Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961,
by William J. Rust, University of Kentucky Press, 2012
Laos was the “cork in the bottle” of Southeast Asia, warned President Dwight D. Eisenhower shortly before the tragic American misadventure in neighboring South Vietnam. If the kingdom succumbed to Communist subversion or naked aggression, the entire region would invariably fall. Applying the principles of the “domino theory” to policymaking in Indochina, his administration resolved to hold the line in Laos.
Timely and instructive,William J. Rust’s Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961 traces the roots of American involvement in Laos in the 1950s and the Eisenhower administration’s efforts to prevent a Communist takeover of the kingdom.
In August 1954, following the introduction of the Geneva Accords, President Eisenhower agreed to extend direct U.S. aid to Laos to assist the kingdom in resisting further Communist encroachment, hoping the aid would empower antiCommunist factions in the country and facilitate the creation of a pro-Western Laotian government. That same month, his administration sanctioned the establishment of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a military alliance created to provide a framework for the collective defense of non-Communist states in the region. Laos, though prohibited by the Geneva Accords from joining SEATO, was protected under the treaty by a separate protocol. Eisenhower also dispatched the CIA to the kingdom to collect intelligence, counter Communist subversion, arm anti-Communist guerrillas and intervene covertly in Laotian politics. Collectively these measures were designed to promote administration policy in Laos.
Central to that policy, according to Rust, was the administration’s opposition to any coalition government that included representatives from the Pathet Lao, the Communist-led military-political front group then ensconced in the kingdom’s two northern provinces. Concerned that the Pathet Lao would eventually consolidate and begin exerting administrative control over Sam Neua and Phong Saly provinces, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in early 1955 urged the Royal Laotian Government (RLG), headed by Prime Minister Katay Don Sasorith, to clear the guerrillas out with force. Katay politely demurred, noting that negotiations with the Pathet Lao would have to be exhausted before the government could respond militarily. Incredibly, Katay and Prince Souvanna Phouma, RLG defense minister at the time and half-brother of Pathet Lao leader Prince Souphanouvong, insisted the Pathet Lao were not actual Communists. American attempts to convince Souvanna otherwise would prove fruitless.
French and British officials, meanwhile, opposed military action in the northern provinces and advised the RLG not to expect any assistance, regardless of SEATO assurances, in the event of North Vietnamese or Chinese intervention. Without French military aid, moreover, the Laotian army lacked the requisite logistical capability to conduct a major ground operation in the remote northern provinces. Forbidden by the Geneva Accords from establishing a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in the kingdom or overtly assisting the armed forces of the RLG, the United States had to initially rely on the marginally effective French Military Mission to train and advise the Lao army, despite funding the entire Laotian military budget.
Spurned militarily by British and French opposition and the return of Prince Souvanna to the post of prime minister in 1956, the Eisenhower administration sought to strengthen anti-Communist politicians and military officers within the kingdom. Souvanna, however, after announcing an agreement in August to create a government of “national union” that would include the Pathet Lao, then proceeded to add two Pathet Lao ministers to his cabinet in December, pending the approval of the Laotian National Assembly. Ambassador J. Graham Parsons, operating out of the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, and the CIA immediately embarked on a political action campaign to influence Laotian officials and delay the vote. The campaign, Rust reveals, met with considerable success. Souvanna did not present the December communiqué to the National Assembly for a vote in March 1957, and two months later a plurality of deputies voted to discontinue his policies. Souvanna promptly resigned.
Administration officials backed two candidates for the vacated post, former Prime Minister Katay and conservative politician Phoui Sananikone, but neither man received enough support to form a government, paving the way once again for Prince Souvanna.Ambassador Parsons blamed the debacle on the French. Horace Smith, the new American ambassador to Laos, was soon at odds with CIA chief of station Henry Hecksher. Gifted, if impetuous, Hecksher concealed CIA activities from Smith and enlisted agency support for a group of young Lao conservative elites called the Committee for the Defense of National Interests (CDNI). Smith disapproved of the CDNI, preferring the older conservative politicians of the Lao Hom Lao (LHL) Party instead, and worried that the CIA had encouraged the group to prevent Souvanna from forming a new government in August 1958.
Unearthing a treasure trove of governmental cables, communiqués, messages and recorded conservations, Rust lends considerable space to the competing policy prescriptions of the State Department, Pentagon and CIA during the final two years of the Eisenhower administration. In the summer of 1959, for example, when Pathet Lao guerrillas launched two offensives against the government of Prime Minister Phoui with the aid of North Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington recommended the establishment of a MAAG in Laos and unilateral military action if necessary. Alarmed, the State Department argued that the recommendation would violate the Geneva Accords and jeopardize relations with France and Britain. The CIA, meanwhile, continued to underwrite the CDNI as a potential replacement for both Phoui and the LHL.
Hampered by uncooperative allies, inadequate control of the Laotian military and an increasingly dysfunctional government, the Eisenhower administration left Laos muddled and volatile, an unfortunate Cold War development President John F. Kennedy would scarcely improve.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.