American Tragedy

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Overview

Fought as fiercely by politicians and the public as by troops in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War--its origins, its conduct, its consequences--is still being contested. In what will become the classic account, based on newly opened archival sources, David Kaiser rewrites what we know about this conflict. Reviving and expanding a venerable tradition of political, diplomatic, and military history, he shows not only why we entered the war, but also why our efforts were doomed to fail.

American Tragedy is the first book to draw on complete official documentation to tell the full story of how we became involved in Vietnam--and the story it tells decisively challenges widely held assumptions about the roles of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Using an enormous range of source materials from these administrations, Kaiser shows how the policies that led to the war were developed during Eisenhower's tenure and nearly implemented in the closing days of his administration in response to a crisis in Laos; how Kennedy immediately reversed course on Laos and refused for three years to follow recommendations for military action in Southeast Asia; and how Eisenhower's policies reemerged in the military intervention mounted by the Johnson administration. As he places these findings in the context of the Cold War and broader American objectives, Kaiser offers the best analysis to date of the actual beginnings of the war in Vietnam, the impact of the American advisory mission from 1962 through 1965, and the initial strategy of General Westmoreland.

A deft re-creation of the deliberations, actions, and deceptions that brought two decades of post-World War II confidence to an ignominious end, American Tragedy offers unparalleled insight into the Vietnam War at home and abroad--and into American foreign policy in the 1960s.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review

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.
— Gideon Rose

Jerusalem Post

It's been a long time since we had a 'big' book on the war in Vietnam. American Tragedy is that book.
— Shimshon Arad

Denver Post

As revisionists continue their hallucinatory attempts to re-write Vietnam as another WWII—if only we had had the will to win—careful scholarship is deepening our understanding of very different, painful story, from which wisdom to shape a better future still might come, giving belated meaning and significance to the lives of those who died there for other men's folly. American Tragedy is a landmark of such scholarship, and of the struggle to redeem something of value from the most wantonly destructive episode of our history in the past 50 years.
— Paul Rosenberg

Times Higher Education Supplement

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.
— Peter Boyle

Foreign Affairs
[Kaiser's] Vietnam book is strongest on the Kennedy period...[He] persuasively argues that Kennedy would have avoided a major American war in Vietnam had he lived.
Dallas Morning News

[Kaiser] presents an excellent, comprehensive chronological accounting of Vietnam War policymaking in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The book's strongest point is Kaiser's extensive use of newly released primary materials. Along with his narrative, the author also offers an opinionated analysis of what he calls 'the greatest policy miscalculation in the history of American foreign relations.'
— Marc Leepson

Chicago Tribune

In American Tragedy, David Kaiser examines the origins of the war and the fateful decisions that resulted in issues that haunted the country in subsequent decades. With new evidence from the State and Defense Departments, Kaiser documents Kennedy's wariness of intervention Kaiser writes very good history; he deserves a wide serious audience.
— Stanley I. Kutler

Washington Post Book World

His historiographical argument is sure to antagonize the military establishment, the CIA, surviving key policymakers like William Bundy and McNamara, anti-war critics on the left, defenders of the American commitment to fight Asian communism—and even some of his fellow historians...Kaiser is spectacularly persuasive in placing nuclear weapons at the pregnant center of the Joint Chiefs' assumptions in Vietnam. There were indeed 'wild men waiting in the wings,' as McGeorge Bundy later put it, ready to invade North Vietnam with tactical nuclear weapons. And that would have even been an even greater disaster than what happened. It is in this light that Kaiser's book is an invaluable contribution to the on-going task of peeling back further layers of the history.
— Kai Bird

New York Review of Books

What Professor Kaiser exposes fully is the early American preparation for nuclear war in Southeast Asia and, if necessary, with China. Skeptics may dismiss this as mere contingency planning, but the Joint Chiefs went beyond preparing for a contingency to advocacy; and Kaiser shows how superiors were willing to go along with them...Kaiser's theme throughout his fascinating but depressing study is that the main actors, defying expert knowledge, could not see that their project was doomed and never defined their ultimate objectives apart from keeping Hanoi from winning.
— Jonathan Mirsky

