not need to fight for it. We are in 1953.
DEAN: No. McClintock became Ambassador to Cambodia in 1956 or so. At that time, we sent separate ambassadors to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. When I went in October 1953 with my wife to Phnom Penh, we had one Ambassador, Donald Heath, who was accredited to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. We had Chargés in Cambodia and in Laos. I went there in order to replace a Chargé who was on home leave. It lasted two months.
There was one prominent American who supported Sihanouk at that time: Mike Mansfield, Senator from Montana. Senator Mansfield remained a friend of Sihanouk until the very end. Let me switch the subject from politics to art. In 1953, my wife and I drove for the first time to Angkor Wat. Both of us were deeply impressed by the great ruins and temples swallowed up by the tropical forest. The "Smile of Angkor" had done its magic. We got interested in another civilization, an art form alien to our Western culture. My wife and I spent a wonderful week ambling through these ruins at a time when there were hardly any tourists. We were alone with the temples and the trees.
DEAN: The atmosphere was basically that, unfortunately. The French made the same mistake we continued to make after their departure. The Vietnamese are an able people, regardless whether they are from the North or from the South. When we were there in the early 1950s, I thought that the French should be more willing to give the Vietnamese control over their own affairs. I honestly felt at the time that President Roosevelt had been right because he understood that open colonialism had come to an end. Unfortunately, we also made the same mistake some years later. A people struggling for their independence will take their support from wherever they can obtain it. The West was clinging for too long to obsolete concepts. The Vietnamese turned to the Russians and Chinese and used communist support to gain their independence.
DEAN: Yes, I think Roosevelt was right. I would like to say, there were people on the French side who agreed with this reasoning and they were not communists. Mendes- France, Prime Minister at the time of the Geneva Accords, was certainly one of the more enlightened French leaders. He afterwards played an absolute cardinal role in giving independence to Tunisia and to Morocco. He was involved in that process of turning over sovereignty to the newly independent countries without losing the relationship with the former colonial power. Not everybody was able to do that, turning over sovereignty to the indigenous governments and still maintaining a close link with the former colonial country. Perhaps French leaders don't see everything in black and white but more grey.
Let me switch to Laos. We are in 1953. I am sent to Laos. Mike Reaves, a FSO-6 - the lowest rank in the Service, was Chargé. As for me, I was not in the Foreign Service yet. There was also a lady with him in charge of economic assistance. Prince Souvanna Phouma was Minister of Public Works in the Royal Lao Government. He was a French- trained engineer. He was a graduate of one of the best specialized schools in France.
Prince Souvanna Phouma was part of the Viceroy's family of Laos. In those days, the children of this elite often were educated in the good private schools of France, for example, "L'Ecole de Normandie." In the summertime, during the vacation period, it was too difficult for the youngsters to return to Laos. A round-trip by boat took 6 weeks. My wife's family had some cousins who attended the same school. At least two of the children of Prince Souvanna Phouma had gone to school with my wife's cousins. During the summer vacation in France, not being able to return to Laos, they were asked to spend some weeks at the country home of my wife's family. Furthermore, the King of Laos had attended the same school in France as my father-in-law.
Hence, when I went up to Laos in 1954 or 1955, I was invited by these two gentlemen to the homes of key Lao officials. These contacts were to play an important role in my later assignments to Laos. When Martine and I went for the first time to Laos, we saw about 10 or 12 automobiles in Vientiane. Working toilettes were rare. When Secretary Dulles visited Vientiane, he was lodged at the King's guest house which did not have a solid water closet. Mr. Dulles had an unfortunate incident which did not help to dispose him more favorably to the neutralist government of Laos.
In the 1950s, Laos was still living in a different world, many years apart from the modern world. In 1954, I returned to Washington to take the Foreign Service Examination. I first passed the written examination and then was scheduled to take the oral examination. When I entered the Foreign Service, there were very few foreign-born Americans in the career Foreign Service. While I had reached a relatively high rank in the Economic Aid Program, I was determined not to be integrated laterally. I did not want to be criticized later that I had entered the Foreign Service by the rear door.
So, I took the written and oral examinations and started my career from the lowest rank upward.
DEAN: Yes, I do. Ambassador Green, former Ambassador to Ethiopia, was a distinguished Foreign Service Officer. He presided. I had a Foreign Service officer from USIA, one from AID, and a consular officer by the name of Rose. Actually, he had given me my visa in Berlin in 1938 to go to the United States. He was also on the Board of Examiners. They did not give me an easy time. They wanted to test me whether I could represent honorably and knowledgeably the United States. Here are some of the questions they asked me: "Mr. Dean, what makes you think you are able to represent the United States? You were born in Germany. How do you think you can represent the United States?" I said I had come to the States at age 12. I had attended the American public school system. I had served in the American Army during war time. I had known the rich and the poor. I had lived in the Middle West. Above all, I thought I had acquired the values which made the United States great. Like all immigrants, I had made George Washington a role model and I wanted to serve the country which had given me a new home. When asked to talk about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in my oral examination, I remember that I was well equipped to address these questions.
DEAN: Later on, mind you, I had a good political science course at Harvard. Education in the public high school system of Missouri, plus Harvard University helped me to explain differences between both men but both views were needed to make the United States.
After that question, I was asked what kind of cattle is raised in Texas. Answer: Longhorn. What was the economy of Oregon? Did Oregon have different economies in the east and in the west? I was able to address these questions quite well and passed the oral examination. Having passed the Foreign Service Examination, upon my return to Saigon, the Economic Counselor of the Embassy, Mr. Gardner Palmer, took me into the Economic Section.
