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Jacobs Wins Historical Book Award

Heights Editor

Published: Sunday, September 29, 2013

Updated: Sunday, September 29, 2013 20:09

jacobs

Emily Fahey / Heights Staff

“I was confounded because the standard explanation didn’t seem to correspond to what I was finding in the archives,” said associate professor of history Seth Jacobs. “So if that’s not the reason it happened, then what happened?”

Published in 2012, Jacobs’ work, The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos, sought to discover the reasoning behind the United States’ treatment of Laos during the Cold War.

Jacobs’ third book recently won the James P. Hanlan Book Award from the New England Historical Association. The nonfiction piece took five years of researching and writing to finish.

The NEHA accepts nominations on any historical topic, time period, or geographic region. The Hanlan Book Award was established and first awarded in 1985, and 700 historians are a part of the NEHA. Every member is from New England. Their individual concentrations range over all periods of history.

Jacobs chose the title of his book from Norman Cousins, the former editor-in-chief of The Saturday Review. Following a visit to Laos, Cousins delivered the famous line: “If you want to get a sense of the universal unraveling, come to Laos—complexities like this have to be respected.”
The book, Jacobs said, “is about American foreign policy towards Laos between the two Geneva conferences. It addresses the issue of why the United States ultimately elected to draw the line between communist expansion in Vietnam, rather than Laos. The standard explanation was that it was due to logistics.”
The common account has been that Laos was not as attractive geographically or as technologically developed as Vietnam.

“That had been the standard explanation before I did my research,” Jacobs said. “But I found out over the course of researching the book that that wasn’t true at all. If you read what people in the Defense Department were saying … Laos was actually a preferable battlefield to South Vietnam.”
The driving reasoning behind America’s unwillingness to fight in Laos was far less logical or rational.

“What I discovered, no matter what archive I looked at, was that the determining factor was really racism,” Jacobs said. “No Asian people were held in greater contempt than the Lao.

“When I looked at the archival material, what I had been lead to believe was the driving force or rationale behind the American policy just wasn’t the case. I also wanted to figure out why American policy makers felt this way about the Lao. And I came to the conclusion that [this racism] wasn’t grounded in reality at all.”
As Jacobs discusses in his book, Americans’ poor opinion of the Lao came from multiple factors. A difference in cultures was the most influential. For example, the Lao were a people that had a different sense of masculinity.

America’s inability to recognize the Lao’s true nature led them to underestimate their love of country and desire to fight.

Despite Jacobs’ previous book appealing to an undergraduate population, The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos is directed to a larger group, appealing to all people.

“I’m writing for other historians, I’m writing for undergraduates, and I’m also hopefully trying to get an average reader who would hopefully like to know a little about this forgotten theatre of the cold war in Laos,” Jacobs said.

With the award, The Universe Unraveling will reach a wider audience. “It’s tremendously flattering. It’s tremendously gratifying,” Jacobs said.

Yet, it hardly comes close to his ultimate goal and vocation.

“No award means nearly as much to me as the Phi Betta Kappa teacher of the year award,” Jacobs said. “I always consider myself a teacher before a researcher.”

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