50 years ago this week, freshly-inaugurated John F. Kennedy was forced to make his first major foreign policy decision: whether or not to send 150,000 United States troops to Laos.
On January 19, 1961, Kennedy was given a transition-briefing by outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower. (Two days before, Eisenhower had given his famous "military-industrial complex" warning speech.) Kennedy asked Ike an unexpected question, regarding Laos: "Which option would you prefer?" Kennedy asked: "A coalition government including the Communist Pathet Lao, or intervening militarily through the cover of SEATO?" Eisenhower was stunned by the naive gall of the question. To have even raised the possibility of a Communist-infiltrated ally! "It would be far better to intervene militarily -- even having to go it alone apart from SEATO -- than to live with a Pathet Lao-included coalition."
Later, Kennedy would tell friends: "There he sat, telling me to do exactly the thing he had carefully avoided doing himself for eight years."
The Pentagon Papers: "Vietnam in 1961 was a peripheral crisis, compared to Laos. Even within Southeast Asia it received far less of the Kennedy Administration's and the world's attention than did Laos." The New York Times had twenty-six columns of items on Laos in 1961, but only eight on Vietnam.
Two weeks after his lecture from Eisenhower, Kennedy met with U.S. Ambassador to Laos, Winthrop Brown, who began the conversation with standard State Department boilerplate before being convinced by Kennedy to forget official policy and explain what the Ambassador really thought. Brown opened up. He attacked the hijacking of U.S.-Laos policy by the CIA and the Pentagon, and attacked the blind support of CIA-installed anti-Communist ruler General Phoumi Nosavan. Brown strongly endorsed the neutralist leader Souvanna Phouma, the same man Eisenhower's CIA had already overthrown several years before. Kennedy strongly backed Brown's ideas, agreeing to push hard for a neutral government under Souvanna Phouma, a neutralism which would be guaranteed by the U.S., France, Britain and the Soviet Union. Winthrop Brown would remember the conversation with Kennedy as a "very, very moving experience."
Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff stepped up the pressure for massive military intervention in support of General Phoumi. They insisted that the Pathet Lao army would walk over Laos unless the United States moved quickly. At a March 9, 1961 meeting of the National Security Council, Kennedy revealed that the U.S. had already sent in far more military equipment to aid Phoumi Nosavan over the past year than had the Soviets in aiding the Pathet Lao, by a ratio of almost fifty-to-one. The next day, Kennedy's Soviet Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson told Nikita Khrushchev that the U.S. now supported a neutralist Souvanna government. At a press conference on March 23, Kennedy publicly declared his support for a "neutral and...