- Paperback: 576 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press (January 30, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674006720
- ISBN-13: 978-0674006720
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #644,351 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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. Even more interesting, Kaiser presents evidence by way of policy changes made By President Kennedy illustrating his own deep concern and reticence regarding involvement in the former French Indochina. In fact, the author shows that for the three years of his administration, Kennedy purposefully denied repeated attempts by both his senior advisors and the military to significantly widen our action in Vietnam. According to Kaiser, while JFK did allow escalation by way of many more military advisors, he repeatedly quite specifically denied, both verbally and by way of documented minutes to meetings with advisors, authorization to escalate by introducing direct combat involvement.
However, the author argues that even Kennedy was seriously misled and misserved as to the status of ongoing efforts by deliberate deception on the part of that great national hero and contemporary revisionist historian, Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense in Kennedy's administration (see my review of McNamara's book). As a result, Kennedy died believing the situation in Vietnam to be much more constrained and careful than it actually was. With Kennedy's departure from the scene in late 1963, events began to move much more quickly and fatefully toward our blind involvement in a situation we neither appreciated the complexity of nor had any real strategy to deal with. In this sense, Lyndon Johnson became the single worst possible foil for the efforts by McNamara and Army General William Westmoreland to massively escalate the war by introducing forty-four combat battalions to the conflict.
According to Kaiser, Johnson lacked Jack Kennedy's sophisticated foreign policy approach and did not understand or appreciate the massively negative effects that an active prosecution of the war would have in our relationship with the rest of the world. So, even as he reassured the American people to the contrary, Lyndon Johnson prepared for a quick and massive entry into the single most disastrous American foreign policy decision of the 20th century. Later, of course, he tried to extricate himself from the tar baby the war became for his administration, yet given his own philosophical world view as a cold warrior, could never manage to take Hubert Humphrey's advice to "just cut and run'. Likewise, Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, did no better. After shamelessly interfering in the internal political disposition of the South Vietnamese government through Madame Chennault in order to ensure his place in winning the closely contested 1968 elections, Nixon soon found himself stuck to the waist in the sucking quicksand of continuing involvement in the war and a terrifying related national debate approaching a revolutionary fervor. He waited four long and painful years before finally ending American involvement.
This is a wonderfully written book, and the author's style is both entertaining and edifying. He handily deals with a myriad of issues, complexions, and countervailing situations with aplomb, honesty and verve. He makes the otherwise inexplicable descent into national madness and the nightmare of Vietnam all too understandable and human. While I do not share his personally stated philosophical resignation regarding the liability of those individuals responsible for prosecuting the war (I still believe that Robert McNamara, General William Westmoreland, and a number of others should be tried as war criminals for crimes against humanity; after all, otherwise to try Serbians and Croats for their detestable deeds in the former Yugoslavia is utter hypocrisy), I believe this book will quickly become the standard text for helping us to understand how the ritual abuse of power by officials not democratically elected can itself become an anti-democratic force profoundly affecting not only the lives of our citizens, but people everywhere in the developing world.
Hopefully books like this will help us to come to understand and accept the reality of what the American government did in our name to Vietnam. We need to understand how we came to export our darkest emotional suspicions and a sense of national paranoia about a monolithic communist threat into an incredibly murderous campaign that almost exterminated a whole generation of Vietnamese by way of indiscriminate carpet bombing, deliberate use of environmentally horrific defoliates, and creation of so-called "free-fire" zones, where everthing and anything moving was assumed to be hostile, whether it be man, woman, child, or beast. All of this was visited on the world in general and the Vietnamese in particular for little or no reason other than the extremely aggressive and ultimately dangerous can-do macho world-view of the power elite. The sooner we recognize this, the better it will be for us as citizens of a democratic government, and the more likely it is we will stop the next set of so- inclined bureaucratic monsters from acting in this way again.
