Shoot & Salute
U.S. Army Special Warfare in Laos
The Path To A MAAG
While Eisenhower preferred to keep a low profile in Laos, some civilian and military leaders in the U.S. preferred the idea of a formal MAAG instead of the secretive PEO. For example, in response to the May 1958 Communist electoral victories, AMB Horace H. Smith offered three options: (1) increase PEO staffing; (2) assign uniformed military personnel on a temporary basis; or (3) replace the PEO with a MAAG. Commander-in-Chief, USPACOM (CINCPAC), ADM Felix B. Stump, supported the third option. However, policymakers in Washington ‘kicked the can down the road’ and opted to simply ‘hire’ more ‘civilians’ for the PEO.21 While a MAAG was still years away, Heintges paved the way for greater U.S. involvement in Laos during his two-year tenure (January 1959 to January 1961). His “Shoot and Salute” plan evolved from a concept he and his French military counterparts developed: France would provide tactical training to Laotian forces while non-uniformed U.S. SF would equip and provide technical training.22 Heintges pushed his plan through USPACOM, which issued the formal request for forces.23
21 Doc. 181: “Editorial Note,” no date, in FRUS, 1958-1960, East Asia-Pacific Region; Cambodia; Laos, Vol. XVI.
22 “Heintges interview,” 505-10, 516, 521-25, 528-29, quotations from 505, 521.
23 Heintges’ plan was timely, as U.S. policymakers were working to improve long-term Military Assistance Planning and mutual security operations plans for countries receiving U.S. assistance. At one National Security Council meeting, GEN Lyman L. Lemnitzer, U.S. Army Chief of Staff (1957-1960) and Chairman of the JCS (1960-1962), argued that “training for military forces was . . . one of the most important things that we did . . . [O]ur plans should be worldwide in character and [we] should not let the needs of NATO detract from the needs of other areas of the world.” Doc. 266: “Memorandum of Discussion at the 465th Meeting of the NSC,” 31 October 1960, in FRUS, 1958-1960, Foreign Economic Policy, Vol. IV.
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- Leaders of Laos During the Crisis Period, 1958–1963
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Because the “Shoot and Salute” plan conformed to prevailing attitudes about military assistance, policymakers agreed to deploy non-uniformed SF soldiers to support COIN in Laos. In July 1959, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Arthur D. ‘Bull’ Simons and 100 plus soldiers from the 77th SFG deployed as the first rotation of Project HOTFOOT. The PEO scattered SF teams throughout Laos’s five Military Regions (MR): MR I centered on Luang Prabang; MR II on Long Tieng; MR III on Savannakhet; MR IV on Pakse; and MR V on Vientiane. However, U.S. presence in MR II in the northeast was limited because it was largely Communist-controlled and the threat was greater.24 Despite assuring the French that the U.S. would only conduct technical training, Heintges later admitted that SF had done some “clandestine tactical training.”25
24 See, generally, Stephen Sherman, Who’s Who from HOTFOOT/WHITE STAR (Houston, TX: Radix Press, 1994).
25 “Heintges interview,” 524, 529. For more on the French ‘halfhearted’—even obstructionist—approach to defending Laos, see, for example, Doc. 10: “Memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Nitze) to Secretary of Defense McNamara,” 23 January 1961, and Doc. 25: “Memorandum of Conference with President Kennedy,” 9 March 1961, both in FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. XXIV, Laos Crisis.
The low-key SF training mission was fairly straightforward until the CPT Kong Le rebellion, which renewed questions about the level and type of U.S. involvement in Laos.26 In response to the insurgency, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) approved five recommendations on 12 August 1960: (1) the PEO would send two officers to Luang Prabang and Savannakhet to support loyal Laotian commanders; (2) DoD would ensure direct communications between those officers and JUSMAGTHAI; (3) equipment and logistical support would be provided to Laotian forces using Thai assets “on a reimbursable basis”; (4) Civil Air Transport (CAT, affiliated with the CIA-operated Air America) would increase aerial support to Lao forces; and (5) the U.S. would put a radio transmitter in Thailand for clandestine pro-government radio broadcasting.27
26 “Heintges interview,” 536-537, quotation from 536.
27 Doc. 357: “Editorial Note,” no date, in FRUS, 1958-1960, East Asia-Pacific Region; Cambodia; Laos, Vol. XVI. CAT had its origins in post-WWII efforts to support Chinese Nationalists in their fight against the Communists.