DEAN: Yes, I went back after taking the examination. There was no money to get an appointment In the Foreign Service right away, but I had passed the written, the oral, the physical and security examinations, and once back in Saigon I was treated somewhat differently. I was awaiting appointment as a Foreign Service Officer and had become a "colleague." It was in those days that I met Patricia Byrne, later one of our able ambassadors and friends. In the Economic Section in Saigon, in 1955, I was given the job of helping in the negotiation of the sale of assets of the Bank of Indochina to the Bank of Vietnam and to the Bank of Cambodia. For the sale, the French sent from Paris one of the top executives of the Bank of Indochina. He was rather well known because he had been a major player during the Vichy period in France. Some considered him a war criminal.
As Préfet in France, he had been responsible for rounding up Jewish children who were sent to concentration camps. He was the person with whom I negotiated.
DEAN: His name was Rene Bousquet. He was assassinated around 1990 in France. René Bousquet's name appears on the negotiating contracts. The Bank of Indochina sold its buildings, its facilities, and they wanted to be paid in convertible currency. The year was January 1956. Since the U.S. Government needed local currency, piastres, I was asked to convert the piastres paid by the Vietnamese Government into U.S. dollars, which is what the French wanted.
At the time, Ngo Dinh Diem was President of South Vietnam. The U.S. Government agreed to exchanging dollars for piastres. The Vietnamese put up the piastres. We put up the foreign exchange. The French took it home, and the Bank of Vietnam was created. I then flew to the United States to get new bank notes printed - no longer in France - but in the United States. The plates were in the United States. That was an important consideration. As will be noted, this transaction also reflected the change of influence in Vietnam, from France toward the United States.
DEAN: There is usually suspicion and some bad feelings when one foreign country is being replaced by another foreign power. At the time, Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a highly educated, French-speaking, nationalist mandarin, came to power. Perhaps there were elements in the French military and political establishment who felt that the U.S. did not give them the support they wanted or needed. But it was at that time that we began to replace the French in Vietnam as the guardians of the ramparts fighting communism. This was not the case in Cambodia. Cambodia was a relatively peaceful place in those years, Laos had not yet become a site of confrontation. In January of 1956, I left Indochina, having helped the Vietnam National Bank to be established. In Cambodia, the National Bank of Cambodia was established. In Laos, it was slightly slower. The Bank of Indochina stayed up there for a couple of years longer and the Lao Government took over financial control in a very peaceful manner. Most French realized that the era of French colonialism had come to an end in Asia.
The more enlightened political leaders, for example, Mendes France and General de Gaulle were decolonizers. They realized that the time of overt political colonialism had come to an end. The overpowering influence of the former colonial power behind the scenes also had come to an end and different ways had to be found of working with these emerging nations. Was there bad feeling? Probably some, but not for very long. Colonialism had brought good and bad features. At first, the countries of Indochina saw us as supporters of their independence. As time went on, in all three countries, the authorities realized that the United States also had its priorities and they did not always coincide with the goals of the indigenous governments. For example, in Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem was killed; Sihanouk was forced out by Lon Nol; and in Laos, the Pathet Lao replaced the King. It was too bad that the West did not accept earlier that colonialism had come to an end in 1945 with the conclusion of World War II. In January 1956 we returned to Washington and that spring I formally entered the U.S. Foreign Service. I entered at the bottom of the scale as a FSO-6. At the time, that was the lowest level. Shortly thereafter, the ladder was extended by 2 grades to FSO-8.
DEAN: That's right. That is exactly what happened to me. I fell back to an 8 and was quickly promoted to a 7 at my first FS posting. Before leaving Washington, I attended the FSO basic course where I made a lot of good friends.
DEAN: Yes, in 1956. Then, Jefferson Graham Parsons said "I need a very junior officer in the Political Section in Vientiane. I have been made Ambassador to Laos. I want you to go with me out there." I had an offer. Obviously, what had helped me up to this time was the fact that I had studied in France, spoke fluent French, and wrote French without difficulty (and if needed, I could always take the paper back to my wife who would correct it). 1956 was the period when we replaced the French in supporting the Meo tribesmen in their struggle against the communists. The French had used the hill tribes as mercenaries in their fight against the Viet Minh in North Vietnam. As you know, Dien Bien Phu is located in that area between Laos and North Vietnam where the hill tribes hold sway. The U.S. was going to replace the French by hiring not the Thai Dam tribe as the French had, but by using similar people, the Meo people who were basically not Lao or Thai, but Chinese. They had drifted southward from China. My big boss was Ambassador Jefferson Graham Parsons. He had a very able wife, Peggy. Ambassador Parsons believed in Foster Dulles' policies that all countries had to choose sides.
Neutrality was frowned upon.
DEAN: Yes, I served two Ambassadors. Jefferson Graham Parsons who went back in 1957 to Washington to be Assistant Secretary for the Far East, at a time when Laos had moved to center stage in our effort to contain communism in Southeast Asia. The second Ambassador was Horace Smith, who did not speak a word of French.
DEAN: 1956 to 1958. As the lowest member of the Political Section, I was the French speaker on the team. I worked with the Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma, an outspoken Francophile and an avowed neutralist. The Ambassador at the time, J. Graham Parsons, who had been kind enough to select me to go to Vientiane, was close to Secretary Dulles and did not believe that countries should follow a neutralist course; rather, they should choose either "to be with us or against us."
