AN AMERICAN IN LAOS
PART ONE- LAUNCHING AN AID PROGRAM
Towards the end of 1954, following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the subsequent Geneva Agreements,the United States decides to open an aid mission in the kingdom of Laos, the least developed country in Indochina, also known as the land of the 'Million Elephants and the White Parasol.' The initial impressions of Patrick Finnie,first to arrive on the scene,are enthusiastic,with respect to the friendliness of the people and the rugged beauty of the country, despite primitive living conditions.The top priority is to design an aid program primarily aimed at supporting the 25,000-man Lao Army financially. Construction must also be started on housing and offices for the future staff, while vehicles, office equipment and other necessities of a new Mission must be procured rapidly.
The first Mission Director, Paul Nicholas- Patrick's boss- arrives a few weeks later. He brings with him a Treasury check for $2 million to meet the January, 1955, payroll of the Lao Army, which the U.S. has agreed to finance as of that date. In a brief ceremony, the head of the American diplomatic mission in Laos, Minister Charles Yost, turns over the check to the Lao Prime Minister, Katay Don Sasorith. This initial grant sets the stage for the creation of the National Bank of Laos, the first banking institution owned by the Laotians.
The two Mission managers must also find time to take field trips outside of the capital with the Lao officials they work with. On one such trip,the famine situation brought to the Mission's attention by the Lao Government on numerous occasions, is confirmed in parts of the country, where thousands of refugees from North Laos are living precariously. Minister Yost supports the Mission's efforts to convince Washington to authorize a crash food relief program, especially in view of the forthcoming national elections, believed crucial in determining the future direction of the Royal Government, which is deeply concerned by the Communist threat from the North.
During the first half of 1955, this two-man team works around the clock to establish the aid Mission, designated as USOM/Laos, in the face of ever present nuisances: shortages of housing, water, electricity, decent food, plus hordes of mosquitoes, fleas and, occasionally, rats. Fortunately, helping hands begin to trickle in, particularly Alfred Miller and Chris Kierkegaard, and several technicians borrowed from other Missions serve on temporary duty, awaiting the arrival of permanent employees. Numerous visitors, VIPs from the U.S., especially Secretary of State Dulles with a large retinue of aides and journalists, descend on the Vientiane mission constantly, ferried in and out by the 'USOM Plane', to look over this new Western outpost, assess the situation, make surveys and discuss plans. Facilities at the USOM house are severely strained, as the permanent occupants must accommodate frequent transient guests. A large tent is airlifted to Vientiane from Saigon to serve as temporary office in the courtyard, which prompts Paul Nicholas to dub his Mission 'THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH'. The budding Mission soon moves to its first real office in a converted Chinese theater. Paul then moves into the tent pending completion of his own house.
In order to combat the famine, the U.S. approves 5,000 tons of relief rice for Laos. A seemingly simple idea, it turns out to be highly complex, requiring over four months of negotiations between the American, Japanese, Thai and Lao Governments. The thorniest problem is how to distribute this rice to remote regions, accessible only on foot, by animal pack or by air. An airlift of 1,000 tons of rice to these areas is decided, using 3 C-46 aircraft belonging to the CAT airline (Civil Air Transport, formerly the Flying Tigers of World War II). This hazardous operation lasts 2 months, making 200 drops of 5 tons each on 27 makeshift drop zones hacked out of the jungle by the Lao Army, which also provides scouts to guide the pilots over uncharted country and organizes ground support of local authorities for the entire project. Another 1,000 tons is delivered by barge across the Mekong River, from Chengsan in northern Thailand to the Laotian town of Houei Sai, for distribution to the western provinces of the Kingdom. The balance of 3,000 tons is moved by truck from Vientiane.
Over a 6-month period, the aid mission works hand in hand with Lao officials and military personnel in devoting a major part of its time and energy to the successful operation of the rice project. In addition, the Mission develops many other activities requiring simultaneous attention: allocating funds to various sectors of the Lao budget, supervising the corresponding projects, monitoring Lao imports financed with aid funds, preparing reports, cables and letters to Washington to quench the head office's insatiable thirst for detailed information and justifications on past, present and future activities, as well as sophisticated statistics, mostly unavailable in this reborn country. Construction of a housing compound is pushed constantly, while planning for more housing is equally urgent, together with procuring furniture, vehicles, office equipment and supplies right down to paper clips! During this extremely busy period, however, the Mission succeeds in moving its office from the Chinese theater to permanent quarters on the housing compound.