The rules of engagement for U.S. and Thai forces remained restrictive during and after the insurrection. For example, Thailand could provide logistical support, but cross-border operations were a last resort. Likewise, using Thai or U.S. military planes (other than those already approved for use by CAT, the PEO, and the Embassy) required presidential approval. Even if approved, they were not to be easily identifiable. Finally, U.S. troops could not accompany Laotian forces in combat at the battalion level or below.28 In January 1961, Eisenhower permitted the use of C-47 Skytrains for photo reconnaissance and T-6 Texans for all operations except bombing.29 In February, newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy expanded Thailand-based C-130 aerial resupply operations to support the Laotian Government.30 Senior officials repeated their calls to elevate the PEO to a MAAG, and found a more receptive audience with the new Administration.
28 Doc. 489: “Telegram from the Delegation at the North Atlantic Council Ministerial Meeting to the Department of State,” 25 December 1960, in FRUS, 1958-1960, East Asia-Pacific Region; Cambodia; Laos, Vol. XVI.
29 Doc. 4: “Paper Prepared by the President’s Assistant Staff Secretary (Eisenhower),” 9 January 1961, in FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. XXIV, Laos Crisis.
30 Doc. 14: “Summary Record of Meeting,” 8 February 1961, in FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. XXIV, Laos Crisis. Despite expanding aerial resupply missions, U.S. planes carrying military supplies were still instructed to land in nearby Udon in northern Thailand, rather than in Vientiane. Laotian and Thai forces would then move the supplies into Laos.
Meanwhile, during senior-level discussions about the military role in Laos, Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates, Jr., stated that the U.S. was “losing the propaganda war.” The Communists were convincingly portraying the U.S. as obstructing peace and neutrality in Laos (while downplaying their own efforts to do so).31 Swaying international opinion was U.S. diplomacy business, but influencing public opinion inside Laos was tasked to two agencies: the USIA and, starting in early 1961, the U.S. Army 1st Psywar Battalion (B&L), under the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, NC.
31 Doc. 6: “Memorandum of Conversation,” 17 January 1961, in FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. XXIV, Laos Crisis. On the diplomatic side, the JCS and others continued to recommend that the U.S. seek SEATO support for its pro-Boun Oum/Phoumi approach; resist UN involvement and the reactivation of the ICC; and only pursue unilateral action as a last resort if SEATO fell through. For more on U.S. supporting an international solution to the problem as opposed to unilateral action, see, for example, Doc. 11: “Memorandum from Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Kennedy,” 24 January 1961, FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. XXIV, Laos Crisis.
The need for pro-Royal Lao Government/anti-Communist propaganda was recognized soon after Laotian independence. At that time, Souvanna announced an aggressive civic action program largely in response to Pathet Lao “political subversion and propaganda in provinces.” The emphasis was in Sam Neua and Phong Saly in northeastern Laos. The State Department feared that Communist propaganda would “continue and undoubtedly grow in intensity.”32 For example, during CPT Kong Le’s 1960 uprising, Pathet Lao Radio and TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) broadcasted against GEN Phoumi.33 The U.S. had limited success in countering Communist propaganda inside and outside of Laos. This was due in part to self-imposed political and diplomatic restrictions, as well as the language-cultural barrier, dispersion, and rural character of the Laotian people.34
32 The U.S. looked to support the Royal Lao Government in this civic action program, which would be handled by the National Council for Civic Action, consisting of a Commissioner (COL Oudon Sananikone) and representatives from several Royal Lao Government ministries (including Public Health and Urbanism, Public Works, National Education, Agriculture, Finance, National Defense, and Interior). The key “action elements” would be the armed forces and mobile teams of technicians from the various ministries with the mission of putting “self-help program [in the provinces] in motion through [the] application [of] technical skill.” The intent for the armed forces was to put one company of 100 men in each of the country’s 56 districts to maintain security by cooperating with the population “through auto-defense and local assistance programs.” Doc. 412: “Telegram from the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State,” 8 January 1957; and Doc. 424: “Telegram from the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State,” 13 February 1957, both in FRUS, 1955-1957, East Asian Security; Cambodia; Laos, Vol. XXI.
33 CIA, Office of Current Intelligence, “SUBJECT: The Situation in Laos (as of 0800 EST),” 1 January 1961; CIA, “NSC Briefing,” 5 January 1961; Doc. 357: “Editorial Note,” no date, in FRUS, 1958-1960, East Asia-Pacific Region; Cambodia; Laos, Vol. XVI. In an effort to counter the aggressive ‘neutralist’/Communist propaganda in Laos during the CPT Kong Le rebellion, the NSC approved the furnishing of a radio transmitter to northern Thailand to use as a clandestine pro-Royal Lao Government/anti-Communist broadcasting station. There is little evidence of the effectiveness of such measures.