DEAN: Yes, but he was the executor of this policy. My wife and I had this personal relationship with Souvanna Phouma. We were asked at times to go to his house and play bridge in the evening. At the time, it became clear to me that the French did not believe that the policy pursued by Ambassador Parsons was the right one in Laos. I had a particularly close relationship with the adviser to Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma. His name was Mathieu. He was a military officer. He wrote speeches for the King; then, he wrote the answer for the Prime Minister, and then the Prime Minister would make a speech which required a response from the President of the National Assembly.
All the speeches were written by the same man: Mathieu. My wife and I got along with him. The Ambassador asked me to report directly to him, thereby knowing what was going on in Laos. There was no doubt that Mathieu was the best informed foreigner in the country. It was a time when the CIA sent an extremely able Station Chief. His name was Henry Hecksher. Henry and I got to be friends. From time to time, he would ask me: "Can you do this?" I felt my job was always to be helpful to my colleagues—so I did. One day, Hecksher asked me whether I could take a suitcase to the Prime Minister. Since I had easy access to most Lao, I complied. Whereupon, I received an official reprimand from the Secretary of State that I had abused my functions as a Foreign Service Officer.
DEAN: Somebody must have informed them. I never saw any difference between members of the Embassy. We were all supposed to be one team. What I did find out was that not only a suitcase was taken to the Prime Minister, but several suitcases full of money were being ferried over to the President of the National Assembly, Mr. Phoui Sananikone, who was much more In line with the official American position on Laos. But the delivery of these suitcases was not entrusted to me. Unfortunately, events lead to a political confrontation between Souvanna Phouma, the neutralist, and Phoui Sananikone who was basically very pro-Thai and lent the American Embassy his ear. Souvanna was forced out of office in 1958, which coincided with the end of my tour.
Phoui Sananikone took over the reins of the government and initiated a more hostile policy towards the Pathet Lao. Souvanna Phouma's half-brother, Souvanna Vong, was Head of the Pathet Lao. The two brothers always kept some channels of communication open. Souvanna Phouma was a great believer in finding a negotiated solution. Phoui Sananikone not at all. He was more interested in fighting the Pathet Lao and favored the business interests in Southern Laos. My Ambassador, J. Graham Parsons, appeared to prefer Phoui to Souvanna.
I do remember something which I think is of interest to future generations of Foreign Service officers. J. Graham Parsons was a reflective ambassador. He would write think pieces to the Secretary of State, Foster Dulles. Then he would call me in and say: "John, (and I was then the lowest man on the totem pole) I know you disagree with this paper, so would you please write one paragraph, no longer than a page, and I will put it at the end of my message?" He started the paragraph. "My political officer, John Gunther Dean, disagrees with me. His views are" and I provided the rest. I thought, for a junior officer, I could not ask for anything more. I did differ, but I was pleased that I was allowed to put my analysis forward without having my criticism held against me. Then, Parsons was recalled to Washington to take up the position of Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East. We received a new ambassador by the name of Horace Smith.
DEAN: No, the joint government came much later, when I served again in Laos in the 1970s. The Pathet Lao were still up in the hills or on the Plaine des Jarres. They were not yet a major military force nor was Laos yet a divided country. The King was still quite respected around the country. His son may be less so. But it was the beginning of training and arming the Meo hill tribes against the Pathet Lao. This trend was accelerated after the new Ambassador, Horace Smith, arrived at post. He arrived in Vietnam toward the end of 1957, Horace Smith was a China expert and spoke Chinese. Unfortunately, he did not speak a word of French. The working language in Laos was French. It was used in public speeches, in written communications with the government and in daily contact with the elite. Even among educated Lao, they used French among themselves. The Ambassador's inability to speak French made it difficult for him to communicate with the leading personalities of the Kingdom.
My wife and I were asked to help him. Ambassador Smith was a nice man, but people wondered whether he was the right man for the job. To assist in the communication, Ambassador Smith asked me to accompany him on his calls. The Ambassador would say something, and I would translate it into French. When the King, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, or the Commanding General of the Lao Armed Forces spoke, I would translate into English and at the same time take notes. My wife and I played a similar role at the Residence when the Ambassador entertained. At one point, we were asked by Ambassador Smith to move into his residence to help him entertain.
Later in 1958, when I accompanied the Ambassador on his calls, he said: "John, you know what to say." I would be allowed to say more or less what I knew was on his mind. I would present that point of view and take notes when the person answered. While the Ambassador was nominally in charge, there was another person at the post, the Head of the CIA, Henry Hecksher, who was both professionally able and spoke good French. I had good relations with Henry Hecksher. But it seemed to me that his orders were quite different from the policy pursued by the Ambassador.
The Ambassador was supposed to support the Lao Government and basically not rock the boat. Henry Hecksher was committed to opposing the neutralist Prime Minister and perhaps bring about his downfall. That is what happened in 1958, and the pro-American and anti-Pathet Lao Prime Minister Phoui Sananikone took charge. American resources and support were funneled to Phoui's Government, probably at the expense of French influence, which had supported Souvanna Phouma. Phoui Sananikone, former President of the National Assembly and then Prime Minister, and his brother Ngon, were basically nice human beings. They were Bangkok-oriented. Souvanna Phouma was Paris-oriented. He was a prince from the ruling class.
