The Lost Chance for
Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam
- Logevall used a lot of
repetition of the same themes, ideas, arguments and words to argue his point,
was that effective?
- Did the choice to
escalate US involvement in Vietnam seem like an effective example of
democratic decision making? How were the decision making processes of the JFK
and LBJ administrations the same and how were they different?
- Given that the US is
approaching an election currently does reading about some of the events
surrounding the 1964 election open new doors of questions/doubts about the
current political situation? Considering LBJ’s deceptions and the near total
power the executive branch tends to have in foreign affairs policy how can the
president and his/her advisors ever be trusted?
- Why was the US so
convinced that neutralization would ultimately equal communism? Was it a
justified fear? And if it had equaled communism would that have really been
as detrimental as the US thought? Did the US reach a point where its original
objectives became secondary to its stubborn obsessed need to win?
- The press seemed to have
a position of power or at least a psychological influence during this time,
given the state of current events does the press still maintain that kind of
power? Does the 24 hour news cycle diminish it? Or the fact that more and
more of the mainstream press is owned by fewer and fewer people?
- Should the early
opposition have done more, said more? If so, what should they have been doing
or saying and to whom? Would it have made an appreciable difference to the
- In the early weeks of
LBJ’s presidency was there any room for him to shift course on Vietnam? What
about the issue of inheriting foreign policy? All new presidents do, was
LBJ’s situation worse because of the way he came to power?
- The US believed that
France did not want the US to succeed where they had failed is that a
- How important was the
state department’s inertia? Would there have been a marked difference in US
policy if the Sec of State had been pro-active in considering and thinking out
possible diplomatic solutions?
- Throughout the book
Logevall expresses the administrations strategies on Vietnam, were they ever
really that different from one moment of time to the next in this 18 month
- How problematic and
stifling was the issue of democrats challenging a dem president? How
different would everyone have behaved if in the midst of all this there hadn’t
also been an election to think about?
- Why was the US so
incapable of seeing that it wasn’t just France who disagreed? In June of 1964
LBJ sends George Ball to meet with de Gaulle, what were the benefits of
sending his “devil’s advocate?”
- The more flags effort
was a failure, why wasn’t that a bigger warning bell? Why isn’t that seen as
a warning when it fails in today’s world as well?
- When LBJ won by a
landslide purporting to be the candidate for moderation and peace why didn’t
he give pause to the mandate the public seems to have handed him? Why wasn’t
the approval an impetus to really consider Vietnam policy from a new place of
support and power at home?
- Are vanity and ego
prerequisites for being president? Was LBJ’s concern for his legacy impairing
- Three Core Questions:
Why did the US opt for large-scale war in Vietnam? Could the war have been
averted? If so, how?
- Three interconnected
themes run through the book:
is arguing that the course to escalation in Vietnam was by no means
inevitable. There were options.
- Rigidity in the
Administration’s decision making particularly evident in their unwillingness
to seek or participate in any sort of negotiated settlement.
- Failure of the
opposition to fully commit to preventing war and really challenge the
administration’s decisions and actions.
Chapter 1: The Kickoff 29
- The 1954 Geneva
Conference following the end of the Franco-Vietminh War separated the country
at the seventeenth parallel with the communists taking control of the North
and the noncommunists getting the South. The US from that point became
determined to support and maintain the noncommunist South. Backed the
government of Ngo Dinh Diem.
- By 1963 there were more
than 16,000 military personnel on the ground in South Vietnam.
- In May there was an
attack on Buddhists observing a holiday by Diem’s brother Nhu which set off a
spiral of Buddhist demonstrations that by August had reached near chaos.
- French culture was still
very dominant in Vietnam.
- Charles de Gaulle made a
statement, that would be one of many in the next 18 months, that essentially
said he opposed the US commitment to an independent, noncommunist South
Vietnam. The country should be reunited and that it was up to the Vietnamese
people to decide how to do this.
- Same time of de Gaulle’s
statement Henry Cabot Lodge sent a cable to Kennedy: “we are launched on a
course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the
- JFK approved the coup
but left himself open to changing course.
