This introductory chapter provides an overview of the relationship between Laos and U.S. policy. The U.S. policy toward Laos under Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy shaped America’s approach to Southeast Asia during the cold war. Laos was the testing ground for counterinsurgency and nation-building programs that emerged in Vietnam, and many of the features that distinguished later programs—support of unpopular but pro-Western despots, matches between U.S. civilian and military bureaucracies, and ignorance of the needs and problems of the native populations—first became known in Laos. Indeed, Laos occupied more of Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s time than Vietnam. The “Kingdom of a Million Elephants” was considered essential to America’s national security and a vital piece in the fight between communism and anticommunism.
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