In These Times

Kaiser, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, bases his account of Vietnam policy-making not on the abstractions of international relations theory but on an exhaustive examination of the documentary record. The portrait he paints of Cold War liberalism is a frightening one.
— Bill Boisvert

American Way

The Vietnam war has been studied exhaustively but never, in many minds, satisfactorily...That makes American Tragedy a valuable, even indispensable, addition to the long, groaning shelf of books examining the path the United States took when it stumbled into its most disastrous foreign war. David Kaiser has done prodigious documentary research, studying material that had not been previously available, and has arrived at a thesis that is sure to be controversial and to open, once again, the old and painful wounds.
— Geoffrey Norman

Booklist

Kaiser [attempts] to shift a significant share of the responsibility [for the Vietnam War] to those military and foreign-policy specialists in the Eisenhower administration who believed that Communist 'aggression' has to be resisted everywhere at all times. In Kaiser's scenario, a cautious President Kennedy consistently resisted the entreaties of State and Defense Department professionals (many of them Eisenhower holdovers) to dramatically expand our commitment in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Kaiser asserts, President Johnson was far more willing to accept the advice of those same men. Kaiser, utilizing substantial and newly available source material, deftly organizes a vast amount of data into a provocative and important contribution to the controversy.
— Jay Freeman

Ohio Plain Dealer [Cleveland
The question of the [Vietnam] war's nobility will be debated for years, but Kaiser's deeply researched, thoughtful and fresh look at the origin of America's stumble into war sets the standard for all future books. Kaiser invokes 'tragedy' in its classical sense: good men, devoted to a worthy cause, putting in motion actions that would bring unplanned, dreadful consequences.
— Bruce Clayton
New York Times Book Review - Gideon Rose
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.
Arthur Schlesinger
American Tragedy is a superb analysis of the debate within the United States government thirty-five years ago over what we should do about South Vietnam. David Kaiser shows in impressive and meticulous detail how we stumbled into an unnecessary war.
Jerusalem Post - Shimshon Arad
It's been a long time since we had a 'big' book on the war in Vietnam. American Tragedy is that book.
Denver Post - Paul Rosenberg
As revisionists continue their hallucinatory attempts to re-write Vietnam as another WWII--if only we had had the will to win--careful scholarship is deepening our understanding of very different, painful story, from which wisdom to shape a better future still might come, giving belated meaning and significance to the lives of those who died there for other men's folly. American Tragedy is a landmark of such scholarship, and of the struggle to redeem something of value from the most wantonly destructive episode of our history in the past 50 years.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Peter Boyle
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.
Dallas Morning News - Marc Leepson
[Kaiser] presents an excellent, comprehensive chronological accounting of Vietnam War policymaking in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The book's strongest point is Kaiser's extensive use of newly released primary materials. Along with his narrative, the author also offers an opinionated analysis of what he calls 'the greatest policy miscalculation in the history of American foreign relations.'
Ernest R. May
David Kaiser has written a remarkably thorough, detached, yet sensitive book about the U.S. war in Vietnam. His previous scholarship has ranted over the whole history of modern warfare, and he sets the Vietnam War in that context.
John Kenneth Galbraith
With newly declassified cables and high-level memoranda and policy instructions, good supporting research and clear prose, David Kaiser has written a very important book on Vietnam and the movement to disaster. Not before has there been such a compelling account of the pressures to which Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were subject from the military and its civilian acolytes, whose terrifying irresponsibility extended on to the proposed use of nuclear weapons. To repeat: a most important book, still relevant as to warriors advising on war.
Alan Brinkley
