JFK and Laos (1961–1962)

Chapter 1: Inheriting a Crisis

This chapter will provide some background information on the history of U.S. involvement in Laos up to 1961, the geo-political importance of the country in U.S. Cold War calculations and at the same time, insights on Laotian politics and their Cold War connections. Laos was originally a French colony and a part of French Indochina, which constituted modern-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam since the late 1800s. By 1954, the defeat of French Union forces by the communist Việt Minh army at Điện Biên Phủ brought the end of the French colonialism in Indochina and subsequently, the Geneva Accords on July 20 of the same year. The Accords eventually recognised the independence and neutrality of Laos, which stated, the Kingdom of Laos would not join any military alliance ‘not in conformity with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations or with the principles of the agreement on the cessation of hostility.’4 This became problematic especially as the United States under the Eisenhower Administration was not a signatory of the Accords.5 The period between 1954 and 1961 eventually saw greater U.S. involvement in the successor states to French Indochina as part of the efforts to containment of communism in the region and Laos was no exception. This was first demonstrated through the formation of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in 1954 for the purpose of collective security against communist threats. Due to its neutral status declared at Geneva, Laos was not a formal member; however, it was designated a ‘Protocol State’, which justified SEATO military actions if communist aggression from there threatens the security of a signatory state.6

During this period, U.S. economic and military assistance to Laos increased exponentially; Laotians became the highest recipients of U.S. aid for any Southeast Asian country with a significant portion going towards strengthening the Laotian Royal Army, or the Force Armee Royale (FAR).7 The paradox of Laos was of an impoverished, lightly populated and geographically distant country but held significant strategic and political significance within wider Cold War strategic calculations. Geographically, Laos shared a border with five Southeast Asian states and importantly, communist China. In particular, the eastern half of the country bordered with both communist North and U.S.-backed South Vietnam, which contained the infiltration routes to which North Vietnam would use to supply the Việt Cộng insurgency in overthrowing the pro-U.S. regime in Sài Gòn.8 In addition, the most direct route from China to the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea ran directly overland through Laos. Since the end of Korean War in 1953, U.S. policymakers had been wary of the possibility of further aggression from the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Southeast Asia, which convinced them of a need to build a viable and independent Laotian state serving as a deterrent to communist China aggression in Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia.9 Moreover, Laos also shared its largest border with Thailand. The latter was considered one of the U.S.’s closest ally in the region and the fall of Thailand to communism via Laos would have had serious implications.10 Therefore, the geography of Laos played a significant role as a determinant in the policy-making process in both Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations and more often, overshadowed other factors to be explored throughout the rest of this study.

The situation in Laos was divided between three competing factions along ideological lines. Firstly, Prince Souphanouvong led the communist faction, the Pathet Lao, backed by North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union.11 He was considered by U.S. policymakers to have been the most able of all the Laotian leaders.12 His communist allegiance, despite recognised for his ability and popular support, would have made it difficult for U.S. policymakers transitioning between the two Administrations to view him and his organisation as anything more than a pawn of Hà Nội, Beijing and Moscow. French-educated Prince Souvanna Phouma, half-brother of Souphanouvong, who advocated flexible neutrality between both blocs of the Cold War, led the neutralist faction. Due to the stringent anti-communist sentiment in the Eisenhower Administration, which dismissed neutralism as overture to communism, Souvanna was considered by members of the Administration to be untrustworthy and susceptible to communist influence, which persisted into the succeeding Adminstration.13 Phoumi Nosavan, a cousin to the military dictator of Thailand Marshal Sarit Thanarat, also a fervent anti-communist, primarily led the third faction, the rightist.14 U.S. policymakers saw him as strongly anti-communist but also difficult to work with due to his frequent intransigence and self-interests, he would also represent an opportunity and obstacle for the succeeding Kennedy Administration to provide a winning formula in terms of successful containment of communism in Laos via neutralisation.

The Laos crisis officially started when a coup d’état occurred in August 1960 in Vientiane, capital of Laos.15 During this period, the country’s fragile peace was broken and fighting renewed between the various factions, with the neutralists now siding with the Pathet Lao. In its last year, the Eisenhower Administration continued to support Phoumi to prevent Laos from falling into communism in terms of the domino theory and dismissed proposals of neutrality for the country.

