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From: "Diane N. Labrosse" <labrosse@yorku.ca>
List Editor: "Diane N. Labrosse" <labrosse@yorku.ca>
Editor's Subject: H-DIPLO ROUNDTABLE: Logevall's Response
Author's Subject: H-DIPLO ROUNDTABLE: Logevall's Response
Date Written: Tue, 1 Feb 2000 14:02:08 -0500
Date Posted: Tue, 1 Feb 2000 14:02:08 -0500


Fredrik Logevall, _Choosing War : The Lost Chance for Peace and the
Escalation of War in Vietnam_. (University of California Press, 1999),
443 pp., $35.00.

Roundtable Editor: Lloyd C. Gardner
Reviewers: Robert Jervis, Jeffrey Kimball, and Marilyn B. Young

Response by Fredrik Logevall
University of California - Santa Barbara

Let me begin by thanking the four discussants: Lloyd Gardner,
Jeffrey Kimball, Marilyn Young, and Robert Jervis. It's a great privilege
to be able to participate in a discussion of one's book with such
distinguished scholars (and other list members!), and I am gratified by
the obvious care and attention they put into their task. I am also
thankful for their many kind comments about my book.

In Choosing War I examine the coming of major war in Vietnam in
1965 and whether that war might have been avoided. The emphasis is on an
eighteen-month period beginning in late August 1963 and ending in late
February 1965 ("The Long 1964"). The book seeks to place American decision
making in this period in its wider international and domestic political
context, and is based on archival research in several countries as well as
analysis of Congressional and press opinion in the United States. This
wider perspective is essential, I believe, to reaching the fullest
historical understanding. For unless we extend our frame of reference
beyond the halls of power in Washington and beyond America's borders--and
beyond the boundaries of South and North Vietnam--we cannot fully
understand the sources and consequences of American officials' decisions,
the options they faced, the choices they did or did not have.

Given that the discussants have summarized various parts of my
argument, I need not say much more about it here. Briefly, I conclude
that the Americanization of the war in 1965 can in no way be considered
overdetermined. Virtually all of America's allies opposed escalation and
counseled negotiations, as did key voices within the United States,
including the Senate Democratic leadership, Vice President Hubert
Humphrey, and prominent (and numerous) elements in the mainstream press.
Public opinion was ambivalent--there was no "Cold War Consensus" that
demanded steadfastness in Vietnam. The Hanoi government was prepared to
enter talks aimed at getting Washington a face-saving disengagement. The
USSR likewise favored a settlement, and the Beijing government, while
leery of a great-power conference on the war, was anxious to avoid a
direct military confrontation with the U.S. and an expanded Soviet
influence in North Vietnam. In South Vietnam, there was widespread war
weariness and support for neutralization.

Were senior American officials aware of these realities? They
were. Contrary to the recent claims of Robert McNamara, he and other top
policy makers had a good sense of Hanoi's determination to prevail, and of
the politico-military chaos in South Vietnam. (McNamara was not the
ignoramus in office he now says he was.) No one needed to remind them of
America's isolation on Vietnam in the international arena, or of the deep
and growing misgivings on Capitol Hill. What is more, most senior policy
makers were themselves pessimistic about the prospects in the conflict,
even with the introduction of major U.S. fighting forces, and many held
deep doubts that the outcome in Vietnam really mattered to American

I believe these findings have very important implications for our
understanding of the war and why it happened. The question of why Vietnam
became an American war, so passionately debated during the conflict
itself, has not been a particularly hard question to answer for many later
authors, especially in recent years. Most have found more than enough
reasons why large-scale war had to break out in 1965, however lamentable
this might be in hindsight. Choosing War argues otherwise. It
problematizes an issue that has not been problematic for most scholars.

Note that in rejecting the claim that the war was overdetermined,
I am not suggesting it was "underdetermined"--as I say in the book, given
the trajectory of U.S. involvement going back to at least 1950, escalation
was bound to be one of the options before senior officials in the grim
setting of 1964-65. What I am suggesting, however, is that explaining the
decision for war is much less simple than recent authors would have one

As Lloyd Gardner notes in his essay, I attach great importance to
the figure of Lyndon Johnson (much more so than I originally anticipated).
But this is no monocausal history. In the book I quote approvingly the
claim by Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts that it would be a mistake to look
for a single cause of the Americanization of the Vietnam War. I attach
considerable importance to Johnson's advisory system; to the policy
decisions of the Kennedy administration; to the "permissive context" that
caused the most important opponents of an Americanized war to keep their
reservations quiet (I single out the Senate Democratic leadership and the
British government); to the ham-handed diplomacy of the North Vietnamese.
I also say explicitly that Americanization had deep roots, roots going
back to the start of the Cold War, and indeed much earlier: "[I]t would be
foolish to deny that the decision to go to war in Vietnam was partly the
result of long-term subterranean currents in American ideology and

