So Much to Lose by William J. Rust

In So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos (University Press of Kentucky, 376 pp., $40) William J. Rust offers a meticulous account of President John F. Kennedy’s vacillating actions toward Laos in the early 1960s.

So Much to Lose is a sequel to Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961. In that 2012 book Rust examined how both President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy attempted to deal with the rising threat of communism in Laos prior to the big U.S. build up in Vietnam.

Kennedy inherited Eisenhower’s policies, which grew out of President Truman’s decision to provide American support to the French effort to reclaim its Indochinese colonies after World War II. The French, of course, were defeated, and Eisenhower’s famous “domino theory” became American policy. The idea was to keep Laos neutral so that the widening war in South Vietnam—and American military involvement there—didn’t grow still wider.

To an extent, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed that the two superpowers had no interest in Laos, and supported neutrality. But even though North Vietnam was in some ways a Soviet client state, Khrushchev could not control Hanoi’s leadersship.

Kennedy might have wished that Laos was a problem that would go away. He found himself supporting the FAR (the Laotian army, or, from the U.S. point of view, the good guys), as well as the so-called “neutralists” in battles on the Plain of Jars against the North Vietnamese-supported Pathet Lao. But Kennedy had no thought of direct intervention for fear of widening the war and destroying entirely the idea of neutrality. This proxy war, supported by the State Department and the CIA, blew hot and cold during JFK’s shortened presidency until, with Kennedy’s assassination, the problem became President Johnson’s in 1963.

William J. Rust

Infighting among the American-supported factions, a coup, and increased pressure from the Pathet Lao combined to effect the primary communist objective: the security of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Said Trail, leading through “neutral” Laos and Cambodia, greatly facilitated the much bigger war in South Vietnam.

Kennedy was reluctant to commit American troops even though he was fiercely anti-communist and a believer in the domino theory. But he never had to deal with the increased power and ferocity of the North Vietnamese. Rust can’t say if JFK’s reaction to the North Vietnamese aggression would have been similar to that of Johnson who committed, at the height of the war, more than a half million American troops.

Rust’s diplomatic history provides plenty of details for speculation about what JFK would have done in South Vietnam (and Laos) had he lived. So Much to Lose, in fact, may provide too much detail for the general reader. But if you want to learn about how wars get started—and wobble out of control—this book will tell you.

—John Mort

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JFK in the Senate by John T. Shaw

John T. Shaw ‘s JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, 228 pp., $26) is a well-written, pioneering look at President John F. Kennedy’s 1953-60 tenure as the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. JFK’s time in the Senate, Shaw says, “was a period of remarkable personal and political growth in which an untested backbencher transformed himself into a man of substance and depth and a victorious presidential candidate.”

Kennedy “participated actively and sometimes boldly” during his time in the Senate “in the central policy debates of his time,” Shaw notes. On the international scene Kennedy spoke his mind on “the challenges posed by China and the Soviet Union, the icy armistice in Korea, France’s faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria” and “the appropriate defense posture for America during the Cold War.”

Kennedy had visited Vietnam as a Congressman in 1951 as part of a big fact-finding mission to Asia and the Middle East. The French at the time were enmeshed in a bitter war against communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap determined to shed the yoke of colonialism. After meeting with high-level French and U.S. military and political figures, JFK came away with a decidedly negative view of the situation.

Because of the strong American support for the French in their war against the Vietminh, Kennedy wrote in his journal, the United States was “more and more becoming colonists in the minds of the people.”

Kennedy stressed in a subsequent radio address that he strongly favored “check[ing] the southern drive of communism,” in Vietnam. But he stressed he did not want to do that relying “on the force of arms.” Rather, Kennedy called for building “strong native non-communist sentiment within these areas.”

In his first year in the Senate, Kennedy “took center stage” in the debate over whether or not the U.S. should continue to support the French, Shaw says. JFK spoke out in favor of sending U.S. aid, but also called on France to grant independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He even offered an amendment to the Senate foreign aid bill urging France to give more independence to those colonies. It was defeated.

John T. Shaw

Before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, JFK gave a Senate speech in which he warned that if the United States took over from the French militarily, the subsequent war would “threaten the survival of civilization.” He then spoke out against the U.S. pouring “money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory,” something, that “would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.”

Kennedy, in his search for a non-military solution to the problem of stopping communism in Vietnam, believed that Ngo Dinh Diem, the vehement anticommunist the CIA helped install as South Vietnam’s premier in 1954, would be the leader who could do so. JFK “began to speak of a ‘Diem miracle in South Vietnam,'” Shaw notes, “and urged American backing for his regime. He accepted, as did other American leaders, Diem’s decision not to go forward with national elections in 1956 as had been promised” in the Geneva Accords.

In a June 1, 1956, speech in Washington before the pro-Diem American Friends of Vietnam, JFK changed his stance on what America should do to support Diem. He no longer warned that the U.S. should not get heavily involved militarily in the effort to stop the Vietnamese communists, framing his argument in staunch, 1950s Cold War rhetoric.

Vietnam, he said, “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia,” JFK said, “the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dyke.” South Vietnam, he said, “is our offspring. We cannot abandon it.”

Kennedy continued his strong support of Diem through his days in the Senate and into his 1,000 days in the White House. Calling South Vietnam “a brave little state,” in a 1960 speech, JFK said that nation was “working in a friendly and free association with the United States, whose economic and military aid has, in conditions of independence, proved to be effective.”

Shaw does not address the oft-debated issue of whether JFK would have withdrawn American troops from Vietnam had he lived. But Shaw does show that during his eight years in the Senate, Kennedy changed his thinking radically on what the U.S. should do to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists. He went from strongly advocating no American military action in South Vietnam to forcefully calling for strong American aid—including sending in thousands of military advisers—to try to help that country fight the communist insurgency.

The author’s website is http://johntshaw.com

—Marc Leepson

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews

One of the big “what ifs” of the presidency of John F. Kennedy is the question of what JFK would have done in Vietnam had he lived. Kennedy, an ardent cold warrior but a realist in foreign policy, left plenty of doubt. He made hawkish statements about the importance of not allowing the communists to take over Vietnam from the 1950s until just before his death. But he also told friends and admirers in the last months of his life that he was pessimistic about the U.S. effort in Vietnam and that it might be time to pull out the 15,000 or so advisers there.

TV journalist Chris (Hardball) Matthews addresses the issue briefly in his new biography, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (Simon and Schuster, 479 pp., $27.50). Matthews—an admirer of JFK, but not an uncritical one—concludes that the question is unanswerable. Kennedy’s “exact thoughts on VIetnam remain a mystery,” Matthews says, while discussing the ramifications of the assassination of Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem following a Kennedy administration-engineered coup just three weeks before JFK’s death.

Matthews reports that soon after he learned of Diem’s death, Kennedy told Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor that he was against expanding the role of American troops in Vietnam. “He is instinctively against introduction of U.S. [combat] forces,” Taylor said.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy confidant, reported a similar conversation at about the same time. “They want a force of American troops,” Schlesinger said Kennedy told him. “They say it’s necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in, the bands will play, the crowds will cheer, and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.”

Chris Matthews

Matthews goes on, though, to provide evidence that Kennedy was not seriously contemplating ending the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam in the fall of 1963. JFK’s close friend and speech writer Ted Sorensen, Matthews writes, “believed his boss could never have the cynicism about war and human lives that the conflict in Vietnam would turn out to mandate. ‘I do not believe he knew in his last weeks what he was going to do.'”

—Marc Leepson