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So Much to Lose

So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos

William J. Rust
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    So Much to Lose
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4478-8
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Maps
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: We’ve Got So Much to Lose if That Thing Goes Sour
    (pp. 1-14)

    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 single-mindedly pursued a negotiated settlement of the civil war in Laos. The result was an international agreement that achieved Kennedy’s goal of preventing a communist victory without committing American combat troops. There had, however, been skepticism in and out of the US government about the...

  6. Chapter 1 We Cannot Enforce What We Would Like
    (pp. 15-36)

    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 premier and defense minister, and his front man, Prince Boun Oum. An interagency report prepared for the meeting observed that the military situation was “deteriorating progressively,” the British were unwilling to support SEATO intervention, and the French were “working against us” by providing covert support to Kong...

  7. Chapter 2 A Wide Measure of Discretion
    (pp. 37-52)

    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 factions and their international supporters. “If we are not prepared [to] use force to avoid him,” Ambassador Brown advised, “we should begin to try affirmatively to make the best of him.” Averell Harriman agreed with Brown’s analysis, observing that a renewal of hostilities was the...

  8. Chapter 3 Less Precise Language Than We Desire
    (pp. 53-72)

    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,” Harriman urged Kennedy to continue resisting recommendations to commit US combat troops to Laos. “I fully recognize [the] importance of Laos attached to [the] crisis in South Vietnam,” Harriman wrote, but the problems in South Vietnam “can best be solved in SVN, rather than [by] trying to find [a] solution by...

  9. Chapter 4 A Disagreeable, Hard, and Dangerous Fact
    (pp. 73-90)

    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 DRV. To the south, the trail led to Tchepone and South Vietnam. Pathet Lao forces in Nhommarath-Mahaxay had been strengthened in late 1961 by the addition of artillery, armored vehicles, and an estimated two North Vietnamese battalions. To the RLG, the enemy buildup seemed a threat to Thakhek, a Mekong River town and the headquarters of FAR Groupement Mobile (GM) 14.¹

    In January 1962 the Eighth...

  10. Chapter 5 A Severe Loss of Face
    (pp. 91-110)

    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 Souvannaandin 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 capable of influencing the headstrong Lao general. Personally and politically close, both men believed that developing countries were better served by authoritarian executive power than by parliamentary democracy. Sarit, who overthrew the military government of Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram in 1957, consolidated his “revolution” the...

  11. Chapter 6 A Very Hazardous Course
    (pp. 111-130)

    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 force approached from the northwest on the trail from Muong Sing, a small town five miles from the border with China. Machine-gun fire from antigovernment troops in the high ground above Nam Tha covered the valley. Initially, the defending FAR units did a...

  12. Chapter 7 A Colossal Booby Trap
    (pp. 131-150)

    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 with more than forty western correspondents in tow.¹ Phoumi had assured Ambassador Brown that he would cooperate fully in reaching a political settlement. “It remains to be seen, of course,” Brown cabled the State Department, “whether the performance will match the promise.” If the Plaine des...

  13. Chapter 8 We Do Not Have the Power of Decision
    (pp. 151-172)

    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 Service terminal. Souvanna, who understood English but spoke it reluctantly, addressed an audience of US officials, foreign diplomats, and reporters in flawless, unaccented French: “I am looking forward to discussing with President Kennedy the question of American help for my...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. Chapter 9 Tenuous at Best
    (pp. 173-196)

    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 him out of the capital. Kong Le, then a twenty-six-year-old captain and the commander of the elite FAR Second BP, led his outnumbered forces in an orderly retreat that eventually ended in the small town of Khang Khay. His “surprise visit” to Vientiane in...

  16. Chapter 10 A Piece of War
    (pp. 197-216)

    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 assigned to neutralist cabinet ministers, the shooter was one of Kong Le’s men. After his arrest, the assassin, a young corporal, claimed to have acted on his own in retaliation for Quinim’s divisive activities and for the murder of Colonel Ketsana. The State Department’s...

  17. Chapter 11 We’re Going to Have to Take Some Action
    (pp. 217-238)

    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, Ambassador Unger observed that in recent years US policy had moved from an unsuccessful military effort to establish a “pro-western conservative” government to a political “contest” among three factions conducted “under conditions of general peace rather than military...

  18. Epilogue: An Awful Mess
    (pp. 239-250)

    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, and other government agencies. Laos, however, remained “relatively quiet,” in Roger Hilsman’s words. In a country-by-country summary of Far East crises that might confront the new president, Hilsman urged alertness for renewed dry-season attacks by the Pathet Lao but reported, “There are no problems...

  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 251-252)
    (pp. 253-258)
    (pp. 259-266)
  22. Appendix 3 MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT, JUNE 17, 1963
    (pp. 267-276)
  23. Notes
    (pp. 277-310)
  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-322)
  25. Index
    (pp. 323-346)
  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 347-348)