Jeffrey Kimball is thus incorrect is stating, early in his essay,
that I "reject" all structural explanations for the war. I do not.
Later in his essay Kimball implicitly acknowledges as much, writing as he
does that the differences between us may be semantic, having to do with
how one defines "structure." He then follows with a very good summary of
my argument, one that finds both immediate and long-term causes of the

But leaving things there will not do. It's not enough merely to
list x number of causes. It is the task of the historian to reduce a
given list of causes to order by establishing a causal hierarchy, and to
relate the items in this hierarchy to one another. For the leading causes
of the 1965 escalation I believe we must look to the short term,
especially to the year 1964 and to the interaction in that year of Lyndon
Johnson and his most senior advisers, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and
Dean Rusk. They acted in consultation with their key assistants (notably
John McNaughton and William Bundy), with Ambassador Taylor in Saigon, with
the JCS, but with ultimate power reserved for themselves. And they had
options. To paraphrase Roger Hilsman's later assertion, in early 1965
they could have gone to Geneva rather than escalated the war. This is
evident not merely in hindsight but in the context of the time.

Does that mean it's easy to imagine them doing so? No. Robert
Jervis makes an important observation when he writes: "Johnson then did
'choose war,' but given who he and his advisers were, it is hard to
imagine a different outcome."

I quite concur (though I would note that in my judgment neither
McNamara nor Bundy were true believers on Vietnam by the time the key
decisions were made). Indeed, it occurred to me as I completed writing
the book that, in the process of tearing down the standard arguments for
"inevitability" (ones based on notions of an all-powerful Cold War
Consensus in the U.S., or the alleged hubris of American officials, or
their supposed ignorance of the obstacles they faced in the war, or the
bureaucratic momentum caused by many years of growing involvement in the
struggle), I was arguably constructing another such inevitability
thesis--one holding that as long as LBJ was president, and as long as
Rusk, Bundy, and McNamara (and for a time Taylor) constituted his inner
circle of advisers, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine a different
outcome. But this is where the "permissive context" looms so large. The
numerous influential opponents of escalation, at home and abroad, failed
to do what they had in their power to do: force a real debate about what
ought to occur in Vietnam.

The absence of any domestic American consensus about what should
happen in Vietnam is especially important here. Jervis states at one
point that my arguments are not as new as I imply. Perhaps. Probably no
argument with respect to this war could be made that has not at some point
been in made in print before. But it is one thing to assert an argument
and quite another to demonstrate its viability using empirical evidence.
I know of no one who has looked as closely at the domestic context in late
1964-early 1965 and found such a striking lack of unity of thought among
Americans about the war. There is a conventional view out there which
says that Congress and the mainstream press overwhelmingly backed a firm
commitment to South Vietnam in this period. Turns out it wasn't so.
Likewise, there is a conventional view which says the Cold War Consensus
cracked only later, in 1966 or 1967 or 1968. In fact, it had deep
fissures already in the early 1960s (something John F. Kennedy understood
sooner than most). To be sure, a Cold War Consensus still
existed--existed, indeed, for decades to come--but it was an increasingly
supple one, with many adherents now thinking it possible for the United
States to be more discriminatory in its application of containment.

Nor have previous studies--excellent though many of them
are--fully appreciated the pessimism that permeated the higher levels of
the administration; or the doubts many officials had about Vietnam's
importance (here I would also draw to list members' attention Kai Bird's
excellent book, The Color of Truth, which appeared too late for me to
utilize); or the lengths to which they went to head off early
negotiations; or the depth of allied misgivings about seeking a military
solution; or the widespread war weariness and apathy enveloping South
Vietnam as The Long 1964 progressed.

A central concern in Marilyn Young's essay is my counterfactual
exploration of what John F. Kennedy might have done on Vietnam had he
returned from Dallas alive. The best argument, I conclude, is that he
most likely would have postponed a decision as long as possible, a la
Johnson, but ultimately would have rejected an Americanized war in favor
of some form of negotiated disengagement. Young finds this argument
unpersuasive. She endorses my claim that Kennedy and Johnson were the key
players on Vietnam policy, as well as my argument that the "permissive
context" was of considerable, but ultimately secondary, importance. She
also agrees with my assessment of Kennedy's policies in 1961-63, and my
finding that he showed little interest while in office in exploring a
diplomatic solution (the administration indeed became acutely concerned
when Diem and his brother Nhu showed possible interest in entering talks
with the enemy). But she maintains that a surviving Kennedy most likely
would have rejected Hans Morgenthau's alternative scenario in January 1965
(which was to "get out without losing too much face" [pp.406-411]) and,
she implies, would have followed Johnson's general course.

We differ. Kennedy's record in Vietnam was not a good one, in my
judgment, but it is becoming more and more clear that he was always a
skeptic on this conflict, and always resistant to making it an American
war. I believe his Laos decisions in the spring of 1961 were more
meaningful than Young allows, and I attach considerable importance to his
actions in the fall of 1961, when several of his top aides were pressing
for the introduction of U.S. ground troops. Kennedy understood the nature
of the conflict in Vietnam better than Johnson, and he was more sensitive
to allied leaders' opinions on the issue. He was more self-confident in
foreign policy matters, and more likely to go against the advice of top
aides. Moreover, his critical Vietnam decisions would have come in his
second (and final) term, when the domestic political implications of those
decisions would have been at least somewhat less pressing. I am
unpersuaded by Young's claim that American complicity in the Diem coup in
November 1963 represents the best clue to what a surviving JFK most likely
would have done 15-18 months later.

