Institution: University of Aberdeen
Author: Steven Crawford Grundy
On the 7th February, 1965 President Johnson ordered the escalation of armed forces in Vietnam, thereby plunging America into a full-scale military conflict. Historical judgements have coined a catalogue of suggestions for U.S. engrossment. On the one hand, Kolko’s “structural explanation” conveys escalation as a logical zenith of the Cold War effort to contain communism. Conversely, the “stalemate theory” balloons the president’s role in America’s envelopment and criticises the administrations for taking a series of steps with full knowledge that none were likely to attain the desired result.
Finally, a more controversial outlook, the “quagmire theory,” conveys Vietnam as a political morass and excuses U.S. leaders from any real responsibility. However, thorough analysis of American foreign policy suggests that none of these views adequately clarify the developments which preceded Johnson’s escalation. Although the various theses hint at the factual truth none exceedingly pinpoint an explanation of executive accountability for the Vietnam conflict. The following analysis will attempt to portray a diverse outlook of American policy in Vietnam by examining the various executive administrations and painting a mixture of explanations for presidential culpability.
Probably the most distinguished elucidation of U.S. escalation in Indochina is the “structural explanation”. Essentially, this argument condemns ideologists in the Truman administration (notably George Kennan) for moulding an aggressive foreign policy which predictably wedded U.S. commitment to Vietnam. The most recognized scholar of this argument, Gabriel Kolko, claims U.S. intervention demonstrated the bankruptcy of a dogma which had been relentlessly pursued since the end of World War II. In contrast, Hess blames Truman for accepting the “Bao Dai solution” and recognizing the French puppet state, thereby constituting the initial commitment to Indochina.
Nevertheless, although most scholars agree both ideological influences as well as Truman’s decision to aid the French in February, 1950 marked the preliminary U.S. commitment in Indochina, there is a general conviction that this did not act as a blueprint for Johnson’s escalation. On the contrary, the majority of historians, particularly Miscamble, applaud the Truman administration’s foreign policy in Indochina. Undoubtedly, Roosevelt’s death left a huge vacuum packed with mazy ideas about the post-war world. Preoccupied with European recovery, Soviet activism from Iran to Germany as well as the reconversion of the U.S. economy, Southeast Asia largely became a forgotten region.
Still, America entered the post-war era with considerable influence over the future of Indochina. In January, 1949 the National Military Establishment claimed Southeast Asia was looking primarily to Washington for economic as well as military cooperation and advised Truman to exploit the anti-Soviet atmosphere of the Asiatic theatre. However, Ho Chi Minh’s hand of friendship was repeatedly ignored and evidently moved the Vietminh closer towards the communist domain. Then again, it would have been difficult for the Truman administration to support Ho’s independent Vietnam instead of French colonialism. Besides, Blum’s claim that Truman’s sponsorship of the First Indochina War simply postponed the inevitable is dubious. The appointment of the highly gifted General de Lattre in December, 1950 as well as Washington’s delivery of napalm boosted French morale.
Furthermore, de Lattre’s success at Tonkin in June, 1951 suggested the immediate threat had passed as well as significantly diminishing Ho’s popularity and prestige. Similarly, Hess’s decry against Truman’s recognition of Bao Dai’s government in February, 1950 is unimpressive since France was a vital component in the reestablishment of Western Europe. Although Bao Dai lacked popular support, more important difficulties obligated Truman to recognize French colonization. The demise of U.S. atomic monopoly in September, 1949 as well as Mao Zedong’s communist triumph in autumn forced Truman to strengthen French combat against the Vietminh. Additionally, domestic political pressures, particularly McCarthyism, fuelled fears of widespread communist subversion which propelled Truman towards a compact approach. Memories of the vacuous appeasement policy also ingrained a conviction of power rather than negotiations and French appeals for military support enabled the beleaguered Truman to answer his critics.
Moreover, the French Communist Party’s gained 25% of the electoral vote in the 1946 general election, thereby illustrating the instability of the French Fourth Republic and further catalysing U.S. succour. Indeed, the enunciation of Kennan’s containment strategy in mid-1947 in addition to the Marshall Plan underscored France’s indispensability in the Cold War. Interestingly, McMahon indicates the importance of Southeast Asian trade for U.S. commitment to French Indochina. He claims the “dollar gap” predicament- the enormous trade and currency imbalance between the U.S. and its European allies- underscored Southeast Asia as an essential trading partner.
