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American Tragedy Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War by David E. Kaiser

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


American Tragedy Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War by David E. Kaiser

Fought as fiercely by the politicians and the public as by troops in south-east Asia, the Vietnam War - its origins, its conduct, its consequences - is still being contested. Based on newly opened archival sources, David Kaiser rewrites what we know about this conflict. reviving and expanding a venerable tradition of political, diplomatic, and military history, he shows not only why we entered the war, but also why our efforts were doomed to fall. The book draws on complete official documentation and tells the full story of how we became involved in Vietnam - and the story it tells challenges widely held assumptions about the roles of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Using a range of source materials from these administrations, Kaiser shows how the policies that led to the war were developed during Eisenhower's tenure and nearly implemented in the closing days of his administration in response to a crisis in Laos; how Kennedy immediately reversed course on Laos and refused for three years to follow recommendations for military action in south-east Asia; and how Eisenhower's policies re-emerged in the military intervention mounted by the Johnson administration. As he places these findings in the context of the Cold War and broader American objectives, Kaiser offers the best analysis to date of the actual beginnings of the war in Vietnam, the impact of the American advisory mission from 1962 through 1965, and the initial strategy of General Westmorland. A deft re-creation of the deliberations, actions and deceptions that brought two decades of post-World War II confidence to an ignominious end, this book offers an insight into the Vietnam War at home and abroad - and into American foreign policy in the 1960s.


Kaiser has worked his way through the archives and emerged with an impressive account of what he terms 'the greatest policy miscalculation in the history of American foreign relations.
The book is a detailed narrative of the war

-related decisions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, tracing American involvement from the late 1950's to the dispatch of ground troops in 1965. All the familiar elements of the story are here--the early crisis in Laos , the hapless military advisory mission, the choices of 1964-65 that Americanized the war--along with some new tidbits as well, like a transcript of John F. Kennedy's private post-mortem on the 1963 coup against the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. -- Gideon Rose New York Times Book Review It's been a long time since we had a 'big
book on the war in Vietnam. American Tragedy is that book

. -- Shimshon Arad Jerusalem Post As revisionists continue their hallucinatory attempts to re-write Vietnam as another WWII--if only we had had the will to win--careful scholarship is deepening our understanding of very different, painful story, from which wisdom to shape a better future still might come, giving belated meaning and significance to the lives of those who died there for other men's folly. American Tragedy is a landmark of such scholarship, and of the struggle to redeem something of value from the most wantonly destructive episode of our history in the past 50 years. -- Paul Rosenberg Denver Post Kaiser's grasp of the broader sweep of the flow of history enables him to analyse how the lessons of the history of the 1930s were misapplied by the G. I. Generation to Vietnam in the 1960s. Moreover, Kaiser's military background leads him to discuss in more detail and with greater authority than in most accounts the military aspects of the conflict. -- Peter Boyle Times Higher Education Supplement [Kaiser's] Vietnam book is strongest on the Kennedy period...[He] persuasively argues that Kennedy would have avoided a major American war in Vietnam had he lived. Foreign Affairs [Kaiser] presents an excellent, comprehensive chronological accounting of Vietnam War policymaking in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The book's strongest point is Kaiser's extensive use of newly released primary materials. Along with his narrative, the author also offers an opinionated analysis of what he calls 'the greatest policy miscalculation in the history of American foreign relations.
Marc Leepson Dallas Morning News 20010107 In American Tragedy, David Kaiser examines the origins of the war and the fateful decisions that resulted in issues that haunted the country in subsequent decades. With new evidence from the State and Defense Departments, Kaiser documents Kennedy

's wariness of intervention Kaiser writes very good history; he deserves a wide serious audience. -- Stanley I. Kutler Chicago Tribune His historiographical argument is sure to antagonize the military establishment, the CIA, surviving key policymakers like William Bundy and McNamara, anti-war critics on the left, defenders of the American commitment to fight Asian communism--and even some of his fellow historians...Kaiser is spectacularly persuasive in placing nuclear weapons at the pregnant center of the Joint Chiefs'
assumptions in Vietnam. There were indeed

'wild men waiting in the wings,'
as McGeorge Bundy later put it, ready to invade North Vietnam with tactical nuclear weapons. And that would have even been an even greater disaster than what happened. It is in this light that Kaiser

's book is an invaluable contribution to the on-going task of peeling back further layers of the history. -- Kai Bird Washington Post Book World What Professor Kaiser exposes fully is the early American preparation for nuclear war in Southeast Asia and, if necessary, with China. Skeptics may dismiss this as mere contingency planning, but the Joint Chiefs went beyond preparing for a contingency to advocacy; and Kaiser shows how superiors were willing to go along with them...Kaiser's theme throughout his fascinating but depressing study is that the main actors, defying expert knowledge, could not see that their project was doomed and never defined their ultimate objectives apart from keeping Hanoi from winning. -- Jonathan Mirsky New York Review of Books Kaiser, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, bases his account of Vietnam policy-making not on the abstractions of international relations theory but on an exhaustive examination of the documentary record. The portrait he paints of Cold War liberalism is a frightening one. -- Bill Boisvert In These Times The Vietnam war has been studied exhaustively but never, in many minds, satisfactorily...That makes American Tragedy a valuable, even indispensable, addition to the long, groaning shelf of books examining the path the United States took when it stumbled into its most disastrous foreign war. David Kaiser has done prodigious documentary research, studying material that had not been previously available, and has arrived at a thesis that is sure to be controversial and to open, once again, the old and painful wounds. -- Geoffrey Norman American Way This masterpiece of governmental history locates the roots of the Vietnam War not in the Johnson era or even Kennedy administration, but back in the military policies of the Eisenhower era...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...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. Publishers Weekly An important addition to the sad--and growing--library devoted to the Vietnam war. Kaiser is a longtime professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College--an important qualification, given the provocative news he brings in his heavily documented tome...Highly useful to scholars, and certain to excite discussion and even controversy, Kaiser's book is a valuable contribution. Kirkus Reviews [An] excellent investigation of the roots of the Vietnam War...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...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

. -- Karl Helicher Library Journal Kaiser [attempts] to shift a significant share of the responsibility [for the Vietnam War] to those military and foreign-policy specialists in the Eisenhower administration who believed that Communist 'aggression
has to be resisted everywhere at all times. In Kaiser

's scenario, a cautious President Kennedy consistently resisted the entreaties of State and Defense Department professionals (many of them Eisenhower holdovers) to dramatically expand our commitment in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Kaiser asserts, President Johnson was far more willing to accept the advice of those same men. Kaiser, utilizing substantial and newly available source material, deftly organizes a vast amount of data into a provocative and important contribution to the controversy. -- Jay Freeman Booklist The question of the [Vietnam] war's nobility will be debated for years, but Kaiser's deeply researched, thoughtful and fresh look at the origin of America's stumble into war sets the standard for all future books. Kaiser invokes 'tragedy'
in its classical sense: good men

, devoted to a worthy cause, putting in motion actions that would bring unplanned, dreadful consequences. -- Bruce Clayton Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio

About the Author

David Kaiser is a noted historian and a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College.

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Book Info

Publication date

3rd December 2001


David E. Kaiser

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The Belknap Press an imprint of Harvard University Press


576 pages


History of the Americas
Asian history



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