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In 1961, the deteriorating political situation in Laos posed a serious concern in U.S. foreign policy when President John F. Kennedy took office.
After the surrender of the Japanese in World War II, the French attempted to reassert dominion over Laos and the rest of French Indochina, which included Vietnam and Cambodia. The Communist Laotian nationalist movement, the Pathet Lao, was an ally of the Vietnamese in the struggle with France. After the French were defeated by the Vietnamese, the Geneva Accords of 1954 established the sovereignty of Laos. Civil war soon broke out, however, as the Royal Lao government, supported by the United States, fought Pathet Lao insurgents, supported by the Communists in neighboring North Vietnam.
The Eisenhower government committed millions of dollars in aid and teams of military advisers to prevent the takeover of Laos by the Pathet Lao. Shortly before John F. Kennedy's inauguration, President Eisenhower warned his successor that the effort was on the verge of failure and the U.S. military might need to intervene.
Kennedy moved cautiously. He rejected a variety of proposals to send American forces and concluded that a negotiated settlement with the Soviet Union and other interested parties was the best he could achieve. A 1962 peace conference in Geneva produced a Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos and a three-part coalition government divided between pro-American, pro-Communist and neutral factions. From Washington's standpoint, the arrangement was flimsy, but it was the best of unattractive options.
Soon after the accord was reached, civil war resumed. As American military involvement in Vietnam grew, Laos became another battlefield in that region. Running through eastern Laos, the Ho Chi Minh trail was a crucial North Vietnamese supply route for Communist forces in South Vietnam. To disrupt the flow of supplies, the United States bombed parts of Laos for nearly a decade, until a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1973. In 1975, the Pathet Lao took control of the country.