JFK and Laos (1961–1962)

Chapter 2: To Intervene or Not to Intervene

This chapter will examine the dilemma the Kennedy Administration faced in the decision- making process between March and November 1961. The dilemma in question was between committing to a political settlement in the form of an agreement on the neutralisation of Laos and engaging in military actions to prevent a communist domination of the country. At the same time, assessing policy options presented to the Administration as part of the diplomatic and military manoeuvres to ensure neutrality on U.S. terms and reactions to possible negotiations at Geneva. Early on, the Administration was committed to neutralising Laos, but on U.S. terms and initial diplomatic-military initiatives were used. According to former Deputy National Security Advisor Walter Rostow, the diplomatic solution was based on a commission made of neutral nations, which was mentioned in the previous chapter. In order to maximise the U.S. bargaining position, a military offensive led by Phoumi was launched at the Plain of Jars throughout most of February 1961. These initial attempts did not make headways due to several factors. Militarily, FAR troops under Phoumi proved to be incapable of resisting the Pathet Lao, which frustrated the Kennedy Administration. Diplomatically, the commission did not materialise due to refusals from neutral countries in the region such as Cambodia and Burma. Furthermore, there was lack of support from Western allies such as Britain and France.35 Thus, these shortcomings led to a new phase in the Administration’s decision-making process regarding Laos.

Observers and historians have often cited President Kennedy’s March 23 press conference on the situation in Laos as the defining moment in which the Administration made a firm commitment to neutralising Laos. In the press conference, President Kennedy demonstrated the extent of communist domination of Laos whilst affirming the United States’ support for “constructive negotiation” through a cease-fire and the convocation of an international conference on Laos. At the same time, the public goal of the Administration was “the goal of a neutral and independent Laos, tied to no outside power or group of powers, threatening no one, and free from any domination.”36 Kennedy hagiographers would view this as the defining moment when the Kennedy Administration was committed to a flexible approach to the Laos question through the use of diplomacy. On the other hand, despite the public affirmation, there were still debates between March and May 1961 within the Administration over Laos between a negotiated settlement and military intervention. Whilst the public goal was a neutral and independent Laos, the internal goal was to prevent the fall of Laos to communist control. Furthermore, any formula for neutralisation of Laos was to be on U.S. terms, in terms of a friendly neutral government and not vulnerable to communist domination. During this period, several factors emerged that favoured negotiations over military actions. One factor, a recurring one was the deteriorating military situation in Laos, in which FAR forces led by Phoumi performed direly against communist Pathet Lao forces. The performance on the battlefield led to members of the Administration such as Chester Bowles to describe the military situation as ‘intolerable’ following the fall of Muong Sai in April 1961.37 The Administration’s interpretation of FAR’s on-field performance reinforced their perception of Laos as a nation of undetermined pacifists. This cultural perception was based on a gendered approach, according to Robert Dean, to foreign policy, in which President Kennedy favoured the incorporation of ‘individual anti-bureaucratic masculine heroism’ into the foreign policy bureaucracy. Thus, surrounding himself with ‘tough’ bureaucrats who would view the world through the lenses of an upper class cult of imperial manhood who had experienced the Second World War.38 Thereby, the Administration’s masculine approach resulted in the equation of commitment to anti-communism with masculine toughness in their construction of different nationalities during the Cold War. This approach led to the Laotians to be feminised in the eyes of policymakers based on assessments of their military prowess. For example, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had portrayed the Laotians as ‘a gentle people, with little interest in killing each other.’ He reinforced his view with an anecdote of how both conflicting Laotian sides left the battlefield to attend a water festival.39 These anecdotes would have explained the Administration’s ambivalence towards figures such as Souvanna as he was viewed as not determined enough in combatting communism. Whilst this racialist view of Laos may have strengthened arguments for a political settlement, it could also have provided for justifications for military intervention. In this case, U.S. military power and its more hardened SEATO allies could compensate the inherent deficiencies of the FAR.

