Category Archives: Laos

Gen. Maxwell Taylor’s Rise

From Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by H. R. McMaster (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 227-39, 369-89:

Because the front line against Communism had not been drawn in Laos, South Vietnam would become the principal focus of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Under those circumstances Kennedy brought into his administration a man who would exert great influence over two presidents’ decisions to escalate American involvement in Vietnam.

Reeling from the wave of public criticism following the Bay of Pigs and aware of his increasingly troubled relationship with the JCS, Kennedy told his staff that he needed someone to be “my advisor to see that I am not making a dumb mistake as Commander in Chief.” To provide him with military advice and to coordinate the efforts of the White House staff, Defense Department, and intelligence agencies, the besieged president looked to former Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Davenport Taylor.

Max Taylor seemed the model of the soldier-statesman. Inspired by his Confederate grandfather’s Civil War tales, Taylor pursued a military career with great enthusiasm from an early age. When his sixth-grade teacher asked him to name his professional ambition, the young Taylor wrote “major general.” Twelve years later he graduated fourth in the West Point class of 1922. A talented linguist, Taylor later returned to the Military Academy to teach Spanish and French. During assignments in China and Japan, he became proficient in Japanese. It was, in part, his reputation as both a warrior and a scholar that made the general attractive to Kennedy.

The president privately acknowledged that Taylor’s responsibilities could easily have been performed by the Pentagon’s senior military men. He was not only dissatisfied with the Joint Chiefs’ advice but also frustrated by his inability to establish with them the kind of friendly rapport that he enjoyed with the rest of his staff and with many of his cabinet officials. To Kennedy generals and admirals were too formal, traditional, and unimaginative. Bundy confided to Taylor’s principal assistant that Kennedy “would never feel really secure” about the military until “young generals of his own generation in whom he has confidence” filled the top uniformed positions in the defense establishment. Bundy knew that it was important to Kennedy that the top military men be able to “conduct a conversation” with the president to give him a “feeling of confidence and reassurance.” Taylor would strive to satisfy the president’s need. Kennedy’s new personal adviser found the president “an amazingly attractive man—intelligent with a ready wit, personal charm, an ability to inspire loyalty in the people around him.” He soon cultivated a warm friendship with the president and his family.

Taylor knew that the Chiefs and the secretary of defense viewed him as a competing voice in national security issues. The retired general moved to head off potential animosities and assured his old friend Lemnitzer that he would be more of an ally than a source of competition. He told Lemnitzer that his “close personal relations with the President and his entourage” would help to ensure that the Chiefs’ advice reached the president.

When he arrived in Washington on April 22, Taylor’s first responsibility was to conduct an investigation of the decision to mount the Bay of Pigs invasion. Although he concluded that the Chiefs were “not directly responsible” for the misadventure, he criticized them for not warning the president more urgently of the dangers. When the administration sought military advice on narrow questions about the operation, the Chiefs gave competent answers but offered no overall assessment because “they hadn’t been asked.” Taylor concluded that relations between the commander in chief and the JCS had reached “crisis” level.

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Taylor & McNamara vs. Joint Chiefs

From Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by H. R. McMaster (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 523-45:

On October 1, 1962, Taylor took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He found the Chiefs, still embittered over what they regarded as Kennedy’s unfair criticism in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, engaged in ongoing battles with civilian officials in the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. The Chiefs saw Taylor’s selection as the imposition of a Kennedy man on an organization designed by law to give impartial military advice to the commander in chief.

Taylor quickly cultivated a warm relationship with the man whom many of the military officers in the Pentagon deeply resented. Taylor and McNamara found common ground in their belief in the need for administrative reform in the Pentagon, faith in the “flexible response” strategy, and utter devotion to their commander in chief. Like McNamara, Taylor concluded that the answer to problems of service rivalry and administrative inefficiency was increased centralization of power in the chairmanship and the OSD. Taylor had once lamented the indecisiveness of Eisenhower’s defense secretaries, and he lauded McNamara for tackling the tough problems of the department. The bond of respect between the two men was mutual. McNamara considered Taylor “one of the wisest, most intelligent military men ever to serve.” Much to the chagrin of the other Chiefs, Taylor and McNamara formed a partnership. Taylor’s overwhelming influence with the secretary of defense and the president made opposition to his views futile.

