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US history and politics

The players who set the stage for US tragedy

American Tragedy

In recent years, a vast amount of new documentation on the war in Vietnam has been opened. Seven volumes on Vietnam, for example, have been published in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, containing a massive amount of carefully annotated and splendidly edited documentation. Thousands of documents have been released in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson presidential libraries. At the same time, new sources have been opened and new evaluations have been offered on the foreign policies of Kennedy and Johnson, such as new sources on the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 or Robert Dallek's biography of Johnson. There was a need, therefore, for a major re-evaluation of the origins of US involvement in Vietnam in the light of these new primary sources and secondary studies. David Kaiser has produced an admirable such re-evaluation.

Kaiser's background is in European history. This has made him more inclined to place the war in its wider historical perspective than many US diplomatic historians have done. Kaiser makes references to the Peloponnesian wars in comparison to Vietnam, and to William Pitt the Elder during the American war of independence as a comparison to US under-secretary of state George Ball during the Vietnam war, as examples of dissenters against the policies of their governments. Kaiser demonstrates a sound understanding of the underlying historical forces that drew America into war. But he is not a determinist, and he places considerable emphasis on the role of personalities. In particular, Kaiser portrays Kennedy in a favourable light as a sophisticated practitioner of foreign policy, while Johnson is portrayed as an unsubtle prisoner of dogma who led the US into disaster.

Kaiser does not deal directly with the hypothesis of whether America would have pursued a different policy in Vietnam if Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963. But Kaiser makes his view fairly clear, writing, for example, that "chance played another cruel trick on the United States, by striking down the man who combined the characteristic courage and energy of his contemporaries with the wisdom to recognise tasks whose costs would inevitably outweigh any possible benefits".

Kaiser begins with an analysis of the situation that Kennedy inherited from Dwight Eisenhower. He is critical of Eisenhower's policy towards Southeast Asia, suggesting that this would provide evidence in support of the "post-revisionist" view of Eisenhower that is now in vogue, which has many more reservations with regard to Eisenhower than were held by historians such as Stephen Ambrose, Jeff Greenfield and other such "revisionists" who regarded Eisenhower very highly. Kaiser suggests that, although Eisenhower kept the US out of war in Southeast Asia in 1954, he subsequently boxed America into a rigid policy of commitment to prevent the fall of South Vietnam to communism, to be achieved, if necessary, by unilateral US action and by use, at an extreme, of nuclear weapons.

Kaiser suggests that Kennedy took a more flexible and sophisticated position. He dismisses Kennedy's statements in his inaugural address "to bear any burden, to pay any price" for the defence of liberty as rhetorical excess. More typical of Kennedy was his policy in Laos or in the Cuban missile crisis, which illustrate his inclination towards the least belligerent options.

Kaiser discusses the complicated situation in Laos in the early 1960s in detail, showing how Kennedy was prepared to accept a neutral Laos with a coalition government of a communist, a neutralist and a pro-western figure.In the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy took a circumspect, probing approach,shrinking from the extreme measures of an air strike or an invasion of Cuba and seeking, even if in a disingenuous fashion, to resolve the crisis by diplomatic means. After the missile crisis, Kennedy's primary goal was the pursuit of detente with the Soviet Union. Moreover, he had some empathy with the aspirations of third-world countries and was prepared to a reasonable extent to be tolerant of their adoption of a neutral standpoint. It is suggested that Kennedy "would never have made a decision to fight in South-east Asia in isolation from his broader foreign policy goals".

After Kennedy's assassination, US policy under Johnson reverted to the rigid position of Eisenhower. Moreover, since Johnson's main goals were in the domestic sphere, he relied heavily on advisers. Kaiser identifies the key advisers as secretary of state Dean Rusk, secretary of defense Robert Macnamara and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. These men, along with Johnson, were the principal architects of the catastrophic policy of the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam. Furthermore, Kaiser illustrates that Johnson took a conscious decision not to seek the approval of Congress and the American people for the expansion of the war but to conceal his policy and to take the nation into war by stealth and deception. While the broad lines of Johnson's policy have long been known, Kaiser traces, using much fuller documentation than has previously been available, the deliberations within the US government in 1964, when Johnson was running for president and seen as inclined towards moderate solutions, compared with his extremist Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, while plans were being laid for the disastrous policies that were pursued in 1965 of escalating the war by bombing North Vietnam and sending hundreds of thousands of ground troops to South Vietnam.

In a chapter titled "Bad history, wrong war", Kaiser analyses the false assumptions on which US intervention in Vietnam was based. Again, his analysis is not essentially novel and his interpretation does not fundamentally differ from the "misapplication of containment" thesis advanced by such previous historians of the Vietnam war as George Herring or Robert Schulzinger. But Kaiser gives richness of depth and detail in his discussion of how the "G I generation", as he terms them - figures who were born in the first quarter of the 20th century, such as Rusk, Macnamara, Johnson, Republicans such as Richard Nixon, military leaders such as Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland, and had lived through the experience of isolationism and appeasement in the 1930s - had learned the lesson of history that America must take the lead to deter or to prevent at an early stage the spread of totalitarian aggression. 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.

Kaiser's title, American Tragedy , implies that events, as in a Greek tragedy, swept the participants along in an unstoppable tide towards disaster. Yet Kaiser does not altogether suggest a tale of the inevitable. There were dissenters, such as William Fulbright and George Ball. Neither Congress nor public opinion had any enthusiasm for the war. Above all, there was Kennedy. Hope of accommodation in Vietnam in the early 1960s remained reasonably strong, in Kaiser's view, until the course of events was tragically altered by the fateful shots in Dallas on November 22 1963.

Peter G. Boyle is senior lecturer in American history, University of Nottingham.

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

Author - David Kaiser
ISBN - 0 674 00225 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 566

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