He was nationalist but looked to France not only to oppose communist expansionism but he also feared encroachment of the Vietnamese and Thais on his territory. He thought that the best way was to stick with the French. His policy was more oriented toward keeping Laos from being dismembered by neighbors and less motivated by fighting communism. In all these attitudes, Souvanna had a lot in common with Prince Sihanouk. Perhaps Souvanna was more educated than his Cambodian colleague. The dichotomy in the American leadership in Laos got to be known in Washington. In 1958, when I returned from Laos, a Committee had been established in Washington on how to avoid a leadership conflict, a turf battle within large diplomatic missions overseas.
In 1960, after John F. Kennedy was elected, one of the first steps he took was to write a letter which has been institutionalized ever since. It is the Letter of the President to the Ambassador. It says that "You, Mr. Ambassador, are responsible to me for all the activities going on in the country of your jurisdiction, whether they are military, political, intelligence, financial, agricultural, economics, drugs, etc. except if there is a military command which is directly responsible to a higher American military authority outside the country."
This letter was designed to make the American ambassador the coordinator of all American activities in the country of his accreditation. It meant that if the Drug Enforcement Agency wanted to run a certain operation, it needed the approval of the ambassador. If the CIA wanted to penetrate a certain institution, it needed the approval of the resident ambassador. If there was a conflict between U.S. agricultural interests shipping U.S. wheat or rice to a country, versus the Secretary of the Treasury making the money available for this transaction, the coordinator in the field was the ambassador. It also meant that the ambassador had to be well informed on all activities carried out by the representatives of U.S. departments and agencies within the diplomatic mission he is leading.
Hence, when you have several intelligence agencies in large diplomatic missions and turf battles develop, the ambassador must arbitrate. If you have a professional ambassador at the post, he usually can weigh the pros and cons and make a decision on the spot. He does not have to consult "Washington." The Presidential Letter says: "You are in charge" so, you do it. It can happen that, for example, on drug enforcement issues, the CIA representative may have different views than the DEA officer at the post. The military may have a conflict with one of the Intelligence Agencies. They may be targeting the same person - which could be a disaster. Both of them may be running against a double agent.
In the economic area, we may be dumping PL-480 rice into a country which is actually exporting rice grown at home. You, ambassador, are in charge of this. I would think this letter, which has been used now for the last 40 years, is one important reason why in sensitive posts the professional ambassador makes a difference. A political appointee having to arbitrate the differences among U.S. departments and agencies may not know all the ramifications of every decision which is to be made. On the other hand, most career people do have the background. Let me give you an example. A wife of a very prominent Prime Minister was deeply involved in the sale of drugs. We knew that. When the Prime Minister refused to sign a certain piece of paper which we wanted signed, we had to threaten the Prime Minister, or at least make it known, that we knew that his wife was very much involved in drugs. The paper was signed. The ambassador, as coordinator of U.S. activities abroad, is probably the only way to avoid in the field what is a problem in Washington where every department and every agency runs its own policies and operations. While theoretically the National Security Adviser to the President is supposed to be the coordinator, I don't think that every problem can be resolved from thousands of miles away. A good relationship between the National Security Adviser in Washington and the Ambassador at a sensitive post is very helpful to the over-all interests of the United States.
DEAN: It was being built up, artificially I think, as a major point of confrontation. If you think at one point there was a Bermuda Conference with British Prime Minister MacMillan involved with the American President in trying to diffuse the confrontation in Laos, while most average Americans had never even heard of that far away place. Laos had become a flashpoint where the U.S. saw its interests being challenged by the communist world through the communist Pathet Lao. I thought this conflict had been blown up beyond our real national interests. We saw the Pathet Lao not as a national force, but as a prolongation of the communist Vietnamese and the communist Chinese.
We saw Laos as part of a global challenge.
The Bermuda Conference was held because it was feared that this regional confrontation could spread into a broader conflict. Mind you, we were living in an era of "containing communism."
DEAN: Since I had been close to Souvanna Phouma personally and I played the role of liaison with the French, I supported Souvanna's neutral policy. With the approval of Ambassador Parsons, I could make known my views. I was allowed to dissent. Most of my colleagues thought their job was to support the new Lao Government under Phoui Sananikone which opposed neutralists and gave priority to fighting the communists. Also, many officers in the Mission were staff involved in supporting the Meo forces fighting the Pathet Lao. There was relatively little dissent in our Mission. After the U.S. elections in 1958 when Governor Harriman entered the Lao scene, he supported again a neutralist general as counterweight to the warrior clan. That was in 1961-1962. It also reflected a slight change in U.S. policy. Dulles had disappeared from the scene. The elections in 1960 brought Kennedy to the fore and an effort was made to find a negotiated solution. It was Harriman who at that point succeeded to deflate the Laos confrontation.
I would like to pay a tribute to a person who may still be alive: Campbell James. His grandfather had been one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was quite flamboyant. I had started at my home regular roulette evenings. I learned how to be the croupier to run the roulette table. People were able to bet small amounts. I held the bank. This was a good way for the Lao military, Lao politicians, and foreign diplomats to come to my house.
People of high rank came to our home to mix, talk, and enjoy themselves. Campbell James, who came from a well-to-do family, said: "John, why don't you introduce me to your friends?" I did. I felt - and I still feel today - that whether you work for this department or that agency, we all work for Uncle Sam. While he may have had different reasons for coming to my house, he was my colleague. When I was scheduled to depart post, I turned over most of my contacts to Campbell James, who continued to run roulette evenings and used fun evenings to make friends among the Lao military who loved gambling.
