on 18 August 1999
CHOOSING WAR makes an important contribution to the literature on the Vietnam War. With cogent analysis, detailed research, and stunning clarity, Logevall has crafted a book that should become the standard account of the "Long 1964." Not only does he illuminate the heretofore understudied international angle of this period, he makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the role of domestic politics in the making of U.S. foreign policy.
The only reservation I have with the book is a small problem with the thesis. Logevall makes a persuasive argument that Lyndon Johnson (and members of his administration, but mainly LBJ) consciously chose war over other options in Vietnam in an attempt to preserve his personal credibility and domestic agenda. Yet at the end of the book, Logevall backs off this indictment, arguing that Vietnam was, in the end, America's war, with enough responsibility to go around. This is a minor point, but one that Logevall or his editor should have recognized and addressed before publication.
on 29 July 2014
This superb book examines the policy choices made by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in 1963-65. Logevall shows that either of them could have rejected the route that led to war, but that both instead chose to refuse negotiations and to wage aggressive war.
From the start, "the Americans and not the North Vietnamese were the outsiders in the conflict." The US government violated the 1954 accords' neutrality provisions by giving huge support to the South. As the influential journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, "the easy way to avoid the truth is to persuade ourselves that this is not really a civil war but is in fact essentially an invasion of South VietNam by North VietNam. This has produced the argument that the way to stabilize South VietNam is wage war against North VietNam."
Logevall notes the US government's `determined opposition to negotiations'. In 1962, it rejected four DRV initiatives for a negotiated solution. "Nor did Washington follow up when Hanoi, at various points in 1963-1965, indicated a desire to enter talks. Said a State Department intelligence report at the end of the period under study: `Has Hanoi shown any interest in negotiations? Yes, repeatedly.' The same thing could never have been said of the United States."
Kennedy "rejected numerous appeals that he pursue a political settlement to the conflict." "In 1963, the Kennedy administration opposed any move to bring about an early diplomatic settlement, as it had since it came into office and as its predecessor had done before that. From January 1961 to November 1963, the administration adhered firmly to the position that the insurgency in the South had to be defeated and that no diplomacy should be undertaken until that result was ensured. Negotiations should be entered into only when there was nothing to negotiate." "we must understand the aversion to negotiations of John F. Kennedy and the inflexible foreign-policy mind of Lyndon Baines Johnson."
Logevall observes, "As it had when Diem and Nhu appeared to consider the idea, the prospect of an early political settlement struck fear into American officials. The notion of a negotiated settlement between the Saigon regime and the NLF or Hanoi was anathema to them, and they were determined to prevent it."
In sum, "That Lyndon Johnson was as committed to achieving victory in Vietnam as his predecessor was not lost on leaders in North Vietnam." "The Johnson administration, like its predecessor, was averse to even considering possible diplomatic alternatives." LBJ "remained unshaken in his belief in presidential supremacy in foreign affairs, and in the rule that politics should stop at the water's edge."
Logevall points out that the British government bore a share of responsibility for the war: "those domestic and foreign voices who would have had the greatest potential impact on top officials were the most reticent to speak out. Thus, whereas the Paris government of Charles de Gaulle forcefully disputed the U.S. position at every turn, the more important American ally in London consistently refrained from doing so, despite the fact that officials there largely shared the French leader's views."
The British government opposed negotiations: "The long-standing Anglo-American agreement to work to prevent early negotiations remained sacrosanct in late 1963."
As Logevall writes of possible opponents of the war, "the most important ones, the Senate Democratic leadership and the British government, time and again in these critical weeks showed themselves unwilling to state publicly what they believed privately, to challenge the administration's interpretation of the stakes, of the risks, of the costs. In that way, these dissenters, whose views of the conflict were to prove so prescient, helped carry out the deception, helped perpetuate the illusion of domestic American consensus and Anglo-American unity on the conflict, and thereby helped bring about the tragedy that was the Second Indo-China war. London's public support for American policy was all the more welcome in early 1965 since so many other important governments were openly distancing themselves from the U.S. position."
The United Nations Secretary General failed too. Logevall remarks, "U Thant, convinced already in 1963 that any major American intervention would fail, and by the late summer of 1964 that Hanoi leaders were willing to enter talks with the United States, acceded to American requests into 1965 that he not push publicly for negotiations."
Logevall sums up, "neither the domestic nor the international political context demanded a steadfast American commitment in Vietnam ..."
In November 1964, the American people voted for peace and got war. "Goldwater's general Vietnam policy before election day would become Johnson's Vietnam policy thereafter. A Herblock cartoon some months later got it right - it showed LBJ looking into a mirror and seeing Goldwater's face staring back at him."
"American officials had always proclaimed their commitment to the notion of South Vietnamese self-determination, but the deliberations in November revealed just how empty that claim had become - `The U.S. would oppose any independent South Vietnamese moves to negotiate,' said the report that Johnson approved. ... Plainly put, the self-determination Washington claimed to be defending was what it feared most."
Wyoming Democrat Senator Gale McGee told his colleagues, "If Vietnam goes, Cambodia goes, Thailand goes, Malaysia goes, Indonesia goes, the Philippines go ...." Except that they didn't go. Even the supposed dominos did not believe the theory.
"By the end of February 1965, the most important U.S. policy initiatives were in place. On the thirteenth of that month, the administration formally agreed to initiate regular, sustained bombing of North Vietnam and enemy-held areas of South Vietnam. ... On the twenty-sixth, the White House ... agreed to William Westmoreland's requests for two battalions of marines to guard the airbase at Danang, thus introducing the first U.S. ground troops to the war."
"He [LBJ] and his aides worked hard in the first half of 1965 to keep the American people in the dark about Vietnam, to foster apathy, to conceal for as long as possible the Americanization of the war."
The US assault killed three million Vietnamese and caused `the utter destruction of much of the country of Vietnam and large portions of Laos and Cambodia'. This was a totally unnecessary war, like so many others.