- The crackdown on the
Buddhists, disagreements over government waste and inefficiency, unwillingness
to impliment political reforms and the growing power of Nhu all contributed to
US anger at the Diem government.
- By august Nhu had
concluded that US hostility toward him was so great that his only chance for
political survival might be accommodation with his Vietnamese political
- Hanoi leaders in this
period seemed sympathetic to a negotiated settlement, partly because the US
presence had made some improvements for the GVN (Government of Vietnam) and
the totally unappealing possibility that a US-China war would be fought in
North Vietnam by the Vietnamese.
- Hanoi didn’t work too
hard for a settlement however because there hasn’t been a strain on resources
yet, they weren’t desperate and they didn’t want to unnecessarily upset China.
- The USSR and the UK saw
merit in the French position. Despite discussions about an international
effort to find a political solution, nothing happened because though
supportive of negotiations no one was prepared to really work towards them or
risk damaging their relationship with Washington (as with the UK)
- JFK was interested in
continuing to lessen the tensions btwn Moscow and Washington and he was
reluctant to commit troops. He was also less prone than his senior advisors to
seek military solutions to foreign policy problems.
- The Laos situation,
conference and agreement would hover near the surface of all Vietnam
- Some important opinion
makers began to speak out against escalation, senator Mike Mansfield
(cautioned JFK against ground troops), undersecretary of state, George Ball
(who warned that the topography of Vietnam was totally unsuitable for the
commitment of american forces) and Nehru, the Indian prime minister
(dispatching US troups would only turn most South Vietnamese against Diem and
provide Hanoi with an excuse to move troops south). Others who spoke out
against escalation: ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, state dept
undersecretary Chester Bowles--each harbored doubts about the ability of the
US to achieve foreign policy success in the third world by military means.
- On the other hand,
Robert McNamera (sec of defense), Dean Rusk (sec of state) and national
security advisor McGeorge Bundy all favored standing firm in Vietnam and
argued against a negotiated withdrawal. Rusk’s position being the most
curious “as secretary of state he was the nation’s chief diplomat, and yet he
had little faith in the power of diplomacy to settle international disputes,
at least where communists were involved.”
- JFK’s cautious decisions
bought him some time but even relatively modest increases in US commitment
would make it hard to change course.
- There was an
operational plan for withdrawal to begin in late ‘63, but the optimism was
unfounded. To some degree the picture of progress was fabricated by US
military and diplomatic sources in Vietnam who faced tremendous pressure from
the pentagon to report improvements
- JFK sought victory in
Vietnam--with victory defined as not losing. This commitment has it's roots
in domestic policy. JFK said, "we don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam.
Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at
almost any point. but i can't give up a piece of territory like that to the
communists and then get people to reelect me" --said to newspaperman Charles
Bartlett in april ‘63.
- Is it true that JFK had
little room to maneuver? Not after the spring of ’63 events. He could have
claimed that Diem and Nhu had violated the stipulations for aid laid down by
Eisenhower in ‘54 who said continued aid would depend on meaningful reform.
- With JFK’s thoughts on
the ’64 election he tried to keep Vietnam on the back burner, making no
dramatic departures of any kind.
Chapter 2 Breaks and
Continuities September to November 1963
- The coup finally
happened in Nov ’63, Diem was ousted and the next day he and Nhu were killed.
- Three weeks later JFK
was dead too.
- Two central themes of US
policy making in autumn ’63:
- A pronounced fear of a
premature negotiated settlement
- A strong determination
to remove Nhu from policy making power
- Memo from assist sec of
state for far eastern affairs Roger Hilsman warned Rusk that Diem and Nhu
might appeal to de Gaulle for support in neutralization for South Vietnam.
Hilsman pointed out that the south can't be effectively neutralized unless the
communists are removed from control of the north. He encouraged the coup. If
Hanoi intervened militarily to save Diem, the US should launch military
strikes against the north.
