Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734
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 complete Communist victory in Laos. Since the internal opposition to the Communists was more successful in Laos, Johnson never had to revise Kennedy’s decision against sending American ground troops to this country.
As American Tragedy shows so persuasively, Kennedy soon had to shift his attention to South Vietnam, where the American-supported government of Ngo Dinh Diem steadily “lost support” because Diem “relied more and more upon his family, his secret Can Lao Party, and his police forces to govern.” Eisenhower and Kennedy had relied on Diem to prevent the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists, and they materially supported him in a relationship Kaiser calls “codependence.” In return, Americans tried to persuade Diem to model his government after American democratic institutions and listen to their suggestions. Yet to the increasing exasperation of Americans, “despite his financial dependence” on America, “Diem never showed the slightest tendency to follow American advice.”
With the military balances tilting in favor of the Communists, Kennedy responded by increasing American aid and sending more American military advisers. Kaiser’s meticulous chronology of American frustration with Diem should dissuade critics on the left who have charged the United States with neocolonialism. As Kaiser shows, Diem resisted American attempts “to direct the war” and impose their visions on his autocratic administration. Ironically, as Kaiser argues, even if Diem had listened, the Pentagon still wanted to fight a conventional war even though historic evidence shows “that the American strategic concept in Vietnam was wrong.”
With Diem’s military position crumbling, his political actions against the Buddhists, who made up 90 percent of his population against 10 percent of Diem’s fellow Roman Catholics, turned into an “embarrassing crisis” for the Americans. As television screens and film newsreels worldwide showed the images of Buddhist monks burning themselves in Saigon, Diem’s sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, said on CBS that “the Buddhists had simply decided to barbecue’” one of their monks. International outrage against Diem and his family reached a fever pitch, and Kennedy and his men desperately tried to get Diem to send abroad his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, whom they saw as the major instigator of the oppression of the Buddhists.
Diem’s refusal to neutralize Nhu, Kaiser shows, led even Kennedy to disassociate himself from Diem. When South Vietnamese generals plotted a coup against Diem, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, sent a cable to the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge. As Kaiser quotes from the cable, the instructions were that “once a coup under responsible leadership has begun . . . it is in the interest of the U.S. Government that it should succeed.’” As a result, the coup took place on November 1, 1963, and on the next morning, Diem and his brother “were shot and killed” by their enemies, who took over political power.
Kaiser disagrees with other writers such as William Colby, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, that America should have stuck with Diem. Instead, he insists that “the two men most responsible for the overthrow of the Diem government were Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu” themselves. For Kaiser, Diem’s failure to create popular support for his autocratic government led to his downfall. With 15,500 American military advisers in South Vietnam in November, 1963, the war against the Communists was still being lost by Saigon.
Kaiser’s research of historic document after document reveals that once Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson “remained fundamentally uncomfortable with the process of diplomacy,” while operating from an American-centered belief system that once made him compare Diem to “a difficult but irremovable subcommittee chairman” in the U.S. Congress. As Kaiser proves, “Johnson clearly did not eagerly seek war in Southest Asia, but he never questioned the need . . . to resist the Communist threat” and “never seriously considered the alternatives of neutralization and withdrawal.” In Johnson’s own words, as quoted in American Tragedy, the president told McGeorge Bundy about Vietnam that “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for,” yet at the same time declared that “if you start running from the Communists they just chase you right into the kitchen.”
Johnson’s conflicted view on the war, its merits and its necessity, obviously helped pave the way for the ensuing tragedy. As Kaiser asserts, Johnson and his top advisers decided on fighting in South Vietnam in spite of American indifference toward that country. In early 1964, Kaiser writes, “the lack of any real political pressure to go to war had never been more apparent.” In his opinion, Johnson did not have to fight in Vietnam and made the wrong decision when he decided to do so.
By February, 1965, the situation in South Vietnam had deteriorated to the point where the U.S. ambassador, Maxwell Taylor, conceded that there was “a condition of virtual no-government . . . exist[ing] in Saigon today.” Instead of leading to a stronger administration, the coup against Diem was followed by yet more coups and utter political instability, which brought the Communist forces to the verge of military victory. In this climate, Johnson decided secretly to insert ground troops into South Vietnam and start Operation Rolling Thunder, the ineffectual bombing campaign against North Vietnam.
Supported by his documentary evidence, Kaiser shows how Johnson had misled the American public for five months, until June, 1965, about his decision and action to send American combat troops to South Vietnam. American Tragedy briefly summarizes the complete failure of the Americans to win the war against the Communists, who conquered Saigon on April 30, 1975.
Kaiser’s strongest points are his meticulous research and the integration of numerous primary sources, which effectively chronicle how America got involved more and more deeply in the war in Vietnam. He convincingly describes the actions of the American statesmen who bring their country into a war without fully informing the public about the consequences of their actions. Kaiser’s focus on American documents, however, leads to a narrative of somewhat limited scope.
Overall, American Tragedy is a great resource for anybody who wants to find out exactly what policy decisions were made which resulted in two million Americans serving in Vietnam and almost fifty-nine thousand Americans dying in a conflict which cost the lives of two to three million Vietnamese in the North and South. David Kaiser’s serious research has resulted in a valuable book which adds to the historical knowledge of the war in Vietnam.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (February 1, 2000): 1006.
Harper’s Magazine 300 (April, 2000): 78.
History: Review of New Books 28 (Summer, 2000): 149.
Library Journal 125 (February 1, 2000): 101.
The New York Review of Books 47 (May 25, 2000): 54.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (May 14, 2000): 10.
Publishers Weekly 247 (February 21, 2000): 74.
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