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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.3 (2002) 119-121

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Book Review

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

David Kaiser, American Tragedy; Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2000. 576 pp. $35.00.

Drawing on the vast and largely complete documentary record of the escalating U.S. involvement in Indochina from 1961 to 1965, three historians—Orrin Schwab, Frederik Logevall, and now David Kaiser—have recently examined American policy from divergent perspectives. Despite differences of emphasis and argument, they reach similar conclusions about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the ultimate decision for war. In Defending the Free World: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War, 1961-1965 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998) Schwab casts American actions within the imperative of the technocratic expansion of Cold War-driven internationalism. In Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), Logevall criticizes the failure of U.S. officials to pursue disengagement as the political-military situation in South Vietnam deteriorated. In American Tragedy, Kaiser offers the most comprehensive and ambitious work to date. He claims to provide the first full accounts of U.S. "advisory" military operations in the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration's complicity in the overthrow of the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, the international context of the U.S. policy in Laos and Cambodia, and "by far the most thorough and best-documented account yet of the American decision to go to war" (p. 7). To a large extent, such claims are justified. Kaiser expertly traces the complex struggle over U.S. policy making in Laos and Vietnam.

Kaiser's book stresses the shallowness of the thinking of the military leadership (which was trapped in a mindset of conventional warfare), Washington's practice of ignoring the Saigon embassy and the South Vietnamese government when formulating policy, and the influence of other Cold War issues on the U.S. position in Southeast Asia. In addition, Kaiser goes beyond the corridors of power and refers to coverage in The New York Times and other leading American newspapers and magazines, thus providing a sense of what educated Americans were learning about the crisis as it unfolded.

Kaiser's interpretation restates some familiar arguments while advancing a number of fresh perspectives and insights. Borrowing from the works of William Strauss and Neil Howe on the dynamic of generational change in American culture and politics, Kaiser attributes the shaping of U.S. policy to the influence of the "GI generation," born in the years from 1901 to 1924 and fully confident of the country's ability [End Page 119] to meet any challenge. He contrasts it with the "Lost generation," born in the period from 1883 to 1901 and less sanguine about the prospects for improving humanity and skeptical of dispersing U.S resources across the globe. The distinctions between the two, however, are muddied; for instance, both are characterized as disinclined to question the assumptions of policy and reluctant to negotiate with adversaries. So, did it make any difference who was shaping policy in the 1960s? To his credit, Kaiser does not push the generational argument too far, yet there unquestionably was a peculiar arrogance to the "best and the brightest" whom Kennedy brought to Washington.

Kaiser's assessment of the three presidents who took the United States into Vietnam—the part of the book that is by far the most important—also shows the blurring of generational lines. Contrary to revisionists who claim that Dwight Eisenhower was unusually restrained in his use of American power, Kaiser argues that Eisenhower in fact embarked on a reckless course in Indochina by rejecting neutralism, planning for war, and leaving Kennedy with crises that were largely of American making. Kennedy, according to Kaiser, met the challenge by pursuing a negotiated settlement in Laos and resisting pressures to commit U.S. ground forces in Vietnam. In the long-standing debate over...