In the vast literature on American intervention in Vietnam, David Kaiser has added an indispensable and revelatory new book. Based on exhaustive research and profound scholarly insight, Kaiser makes clear that the nation's tragic involvement in Vietnam was neither arbitrary nor inevitable. No other study presents a fuller or more persuasive picture of this critical moment in our nation's history.
Douglas Brinkley
American Tragedy is a splendid reinterpretation of U. S. Involvement in Vietnam. David Kaiser has unearthed fascinating new archival material which helps us better understand why this remote Asian peninsula was such a contested Cold War prize. You cannot properly comprehend the Vietnam War without reading this first-rate book.
Robert Dallek
David Kaiser's book on the origins of the American tragedy in Vietnam is now the finest study on this much discussed subject. Kaiser's prodigious research and keen analysis gives us persuasive answers to the many questions journalists and historians have been asking for years about the roots of our involvement in the conflict. Kaiser's book will stand as the principal work on this compelling subject for years to come. Every one interested in the recent history of the United States will want to read this book.
Chicago Tribune - Stanley I. Kutler
In American Tragedy, David Kaiser examines the origins of the war and the fateful decisions that resulted in issues that haunted the country in subsequent decades. With new evidence from the State and Defense Departments, Kaiser documents Kennedy's wariness of intervention Kaiser writes very good history; he deserves a wide serious audience.
Washington Post Book World - Kai Bird
His historiographical argument is sure to antagonize the military establishment, the CIA, surviving key policymakers like William Bundy and McNamara, anti-war critics on the left, defenders of the American commitment to fight Asian communism--and even some of his fellow historians...Kaiser is spectacularly persuasive in placing nuclear weapons at the pregnant center of the Joint Chiefs' assumptions in Vietnam. There were indeed 'wild men waiting in the wings,' as McGeorge Bundy later put it, ready to invade North Vietnam with tactical nuclear weapons. And that would have even been an even greater disaster than what happened. It is in this light that Kaiser's book is an invaluable contribution to the on-going task of peeling back further layers of the history.
New York Review of Books - Jonathan Mirsky
What Professor Kaiser exposes fully is the early American preparation for nuclear war in Southeast Asia and, if necessary, with China. Skeptics may dismiss this as mere contingency planning, but the Joint Chiefs went beyond preparing for a contingency to advocacy; and Kaiser shows how superiors were willing to go along with them...Kaiser's theme throughout his fascinating but depressing study is that the main actors, defying expert knowledge, could not see that their project was doomed and never defined their ultimate objectives apart from keeping Hanoi from winning.
In These Times - Bill Boisvert
Kaiser, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, bases his account of Vietnam policy-making not on the abstractions of international relations theory but on an exhaustive examination of the documentary record. The portrait he paints of Cold War liberalism is a frightening one.
American Way - Geoffrey Norman
The Vietnam war has been studied exhaustively but never, in many minds, satisfactorily...That makes American Tragedy a valuable, even indispensable, addition to the long, groaning shelf of books examining the path the United States took when it stumbled into its most disastrous foreign war. David Kaiser has done prodigious documentary research, studying material that had not been previously available, and has arrived at a thesis that is sure to be controversial and to open, once again, the old and painful wounds.
Booklist - Jay Freeman
Kaiser [attempts] to shift a significant share of the responsibility [for the Vietnam War] to those military and foreign-policy specialists in the Eisenhower administration who believed that Communist 'aggression' has to be resisted everywhere at all times. In Kaiser's scenario, a cautious President Kennedy consistently resisted the entreaties of State and Defense Department professionals (many of them Eisenhower holdovers) to dramatically expand our commitment in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Kaiser asserts, President Johnson was far more willing to accept the advice of those same men. Kaiser, utilizing substantial and newly available source material, deftly organizes a vast amount of data into a provocative and important contribution to the controversy.
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio - Bruce Clayton
