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The New Look Policy in Southeast Asia
President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered office at a peak period of Cold War tension between the United States and nations in Southeast Asia. Eisenhower successfully guided an armistice to end the Korean War through the international community, yet the battle against communist aggression had spread beyond the borders of Korea. Laos and Indochina had become hotspots of communist activity during President Harry Truman's tenure. Between 1950 and 1953, the United States attempted to assist France in battling communism by creating the Military Assistance Advisory Group - Indochina (MAAG), funding roughly 30% of the French military budget and supporting the anti-communist State of Vietnam.
Eisenhower, however, raised the stakes in Southeast Asia when he issued his New Look foreign policy. One major aspect of the program was continuing the policy of containment in Indochina and Laos. To gain renewed support for containment in Southeast Asia, Eisenhower publicized the 'domino theory' in 1954. The theory stated that each nation, Indochina and Laos for instance, was representative of a domino. If one domino fell to communism in the region, the rest would ultimately fall. China was lost to communism in 1949; South Korea nearly succumbed to the North Korean communists during the Korean War. Eisenhower was not willing to risk the loss of Laos and Indochina. These two nations were to be bulwarks against Soviet and Chinese communist aggression. The United States strategic interests rested in the balance.
Containment in Indochina
France had resumed control of a portion of Indochina in 1946, but the communist-nationalist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, engaged the French in a large-scale conflict known as the First Indochina War. Eisenhower only experienced the final two years of the war, but he made a valiant effort to defend the nation from a communist takeover. In 1953, Eisenhower transferred American war planes, technical advisors and maintenance personnel to Indochina in order to assist the French in the war. French forces, however, were unable to take advantage of the conflict with the newly acquired resources.
On March 13, 1954, the Viet Minh launched a major offensive against the exhausted French forces entrenched in the village of Dien Bien Phu. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, as it came to be known, witnessed vicious aerial and ground attacks from Viet Minh forces. The United States became extremely concerned with the grave situation in Indochina. John Foster Dulles, United States Secretary of State, campaigned for 'United Action' against the Viet Minh forces. The United Action plan called for a multilateral international effort - led by the United States - to assist the French and stem the communist tide. Dulles' plan never materialized. Eisenhower then considered the use of the United States Air Force to assist the French at Dien Bien Phu. Operation Vulture would have launched an air strike against the Viet Minh and provided a way out of the village for the French. However, similar to the United Action plan, Operation Vulture was never implemented.
The French forces surrendered to the Viet Minh on May 7; the Vietnamese had the advantage at the negotiating table in Geneva, Switzerland. The Geneva Conference of 1954 began on May 8. While the Vietnamese and French representatives negotiated a resolution, the United States refused to acknowledge the agreements. Instead, Eisenhower placed his support behind the staunchly anti-communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem and helped him create the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), or South Vietnam. He also called for the creation of a collective defense pact in Southeast Asia.
On September 8, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), or the Manila Pact, was formed, and included the United States, New Zealand, France, Great Britain, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. The main goal of SEATO was to bring security from communism to nations such as the RVN, Laos and Cambodia. The underlying goal was to give Eisenhower the power to neutralize Congressional dissent to actions in the region by promising collective security. SEATO was never invoked; rather, the collective security agreement symbolically threatened communist nations such as China, the Soviet Union and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, also known as the DRV, or North Vietnam.
Returning to Diem, Eisenhower expected the polarizing leader to assist in battling communist North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Eisenhower supplied Diem with American advisors, material aid and helicopters. He authorized the Commercial Import Program (CIP), which funneled American money into South Vietnam to stabilize manufacturing (although this failed miserably). Eisenhower even approved of operational plans, such as the Temporary Equipment Recovery Program, to inject American forces into the region to assist the South Vietnamese in objectives such as training the newly formed Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN. Eisenhower backed Diem and South Vietnam throughout the entirety of his presidency.
Containment in Laos
Laos had a similar historical timeline to Indochina in that it was a French colonial possession until the end of the Second World War, gained a brief independence and then witnessed the return of France to power. In 1950, Prince Souphanouvong, a Laotian communist, organized the Free Laos Front, which became the notorious Pathet Lao. His brother, Prince Souvanna Phouma, became the prime minister of Laos in 1951. The prime minister pleaded with his brother to join the conservative Laotian nationalist movement in Laos. Prince Souphanouvong rejected the repeated offers. Instead, he assisted the Viet Minh during the First Indochina War, and pledged support to the communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
The agreements reached at the Geneva Conference rendered Laos a neutral country with general elections to occur. However, the North Vietnamese rejected the neutralization of Laos. Ho immediately appropriated funds and materials to the Pathet Lao in order to overthrow the conservative Royal Laotian Government. Eisenhower decided to intervene to maintain the neutrality of Laos and prevent the North Vietnamese from using Laos as a transport network during the Vietnam War.
In 1955, the United States created the Programs Evaluation Office (PEO) in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This undercover program provided American advisors and material, funded largely by the Central Intelligence Agency, to help train and equip the Royal Laotian Army to combat the Pathet Lao. In 1960, the United States launched Project White Star, which provided United States military personnel as advisors to the Royal Laotian Army. You may be wondering what the difference was between the two? The Programs Evaluation Office remained secret; advisors could not wear uniforms, due to various agreements made during the Geneva Conference.
Meanwhile, Prince Souvanna Phouma and Prince Souphanouvong attempted to establish various coalition governments throughout the 1950s. Most attempts failed, especially when the United States intervened. Remember, a coalition government in Laos would have included many communists and posed the potential threat of opening Laos to the North Vietnamese. By the end of 1961, three factions were fighting for power in Laos. One supported the Pathet Lao; one supported the United States and the Royal Laotian Government, and the other wanted both parties removed. The question of who was in charge was not settled until the Geneva Conference of 1962 when the international community, much to the chagrin of Eisenhower, neutralized Laos and allowed the nation to determine its own fate free from foreign influence.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower increased the American presence in Southeast Asia over the course of his presidency. Highlighting the strategic importance of the region, Eisenhower championed the 'domino theory,' which maintained that if one nation fell to communism, the rest would follow. He then renewed the policy of containment in the region in the hope of preventing communist expansion. During the First Indochina War, Eisenhower supplied planes, advisors and war material to the French forces. When the French were being pummeled during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower sponsored the United Action plan that recommended an American-led coalition strike against the Viet Minh. While this plan never happened, the theory of collective security became the basis for the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization that was formed following the Geneva Conference of 1954. Eisenhower maintained a strong American presence in the Republic of Vietnam for the rest of his presidency.
Laos faced a similar situation. The communist Pathet Lao, founded by Prince Souphanouvong, was vying for ruling power in Laos against the conservative Royal Laotian Government. Eisenhower decided to support the Royal Laotian Government and its leader Prince Souvanna Phouma, because the Pathet Lao had aligned itself with Ho Chi Minh. Eisenhower supplied the Royal Laotian Army with advisors and material, but the Geneva Conference in 1962 ultimately determined that Laos was free to determine its own fate without the influence of foreign nations.
As a result of reviewing this video lesson, you may have the capacity to:
- Understand that Eisenhower supported non-communist nations in Southeast Asia because of his 'domino theory'
- Detail the failure of France in the First Indochina War and the Geneva Conference which placed limits on Laos
- Recognize Eisenhower's need for a military 'strong man' in South Vietnam to stop Ho Chi Minh's aggression from the north
- Remember that Eisenhower tried 'containment' and secret American military advisors as his primary weapons for stopping communist aggression in Southeast Asia
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