Campbell James and I had contact with many foreign missions: Poles, Canadians, Indians… These roulette evenings helped to keep all channels open. Perhaps the most important result of my tour of duty in Laos was the letter from the American President to the Ambassador which put an end to confrontation between different U.S. departments and agencies at diplomatic missions abroad. At least, that was the purpose of the Presidential Letter making the Chief of Mission the Coordinator of all U.S. activities under his jurisdiction.
DEAN: I used it extensively later, wherever I was assigned as Chief of Mission. Some called me a "meddler," an "intervener." Years later, when I appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for confirmation, Senator Javits chastised me and said: "If you are confirmed, Mr. Dean, will you continue to intervene in the domestic affairs of the country where you are stationed?" I think I replied to the satisfaction of the Senators, because I was confirmed. But when you are the American Ambassador, you have the means at your disposal to influence the situation. The naked truth is that the Ambassador is more "than a reporter." Often, he can't help but take positions. Whether you call this "interference..." I don't know.
For example, when you answer the question to the King "Are you in favor of this?" and you reply: "Yes," you have "intervened." Most of the time, when it's a vital issue, you can't say: "I am going to get my instructions from the State Department and I will get back to you." Your personal relationship with the interlocutor and his confidence in you matters. That is why I do believe that the selection of ambassadors is a very important process. Yes, there are many situations where the ambassador's advice or opinion is a form of intervention in the internal affairs of a country.
DEAN: It was still off the beaten path and foreign journalists were a rare breed. The medical facilities in Laos were also very limited. That kept some people away. For example, foreign women were reluctant to have their baby in Laos. My wife happened to be pregnant in Laos. Everyone urged her to go to the American Hospital in Bangkok but my wife replied: "I prefer to stay with my husband." I have one son who was born in Laos. Quite often, he has to explain to a Passport Officer why he was born in Laos. At the time, there was only one hospital in Vientiane: the French military hospital. That is where our older son was born. The Lao have remained themselves. Western ways have not had a significant impact. They are basically nice, decent people who got hurt when Laos became a bone of contention between the West and the communist world.
DEAN: When I arrived in Laos in the autumn of 1972, I had a long conversation with Ambassador Mac Godley. By that time, I had the reputation of being a "fighter." Embassy/Vientiane was a huge Mission of 680 Americans. Mac Godley was a person who inspired loyalty. He, in turn, reciprocated with full support for his staff. He believed in the doctrine that we should put as much military pressure as possible on the Pathet Lao and their Vietnamese supporters, especially through aerial bombing. In the course of this meeting, Mac asked me: "Do you wish to take the war or peace?" I took the peace. Had I opted for "the war," it would have meant selecting targets, for bombing by American planes, and supporting efforts with the Meo mercenaries fighting the Vietnamese.
There was a whole section in Embassy/Vientiane that was involved in selecting targets for bombings by the U.S. Air Force. Bombing helped to push Pathet Lao troops off a hilltop or giving support to the Royal Lao Army units facing the enemy. We had a very close relationship with the Lao military. When I arrived in Vientiane in 1972, a Pathet Lao delegation had just arrived in town to explore the possibility of negotiations. So, when I took over the role of following, for the Embassy, efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Lao conflict, I was lucky, as far as timing was concerned.
DEAN: Until October/November 1973. One of the reasons the Pathet Lao delegation had arrived in Vientiane was that the leader of the Pathet Lao was Souphanouvong, who was the half brother of Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, who was very much committed to finding a way of ending the armed conflict. The presence of Souvanna Phouma as Head of the Royal Lao Government was probably the reason that we were able to help find a negotiated solution in Laos. In Cambodia, unlike Laos, there was no major local personality in the country with whom you could negotiate or who was a credible neutralist leader. Souvanna Phouma was known as a neutralist, and proud to be one.
In an earlier interview, I had discussed the personal links I had with him. Since I came back to Vientiane, this time as Deputy Chief of Mission, my wife and I were invited quite often in the evening to the Prime Minister's home. Dinner was usually followed by bridge.
Souvanna Phouma was an avid bridge player and he liked to win. If by 11:00 p.m. he had won, we went home at 11:15. But if Souvanna Phouma was losing, we stayed on until 1:00 a.m., until he started winning. These social occasions gave me an opportunity of discussing in a leisurely manner the problems of the day. Since Souvanna Phouma was an avowed neutralist, he did not really enjoy the enthusiastic support of the United States.
Most of the time, Souvanna Phouma was interested in exploring solutions which saved face for both Lao parties.
DEAN: Back in those days, Mr. Harriman worked with the neutralist General Phoumi Nosavan. Back in 1962, Lao neutralists were more acceptable to the U.S. You must remember. Secretary Dulles was no longer on the scene. Certainly, by 1972, Souvanna Phouma had emerged as a compromise figure on the Lao political scene. The French gave him full support. I am also inclined to believe that the Russians supported the coming of the Pathet Lao to Vientiane in order to find an alternative to the war. The Pathet Lao official who was sent to Vientiane as Head of the Delegation was Phoumi Vongvichit who later became President of Laos. A word about the other important players on the Lao side, in this crucial period. One of them was the King of Laos. You may remember that he had gone to school with my late Father-in-law, when the former was the Crown Prince.
When we went to Luang Prabang, this made some difference in my relationship with him. The King was a mild-mannered person, while his son, the Crown Prince, was prone to act at times high handedly. Both the Lao Dynasty in Luang Prabang and the Princes of Champasak in Southern Laos had links, not only to France, but also to Thailand. In Southern Laos, Prince Boun Oum had fought the Japanese during the Second World War, and after the war served briefly as Prime Minister of Laos. Prince Boun Oum, a huge man, was basically a country gentleman, not terribly well educated, but he loved the good things in life: booze, beautiful women, and having a good time. I had been told that when he came to Paris as Prime Minister, he was supposed to meet with the President of France. On his way to the meeting, he had met a nice-looking floozie so he just forgot about his appointment with the President of France. His nephew Sisouk Champasak played an important role in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, and was quite pro-American.