The question of the [Vietnam] war's nobility will be debated for years, but Kaiser's deeply researched, thoughtful and fresh look at the origin of America's stumble into war sets the standard for all future books. Kaiser invokes 'tragedy' in its classical sense: good men, devoted to a worthy cause, putting in motion actions that would bring unplanned, dreadful consequences.
Dallas Morning News
[Kaiser] presents an excellent, comprehensive chronological accounting of Vietnam War policymaking in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The book's strongest point is Kaiser's extensive use of newly released primary materials. Along with his narrative, the author also offers an opinionated analysis of what he calls 'the greatest policy miscalculation in the history of American foreign relations.'
— Marc Leepson
Chicago Tribune
In American Tragedy, David Kaiser examines the origins of the war and the fateful decisions that resulted in issues that haunted the country in subsequent decades. With new evidence from the State and Defense Departments, Kaiser documents Kennedy's wariness of intervention Kaiser writes very good history; he deserves a wide serious audience.
— Stanley I. Kutler
Booklist
Kaiser [attempts] to shift a significant share of the responsibility [for the Vietnam War] to those military and foreign-policy specialists in the Eisenhower administration who believed that Communist 'aggression' has to be resisted everywhere at all times. In Kaiser's scenario, a cautious President Kennedy consistently resisted the entreaties of State and Defense Department professionals (many of them Eisenhower holdovers) to dramatically expand our commitment in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Kaiser asserts, President Johnson was far more willing to accept the advice of those same men. Kaiser, utilizing substantial and newly available source material, deftly organizes a vast amount of data into a provocative and important contribution to the controversy.
— Jay Freeman
Denver Post
As revisionists continue their hallucinatory attempts to re-write Vietnam as another WWII--if only we had had the will to win--careful scholarship is deepening our understanding of very different, painful story, from which wisdom to shape a better future still might come, giving belated meaning and significance to the lives of those who died there for other men's folly. American Tragedy is a landmark of such scholarship, and of the struggle to redeem something of value from the most wantonly destructive episode of our history in the past 50 years.
— Paul Rosenberg
New York Times Book Review
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.
— Gideon Rose
Jerusalem Post
It's been a long time since we had a 'big' book on the war in Vietnam. American Tragedy is that book.
— Shimshon Arad
American Way
The Vietnam war has been studied exhaustively but never, in many minds, satisfactorily...That makes American Tragedy a valuable, even indispensable, addition to the long, groaning shelf of books examining the path the United States took when it stumbled into its most disastrous foreign war. David Kaiser has done prodigious documentary research, studying material that had not been previously available, and has arrived at a thesis that is sure to be controversial and to open, once again, the old and painful wounds.
— Geoffrey Norman
Washington Post Book World
His historiographical argument is sure to antagonize the military establishment, the CIA, surviving key policymakers like William Bundy and McNamara, anti-war critics on the left, defenders of the American commitment to fight Asian communism--and even some of his fellow historians...Kaiser is spectacularly persuasive in placing nuclear weapons at the pregnant center of the Joint Chiefs' assumptions in Vietnam. There were indeed 'wild men waiting in the wings,' as McGeorge Bundy later put it, ready to invade North Vietnam with tactical nuclear weapons. And that would have even been an even greater disaster than what happened. It is in this light that Kaiser's book is an invaluable contribution to the on-going task of peeling back further layers of the history.
— Kai Bird
New York Review of Books
What Professor Kaiser exposes fully is the early American preparation for nuclear war in Southeast Asia and, if necessary, with China. Skeptics may dismiss this as mere contingency planning, but the Joint Chiefs went beyond preparing for a contingency to advocacy; and Kaiser shows how superiors were willing to go along with them...Kaiser's theme throughout his fascinating but depressing study is that the main actors, defying expert knowledge, could not see that their project was doomed and never defined their ultimate objectives apart from keeping Hanoi from winning.
— Jonathan Mirsky
In These Times