The heavy workload and the lack of privacy at the USOM house do not facilitate Patrick's married life. His daughter attends a Lao school in Vientiane, where sanitary conditions are deplorable. The family doctor urges finding a suitable boarding school for the little girl outside of Laos. Patrick objects strongly on the grounds that the child is too young to be separated from her parents.
As the Mission starts its second year of operation (1956), serious flaws begin to appear in the hastily-built aid program: rumors abound that local Chinese merchants are taking advantage of the U.S.- financed import program to reap large and illicit profits through false invoices, overpricing, re-exporting goods bought for Laos, and all the tricks known to oriental traders from time immemorial. USOM attempts to counter these abuses by contracting with an American firm for the establishment of a Procurement Office in the Lao Government. A special unit is created to oversee U.S. financing of the Lao Army, to help it to formulate an annual budget, and control its expenditures.
At the same time, the political problems of Laos become painfully evident. The Government, poor, inexperienced and thinly-manned, begins to veer leftward in an effort to placate the demands of the Communist Pathet Lao movement. It cannot pay for the local cost of U.S.-financed projects, so that a major part of the so-called 'development aid' becomes in practice another subsidy, covering the operating costs of the Lao administration.
Paul Nicholas hopes that the efforts of the aid Mission will yield encouraging results slowly but surely. He is warned that the Mission is overcommitted and that a chaotic condition may occur in the coming months. Nevertheless, the Mission now has a backbone of competent people who keep the Mission afloat during Paul's three-month absence in America on home leave.
Patrick is distressed when Odette places their daughter in a convent school in Penang, Malaya. After visiting the area and the convent, he concedes that Odette made the right decision; the incipient family conflict is happily resolved.
In the spring of 1956, an inspection team from Washington descends on the Mission. What the team members see confirms their suspicion that the Mission is poorly managed: the monsoon rains have created a large pond, nicknamed 'Lake Nicholas', that occupies the center of USOM's compound. A row of tents on muddy ground serves as temporary shelter for recently-arrived employees pending the delayed completion of additional housing. The team's report hardly mentions Mission accomplishments, and concentrates on every shortcoming in the Lao aid program.
Most of the original members of the American presence in Laos since the Geneva Agreements depart for other shores: Ambassador Yost, Max Finger and others. Paul and Patrick feel like incongruous relics of a pioneering era. A new group of diplomats, headed by Ambassador Parsons, is determined to correct past errors and reverse the Lao Government's leftward trend by undertaking a crash program aimed at producing visible results in a short time. The wheel has now come full circle: Paul used the same words two years earlier in Saigon.
As compared to previous years, Vientiane has become an increasingly busy city by 1956. There is a booming trade across the Mekong between Nongkai in Thailand and Thadeua in Laos. Paul Nicholas is delighted as he meets the many VIPs who come through Vientiane that autumn: four U.S. Senators, a british MP, a former Prime Minister of Israel, the President of the Bangkok Chamber of Commerce, Washington bureaucrats,and several American businessmen.
Returning from Penang, where their daughter is attending her last term at the Convent of the Holy Enfant Jesus, the Finnies stop off at Pnom Penh, which they hope will be their next post. They go on to Angkor, where they have the good luck of meeting and being guided by Henri Marchal, lifetime curator of the Khmer temples. A few days after his return to Vientiane, Patrick's customary debilitating dysentery erupts once again. However, Marian Eckert, the Mission physician, is always ready to dispense B-12 shots with one vigorous jab of her dreaded needle.
There are many festivities and ceremonies in Vientiane at the end of the year. But the Kingdom's political dilemma still lurks in the background: a high ranking Lao official asks whether U.S. aid will be cut off if the Government accepts Chinese aid. During Patricks's farewell call on the Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma pleads with him to explain the problems of Laos to the decision-makers in Washington. A distinguished Lao scholar once stated that Buddhism is comprisedof two kinds of people: the bonzes, images of Buddha, who are in charge of observing and teaching the doctrine, and the lay people, still attached to worldly possessions. The bonzes subsist because of the support of the people at large. In spite of his admiration for the serenity and harmony which Buddhist society seems to create, Patrick has became convinced that the U.S. is wasting its time in Laos. He gladly turns over his job to his replacement and departs with his family. As the plane soars over the Mekong, he has the eerie feeling that Vientiane has become his home; he is happy to leave,but he is aware that some memories of that strange land will haunt him forever.
The story of 'An American in Laos' covers the period 1955-1957. The epilogue describes briefly the main events in Laos from 1957 until the takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao forces in 1975: the Congressional investigation of the U.S. aid program in 1959, and the gradual involvement of Laos in the Vietnam war.
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