DEAN: Oh, yes. She always played a very major role. Her family was known to Souvanna Phouma. By 1972, his children were grown up. One was in the military. Another was in business. His very attractive daughter, Moune, had attended prestigious schools in France. Later, she married an American, Perry Stieglitz, who was in the U.S. Embassy. She was a very refined, beautiful lady. She also had a sister who worked with NGOs. General Kouprasith was the Head of the Royal Lao Armed Forces. Among his accomplishments, is the building of the Arch of Triumph in Vientiane, which every tourist visits today. He was the son of the Head of the King's Council, the senior position of the Lao civilian administration. He had spent many years in school in France. By the time I returned to Laos in 1972, he was an old man. But with that family we also had close links going back to earlier years. We had spent time with them at their family home in southern Laos.
Nearly all Lao officials spoke French, in addition to their native Lao language which is very close to the Thai language. If we wanted to communicate with the key Lao personalities—civilian or military—it was essential in those days to be able to speak French. Ambassador Godley spoke good French, and most of the Embassy staff spoke French. We also had a few Thai-speaking officers. On the American side, I would like to single out Jack Vessey. He was a Brigadier General at the time. He was in charge of providing our Mission with military support, out of Udorn in northern Thailand. This entailed providing military hardware and military intelligence to the Royal Lao forces.
Jack and I became good friends. On a number of occasions, we traveled together in his plane, visiting the Royal Lao Armed Forces or the Meo Hill Tribes fighting the Vietnamese who were supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.
One day. Jack and I were on the Plaine des Jarres, in northeastern Laos, when suddenly we came under intense artillery shelling from the Pathet Lao, supported by the North Vietnamese. The artillery shelling was pretty precise. Jack Vessey and I were forced to lock arms and jump together into a ditch to avoid being hit by enemy artillery shelling. Jack was a very thoughtful person. In the hours we spent in his plane traveling, we would discuss the role of the United States in Indochina, in Asia, and in the world. Among the many American military I had the honor of working with. Jack was tops. Later, he served with distinction as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It was in 1971 that I started working closely with Peng Pongsavan who was the President of the Lao National Assembly. He had been selected by the King and by Souvanna Phouma to be the negotiator for the Royal Lao Government side. On the Pathet Lao side, was Phoumi Vongvichit. The two Lao delegations met during the daytime and tried to find compromises to their opposing views. In the evenings, usually after 10:00 p.m., I went over to see Peng Pongsavan to obtain a read-out on the status of the negotiations.
Armed with many notes, I returned to the Embassy to send a detailed message to our National Security Advisor on the status of the negotiations to find an end to the Lao conflict. My message was not sent always through the State Department channels, but directly to the White House, i.e., the Security Adviser.
DEAN: You are right. That was Henry Kissinger. He came to Laos quite often as part of his trips to Vietnam. In Vientiane, I would act as his interpreter. Although Dr. Kissinger speaks good French, he preferred to speak in English and I would interpret. Vice-versa, when Souvanna Phouma spoke, he would ask for a translation. This way, both men had time to prepare their replies.
DEAN: I received practically no guidance from Washington and I was very much on my own. It should also be noted that in March 1973 Ambassador Godley had left post for a new assignment and I was left in charge for the next 6 months. Souvanna Phouma's neutralism was not our preferred solution. Yet, Washington was eager to receive a read out on the status of the negotiations. Often, Peng Pongsavan, the Royal Lao Government negotiator, would ask: "What do you think about this compromise or that approach?" I did not have time to ask the Department for guidance. I would give my opinion, suggesting: "Maybe this approach might work." In a way, I was part of the negotiation by extension and the faith Peng Pongsavan had, that I reflected the official view of Washington. Sometimes, Peng Pongsavan would ask: "Do you think this is acceptable?" (presumably to Washington). I would say: "If it leads to a settlement, yes." We both knew that the outcome of the negotiation would have to be a coalition government. That means sharing power with the Pathet Lao. By 1972, Laos was no longer perceived by Washington as a bilateral problem but rather as part of a much broader U.S. effort to contain the spread of communism in South-East Asia, and that entailed all 3 former Indochina states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
DEAN: The Soviets had been involved in Laos for some time. You will recall that Governor Harriman had fortunately found a solution supporting the neutralists in the early 1960s, with General Phoumi Pongsavan. In 1972-1973, the Soviet Ambassador to Laos was definitely in favor of a compromise solution for Laos. That basically meant supporting a denouement to the conflict by the formation of a coalition government with the Pathet Lao.
In my nightly reporting, I had the help of a very dedicated Foreign Service secretary who would come to the office at midnight in order to type up the message to Washington. Before that, Dick Howland, an excellent FSO who later became ambassador, was my political chief and he was also at the office in the middle of the night to ensure that the message was perfect.
DEAN: Dick would come in and be sure that what I had drafted was coherent and I had used the right words. He was an excellent wordsmith. Again, I would like to state that all chiefs stand on the shoulders of their team.
