Essay on The Quiet American

Essay on The Quiet American

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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.


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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 ...


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...s into an American bastion."




Would Kennedy have done in neighboring Vietnam what he refused to do in Laos: Americanize the war, send 100,000s of American troops, prop-up one Potemkin government after another, destroy the country in order to "win" it? Of course not. Still, conjecture. In Laos, we know. JFK had many opportunities to turn the country into a Southeast Asian test case, pushed hard by most members of his own Administration, all opportunities refused.

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