JFK and the Laos Crisis

The decision that should have been made, but wasn't.
A 1961 Universal Newsreel discusses the civil war in Laos.

Years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the landing of Marines at the beach near Da Nang, well before the coup that ousted the Diem brothers and threw the government of South Vietnam into turmoil, policymakers in Washington D.C. were presented with an opportunity to make an extremely bold decision.

At that juncture, President John F. Kennedy and his staff could have chosen to make a forceful, determined stand, risking an armed confrontation with Communist China and/or the Soviet Union. Alternatively, they could have chosen to declare that the United States was not prepared to accept this risk and announced a military withdrawal, seeing that the situation could not be salvaged.

Kennedy tried to steer a middle course and the situation got worse. President Lyndon B. Johnson avoided a bold decision and the situation became much worse. By the time Richard M. Nixon was elected President, the only remaining option was withdrawal.

How Instability in Laos Served Hanoi's Cause

The Kingdom of Laos was a constitutional monarchy created in November 1953, when Laos was granted independence by France. The Royal Lao Government was supported by the United States. They were opposed by the Communist Pathet Lao, who were joined in their struggle by the North Vietnamese and supplied by the Soviet Union. A neutralist faction led by a mutinous Royal Lao Army paratrooper called Kong Le had attempted to seize power in 1959 and again in 1960.

Over in Hanoi, Workers Party of Vietnam leaders were preparing to escalate their own struggle and perceived in the Pathet Lao cause a way of intensifying their own fight. In January 1959, Le Duan, the General Secretary of the WPV Central Committee, had won approval for Resolution 15, which called for the Party to expand the struggle against the government in Saigon from political to military means. In May 1959, a Special Military Operation Corps called Group 559 (May 1959 ⇒ 559) was formed, with the mission of supplying the insurgency in South Vietnam. They would develop a sophisticated logistical network known to us as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In the summer of 1959, fighting broke out all along Laos' eastern border. Regular units of the People's Army of Vietnam participated in attacks launched at the end of July. Captured territory included the rugged terrain of the Xepon district west of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. That enabled Group 559 to circumvent the DMZ and send men and matériel down through the Laotian section of the Annamite mountain range, which straddles the border between Vietnam and Laos.

Laos Was a Hot Front in the Cold War

The events of 1960 and 1961 moved the United States and the Soviet Union in the direction of a head-on collision. The U.S. Programs Evaluation Office supplied and payed for the Royal Lao Army troops of Major General Phoumi Nosavan, while the CIA organized commando teams from Thailand and recruited Hmong tribesmen for irregular militia. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was busy operating the largest Soviet airlift since the Second World War, in support of the neutralist forces of Kong Le, which in December of 1960 made an alliance with the Pathet Lao.

President Eisenhower Invokes the Domino Theory

Under President Eisenhower, the U.S. had rejected proposals for a neutral coalition government including the Communists, in favor of the U.S.-friendly regime of Phoumi Nosavan. As the end of 1960 drew near, the Phoumi government was facing imminent defeat at the hands of the Pathet Lao. In The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, author William I. Hitchcock quotes Eisenhower as having observed If the Communists establish a strong position in Laos, the West is finished in the whole Southeast Asia area.

Kennedy meeting with Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy meets with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House on January 19, 1961, the day before Kennedy's inauguration.

On the day before John F. Kennedy's presidential inauguration, he met with outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House. As recounted by Hitchcock, Eisenhower was accompanied by Christian Herter, his Secretary of State. The situation in Laos was discussed in depth. Kennedy asked Herter if the U.S. should intervene if invited by the Laotian government. Herter responded unequivocally in the affirmative, saying It was the cork in the bottle. If Laos fell, then Thailand, the Philippines and of course Chiang Kai-shek would go.

If it was feared that the relatively distant Philippines and Taiwan would fall, surely the same applied to nearby South Vietnam, and all the more so.

Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos

During the months following his inauguration, Kennedy clashed with senior military and diplomatic advisers over the proper course in Indochina. Though senior advisers at various times recommended military intervention, Kennedy never agreed to authorize it. He came to doubt the importance of Laos to U.S. security, opting instead for a diplomatic solution.

In late May 1961, a Geneva conference on Laos convened for the purpose of negotiating settlement among the warring factions. The principal U.S. negotiator was Ambassador at Large W. Averell Harriman. By March 1962, Harriman had become disenchanted with the right-wing Phoumi Nosavan and decisively shifted American policy toward support for a coalition government led by neutralist Souvanna Phouma. Thirteen months of negotiations produced a consensus that the only workable compromise would give the Pathet Lao and the neutralists representation in government commensurate with their actual power on the ground.

The final agreement, called the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, was signed in Geneva on July 23, 1962, creating a neutral and independent Laos under a coalition government led by Souvanna Phouma and including Pathet Lao representatives.

Laos Civil War Map 1962
The division of control among the three Lao factions at the time of the signing of the 1962 Geneva Accords. Almost all regions close to Vietnam were primarily controlled by the Pathet Lao, including the region adjacent to the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone, or “Demarcation Line”. The map is from “Revolution in Laos: The North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao” by P. F. Langer and J. J. Zasloff, September 1969.

In the Declaration, the signing parties, which included the United States and North Vietnam, undertook that:

  • they will not introduce into the Kingdom of Laos foreign troops or military personnel in any form whatsoever, nor will they in any way facilitate or connive at the introduction of any foreign troops or military personnel ;
  • they will not use the territory of the Kingdom of Laos for interference in the internal affairs of other countries ;

The Objections of Ngo Dinh Diem

South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem opposed the compromise agreement making Souvanna Phouma the leader of a neutral coalition government in Laos. Neither he nor U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Frederick Nolting trusted Souvanna. They maintained that a neutral government would be too weak to prevent the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail to infiltrate troops and equipment into South Vietnam; Diem instead advocated partitioning Laos.

As the U.S. elevated its commitment in Vietnam over the years, North Vietnam likewise escalated troop and supply deployments to the South. Theses efforts culminated in the mounting of invasions in 1972 and, finally, in 1975 with twelve and seventeen divisions, respectively. In the end, the transportation network called The Ho Chi Minh Trail enabled the 1975 North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam.

In Retrospect

To the end, the United States refrained from deploying ground troops to Laos, avoiding the risk of igniting a great conflagration involving the People's Republic of China and possibly the Soviet Union. To the end, the options remained the same as the ones faced by President Kennedy and his advisers. With the benefit of hindsight, Kennedy should have made a decision to either commit military forces to Laos or to completely withdraw them from the former French Indochina.