Indeed, Truman believed the expansion of commodity production in Southeast Asia would act as a crucial lever for the restoration of Japan and feared Tokyo could become economically dependent on Mao’s China if denied access to non-communist markets. Furthermore, the loss of Indochina would endanger Washington’s vital communication routes between the Pacific Ocean and the Middle East. Therefore, Truman cannot be judged responsible for his acceptance of Bao Dai or his commitment to France.
Nevertheless, although the “structural explanation” is erroneous to claim the Truman administration is solely to fault for Washington’s pledge to Vietnam, Truman’s new-fangled philosophy undoubtedly heralded a shift in U.S. diplomacy. Most importantly, Truman’s initiation of Nitze’s NSC-68 document in April, 1950 became the modus operandi of Washington’s foreign policy throughout the Cold War. McCoy criticises the NSC-68 articles proposal for a worldwide anti-communist program as well as its amplification of ideological importance.
The NSC-68 called for a global offensive against the Soviet bloc which would restore the initiative to the non-communist world. The document also exceedingly overstated the monolithic and evil nature of communism, thus underlining Truman’s failure to exploit Ho Chi Minh’s deep nationalistic sentiments. Parallel to the Chinese communist party the Vietminh was an independent Marxist movement and Stalin felt reluctant to promote a communist faction over which he had no control. Furthermore, anxious voices such as Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech in February, 1946 as well as Kennan’s “the sources of Soviet conduct” article in July, 1947 cemented Truman’s conviction that America had to contain communist expansion.
More crucially, the outbreak of the Korean War in June, 1950 marked a fundamental change in U.S. attitude towards Indochina and underlined the importance of NSC-68. Truman seized upon the alarm caused by North Korean aggression to push forward the NSC-68 program and consequently laid the foundations for the preceding escalation in Vietnam. Accordingly, Kennan claims the Truman government was “grievously misled… by its own faulty interpretations of the significance of the Korean War.” Similarly, Truman’s fervent adoption of the “domino theory” was a recurring element in Washington’s political justification for their commitment to Vietnam. In his memoirs Truman exclaimed; “The problems we were facing was part of a pattern. After Korea it would be Indochina, then Hong Kong, then Malaya.”
However, correspondingly to NSC-68, the Truman administration’s blessing of the domino theory acted as a strand for the succeeding presidents and entrenched the U.S. inflexibly into the Cold War. The domino theory suggested a Vietminh victory over the French would spread the disease of communism and subsequently infect the Asiatic theatre. Both the Kremlin’s and Mao’s recognition of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in January, 1950 as well as the NSC-48 article in April 1950 fortified Washington’s incorrect conviction that communism was uniform and primed to strike the capitalist nations. Therefore, Kolko rightfully indicates that Truman’s perception of the Cold War snowballed the decision to draw a line against the red menace. Consequently, the Truman administration takes primary responsibility for establishing a leitmotif for an aggressive U.S. foreign policy which was seized upon by the successive presidents.
In contrast to the “logical culmination” argument other historians have pinpointed Eisenhower as the perpetrator for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Cuddy, for example, claims Eisenhower was the only President who had the unique luxury of a clean break from Truman’s commitment. Conversely, Saunders focuses on Eisenhower’s sponsorship of the unpopular leader Diem as the instigator for Washington’s pledge to shield South Vietnam from communism.
Thirdly, Anderson condemns Eisenhower’s creation of SEATO as a legal basis for war as well as ignoring the Geneva accords agreement for Vietnamese elections. Nonetheless, Eisenhower is least to fault for U.S. escalation in Vietnam. His impressive handling of the Dienbienphu dilemma in spring 1954 safeguarded America from military engrossment. Although under enormous pressure from both Paris and his own administration to assist the trapped French forces, Eisenhower dismissed the alternative of conventional and nuclear bombing.
While Admiral Radford asserted it was primarily British reluctance and congressional opposition which checked Eisenhower’s flirtation with military intervention there is little evidence to suggest Washington seriously considered Operation Vulture. Alternatively, Cuddy’s argument buckles under historical actualities. Eisenhower did not have the opportunity of breaking away from Vietnam; more importantly there was no serious reason for withdrawal. Eisenhower was under fervent pressure not to “lose” Vietnam like the Republicans had yielded China. Additionally, Secretary of State Dulles noted as early as 1950 that Washington was already wedded to Vietnam; “the U.S. recognized the government of Bao Dai… we have for better or worse involved our prestige.”