By this point, the United States elected a new president in John F. Kennedy, who inherited the crisis from his predecessor for the next few years. In the lead-up to the inauguration, as commonly noted by historians, it was Laos rather than Vietnam or any other foreign policy issues that dominated the conversation in transitioning between the two Administrations. At the same time, demonstrating the differences in approaches between two Administrations. In the conversations between the departing Eisenhower Administration and president-elect Kennedy the day before his inauguration, Kennedy’s overall impression was that the Eisenhower Administration would support military intervention to prevent the fall of Laos. In one conversation, Kennedy asked Eisenhower whether he would prefer either the option of the formation of a coalition government that included communist elements or military intervention through SEATO. Eisenhower preferred military intervention and used the example of a failed experiment with coalition government in China under General George C. Marshall before the communist takeover in 1949 and compared the potential loss of Laos to a loss of the ‘cork in the bottle’, which would open up the Far East to communist infiltration.16 Following the defeat of Japan in the Second World War in 1945, fighting resumed between the communists and nationalists in China. There was an effort led by General Marshall to establish a coalition government to mediate the warring factions. These efforts collapsed, however, and continued warfare resulted in a communist victory on mainland China.17 The use of the China analogy in U.S. political discourse is interesting in the sense that since the fall of China to communism in 1949 had been associated with the Democratic Truman Administration; this led to scrutiny from the Republicans in the early 1950s. Thus, succeeding Democratic presidents such as Kennedy have had an interest in preventing further territorial concessions to communism in the face of potential domestic scrutiny from their political opposition. This demonstrates the prevailing attitude from the Eisenhower Administration towards neutralism, namely that it only served as an avenue for communist infiltration. This was confirmed in the conversation between Kennedy and outgoing Secretary of State Christian Herter on the question of a political solution for Laos18 Furthermore, any possibility of a political solution, particularly one on U.S. terms, would depend on the military question, in which U.S. support to Phoumi-led FAR forces had not been successful on the battlefield. From early on before Kennedy’s first day in office, it was recognised that there was an unwillingness on the part of the royalist armed forces to fight, which would continue to prove a hindrance for U.S. objectives in Laos.19

Nonetheless, during the period of transition, there was aversion from the departing Eisenhower Administration towards a neutralist solution for Laos. As noted by Lawrence Freedman, neutralism was seen as a ‘lost cause’ as the civil war in Laos took hold, thereby, Eisenhower wanted Kennedy to back Phoumi despite his vulnerable military positions and this could be done under the umbrella of SEATO, as Laos was a ‘Protocol State’. Moreover, Article IV of the SEATO Treaty indicates that each party recognising that “aggression by means of an armed attack in the treaty area would endanger its own peace and safety, and agrees it will act to meet the common danger in accordance with its own constitutional process.”20 Thereby, the military question was recommended to be prioritised by the departing Eisenhower Administration before the pursuit of any political settlement.

Even so, it would not be fair to view the Eisenhower Administration as being more interventionist than its successor. This could be due to the fact there were indications in early January based on unofficial statements of a willingness to explore the idea of an international conference proposed by prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, which could arrange a union of leftist and rightist factions in a government for a neutralised Laos.21 Therefore, creating an impression of a more flexible impression. This was also mentioned by State Secretary Herter in the conversation between Kennedy and members of the departing Administration; however, this was amongst the various political options presented by Herter to Kennedy and any response of willingness on part of the U.S. could be seen as just diplomatic courtesy.22 Furthermore, the Eisenhower had clearly preferred the military solution, as shown in Kennedy’s notes of his conversation with the Eisenhower Administration. In his notes, his impression was that the departing Administration would support intervention, which was preferable to a communist success in Laos.23

According to Roger Hilsman, Director of the Bureau of Research and Intelligence under Kennedy, at that time, there were three policy alternatives in Laos for the U.S. government each revolving around a Laotian leader. The first alternative was one proposed by Souvanna Phouma and based on genuine reconciliation between all factions in the name of national unity and neutrality in the Cold War, which seemed less probable due to Souvanna’s relations with the U.S. Secondly, a modified form of neutrality with more of anti-communist and pro- Western orientation to be associated with Phoui Sananikone, a leader in the similar mould as Souvanna, in which communists would be permitted to operate but severely restricted. The third one revolved around Phoumi Nosavana and militant anti-communism, which included the complete elimination of the Pathet Lao and would have made Laos into a U.S. ally with substantial economic and military presence.24 Following Kennedy’s inauguration, it seemed that his administration was more inclined toward the second alternative, in terms of forming a neutral government in which neither Souvanna nor the Pathet Lao would have any say and with assurances of anti-communism.25 In other words, the end goal for the Administration would be neutralisation of Laos on U.S. terms. The imperative for a neutralist solution Laos would have partly stemmed from the advice Kennedy received from his Senate colleague Mike Mansfield, a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, who encouraged Kennedy to make “an active attempt to neutralize” Laos. Mansfield’s recommendation was based on his critique of Eisenhower’s policies and the “corrupting and disrupting” effect of the U.S. aid program in Laos, thus, he felt there was the need for a new approach towards the problems in Laos. At the same time, military intervention through SEATO would have held greater risk26. There were several difficulties recognised by the Kennedy Administration, particularly internal factors within Laos, which included a deteriorating military situation due to the performance of FAR and an attitude of apathy within large segments of the population and the army. Furthermore, they were aware that ‘real determination’ resides only in the Pathet Lao and reluctance from allies in SEATO to commit material support.27 At the same time, the geography of Laos prevented successful mobilisation of U.S. ground troops due to difficult mountainous terrain and lack of access to the sea.28 Furthermore, there was need to work with Communist powers such as the Soviet Union and China to keep the Pathet Lao in check, as they are dependent on Soviet airlift and supplies. Thus, the appointment of a new president provided not only opportunities for improved working relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union but also hindrance in terms of achieving U.S. objectives.29 There was an awareness of differences in the conception of neutrality between the Kennedy Administration and their British and French counterparts. The latter two had a preference for Souvanna Phouma to be part of the neutralisation scheme, partly due to his French connections, but at the same time, they felt that he was only hope of uniting a divided country such as Laos. At the same time, there was a willingness from the British to accept some members of the Pathet Lao in the Laos government and acceptance of Soviet aids to that government. This was based on the British and French concerns that a civil war would have greater risk than allowing communist participation.30 The differences between the Kennedy Administration and its British and French partners in the neutralisation of Laos showed the level of importance that each side gave to Laos. Since for the Kennedy Administration, Laos held more strategic significance in combatting communism in the region, thus, it was more committed to Phoumi, who was considered to be a more determined anti-communist. At the same time, Souvanna was viewed by more sympathetic members of the Administration such as U.S. Ambassador to Laos Winthrop G. Brown, as too compromising towards the communists.31 On the contrary, officials in the military and the CIA continued to distrust Souvanna due to his insufficient appreciation of the threats posed by the Pathet Lao and their ideology.32 The lack of commitment from allies such as Britain and France towards the former’s aims in Laos would be a hindrance for the Kennedy Administration.

