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Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War

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Overview


When John F. Kennedy was shot, millions were left to wonder how America, and the world, would have been different had he lived to fulfill the enormous promise of his presidency. For many historians and political observers, what Kennedy would and would not have done in Vietnam has been a source of enduring controversy.
Now, based on convincing new evidence--including a startling revelation about the Kennedy administration's involvement in the assassination of Premier Diem--Howard Jones argues that Kennedy intended to withdraw the great bulk of American soldiers and pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Vietnam.
Drawing upon recently declassified hearings by the Church Committee on the U.S. role in assassinations, newly released tapes of Kennedy White House discussions, and interviews with John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and others from the president's inner circle, Jones shows that Kennedy firmly believed that the outcome of the war depended on the South Vietnamese. In the spring of 1962, he instructed Secretary of Defense McNamara to draft a withdrawal plan aimed at having all special military forces home by the end of 1965. The "Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam" was ready for approval in early May 1963, but then the Buddhist revolt erupted and postponed the program. Convinced that the war was not winnable under Diem's leadership, President Kennedy made his most critical mistake--promoting a coup as a means for facilitating a U.S. withdrawal. In the cruelest of ironies, the coup resulted in Diem's death followed by a state of turmoil in Vietnam that further obstructed disengagement. Still, these events only confirmed Kennedy's view about South Vietnam's inability to win the war and therefore did not lessen his resolve to reduce the U.S. commitment. By the end of November, however, the president was dead and Lyndon Johnson began his campaign of escalation. Jones argues forcefully that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, his withdrawal plan would have spared the lives of 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese.
Written with vivid immediacy, supported with authoritative research, Death of a Generation answers one of the most profoundly important questions left hanging in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's death.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Jones (Mutiny on the Amistad) delivers an informative narrative documenting in rather elaborate detail a popular theory of JFK and Vietnam advanced previously by such writers as Richard Mahoney and Richard Reeves: that had Kennedy lived, U.S. involvement in Vietnam would not have escalated as it did. There were 685 U.S. advisers in Vietnam on the day Kennedy was inaugurated president in early 1961. Less than three years later, in October 1963, the U.S. had 16,732 American troops in place. Despite this escalation, Kennedy was never wholly convinced of the wisdom of American involvement in Vietnam. Minutes of the September 6, 1963, National Security Council meeting, two weeks after Kennedy gave the go-ahead for the overthrow of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, show Robert Kennedy openly questioning whether Communist takeover of the South could be successfully resisted, regardless of whether Diem remained in place or not. The president himself is on record even earlier, in April 1962, as telling his aides to "seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our involvement." Hawks such as Dean Rusk in Kennedy's cabinet (shortly inherited by LBJ) did not agree. Jones, like most scholars in recent memory, argues that the instability of Diem's government, followed by the assassinations of Diem and JFK, combined to create an environment where escalation of American involvement in Vietnam became inevitable, thus triggering what Jones terms "the death of a generation." Although not advancing an original thesis, Jones, a historian at the University of Alabama, goes deeper into the existing evidence supporting this thesis than have most other writers, and does so in a highly readable manner. (Mar.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Was JFK a hawk or a dove? Was the tragedy of Vietnam inevitable? Jones (History/Univ. of Alabama) provides a cord or two of fresh wood to fuel the ongoing debate. The main focus here is the Kennedy administration’s dealings with the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, a man of extraordinary failings in a time that demanded flawless guidance. A Catholic in a Buddhist country, a keeper of secrets and secret bank accounts, a wily survivor of intrigues, ever quick to undo US reform efforts toward democratization, Diem proved to be a nightmare of a puppet. Kennedy, increasingly mistrustful of the American military that had steered him so badly wrong at the Bay of Pigs and was now apparently in the habit of lying to him at every turn, sought to extricate himself from the faltering alliance with Diem. Though he was warned away each time by dire predictions of Communist takeover, JFK eventually formulated and approved a plan that would have provided for the complete withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam by 1965. That plan came a cropper for several reasons, Jones writes. When world attention was drawn to Vietnam in the wake of the Buddhist self-immolations and subsequent revolt (all of which infuriated Kennedy), the CIA and other elements of the American government encouraged a military coup that ended in Diem’s murder and the installation of a regime that may have been even worse. Kennedy himself was assassinated only three weeks later. Jones’s long, detailed what-if scenario raises intriguing questions, and he argues quite convincingly that had the coup not been bungled and Johnson not propelled to leadership, Vietnam may have ended quite differently—almost certainly not in the deaths of 58,000Americans and untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Solid history marked by memorable moments (including a glimpse of David Halberstam looting Saigon’s presidential palace) and the highly effective use of hitherto classified documents.
From the Publisher

"Argues quite convincingly that had the coup not been bungled and Johnson not propelled to leadership, Vietnam may have ended quite differently--almost certainly not in the deaths of 58,000 Americans and untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Solid history marked by memorable moments (including a glimpse of David Halberstam looting Saigon's presidential palace) and the highly effective use of hitherto classified documents."--Kirkus Reviews

"Jones presents a work of outstanding scholarship, on which he spent 15 years researching recently declassified State Department records and a comprehensive array of other primary and secondary documents, to arrive at a persuasively affirmative response....This scholarly appraisal ranks with Fredrik Logevall's Choosing War and David Kaiser's American Tragedy as one of the most important current investigations of the diplomacy of the early war."--Library Journal

"An informative narrative documenting in rather elaborate detail a popular theory of JFK and Vietnam...had Kennedy lived, U.S. involvement in Vietnam would not have escalated as it did. [Jones] goes deeper into the existing evidence supporting this thesis than have most other writers, and does so in a highly readable manner."--Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195176056
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/1/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 994,546
  • Product dimensions: 8.70 (w) x 5.60 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard Jones is University Research Professor in the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author of Mutiny on the Amistad (OUP 1997), Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom, and Crucible of Power. He lives in Northport, Alabama.

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