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A Cold War Road Not Taken

Laos, not Vietnam, was almost the battleground for Southeast Asia, says
Seth Jacobs - and the reason it wasn't makes for a valuable history lesson

Seth Jacobs (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 4, 2012

It sounds likes an intriguing “what-if” question of 20th century American foreign policy: What if the US had chosen Laos, instead of Vietnam, as the battleground to oppose what experts saw as the spread of communism in Southeast Asia?

In fact, as Associate Professor of History Seth Jacobs explains, this scenario almost happened.

“During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Laos received at least as much attention as — or even more than — Vietnam,” says Jacobs, author of the recently published The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos. The US paid 100 percent of Laos’ military budget, he notes, equipped Laotian tribespeople to fight against communist guerillas, and weighed using atomic weapons to counter communist attacks on the Laotian capital, Vientiane — which could have triggered nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

“Laos was not a sideshow in the 1950s and early ’60s. When Eisenhower briefed Kennedy prior to JFK’s inauguration, they hardly talked about flashpoints like Cuba, Berlin, the Congo, or Vietnam. They discussed Laos.”

Laos, however, became a largely forgotten aspect of the US-Vietnam conflict. Now, in The Universe Unraveling, Jacobs throws a spotlight on the events, circumstances, and in particular the perceptions and attitudes that shaped American decision-making in Laos.

While logistical considerations have been cited for the US decision to focus its Southeast Asian strategy on South Vietnam instead of Laos, Jacobs says there is another, darker explanation: Cultural differences prompted Americans to dismiss the Lao as morally, intellectually and spiritually inferior, lazy, weak, incapable of standing up to communist aggression — and thus unworthy of US support.

“The accepted explanation for why the US chose South Vietnam over Laos had to do with geography: that Laos was a landlocked, mountainous country, a terrible place to fight. Laos had important advantages, though, including a thousand-mile border with Thailand, which was willing to allow the US to use it as a base to launch operations against the communists.

“But when you read archival material and other accounts of the era, what you see is ethnocentrism, a poisonous contempt for an entire country.”

The Wall Street Journal, for example, claimed the “very passive” Laotian people “do not care one way or another about communism or other big questions,” while Newsweek said, “No one is less interested in the struggle for his country than the gentle Lao.” American diplomats referred to Laos as “Never-Never Land” and “The Land of Oz,” and one prominent US missionary called the Lao “retarded children.”

Jacobs says the purpose of The Universe Unraveling is not to speculate on how history might have changed with Laos as the arena for the Southeast Asian conflict, nor is it to simply bash Americans’ unsavory attitudes toward the Lao.

“The experience in Laos should be seen as a cautionary tale,” he explains. “People with impressive educational and professional credentials convinced themselves that their take on Laos and its people was solid — but they misread almost everything.”

Laos was in an unenviable position in the 1950s and ’60s (“the Poland of the Far East,” Jacobs says), bordered by historic enemies China and Vietnam, as well as Thailand — which wanted Laos as a buffer against North Vietnam. Exacerbating the situation was a civil war between the US-backed Royal Lao Government (RLG), the communist Pathet Lao, and a neutralist front.

“Neutrality was the only option for Lao patriots seeking to keep their nation intact, independent and at peace. Anticommunism would have led to balkanization and foreign control, a point the RLG tried to make over and over.”

American statesmen, diplomats and media members, looking through a Cold War lens and with little appreciation of Laos’ historical and political complexities, says Jacobs, were frustrated by what they perceived as the country’s inability or unwillingness to adhere to a strong, purposeful anti-communist policy. Cultural differences worsened this mind-set.

“In American eyes, the Lao didn’t demonstrate sufficiently ‘masculine’ behavior. The neutralist leader, Kong Le, wept in public and seemed earnest but clueless. Lao statesmen spoke softly, smiled while being hectored, rarely interrupted, and never invaded someone’s personal space. This gave the impression of a people who were apathetic, infantile and non-confrontational.

“What nobody seemed to see was that not all Lao were battle-shy — only the royalists were. Kong Le captured Vientiane with a single battalion and held it for four months. The Pathet Lao also fought with valor against better-armed opposition.”

Under Eisenhower and Kennedy, Jacobs says, Laos became a “testing ground” for strategies that came of age in Vietnam, and which produced similar problems — support of unpopular but pro-Western despots, clashes between US civilian and military bureaucracies, and ignorance of the native population’s needs.

Ultimately, Kennedy rejected the Eisenhower-initiated support for the Lao right wing and accepted a neutralist government. But this decision made a military solution in Vietnam harder to avoid, Jacobs says.

“Kennedy’s dovishness in Laos paradoxically dictated hawkishness in Vietnam. He felt he had to confront the communists in Southeast Asia, but Vietnam — whose people were judged to be of far sterner stuff than those of Laos — was going to be the place.”