- JFK went on the cbs news
with Walter Cronkile on sept 2. 2 prearranged Vietnam questions: on the
current situation, JFK said he was displeased with the Saigon govt prosecution
of the war and on the second question about de Gaulle, Kennedy said the US was
always glad to get counsel from its allies, but it should take the form of
- A pattern emerged: the
americanization of the war from 65 on would consist of discussions on how to
best counter de Gaulle's actions and ideas. Washington was sure he had an
ulterior motive--greater independence for france within the western alliance.
No real time was spent considering his suggestions however.
- State dept meeting at
the end of august--generals decided against a coup, Rusk and McNamara argued
for getting on with the war. One voice of opposition spoke, Paul Kattenburg a
vetern state Sept official, spoke up to suggest that Diem was hopeless and had
made the people of South Vietnam unwilling allies of the Vietcong and that the
unraveling of situation might find the us booted out of the country within 6
mo to a year. Since Diem would not change or get rid of Nhu, Kattenburg
suggested withdrawal. VP Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), Rusk and McNamara blasted the
- There may have been
general agreement that withdrawal was not an option but there was no consensus
about what to do.
- JFK wanted victory but
he also wanted agreement from his advisors on a course of action. He sent
McNamara and general Maxwell Taylor to Vietnam for an assessment.
- McNamara concluded that
Hilman and Lodge were correct that success was more likely without the Ngos in
power but he also found no solid evidence that a coup would be successful or
that the next regime would be better. Taylor was ambivalent too. They did
write a report in which they said that the us would not be adverse to a change
- The report was
optimistic about military success but the political section contained far more
pessimism. It grossly underestimated problems in the countryside and
incorrectly attributed the quiet there as success. Also it overestimated the
results of aid cuts on diem, underestimated the possibility of a coup, failed
to anticipate that a us sanctioned coup would tie Washington more closely to
- Kennedy approved the
report and ordered the implementation of a "selective pressures" policy.
- It is at this time that
press and public opinion start to be more forthright in their thoughts on the
situation in Vietnam, also at this time are the first stirrings of
congressional questioning of the ongoing commitment to South Vietnam.
- By Oct there was a more
pressing need for a coup to maintain US standing in South Vietnam in
particular over the fear that Nhu/Diem were seeking out their own settlement
with North Vietnam and would call for the removal of the US.
- On Nov 1 the Diem regime
was out and it would not be the last time that Washington engineered the
removal of a Saigon leader it perceived to be insufficiently committed to the
- General Minh (head of
the new government) took power. The US believed that a government of generals
would be anit-communist and opposed to compromise, they also though they would
be a more aggressive challenge to the Vietcong and that they would accept
greater American direction. These assumptions were a mistake.
- It took the JFK circle a
few weeks to realize that the generals wanted a political solution to expand
the political base of the Saigon government and to find non military ways of
- In the wake of the coup
de Gaulle’s stance that foreigners needed to leave Vietnam and that the
American’s were to blame for the coup gained adherents.
- Week of Nov 3-10 is the
week the NY Times changed its editorial stance on Vietnam. By early ‘64 it
was clear that the paper supported de Gaulle's position of negotiation and
opposed a larger war. Senior officials were so worried about the Times
position that they instructed Lodge to inform the new government in Saigon
that the editorial and the james reston column did not represent US policy.
- JFK was more ambivalent
than most of his aids, he also resisted making an unequivocal pledge to keep
South Vietnam independent and non-communist. He was against using American
ground troops in Vietnam. But his policy must be judged on what he said and
did while president and judged in that light here is no evidence that points
to withdrawal at the time of his death.
Chapter 3 “I Will Not Lose
Vietnam” November 1963 To January 1964
- For LBJ Vietnam loomed
large right from the start of his presidency.
- Since visiting the
country in ’61 on JFK’s behalf he had followed the course of the war and US
policy and had sat in on many meetings. So he understand when he took office
the scope of the US commitment and the potential trouble it could cause him
- He had opposed the coup
but was determined to carry on his predecessor’s policies, particular in
- LBJ was a staunch
anti-communist “and often declared he would not reward ‘aggression’ in Vietnam
- He kept JFK’s foreign
policy advisors and he believed in winning the war.
