The Pentagon Papers include a memorandum with Robert Kennedy on April 29, 1961 regarding a yet-to-be-determined US military position regarding fighting the spread of communism in Laos.
Robert Kennedy as the just recently confirmed US Attorney General under his brother and President-elect was a participant to foreign policy planning. The Kennedy Administration was roughly 90 days old when this memorandum [Part V. B. 4.] Justification of the War. Internal Documents. The Kennedy Administration. Book I (page 93) was recorded.
In attendance was Robert Kennedy, Secretary of Defense McNamara, General Curtis Le May, General David M. Shoup, Admiral Arleigh Burke and McGeorge Bundy among others.
This emerging view is similar to the policy supported during the Eisenhower Administration. As conveyed in David Halberstam’s The Best and The Brightest, President-elect Kennedy was briefed by Eisenhower that US troops would be fighting communism in SouthEast Asia. The only surprise for John Kennedy (and for most Americans) was Eisenhower’s plans to invade and fight in Laos — not Vietnam. The memorandum indicates the new administration had yet to decide how to best deal with the growing communist influence in SouthEast Asia:
The Attorney General asked where would be the best place to stand and fight, in Southeast Asia,where to draw the line. Mr. McNamara said he thought we would take a stand in Thailand and South Viet-Nam. The Attorney General asked whether we would save any of Laos, but he major question was whether we would stand up and fight.
Mr. McNamara said that we would have to attack the DRV if we gave up Laos. Mr. McNamara repeated that the situation is now worse than it was five weeks ago. Mr. Steeves pointed out that the same problems existed in South Viet-Nam, but
Admiral Burke thought that South Viet-Nam could be more easily controlled. General Becker then suggested that troops be moved into Thailand and South Viet-Nam to see whether such action would not produce a cease-fire. Admiral Burke asked what happens if there is still no cease-fire. General Decker said then we would be ready to go ahead. Mr. Kennedy said we would look sillier than we do now if we got troops in there and then backed down. He reiterated the question whether we are ready to go the distance.
It appears the new administration viewed a communist threat in Laos as more severe than Vietnam. Now the issue was containment of communist influence in Asia. And an even more chilling statement emerged from this meeting regarding Laos:
General Shoup suggested that B-26’s should be used before troops are landed. · He felt that it might then be possible to obtain a cease-fire and get the panhandle of Laos. Mr. Kennedy asked if any appreciable dent could be made on the guerrillas “with B-26’s. General Le May said it would be possible to knock out a big wad of supplies with B-26’s and 100’s. Mr. Kennedy asked what would be the next step.
The Secretary said it would be necessary to get the UN in quickly. Mr. Kennedy asked what the others would do then. General Le May said the worst that could happen would be that the Chinese Communists would come in. Mr. Kennedy asked if it could all be done by air. General Le May said it could. Mr. McNamara said you would have to use nuclear weapons.
I found this a bit surprising: Robert Kennedy offered no objection to McNamara’s suggestion regarding atomic bombing in Laos. Yet it is similar to the stated Eisenhower and Dulles positions regarding France’s request to use atomic bombs at Dien Bien Phu. Seemed like a re-occurring position in the late 1950s.
In the next volume [Part V. B. 4.] Justification of the War. Internal Documents. The Kennedy Administration. Book II should be (I hope to discover) policy changes that led Kennedy to redirect US military efforts away from Laos. [Part V. B. 4.] Justification of the War. Internal Documents. The Kennedy Administration. Book I is proving foreign policy efforts by former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates were still influencing this young administration.
Maybe Laos was a proving ground regarding US nuclear warfare that better prepared Robert Kennedy for the Cuban missile crisis just a year and a half later.