Chapter XVI of From Colony to Superpower covers the Kennedy and Johnson years. Erik has some additional thoughts on chapter XV; check them out. The time periods covered by chapters have shortened from about 15 to about 8 years since the beginning of the book, and the chapters themselves have grown from about forty to about fifty pages. This is an interesting organizational strategy, and isn’t terribly surprising; readers are likely to have more interest in more contemporary events, and because of technological change history happens more densely, so to speak. I think it could also be argued that foreign policy looms ever larger in US social life, although this depends on how we define things.
Herring isn’t overly impressed with John F. Kennedy, although he allows that Kennedy improved substantially across the course of his Presidency. In particular, Herring has minimal patience for the notion that Kennedy intended serious shifts in US policy towards China or Vietnam. Regarding the latter, there is simply insufficient evidence that Kennedy intended, or could have enacted had he intended, a significant change in the course of the war. On the former, there is similarly little evidence that Kennedy intended any modification of US China policy. Herring doesn’t touch upon it, but I have recently read in Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk that Kennedy hagiographers are of the view that Kennedy would have opened China, but for a threat by Eisenhower to emerge from retirement and oppose such a shift. Tucker argues that the available evidence suggests that Eisenhower was more flexible on the PRC than Kennedy, and that no actual evidence exists of any such threat. In the end, as Herring argues, we must take Kennedy simply on what he did, rather than speculate about what he might have done.
Herring discusses at length the effect that Castro had on Kennedy, Johnson, and the character of US policy towards Latin America. While Truman, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower had experimented with various different Latin American policies, and displayed some flexibility, Kennedy and Johnson interpreted events solely through the prism of the Cuban Revolution. Every leftist was the new Castro, and right wing military dictatorships were accepted as “necessary” to forestall the victory of communism in whatever country one chose to investigate. The obsession with Castro (which occupied Kennedy somewhat more than Johnson) also led to numerous dubious efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, and to the central event of Kennedy’s term, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Herring is, of course, a Vietnam specialist, and so I’d been looking forward with great interest to how he would treat the Vietnam War in this larger narrative of American foreign policy. The Vietnam discussion is, as expected, well done, and it doesn’t dominate the chapter any more than it should. At one point, Herring mentions the various efforts at extortion on the part of US Pacific partners; South Korea deployed a substantial force in return for large subsidies, and New Zealand sent an artillery battalion. Ferdinand Marcos offered to raise a large force in return for US aid, then pocketed the aid and refused to send troops to Vietnam. Chiang Kai Shek went one better; he offered to invade the PRC in order to destroy its nuclear capabilities and distract it from the war. This offer was tactfully declined.
Herring devotes a fair amount of attention to Israel, especially around the 1967 War. He is firmly of the view that the USS Liberty was intentionally attacked, although he allows that Israeli motives remain murky. He writes “Israel naturally fell back on mistaken identity, a claim only the most gullible could believe.” The US response was non-existent. A year later, on the other side of the world, another surveillance ship would be attacked; the North Koreans still hold the USS Pueblo, although they released the crew after eleven months.
More to come..