Likewise, Eisenhower deserves minor accountability for ignoring the scheduled Vietnamese elections of the 1956 Geneva accords. America certainly did not push elections yet both China and the USSR equally bypassed the subject. Indeed, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai supported a weakened Vietnam on China’s doorstep and Moscow even advocated a permanent partition by suggesting Saigon and Hanoi be admitted to the United Nations. Furthermore, Washington was certain Ho would win the elections and favoured the 17th parallel division rather than a fully-fledged communistic Vietnam. Conversely, Eisenhower’s creation of SEATO in September 1954 probably reinforced U.S. relationship with Indochina.
Although Dulles’s proposal for United Action was part buff it decisively levered Washington closer towards Southeast Asia. Indeed, a separate protocol specifically labelled Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam as areas which if threatened would jeopardise the “peace and security” of the signatories. Nonetheless, the treaty was vague and merely required the member nations to “consult” one another. Also, the treaty did not play an important part during Johnson’s escalation and both Britain and France declined U.S. appeals for assistance. Still, the pact provided Washington with an international rubric and undoubtedly strengthened the significance of Indochina.
Alternatively, Sanders critic of Eisenhower for both substituting U.S. muscle for French colonialism as well as his collaboration with Diem is unconvincing. Although concerned voices, particularly General Collins, judged Diem incapable of providing dynamic headship, his appointment initially achieved considerable success. Diem’s proficient eradication of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and Bin Xuyen factions certified his hegemony over South Vietnam. Additionally, Diem’s authoritarianism came close to eliminating the communists as a political force.
Indeed, party historians indicate the demise of the Vietminh during this period. Kahin claims membership, which had stood at around five thousand in mid-1957, fell by one-third at the end of the year. Communist organized demonstrations also became less frequent and Diem’s cancellation of the proposed Vietnamese elections dealt a serious blow to Vietminh morale. Hence, Cooper rightly notes; “In the clearer light of history one can see that Diem had held a better hand than most of the kibitzers realized.” Oppositely, Herring’s claim that the “quirks of the electoral calendar” spared Eisenhower from serious responsibility is probably true.
The writings on the wall were becoming increasingly visible during the final years of Eisenhower’s presidency. Despite initial successes, Diem’s leadership was noticeably cracking. His government gradually became a constricted oligarchy composed of his brothers and other close relatives. More concernedly, Diem alienated the peasantry by forcing them to pay for land which Ho had offered them costless. Also, his support derived overwhelmingly from the Catholic minority and continual disregard for social advancement rejuvenated fresh opposition. Nonetheless, while Diem’s policies from 1956 onwards led to inevitable disaster, the threat was not apparent to most observers. Diem’s South Vietnam did not appear ruinous when compared to other U.S.-sponsored countries in much of Latin America and ex-colonial Africa. Also, it was not until September, 1960 that Ho began sponsoring the National Liberation Front and revivified his effort to unify the country. Still, although the situation in Vietnam had begun to deteriorate it was still Diem’s war- not America’s.
Until Eisenhower’s last months in office the NLF did not pose a significant menace to the Saigon regime and there was ample evidence to suggest Washington’s nation-building was working. Furthermore, Cuddy’s assertion that Eisenhower sent the first U.S. military personnel into Vietnam is incorrect. Although Eisenhower did provide France (and later Diem) with U.S. advisers a telegram from John Allison on 22 December, 1952 proves Truman’s accountability; “Department concurs… 25-30 USAF personnel at Nha Trang.” Additionally, compared to Laos, South Vietnam seemed a “backburner” problem and was not even mentioned during Eisenhower’s briefing with Kennedy in 1961. Nonetheless, while Eisenhower managed the Vietnam question politically he did not solve the issue substantively and therefore handed his successor a crumbling picture.
In comparison to both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, most historians rigorously denounce Kennedy for snowballing U.S. envelopment in Vietnam. Firstly, Brown suggests Kennedy never offered the quandary sufficient attention and continued the alliance irrespective of nagging scepticism. Oppositely, Sorensen attacks the President for resuming Washington’s pledge to Saigon despite having a fanciful opportunity to withdraw during the Buddhist crisis in 1963. Lastly, Pelz argues Washington’s impartial stance during Diem’s overthrow as well as Kennedy’s bloating of U.S. troops made Johnson’s escalation inevitable. Importantly, Kennedy had always been an interested observer of U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
As early as June 1956, in a speech to the “American Friends of Vietnam” Kennedy signposted his protective viewpoint; “Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike.” Kennedy was also a strong devotee of Truman’s domino theory and regarded the Third World as the new Cold War battleground. Thus, before Kennedy became President in 1961 his ideas on Vietnam had already been moulded. Besides, early failures during the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba as well as the neutralisation of Laos fortified Kennedy’s commitment to Diem.
