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Chapter Four
President Kennedy's War

John Fitzgerald Kennedy's victory in the November 1960 presidential election was welcomed by many who saw the dynamic young President as a refreshing departure from the legacies of the Cold War, John Foster Dulles' brinksmanship and the intellectual stagnation of the Eisenhower years. Under the rubric of The New Frontier, the incoming Democratic administration promised to seek new and innovative solutions to the problems of America and the world. Kennedy's election was widely viewed as cause for hope, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Among his earliest acts as President were a number of senior appointments by which he signalled his determination to implement policies which, if not as sharply divergent from those of the past as many perceived, he intended to pursue with unprecedented determination and vigor. At his inauguration on January 20, 1961, he named Dean Rusk Secretary of State, Robert Strange McNamara Secretary of Defense and McGeorge Bundy National Security Policy Adviser. A salient characteristic of war is the manner in which it gives play to personalities at the top, taxing strengths, magnifying foibles and seeking out weaknesses with a seemingly human intelligence, and all of these men were to leave the imprint of their personalities on the Vietnam War.

Among the first and most serious foreign policy challenges to confront the new President and his team of subordinates and advisors were those of Southeast Asia. Particularly threatening was the situation in Laos where Pathet Lao insurgents threatened to overturn the 1954 Geneva Accords. In August, with the American Presidential campaign in full swing, a neutralist paratroop coup had overthrown the rightist Vientiane regime. Chaos ensued as the Soviets intervened with aid for the insurgents. Kennedy responded by sending military aid and U.S. Army Special Forces advisors, while at the same time pursuing behind-the-scenes diplomatic initiatives. The situation did not at once improve, and in the spring of 1962 Kennedy dispatched troops and air power to northern Thailand to reassure the Thais, to serve as an implied threat and as a safeguard against communist victory. Eventually Kennedy's combination of firmness and restraint paid off: the military situation stabilized, and Britain and the Soviet Union reconvened the Geneva Conference to negotiate an end to the crisis. On 23 July, 1962, the parties to the Geneva Conference signed a series of accords under which Laos was to be ruled by a neutralist government under Prince Souvanna Phouma - whom the Eisenhower administration had considered too accommodating to the communists -with rightist and Pathet Lao participation. The Geneva Formula proved amazingly enduring; Souvanna Phouma was to serve as Premier of a nominally neutral, but in fact increasingly anti-communist, government for another twelve years. At the same time, the Formula papered over an unpleasant military reality. Most of eastern Laos was under North Vietnamese control, notably the vital lines of communication and resupply linking North Vietnam with Viet Cong staging areas in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam and along the Cambodian border, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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