Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Austin Carson ─ Hidden in Plain Sight: Escalation Control and the Covert Side of the Vietnam War

Thursday, March 9, 2017

4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Joukowsky Forum

Rescheduled from February 9.

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American military operations in Laos during the Vietnam War are a classic case of an “open secret.” Within a year of the program’s start, news reports in major media outlets about U.S. covert operations, including specific bombing missions, were routine. Despite widespread knowledge, American leaders maintained the program and consistently refused to affirm their role for over five years. This is puzzling behavior. Open secrets, by definition, fail to alter the distribution of knowledge; this is secrecy’s central function in intuition, theories, and assumptions about private information, deception, and so on. To solve this puzzle, this article takes exposure seriously, offering an escalation control theory of the political value of open secrecy. I theorize the independent role of acknowledgement, as opposed to knowledge, and link its presence or absence to conflict escalation dynamics. Empirically, the article analyzes the covert Laos operations by drawing on new archival material that provides an unusually candid window into management of a covert action program. I provide evidence top U.S. leaders anticipated leaks and saw non-acknowledgement as useful in shaping whether events in Laos would trigger a wider regional war, specifically linking it to Soviet, Chinese, and domestic Laotian reactions. In addition to conceptual and theoretical innovation, the article sheds light on recent and important cases of open secret covert state behavior, such as Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine, Iranian support for insurgents in civil wars in the Middle East, and American drone strikes in Pakistan.

Austin Carson is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

Download the paper here.

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