May 14, 2000
New York Times
For many if not most Americans over 40, the Vietnam War was a life-defining trauma. For nearly all under 40, it is just another bit of history. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is closer to the Great Depression than to the Nasdaq 100, and a generation raised on immaculate interventions like Haiti and Kosovo can be forgiven for finding it incomprehensible that nearly 60,000 Americans died to shape the destiny of some fetid jungles halfway around the world.
This amnesia offers historians both an opportunity and a challenge: to tell us how such events could have happened, and to help us understand what seems past understanding. David Kaiser’s ”American Tragedy” is the latest attempt along these lines, following a number of others over the years. A professor at the Naval War College, 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. Kaiser shows us one official after another stumbling forward toward the edge of the abyss. Ambassador Frederick Nolting and Gen. Paul Harkins, the senior Americans on the ground in 1962-63, come off particularly poorly, as do Gen. Maxwell Taylor (in his role as a successor to Nolting) and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Although Kaiser’s study is really a collection of trees rather than a picture of the forest, it does have a simple general thesis: Kennedy good, Eisenhower and Johnson bad. The Eisenhower administration made a commitment to sustain a non-Communist South Vietnam by any means necessary, he argues, which the Johnson administration followed through on several years later. Kennedy’s team was on board too, but the doomed prince of Camelot himself was a freer and more skeptical spirit: ”We shall never know what Kennedy would have done with respect to Vietnam had he lived to serve a second term, but it is clear that the Vietnam War would have begun three or four years earlier than it did had he taken his subordinates’ advice to send troops.”
Kaiser’s Kennedy is not someone ready to ”pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” but rather a leader with ”the wisdom to recognize tasks whose costs would inevitably outweigh any possible benefits, and who had refused to begin that war again and again.”
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