Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954–1961. By William J. Rust. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2012. Pp. x, 323. $40.00.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 154–155, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Kretchik, W. E. (2014), Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954–1961. By William J. Rust. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2012. Pp. x, 323. $40.00.). Historian, 76: 154–155. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_44
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
In this study, a former journalist investigates American government interactions with Laos during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Extensive US archival sources and interviews establish the author's mastery of Department of State, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency activities, but the absence of Laotian documents makes his work American-centric. Written for acculturated readers, a sea of acronyms and personalities may bewilder nonspecialists.
William J. Rust effectively argues that US handling of the situation in Laos was a key misstep in regional affairs and a precursor to the Vietnam War. But the book is actually a diplomatic process tutorial that explains what happens when government officials and interested parties seek to manipulate circumstances to their own ends. In 1954, an American presence was established in Laos's capital, Vientiane, not only to counter the spread of Communist Pathet Lao activity in the northern provinces but also to influence Laotian government behavior. Hampering US objectives were the 1954 Geneva Accords, a document that placed restrictions on foreign military presence in the area, other than limited numbers of French forces. A nonsignatory, the Eisenhower administration complied in spirit while creating the Programs Evaluation Office (PEO) to provide direct economic and military aid to Laos and circumvent the French. When the Laotian government sought friendly relations with China, the US ambassador J. Graham Parsons attempted to sway the process by politely mentioning future American foreign aid ramifications if things became too cozy.
What is particularly striking is Rust's account of the lack of cohesion within the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations in framing and executing policies. Although all shared a common objective to prevent a Communist takeover of Laos, assessing what was actually going on and how to correct the situation was something else. Rust does an exceptional job in relating the conflicting views that existed not only within State Department channels but also among PEO members, the Department of Defense, the CIA, Special Forces operatives, and a host of other concerned participants. Chapters 8 and 9 are especially important, the former chronicling the ramifications of a 1960 coup led by Kong Le and his paratroopers as Pathet Lao threats increased and the latter telling of US efforts to ensure that an anti-Communist government remained in power while officials figured out who among many Laotians would be “our boy.”
Although Kennedy's Laotian policies were preempted by his assassination, Rust reveals that the president was bedeviled by the complexity of American foreign aid, Laotian intrigue, Russian and North Vietnamese mischief, and the potential of military intervention involving US and SEATO forces. Though the 1962 Geneva declaration helped to avoid superpower confrontation in Laos, the situation was highly unstable. That Kennedy considered Laos to be more serious than Vietnam to include potential military action against Hanoi helps readers to better comprehend Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Vietnam policies.
Rust's excellent account of US-Laotian conundrums fills a historiographical gap and will assuredly be the standard work. It is an essential reference for those interested in the pre-Vietnam War era and America's general involvement in Southeast Asian Cold War affairs.