Once an ancient Thai kingdom, in 1893 Laos was incorporated into French Indochina. Lao nationalism developed rapidly upon Japan's conquest of Indochina during World War II. Lao King Sisavangvong proclaimed Lao independence in March 1945. But with Japan's defeat shortly thereafter, he renounced the declaration and instead endorsed a French protectorate. His prime minister, Prince Phetsarath, did not agree with this decision and in September 1945 proclaimed Lao independence. The king dismissed him, and Phetsarath joined the dissident Lao Issara (Free Lao) movement.
The Lao Issara was intertwined with the communist-led Viet Minh in neighboring Vietnam. Many Lao nationalists, such as Prince Souvannaphong, were linked to Vietnam by ethnicity or marriage. In March 1946 Lao and Vietnamese guerrillas fought together against French rule. The French prevailed, and the Lao Issara fled in disarray to Thailand. Laos was then reabsorbed into French Indochina. Badly weakened by World War II and conflict with the Viet Minh that included the latter's invasion of Laos, in 1953 France granted the Royal Lao Government (RLG) nominal independence. The independence of Laos was confirmed in the July 1954 Geneva Accords.
The United States began economic and social programs to develop Laos. However, aid created a dependency on the United States that eventually spawned considerable resentment. Prince Souvannaphong and others joined the communist Pathet Lao (Country of Lao), which opposed Western imperialism, including aid from the West. Fearing a civil war, a neutralist solution emerged in the mid-1950s, centered on Prince Souvanna Phouma. Intelligent and mild-mannered, Souvanna was well respected by most Lao. However, U.S. officials saw him as a communist dupe. Souvanna believed that Laos could survive the Cold War only through neutrality. He also tried to bridge divisions by building coalition governments. In 1956 Souvannaphong and other leftists representing the Neo Lao Hak Xat (NLHX, Lao Patriotic Front) joined Souvanna's coalition.
The success of the NLHX in the 1958 elections alarmed the Americans, leading to the withdrawal of U.S. aid. This action destabilized Souvanna's government and gave rise to Phoui Sananikhone, a pro-American rightist. He became prime minister in August 1958 and brought members of the Royal Lao Army (RLA) into government, notably Colonel Phoumi Nosavan. Phoumi led the RLA against North Vietnamese forces using Lao territory for the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam). When Phoui challenged this, Phoumi took control of the government in a December 1959 coup.
Phoumi was related to Thai strongman Sarit Thanarat and developed links through him to the U.S. military in Thailand. This alienated some Lao, even within the RLA, who resented foreign domination. In August 1960, RLA soldiers led by Captain Kong Le launched a coup of their own to restore Souvanna's neutralist government. Humiliated, Phoumi withdrew to secret bases in northern Thailand. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's administration decided to reestablish aid programs to Souvanna and restrain Phoumi, but Thailand refused to lift its blockades of the Lao border. Souvanna appealed to the Soviet Union, which airlifted supplies to Vientiane. In December 1960, Phoumi's forces drove Souvanna out of Vientiane. Kong Le's men retreated to the Vietnamese border, where they linked up with the Pathet Lao. Phoumi installed yet another government under Prince Boun Oum.
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) now feared that Phoumi would shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and allow American air bases in Laos. American strategy was to deny communist access through Laos to insurgencies in South Vietnam and northern Thailand, and Laos thus became an important litmus test of America's anticommunist resolve. Washington backed Phoumi and increased aid to Thailand, which became the base for many operations throughout Indochina.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy's administration continued these policies but by 1962 decided to abandon the volatile Phoumi. Instead, Kennedy reluctantly put his faith in Souvanna. After months of negotiations, in June 1963 an international agreement was reached barring foreign military advisors and establishing a neutralist, coalition government in Laos. Souvanna returned as prime minister, with both Souvannaphong and Phoumi serving in his cabinet.
The agreement did not last. North Vietnamese soldiers remained in eastern Laos, while American and Thai operations continued in other parts of the country. Infighting paralyzed the Lao government with assassinations and ceaseless power struggles. Finally, Souvanna abandoned neutralism, convinced that Hanoi controlled the Pathet Lao. In December 1964 he authorized U.S. military operations against communists in the country, drawing Laos ever closer to the war next door in Vietnam.
In Operation barrel roll, the United States routinely bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos, and by 1968 there were between 200 and 300 U.S. air strikes in the country daily. Laos soon became the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. As a result, untold thousands of Lao people were killed, with ethnic minorities, comprising 50 percent of the population, caught in the middle. Many minority Hmong, Yao, Akha, and other peoples became refugees. Some joined anticommunist irregular forces under the command of Hmong RLA officer Vang Pao, who was trained and supplied by the Thais and Americans to fight the so-called Secret War in Laos.
By 1970 the communists controlled much of Laos. The Americans responded with more bombing, expanded covert operations, and then a South Vietnamese invasion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. All failed. RLG losses were very high, and by 1970 a large number of Vang Pao's men were in fact Thais secretly reassigned to Laos. Facing defeat, in 1973 the RLG secured a cease-fire upon the Paris Peace Accords between North Vietnam and the United States. A new coalition government emerged, dominated by the NLHX.
Communist victories in Cambodia and South Vietnam did not immediately spread to Laos. Pathet Lao success came from Vietnamese backing and did not translate into wide popular support. Many still favored Souvanna and Lao King Savana Vatthana. Gradually, the NLHX eliminated its rivals. Finally, in December 1975, the communists forced Souvanna and the king to resign their offices. The NLHX took power with Souvannaphong as president and banned all other political parties.
There was, however, no peace for Laos. Armed resistance continued, particularly among the Hmong. Many Lao people died or disappeared in communist reeducation camps, including the royal family. Border clashes with Thailand flared throughout the 1980s, and innumerable economic problems made Laos one of the world's poorest countries. Laos became even more dependent on Vietnam, which itself was isolated from the world community because of its Cambodian occupation. Only very recently has Laos opened up and begun to address the long, painful process of rebuilding.
Evans, Grant. A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 2002.; Hamilton-Merritt, Jane. Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942–1992. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.; McMahon, Robert J. The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia since World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.; Stuart-Fox, Martin. A History of Laos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.