DEAN: Basically, I got answers to my reports from the National Security Adviser, Dr. Kissinger. He came from time to time to Vientiane, on his way to Vietnam. It was quite clear that I was expected to address my messages to the National Security Adviser. On my staff of 680 Americans, more than half were involved either in support of the Meo Hill Tribes fighting the communists or gathering information to support our effort to oppose the spreading of communism.
We also had at our post Army Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. In Washington, the only place where all this information was coordinated was in the Office of the National Security Adviser. At the post, the coordinator was the Ambassador, or in his absence, the Chargé d'Affaires. One day, something happened which was written up in detail in "Time Magazine," "Newsweek," and the international press. My nice boss, Ambassador Mac Godley, was asked in February 1973 to become Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs, in Washington. This was an important job where he was also going to be in charge of the Indochina problem. It was also a vote to keep on fighting and continue aerial bombing as an essential part in using military pressure to find a solution.
DEAN: Not always. The bombing could be in the Plaine des Jarres which had nothing to do with the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The American bombing was often directed against a hilltop where the Pathet Lao had displaced the Royal Lao Government Forces. The idea was to get them off the hill and have the friendly forces retake the hill. This was also a time when some vocal reservations were expressed in Congress about bombing. Some Congressmen even urged stopping the air operations altogether. Back in Washington, Mac Godley’s designation as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs ran into difficulties in the Senate. Instead of being confirmed for the Washington assignment, his name was proposed for the Ambassadorship to Lebanon.
With Godley's departure from Vientiane in early 1973, I became Chargé d'Affaires, a position I held for 6 months, until a new ambassador arrived at post. The official orders we had at that time were clear: support the government of Souvanna Phouma. We supported the Royal Lao Government, and I followed these instructions scrupulously. Souvanna Phouma and this policy were going to be put to a test. 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.
DEAN: He was involved with the airport.
DEAN: I don't know. I think he was on the AID payroll. All I can say is that he was a very hard working and a very devoted person who took the time to write an 18-page report on the coup attempt. It said exactly what happened. 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 buts 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!
DEAN: 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.
DEAN: But these were rebellious officers who had taken refuge in Thailand.
DEAN: There was a major U.S. support operation in Udorn, in northeastern Thailand to assist the Royal Lao Armed Forces and the Royal Government. I think enough books have been written about it. 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.
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 are far more than an observer and a reporter of the events leading up to the agreement.
You also played a vital role as mediator and catalyst earning the respect and admiration of all the parties. 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.
DEAN: Christian Chapman and Ambassador Whitehouse did an excellent job in honing our links with Laos. We never broke diplomatic relations with Laos, even during and after the withdrawal of all American presence from Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975.
There was no genocide in Laos. Unlike Vietnam and Cambodia, there was no mass killings in Laos. A few people went to "reeducation camps" after 1975. Others fled to Thailand or the U.S., or France. A coalition government was formed in the autumn of 1973. Then my very good friend Ambassador Charles Whitehouse took charge of the American Embassy. The new Lao Government included Pathet Lao and Royal Government ministers under the leadership of Souvanna Phouma. One day, Souvanna Phouma called at his home a meeting of all the ambassadors and chiefs of mission in Vientiane. At that occasion, he publicly thanked me for the constructive role I had played in helping to bring about a peaceful negotiated solution to a long conflict between the Royal Government of Laos and the Pathet Lao. In my long career which was to follow, it was one of the great moments in my life, having been instrumental in helping people find a controlled, negotiated solution rather than continuing military confrontation where I felt then and later, time was not on our side.
This particular aspect of time is repeated in many messages which came out of Vientiane. Let me give you an example of some of the anecdotes. At one point as we were very close to a conclusion in a negotiated solution, the Pathet Lao had pushed the Royal Government off a hilltop and they, in turn, occupied the hilltop. They had broken the cease-fire agreement. Whereupon Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma called me and said: "John, should I call for a B-52 air strike?" At this time, there were no more regular air strikes and I told the Prime Minister: "If we have an air strike, we will kill the Pathet Lao on the top of the hill. They would be off the top of the hill and the Royal Lao Army would reoccupy that hilltop. But I fear that one week later, the Pathet Lao would come back and expel the Royal Lao Army from the hilltop.
We would be back at the same point. Personally, I would not break the cease-fire on the B-52 raids just for this small incident. We are so close to the negotiation of a Lao coalition government which would end the hostilities that I would recommend that you do not call for an air strike."
Before executing an air strike by American bombers we usually had to have the prior approval of the Prime Minister [sic!]. I went back to the Embassy and reported this conversation by telegram through State Department channels. In return, I received an official reprimand from the Secretary of State, which is in my Foreign Service file, for not having asked for instructions from the State Department. I still believe that, when you are in the kitchen, you have not always got the time to ask the big chief how to handle an immediate problem. You just do your best.
DEAN: By the summer of 1973 bombing by U.S. aircraft in Laos had stopped for all practical purposes. Public pressure in the United States and the opposition by a number of Senators and Congressmen had severely reduced B-52 strikes in Laos. Many legislators had come to Laos and seen for themselves that the bombing was a two-edged sword.
While it may have saved a particular military situation for the moment, quite often it turned the local civilian population into violent opponents of the United States. This also happened in Cambodia. It is difficult to explain to the little guys on the ground that suddenly they get bombed, their cattle gets killed, and they have personal losses, but that this destruction carried out by a foreign nation is in the overall interests of the country.
Not all bombs hit their target. The bombing halt undoubtedly helped me to negotiate the settlement in Laos. Had bombing been resumed, it would have been tantamount to admitting that negotiations had failed and did not lead to an end of hostilities.