34 “USIA Inspection Report,” 4-5.
Since 1954, USIA had singularly handled overt informational activities in Laos, until it was supplemented by an Army psywar augmentation team in 1961. Established on 1 August 1953, USIA consolidated all foreign information activities, including the Voice of America (VOA), under one agency. USIA administered overseas information programs executed by its field offices, known as the U.S. Information Service (USIS).35 USIS Laos had two main objectives: improve the credibility of the Laotian government in the eyes of the population, and counter-Communist propaganda. In the late-1950s and early-1960s, USIS employed the following media and programs: radio, printed products, films, an information center and library in Vientiane, formal presentations, an English teaching program, cultural exchanges, and personal contacts.36
35 Description of USIA found on NARA, “Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency,” , accessed 16 May 2017.
36 “USIA Inspection Report,” 2, 26-40.
“Messages of support were only as good as security for the province.”
— James D. McHale
A USIS Laos inspection report (March 1960) revealed challenges with each approach. For example, with radio, there was only “one very weak local radio station” in 1956; even after that number grew to two 1 kilowatt (kw) shortwave transmitters and one 5 kw medium wave transmitter by 1960, transmissions did not adequately cover the entire country. In an attempt to boost access to the population, the U.S. government provided two 10 kw transmitters and a thousand radio public address systems to the Laotian military to distribute to villages across the country. These systems would augment the estimated 14,000 individually owned radio receiver sets in Laos.37
37 “USIA Inspection Report,” 26-28.
Determining how many transmitters were needed, where to place them, where to distribute receivers, and what kind of programming the stations would broadcast was based heavily on languages spoken by listening audiences. Since less than one percent of potential listeners spoke English, it was impractical for USIS Laos to simply replay VOA or other English-language broadcasts. Similarly, French was spoken only by educated elites. This left Lao as the primary programming language, even though much of the population spoke a myriad of local dialects.
The Laotian military had ‘seeded’ areas where Lao was commonly spoken with small U.S.-provided radio receivers. In places where Lao was not dominant, receivers were distributed to those few villagers who did speak Lao, usually local leaders, who could relay programming content to their constituencies. Some villages attached receivers to loudspeakers in the village square, which could be heard by passersby trading, shopping, or dining.38 Individually owned receivers by non-Lao speakers were considered luxury items, and were primarily tuned to music stations.
38 Email from Raymond P. Ambrozak to Jared M. Tracy, “SUBJECT: Re: Radio Station,” 27 December 2017, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
The USIS Laos Motion Picture and Press and Publications Sections had their own challenges. These ranged from personnel, resourcing, and budgetary shortages; a fifteen percent literacy rate among the population; villagers’ inability to understand English, Lao, and French-language films; and terrain and climate (which hindered the transport of and caused damage to cameras, projectors, and other motion picture equipment).39 The experience of several USIS officers mentioned below reveals the difficulties in trying to win popular support for the Royal Lao Government while countering the Communists.
39 “USIA Inspection Report,” 28-32.
Yale Richmond was among the first to serve in Laos. He quickly grasped the challenges: “Our major problem was that . . . the Lao people did not know they had an independent state, a federal government, and a King. Our job was nation building from the ground up.” Richmond and USIS Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Ted M.G. Tanen “published a Lao-language edition of USIA’s monthly magazine, Free World, in a land which had never had a publication.” In addition, “We produced a monthly newsreel about . . . the government, the royal family, and U.S. assistance, which we showed in villages to people who had never seen a motion picture. It was a tough, tropical tour, with no running water, electricity, air conditioning, or medical care; hazardous air travel; and tropical diseases.”40
40 USIA, “The United States Information Agency: A Commemoration,” no date, 23, available for download at , accessed 16 May 2017.
