AMERICAN TRAGEDY by David Kaiser

AMERICAN TRAGEDY

Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War

KIRKUS REVIEW

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 this heavily documented tome. Kaiser's argument runs counter to what in some quarters is now received wisdom: that Eisenhower was reluctant to involve Americans in Vietnam; that his successor, Kennedy, was a hawk in liberal's clothing. Kaiser modifies that view, writing that military commitment in Vietnam was a natural result of the Eisenhower administration's policy of global anticommunist containment—and that Kennedy, himself a former officer, was a cautious critic of the Pentagon, which had gladly taken on the opportunity to flex its military muscle and test out new ordnance in a faraway place. After Kennedy's assassination, Kaiser continues, Lyndon Johnson followed Eisenhower's lead to give the military essentially free rein, trusting Kennedy administration alumnus Robert McNamara to guide him truthfully—something, Kaiser and many other historians tell us, that McNamara willfully failed to do. As a result, Kaiser writes, ``Johnson undertook the war without giving much consideration to the damage it would do to other aspects of American foreign policy'' and indeed allowed it to dominate his presidency, despite frequent warnings from confidants such as Hubert Humphrey that the time had come to cut and run. Critical of the Pentagon, and convinced that Eisenhower's policy was doomed to fail, Kaiser warns that until North Vietnamese archives are available to scholars we can have no way of knowing how closely Ho Chi Minh's policy was bound to dictates from Moscow or Beijing—the fear of which provided the argument for containment in the first place.

Highly useful to scholars, and certain to excite discussion and even controversy, Kaiser's book is a valuable contribution.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-674-00225-3
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2000




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