Furthermore, historians such as Freedman and Jacobs have noticed how Laotian traditionally Buddhist society discredited the country, in the eyes of U.S. policymakers, as a candidate for drastic intervention against communism.40 During the early years of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers did not view Buddhism positively. In a study of U.S-Vietnamese relations under the Eisenhower Administration, the concerned religion was linked with passivity and moral relativism. This viewpoint continued to pervade in the succeeding Administration.41 Thereby, the pacifist nature of a Buddhist society would have convinced Kennedy in moving towards a non-military route towards the Laos crisis. On the other hand, these presumptions of Laotian society and people also demonstrated paradoxes in U.S. foreign policy decision-making. Whilst Buddhism was linked with passivity, therefore a lacklustre commitment to combatting communist threats, yet, one of the U.S.’s most reliable allies in the region was Thailand, itself a country where Buddhism was the dominant faith.

Furthermore, the perceived military incompetence of FAR reinforced the Administration’s generalisation of Laotians as not a militarily aggressive people. At the same time, the military successes and discipline of the Pathet Lao seemed to disprove these stereotypes, however, this was not taken into account by decision-makers. One reason was in the early years of the Cold War, indigenous communist insurgencies such as the Pathet Lao were viewed as external forces of aggression, part of a grand scheme for domination primarily directed and aided by communist powers. Thus, depriving these movements of their indigenous identity and legitimacy. Therefore, the dilemma over military intervention into Laos was based on assumptions of possible retaliations from neighbouring communist powers, such as China. As seen in a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC), there were debates over the probability of a successful military operation in Laos that also demonstrated differing opinions of different policymakers. There were differences between State and Defense officials, in which Defense Secretary McNamara proposed for SEATO forces to move into the Laotian panhandle. On the other hand, State Under-Secretary Bowles believed that it trigger a full-scale conflict with China and that the Laotian panhandle was not the suitable place to start.42 The fear of military retaliation by communist China was based on the U.S. experiences during the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, in which U.S. forces engaged in direct opposition with communist Chinese forces who intervened in the name of aiding their North Korean communist allies that escalated the conflict itself. Thereby, this led to a prevailing view, dubbed the ‘Never Again’ in successive Administrations to prevent escalation of wars on mainland Asia that would have drawn in communist China, which became part of the decision-making process. According to Hilsman, the ‘Never Again’ view held prominence in the Kennedy Administration, which led to reluctance toward proposals for large-scale military operations in Laos.43 At the same time, in domestic political considerations, as a Democrat, if Kennedy had committed U.S. troops to Laos, the Republican opposition would have charged the Democrats with involving the U.S. in another war similar to Korea, especially in an unfamiliar terrain such as Laos. Thus, it would have damaged the credibility of the Administration and the Democratic Party.44 Furthermore, in an NSC meeting, State Secretary Rusk warned of the ‘destruction’ of U.S. alliances if the Administration did not provide support for SEATO operations in Laos, which implied support for intervention. Subsequently, Genera Maxwell Taylor opposed to deploying U.S. forces into Laos.45 This was interesting in terms of showing the differing opinions between military and civilian officials in the decision-making process, with the latter being more pro- intervention than the former. At the same time, in his memoir, Rusk claimed that he opposed to committing U.S. forces to defend Laos and was more in favour of working a political settlement throughout the course of the crisis.46 The notes from that particular meeting show the opposite and indicate that there was a shift in opinion amongst policymakers in favour of a political settlement to resolve the crisis.

Whilst policymakers in the Administration such as McNamara were in favour of military intervention, there was also awareness of the shortcomings of undertaking such a course. During this period, McNamara had proposed to President Kennedy to introduce U.S. forces into Laos once the deadline for a cease-fire had passed to protect key communication and population centres at the request of the Laotian government.47 Moreover, he also laid out the advantages and risks of such course of action. The advantages including preventing the fall of Laos to communist domination and sending signals to allies of the U.S. honouring its commitments. At the same time, the risks included the difficult terrain of Laos which favoured guerrilla warfare, possibility of escalation, and U.S domestic and international outcries of U.S. troops being committed to another war on the Asian mainland.48 It is possible the connections between the risks of intervening in Laos and in Vietnam in later years would support the counterfactual claims that Kennedy would not have escalated the war in Vietnam as his successors did. On the other hand, McNamara also proposed to introduce U.S. forces in Thailand and South Vietnam in case of Laos fallen to the communists with beliefs the former two would be more successful with less chance of public backlash.49 McNamara’s assessment was in line with the thinking of the Administration at the time in terms of certain Asian allies were more determined in countering communism and thus, more worthy of U.S commitment than Laos. Therefore, different sets of solution would have to be prescribed for the Laos crisis with the military question still in mind even if it was hindered by other factors.