Five years later, many of the same challenges remained. Retired Foreign Service Officer (FSO) James D. McHale was a USIS representative in northeastern Laos in November 1959. He remembered that Sam Neua was “infested” with Communist guerrillas. “Security was a small local Lao government garrison and Meo Montagnards guarding the hills around us . . . In six months my information structure included VOA broadcasts and Lao mobile military and civil information teams carrying . . . a message of support from the King and promises of material support [to every village].”41
41 USIA, “The United States Information Agency: A Commemoration,” 23.
Like the State Department and the PEO, USIS Laos was caught off-guard when CPT Kong Le rebelled. As McHale recalled, “Messages of support were only as good as security for the province. Just nine months after my arrival a military coup [by Kong Le] in Vientiane, followed by a Hanoi-backed Pathet Lao communist invasion, ended [Sam Neua’s] short, independent existence.” Meanwhile, USIS member Ivan Klecka and his team “traveled with the Royal Lao Army as it chased CPT Kong Le and the Pathet Lao north toward Luang Prabang . . . We posted photos along the way, to show villagers how its government was committed to their safety and well-being. We worked with [non-governmental organizations] making sure vital supplies reached Lao mothers and children in the cold northern mountains, and that the villagers knew who their friends were.”42
42 USIA, “The United States Information Agency: A Commemoration,” 23, 29.
Several factors led to the decision to deploy a U.S. Army psywar team to Laos to support USIS. First was Laos’s downward spiral from a limited insurgency into an open civil war, with outside Communist support. Second, USIS argued that the DoD was better suited to working directly with the Laotian military. Finally, with an authorization of 15 Americans and 82 locals, USIS Laos personnel were spread thin across the various posts and sub-posts in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, Savannakhet, and elsewhere. This personnel shortfall made it difficult to coordinate with the various U.S. and Laotian agencies to develop information campaigns and disseminate multimedia products across the country.43
43 “USIA Inspection Report,” 2, 16-19.
Deploying a psywar team to Laos coincided with Special Warfare doctrine and national-level policies governing overseas information activities. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Army understood Special Warfare as the confluence of UW, COIN, and psywar. Anti-Communist efforts in Laos represented COIN, as defined in U.S. Army Special Warfare (1962):
. . . all military, political, economic, psychological, and sociological activities directed toward preventing and suppressing resistance groups whose actions range in degree of violence and scope from subversive political activity to violent actions by large guerrilla elements to overthrow a duly established government. The basic military problem is to maintain or restore internal security . . .
Supporting COIN efforts, psywar entailed “activities and operations . . . to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of the enemy, the indigenous population, and neutral or friendly foreign groups [in order to] to support . . . national aims and objectives.”44
44 Office, Chief of Information, Department of the Army, U.S. Army Special Warfare (Washington, DC, 1962), 9. For more on Special Warfare, see Alfred H. Paddock, U.S. Army Special Warfare: Its Origins (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002).
National policies ‘drew the lines’ for U.S. interagency roles in overseas information activities. As previously discussed, USIA had primary responsibility outside of declared U.S. hostilities. The DoD was “to support the psychological operation of USIA in preinsurgent [sic] or [COIN] situations. The [DoD], in coordination with USIA and [USAID], also assists the host country in developing, equipping, and conducing psychological operations aimed at preventing or defeating subversive insurgency.” In all cases, “care must be exercised to avoid undercutting the host nation or implying that the [U.S.] is acting because its beleaguered ally is unable or unwilling to accomplish what U.S. forces [can].”45 In sum, despite political reluctance to get too militarily involved, several factors made it feasible to introduce U.S. Army psywar soldiers into Laos: USIS’ need for ‘backup’ in Laos; contemporary U.S. Army Special Warfare doctrine; and national policies governing overseas information activities.
45 FM 33-5: Psychological Operations Techniques and Procedures (1966), 9, 17.
This article has provided context for understanding the role of U.S. Army psywar in Laos in the early 1960s. First, it provided a brief history of Laotian governance and U.S.-Laos relations. Second, it detailed the August 1960 armed coup by ‘neutralist’ CPT Kong Le and how that drew the U.S. even further into the chaotic situation in Laos. Third, this article described the long and winding path to establishing an overt U.S. military presence (MAAG Laos) in April 1961. Finally, it provided a background of U.S. information activities in Laos via the USIS, and the challenges it faced in its ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, dating to the mid-1950s.
In the summer of 1960, twelve unsuspecting soldiers of the 1st Psywar Battalion (B&L), U.S. Army Special Warfare Center, at Fort Bragg, NC, were given a sensitive overseas assignment. Many were young and new to the military, and none of them knew what to expect. They were as bewildered as BG Heintges had been two years earlier when the Pentagon sent him to the PEO in Laos. Based on his initial survey, Heintges had developed a plan for U.S. Army Special Forces to provide ‘Shoot and Salute’ training to Laotian armed forces in their fight against the Communists. However, the introduction of a psywar augmentation team in early 1961 proved there was more to the American military effort in Laos than ‘Shoot and Salute’ training. The activities of these 1st Psywar Battalion (B&L) soldiers in Laos is the focus of a follow-up article in the next issue of Veritas.