"Playing Poker with Tough Stakes": The Evolution of JFKs Laos Policy

Friday, January 3, 2014: 3:10 PM
Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Richard Filipink, Western Illinois University
On January 19, 1961, outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower told his successor that the situation in Laos was like “playing poker with tough stakes” and that the United States might have to unilaterally intervene to prevent a communist victory.  This paper examines how John F. Kennedy's perception of Laos changed between the pre-inauguration meeting, where the outgoing President argued that Laos was the key to propping the dominos in SE Asia, and the Laotian Accords of July 1962, where Kennedy accepted neutralization, anathema to his predecessor. Over the course of those eighteen months, Kennedy spent a significant amount of time and effort on the Laotian situation, at one point claiming only Cuba took up more of his time. Laos slowly ceded its centrality to South Vietnam, though most Americans forget that this process did not end until 1963. 

My approach to US-Laotian relations in this paper is to first examine it in terms of the inner workings of the Kennedy administration, then putting it in the context of American policy in Asia as a whole.  Utilizing a growing base of primary sources from the Kennedy administration, this paper seeks to explain how the disagreements and debates over the choice between military intervention and negotiated settlement led to a decision that temporarily solved the immediate problem of Laotian policy, but failed to trigger a discussion of the domino theory or the applicability of a similar solution to Vietnam.