American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War

David E. Kaiser, Author
David E. Kaiser, Author Belknap Press $36 (576p) ISBN 978-0-674-00225-8
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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 weapons--toward 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 actions--most 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.)
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