Historian Robert Divine observed that “Vietnam can only be understood in relation to the Cold War.” Indeed, Cold War crises during Kennedy’s first months as president shaped advisory relationships within his administration and influenced his foreign policy decisions until his assassination in November 1963. Already predisposed to distrust the senior military officers he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, the Bay of Pigs incident and Laotian crisis motivated the president to seek a changing of the guard in the Pentagon. After the Bay of Pigs, an unsatisfactory diplomatic settlement in Laos, confrontation with the Kremlin over divided Berlin, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bullying rhetoric persuaded Kennedy that the United States needed to make its “power credible.” “Vietnam,” Kennedy concluded, “is the place.” Vietnam, however, loomed in the background while the New Frontiersmen confronted in the Caribbean what would become the best known of Kennedy’s Cold War crises.

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On the Foreignness of Vietnam to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 188-189:

The Thai soldiers saw South Vietnam as a separate country in a conception that differed from their understanding of their immediate neighbors Laos and Cambodia. Many of these soldiers had passed through those two countries in their youth. Private First Class Aran’s childhood home in Nong Khai, for instance, was within sight of the Mekong River and the banks of Laos opposite. As he recalled, “It was like going into my sibling country. Back then Thailand and Laos weren’t that different from each other. There was no ideology [separating them] at all. We crossed over to play like normal. We could eat and sleep, and then cross back. [The Lao people] were like our relatives; we could go back and forth [between Thailand and Laos] all the time.” Those soldiers from the southern Isan subregion, many of them from districts where Khmer was spoken as a first language, enjoyed similar ease in crossing the Thai-Cambodian border in the period before the World Court awarded full ownership of Prasat Khao Phra Wihan (Preah Vihear in Khmer) to Phnom Penh in 1962. For the ethnic Khmer living in southern Isan’s Sisaket, Surin, and Buriram provinces, a jaunt into Cambodia was as unremarkable as the boat ride on the Mekong River made by their ethnic Lao counterparts in the north.

Vietnam was different. Its cultural dissimilarities more so than its geographic distance put it into a separate category. It seemed Chinese. The strong cultural similarities between the Vietnamese and the Chinese made such comparisons inevitable. The historical Vietnamese embrace of Confucian principles, Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese script (as well as Nom, the Vietnamese indigenous script that resembles Chinese to many outsiders), and the classics of Chinese literature encouraged the Thais to see Vietnam as belonging to China’s sphere. It seemed distant beyond the kilometers that separated it from Thailand.

Upon their arrival in Vietnam, the first action undertaken by many Thai volunteers was to acknowledge the presence and sovereignty of the local spiritual regime. As soon as Sergeant Khamron set foot in South Vietnam, he dropped to his knees, scooped up a handful of dirt, and sprinkled it over his head. He carried out this impromptu gesture to ensure that Mae Thorani would protect him while he was in South Vietnam…. “If you are Buddhist, they train you to do things like this,” he explained. “There is a khata [verse] that says, ‘When you go to a foreign land/Entrust your care to Mother Earth.’ It is the same thing when you return. When I got back [to Thailand], I immediately knelt down, took up some dirt, and sprinkled it on my head. I said, ‘I’m back.'” Khamron’s decision to carry out the same action on returning to his homeland underscores the degree to which many soldiers saw South Vietnam’s spiritual forces as belonging to a separate (and specifically Vietnamese) realm. Despite sharing the same physical landmass and duplicating the same flora, fauna, and weather, the two countries were seen to harbor individual and esoteric spiritual actors. The sovereignty of each area belonged to local spirits. For this reason, some Thai soldiers brought their own soil with them. They collected samples of dirt, which they addressed as “Mae Thorani,” and carried the samples with them to South Vietnam.

