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Making Vietnam History

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 28, Number 4, December 2000
pp. 625-629 | 10.1353/rah.2000.0068

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Reviews in American History 28.4 (2000) 625-629



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Making Vietnam History

Joseph J. Ellis


David Kaiser. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 566pp. Notes, index, illustrations, and maps. $29.95.

For those of us old enough to retain vivid memories of the conflict, the Vietnam War will always remain too recent and raw to qualify as history. But as the war recedes into the middle distance of American memory, and as an entire generation reaches maturity wholly bereft of any direct exposure to the carnage in Southeast Asia or the political cacophonies it generated at home, the Vietnam War has begun to spawn a historical literature worthy of the name. David Kaiser's new book is a major entry in this lengthening list, which has grown dramatically in the last decade, in part because the end of the Cold War has provided a fresh perspective from which to view Vietnam as an episode in that larger struggle, in part because both domestic and foreign archives have made previously classified material available to researchers.

American Tragedy is not really about the conduct of the Vietnam War so much as the decisions made by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations that led us to the edge and then over the abyss. For that reason, it evades an encounter with recent studies that argue, for example, that a negotiated settlement was possible in 1968, or that the Vietnamization policy instituted by General Creighton Abrams had successfully neutralized the National Liberation Front in the countryside by 1970, thereby making the central tragedy of the war the American withdrawal and the central villain in the story the anti-war movement. 1

Kaiser believes, and I think the bulk of the historical evidence is on his side, that the Vietnam War was both unnecessary and unwinnable. It was unnecessary because the vaunted "domino theory" turned out to be mostly wrong. Laos and Cambodia succumbed to the communist spell, but the remainder of Southeast Asia and the Pacific rim nations did not. And the eventual implosion of the Soviet Union in 1990 occurred in spite of rather than because of America's decision to make Vietnam a venue in which to project its credibility in the Cold War. (If anything, American credibility was dramatically eroded.) The war was unwinnable because sustaining a non-communist [End Page 625] South Vietnam was never possible without attacking the source of the problem in Hanoi. We now know that Mao Zedong had pledged to unleash his Chinese hordes if United States ground troops invaded North Vietnam. As a result, no American military strategy with prospects for victory was feasible, and the only feasible strategy--a war of attrition in the South--had no prospects for victory. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that those 58,000 names on the Vietnam War memorial died in a noble but futile cause.

All the more reason, then, to explain how such a hopelessly misguided and mindbogglingly wasteful venture was ever mounted on the first place. Kaiser's explanation takes the form of a highly detailed chronological narrative, a year-by-year and sometimes day-by-day recounting of the story from the latter years of the Eisenhower presidency to the massive commitment of American ground troops by Lyndon Johnson in July 1965. Although this is much-traveled ground, Kaiser provides the fullest account yet written of the veritable mountain of memoranda exchanged among the shifting players in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon.

There are several truly poignant documentary moments. For example, after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, President Kennedy begins to record his reaction on the tape recorder in the Oval Office. His three-year-old son, then called John-John, interrupts the recording session, says "Hello" and "naughty, naughty Daddy," then Kennedy continues with his rumination:

I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu. I'd met Diem with Justice Douglas many years ago. He was an extraordinary character. While he became increasingly difficult in the last...