By May 1961, to win over international opinion, the Kennedy Administration was publically committed to an international conference on Laos to be held in Geneva, Switzerland. During this period, the Administration’s key Western allies continued to press for the inclusion of Souvanna Phouma as part of the scheme for neutralising Laos. As previously explained in Chapter One, the U.S.’s key allies, the United Kingdom and France, were more committed to a political settlement in terms of forming a neutral coalition government headed by Souvanna, whom they believed to have significant followings and be able to hold together a fragile country such as Laos. In addition, they were more reluctant to commit troops. Such persuasions were shown in high level meetings between the Kennedy Administration and their British and French counterparts. In a meeting between the Administration and British Prime Minister Harold McMillan in April 1961, British Foreign Secretary Lord Home insisted on Souvanna as the only person who could command a ‘sizeable majority in the country.’ At the same time, was under no illusion that they would obtain a ‘messy government’ at best but one to be reinforced by international mechanisms to ensure its survival.50 During President Kennedy’s visit to France in late May 1961, he discussed with his French counterpart, General Charles De Gaulle, on the Laos crisis. During this discussion, De Gaulle described Laos as ‘an unhappy country with no unity’ and ‘a nonentity which cannot be built up to anything at all’, thus convincing Kennedy that Laos was not a worthwhile Cold War cause.51 The point of agreement between the two leaders was their perception of the Laos nation-state, of which there was a lack of national cohesion that contributed to their perceived lack of determination in countering communist subversion. This perception also dominated the thinking of U.S. policymakers, along with the gendered and Orientalist construction of the Laotians. Amongst policymakers, there was an awareness of an absence of semblance of national unity in Laos due to its difficult geography, scattered population and diversity of people and languages.52 Thereby, a solution based around Souvanna, at least in British and French eyes, was more attractive in terms of uniting all political factions in the country and allowed for future nation-building.

Therefore, the outcome of these discussions would have further pushed the Kennedy Administration toward a political settlement and recognition of Souvanna as a key figure. At the same time, an important factor was the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in late April 1961, which was to send in armed Cuban exiles to overthrow the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro. Historians have noticed how the failure of the operation contributed to Kennedy’s reluctance towards military intervention. The Bay of Pigs debacle forced Kennedy to question the viability of U.S. military forces in the jungles and mountains of Laos and to be more sceptical of recommendations made by military officials.53Hence, pushing him towards a political settlement. On the other hand, it would not have resulted in a complete abandonment of military solutions and further emphasis on covert operations. During this period, the Kennedy Administration agreed to increasingly arming and training guerrillas from the mountain tribes of Laos. By July 1961, 9,000 Meo tribesmen had been equipped by the CIA for guerrilla operations in communist-controlled territory in Laos ‘with considerable effectiveness.’ 54 Therefore, a political settlement continued to be pursued by the Administration without completely abandoning military actions.

On the diplomatic front, the Kennedy Administration was aware of the need for dialogue with their Cold War opponent, the Soviet Union to ensure the Laos crisis did not escalate into a major confrontation between the two major superpowers. The initiative towards rapprochement was shown in series of meetings between President Kennedy and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Khrushchev during the Vienna Summit of June 1961. In these meetings, there were differences over each sides’ interpretations of the situation in Laos, in which the Soviet Union saw Souvanna’s government as the legitimate government of Laos which had been overthrown by the U.S. On the other hand, Kennedy maintained U.S. involvement in Laos was because of its treaty obligations and commitments to preserve Lao’s independence from external forces.55 Despite their differences, both sides had agreed Laos held no strategic importance for both sides and were committed to work toward an effective cease-fire and peaceful settlement at Geneva.56 The outcome of the meeting would have shown the willingness of both Cold War superpowers to work toward a peaceful settlement despite their ideological differences. From another angle, Kennedy’s approaches toward the Soviet Union also showed a problem in the U.S.’s Cold War calculations during this period. As explained before, despite recognition of the Pathet Lao’s capability and determination, U.S. policymakers still viewed it as a force of external aggression. At the same time, this perception was in line with the dominant thinking of international communism as a monolithic conspiracy directed by Moscow and executed by their satellites in Beijing and Hà Nội.57 Therefore, negotiations with communist powers were done through the Soviet Union, who did not have as much strategic imperatives in Laos as North Vietnam, the principal backer of the Pathet Lao since Laos provided the vital road link to infiltrate into South Vietnam.

