Defending the Free World: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War, 1961-1965

By Orrin Schwab | Go to book overview

1 Defending the Free World: 1961

By the time the liberal administration of John F. Kennedy, the third postwar president, had taken office, the postwar state had reached a point of maturity. New institutions, new knowledge, and new professional types had been invented in the wake of WWII, Korea, the nuclear arms race and the decolonization of the Third World. The “national military establishment” and the larger institutional community of the “national security structure” governed a vast realm within public and private sectors, in the United States and overseas. The institutional system had acquired intricate connections to both American and international political, cultural, and intellectual life.1 This monograph on the origins of the American war in Vietnam will discuss the dimensions of that system; it will also examine the belief systems of foreign policy that were part of the Vietnam intervention and of the larger framework of U.S. foreign relations.

The Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s was tense and agonizing for both groups of adversaries. At different moments war appeared to be in the offing in the not-too-distant future or even the present. In January 1961, the month that ended the Eisenhower administration and began the “New Frontier” of the short Kennedy years, the “Free World” was thought to be in danger. The Soviets and their communist allies pressed against the boundaries of freedom from the city of Berlin on the north German plains, down through the Balkans and the Turkish Dardanelles, and across the vast underdeveloped Afro-Asian heartland to the civil war in the Mekong Valley. The forces of freedom were fighting for what the new president called the “dignity of man” against the palpable evil of international communism. The United States was to continue the “long twilight struggle” until the people of the world understood the nature of the menace that presented itself as “liberation” and defeated it once and for all.2

It was a time of reorganization and redefinition for the American state, as the new president carried out the mandate that the foreign policy establishment had given him. In die late 1950’s and early 1960’s intellectuals that deliberated at institutes and university centers, at Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, at the

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