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JFK and de Gaulle: How America and France Failed in Vietnam, 1961-1963

by Sean J. McLaughlin

Availablecloth$60.00x 978-0-8131-7774-8
Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace
296 pages  Pubdate: 08/20/2019  6 x 9  

Despite French President Charles de Gaulle’s persistent efforts to constructively share French experience and use his resources to help engineer an American exit from Vietnam, the Kennedy administration responded to de Gaulle’s peace initiatives with bitter silence and inaction. The administration’s response ignited a series of events that dealt a massive blow to American prestige across the globe, resulting in the deaths of over fifty-eight thousand American soldiers and turning hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese citizens into refugees.

This history of Franco-American relations during the Kennedy presidency explores how and why France and the US disagreed over the proper western strategy for the Vietnam War. France clearly had more direct political experience in Vietnam, but France’s postwar decolonization cemented Kennedy’s perception that the French were characterized by a toxic mixture of short-sightedness, stubbornness, and indifference to the collective interests of the West.

At no point did the Kennedy administration give serious consideration to de Gaulle’s proposals or entertain the notion of using his services as an honest broker in order to disengage from a situation that was rapidly spiraling out of control. Kennedy’s Francophobia, the roots of which appear in a selection of private writings from Kennedy’s undergraduate years at Harvard, biased his decision-making. The course of action Kennedy chose in 1963, a rejection of the French peace program, all but handcuffed Lyndon Johnson into formally entering a war he knew the United States had little chance of winning.

Sean J. McLaughlin is the special collections and exhibits director at Murray State University. He is the author of the chapter “‘As Long as We Live, You Shall Be Remembered’: Canadian Veterans of the Vietnam War and Their Struggle for Recognition” in the forthcoming War and its Aftermath: Veteran Treatment and Reintegration in Post-War Societies. His work has appeared in publications such as The International Journal of the History of Sport, Yonsei Journal of International Studies, and Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research.

Because of its innovative methodological approach, provocative argument, and its interest to readers beyond the SHAFR membership, JFK and de Gaulle is a solid addition to the UPK catalog. Students will benefit greatly from the book’s many valuable contributions to the ongoing debate over JFK’s Vietnam decision-making. -- Douglas Snyder, University of Colorado Boulder

America's road to disaster in Vietnam has been endlessly chronicled, but Sean L. McLaughlin takes a fresh approach to that familiar story by diving deep into the disconnect between JFK and Charles de Gaulle over Vietnam. Richly documenting the tale through both US and French archives, McLaughlin recounts how Washington deflected, rebuffed, didained, and ignored wise French counsel to avoid plunging into a deeper political and military engagement with Saigon and to instead aim for Southeast Asia's neutralization. No serious student of JFK, his foreign policy, or the Vietnam War should miss this cogent contribution, which illuminates not only political but also personal (and gendered) dimensions of the discord between Kennedy and Le Général—and their disastrous consequences. -- James Hershberg, George Washington University -- George Washington University

Why did US policymakers ignore powerful voices urging the United States to disengage from Vietnam before it became embroiled in a major war there? In this richly detailed study, McLaughlin delves in unprecedented depth into the case of Charles de Gaulle, one of the most persistent critics of US escalation. McLaughlin’s analysis of American cultural antipathy to France illuminates a tragic missed opportunity on Washington's road to war in Vietnam and sheds valuable light on Franco-American relations more generally. Deftly blending political, diplomatic, and cultural history, this is essential reading for any serious student of the origins of the Vietnam War. -- Mark Atwood Lawrence, University of Texas at Austin