David Kaiser’s central argument is based on his interpretation that President John F. Kennedy would have avoided the insertion of American ground troops to fight Communist forces in South Vietnam. Kaiser’s American Tragedy is meticulously researched, based on nine years of study of now-declassified American policy documents. Kaiser documents extremely well the discussions and actions taken by American policy leaders, and the articulation of policy in numerous government documents. As Kaiser shows, frustration with Communist gains ultimately led to President Johnson’s decision to send American troops to combat in South Vietnam in May, 1965, while almost simultaneously beginning “Rolling Thunder,” the campaign to bomb North Vietnam. Part of the tragedy, Kaiser argues, lies in the fact that Johnson initially lied about these developments.
American Tragedy begins to build its case by stating that “the real roots of the Vietnam War lie in the policies the Eisenhower administration adopted towards Southeast Asia after 1954.” As the American government became fiercely committed “to build up pro-American, anti-Communist regimes in Southeast Asia,” top officials began to lay out policies which later presidents found hard to change immediately. Thus, even a new president had to exert a substantial amount of willpower to change the course dictated by previous policies.
Unfortunately, Kaiser does not explain in detail the reason for Eisenhower’s anti-Communist stance. However, as Joseph Stalin subjugated the peoples of Eastern Europe to Communist dictatorships and filled his gulag camps with his opponents, and Mao Zedong starved to death hundreds of thousands of his own Chinese people after his Communists’ victory in China’s civil war in 1949, containment of Communism indeed appeared necessary to most Western leaders. The Korean War provided more proof of global Communist aggression. In this climate, any attempt to stop Communist gains appeared to be a reasonable American policy.
American Tragedy shows how determined the Americans became to bring foreign governments into a pro-Western sphere once the idea of opposition to Communism had taken hold among the members of America’s “complex national security bureaucracy.” Even neutrality was regarded with suspicion. Thus, America began to intervene in the evolving power struggle among various princes and generals in Laos, one of Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbors. Preferring a government by leaders who proclaimed a pro-Western attitude, the Eisenhower administration faced the escalation of civil war in Laos when the Communist side attacked and refused to back down. In January, 1961, days away from the government’s transition to President Kennedy, America faced a potentially large conflict in Laos.
American Tragedy is full of praise for Kennedy’s subsequent policy of trying to establish a neutral Laos. Rejecting calls for direct American military intervention, Kennedy instead negotiated a settlement with the Soviets, and in June, 1961 “the three princes,” who represented the various factions in Laos, “agreed to talks on a coalition government.” Even though fighting would eventually resume in Laos and Americans would massively bomb Communist positions in the country and materially support anti-Communist fighters, no American ground troops were sent to fight in Laos, which finally fell to the Communists in December, 1975.
For Kaiser, Kennedy’s decision to avoid involving American troops to fight in Laos clearly serves as a proof that had Kennedy lived, America may have reacted differently to the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. However, as Kaiser’s sources reveal, the situation is more complex. First, even members of the American military had serious misgivings about fighting in land-locked Laos, which was more remote than Vietnam and would have required a tremendous logistic effort to be reached effectively by American troops. Second, the non-Communist forces in Laos were able to hold off their Communist opponents without the aid of American ground troops in the 1960’s. Thus, unlike the situation in South Vietnam in late 1964, the Americans did not face the alternative of a...
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