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Death of a Generation

When John F. Kennedy was shot, millions were left to wonder how America, and the world, would have been different had he lived to fulfill the enormous promise of his presidency. For many historians and political observers, what Kennedy would and would not have done in Vietnam has been a source
of enduring controversy.
Now, based on convincing new evidence--including a startling revelation about the Kennedy administration's involvement in the assassination of Premier Diem--Howard Jones argues that Kennedy intended to withdraw the great bulk of American soldiers and pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis
in Vietnam.
Drawing upon recently declassified hearings by the Church Committee on the U.S. role in assassinations, newly released tapes of Kennedy White House discussions, and interviews with John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and others from the president's inner circle, Jones shows
that Kennedy firmly believed that the outcome of the war depended on the South Vietnamese. In the spring of 1962, he instructed Secretary of Defense McNamara to draft a withdrawal plan aimed at having all special military forces home by the end of 1965. The "Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam" was
ready for approval in early May 1963, but then the Buddhist revolt erupted and postponed the program. Convinced that the war was not winnable under Diem's leadership, President Kennedy made his most critical mistake--promoting a coup as a means for facilitating a U.S. withdrawal. In the cruelest of
ironies, the coup resulted in Diem's death followed by a state of turmoil in Vietnam that further obstructed disengagement. Still, these events only confirmed Kennedy's view about South Vietnam's inability to win the war and therefore did not lessen his resolve to reduce the U.S. commitment. By the
end of November, however, the president was dead and Lyndon Johnson began his campaign of escalation. Jones argues forcefully that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, his withdrawal plan would have spared the lives of 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese.
Written with vivid immediacy, supported with authoritative research, Death of a Generation answers one of the most profoundly important questions left hanging in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's death.
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About the Author

Howard Jones is University Research Professor in the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author of Mutiny on the Amistad (OUP 1997), Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom, and Crucible of Power. He lives in Northport, Alabama.


Jones (Mutiny on the Amistad) delivers an informative narrative documenting in rather elaborate detail a popular theory of JFK and Vietnam advanced previously by such writers as Richard Mahoney and Richard Reeves: that had Kennedy lived, U.S. involvement in Vietnam would not have escalated as it did. There were 685 U.S. advisers in Vietnam on the day Kennedy was inaugurated president in early 1961. Less than three years later, in October 1963, the U.S. had 16,732 American troops in place. Despite this escalation, Kennedy was never wholly convinced of the wisdom of American involvement in Vietnam. Minutes of the September 6, 1963, National Security Council meeting, two weeks after Kennedy gave the go-ahead for the overthrow of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, show Robert Kennedy openly questioning whether Communist takeover of the South could be successfully resisted, regardless of whether Diem remained in place or not. The president himself is on record even earlier, in April 1962, as telling his aides to "seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our involvement." Hawks such as Dean Rusk in Kennedy's cabinet (shortly inherited by LBJ) did not agree. Jones, like most scholars in recent memory, argues that the instability of Diem's government, followed by the assassinations of Diem and JFK, combined to create an environment where escalation of American involvement in Vietnam became inevitable, thus triggering what Jones terms "the death of a generation." Although not advancing an original thesis, Jones, a historian at the University of Alabama, goes deeper into the existing evidence supporting this thesis than have most other writers, and does so in a highly readable manner. (Mar.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

"Jones...argues that the instability of Diem's government, followed by the assassinations of Diem and JFK, combined to create an environment where escalation of American involvement in Vietnam became inevitable, thus triggering what Jones terms 'the death of a generation."....Jones goes deeper into the existing evidence supporting this thesis than have most other writers, and does so in a highly readable manner."-Publishers Weekly "Jones presents a work of outstanding scholarship, on which he spent 15 years researching recently declassified State Department records and a comprehensive array of other primary and secondary documents, to arrive at a persuasively affirmative response....This scholarly appraisal ranks with Fredrik Logevall's Choosing War and David Kaiser's American Tragedy as one of the most important current investigations of the diplomacy of the early war."-Library Journal "Argues quite convincingly that had the coup not been bungled and Johnson not propelled to leadership, Vietnam may have ended quite differently-almost certainly not in the deaths of 58,000 Americans and untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Solid history marked by memorable moments (including a glimpse of David Halberstam looting Saigon's presidential palace) and the highly effective use of hitherto classified documents."-Kirkus Reviews "A major piece of scholarship.... The account of the events leading up to the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem is particularly good, and the assessment of its dire effect on the nature of the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, convincing."-Foreign Affairs "In Death of a Generation, historian Howard Jones advances the theory that President John F. Kennedy, had he lived, would have pursued his withdrawal plan from Vietnam. This is a 'what if' book, and lay historians may wonder whether such a book has a place in history. The answer in this case is a strong affirmative. 'What if' histories make a useful contribution when they treat events that clearly bear on decisions of the present."-Richmond Times-Dispatch

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