The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos - The United States in the World (Hardback)Seth Jacobs (author)
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During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Laos was positioned to become a major front in the Cold War. Yet American policymakers ultimately chose to resist communism in neighboring South Vietnam instead. Two generations of historians have explained this decision by citing logistical considerations. According to the accepted account, Laos's landlocked, mountainous terrain made the kingdom an unpropitious place to fight, while South Vietnam-possessing a long coastline, navigable rivers, and all-weather roads-better accommodated America's military forces. The Universe Unraveling is a provocative reinterpretation of U.S.-Lao relations in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. Seth Jacobs argues that Laos boasted several advantages over South Vietnam as a battlefield, notably its thousand-mile border with Thailand and the fact that the Thai premier was willing to allow Washington to use his nation as a base from which to attack the communist Pathet Lao.
More significant in determining U.S. policy in Southeast Asia than strategic appraisals of the Lao landscape were cultural perceptions of the Lao people. Jacobs contends that U.S. policy toward Laos under Eisenhower and Kennedy cannot be understood apart from the traits Americans ascribed to their Lao allies. Drawing on diplomatic correspondence, contemporary press coverage, and the work of iconic figures like "celebrity saint" Tom Dooley, Jacobs finds that the characteristics American statesmen and the American media attributed to the Lao-laziness, immaturity, ignorance, imbecility, and cowardice-differed from traits assigned the South Vietnamese and made Lao chances of withstanding communist aggression appear dubious. The Universe Unraveling provides a new perspective on how prejudice can shape policy decisions and even the course of history.
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Number of pages: 328
Weight: 28 g
Dimensions: 229 x 152 x 28 mm
"The Universe Unraveling is a wonderful, spellbinding account, one of those rare books that you really do not want to put down. Although the heart of Jacobs's book is about cultural attitudes, one real strength is that he integrates them into a fairly traditional diplomatic history narrative that explains cogently the intricacies of Lao politics and American policy."* Diplomatic History *
"It is difficult now to conceive of how significant Laos once was in American Cold War strategic thinking.. Drawing extensively on American diplomatic sources and contemporary reporting on Laos in the American press, Seth Jacobs offers a novel explanation.. Jacobs's argument is compelling, and he writes well."-- Martin Stuart-Fox * The Historian *
"Few scholars of the Vietnam War bother to analyze the complex circumstances of wartime Laos in general, leaving it as another figurative sideshow in the region-wide conflict. In The Universe Unraveling, historian Seth Jacobs demonstrates the importance of understanding America's foreign policy toward Laos in the 1950s as a key factor in its later direct involvement in South Vietnam. Jacobs illustrates how the confused and contemptuous foreign policy of John Foster Dulles's State Department was chiefly responsible for Kennedy's ultimate decision to stay out of Laos. Jacobs argues persuasively that Washington's largely chaotic Laos policy 'bound America more tightly to its client state of South Vietnam' and thus drew it deeper into the quagmire of war there. The Universe Unraveling is an important and useful contribution to Vietnam War studies. It treats Laos as an important historical topic in its own right, while providing useful explanations as to how the United States stumbled into war in South Vietnam. And, perhaps most significantly, it serves as a powerful reminder that the attitudes and actions of a small number of American officials can have devestating consequences for a great many peoples and environments across the globe."* Journal of Military History *
"The history of that period has been the subject of numerous studies. Jacobs, however, wants to get behind the narrative of American actions in Laos: the misspent aid, the attempts to build a Lao military force, the waging of covert war by the Central Intelligence Agency, the subversion of elections, the internecine rivalry of US agencies, the provision of arms which led at one point to the absurdity of Lao military factions fighting each other, each with American weapons. Jacobs handles all of that deftly and links it skillfully to the labyrinthine shifts in Lao politics."-- Paul Cheeseright * Asian Affairs *
"In his fascinating, lively, and well-researched study of the failures of U.S. policy in Laos Seth Jacobs accepts that decision makers in the Kennedy administration viewed Laos as a poor setting in which to mount a vigorous response to the communist menace due to its difficult terrain, overwhelming logistical challenges, and easy accessibility for North Vietnam and China. But going beyond this orthodoxy, Jacobs also makes a sustained case that cultural factors-in particular an ingrained American belief that the Lao people were feckless, indolent, disorganized, cowardly, and inherently pacific-played an even more important role than strategic considerations in convincing American policymakers that the more resilient Vietnamese (as they were viewed through an inverted cultural lens) would offer sturdier resistance to communist insurgency."* American Historical Review *
"Seth Jacobs has produced an exceptionally important, well researched, and compelling account of American involvement in Laos during the Dwight Eisenhower and early John F. Kennedy administrations."-- Kenton Clymer * H-Diplo Roundtable Reviews *
"Jacobs's meticulously researched study takes Laos from the periphery to the center of Cold War analysis. In his back and forth chronological approach with thematic consistency prevailing, Jacobs elucidates how a variety of Cold War policy makers saw proxy warriors as supremely inferior.... In this insightful though troubling analysis, Jacobs challenges colleagues to continue the analysis of Kennedy's having 'no intention of scaling back Washington's commitment to defend as much territory as it could from red aggression.'... Highly recommended."* Choice *