In January 1961, President Kennedy and his advisors sought to make their own mark on foreign policy and the Laos crisis was their first major task. Whilst traditional historians have often viewed the Kennedy Administration’s overtures to neutralisation as a sign of flexible decision-making and a departure from their more hard-lined predecessors. On the other hand, as demonstrated throughout this project, the Administration’s vision for Laotian neutrality changed significantly between 1961 and 1962, when the final Geneva agreement was signed. Furthermore, the diplomatic-military endeavours, which they pursued to achieve their objectives, were hindered by internal and external factors, often based on the Administration’s own interpretations of events.
Originally, whilst publically committed to some form of neutrality for Laos, the Kennedy Administration hoped to ensure neutrality on their terms where a stringent anti-communist and pro-U.S. government could be formed whilst adhering to Cold War neutrality under international supervision. In addition, military assistance to rightist FAR forces led by Phoumi Nosavan would be undertaken in their fight against the communist Pathet Lao. Therefore, establishing Laos as an effective buffer zone between the communist and non- communist states of Southeast Asia due to its geo-political importance, safeguarding the U.S.’s international credibility in pursuing a political solution to the Laos crisis whilst not being scrutinised for abandoning a Cold War ally. The Administration’s original formula for Laotian neutrality did not come to fruition due to several external factors. One was the lack of commitment from the U.S.’s key Western allies, Britain and France, who were more inclined to support a political solution based around the neutralist Souvanna Phouma who the U.S. viewed with suspicions due to his lack of anti-communist credentials. Another factor was the perceived military incompetence of FAR, which encouraged gendered Orientalist racial stereotyping of the Laotians’ alleged effeminate pacifist nature that ruled out more drastic military solutions and resulted in questioning of the country’s value as an anti-communist partner. Furthermore, the country’s difficult terrain and geography made it unsuitable for a conventional war. Therefore, throughout most of 1961, there was a dilemma in the decision- making process towards of the Administration in choosing between a political settlement, of which included switching support to Souvanna, and military intervention under SEATO umbrella.
Domestic politics played a role. By March 1961, whilst the Administration was publically committed to a neutralist solution at a conference in Geneva, it was necessary for the Administration to ensure Laos did not become communist in face of potential domestic scrutiny. As the Administration was Democratic, the repercussions of ‘fall of China’ rhetoric used by Republican opposition following the Communists’ victory in China in 1949 pushed the Kennedy Administration to ensure they made a tough stance in Laos. On the other hand, any form of deployment of U.S. combat troops into mainland Asia would have been unpopular considering the backlash after Truman’s endeavours into Korea between 1950 and 1953. Therefore, the Kennedy Administration were generally more reluctant to engage in direct military commitments. This reluctance was justified by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, which reduced arguments for military adventures into Laos. Hence, resulting in a gradual shift towards a political settlement that supports Souvanna’s bid for leadership in a neutral Laos. At the same time, military options were not completely abandoned in case the ongoing negotiations collapsed.
Thus, the dilemma showed that whilst publically the Administration was committed to a neutralist formula for Laos, internally, policymakers were still debating over methods in preventing a neutral Laos from becoming a potential gateway for communist infiltration in the region and further afield. The process became less resolute as a result of the differences between officials of the State and Defense departments, of which the latter’s arguments weakened as the military situation in Laos perceivably deteriorated. Therefore, resulted in the Administration’s eventual support for Souvanna by early 1962. The switch to support Souvanna was based on the Administration’s waning patience with Phoumi’s forces and his intransigence. Moreover, the switch was also win back support from the U.S.’s Western allies and to further gain the Soviet Union’s confidence. At the same time, the switch also indicated the Kennedy Administration were short of viable alternatives.
Whilst some historians tended to emphasise the Laos crisis as a test case for Soviet-U.S. cooperation, the overture made to the Soviets was not based on flexibility but based on orthodox Cold War thinking. During this period, U.S. policymakers continued to hold the perception of the communist bloc as a Moscow-directed monolith. Thus, by ensuring Soviet agreement, they would have put pressure on the Pathet Lao as co-chairman of the Geneva Accords. This perception did not take into account the divergence of interests within the communist bloc, of which North Vietnam were more invested in Laos than their Soviet benefactors. Therefore, contributed to the shaky foundation of the agreed neutrality.
An important question raised as result of the Administration’s endeavours in Laos was whether President Kennedy would have withdrew from South Vietnam and pursued neutralisation, instead of escalating the conflict as his successors would have later on. Whilst there are evidence to support this notion, it is clear that South Vietnam held of much greater importance for the Administration than Laos in their Cold War calculations. As the decision- making process has shown, one of the arguments for pursuing a political solution in Laos was so that the U.S. could focus on maintaining South Vietnam and Thailand as they were seen as possessing conditions that were more favourable. Therefore, the deal achieved in Laos would have been a temporary retreat.
Furthermore, the aftermath of the declaration in Geneva saw violations and renewed fighting between anti-communist and communist forces in Laos, which continued for several more years. Originally, there were initial enthusiasm for a similar model to be applied across the region and to be a staple of U.S. Cold War policy. Early on in May 1961, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kenneth Young suggested Laos could be a “catalyst changing the composition of our (U.S.) policy.”82 The optimism proved to be short-lived due to Cold War realities as many anti-communist client states in the region did not wished to be neutralised and what happened after July 1962 demonstrated the fragility of neutrality in an unstable region.
In general, the arguments presented throughout this project will, hopefully, contribute to the ever-expanding historiography on the Laos Crisis. At the same times, there are potential further research questions. They would include more in-depth research into the tensions between different government departments in the policy-making process and Kennedy’s role in mediating these tensions. Furthermore, as the studies of Cold War history shifts towards understanding the agency of minor players, it would useful to look at interpretations of U.S. policy actions by members of the competing Laotian factions in the crisis and how they tried to utilise their relationship with the superpowers to advance their agenda. Thus, achieving a more balanced understanding of a vital Cold War crisis in the decolonising world.
82 Wehrle, “A Good, Bad Deal,” p. 372.
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United States Department of State. Foreign Relations of United States, 1961–1963. Laos Crisis Volume XXIV, edited by Edward C. Keefer. Washington, D.C.: United States Printing Office, 1994.
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