Therefore, between March and June 1961, several factors pushed the Kennedy Administration toward a political settlement rather than military action. The factors included the dismal military performances of FAR, which reinforced Orientalist views of the Laotian population and their perceived pacifist nature. Furthermore, the reluctance of key Western allies, Britain and France, to commit to the U.S. cause in Laos and their endorsement of Souvanna Phouma as key figure in a peace settlement. The Bay of Pigs debacle also increased scepticism of military options and preference for covert operations. In addition, dialogue with the Soviet Union ensured prevention of a wider conflict. At the same time, military options were not completely abandoned for diplomacy and the Administration continued to view Souvanna with suspicion until the later stages of the Geneva negotiations.

(To be continued)

35 W.W. Rostow, The Diffusion of Power: An Essay in Recent History (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1972): p. 266.

36 Editorial Note in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 100.
37 Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Bowles to President Kennedy, Subject- Laos- Deteriorating Situation and Need for Critical Decisions, Washington, April 26, 1961 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 150.

38 Robert D. Dean, “Masculinity as Ideology: John F. Kennedy and the Domestic Politics of Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 22, no. 1 (Winter 1998): p. 48.
39 Dean Rusk, As I Saw It (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1991): p. 428.
40 Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars, p. 296.

41 Seth Jacobs, “No Place to Fight a War”: Laos and Evolution of U.S. Policy toward Vietnam, 1964–1963, in Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives, ed. Mark Phillip Bradley & Marilyn B. Young (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008): p. 54.

42 Notes on the 481st National Security Council Meeting, Washington, May 1, 1961, 4:10–6 p.m. in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 163.

43 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, p. 129.
44 Kenneth L. Hill, “President and the Neutralization of Laos,” The Review of Politics 31, no. 3 (July 1969): p. 356.
45 Notes on the 481st National Security Council Meeting, p. 163.
46 Rusk, As I Saw It, p. 429.

47 Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara and the Deputy Secretary of Defense (Gilpatric) to President Kennedy, Subject- Alternative Courses of Action in Laos, Washington, May 2, 1961, in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 167.

48 Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara, p. 168.

49 Ibid, p. 168.

50 Memorandum of Conversation, Subject- East-West issues: Laos, Washington, April 6, 1961, 3:45 p.m., in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 118.
The meeting resulted in the Kennedy Administration agreeing to a cease-fire and the Geneva conference.
51 Memorandum of Conversation, Paris, May 31, 1961, 2:50 p.m., US/MC/2, PRESIDENT’S VISIT, Paris, May 31-June 2, 1961, Subject- Wednesday Afternoon Talks in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 215. 52 Jacobs, “No Place to Fight a War,” p. 55.

53 Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars, p. 300.
Kennedy was quoted to have said: ‘Thank God the Bay of Pigs happened when it did. Otherwise we’d be in Laos by now- and that would be a hundred times more.’
54 Walter Haney, “The Pentagon Papers and the United States Involvement in Laos.” In The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition Edition, Vol. V: Critical Essays, ed. N.Chomsky and H.Zinn (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972): p. 262.

55 Memorandum of Conversation, Subject- Meeting Between the President and Chairman Khrushchev in Vienna, Vienna, June 4, 1961, 10:15 a.m. — 1 p.m., in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 232.
56 Memorandum of Conversation, p. 235.

57 Rust, So Much to Lose, p. 52.

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Nghia Mai

Nghia Mai

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Ireland-based Vietnamese humorist interested in making people of all creeds and species laugh and think. Cultural Ambassador (Whatever that means).