Born October 7, 1901
Luang Prabang, Laos
Died January 1984
Prime Minister of Laos, 1951–1975
Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma led the nation of Laos for a total of twenty years, including the period from 1962 to 1975. During that time, the war in neighboring Vietnam repeatedly threatened to spill over into Laos. Souvanna tried to maintain a neutral position on the war, even as Communist rebels threatened his own nation. But Souvanna's efforts to remain neutral faltered in the early 1970s, when he approved massive U.S. bombing and reconnaissance missions against Communist forces in eastern Laos. In 1975 Communist forces seized control of Laos, and Souvanna's rule came to an end.
Member of the Laotian royal family
Souvanna Phouma was born October 7, 1901, into a family whose ancestors had ruled Laos for hundreds of years. During the late nineteenth century, however, France had taken control of Laos and the neighboring countries of Vietnam and Cambodia and combined them into one vast colonial holding known as French Indochina.
As a member of the Laotian royal family, Souvanna received a fine education in Vietnam and France. After earning an engineering degree, he returned home and secured a job in the Laotian government. During World War II (1939–45), Japanese forces rolled into French Indochina and seized control of the region. When Japan was defeated in 1945, it was forced to withdraw from the region. Nonetheless, France's longtime hold over the region was loosened.
In 1947 France gave Laos limited independence. Souvanna was given important responsibilities at this time. He served as minister of public transport, minister of planning, and minister of postal service and telegraphs over the next few years. In 1951 he was named prime minister of Laos. Two years later France granted the country full independence from colonial rule in a treaty that Souvanna helped negotiate.
As soon as France relinquished its claim on Laos, however, several Laotian political organizations clashed in a fierce struggle for power. The most prominent of these groups were the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation), a Communist movement that received support from Communist forces in Vietnam, and the Royal Lao, a non-Communist government supported by France. This battle for power temporarily knocked Souvanna out of power. But in 1956 he allied himself with the Pathet Lao rebels and regained his place as prime minister.
Turmoil in Laos
Upon returning to power, Souvanna tried to end the unrest that had rocked Laos over the previous years. But his uneasy relationship with the Pathet Lao crumbled again in 1958. At that time, both Laotian groups and influential outside forces like the United States objected to the presence of Communists in the government. When they pressured Souvanna to take a stronger anti-Communist stand, the Pathet Lao quit the coalition government and resumed their rebellion with the help of North Vietnam. Without the support of the Pathet Lao—whose leadership included Souvanna's younger half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong—Souvanna fell from power once again.
Laos continued to be rocked by political turmoil over the next few years, as various groups jockeyed for power. In 1962 Souvanna managed to put together another political coalition that restored him to his spot at the top of the nation's government and ended the fighting. This coalition included the Pathet Lao, but within a year the rebels quit the government and took up arms again in hopes of installing a Communist regime. As before, they were aided in their efforts by the Communist leaderships of North Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
Adopts neutral policy toward Vietnam War
When the Pathet Lao resumed hostilities in 1963, Souvanna Phouma turned to the United States for help. U.S. leaders responded by sending military and financial aid to the Laotian government. This aid was made secretly, however, because America leaders had previously promised to stay out of Laos's affairs. The United States' efforts to aid anti-Communist forces in Laos without being detected eventually became known as the "Secret War in Laos."
As Souvanna worked to beat the Communists and bring peace to his country, he also adopted a policy of neutrality toward the growing war in neighboring Vietnam. This conflict began in the mid-1950s, when South Vietnam refused to hold elections that would have united it and North Vietnam under one government. South Vietnam's stand angered the Communist leadership of North Vietnam, which responded by launching a war against the South with the help of Southern Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong. America became involved in the war when it became concerned that the Communist aggression might succeed. In fact, the United States assumed primary responsibility for much of the war effort during the mid- and late 1960s. But U.S. military intervention ultimately failed, and South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975.
Souvanna tried to steer Laos away from involvement in Vietnam. But this became a very difficult task in the late 1960s. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) used eastern Laos as a base for military activity in South Vietnam. In addition, a large section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail—the North's main supply and communications route into South Vietnam—ran through Laos. These factors, combined with the continued threat of the Pathet Lao, led the United States to conduct several bombing raids over the region.
In February 1971 South Vietnamese forces supported by U.S. artillery and air power made a major incursion (raid) into Laos in order to destroy Communist bases and smash the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But as the raid progressed, the South Vietnamese forces encountered heavy resistance from tens of thousands of NVA troops. After six weeks of heavy fighting, the South Vietnamese military was forced to call a ragged retreat out of Laos.
In 1973 the United States completed its military withdrawal from the region. The loss of America's military firepower greatly weakened Souvanna's government, which still faced the threat of the Pathet Lao. With the U.S. gone, Souvanna managed to negotiate a cease fire with the Pathet Lao and establish a new coalition government. But this new regime lasted only two years.
Souvanna's government is overthrown
In 1975 the Pathet Lao Communists finally seized control of the Laotian government. They removed Souvanna from office and replaced him with a Communist regime headed by Prince Souphanouvong. The Pathet Lao then initiated a brutal campaign to eliminate potential threats to its rule. They killed thousands of Laotians who were viewed as unfriendly to communism, including many government officials, teachers, and other professionals. This murderous campaign convinced hundreds of thousands of Laotians to flee the country. Souvanna, meanwhile, was allowed to serve as an advisor to the new government. He remained in that position until his death in 1984.
Fall, Bernard B. Anatomy of a Crisis: The Laotian Crisis of 1960–1961. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.
Stieglitz, Perry. In a Little Kingdom: The Tragedy of Laos, 1960–1980. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1990.