Behind the wall of Geneva: Lao politics, American counterinsurgency, and why the U.S. lost in Laos, 1961-1965



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Texas Tech University


The United States waged an unsuccessful counterinsurgency effort in Laos against the North Vietnamese-directed Pathet Lao insurgency from 1954 to 1975. This mainly covert mission intensified in the first half of the 1960s and was part of the American effort to check communist expansion in Indochina and elsewhere in the world. Seen by policymakers in the 1950s and 1960s as the keystone of Southeast Asia, Laos was deemed vital to the overall stability of the region. The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations all saw the Pathet Lao as a communist organization that sought to take over the Lao government. In the eyes of Washington, such an eventuality clearly would have tilted the balance of power in Southeast Asia to the communists and made defense of the region extremely difficult. The American policymakers sought to keep Laos in friendly hands, or at least keep it neutral, so that it would not interfere with U.S. operations in South Vietnam.

This study critically examines American policy toward Laos between 1954 and 1965. The important period from January 1961, when John Kennedy took office and sought a new political settlement in Laos, to July 1965, when American policy in the region dramatically shifted to a concentration on South Vietnam, is analyzed in detail. This study examines the American decision-making process, the policy that resulted, and the implementation of that policy, or the counterinsurgent doctrine employed by the U.S against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese in Laos. This study also provides an overview of the basic makeup of the country of Laos and its political circumstances which played such a key role in the formulation of U.S. policy, including the evolution of the Lao independence movement and the three dominant political factions that emerged from the movement. In Laos, the U.S. lacked relevant political goals, a coherent and effective strategy, and a clear definition of success. Despite its intentions, the U.S. failed to defeat the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese in Laos—a defeat that also heavily contributed to the American policy failure in South Vietnam.