- There was no fundamental
reassessment of the US rationale to preserve a separate, non communist south;
no examination of whether this was vital to US security and no consideration
of alternative solutions.
- Preventing defeat was
deemed to serve him best in his election campaign.
- His asst George Reedy
described him as someone who “could think but not reflect, devise ingenuous
schemes for achieving goals but not ponder the validity of the goals; outguess
his fellow human beings in playing the game of one-upmanship without realizing
that the game might not be worth playing.”
- LBJ lacked a detached
critical perspective, he was uninterested in diplomatic history and
international politics and he was very insecure about his abilities as a
- He held over the same 3
key players on Vietnam: Rusk, McGeorge Bundy and McNamara.
- Washington remains
anti-settlement as new government in South Vietnam considers it.
- There was growing
concerns by 3 powerful Dems: Mansfield, Fulbright and Russell.
- Dec 7 memo, Mansfield
suggests that two assumptions—the war could be won in the south alone and that
it could be won at a limited expense of American lives and money might be
- Charles Bohlen, US
ambassador in France convinced LBJ to avoid a public confrontation with de
- De Gaulle's influence
had spread to Cambodia where US/Cambodia relations had become strained.
Cambodian leader prince Sihanouk took American aid but distanced himself from
American policy. The aid allowed him to equip his forces, balance his budget,
neutralize the appeal of anti-american Khmers and boost him in Cambodian
public opinion. Sihanouk blamed the US for the conflict in Vietnam and by
late ‘63 he was ready to break with the US. He was propelled by de Gaulle's
effort to de-americanize southeat asia and he was upset by the overthrow and
killing of the Ngo brothers. He renounced American aid expecting France and
China to step in and provide what he was giving up. The Americans were
shocked. But they did not really support a conference on Cambodia for fear
it would pull the Vietnam situation in as well.
- They compelled the UK
not to push for a conference-it is one of many examples of the UK giving its
relationship with Washington top priority.
- The Minh government
sought a sort of arms length relationship with the US.
- France considers
recognizing China. This made the American’s shudder. It would deliver a
direct blow to American rationale for standing tough in Vietnam: checking
expansionist Chinese ambitions in southeast Asia. French recognition of China
would tell the world that France disagreed with the US.
- LBJ tried to persuade de
Gaulle to abandon this plan or at least delay it without dealing directly with
de Gaulle (and therefore having a terrible diplomatic problem if he refused).
Then the US shifted to reassuring the Minh government and US allies that de
Gaulle's China initiative wouldn't change American commitments in Vietnam.
- Doubts about the Minh
regime continued and new leadership was sought by the Americans. General
Khanh was widely regarded as both pro american and hawkish and after France
recognized China, Khanh called Minh's government pro French and pro neutralist
and another coup was afoot--bloodless, this time.
Chapter 4 “A Deeply
Dangerous Game” February To April 1964
- Neither JFK (had he
lived) nor LBJ wanted to go to the election as the man who made war or lost
- LBJ and his advisors did
everything they could to keep the war from being a major domestic political
- GVN fortunes declined
and the ARVN will to fight grew weary. Decision makers in DC were more
committed to the war than the many of the South Vietnamese. Khanh fell out of
favor with American officials over time for not vigorously prosecuting the
war. At first though he cooperated with the US, amongst other things agreeing
to more US advisors in key districts and more military advisors in lower
levels of the armed forces, Khanh learned over time that his ability to win
broad domestic support would be directly linked to his degree of independence
- Only 3 weeks after the
coup it was clear that it had not slowed down the enemy advances nor stemmed
the growth of neutralist sentiment in the south.
- Essential problems
facing the US in the first quarter of 1964: “how to turn around a war effort
that was fast disintegrating, at a time when two vital preconditions for such
a turnaround—a Saigon government possessing widespread popular support, and a
South Vietnamese populace dedicated to the war—were missing, and a leading
European statesmen was working in opposition to US policy. What to do?”
