Note: I was recently asked by a reader what evidence existed to demonstrate that if President Kennedy had lived the United States never would have become involved in the ground war in Vietnam, in effect preventing that war from happening beyond the level the CIA had  already escalated it to in 1963. She was wondering because she had heard that President Lyndon Johnson simply continued Kennedy’s policies regarding Vietnam when he came to office. I am very glad that she brought this question up because it is a classic example of the effect of the revisionist histories that have been published of this time period. In the next few blogs of this series we will walk through the crises that JFK faced while in office and the reader will see for himself the pressures exerted upon him to force him to war and the measures he took to avoid it. You will also see for yourself the track of events that brought him to the conclusion that the way for the United States to move forward in the world  was through policies promoting peace. As Kennedy walked this track ever closer to that fateful day in Dallas, you will see the pressures building against him. The simple truth is that Kennedy’s turn toward peace was at direct odds with those forces promoting and wanting the Vietnam War, and so when they assassinated him in Dallas in 1963, it was a major turning point for our nation and has drastically affected everything since. Understanding this, the real question becomes this: who benefits by promoting the revisionist view that Kennedy initiated the policies that resulted in the Vietnam War? Keep that question in mind as you read through this information….answers are forthcoming…MA

Kennedy and Eisenhower

Kennedy and Eisenhower

On January 19th, 1961, the day before he was to be inaugurated as President, John Kennedy was getting a transitional briefingfrom  outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower. One of the subjects they discussed was the Southeast Asian country of Laos. In 1961 Vietnam was not yet the major crisis it would become, but Laos very much was. The small country, just to the west of Vietnam, had also been a French colony prior to World War II and like Vietnam attempted to win its independence from France after the Japanese were defeated in 1945. Opposing the French in Laos was a group of communist rebels known as the Pathet Lao, (meaning simply Lao Nation) who had allied themselves with Hoh Chi Minh and the Viet Minh.
Victorious Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu

Victorious Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu

When the French lost at Dien Bien Phu in May of 1954 French rule ended in Indochina. The Geneva accords ending that conflict (known as the First Indochina War) temporarily divided Vietnam into northern and southern zones for a period of two years at which time national elections were to occur to determine how the country would be governed. (Though the U.S. did not sign the Geneva Accords it did pledge to honor them) The Geneva accords also granted Laos full sovereignty as a neutral nation. All the warring parties, the French, the Pathet Lao and the Vietnamese were to withdraw and allow the new Laotian government to form. The French did leave but with no way to enforce the Geneva agreements the Pathet Lao supported by the North Vietnamese stayed and remained in control of several provinces. The CIA stayed too, working under the cover of something called the Programs Evaluation Office in late ’55 and early ‘56, which was supposed to be a civilian aid program, and later the Agency for International Development which had a similar false purpose. The Agency had been in Laos since 1953, initially in response to French requests for assistance with air transport for troops and materiel in their fight against the Pathet Lao and Viet Minh. (The CIA used its proprietary airline Civil Air Transport, later known as Air America, for this purpose in ’53 and ’54 and also to deliver the secret CIA operatives of the Saigon Military Mission to North Vietnam to wreak their havoc there.)

Prince Souvanna Phouma

Prince Souvanna Phouma

Finally out of the confusion in Laos emerged a coalition government in 1956 that had been negotiated by the neutral Prince Souvanna Phouma and his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong of the Pathet Lao. As a result Phouma was made the Laotian Premier and Souphanouvong assumed a chief role in the cabinet. It was also agreed that the Pathet Lao would be merged into the government’s Royal Laotian Army and that their controlled provinces would be assimilated under the Phouma government.

For a while things became relatively calm. Then in 1958 national elections were held with the result that communists gained additional seats in the National Assembly. That was enough for the CIA which, under the guise of the Agency for International Development, proceeded to cut aid to and foment against the Phouma government, the ultimate result of which was the installation to power of the CIA backed and anti-communist general Phoumi Nosavan in 1960. The consequence of this was, of course, the return of full blown civil war to Laos with the Pathet Lao and the neutralist forces fighting those of the dictator Nousavan. That was more or less the situation at the time Eisenhower was briefing JFK in early ’61.

