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Before the Quagmire

Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961

William J. Rust
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Before the Quagmire
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3579-3
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Maps
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: Interested Outside Powers
    (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 officials in the department considered him an “outstanding” diplomat whose assignment to the sparsely populated and newly independent Southeast Asian country would prepare him “for more important ambassadorships” in the future. After loyally serving the Eisenhower administration in Vientiane, a town he later called “the administrative capital of the kingdom that no one really administered,” Parsons returned to Washington in 1958 to become deputy assistant...

  6. Chapter 1 The Most Difficult Post in the Entire Foreign Service
    (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 kingdom of Laos, where he had been appointed minister in 1954 and then ambassador in 1955, Yost mentioned the crowded living quarters and vermin-infested offices of the US mission in Vientiane. Preferring not to dwell on “all the gruesome details,” which for him included a case of amoebic dysentery that reduced his...

  7. Chapter 2 A Frontier Country in the Cold War
    (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, superb in fact” by Laotian standards. Improvements to the structure included electric and telephone service, the unreliability of which still made back-up generators and communications essential. The window air conditioners in the bedrooms and first-floor study were luxuries in Vientiane, where only 20 percent of the houses had electric appliances and kerosene remained a common...

  8. Chapter 3 Behind the Scenes
    (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 deliver: Ambassador and Mrs. Parsons, along with some twenty other members of the diplomatic community traveling by convoy from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, had been taken “as hostages by a detachment of Pathet Lao.” Handwritten in red pencil on the French report were instructions to “go and see the Americans.”¹...

  9. Chapter 4 Dangerously Unstable
    (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 Foreign Service officer whose first appointment as an ambassador was to Laos. But unlike his predecessors, Smith never received another assignment as a chief of mission. His term as ambassador was marred by policy disagreements with his superiors in Washington, D.C., and personality conflicts with other American officials in Vientiane. In a...

  10. Chapter 5 Drawing the Line
    (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 ordered to the kingdom by Admiral Harry D. Felt, the recently appointed commander-in-chief of US Forces in the Pacific. Felt, who considered the PEO “a terrible organization,” wanted Heintges to develop a plan for improving US military assistance to Laos. Among the officials at the airport greeting Shuff and his party was Major General Jean d’Arrivere, commander of the...

  11. Chapter 6 Dichotomy
    (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 telegram was a long assessment of US aid to Laos, cowritten with the new USOM director, John Tobler, who had arrived in Vientiane six weeks earlier. A former news correspondent in his early forties, Tobler had worked as a government information officer, graduated from the National War College, and served at ICA headquarters and on the...

  12. Chapter 7 Normal Dishonesty
    (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 interdepartmental coordination. He viewed the NSC as a critically important advisory body for making recommendations to him and encouraging frank discussion of national security issues. Foreign-policy problems requiring immediate decisions, however, were generally reserved for smaller groups in the Oval Office. Each NSC meeting had specific topics scheduled for discussion, with background papers prepared and circulated to...

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. Chapter 8 Unacceptable Developments
    (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 installations, including the airport, the radio station, and the Chinaimo army base three miles downriver from the town. The coup was virtually bloodless, with much random shooting in the air, few casualties, and little property damage. Paratroopers wearing red berets established roadblocks, letting traffic into Vientiane but not out of it. One person stopped at a rebel roadblock was Francis...

  15. Chapter 9 Who the Hell Is Our Boy?
    (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. The Lao general informed US officials of his latest power grab on September 10, 1960, when embassy first secretary Julian P. Fromer traveled to Phoumi’s headquarters in Savannakhet. The meeting was intended as one last attempt by Ambassador Brown to persuade the general to return to Vientiane and work with Souvanna, who had been frustrated by Phoumi’s continued absence and was prepared to dismiss him from the cabinet. Phoumi had told the embassy that Fromer’s visit...

  16. Chapter 10 Virtually a Traitor
    (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 that we were holding Phoumi’s feet to the fire while treating Souvanna Phouma rather gently.” Assistant Secretary of State Parsons replied that the general’s CIA adviser in Savannakhet, John Hasey, had said “time and again” that it was necessary to “keep Phoumi under firm control.” Parsons added that in several instances the general had...

  17. Epilogue: A Legacy of Strife and Confusion
    (pp. 256-270)

    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 meeting with Kennedy, Eisenhower reviewed such highly classified subjects as procedures for authorizing the use of nuclear weapons and presidential authority for covert intelligence operations. A larger group, which included each president’s secretaries of state, defense, and treasury, as well as a staff aide, met with Eisenhower and Kennedy in the Cabinet Room to discuss Cuba, the US gold position, and other pressing topics. According to Kennedy’s...

  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 271-272)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 273-296)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-306)
  21. Index
    (pp. 307-326)