Fifty-six years ago this week, freshly inaugurated John F. Kennedy was forced to make the first decision which would put him at odds with the rest of his own government: whether or not to send 150,000 United States combat troops to Laos.
On January 19, 1961, Kennedy was given a transition-briefing by outgoing President Dwight David Eisenhower. (Two days before, Ike had given his famous "military-industrial complex" warning speech.) Kennedy asked him an unexpected question, regarding Laos: "Which option would you prefer? A coalition government including the Communist Pathet Lao; or intervening militarily through the cover of SEATO?" Eisenhower was stunned by the naivete of the question: to even raise the possibility of a Communist-influenced ally! "It would be far better to intervene militarily -- even having to go it alone apart from SEATO -- than to live with a Pathet Lao-included coalition," he responded. Later, Kennedy would tell friends: "There he sat, telling me to do exactly the thing he had carefully avoided doing himself for eight years."
The Pentagon Papers: "Vietnam in 1961 was a peripheral crisis, compared to Laos. Even within Southeast Asia it received far less of the Kennedy Administration's and the world's attention than did Laos." The New York Times had twenty-six columns of items on Laos in 1961, only eight on Vietnam.
Two weeks after Eisenhower's scolding, Kennedy met with U.S. Ambassador to Laos Winthrop Brown, who began the conversation with standard State Department boilerplate before being convinced by Kennedy to forget official policy and explain what the Ambassador really thought. Brown opened up. He attacked the hijacking of U.S.-Laos policy by CIA/Pentagon forces, and attacked the blind support of CIA-installed anti-Communist ruler (and opium trafficker) General Phoumi Nosavan. Brown strongly endorsed neutralist leader Souvanna Phouma, the same man Eisenhower's CIA had already overthrown several years before. Kennedy backed Brown's ideas, agreeing to push hard for a neutral government under Souvanna Phouma, a neutralism which would be guaranteed by the U.S., France, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Winthrop Brown would remember the conversation with Kennedy as a "very, very moving experience."
Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff stepped up pressure for massive military intervention in support of General Phoumi. They insisted that the Pathet Lao army would walk over Laos unless the U.S. acted quickly. At a March 9, 1961 meeting of the National Security Council, Kennedy revealed that the United States had already sent in far more military equipment to aid Phoumi Nosavan over the past year than had the Soviets in aiding the Pathet Lao, by a ratio of almost fifty-to-one. The next day, Kennedy's Soviet Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson told Nikita Khrushchev that the U.S. now supported a neutralist Souvanna government. At a press conference on March 23, Kennedy publicly declared his support for a "neutral and independent Laos" and called for an international conference to try to localize and resolve the matter. The Soviets agreed. Fourteen countries would meet in Geneva on May 11th.
Kennedy was, however, being led to the brink of war. The Pathet Lao army was advancing and seemed ready to take control of Laos even before the beginning of the Geneva conference. Kennedy's military brass began publicly attacking Kennedy's chosen ruler of a neutralist Laos, Souvanna Phouma -- labeling Phouma a Communist dupe. A series of events made Kennedy feel he was being drawn into a trap. First was the Bay of Pigs. The very same CIA and Pentagon people who lied to him about Cuba (and set an intervention trap for him there) were urging 150,000 U.S. troops sent to Laos by the beginning of the Geneva meetings.
Head of the Navy, Admiral Arleigh Burke: "Each time we give ground, it is harder to stand next time. We must throw enough in to win -- the works." Army General George Decker: "If we go in, we should go in to win, and that means bombing Hanoi, China, and maybe even using nuclear weapons." Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay: "I don't even know what our policy is on Laos, Mr. President. I know what the President keeps saying on the topic, but we're unable to back up the President's words with actions." General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: " If we are given the right to use nuclear weapons, we can guarantee victory."
No troops were ever sent. No American bombs were ever dropped on Laos. Under Kennedy. (After his execution, Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973; U.S. bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos than was dropped by everyone during the whole of the Second World War.) In October 1961, leaders of the three Laotian factions agreed to neutralist Souvanna Phouma becoming prime minister in a provisional coalition government. The Soviet Union agreed to guarantee all Communist states' compliance with the neutralist government. The mostly unwritten declaration became known as the Pushkin Agreement.
Kennedy's opponents did all they could to destroy the peace. They arranged daily provocations and violations of the cease-fire by General Phoumi Nosavan's army. In May 1962, Averell Harriman told Kennedy that his Laos policy was being "systematically sabotaged" by CIA and the Pentagon. Harriman said: "They want to prove that a neutral solution is impossible and that the only course is to turn Laos into an American bastion." The coalition government of Souvanna Phouma would survive until the mid-1970s, when nationalist forces took control in the wake of the U.S. bug out from South Vietnam.
Would Kennedy have done in neighboring Vietnam what he refused to do in Laos: Americanize the war, send 100,000s of U.S. troops, prop-up one Potemkin government after another, destroy the country in order to "win" it? Of course not. Still, conjecture. In Laos, we know. He had many opportunities to turn the country into a Southeast Asian test case, pushed hard by most members of his own Administration to do just that. All opportunities refused.