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.
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.