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So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos

by William J. Rust

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Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace
376 pages  Pubdate: 06/17/2014  6 x 9  28 b&w photos, 3 maps

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Before U.S. combat units were deployed to Vietnam, presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy strove to defeat a communist-led insurgency in Laos. This impoverished, landlocked Southeast Asian kingdom was geopolitically significant because it bordered more powerful communist and anticommunist nations. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which traversed the country, was also a critical route for North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam.

In So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos, William J. Rust continues his definitive examination of U.S.-Lao relations during the Cold War, providing an extensive analysis of their impact on US policy decisions in Vietnam. He discusses the diplomacy, intelligence operations, and military actions that led to the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, signed in Geneva in 1962, which met President John F. Kennedy’s immediate goal of preventing a communist victory in the country without committing American combat troops. Rust also examines the rapid breakdown of these accords, the U.S. administration’s response to their collapse, and the consequences of that response.

At the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, U.S. policy in Laos was confused and contradictory, and Lyndon B. Johnson inherited not only an incoherent strategy, but also military plans for taking the war to North Vietnam. By assessing the complex political landscape of Laos within the larger context of the Cold War, this book offers fresh insights into American foreign policy decisions that still resonate today.

William J. Rust, a former journalist and communications consultant, is the author of Kennedy in Vietnam: American Vietnam Policy, 1960–1963 and Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954–1961.

So Much to Lose is a well-crafted, exceptionally researched, and most welcome contribution. Rust provides a wealth of otherwise unavailable material on a largely unexplored and misunderstood chapter of America’s Southeast Asia history. -- Timothy N. Castle, author of One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam

So Much to Lose is a fine book and a worthy sequel to Rust’s previous work. This diplomatic history brings the story together in a way that advances the record on United States activities in the land of a million elephants. He lays down the panorama of U.S.-influenced events very well, and so illuminates John Kennedy’s meanderings on Laos policy in a way that goes beyond the 1962 Geneva agreements to show the re-ignition of the Laotian war the following year. -- John Prados, author of Vietnam: A History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975

Rust’s excellent earlier book, Before the Quagmire, showed how both President Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy hoped to stop communists in Laos. Now he gives us a later and even more important book: So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos. The small and mostly quiet nation of Laos turned into the much greater and chaotic war with Vietnam, Cambodia, and eventually the United States. What the Johnson administration called a 'key to success in Southeast Asia' turned out to be a failure. With these two important books, Rust now has become one of the most significant scholars of Laos. -- Alan Brinkley, Columbia University

William Rust, author of the excellent book, Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961, has now extended his account to cover American policy toward Laos during the John F. Kennedy Administration. Deeply researched, filled with much that is entirely new, So Much to Lose details the gripping, often frustrating, Cold War story of how the United States dealt with an incredibly complex and difficult situation in Southeast Asia. Taken together, Rust's two volumes about American policy toward Laos will be the definitive diplomatic account for years to come. -- Kenton Clymer, author of Troubled Relations: The United States and Cambodia since 1870

In his carefully researched and very readable book, William Rust has focused on U.S. policy towards Laos during the Kennedy administration. Although strategically important, Laos has received far lesser attention and relatively peripheral treatment compared to Vietnam and Cambodia in the study of American role in the Indochina War. This is the much-awaited continuation of his equally commendable book on U.S.-Laos relations during the Eisenhower Administration. -- Ang Cheng Guan, author of Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War

Mr. Rust's So Much to Lose is a marvel of research and detail. -- Diplomat and International Canada

Anyone seriously interested in U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War, and especially American involvement in Southeast Asia and the origins of the Vietnam War, cannot afford to ignore this fascinating book. -- H-Diplo

This fine study . . . establishes [Rust] alongside Timothy Castle and Arthur Dommen as one of the best students of the war in Laos. -- Choice

William Rust, in his history So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos does a great service in shedding light on the less well-known, but highly contentious, Cold War struggle for the small, landlocked nation.
Initially, Rust superbly sets, and then continues to track, the all-important context in which the crisis in Laos played out. His weaving of the situation in Berlin and Cuba into the narrative is not distracting; it gives the reader a deep understanding of how the lens of the Cold War could magnify even such a small, strategically insignificant country.
[T]his is an excellent, very readable book. -- Military Review

In an admirably impartial narrative, Rust offers the best and most complete account of this controversial but often misunderstood topic.

Rust has delivered another superb study of American policy in this area of Southeast Asia. I am hoping that he continues this series to cover the administrations of presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. -- Journal of Military History

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 work is well-organized, and Rust’s prose makes it an enjoyable read.

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. -- Vietnam