Rebecca Nellis


Choosing War

The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam  Fredrik Logevall


Study Questions:




Chapter 1: The Kickoff 29 August 1963


Chapter 2 Breaks and Continuities September to November 1963


Chapter 3 “I Will Not Lose Vietnam” November 1963 To January 1964


Chapter 4 “A Deeply Dangerous Game” February To April 1964


Chapter 5 Rumblings of Discontent April To June 1964


Chapter 6 Campaigns at Home and Abroad June and July 1964


Chapter 7 Provocations August 1964


Chapter 8 Standing Logic On Its Head September and October 1964


Chapter 9 The Freedom To Change November and December 1964


Chapter 10 “Stable Government or No Stable Government” January and February 1965


Chapter 11 Americanization February To July 1965


Chapter 12 Choosing War


Casandra Rooney

Choosing War, by Frederik Logevall



ź         The focus is on the “Long 1964”, a time that spanned from 1963 to 1965, with the argument being that this time is the most crucial of the war.

ź         The three themes discussed are of fluidity of options, rigidity of the American decision making, and failure of the opponents to stop the war from escalating.

Chapter 1, The Kickoff

ź         De Gaulle, from the onset, was against the war, due to his own loosing battle in the area only a short time before. As early as the late 1950s, he knew that the US would no more succeed in Vietnam than the French did.

ź         Kennedy was battling with the question of sending in troops or continuing with the policies put together by his predecessors.  Would stabilizing the country militarily bring political peace to the area in the long run?

ź         There were people within the US and outside it that were in favor of American disengagement, though Kennedy felt that, at this point in time full withdrawl was ill advised.

Chapter 2, Breaks and Continuities

ź         There was a fear in the Kennedy adminstration that the Diem regime would turn to de Gaulle and the neutralists and attempt some sort of negotiations, pushing the US to okay the coup in August.

ź         Both privately and publicly, the Kennedy adminstration was committed to staying the course in Vietnam in order to keep from having a united, communist country.  At the time, there was broad support for the sentiment, though there was a push starting for diplomacy.

ź         There was increased pressure in the weeks before Kennedy’s assassination to try and quiet the largest opponent for the war at the time, de Gaulle.

ź         Though we would never know whether Kennedy would actually have pulled out of Vietnam had he not been killed, there is evidence that he wouldn’t have, at least not in 1963.

Chapter 3,  “I Will Not Lose Vietnam”

ź         When Johnson took office, he was a very different leader than Kennedy was.  He was very staunchly anticommunist, and had a deep commitment to the presidential supremacy in foreign affairs, though diplomacy and statecraft frustrated him.

ź         The military situation as Johnson took office was grim and the political situation wasn’t much better.  A political settlement, like the one proprosed by de Gaulle, was therefore becoming more favorable in the international community.

ź         The idea of a political settlement was not what Johnson had in mind, and was ignoring de Gaulle’s ideas on the subject.

Chapter 4, “A Deeply Dangerous Game”

ź         1964 was a pivotal year in the Vietnam war, both in what was accomplished in the conflict and what wasn’t, as it showed how the US was and was not commited to South Vietnam. 

ź         Washington was positive as to what was happening in Vietnam, though they seemed to be the only ones in the international community.  The government was continuing to talk with de Gaulle and his liaisons to try and persuade him to back the US in their policy, and de Gaulle continued to thwart the efforts.

ź         US diplomats saw that their efforts weren’t helping, but they weren’t ready to go as far as to suggest negotiations with Hanoi and Saigon.

Chapter 5, Rumblings of Discontent

ź         Towards the summer of 1964, there were the first real, broadbased rumblings of discontent with Johnson’s policies, both within the international community and within US borders.

ź         Policymakers in Washington were first questioning the motivations and ideas that Johnson was speaking of.  They were growing uneasy with the prospect of escalation that Johnson was surely moving towards, though no individuals were willing to bring their objections public.

ź         Politicians abroad were also starting to grow more worried with the trend they saw Johnson following. 

Chapter 6, Campaigns at Home and Abroad

ź         In order to try and put some sort of “olive branch” out to Hanoi, they called in the assistance of a top diplomat from Canada.  The plan did nothing to help the situation, and started to cast doubt in Canada about the US policy.

ź         Meanwhile, top ranking diplomats and military personnel were stating that the ideal conditions for the war weren’t there, something that academics and major newspapers such as the New York Times were quick to pick up.

ź         In addtion to the war in Vietnam, 1964 was an election year, and Johnson was determined to get elected on his own merit, not riding on the coattails of JFK’s death.  This pushed him to start the “more flags” campaign, to get more allies to commit troops and aid to the conflict and make this a more international war.  Except a few token troops from a small number of countries, this was largely a failure.

Chapter 7, Provocations

ź         In August of 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin situation, pushing through the resolution that gave Johnson the power to “take all necessary steps” against North Vietnam was a turning point in the power that the president had in the Vietnam conflict.

ź         The timing of the strikes against American ships and our return fire was perfect in terms of political situation, leaving the question open as to how much of the fires were fabricated and how much was not.