Indeed, Khrushchev’s militant speech in January 1961 avowing Soviet support for wars of national liberation was interpreted as a declaration of war by the Kennedy administration. On the other hand, Kennedy fervently stressed his opposition against the deployment of U.S. soldiers in Southeast Asia. In October he vetoed General Taylor’s proposal of sending ground troops to Saigon, instead favouring an increase in military “advisers.” Even so, Pelz’s claim that the accumulation of military advisers catalysed Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam is correct. Similarly, Kennedy’s consensus to the use of U.S. helicopters as well as defoliants against the Vietcong plunged Washington deeper into the quagmire. However, Kennedy does not deserve solitary blame for America’s amplified sponsorship. Influential voices, especially McNamara, frequently urged him to expand Washington’s role and Kennedy deserves acclaim for rebuffing the military alternative.
Additionally, both his Green Berets and American military advisers were clearly exceeding presidential instructions. Kennedy wanted U.S. personnel to direct and train the Vietnamese army; instead American recruits were continually drawn into skirmishes with the Vietcong. Furthermore, the ARVN lacked military expertise and U.S. pilots became increasingly involved in active warfare. Also, pessimistic estimations from advisers were often suppressed. For example in January, 1963 two minor Vietcong companies defeated a large faction of South Vietnamese troops at Ap Bac, thereby revealing numerous flaws in the ARVN’s warfare strategy. Yet, General Harkins disguised the catastrophic defeat and dismissed its long-term significance as a morale builder for the Vietcong. Nhu’s “strategic hamlet” fiasco was also concealed from Washington. In theory Nhu’s plan advocated the creation of fortified villages in which the Vietnamese peasants would be isolated from the Vietcong.
However, this massive relocation compelled farmers to leave their sacred ancestral lands and further alienated the Vietnamese people. Indeed, sloppy planning and Nhu’s disregard of U.S. advice allowed the Vietcong to capture quantitative amount of military arsenal. Still, McNamara exclaimed in July 1962 that the strategic hamlet program was the “backbone of President Diem’s program for countering subversion directed against his state.” Alternatively, there were several voices which portrayed a different picture of Vietnam. Senator Mansfield especially signposted the glitches of the Saigon government and suggested a substantial decrease in America’s involvement.
Similarly, Chester Bowles advised Kennedy to utilise the Laos talks as an instigator for peace in Vietnam. However, Kennedy fervently dismissed these proposals. Additionally, the number of American military advisers rose alarmingly from merely eight hundred at Kennedy’s accession to eleven thousand by the end of 1962, thus shoehorning America towards escalation. Furthermore, Kennedy’s short-term solutions forced Washington progressively into a political corner. Instead of reviewing the Vietnam problem, Kennedy persistently ignored warnings that the situation was deteriorating. Importantly, Brown’s interpretation of Kennedy strategy in Vietnam walks hand-in-hand with the “stalemate theory.”
The president evidently recognised by late 1963 that his policies were failing. He told journalist Chris Bartlett; “we don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam…These people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out.” Yet, he continued to sponsor Saigon and ignored the flamboyant condemnations of both the press and his advisers. Therefore the “stalemate theory” is correct in claiming Kennedy’s took a series of steps with full knowledge that none were likely to achieve the desired result.
Still, the most imperative mistake of the Kennedy administration occurred during the Buddhist crisis. On 8th May, 1963 Buddhist assembled in Hue to celebrate Buddha’s 2527th birthday. Diem’s governmental decrees however prohibited them from flying their multi-coloured flag and denied the Buddhist leader Quang to speak on national radio. Furthermore, governmental troops fired into the crowds, consequently triggering widespread popular resentment.
Indeed, the immolation of Thich Duc on 11th June electrified the population and crystalized a peaceful religious movement into a political rebellion. The effect was reinforced by provocative statements from both Nhu and his wife who additionally pressured Diem towards religious warfare. More importantly, the Buddhist crisis provided the Kennedy administration with an exit strategy. Sorensen exemplifies the outrage of U.S. public opinion and eradicates Cuddy’s assertion that Eisenhower was the only President with the opportunity to withdraw. Furthermore, Kennedy’s legitimate successes during the Cuban missile crisis as well as the Sino-Soviet split suggest the President was in a strong political position by 1963.