The transition between the Eisenhower and the Kennedy Administrations showed continuity in terms of prioritising achieving military objectives before the pursuit of any political solution. Based on the initial policymaking process, it is clear that considerations of the internal situation in Laos and international factors made it difficult for Kennedy to gain any ground in achieving U.S. political objectives in Laos. This was in terms of achieving military objectives due to the dismal on-field performances of FAR. An innovation under the Kennedy Administration, compared to their predecessors, was a stronger public commitment to neutralism. This was done through the proposal of a Neutral Nations Commission, made of neutral countries in the region, to neutralise Laos and broadening the government led by Phoumi and Prince Boum Oum whilst excluding communist elements.33 By doing so, this was to satisfy demands from the domestic U.S. and wider international audience for an independent and neutral Laos. At the same time, it was necessary to publically maintain the objective of neutralism in Laos as a signal to both allies and adversaries of U.S. commitment to peacefully resolve the Laos crisis whilst ensuring military advantages. Moreover, the communist endeavours would be portrayed as disruptive to the establishment of peace in Laos. As shown in a telegram drafted by State Secretary Dean Rusk to the U.S. embassy in Cambodia, it was claimed that the communists did not ‘comprehend’ or were ‘unwilling’ to accept ‘genuine neutrality.’34 This telegram was especially addressed to Souvanna, who was in Cambodia at the time and it was aimed to persuade him to detach himself from the communists. Nonetheless, a recurring theme in the decision-making process of the Kennedy Administration was the dilemma between committing to a political settlement in the forms of neutralisation and military engagement to prevent the concession of Laos to communism.

(To be continued)

4 Martin Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 86.

5 Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos, p. 86
6 Ibid, p. 90.

7 Ibid, pp. 90–91.
8 Richard Burks Verrone, “Behind the wall of Geneva: Lao politics, American counterinsurgency, and why the U.S. lost in Laos, 1961–1965” (PhD diss., Texas Tech University, 2001), p. 92.
9 Verrone, “Behind the wall of Geneva,” p. 92–93.
10 Ibid, p. 93.
11 MacAlister Brown and Joseph J. Zasloff, Apprentice Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Laos, 1930–1985(Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1986), p. 61.

12 Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F.Kennedy (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1967), p. 108.
13 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, p. 107.
14 Ibid, p. 108.

15 Brown and Zasloff, Apprentice Revolutionaries, p. 74.

16 Memorandum for the Record, Washington, January 19, 1961 in Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C.Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p.21.
17 Ernest R. May, “1947–48: When Marshall Kept the U.S. Out of War in China,” The Journal of Military History 66 (October 2002): pp. 1004–1005.

18 Memorandum for the Record, p. 24.
Secretary Herter also spoke of the experience with coalition governments with communist representation in the last fifteen years had not been successful and often had led to elimination of communists or communist takeover with the latter more reoccurring.
19 Ibid, p. 23.
20 Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000): p. 294.

21 Brown and Zasloff, Apprentice Revolutionaries, p.78.
22 Memorandum for the Record, p. 24.
23 William J. Rust, So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2014): p. 14.
24 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, pp. 105–106.

25 Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars, p. 295.
26 Rust, So Much to Lose, p. 14.
27 Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Nitze) to Secretary of Defense McNamara, (Attachment) Report Prepared by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Laos, Washington, January 23, 1961 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C.Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 28.
28 (Attachment) Report Prepared by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Laos, p. 29.
29 Ibid, p. 30.

30 Memorandum of Conversation, Subject- Laos, Washington, February 3, 1961 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 46.
31 Memorandum of Conversation, p. 47.
32 Rust, So Much to Lose, p. 38.

33 Summary Record of Meeting, Washington, February 8, 1961, 2:45–3:45 p.m. in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 49.

34 Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Cambodia , Washington, March 12, 1961 in FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XXIV: Laos Crisis, edited by Edward C. Keefer (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): p. 89.

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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).