Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The strains of the Second Indochina War broke the tenuous peace between neutralists, conservatives, and communists in Laos. The resulting crisis destabilized the country and began a decade and a half of civil war, involving North Vietnam and the United States as well.

Summary of Event

The temporary exile of the neutralist faction of the government of Laos in December, 1960, resulted from the collapse of a neutralist center and the increased polarization of politics. Maintaining a unified government became more difficult for several years prior to 1960. With increased covert involvement in Laos by Thailand—backed by the United States—and in North Vietnam—backed by the Soviet Union—all in violation of earlier treaties, politics in Laos was replaced by armed struggle for control of the country. Civil wars;Laos Laos Crisis (1960-1961) Revolutions and coups;Laos Postcolonialism;Laos [kw]Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War (Dec. 9, 1960) [kw]Government Leads to Civil War, Collapse of the Laotian (Dec. 9, 1960) [kw]Civil War, Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to (Dec. 9, 1960) [kw]War, Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil (Dec. 9, 1960) Civil wars;Laos Laos Crisis (1960-1961) Revolutions and coups;Laos Postcolonialism;Laos [g]Southeast Asia;Dec. 9, 1960: Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War[06710] [g]Laos;Dec. 9, 1960: Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War[06710] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 9, 1960: Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War[06710] [c]Military history;Dec. 9, 1960: Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War[06710] [c]Vietnam War;Dec. 9, 1960: Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War[06710] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 9, 1960: Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War[06710] Boun Oum Kong Le Phoui Sananikone Phoumi Nosavan Sarit Thanarat Souphanouvong Souvanna Phouma

Landlocked Laos became an independent kingdom in 1953 after an agreement reached at the Geneva Conference, which ended the First Indochina War (1946-1954). The nation had little tradition of unity, and it was more a creation of French colonialism France;colonial empire than an ancient monarchy. While the king had long multigenerational ties to the northern part of the kingdom, the southern region had no long ties to the monarchy, having been a separate kingdom for much of its history prior to the arrival of the French. The complete withdrawal of France from its former colony of Indochina in 1954 led to the establishment of the additional independent countries of Cambodia, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. North Vietnam, ruled by the Indochinese Communist Party, sought to conquer South Vietnam and establish friendly, Communist-based governments in Laos and Cambodia.

The Pathet Lao Pathet Lao , a communist guerrilla army that had been closely allied with the Viet Minh during the war against the French, remained closely linked to the communist government of North Vietnam. The Pathet Lao maintained control of the Laotian provinces of Phong Saly and Sam Neua, along the North Vietnamese border. However, the neutralist Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma had good relations with his half brother Souphanouvong, the head of the Pathet Lao. Combined with international treaties ensuring neutrality, the stability of the new nation appeared promising.

In 1957, Souvanna attempted to deal with the Pathet Lao by absorbing it into national institutions. The two battalions of Pathet Lao guerrillas were to either disband or be integrated into the royal Lao army. The political arm of the Pathet Lao, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Lao People’s Revolutionary Party[Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party] , was to become a legitimate political party. The supplementary elections of May, 1958, gave a majority to the leftists, which alarmed both the neutralists as well as the conservatives. The United States suspended aid to the Laotian government over its inclusion of the Pathet Lao. The conservatives formed the Committee for the Defense of National Interests Committee for the Defense of National Interests, Laotian with aid from the United States. Souvanna, as a neutralist and a moderate, was forced to resign. Phoui Sananikone, his successor, attempted to establish a more conservative government. Within a few months most cabinet positions were in conservative hands, and all Pathet Lao deputies were placed under house arrest. Souvanna was sent to Paris as ambassador, removing the most effective voice for neutralism in Laos. In 1959, one of the two Pathet Lao battalions was integrated into the royal Lao army, but its members soon deserted. The other battalion resisted integration and escaped into North Vietnam. Most of the Pathet Lao leadership, including Souphanouvong, was imprisoned in Vientiane’s maximum security prison. However, they escaped on May 24, 1960.

The government remain highly volatile, with several changes coming during this period. On August 9, 1960, a relatively obscure army officer, Captain Kong Le, who commanded the Second Paratroop Battalion, staged a coup against the increasingly conservative government. Unknown to Kong Le beforehand, the entire cabinet was away from Vientiane at the royal capital of Luang Prabang, attending ceremonies for the former king, who died in October, 1959. Gaining control of the capital with ease, Kong Le sought to restore the neutralist government. Soon, Vientiane’s streets thronged with crowds supporting Kong Le. The new king acquiesced to public pressure and Kong Le’s stated desires, and appointed Souvanna to again become prime minister.