- The question of bombing
the North: it was in many ways a suggestion of desperation. For some it was
the way to send Hanoi a “message”
- Hanoi grew as a villain
in direct proportion to US/GVN failures in the South.
- Many including LBJ had
become disenchanted with US ambassador Lodge but they couldn’t remove him
because he posed a major political threat to LBJ and as was true throughout
this period the election was forefront in the decision making about Vietnam.
- It was also during this
time the state department launched the “more flags” initiative to gain more
outward support from its allies regarding its Vietnam policy.
Chapter 5 Rumblings of
Discontent April To June 1964
- Spring ’64 LBJ’s
presidency is going well particularly in regard to his domestic agenda. His
approval ratings are high.
- He and his advisors were
laying plans to escalate the American commitment in Vietnam at the same time
they worked hard to prevent any public debate on the matter.
- Discontent was growing
amongst influential voices in American society (Walter Lippman) and among
democrats on the Hill (notably Wayne Morse of OR and Ernest Gruening of AK)
- The opposition LBJ was
facing from his own party was potentially very complicated for him but to the
administration’s relief the allegiance to the party and LBJ in an election
year kept these democrats silent in public and prevented the Vietnam from
becoming a major issue.
- Bundy, McNamara and Rusk
maintain their position to stick it out in Vietnam and escalate if necessary.
- In Laos in May a large
scale offensive by the communist dominated Pathet Lao and disruptive activity
by the right threatened the fragile neutralist Laotian government's survival.
The US was so worried a conference on Laos would bring Vietnam to the table as
well that they thwarted every effort to solve the problem that way. So
serious was the combined deterioration on Laos and South Vietnam in May that
the administration gave serious thought to initiating immediate military
measures against North Vietnam.
- The administration
decided on three basic propositions:
- The US would not let
South Vietnam go to the communists
- Time was presently not
on America’s side
- The administration
should be prepared to ask congress to authorize all necessary action
including military force to make the communist stop their subversion
- Public opinion polls
didn’t offer much support for the war and allied governments remained
unwilling to become meaningfully involved.
- They again delay taking
the war to the North based “not on assessments of the military situation on
the ground but on concerns that critical constituencies around the world would
not support such an action, and that some would respond by increasing the
pressure for negotiated settlement”
Chapter 6 Campaigns at Home and Abroad June and July 1964
- The massive info effort
launched in the summer of ’64 was summarized by asst sec of state for public
affairs Robert J. Manning “into three major categories: first, the
on-the-scene information program for consumption in South and North Vietnam,
Laos and other Southeast Asian nations; second, the case to be made in the
international arena; and third … the case to be made to our own people and
Congress." The goals were to have allies pressed into support and their foes
warned. Manning’s quote also addressed the interconnection of the foreign and
domestic components of the program.
- In June there is a
change in top level US personnel in Vietnam. General Maxwell Taylor becomes
the new ambassador
- US asked Canada to be
the go between and in June the Canadians took the American positions to Ho and
Pham Van Dong. This was not a negotiation but an ultimatum
- The admin spent time in
this period working on public impressions of the war both in response to
criticism and in preparation for the larger activity and involvement still to
- Again we come back to
the issue of an election year and the Dems struggle over their wariness about
the war and its real value and the staunch desire not to challenge a sitting
Democratic President on his foreign policy particularly in an election year.
- US make some minor
policy departures during this time to reinforce its determination to the key
groups at home and abroad including the deployment of 5000 troops to Thailand,
building up military stock piles in Thailand and the Philippines and the
assignment of a very high level team under Taylor at the embassy and it
quietly began to lay groundwork for escalation including: US destroyer patrols
venture deep into the Gulf of Tonkin along the North Vietnamese coast, more
South Vietnamese guerrillas raid into the North, increased cross border
operations against Vietcong infiltration routes in Laos (with American air
strikes) and low-level photo reconnaissance missions over Laos.
