In This Review

Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam
Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam
By Lawrence D. Freedman
Oxford University Press, 2000, 505 pp.
American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War
American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War
By David Kaiser
Harvard University Press, 2000, 566 pp.

These two books put forth an interpretation of J.F.K.'s foreign policy that is more sophisticated and much more positive than earlier accounts. Kennedy's breadth of knowledge and ironic sensibility made him wary of Cold War shibboleths and open to quiet accommodation. Yet he was dealing with a Soviet leader inclined to mistake conciliation for weakness and a domestic environment that pushed him toward confrontational posturing. Facing real crises, Kennedy found himself performing amazing balancing acts on the high wire, with the safety net below frayed by his loose, ad hoc decision-making style. Nonetheless, by 1963 he had achieved real successes of lasting import. He was in the midst of yet another balancing act-Vietnam-when his life was cut short. A veteran scholar of great skill, Freedman is well versed in the new evidence, and his judgments are measured and perceptive. His is the best one-volume treatment of Kennedy's foreign policy in print.

Although Kaiser looks at Eisenhower and L.B.J. as well, his Vietnam book is strongest on the Kennedy period. On Johnson, his account ably complements Fred Logevall's Choosing War in the way it stresses Johnson's choices and responsibility. Kaiser persuasively argues that Kennedy would have avoided a major American war in Vietnam had he lived. Many critics have disagreed with Kaiser. But amid the debate about "what ifs," one basic contrast between Kennedy and Johnson now stands out. From the very start, Kennedy's premises about Indochina were skeptical and open to diplomatic exits. Johnson's premises and mindset were always different-more passionate, tormented, and vain.