So Much to Lose
John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos
Publication Year: 2014
Before U.S. combat units were deployed to Vietnam, presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy strove to defeat a communist-led insurgency in Laos. This impoverished, landlocked Southeast Asian kingdom was geopolitically significant because it bordered more powerful communist and anticommunist nations. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which traversed the country, was also a critical route for North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam.
In So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos, William J. Rust continues his definitive examination of U.S.-Lao relations during the Cold War, providing an extensive analysis of their impact on US policy decisions in Vietnam. He discusses the diplomacy, intelligence operations, and military actions that led to the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, signed in Geneva in 1962, which met President John F. Kennedy's immediate goal of preventing a communist victory in the country without committing American combat troops. Rust also examines the rapid breakdown of these accords, the U.S. administration's response to their collapse, and the consequences of that response.
At the time of Kennedy's assassination in 1963, U.S. policy in Laos was confused and contradictory, and Lyndon B. Johnson inherited not only an incoherent strategy, but also military plans for taking the war to North Vietnam. By assessing the complex political landscape of Laos within the larger context of the Cold War, this book offers fresh insights into American foreign policy decisions that still resonate today.
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
Title Page, Copyright
President John F. Kennedy began the telephone call with an ironic jab:
“Am I talking to the architect of the Geneva Accords?”1
W. Averell Harriman, under secretary of state for political affairs and the chief US negotiator at Geneva, replied with good humor that the characterization was accurate. As both men knew well, Harriman had...
1. We Cannot Enforce What We Would Like
On January 23, 1961, during his first White House meeting devoted to Laos, President Kennedy voiced concerns about the weak military position of the FAR ; the reinforcement potential of neighboring China and North Vietnam; and the lack of political support, locally and internationally, for the government of General Phoumi Nosavan, the nominal deputy...
2. A Wide Measure of Discretion
The basic Lao policy choice confronting President Kennedy in early August 1961 was either military intervention to back Phoumi or diplomatic support for Prince Souvanna Phouma as prime minister of a coalition government. Souvanna was, quite simply, the only candidate for the position with any chance of receiving the approval of the kingdom’s three political...
3. Less Precise Language Than We Desire
A Geneva agreement that provided a “reasonable chance” of establishing a neutral, independent Laos was “almost within our grasp,” Averell Harriman informed President Kennedy and Secretary Rusk in a top-secret cable, dated October 26, 1961. Acknowledging a few remaining outstanding issues, including the composition of “an acceptable Souvanna government,”...
4. A Disagreeable, Hard, and Dangerous Fact
The western edge of the Ho Chi Minh trail ran through the Nhommarath- Mahaxay region of the Laotian panhandle. North of this area, the trail passed from Laos across the rugged Annamite Mountains into the DR V. To the south, the trail led to Tchepone and South Vietnam. Pathet Lao forces in Nhommarath-Mahaxay had been strengthened in late 1961 by...
5. A Severe Loss of Face
Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the prime minister of Thailand and a cousin once removed of Phoumi’s, played a significant role both in the Eisenhower administration’s efforts to overthrow Souvanna and in the Kennedy administration’s attempt to establish a government led by him. Sarit, called “uncle” by Phoumi out of respect, was perhaps the only person...
6. A Very Hazardous Course
After weeks of intensifying skirmishing, the battle of Nam Tha began in earnest at 3:00 a.m., May 6, 1962, when antigovernment artillery began bombarding the FAR command post and a 105-mm howitzer battery on the outskirts of town. Pathet Lao and PAVN infantry, estimated at four or more battalions, attacked the town from three directions. The main...
7. A Colossal Booby Trap
Phoumi Nosavan, chastened by US economic, diplomatic, and military pressure, flew to the Plaine des Jarres on Thursday, June 7, 1962, to negotiate with Souvanna and Souphanouvong about the formation of a coalition government. Not entirely confident about his personal security in hostile territory, he startled the neutralist and Pathet Lao leaders by arriving...
8. We Do Not Have the Power of Decision
Wearing an elegant, lightly colored suit, Prince Souvanna Phouma carried a homburg, a pair of gray gloves, and a gold-tipped umbrella when he stepped out of a USAF plane at Washington National Airport on Thursday, July 26, 1962. Dean Rusk shook his hand and welcomed him to the United States at a brief ceremony at the airport’s Military Air Transportation...
9. Tenuous at Best
After a short flight from his headquarters on the Plaine des Jarres, neutralist commander General Kong Le arrived at Wattay airfield outside of Vientiane on November 5, 1962. Traveling with Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, Kong Le had not been in Vientiane since December 1960, when General Phoumi’s troops, aided by US and Thai military advisers, drove...
10. A Piece of War
The assassination of Foreign Minister Quinim Pholsena on April 1, 1963, should have shattered the durable stereotype of Laotian pacifism. Arriving at his home in Vientiane after a diplomatic reception, the minister was killed and his wife wounded by two short bursts from an automatic weapon, fired by one of their household guards. Like all bodyguards...
11. We’re Going to Have to Take Some Action
The US commitment to Laos entered a new and ambiguous phase in May 1963. The fighting on the Plaine des Jarres, the flight of the NLHS ministers from Vientiane, and the failure of US diplomacy with the Soviet Union meant that the neutral government of national union envisioned by the Geneva agreement was likely finished. In a cable to the State Department...
From the first day of his presidency until the last, Lyndon Johnson viewed Laos as a secondary theater of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Only two days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson met with Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador in Saigon, to review post-coup developments in Vietnam and to develop guidance for the State Department, Pentagon,...
So Much to Lose would not have been possible without the assistance of archivists at the John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA; the Library of Congress, Washington, DC ; the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, TX; the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD; and the US Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, PA. I am particularly...