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American Tragedy

American Tragedy

Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War

David Kaiser

ISBN 9780674006720

Publication date: 01/30/2002

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.


  • 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, New York Times Book Review


  • David Kaiser is an independent scholar.

Book Details

  • 576 pages
  • 5-11/16 x 8-7/8 inches
  • Belknap Press

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