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Cambodia’s Thirty Years War

From After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide, by Craig Etcheson (Texas Tech U. Press, 2006), pp. 2-4 (footnote references omitted):

It is an extraordinary situation. Cambodia is a country where as much as a third of the population died in one of the worst genocides of modern times, and many Cambodians do not believe it happened. How can it be that so much destruction occurred so recently, yet so few are aware of this history? In order to explain how this peculiar situation came about and perhaps to help to correct it, we must start at the beginning of the Thirty Years War.

That war began in 1968, when the Communist Party of Kampuchea—popularly known as the “Khmer Rouge”—declared armed struggle against the government of Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Over the course of this war, the conflict took many different forms, went through many phases, and involved a list of participants nearly as long as the roster of the membership of the United Nations. The country changed its name six times during the Thirty Years War, beginning as the Kingdom of Cambodia, changing to the Khmer Republic in 1970, Democratic Kampuchea in 1975, then the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1979, the State of Cambodia in 1989, and finally back to the Kingdom of Cambodia again in 1993. These contortions reflected the extraordinary violence of the underlying turmoil. Cambodia finally emerged from the Thirty Years War in 1999, with the capture of the last Khmer Rouge military leader still waging armed resistance.

The Thirty Years War wrought upon Cambodia a level of destruction that few nations have endured. At the epicenter of all this violence, from the beginning until the end, there was one constant, churning presence: the Khmer Rouge. Though they have now ceased to exist as a political or military organization, Cambodia continues to be haunted both by the influence of the individuals who constituted the Khmer Rouge and by the legacy of the tragedy they brought down on the country. The social, political, economic, and psychological devastation sown by the Khmer Rouge will take generations to heal, if indeed it ever can be healed. This epic saga of havoc is so complex and confusing that scholars do not even entirely agree on how to name all the ruin.

Many historians describe the conflicts in Southeast Asia during the second half of the twentieth century in terms of three Indochinese wars. The First Indochina War was the war of French decolonization in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, beginning in 1946 and ending with the Geneva Conference of 1954. The Second Indochina War can be said to have run from 1954 to 1975; it is typically known in the United States as the “Vietnam War” and in Vietnam as the “American War,” a dichotomy that reveals much about who was centrally involved. In this war of Vietnamese unification, as the United States attempted to prevent the consolidation of communist rule over all of Vietnam, the war also spread to engulf both Laos and Cambodia. The Third Indochina War began hard on the heels of the second, when from 1975 to 1991, the issue of who would rule Cambodia and how it would be ruled drew deadly interest from virtually every country in the region and from all the world’s major powers.

From 1968 onward, it appeared to many Cambodians that these wars flowed from one into the other, as inexorably as the Mekong River flows into the sea. The 1991–1993 United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cambodia marked the end of the Third Indochina War, but the fighting in Cambodia continued for nearly another decade afterward. The outlines of the conflict in Cambodia changed with the United Nations intervention, but the basic issue underlying the war—the Khmer Rouge drive for power—was not resolved by the peace process. Combat continued between the central government and the Khmer Rouge until the government finally prevailed in 1999. Thus, what historians characterize as distinct wars with distinct protagonists appeared to many Cambodians to be simply one long war, with one central protagonist—the Khmer Rouge—driving the entire conflict.

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An Energetic Norwegian in Lotus Land c. 1900

The presumed riches of Laos … never eventuated during the period of French colonial control. There were opportunities for minor agricultural development on the Boloven Plateau in southern Laos and some possibilities for the exploitation of timber. But this latter commodity … was difficult to extract, and the repeated rapids along the Mekong’s course plus the major barrier of the Khone Falls made thoughts of floating timber downriver to the ports in Phnom Penh and Saigon dubious at best. It is true that there were occasional efforts to use the river in this way; and these included one heroic effort by a Norwegian commercial adventurer, Peter Hauff.

