The Universe Unraveling

The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos

Seth Jacobs
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    The Universe Unraveling
    Book Description:

    During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Laos was positioned to become a major front in the Cold War. Yet American policymakers ultimately chose to resist communism in neighboring South Vietnam instead. Two generations of historians have explained this decision by citing logistical considerations. Laos's landlocked, mountainous terrain, they hold, made the kingdom an unpropitious place to fight, while South Vietnam-possessing a long coastline, navigable rivers, and all-weather roads-better accommodated America's military forces. The Universe Unraveling is a provocative reinterpretation of U.S.-Laos relations in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. Seth Jacobs argues that Laos boasted several advantages over South Vietnam as a battlefield, notably its thousand-mile border with Thailand, whose leader was willing to allow Washington to use his nation as a base from which to attack the communist Pathet Lao.

    More significant in determining U.S. policy in Southeast Asia than strategic appraisals of the Laotian landscape were cultural perceptions of the Lao people. Jacobs contends that U.S. policy toward Laos under Eisenhower and Kennedy cannot be understood apart from the traits Americans ascribed to their Lao allies. Drawing on diplomatic correspondence and the work of iconic figures like "celebrity saint" Tom Dooley, Jacobs finds that the characteristics American statesmen and the American media attributed to the Lao-laziness, immaturity, and cowardice-differed from the traits assigned the South Vietnamese, making Lao chances of withstanding communist aggression appear dubious. The Universe Unraveling combines diplomatic, cultural, and military history to provide a new perspective on how prejudice can shape policy decisions and even the course of history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6404-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    John F. Kennedy inherited a powder keg. The presidential transition from Dwight Eisenhower to Kennedy occurred during one of the tensest periods in the history of American foreign policy. Crises simmered and blazed all over the globe: Fidel Castro had established a communist beachhead ninety miles from Florida, rebels in the Dominican Republic seemed poised to turn that nation into another Cuba, Washington and Moscow clashed over a UN-sponsored peacekeeping mission to the Congo, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was threatening to force the Western allies out of Berlin. Most distressing was the situation in South Vietnam, where America’s ally...

  6. Chapter 1 “A Long Country Inhabited by Lotus Eaters”: Washington Encounters Laos
    (pp. 21-49)

    The three states of French Indochina—Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—stood on the threshold of a seemingly golden era as 1954 drew to a close. French defeat in the battle of Dien Bien Phu had ended the war between France and the Viet Minh and sounded the death knell of France’s Southeast Asian empire. A multinational conference of communist and noncommunist powers in Geneva had worked out the details of a region-wide settlement: recognition of Laos and Cambodia as independent nations, withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lao and Cambodian territory, and partition of Vietnam until elections could be held...

  7. Chapter 2 “A Soft Buffer”: Laos in the Eisenhower Administration’s Grand Strategy
    (pp. 50-81)

    In March 1958, Nationalist Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek hosted a meeting of U.S. ambassadors to Asian countries. The diplomats gathered in Taipei to evaluate America’s Far Eastern policy, which had enjoyed smooth sailing since the death of Philippine leader Ramón Magsaysay the previous year. There had been no defeats or crises; indeed, events in Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia indicated an upswing in the free world’s fortunes, while Ngo Dinh Diem had pulled off what American journalists were calling a “miracle” by making South Vietnam a going concern. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who presided over the Taipei gathering,...

  8. Chapter 3 “Help the Seemingly Unhelpable”: “Little America” and the U.S. Aid Program in Laos
    (pp. 82-128)

    The August 1958 newsletter for the American Women’s Club of Vientiane spotlighted several recent events, most prominently a community theater production of You Can’t Take It with You performed at the mess hall of the United States Operations Mission (USOM) compound. “Bouquets should be tossed” to an “excellent cast,” wrote the newsletter’s anonymous drama critic. “The Mekong Players came into their own” with this, their second show, a “comedy in the old tradition of Joseph Jefferson.” Singled out for “[s]omething special in the way of bouquets” was Alice Drew, a secretary in the USOM’s procurement division, who, readers learned, “went...

  9. Chapter 4 “Foreigners Who Want to Enslave the Country”: American Neocolonialism, Lao Defiance
    (pp. 129-170)

    Vientiane would fall. Of that there was no doubt. General Phoumi Nosavan’s men had American-supplied armored cars and tanks, gunboats and landing craft, artillery, mortars, rifles, and machine guns. U.S. helicopters flew above the advancing “Phoumist” army to direct its artillery fire. The soldiers defending Vientiane were outnumbered, according to a British diplomat, thirty to one. Worse, they had no armor. Phoumi hoped to take over the administrative capital without a fight.¹

    Quinim Pholsena, acting premier of the Royal Lao Government (RLG), refused to accommodate him. “Once fighting starts, it will go on until we are all dead,” he told...

  10. Chapter 5 “Doctor Tom” and “Mister Pop”: American Icons in Laos
    (pp. 171-208)

    Thomas Anthony Dooley III and Edgar Monroe Buell never met, which was just as well. They would have found little to talk about. The St. Louis physician and the Indiana farmer moved in separate circles, even when they were both fighting to save Laos from communism. Dooley may not have been aware of Buell’s existence, and Buell mentioned Dooley only three times in letters home, twice parenthetically and once with the earthiness that made him such good copy. “God[,] you will never know how glad I am I worked hard on this language,” he noted after delivering supplies to a...

  11. Chapter 6 “Retarded Children”: Laos in the American Popular Imagination
    (pp. 209-234)

    “The typical Laotian, and most of the two million Laotians are typical, is probably the world’s last un-angry man,” editorialized Warren Rogers of the New York Herald Tribune in May 1962. “He is Puck and Huckleberry Finn, but without the guile those two were capable of. He loves gentle music and gentle games and is ever ready for a party. He hates to fight and will almost always refuse, and he loathes the thought of harming another living thing.” Thus far, John Q. Laos seemed a capital fellow. Yet he had a flaw. “Such a man,” Rogers wrote, “is hardly...

  12. Chapter 7 “No Place to Fight a War”: Washington Backs Away from Laos
    (pp. 235-270)

    John F. Kennedy may have decided against U.S. military intervention in Laos before his April 27, 1961, meeting with congressional leaders, but that encounter set the new policy in stone. Like many landmark exchanges of the Kennedy administration, it was impromptu. Kennedy hated former president Dwight Eisenhower’s regimented way of arriving at decisions, preferring a more freewheeling approach that, he felt, saved time and encouraged innovation. Thus, when the National Security Council (NSC) presented its report on Laos on the morning of the twenty-seventh, Kennedy impulsively asked that prominent legislators be summoned to receive the same intelligence. Deputy Undersecretary of...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 271-274)

    Perhaps the most infamous editorial in American history appeared in 1902, as Washington’s efforts to complete its conquest of the Philippines floundered in the face of a determined anticolonial resistance. Reports of atrocities and U.S. casualties had soured the American public on the war, and many prominent figures, some of them former advocates for empire, were demanding withdrawal. The San Francisco Argus, a weekly Republican newspaper, found such calls repugnant. “There have [sic] been too much hypocrisy about this Philippine business,” declared the anonymous author, capitalizing and italicizing his points for emphasis. “Let us be frank: WE DO NOT WANT...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 275-302)
  15. Index
    (pp. 303-312)