Prince Souphanouvong

Prince Souphanouvong

God what a mess!

In the transition briefing from Eisenhower, Kennedy asked the old general if he preferred to resolve the Laotian crisis by negotiating a new coalition government with the communist Pathet Lao or by intervening militarily with US troops. Shocked that Kennedy would even suggest something as outlandish as a coalition government with the communists, Eisenhower responded that intervening militarily would be the far better choice. On hearing Eisenhower’s words, Kennedy was skeptical but kept his own counsel. He realized that Eisenhower himself had avoided sending ground troops to Laos through the last 6 years of his administration and he also had the warning from Edmund Gullion 10 years earlier about what we could expect if we intervened with ground troops in Southeast Asia based on the French example. During the Cold War mentality of the times, however, John Kennedy’s view was in the distinct minority, as he would soon find out.

Phoumi Nosavan

Phoumi Nosavan

With the above in mind you can see that at the outset of JFK’s administration in 1961, though he was as anti-communist as anyone, the seeds of conflict with those who would become his closest advisers in military and intelligence matters, the top officials of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were already planted and well on their way to sprouting. The CIA already had in motion covert military operations in Laos. They already were in the process of training and equipping 30,000 Hmong (pronounced Moong) tribesman from the Laotian highlands for battle against the Pathet Lao and already were using Air America for supply drops and personnel transport. They already had a massive covert military operation planned for Cuba (the Bay of Pigs) and already were planning on the use of regular U.S military in these operations. Kennedy on the other hand, was committed to finding diplomatic or other solutions that would stop short of direct U.S. military involvement. He did not want his nation to go through what the French did in Indochina from 1946 to 1954 and he did not want to risk direct confrontation with the Soviet Union thus risking nuclear war. To understand Kennedy and his actions at this time it is important to understand these things.

Winthrop Brown

Winthrop Brown

Two weeks into his new administration, on February 3rd 1961, Kennedy had a meeting in Washington DC with the U.S.Ambassador to Laos, a man named Winthrop Brown. Kennedy asked Brown what he thought about the situation in Laos. Brown responded with the normal Cold War rhetoric he thought the Commander in Chief wanted to hear. Kennedy stopped him mid sentence. “That’s not what I asked you”, he said. “I said ‘What do you think, you, the Ambassador?” Stunned that JFK actually wanted to know the truth, Brown told him what he actually thought; that the only way Laos could be united again was under the neutralist Souvanna Phouma, whose government had been deposed by the CIA and General Nosavan the year before. Kennedy continued to question Brown thoroughly about the possibility of a coalition government under Souvanna that all parties, including the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao could support. Ultimately this led to a March 23rd news conference on Laos in which Kennedy stated that the U.S. “strongly and unreservedly” supported a neutral and independent Laos tied to no outside power or group of powers and free from domination. He endorsed an appeal for a cease fire between the neutralist/Pathet Lao forces and the CIA backed general Nosavan’s army and, along with the British, called for an international conference on Laos.

JFK at Laos Press Conference

JFK at Laos Press Conference

Meantime the tide of battle in Laos was turning in favor of the communists and it looked as though the Nosavan government might fall before the conference Kennedy called for could even be convened in Geneva. The CIA and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Lyman Lemnitzer, used this fact to press Kennedy for direct U.S. military involvement in Laos; otherwise there may be nothing left to negotiate at Geneva when the time came. Kennedy saw the problem and for several weeks seriously considered what his CIA and military advisors wanted him to do. While he wanted a neutral Laos he was equally certain that he did not want a communist one and the results on the battlefields seemed to be making that a likely possibility. Then something happened that caused the crisis in Laos to be put on hold, at least for the time being. On April 17th, 1961 the CIA trained and equipped Cuban brigade landed on the Cuban beaches at the Bay of Pigs.

To be continued…
Copyright © 2013
By Mark Arnold
All Rights Reserved
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