Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"We Were Wrong, Terribly Wrong..."

Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. By Frederick Logevall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara summed up Frederik Logevall's assessment of America's escalation of the Vietnam War perfectly in his 1995 memoir - that America's leaders were horribly wrong in their decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.   Why the "Awesome Foursome" of President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, chose to focus on war rather than diplomacy is Logevall's primary concern, followed closely by could they have avoided escalation in Southeast Asia.  His conclusion is the predictable one that LBJ and his primary advisors made a conscious choice to increase American involvement in Vietnam despite the availability of other options, and over the objections of key American allies, prominent newspapers, and Democratic Senators.

Logevall argues that by the end of what he terms the "Long 1964," the period from August 1963 to March 1965, LBJ had already determined that war was the proper policy choice in Vietnam.  Choice is the important term here, for Logevall believes that the United States had other ways to seek a resolution in Indochina short of direct military intervention.  This is a stark contrast to most other histories of the Vietnam War, which portray the Americanization of the war as inevitable due to either the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, or by Johnson's need to protect his Great Society programs in Congress.  Both of these issues play an important role in Logevall's analysis, but he assigns them different importance than other historians (such as Dallek, Gardner, and Herring).

The coup that resulted in Diem's death was the first sponsored by the United States, which sought to remove any South Vietnamese officials that it believed might agree to a bilateral agreement with North Vietnam.  Logevall contends that this, not Diem's ineffectiveness as President, was the reason that he and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were removed from power.  As a result of the United States' resistance to negotiations in Vietnam, the coup did not mean that the United States had taken responsibility for events in Vietnam, but preserved American freedom of action since President John F. Kennedy had not come to a decision for or against escalation.

An important difference between Logevall and other histories of the early years of the war is his international approach, which draws on diplomatic archives in the United States, France, Great Britain, and Sweden.  This approach underlies his argument that American allies and opponents both supported a negotiated settlement to the war in Vietnam prior to escalation in 1965.  Charles de Gaulle called for a neutralized Vietnam in August 1963, arguing that Indochina would be a never-ending entanglement for the United States.  Great Britain quietly supported de Gaulle's view, but had already agreed not to push for a diplomatic solution in public.  Logevall argues that British concerns were muted by England's need for American support of Malaysia against an aggressive Indonesia and England's increasing status as an American client.  The Soviet Union also favored a diplomatic solution to the conflict as a means of stabilizing the region.

In the United States, Dean Rusk opposed escalation, but allowed hawks like McNamara and Bundy more sway in discussions because he believed that the State Department's real work would start after the end of the conflict.  Similarly, Undersecretary of State George Ball, along with many of the mid-level bureaucrats in the State Department and at the CIA were against the war.  Logevall asserts that their opposition was muted, like that of Canadian and British diplomats.  The problem was that while many called for neutralization of Vietnam along the lines of Laos in 1961, none could offer a vision for how it would work.

The question then, is why did LBJ Americanize the war?  Logevall argues that Johnson chose war over diplomacy primarily due to personal factors, but that it fit within long term currents in American culture and Foreign Policy ideology.  Along with Michael H. Hunt, Logevall argues that American belief in national greatness, a racial hierarchy based on white superiority, and fear of revolutions provide the cultural context for American decision-making related to Vietnam.  In addition to these factors, Americans were simply not comfortable with the realist considerations inherent in European-style diplomacy.  The "Awesome Foursome" also believed that the Soviets were fanatics about spreading Communism, and that negotiating with fanatics was futile.  Because Communists worked to spread their government and economic doctrines to people who did not want them, America was morally obligated to oppose them.  The problem, Logevall contends, with structural arguments like these is that they don't relate much to the decisions made in the real world - the Truman Doctrine, after all, didn't mean that the United States actually opposed Communism everywhere, or that it always resorted to military means in its opposition.

The best long term explanation for American escalation in Vietnam is our involvement there for fifteen years.  That provided a momentum to events, that predisposed American leaders toward war, but did not inexorably lead to war.  The deciding factors were the personalities of Johnson, Rusk, Bundy, and McNamara.  Logevall argues that they did not support the war for the reasons most frequently provided: to defend a free people from aggression because the United States so often undermined Vietnamese self-determination through its support for coups and sabotage of bilateral negotiations.

The key concern in American decision-making regarding Vietnam was that of credibility, both personal and national.  Kennedy worried that "losing" Vietnam to the Communists would damage his chances of reelection in 1964.  Johnson's concerns about credibility went deeper than Kennedy's.  Johnson worried so much about his lack of foreign policy expertise that he avoided foreign leaders and did not debate foreign affairs with his own staff. 

The issue of credibility, prestige, and reputation came up frequently in meetings on Vietnam during the Long 1964.  Logevall divides the discussion into three parts: national leadership, partisan politics, and careerism.  LBJ dominated Vietnam policy from the beginning of his administration.  His main concerns were his domestic agenda and his historical reputation.  This still doesn't explain why LBJ so vehemently rejected diplomatic solutions.  The desire to protect the Great Society programs is not sufficient because the lack of public or Congressional support for a war meant that LBJ could have withdrawn from Vietnam and found ways to save his domestic agenda.  Vietnam was worth winning for its own sake.

Logevall emphasizes Johnson's personality as the main driver for escalation in his analysis.  Because of his insecurity, Johnson saw attacks on his policies as personal attacks on him.  This was enhanced by his tendency to conflate his personal credibility with that of the United States.  He favored military action as a test of manhood, which had personal and national effects.  Despite his own bullying style, Johnson believed that he couldn't back down to a bully like the Communists.  To retreat or withdraw was not possible because it was cowardly, and LBJ saw diplomatic solutions in Vietnam as running from a fight, even while acknowledging that it might not be possible to win.

Unfortunately, Logevall does not include Vietnamese archives in his analysis, nor does he assign much agency to North Vietnam, assuming that only the American decision on escalation matters.  In one respect this approach makes sense because Logevall is concerned with American decision-making, not Vietnamese decision-making.  However, it ignores both Chinese and North Vietnamese pronouncements which denounced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's approach of seeking peaceful co-existence with the West.  North Vietnam also decided to expand its support for the insurgency in South Vietnam during 1963 due to a significant power shift in its leadership in which more moderate leaders such as General Vo Nguyen Giap and Party Secretary Truong Chinh faced a militant group headed by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho.  Giap's proteges were purged from PAVN in early 1964 after Giap was accused of accepting Khrushchev's policy of co-existence.

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