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Before the Quagmire

American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961

William J. Rust

Publication Year: 2012

In the decade preceding the first U.S. combat operations in Vietnam, the Eisenhower administration sought to defeat a communist-led insurgency in neighboring Laos. Although U.S. foreign policy in the 1950s focused primarily on threats posed by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, the American engagement in Laos evolved from a small cold war skirmish into a superpower confrontation near the end of President Eisenhower's second term. Ultimately, the American experience in Laos foreshadowed many of the mistakes made by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s.

In Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954--1961, William J. Rust delves into key policy decisions made in Washington and their implementation in Laos, which became first steps on the path to the wider war in Southeast Asia. Drawing on previously untapped archival sources, Before the Quagmire documents how ineffective and sometimes self-defeating assistance to Laotian anticommunist elites reflected fundamental misunderstandings about the country's politics, history, and culture. The American goal of preventing a communist takeover in Laos was further hindered by divisions among Western allies and U.S. officials themselves, who at one point provided aid to both the Royal Lao Government and to a Laotian general who plotted to overthrow it. Before the Quagmire is a vivid analysis of a critical period of cold war history, filling a gap in our understanding of U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia and America's entry into the Vietnam War.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front Cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Interested Outside Powers

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pp. 1-13

J. Graham Parsons, once a rising star among the career professionals in the US Department of State, was appointed ambassador to the kingdom of Laos in 1956 at the comparatively young age of forty-eight. Senior . . .

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Chapter 1: The Most Difficult Post in the Entire Foreign Service

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pp. 14-42

In 1966, the year he retired from the Department of State as a career ambassador, the highest professional rank in the Foreign Service, Charles W. Yost sat down for an interview to discuss his diplomatic experiences while serving under John Foster Dulles. When the topic turned to the . . .

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Chapter 2: A Frontier Country in the Cold War

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pp. 43-65

By the time Ambassador J. Graham Parsons arrived in Laos on July 27, 1956, the rat-infested legation endured by America’s diplomatic pioneers in Vientiane had been transformed into a far more habitable residence for the ambassador. Parsons found the refurbished house “not bad at all, . . .

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Chapter 3: Behind the Scenes

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pp. 66-86

It was a little after 1:00 p.m. on April 15, 1957, when John Gunther Dean, a junior political officer in Vientiane, arrived at the US embassy and found the first secretary of the French embassy waiting to speak with an American official. The French diplomat had a disturbing message to . . .

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Chapter 4: Dangerously Unstable

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pp. 87-104

In late March 1958, as the campaign for the Lao supplementary election entered its final six weeks, and as Booster Shot deliveries to rural villages were about to begin, the new American ambassador to Laos, Horace Smith, arrived in Vientiane. Like Yost and Parsons, Smith was a career . . .

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Chapter 5: Drawing the Line

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pp. 105-131

John Heintges, an active-duty US Army brigadier general, arrived in Vientiane in mid-November 1958, wearing civilian clothes and bearing a civilian passport. Ostensibly a member of a group traveling with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles H. Shuff , Heintges had been . . .

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Chapter 6: Dichotomy

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pp. 132-157

The cable that marked the beginning of the end of Horace Smith’s diplomatic career was Embassy Telegram (Embtel) 1300, a top-secret, “eyes only” message to Assistant Secretary of State J. Graham Parsons and James W. Riddleberger, director of ICA. Dated November 8, 1959, the . . .

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Chapter 7: Normal Dishonesty

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pp. 158-174

On Thursday, March 17, 1960, the National Security Council gathered at the White House for its weekly meeting. For President Eisenhower, who highly valued organization and order in managing the complexity of foreign affairs, the NSC was a mechanism for long-range planning and . . .

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Chapter 8: Unacceptable Developments

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pp. 175-201

At approximately 3:00 a.m., August 9, 1960, Captain Kong Le, commander of the elite FAL Second Parachute Battalion, led a coup d’état against the two-month-old Somsanith government. Supported by armored units, his paratroopers seized control of Vientiane and its key . . .

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Chapter 9: Who the Hell Is Our Boy?

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pp. 202-228

Phoumi’s rebellion, though less shocking to the US government than Kong Le’s coup, was still an unpleasant surprise for Americans in Vientiane and Washington. Th e Lao general informed US officials of his latest power grab on September 10, 1960, when embassy first secretary . . .

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Chapter 10: Virtually a Traitor

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pp. 229-255

On October 28, 1960, senior State Department officials met again with the Joint Chiefs and top Pentagon civilians to continue their efforts to reach a common understanding about events in Laos and the appropriate US response to them. Defense Secretary Gates said it was his “impression . . .

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Epilogue: A Legacy of Strife and Confusion

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pp. 256-269

The day before his inauguration, President-elect Kennedy visited President Eisenhower at the White House to discuss a range of topics, with a primary focus on national security issues. In a private Oval Office . . .

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pp. 271-272

While conducting research for Before the Quagmire, I received valuable assistance from archivists at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas; the John F. Kennedy Library, . . .


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pp. 273-296


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pp. 297-305


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pp. 307-323

E-ISBN-13: 9780813135793
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813135786

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2012