Alarmed by the coup, the conservative general Phoumi Nosavan acquired help from his mentor, Sarit Thanarat, the prime minister of Thailand, and established a rival government in Savannakhet. On August 31, Souvanna attempted to create a new government, reconciling left, right, and neutralist elements, by appointing Phoumi as his deputy, but a settlement proved elusive. On September 10, Prince Boun Oum announced that he and Phoumi had seized power. They lacked the force to support their claim. Two battalions of the royal Thai army loyal to Phoumi were routed by two of Kong Le’s companies. The situation in the capital grew more desperate as a result of Thailand’s blockade of Laos, while Phoumi gained strength and prepared for a large attack. On December 8, Souvanna attempted to dismiss Kong Le from his military command, but Kong Le instead removed Souvanna the next day. In desperation, Souvanna abandoned his neutralist stance and accepted Soviet offers of aid. On December 9, Souvanna turned power over to the military and, with three of his ministers, flew to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

The next morning, the minister of information, Quinim Pholsena Quinim Pholsena , flew to Hanoi. With him were Phoumi Vongvichit Phoumi Vongvichit , a negotiator for the Pathet Lao, and Lieutenant Deuane Sunnalath Deuane Sunnalath , who worked for Kong Le. Their mission was to acquire military aide from the North Vietnamese and the Soviets. On November 11, Soviet military aircraft arrived in Vientiane carrying the aid. This gave Phoumi a pretext to attack, charging foreign communist influence in the government. On December 12, the king accepted the vote of forty assembly members and dismissed Souvanna, although Souvanna did not accept his dismissal as legitimate. On December 13, Phoumi attacked Vientiane with massive firepower, killing at least four hundred civilians. Kong Le fought a strategic withdrawal, removing most of his troops and equipment north, while the Pathet Lao remained on the sidelines. A conservative government was established with Oum as its head on December 14, and it had begun receiving U.S. funds through the Central Intelligence Agency. Vientiane fell on December 16.

The chance for a political solution to the lack of national unity in Laos had ended, and both sides turned to outside support for what would become a long and deadly military struggle. The Soviet Union backed Souvanna and Kong Le and supplied their forces through North Vietnam. The civil war pitted the conservatives and the Hmong tribesmen against the neutralists and the Pathet Lao and, increasingly, North Vietnamese battalions. Although the United States desired to support anticommunism rather than simply support Phoumi, Sarit’s unwavering support of Phoumi made separating the two issues impossible. Thailand continued its blockade, and the United States became increasingly involved in supplying Phoumi’s armed forces.


A year and a half of military stalemate between various factions led to a new Geneva Conference. Agreements in mid-1962 created a new government under Souvanna. However, the failure of neutralist government in Laos ushered in a decade and a half of increasingly unstable governments and low-level civil war. The Geneva accords on Laos were ignored by Thailand, the United States, and North Vietnam, which increasingly used Laotian territory to conduct war against South Vietnam. Laotian conservatives became more heavily dependent on the United States.

The increasing instability of Laos led the United States and Thailand to conclude a secret agreement, under which the United States pledged to defend Thailand from enemies without or within, regardless of whether the other members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) agreed to assist. The simmering civil war in Laos ended with the collapse of the monarchy and the Pathet Lao taking power through military force as part of the general communist victories of 1975. Civil wars;Laos Laos Crisis (1960-1961) Revolutions and coups;Laos Postcolonialism;Laos

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castle, Timothy N. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Insider’s account of the links between the government of Laos and the United States during the Vietnam War. Although Laos was not the main focus of the United States, the Americans who served in Laos often developed a profound emotional attachment to the country’s cause.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Grant. A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2002. Written mostly for Westerners visiting Laos, this book provides the basic framework of Laotian history. Offers unconventional interpretations of several aspects of Laotian history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savada, Andrea Matles, ed. Laos: A Country Study. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1995. Given the paucity of academic books focused on Laos, this volume contains some of the most penetrating and thorough analyses of the Laotian crisis available. Perhaps because of the relative diminished importance of the region to the United States after 1975, the material in this volume is mostly straightforward and often somewhat critical of past U.S. actions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Roger. Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos. Hanover, N.H.: Steerforth, 1998. One of the few books to concentrate specifically on Laos during the late 1950’s through 1975. Focuses on U.S. covert operations with Hmong tribesmen, mainly along the Vietnamese border.

Thai Forces Attack French Troops Near Battambang

Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh

Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina

Cambodia Gains Independence from France

SEATO Is Founded

Thai Military Coup

Categories: History