DEAN: When you negotiate, you also have to have some way of putting pressure on your adversary to promote your point of view in the negotiations. I made a distinction between U.S./Thai support for Meo Hill Tribes fighting themselves against the Pathet Lao/North Vietnam, and the Royal Lao Armed Forces opposing the Pathet Lao. Quite often, I joined my colleagues in visits to Meo villages to better understand what was the situation on the ground. But in serious negotiations, one can do two things simultaneously: fight and negotiate. I put the emphasis on negotiation. My analysis at that point was that time was not on the side of the Royal Lao Government in pursuing warfare, and therefore I placed my emphasis on moving rapidly on negotiations.
DEAN: No. On that issue, we did not see eye to eye. The instructions I had been given by Dr. Kissinger when I left for Cambodia in early 1974 was "Go and fight. Don't get yourself involved in negotiations." To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Kissinger does not believe that the people in the field have a sufficient grasp of the global picture, nor the contacts, to negotiate a solution. In Laos, it was somewhat different: the local Lao factions were negotiating among themselves and we were just "facilitators." It is quite possible that elements in Washington supported my efforts with other important players, and perhaps even Dr. Kissinger was among them. When what you do appears to lead to positive results, others jump on the bandwagon.
Dr. Kissinger and I have had a strange relationship. We have similar backgrounds. I admire Dr. Kissinger's keen intellect. Today, historians and pundits are a lot more critical of Dr. Kissinger than in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger was on the cover of TIME MAGAZINE as superman. It is a fact that you see a problem differently when you are on the ground as a field Commander than when you are in Washington and look at the overall picture. Any differences which may have existed between Dr. Kissinger and myself are largely a difference of perception. If you are on the ground and you see what's going on, you hear what people are saying, and you see the battle fatigue of the civilians and the fighting forces, you come to one conclusion.
Therefore, as Field Commander, I may have had a more parochial vision compared to Dr. Kissinger who looked at the same issue from the global point of view - which might include how the Chinese felt about it, where the Soviets stood on developments, and how did Laos fit into the overall picture of containing communism. In bringing about a negotiated solution in Laos, I had the full support of the French Ambassador, André Ross, who went on to be Ambassador in Japan, India, and Secretary General at the French Foreign Office. I had the impression that the Soviet Ambassador to Laos also favored emphasis on negotiations. As far as I know, no efforts were made to throw a monkey wrench into our efforts to find a negotiated solution. The Australian Ambassador also was helpful. In Vientiane, I felt that I had the support of some other foreign missions. Not getting much guidance from Washington, I did not feel completely isolated. It probably reinforced my tendency to take decisions without asking too many questions or soliciting advice from Washington.
DEAN: I met many journalists - foreign and American - who were to follow me into Cambodia. The lady who wrote the book "The Fall of Phnom Penh," Dieudonnee Tan Berge, was a Dutch journalist in Laos and later in Cambodia. She interviewed me years later on her book on Indochina. She, as most journalists, was witness to what was going on. They saw the suffering of the civilian populations. Representatives of the non- governmental agencies and the International Red Cross had an accurate evaluation of the destruction, the battle fatigue of the civilian population, and they sympathized with the Lao people. On the whole in Laos, I felt that the media was not unfriendly. Certainly, the European press was not unfriendly.
Yet, by the end of 1973, Laos was a side-show. Everybody was focusing on Vietnam. By 1973, the resident journalists, and even visiting press people, were not hostile to my efforts to press for a negotiated solution. Some were even helpful! A final word about Laos. The Lao got caught in a war not of their choosing, first by the French, and then by the United States. They certainly did not want Vietnamese occupation or communist ideology. They are a rather smiling, friendly, docile, uncomplicated people, who quickly gained the hearts of most foreigners who served there. They are not impulsive warriors. Most of them are not great intellectuals, but they have a lifestyle and a Buddhist approach to life which endears then to many people. They lived in a different era from the rest of their neighbors. More isolated today, Laos, still under communist-inspired leadership, is very much linked to the more dynamic Thai society.
Helping to make peace was one of the most satisfying moments in my professional life. My wife and I still have some Lao friends. Fortunately, only a few Lao suffered after the 1975 communist take-over. Some of our friends found safety in France and in the United States. Laos was first caught in a struggle between Japan and Western colonialism. Then, reoccupation by the former colonial power. Then, war between France and Vietnamese communist expansionism; and finally, U.S. efforts to contain Vietnamese communism. Lao independence did not bring economic development nor modernity as envisioned by the Lao elite. War and conflict were the order of the day for more than 25 years for most of the rural population. Even after the American withdrawal from Indochina, Laos did not participate in the economic boom that characterized the 1980s and 1990s in Southeast Asia. Prince Souvanna Phouma, son of the Viceroy of Laos, saw the problem, not only what was best for the well educated elite but what he thought was best for the great majority of the Lao rural population. The solution of a coalition government with the communist Pathet Lao was probably the best solution possible at the time 1973. It did not last once South Vietnam was taken over completely by the North and the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. The Indochina conflict was also a struggle for independence, without foreign interference.
The interim coalition government solution which we helped to broker in 1973 led to a complete takeover by the Pathet Lao of the country in 1975. But the basic problem remains of taking a very under-developed society and country and bringing it into the modern world. For that task, the Laos of today still needs the West, including the United States. Whether Laos has a communist government or a non-communist regime does not really matter. Laos needs the know-how and the capital to develop its potential, and for that it must look to the West, Japan, and its more advanced neighbors in Southeast Asia.