President John F. Kennedy States His Policy Is to Avoid the U.S. Getting Involved in a Land War in Southeast Asia

“Laos is still full of danger…To extricate ourselves without war or surrender is a most difficult operation, but we shall persist."

American concerns in Laos centered on use of its territory by the North Vietnamese to funnel men and supplies into South Vietnam

Although he initially increased American forces in Vietnam, as presaged by this letter, by the end of his life Kennedy had determined “to bring Americans out of there.”

The goal...

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President John F. Kennedy States His Policy Is to Avoid the U.S. Getting Involved in a Land War in Southeast Asia

“Laos is still full of danger…To extricate ourselves without war or surrender is a most difficult operation, but we shall persist."

American concerns in Laos centered on use of its territory by the North Vietnamese to funnel men and supplies into South Vietnam

Although he initially increased American forces in Vietnam, as presaged by this letter, by the end of his life Kennedy had determined “to bring Americans out of there.”

The goal of U.S. policy when Kennedy was elected was combating the spread of Communism in Asia and Africa. And the first foreign policy crisis faced by President-elect John F. Kennedy was not in any of the better-known hot spots of the Cold War, but in landlocked, poverty stricken Laos. This was the major issue Kennedy and his foreign policy team—Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy—focused on during the days leading up to Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961. Kennedy met with President Eisenhower the day before his inauguration and his substantive focus was on Laos. “I was anxious,” he recounted, “to get some commitment from the outgoing administration as to how they would deal with Laos which they were handing to us.”

The Eisenhower administration was leaving Kennedy a confused, complex, and intractable situation. Laos was a poverty-stricken and weak state, but was the “cork in the bottle,” as Eisenhower summarized in his meeting with Kennedy; the outgoing President expected its loss to be “the beginning of the loss of most of the Far East.” This was the domino theory, and initially Kennedy accepted it as a fact. The Eisenhower administration had worked for years to create a strong anti-Communist bastion in Laos, as a bulwark against Communist China and North Vietnam. But by 1961 Laos was fragmented politically, with three factions vying for control. The American supported faction was unable to prevail, the Communist-backed insurgents controlled a key portion of the land, and as the Eisenhower administration reached its final days, the United States was faced with the prospect of unilateral military intervention in a desperate attempt to salvage the situation. Beyond the vast logistics issues associated with intervention, the insertion of U.S. forces raised the substantial risk of a U.S.-Soviet military confrontation.

Kennedy faced a choice between two strategies: pursue a military solution, with a 60,000 man commitment of American ground troops in southern Laos considered; or adapt a major shift in policy, seeking a cease-fire and a neutralization of Laos. He rejected the military option, and opened his press conference on March 23, 1961, with an extended discussion of Laos, calling for an end to hostilities and negotiations leading to a neutralized and independent Laos. But the North Vietnamese Army contingent in Laos conducted an offensive in southern Laos, capturing the terrain necessary to extend the Ho Chi Minh Trail that funneled North Vietnamese supplies and troops into South Vietnam through Laos. So Laos became a major topic at the Vienna Summit on June 4, 1961, with Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev agreeing on a common goal of a ceasefire, neutrality, and a coalition government. Kennedy considered Laos a test case for the prospects of U.S.-Soviet cooperation, in areas where the superpowers could reach common objectives and avoid confrontation. Negotiations took place for some time.

Norman Cousins was the Editor-in-Chief of the Saturday Review, a widely read and well respected weekly magazine of the arts and sciences. He also became a leading advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament, and was co-chairman of the Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Cousins began his efforts to end nuclear weapons explosions in the 1950s. In 1957 Cousins established a major nuclear disarmament organization: the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. SANE became the key player in the anti-nuclear testing firmament. President Eisenhower’s correspondence with Cousins led to suspension of U.S. nuclear testing. Later Cousins served as intermediary between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and was instrumental in engineering the Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, February 1, 1962, to Cousins, showing that Kennedy was acutely aware of the dangers to the U.S. in getting sucked into a land war in Asia, and intended to avoid that. “I appreciate your sending me the latest copy of SATURDAY REVIEW. The article on Congo was excellent. Although things have gone better recently the matter continues to be of great concern because of the widespread misery. Laos is still full of danger. There is no place where the policy of recent years has been more shortsighted. To extricate ourselves without war or surrender is a most difficult operation, but we shall persist.”

Laotian groups reached an agreement on the composition of a coalition government on June 12, 1962, and a Geneva conference agreed upon a Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos on July 23. But these agreements broke down quickly. As this was going on, North Vietnam extended its territorial control in southern Laos to further secure its logistics lines to the battle areas in South Vietnam. The issue of Laos would soon pale next to that of its neighbor, Vietnam.

700 American advisors were present in Vietnam in the Eisenhower era. Kennedy sent 500 more in mid-1961, and by the end of 1962 that number increased to 12,000. At one time JFK stated that “to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but Southeast Asia. So, we are going to stay there.” But Kennedys feelings on South Vietnam evolved quickly. In September 1963 he called for victory. But in October he ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 American advisors, and at a press conference on November 12 he publicly restated his Vietnam goals. They were no longer victory, but “to intensify the struggle” and “to bring Americans out of there.” Ten days later he was dead, and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson did not share his goal of bringing Americans “out of there.” From 1964-1973, 2,709,918 Americans were sent to Vietnam; some 58,000 were killed and 300,000 wounded.

Despite the importance of Laos and Vietnam, Kennedy letters relating to either are virtually impossible to find. We cannot recall seeing any others, and a search of public sale records going back 40 years fails to disclose any on either subject.

As for Kennedy’s other reference in this letter, the Republic of the Congo gained its independence in 1960, but soon after became the stage of a proxy conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. It had been hoped that the Congo would develop a pro-Western government, but a series of civil wars soon set up a dangerous dynamic that included involvement from the United Nations, Belgium, and the Soviet Union. That crisis would continue until 1965.

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