The Wrong War

Conflict in Laos

by Arthur J. Dommen
Praeger, 388 pp., $5.95

Street Without Joy

by Bernard B. Fall
Stackpole (new and enlarged edition), 408 pp., $5.00

The story of the U.S. intervention in Laos, of which Dommen’s book is the first full-length study, recalls one of those early Mack Sennetts in which the hero is chased over and over again through the same revolving door. Three times forces financed by the United States have overthrown its neutralist Prime Minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma. Three times he has been restored to power, once by elite paratroopers we trained only to have them turn against us, the second time by an international conference we convoked to save our rightist protegés from complete defeat, the third time, earlier this year, by angry orders from Washington, which seemed at last to be getting tired of the comedy. The Laotian Royal Army, which fared so ludicrously in each of these episodes, is the only one in the world wholly on the U.S. payroll. It is also the highest paid in Asia, though the U.S. Comptroller General complained to a Congressional investigating committee that he had no way of knowing how much actually reached the troops and how much stuck to the fingers of its generals. Each time this Army has risen against Souvanna Phouma, it has proved unable to defeat neutralist or Leftist forces it far outnumbered. After each of these escapades, the Left has emerged stronger than before. The virtue of Dommen’s book is that it argues the case for learning something from this ignominious series of military pratt-falls and reconciling ourselves to neutralism not only in Laos but in the rest of Indochina.

Dommen was bureau manager and roving South East Asian correspondent for United Press International in Saigon and Hongkong from 1959 to 1963. Indochina was his beat. But his book is not a journalistic quickie. The country and the people come alive in his pages. His up-to-date account of the intermittent Lilliputian civil wars in Laos and their relation to the bigger one in Vietnam could hardly be more timely since Indochina is the place where the new Johnson Administration may most easily stumble into full-scale war after pledging itself in the election campaign to peace. Two main skeins help us unravel the tangled story. The first is that we have gone on regarding neutralism as inherently wicked in Southeast Asia, long after we have accepted it elsewhere. This explains the perverse U.S. policy which looks with suspicion on the only state in Indochina where Communists are negligible, the people reasonably content, and guerillas non-existent, the Cambodia of Prince Sihanouk. Though its neutralism accounts for its stability, we regard it as living in sin. The other main thread in the story of Indochina is that the U.S. has come to have two different policies for dealing with Communist States. In Eastern Europe we no longer regard the Soviet bloc as a monolith. We recognize diversity and encourage it. But in Asia we treat China, and its two Communist neighbors, North Korea and North Vietnam, as a faceless mass to be dealt with as we did the Russian Revolution…

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