Unknown by historians until an account of his life was published by his granddaughter in 1997, Hauff was in many ways typical of the Europeans who sought private gain in Indochina at the turn of the century. The son of a sea captain, Hauff began his career in Indochina in 1894 at the age of twenty-one working in a Saigon agency house. Fathering children by both a Lao and a Vietnamese woman during the fifteen years he spent in the region, his diaries reveal him as a man of great energy who was fascinated by the exotic world in which he lived, approaching it with a sympathy frequently lacking among the French officials of the time. In 1902, in a remarkable if essentially meaningless achievement, he succeeded in manhandling a sixteen-metre boat through the Khone Falls from south to north. This involved a notable show of spirit and the capacity to organise and inspire his local crew. It did not alter the conclusion that the falls could not be navigated by boats on any regular, commercial basis. A little later, Hauff undertook a commission to ship a collection of logs from Luang Prabang to a river port in the Mekong Delta. This too was a remarkable effort, involving no fewer than twelve hundred logs assembled in a series of rafts. The fact that the logs finally reached the Mekong Delta was indeed a triumph of determination in the face of endless obstacles. It did not, however, herald any continuing use of the Mekong for the despatch of timber out of Laos. In fact, for most of those who were associated with Laos while it formed part of French Indochina, this lightly populated kingdom was seen as a tropical lotus land for those ready to turn their backs on the more ‘serious’ aspects of colonial endeavour.

SOURCE: The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000), pp. 150-151

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Luang Prabang, a Laotian Oxford

Nth Position offers an engaging travelogue entry. Here’s just one paragraph.

Luang Prabang is a sort of Indochinese Oxford, smaller and prettier and classier than the capital. It has the culture. It preserves the identity. It thinks well of itself. It has specialities. It remains a slightly twee but notable relic of Asie Française, which is nothing like the British India I’m used to, all that sweat, duty, and cell-block architecture. The French relished princely Luang Prabang, so poised within its confluence of rivers, so elegant, with its pagoda roofs sweeping down like golden wings. Typically they found Buddhism the religion smug and institutional but loved what it looked like, that ascetic Buddhist aesthetic. They built villas and cafes to admire this gorgeous East from; and today the monks, ever graceful in sunset orange, still twirl their parasols along the promenade by those cafes, where French tourists sit all afternoon in wicker chairs amidst the retro décor, eating tuna-and-watercress baguettes and drinking Beer Lao from imported tumblers. For one long lunchtime moment it’s Indochine as it never was but should have been.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Changing Names: Thailand, Laos

Thailand

The polity now known as Thailand was generally referred to as “Siam” for many centuries. Nationalists renamed it in 1939 in an attempt to be more inclusive of people, particularly in the north, northeast, and south, who had never considered themselves “Siamese” (i.e., indigenous subjects of the state centered on Ayutthaya or Bangkok) but might be persuaded to think of themselves as “Thai.” After World War II “Siam” briefly was restored as the country’s name in 1946, but little more than a year later “Thailand” became permanent.

The term itself is a neologism, combining the traditional ethnic identity “Thai” with “land” (prathet in Thai). As the word “Thai” also means “free,” some people translate the country’s name as “Land of the Free,” but it is unlikely that that was the original meaning. Many other peoples speaking closely related languages live nearby in Myanmar, China, Laos, and Vietnam; for purposes of convenience, linguists and other scholars sometimes label all of them, along with the Thai, as “Tai” (without the “h”).

There is wide variation among systems of transliteration of Thai into the Western alphabet, but in general place-names in this book follow those adopted by the Board on Geographic Names, as used on most published maps.

Laos

The word “Laos” was first used by European missionaries and cartographers in the seventeenth century to pluralize the word “Lao,” the name of the country’s predominant ethnolinguistic group. In the Lao language, which is closely related to Thai, there is no orthographic distinction between plural and singular nouns. In Lao, Laos is known as pathet lao or muang lao, both meaning “Lao country” or “Lao-land,” along the lines of prathet thai (Thailand).

The French used the term “Laos” as the name for their protectorate in the colonial period. After independence in 1954, the country became known as the Kingdom of Laos. In 1975, when the communists came to power and the monarchy was abolished, it was renamed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

SOURCE: The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History, edited by Norman G. Owen (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2005)

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