The journalist, editor, and author William J. Rust specializes in mid-twentieth century interactions between the United States and Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the three nations that once comprised French Indochina. His most recent book is Eisenhower & Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War (University Press of Kentucky, 374 pp.; $40.00, hardcover; $31.20, Kindle).
Rust has mastered the art of reviving the past as he piles fact upon fact to recreate the political and military climate of the time. Footnotes abound. The bibliography delves deeply into government documents and histories, oral histories, and interviews, memoirs, and the best secondary sources.
The book’s major player is Norodom Sihanouk, who served both as king of Cambodia and as its prime minister for decades. Caught between the United States and communist-inspired Viet Minh interests, Sihanouk worked hard for Cambodian independence and neutrality.
The latter stance created turmoil because the Eisenhower administration wanted Cambodia to take an anti-communist position similar to that of South Vietnam and Laos. Consequently, the book focuses on misdirected diplomacy, border incursions, and unfulfilled coups. The title of one chapter—”Many Unpleasant and Different Things”—could serve for the entire book.
Rust contends that President Eisenhower’s administration failed at finding common ground with Sihanouk, even though he had pro-Western inclinations. Rust labels Cambodia as “an afterthought in U.S. relations with Indochina.” Eisenhower’s two-volume memoir mentions Sihanouk only once, Rust says, which shows the limit of his interest. Rust also says that American leaders felt “contempt for the prince personally.”
The influences of anti-communist Cambodian dissidents and their patrons from South Vietnam and Thailand, as well as from India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, China’s Zhou Enlai, and the Soviet Union, the Philippines, and French leaders compounded the diplomatic problems confronting America’s Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his ambassadors to Cambodia.
Despite the many Westerners who viewed him as incompetent, from 1953-61 Sihanouk kept Cambodia from suffering political and military turmoil similar to that experienced by South Vietnam and Laos. A failed 1959 CIA-supported plot to overthrow him succeeded only in solidifying his leadership role, Rust says.
Eventually, limited American financial and military aid to Cambodia brought the two nations closer together. “Cambodia was a relatively peaceful front in the cold war,” Rust writes, when John F. Kennedy became president in January 1961.
Finger pointing will never go out of style when it comes to writing about the causes and the outcome of the Second Indochina War, aka the Vietnam War. Three recent books, for example, accuse American leaders of harming the nation’s Vietnam War credibility. In The War after the War, Johannes Kadura offers a “new interpretation” of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s multiple plans—called “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy”—to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. Nixon and Kissinger’s quest for a positive self-image transcended their honesty, Kadura says.
In The American South and the Vietnam War Joseph Fry writes that political leaders in the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) felt that Asiatic peoples were inferior and undeserving of protection. Tears Across the Mekong by Marc Philip Yablonka challenges the CIA and the United States government for failing to recognize Hmong contributions to the war in Laos.
Rust’s Eisenhower & Cambodia is particularly significant because the Eisenhower administration’s activities preceded much of the other actions related to the war and provided a foundation for what followed. In this respect, Rust’s Epilogue, which deals with the 1961-63 deterioration of relationships within and between Southeast Asian nations, is a lucid summation for everything he explains earlier.
“The coup d’état in South Vietnam on November 1 , and the assassination of [Prime Minister Ngo Dinh] Diem and [his brother Ngo Dinh] Nhu confirmed Sihanouk’s worst fears about the United States,” Rust says. It caused Sihanouk to end all U.S. military, economic, and cultural assistance.
Rust’s book also fills a niche in the University Press of Kentucky’s excellent Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series, which explores the significance of developments in U.S. foreign relations from the eighteenth century to the present.