More crucially, Nhu’s emphatic complaints about the swelling of U.S. personnel as well as press pressure at home could have been exploited by Kennedy as an excuse for withdrawal. Instead, the U.S. turned towards a governmental alternative. Although Washington did not instigate the November coup, Pelz is right to criticise Ambassador Lodge’s fervent support as well as the President’s refusal to intervene. The removal of Diem on 2nd November 1963 opened a Pandora’s Box which not only sparked warlord politics but also ensured a point of no return. As Lodge pointed out; “We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back.” With Diem’s blood at least partially on Kennedy’s hands the coup psychologically locked Washington in Vietnam. Therefore, U.S. official recognition of the new military regime under General Minh wrecked Washington’s best opportunity to withdraw and made Johnson’s escalation inevitable.
Even so, the President most associated with military escalation in Vietnam is Johnson. Hunt especially portrays him as a warmongering hawk who devilishly invigorated war. Alternatively, Logevall condemns Johnson for not withdrawing American troops after the 1964 election and focuses on his character as the instigator for escalation. Thirdly, Barrett criticises him for not listening to his advisers and suggests opposition against escalation was greater than previously asserted.
However, revisionist examination indicates a more lenient depiction of Johnson’s role in the origins of the Second Indochina War. Johnson was certainly not an advocate of escalation. He had opposed intervention at Dienbienphu as well as the propelling of troops during Kennedy’s presidency. More importantly, he had objected to Diem’s overthrow, recognizing the psychological consequences. Hunt does not appreciate either the emotional predicament of Johnson’s elevation to presidency nor the deteriorating situation in Vietnam.
Since he did not have a real popular mandate Johnson’s decision to preserve his predecessor’s policies and advisers is unquestionable. Also, at the time of Kennedy’s death there were approximately sixteen-thousand advisers in South Vietnam, plus the post-Diem era ignited kaleidoscopic turmoil in Saigon, suggesting Washington was in a political morass before Johnson’s presidency. Similarly, Hunt’s assertion that the Tonkin Gulf resolution in August, 1964 signified Johnson’s avowal for war is fallacious. Although Johnson did act swiftly to gain Congress approval, he did not exploit the attacks for military escalation.
Instead, the resolution embodies an excellent example of Realpolitik. Johnson was eager to neutralize Vietnam as an issue in the 1964 presidential campaign and illustrate to voters that he was as tough as the Republican candidate Goldwater. Johnson’s wariness to escalate is further enhanced by the State Department’s decision to suspend further patrols in the Gulf as well as other 34-A operations, so as not to aggravate Hanoi. Consequently, George Ball exclaimed; “The impetus toward escalation never came from Lyndon Johnson.” Moreover, Logevall’s assertion that Johnson had a clean chance to withdraw after the election is nonsense. Whilst Johnson’s substantial success gave him room to manoeuvre and lessened Kennedy’s phantom there is no evidence to suggest the situation had relaxed.
On the contrary, Khrushchev’s ousting in October coupled with China’s successful explosion of a nuclear bomb rejuvenated deeply rooted perceptions about the communist threat. Also, Logevall is wrong to claim the domino theory was losing its influence in U.S. politics since opinion polls in 1965 illustrate that 70% of the American people still believed in Truman’s brainchild. Likewise, his generalisation of Johnson’s machismo does not explain Washington’s decision to escalate. Whilst Johnson’s character did intense the situation its importance has been highly exaggerated. Indeed, Johnson’s White House Tapes rather depict an overwhelmingly apprehensive President who frequently admitted that he did not know what to do. Moreover, Barrett’s assertion is similarly built on sand. Firstly, the Tonkin resolution was passed by a vast majority in the House and Senate. Also, both Truman and Eisenhower supported Johnson’s decision to escalate whilst Wyatt describes the press as a “paper soldier” which eagerly backed U.S. interventionism. Reporters such as Halberstam, who became gravely alienated by the war, initially supported retaliation. Furthermore, even if Barrett is correct in exemplifying the number of opponents against escalation he fails to illustrate the lack of alternatives. Throughout Johnson’s presidency his advisers merely underlined three proposals to the Vietnam quandary; either escalation, withdrawal, or the continuation of neither escalation nor withdrawal.
