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American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War Hardcover – March, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0674002258 ISBN-10: 0674002253 Edition: First Edition
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This masterpiece of governmental history locates the roots of the Vietnam War not in the Johnson or even Kennedy administration, but back in the military policies of the Eisenhower era. Eisenhower and his advisors took an aggressive attitude--including an openness to using nuclear weaponsAtoward communist advances anywhere, "especially in Southeast Asia," Kaiser finds. Neutralist, nonaligned governments in emerging nations, such as in Laos, were treated as enemies; Kennedy was more open to nonaligned governments and more interested in d?tente than in war. But the positions of the Eisenhower administration were entrenched institutionally among both civilian and military advisors in the State and Defense Departments. Drawing on a host of documents from recently opened government archives and tape recordings of White House meetings, Kaiser offers voluminous and meticulous evidence that Kennedy repeatedly rejected, deferred or at least modified recommendations for military actionsAmost notably in Laos. Misled by aides into thinking we were winning in Vietnam, even after Diem's overthrow, Kennedy never aggressively redirected policy there. President Johnson, less skilled than Kennedy in foreign affairs, readily reverted to Eisenhower's narrow policy framework, despite the emergence of critics among his advisers whose thinking echoed Kennedy's. Kaiser repeatedly says they ignored problems they couldn't solve and failed to heed clear evidence that their assumptions were flawed, making defeat a foregone conclusion. This is a commanding work that sheds bright light on questions of responsibility for the Vietnam debacle. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Kaiser (strategy and policy, Naval War Coll.; Politics and War) offers the second excellent investigation of the roots of the Vietnam War in as many years, following Fredrik Logevall's Choosing War (LJ 7/99). Having spent nine years researching recently declassified documents, the author describes in exacting detail the evolution of Vietnam policies from 1961 to 1965, the year that Johnson committed the United States to a war it couldn't win. Kaiser differs from Longevall by portraying Kennedy as skilled at keeping under control the prowar instincts of top cabinet members. The first-rate research is complemented by an intriguing model of intergenerational policy-making, whereby Kaiser attributes much of the failure to the heavy-handed actions of the "GI generation," the successful leaders of World War II. Highly recommended for specialized academic and larger public collections.
-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; First Edition edition (March 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674002253
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674002258
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #605,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Barron Laycock HALL OF FAME on September 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In an interesting, provocative, well-written and often very surprising work of careful scholarship, author David Kaiser has raised the level of intellectual discussion regarding the origins and prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Using a range of new archival materials only now available, he carefully constructs an intriguing and disturbing portrait of individuals out of control. In this sense this book is a worthy companion piece to David Halberstam's memorable book, "The Best And The Brightest", in the fact that it argues that it was a number of specific individuals with their own personal credos, private agendas, and belief systems that led to the deepening involvement in Southeast Asian affairs. However, this is not to suggest that Professor Kaiser either agrees with Halberstam's thesis or to argue that he has nothing new or worthwhile to reveal. Yet there are undeniable threads of similarity running through both works. Most interesting is Kaiser's contention that it was the unique and singular "can-do" Yankee spirit and aggressive attitude of the World War Two generation that directly led to the decisions to interfere in the internal policies of Vietnam.
Unlike previous tomes such as Halberstam's as well as Stanley Karnow's excellent book, "Vietnam", that portrayed President Eisenhower's policies of global containment of communism as extremely cautious and careful, Kaiser presents a mass of documentary evidence that reveals that it was precisely those decisions and policy predispositions established by Eisenhower, including a willingness to use nuclear weapons tactically, that later led to the fateful moves toward greater involvement by Lyndon Johnson.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By William Strauss on August 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
These days, not many argue with Tom Brokaw's coinage, "Greatest Generation," for those who came of age with World War II and held power in America from the early 1960s to the early 1990s. Back in the '60s, David Kaiser reminds us, this was the generation of Rusk, McNamara, the two Bundys, alias the "best and brightest" on the far side of the angry "generation gap."
In this extraordinary book, Kaiser reveals more than just who wrote which memo for whom; he also describes and interprets the peer motivations that made Vietnam the tragic failure of these men of geopolitical hubris, numbers-crunching technocracy, and "controlled response" secularism--much to the anger of their draft-age children.
Kaiser's sharp eye for generational dynamics is what makes "American Tragedy" such a fine and complete history, one that should be required reading for anyone who has read or heard Brokaw's encomia. Yes, this was a "great generation," but also one with great flaws. They, not Boomers, were the real Vietnam Generation.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book tells us things that previous books haven't, apparently because of newly released documents the author managed to get access to. He is very persuasive about his theories of what went wrong and when. It sheds a whole new light on this period of history, and it convinced me that several things I thoughtI knew about it were wrong.Everyone with an interest in this terrible war should read it.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Steven S. Berizzi on June 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
David E. Kaiser, American Tragedy : Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000)
As the Vietnam War recedes into history, debate over its causes and conduct continues. In this massive, authoritative study of the war's origins, David Kaiser asserts that Dwight Eisenhower initiated policies calling for military responses to Communist aggression in Southeast Asia, and John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, although they may have questioned these policies, never changed them. Kennedy was reluctant to commit American ground forces in Vietnam. In contrast, Johnson was determined to confront North Vietnam, and the war began in earnest early in 1965, when the bombing campaign commenced and ground forces were introduced.
Kaiser offers the provocative theses that the war was the work of the "GI generation," a term he borrows from William Strauss and Neil Howe's 1991 book Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, for men born between 1901 and 1924 who lived through the Great Depression and then did most of the fighting during World War II. According to Kaiser, the "strengths" of the GI generation included a "willingness to tackle tough and costly tasks, a faith in the institutions of the government of the United States, a great capacity for teamwork and consensus, and a relentless optimism," and its weaknesses included "an unwillingness to question basic assumptions, or even to admit the possibility of failure, or to understand that the rest of the American population was less inclined to favor struggle and sacrifice for their own stake.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Osher Doctorow, Ph.D. on May 8, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Professor David Kaiser of the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College tells us the real story behind the bureaucrats who put us into Vietnam, and in doing so lives up to the highest traditions of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps which have generally been far ahead of the other services in their resistance to bureaucratic pressures from politicians. The CIA refused to provide Kaiser with anything but token documents, violating the Freedom of Information Act. Kaiser shows how politicians including Presidents Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson grew up under the spell of Churchill's anti-appeasement speeches to believe that the USA had to become the World Policeman. When he became President, Eisenhower began U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia covertly and the Joint Chiefs of Staff except General Shoup of the Marines were badgered into accepting this. When John F. Kennedy became President, both his Senate and Navy service led him to oppose intervention for a long time, in agreement with the U.S. Senate Democrats (Mansfield, Humphrey, etc.) and isolationist Republicans (Dirksen, etc.). The State Department Bureaucrats (who controlled the CIA) and their allies in related departments and the Joint Chiefs so badgered and pressured Kennedy that he eventually collapsed under their bombardment and agreed to intervention in Laos. When Johnson came in as President, he made full scale intervention. Some readers may recall that I have reviewed biographies of Field Marshalls Montgomery and Slim of Great Britain and Marshall/General Zhukov of Russia but not Eisenhower. The Allies produced 4 creative geniuses in World WarII: Montgomery, Slim, Zhukov, and Admiral Nimitz. Eisenhower was not one of them.Read more ›
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