Gardner raises an interesting point regarding this Kennedy
counterfactual, having to do with the nature of a hypothetical
Kennedy-Goldwater presidential contest in 1964. He writes: "[W]hat if it
had been another 1960 campaign, with the TV debates now centered on: Who
is in the process of losing Vietnam? Who killed Diem? What if Goldwater
focused on Kennedy's speech on November 22, 1963, promising once again to
stand on all the watchtowers of freedom?"

These are good questions, but it's interesting that the Johnson
election team worked very hard during the actual campaign of 1964 to get
the message to voters that if they wanted an American war in the jungles
of Vietnam, Goldwater was their man. Johnson was the voice of restraint,
the candidate who would keep Vietnam from becoming an American war. A
winning strategy it was. The journalist James Reston, who followed
Johnson all over the country during the campaign, observed that LBJ "was
loudly cheered when he said over and over again that he wasn't going to
'send American boys to fight a war Asian boys should fight for
themselves.'"(253) Goldwater in fact did try to run a sort of "Who-is-in
the-process-of-losing-Vietnam?"-campaign, and it didn't work. The issue
did not resonate with voters. The absurd political scene in Saigon in the
late summer and fall, which often made it difficult to know who if anyone
was actually in charge, could have allowed LBJ--or a surviving JFK--to
throw up his hands and repeat the question asked increasingly on editorial
pages across the nation: What obligation does the United States have to
defend a people who appear unwilling to do their part in that defense?
As for "Who killed Diem?" Kennedy would likely have responded, "The
generals killed Diem." Absent strong proof to the contrary (and Goldwater
would not have had any), that answer would have sufficed.

Jervis does not engage the JFK counterfactual in his essay, but
one of his most important paragraphs bears on the point. He writes:

"Throughout the period those who opposed escalation called for a
political solution. Although they were often vague as to what this meant,
the general outlines were clear and agreed upon by both opponents and
proponents of the war: a coalition government would be established in
South Vietnam, American forces would withdraw, and eventually Vietnam
would be reunified. There were different estimates as to how long it
would be before the Communists dominated the South Vietnamese government
and joined with the North. Pessimists thought it would be months,
optimists expected the neutralized regime to last two years and maybe five
or ten. More importantly, the optimists expected the unified and
Communist regime to act like Tito's Yugoslavia; the pessimists saw it as
Castro's Cuba. I think it is clear that the latter underestimated the
strength of Vietnamese nationalism and the hostility between Vietnam and
China, which gave the US more leverage than it realized. But Johnson and
his advisers refused to consider the arguments of the optimists and
actively discouraged the members of the administration from exploring the
issue. While no one can be sure who was right, Johnson's pessimism would
have been hard to shake."

Exactly right. I would not disagree with anything in this
paragraph, and each of its claims can be found in the pages of Choosing
War. But it is worth asking: would Kennedy's pessimism have been equally
hard to shake? I think not, for the reasons outlined above as well as
others I lay out in the concluding chapter of the book.

There is much more to be said in response to these stimulating,
thoughtful review essays, but let me conclude for the moment with a word
or two on the subject of periodization. Gardner and Kimball point out
that the earlier period of U.S. involvement was highly important in
setting the stage for what came later--Gardner says the 1950s offer plenty
of evidence for the importance of structural factors in American
involvement, and Kimball suggests there were many "turning points" in the
war, some of them before The Long 1964. They are correct, of course.
(My next book project, it's worth noting in this regard, is an
international history of "The Struggle for Indochina, 1945-1965."). But
comprehensiveness in some areas requires concision in others. In order to
be able to look closely at the international and domestic political
context of American decision making and keep the length of the book
reasonable, I knew I had to begin my inquiry at the point when Vietnam
first became a top-priority, day-to-day foreign policy issue for American
decision makers. That point, I believe, came in the summer of 1963.

In the same way, Robert Jervis is correct to find importance in
the later (i.e. April-July) months of 1965, which my book covers in much
less detail. The spring and summer months of 1965 matter, in part because
of what they reveal about how this war would be waged. The
LBJ-orchestrated campaign of deception vis-a-vis the public reaches its
most intense level in these months. The May-July period is also key in
determining just how large the U.S. commitment will get--open-ended, or
something considerably smaller? (Jervis is in error when he says I argue
that the landing of the Marines on March 8 foreordained the 500,000 troops
that followed.) The debate on this question within the administration was
important, but whatever its outcome we still have an American war in
Vietnam. The cross-over point to that war, I argue, came in
February-March. Disengagement after that point is not impossible to
imagine, but almost.

Fredrik Logevall

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