So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos
by William J. Rust, University Press of Kentucky, 2014, E-book available
So Much to Lose William Rust’s second tome on American-Laotian relations in the is a fitting title for post-1945 era, following his outstanding Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961 (2012). It discusses the often-illusory U.S. view based on the domino theory of containment and the Laotian fight for national survival in the face of real Communist aggression from North Vietnam.
On one hand, as the author adroitly notes, the United States saw Laos as another battlefield to counter Soviet and Communist Chinese political and military expansionism; at the same time, China’s policy was focused on “preventing the United States from establishing a military presence in neighboring Laos.”
These conflicting objectives were further exacerbated by the North Vietnamese, who saw Laos as a critical part of their continued war against South Vietnam, especially in regard to logistical support for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units operating in the south, supplied via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Caught in the middle of this superpower rivalry and the Vietnam War were the Laotian people.
The attention Rust gives to the Laotians themselves is where his book really shines. In many other works, the Laotians’ involvement in their own fate is often overlooked or ignored outright, much as it was at the time. So Much to Lose avoids this lapse, while still addressing the huge impact of external forces (both democratic and Communist) in the internal conflict in Laos.
The personalities of the major players, especially President John F. Kennedy and his key advisers, are a major part of the book. While Kennedy saw the conflict as important in the context of the Cold War (and potential conflicts in Cuba and Berlin), he believed that as long as Laos could be stabilized and kept out of the Vietnam conflict, it could serve as a pro-U.S. semineutral buffer state separating Chinese and North Vietnamese Communists from the pro-Western states of Southeast Asia. This dichotomy permeates the book, as U.S. leaders attempt to control the exploding conflict in Laos with piecemeal support to various warring factions in order to slow the expansion of the Laotian war, while using the country as another diplomatic, military and political front against communism. The result is an imbalanced civil war in Laos dominated by North Vietnamese military support and an embarrassment to the United States and its allies.
The work is well-organized, and Rust’s prose makes it an enjoyable read. The lack of maps in the body of the text, especially where specific battles in Laos are being described, is one of the book’s few weaknesses. Extensive notes and substantial appendices make So Much to Lose a necessity for any scholar who wants to expand Rust’s excellent research.
Given that much of the literature on the series of wars in Southeast Asia from 1945 to 1975 focuses on the North vs. South conflict in Vietnam, Rust’s continued emphasis on the role of Laos brings a welcome and needed view on the many issues and fronts of that 30-year war and adds greatly to our understanding of the era.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.