Although consultants, notably Ball and Mansfield, opposed escalation they were unable to spell out how a negotiated withdrawal could be secured. Indeed, Saigon’s disastrous position gave Washington little flexibility, whilst the Chinese Remmin Ribao article in February 1965 underlined Beijing’s hostility to compromise with Washington. Besides, Johnson was not a victim of groupthink. He listened to a variety of sceptics yet realizing solutions such as Mansfield’s neutralization scheme would quickly lead to communistic domination of the whole nation. Thus, as Smith points out “Johnson’s critics have still to demonstrate that there was any specific point in the sequence of events… when the U.S. could have withdrawn from Vietnam.”
Instead, Johnson escalated because he did not have a better alternative. By February 1965 the situation had morphed into perilous anarchy. Between the Diem coup and Johnson’s escalation Saigon fell to seven different governmental factions. Additionally, the Vietcong utilised the quandaries by overrunning the strategic hamlet fortifications in the countryside. More crucially, guerrilla forces began attacking U.S. bases. For instance on Christmas Eve 1964 the Vietcong bombed a bar often frequented by U.S. officials.
Indeed, twice in the last months of 1964 U.S. installations were attacked yet Johnson repeatedly evaded cries for reprisal. However, in this context escalation began to loom as the only solution. Interestingly, Bundy compared the situation to streetcars; “If you do not choose to climb aboard one then another will come along soon which will take you to the same place.” Obviously, there were other factors which nudged Johnson to escalation. His successful intervention in the Dominican Republic suggested U.S. troops could accomplish missions overseas without noticeable difficulties. Fear for his Great Society as well as concern for U.S. lives additionally reinforced his evaluation.
Also, McNamara as well as Bundy encouraged the President to stand firm and honour the SEATO agreement. Nevertheless, the Vietcong’s attack on a U.S. camp near Pleiku on 6th February (killing several advisers) triggered an inevitable occurrence. By early 1965 over two hundred U.S. soldiers had died and although Johnson had dismissed various other incentives to escalate he ultimately accepted the inescapable. As Gelb points out; “the principle answer is simple; Johnson had decided to bite the bullet.” Hence, the chief reason for escalation was the lack of alternatives and therefore Johnson’s predecessors (and advisers) warrant distinct accountability for bequeathing him with an enclosed conundrum.
With the benefit of hindsight it becomes clear that all three historical interpretations of the Vietnam War are incorrect. Firstly, Schlezinger’s assertion that nobody is to blame for U.S. involvement horrifically misinterprets historic scrutiny. Logevall excellently underlines the historian’s duty to establish a casual hierarchy and relate the subjects in this pecking order to one another. Each President made substantive decisions from clearly delineated options and therefore Schlesinger’s thesis is vacuous. Secondly, although the stalemate theory is correct in criticising Kennedy for continuing Washington’s pledge to Saigon (despite his inner scepticism) there is no evidence to suggest Truman or Eisenhower believed the war could not be won. Until Kennedy’s presidency Diem’s leadership appeared politically tolerable and in a resilient position.
Therefore, the stalemate theory’s broad assertion of the escalation is similarly unfeasible. Thirdly, although closer to the factual truth, Kolko’s “logical culmination” argument also misreads Johnson’s escalation. Whilst, both the domino theory and Kennan’s containment thesis were a brooding omnipresence throughout the Vietnam problem it would be erroneous to merely cogitate long-term policies as the driving force for escalation. Thus, whilst Truman’s Weltanschauung was a factor in U.S. envelopment, it is wrong to portray Vietnam as a rolling stone. Indeed, out of all the presidents, Kennedy is the most accountable for moving Washington towards escalation. The Buddhist crisis as well as both American and South Vietnamese antipathy gave Kennedy the perfect opportunity to cut U.S. assistance and declare Vietnam a lost cause. Instead, he handed Johnson a political quagmire which psychologically obligated him to stick by Saigon. Incidentally, historians such as Freedman place too much emphasis on what would have happened had Kennedy survived the Dallas shooting. Kennedy’s presidency should be considered by his decisions rather than fantasy debates around “what if” history. Lastly, it is erroneous to portray Johnson as a blood thirsty hawk who advocated war. Instead, he chose escalation because there was no apparent alternative. Thus, although each president is accountable for moving the U.S. towards escalation, it was Kennedy who had the best opportunity to withdraw and therefore shares primary responsibility for Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam.
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