Kaiser, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, bases his account of Vietnam policy-making not on the abstractions of international relations theory but on an exhaustive examination of the documentary record. The portrait he paints of Cold War liberalism is a frightening one.
— Bill Boisvert
Times Higher Education Supplement
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.
— Peter Boyle
Kai Bird
Kaiser's book is an invaluable contribution to the on-going task of peeling back further layers of the history.
Washington Post Book World
Foreign Affairs
[Kaiser's] Vietnam book is strongest on the Kennedy period...
Gideon Rose
The book is a detailed narrative of the war-related decisions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
New York Times Book Review
Shimshon Arad
It's been a long time since we had a ‘big' book on the war in Vietnam. [It] is that book.
Jerusalem Post
Stanley I. Kutler
Kaiser writes very good history; he deserves a wide serious audience.
Chicago Tribune
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This masterpiece of governmental history locates the roots of the Vietnam War not in the Johnson or even Kennedy administration, but back in the military policies of the Eisenhower era. Eisenhower and his advisors took an aggressive attitude--including an openness to using nuclear weapons--toward communist advances anywhere, "especially in Southeast Asia," Kaiser finds. Neutralist, nonaligned governments in emerging nations, such as in Laos, were treated as enemies; Kennedy was more open to nonaligned governments and more interested in d tente than in war. But the positions of the Eisenhower administration were entrenched institutionally among both civilian and military advisors in the State and Defense Departments. Drawing on a host of documents from recently opened government archives and tape recordings of White House meetings, Kaiser offers voluminous and meticulous evidence that Kennedy repeatedly rejected, deferred or at least modified recommendations for military actions--most notably in Laos. Misled by aides into thinking we were winning in Vietnam, even after Diem's overthrow, Kennedy never aggressively redirected policy there. President Johnson, less skilled than Kennedy in foreign affairs, readily reverted to Eisenhower's narrow policy framework, despite the emergence of critics among his advisers whose thinking echoed Kennedy's. Kaiser repeatedly says they ignored problems they couldn't solve and failed to heed clear evidence that their assumptions were flawed, making defeat a foregone conclusion. This is a commanding work that sheds bright light on questions of responsibility for the Vietnam debacle. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Karl Helicher
[An] excellent investigation of the roots of the Vietnam War…Having spent nine years researching recently declassified documents, the author describes in exactly detail the evolution of Vietnam policies from 1961 to 1965, the year that Johnson committed the United States to a war it couldn't win…The first rate research is complemented by an intriguing model of intergenerational policy-making, whereby Kaiser attributes much of the failure to the heavy-handed actions of the 'GI Generation,' the successful leaders of World War II. Highly recommended.
Library Journal
Jonathan Mirsky
A persuasive and splendidly informed book... Kaiser's theme throughout this fascinating but depressing study is that the main actors, defying expert knowledge, could not see that their project was doomed and never defined their ultimate objectives apart from keeping Hanoi from winning.
New York Review of Books
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674006720
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/30/2002
  • Series: Belknap Press Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 610
  • Product dimensions: 1.27 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David Kaiser is an independent scholar.
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Table of Contents

Introduction

1. The Eisenhower Administration and Indochina: 1954-1960

2. No War in Laos: January-June 1961

3. A New Effort in Vietnam: January-August 1961

4. War or Peace? September-November 1961

5. Limiting the Commitment: November 1961-November 1962

6. The War in Vietnam: 1962

7. A Gathering Storm: January-July 1963

8. The Buddhist Crisis and the Cable of August 24: 1963

9. The Coup: August-November 1963

10. A Decision for War: November 1963-April 1964

11. To the Tonkin Gulf: April-August 1964

12. Planning for War: September-December 1964

13. Over the Edge: December 1964-March 1965

14. War in Secret: March-June 1965

15. War in Public: June-July 1965

16. Bad History, Wrong War

Epilogue: Tragedy and History

Dedication

Abbreviations

Notes

Acknowledgments

Illustration Credits

Index

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