This letter was published in the February 2021 issue of Literary Review.
In his otherwise excellent review of The Tyranny of Merit (LR, December 2020 – January 2021), Andrew Adonis challenges Michael J. Sandel’s statement that John F. Kennedy’s team, with all their “glittering credentials … led the United States into the folly of the Vietnam War.” Not so, writes Adonis. “It was his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who led the United States into that folly.” Adonis’ comments are wrong on two counts.
First of all, President Kennedy presided over the first stages of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. By November 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, there were already 16,000 U.S. “advisors” in South Vietnam. Johnson continued the buildup until a half million Americans were serving in the country.
And second, Sandel is correct that Kennedy’s team — and not only the President — despite all their qualifications, was responsible for the disaster of the Vietnam War. Chief among these was Robert McNamara, appointed by Kennedy to the key post of Secretary of Defense in 1961. He remained there until early 1968. Many other Kennedy appointees, known as “best and the brightest” stayed on under Johnson.