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." Kennedy and Johnson, most of their senior civilian advisers, and all of the Joint Chiefs, belonged to the GI generation, and they "almost unquestionably accepted the need to resist Communist expansion wherever it took place." Nevertheless, the Kennedy administration never agreed about policy in Vietnam. According to Kaiser, throughout most of 1961, Kennedy "resisted the bureaucracy's repeated calls for full-scale American military intervention in Southeast Asia." Events in1962 made intervention more certain, and the Pentagon began planning "to defeat the Viet Cong...with conventional military operations." But, by that time, President Kennedy was increasingly reliant on State Department official Roger Hillsman, who believed that "[c]onventional military tactics were ineffective against guerrillas." Ngo Dinh Diem's government in South Vietnam also posed serious problems. The regime received significant American aid, and its army was wholly financed by the United States, but "Diem never showed the slightest tendency to follow American advice." To the contrary, Diem relied upon his widely-hated brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. In late 1961, when the U.S. proposed "fundamental changes in the operation of Diem's government and army in order to win the struggle against the Communists," Diem resisted. Coup rumors circulated for the next two years. Kaiser provides a lengthy, detailed narrative of the administration's relationship to Diem's demise. In June 1963, longstanding Buddhist opposition to the regime erupted into a full-scale crisis, and this "ultimately led to the overthrow and assassination of Diem." Until then, according to Kaiser, "President Kennedy generally stayed out of the details of Vietnam policy," but, the situation in South Vietnam began "to require attention at the highest levels." By August, The New York Times reported that "the United States has almost openly been advocating a military coup," but what Kennedy "feared more than anything, from August through October, was an American-sponsored coup that failed." American ambivalence, sometimes encouraging the plotters, sometimes showing disdain, was inexcusable. Nowhere in this country's history is there a more shameful record of the U.S. maneuvering to undermine an ostensibly friendly government. According to Kaiser, "the four key men who led the United States into the Vietnam War" were Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Kaiser writes that "Johnson, McNamara, and Rusk - with Bundy's general support - had forged a personal bond around the cause of the war in South Vietnam." Kaiser's indictments are hard, if not harsh. Johnson never evinced "interest in any long-term alternative to escalation." The President later told Bundy, "I don't think [Vietnam is] worth fighting for," but Johnson seemed to believe that the United States could not get out without a substantial loss of face. Rusk "clung to his version of the lesson of the 1930s: that firmness alone could deter Communist aggression anywhere around the world." According to Kaiser, "[t]he mystique that built up around McNamara should not obscure the essence of his role: implementing other men's plans, in pursuit of other men's objectives," and "McNamara lacked the ability, or perhaps even the intention, to change the manner in which the U.S. Army planned to fight this war." And, in May 1964, Bundy told Johnson that "the US cannot tolerate the loss of Southeast Asia to Communism." Kaiser makes clear that Kennedy and Johnson missed several opportunities to disengage from Vietnam. In November 1961, John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy's ambassador to India, visited Saigon, and, after reporting that "Diem's political intransigence was probably the biggest source" of South Vietnam's problems, Galbraith suggested that "the United States would eventually have to dump" Diem. In August 1963, Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader and an expert on Asia, confidentially advised Kennedy that "the United States should reserve the right to withdraw its assistance should the Saigon government prove incapable of making use of it." In March 1965, Walter Lippmann wrote that South Vietnam was not a vital American interest. And, during a 1965 meeting with President Johnson, Clark Clifford argued, according to Kaiser, that, if the U.S. did not get out of Vietnam, "the alternative was a five-year, 50,000-casualty war that China and the Soviet Union would never allow the United States to win."
According to Kaiser, "[o]ne great irony of the Vietnam war...is its essential lack of effect upon the Cold War." That is a startling conclusion, but it is essentially correct. Kaiser's position is supported by the fact that the Cold War continued for nearly 15 years after the fall of Saigon and then ended in favor of the United States. The war in Vietnam was, in every sense, an American tragedy.