ź         After the attacks, most of congress felt they had no choice but to put the Resolution through as quickly as possible, considering the fact that it was an election year and most of the congressmen were up for re-election in the fall.

ź         The question that was left for Washington in the wake of the attack was if the US could afford to wait until January 1, 1965 to send troops to North Vietnam.

Chapter 8, Standing Logic on its Head

ź         Though Washington was able to avert crisis in the Gulf of Tonkin, there was an increasing worry among the foreign capitals that the US was going to escalate the conflict. Even London, the US’s strongest supporter, was worrying about escalation.

ź         This pessimism wasn’t only being shown by the foreign allies, but also in an increasing number within the US, both within journalism circles and some of the governmental officials.  Even with the still growing opposition, the US was making plans to escalate after the election.

ź         Johnson, while planning to escalate the war after the election, uses Goldwater’s rhetoric against him, calling him a “war monger” even though he has plans to move forward with a similar plan after the election himself.

ź         Ball used his position to try and advocate against the war, though the Johnson administration chose not to listen to him and continue as planned.

Chapter 9, The Freedom to Change

ź         Both within the US and outside it, most of the observers saw the huge role the Vietnam war played on the election of 1964, a role that left many Americans questioning exactly what Johnson would do if elected.

ź         An NSC working group was put together to explore the options within the Vietnam war, though they explored more about escalation than disengagement.  There was a “fall-back” option put together by the group that was more or less ignored.

ź         As Americans were discussing an escalation to the war, the situation in South Vietnam was becoming desparate, as morale was going lower and lower among the South Vietnamese. 

ź         There were a number of Americans that did not support the idea of escalating the war in Vietnam, but this was a minority, and couldn’t, or wouldn’t sway the minds of the senior policy makers in Washington.

ź         By the end of 1964, the administration, who had been moving towards this in the previous months anyway, were setting up to Americanize the war.

Chapter 10, “Stable Government or No Stable Government”

ź         As the new year began, Johnson worked to escalate the war, even a opposition was continuing to grow on the home front.  There were more and more politicians advocating a withdrawl of US forces from Vietnam, including the VP elect.

ź         The Khanh government in South Vietnam was loosing more and more backing as the US was giving it more support, pushing Johnson’s hand to have to back it not just politically and advisorally, but also by sending troops.

ź         In order to make the move to escalation more palatable, Johnson went to South Vietnam in January, to see the country and to show his case for escalating the war. 

ź         He received the ability, not from the trip, but from the a Vietcong attack on Americans on the Tet holiday, an attack that is still questionable if it was against Americans or meant for the South Vietnamese.

Chapter 11, Americanization

ź         Many foreign leaders, including the UN Secretary General, were pushing more and more for some kind of negiotations in order to halt the move the US was obviously supporting.  The push for “more flags” in the war was failing.

ź         Discussions within the US legislature were also looking at the situation, with more of the country in conflict with the Johnson policy.  These sentiments were reflected by many  Americans.

ź         Despite these pressures to even broach negotiations for an agreement, and how the war itself was looking like it would likely fare, Johnson steadfastly pushed forward with his plan for escalation.

Chapter 12, Choosing War

ź         Many in the administration, even the highest up, could see the grim picture that was painted in 1964.  They, however, could see no way that they could feasibly pull out of Vietnam and let the communists have the area.

ź         Even from the earliest times after Johnson took office, it is obvious that this was his war.  His advisors, though he listened to them, they were often expected to accept the policies that he had decided on, even if they were in conflict with good politics.

ź         The most important counterfactual that can be posed about this time is where Kennedy didn’t die in 1963.  Would the war had essentially continued the same course it had under Johnson, or would Kennedy have taken a different stance and listened more closely to his advisors?

ź         Though many of the foreign allies, and American citizens for that matter, were against the war, most would only take a weak stand against the US policy, many not even speaking out publicly against him. 

ź         Another important counterfactual that is posed is the possibility of disengagement.  Could we have pulled out in 1965 after what had been done the prior year, or would it have spelled a larger disaster for the South Vietnamese?  How could we have done it?

ź         This was an costly, and possibly avoidable, war for the US.  The lesson that we should come away with from this was is the possibility that this sort of war could happen again, in a different place and context, but with the same deadly results.



1.      Throughout the book, it is clear that Johnson was waiting until after the election to escalate the war while still speaking in ambigious enough tones to imply a sort of anti-escalation stance.  If he had been more upfront about it, could he have been elected in 1964 anyway, or would the election have gone to Goldwater?

2.      There is less discussion in the book about the more common idea that this war was specifically to keep the Communist threat at bay.  Do you feel that the escalation of war was led to more by the idealism of the Cold War, or the desire to “save face” and win a war that others could not?

3.      Logevall points out several counterfactuals in the conclusion.  Do you agree that these are the most important counterfactuals, or are there others that are more pertinent?  Also, what do you think about the conterfactuals he raises?  What are your answers to his questions?

4.      In his preface, he states three themes that the discussion will be based on to show his argument; fluidity of options, rigidity of the American decision making, and failure of the opponents to stop the war from escalating.  Do you feel that these themes were covered well, and, more importantly, were these the pertinent themes that followed the 18 month period discussed?