- De Gaulle emphasizes
again to Ball in a June conference his position that the US can’t win in
Vietnam regardless of their military might because the problem wasn’t military
but political. De Gaulle through this period also continues his push for a
return to Geneva and the US maintains its view that the French president
presented more of a PR problem than a proposal to actually be considered.
Chapter 7 Provocations
- LBJ was focused on the
election, he wanted to emerge from JFK’s shadow, make his Great Society the
successor to the New Deal and not just win but win big. All of this meant he
played things safe and “D day” (initiation of bombing the North) should be
delayed til after the election if at all possible.
- The Republican contender
Barry Goldwater made a speech that was right on about the fact that the US was
already at war in Vietnam at that the administration was withholding crucial
information from the public.
- August 1964: the Gulf of
Tonkin episode and the first air strikes of the war. It is controversial
because of conflicting stories about what really took place. According to the
administration: on August 2 the U.S. destroyer Maddox was innocently in
international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin off the central coast of North
Vietnam when it was attacked without provocation by 3 North Vietnamese patrol
boats. The Maddox returned fire. But the U.S. trying to avoid all out war
was willing to treat the incident as isolated and chose only to issue a
warning. Then supposedly there was a second attack two days later that US had
no choice but to respond with congressionally approved air strikes. For
Logevall there is insufficient evidence to go so far as to say that whole
incident from beginning to end was staged but it certainly seemed that the US
govt was looking for some pretext to show its strength and determination.
- The resolution passed
by congress gave LBJ broad authority for action that had already been taken
and gave him future power to make war at his discretion bypassing power that
constitutionally belongs to congress. Within the senate many were skeptical,
some disagreed only 2 opposed.
- In mid-Sept U Thant had
a North Vietnamese agreement to take part in talks with the US. US continued
to reject all types of diplomatic overtures, solutions and fact finding.
- The air strikes did
little or nothing to bolster the Khahn government or the low morale of the
- In late August Khahn
suddenly resigned, Oahn was named acting premier, there was violence in the
street and the NLF worked to make it worse, ARVN forces were ambushed. At the
urging of the Americans Khahn returned to Saigon and resumed his power and
reappointed Minh but whatever strength and respect he had was gone.
Chapter 8 Standing Logic On
Its Head September and October 1964
- Even the
administration’s closest individual allies were shifting their position.
- London had reached the
conclusion that the US had a poor understanding of the political and cultural
realities of Vietnam and that Washington would suffer much less from a
judicious withdrawal than from fighting an inevitably long and costly war.
However they weren’t going to say anything until at the very earliest after
the US election.
- The overall European
response to US activities was pessimism
- In meetings in early
Sept no one was in the mood to compromise the question was really not whether
to escalate but how far and how fast. Bundy went so far as to suggest they
consider sending American troops to fight the Vietcong- this is the first time
a member of the inner circle goes this far.
- Taylor actually opposed
an immediate step up of US involvement.
- The Sept ’64 policy
discussions loom large in the American decision making on Vietnam. Not
because of any specific decisions but because the most important figures had
reached a consensus that a dramatically increases US involvement would at
some point be necessary.
- The admin had
contradicting aims both to convince the electorate of “steady Progress” so
that it wouldn’t be a compelling issue while also persuading them that the
conflict was of utmost importance to American interests.
- The Buddhists had
emerged in South Vietnam as its most powerful political force and Khanh's
accommodationist policies toward them worried the U.S. What did the Buddhists
want? Buddhists were involved in bringing down Diem and forcing the removal
of Khanh's constitution. And they were interested in ending the war. The key
figure in the Buddhist agitation was Thich Tri Quang considered the most
influential person in South Vietnam. He preached a 'national Buddhism' by
eliminating foreign influences (Catholicism and the Americans in particular).
- A plurality of voters
supported the war as an effort to contain communism. Most newspaper editors
felt the same way. The Gulf of Tonkin episode caused Americans to rally
around the flag. But it was also true that most people didn't know the full
extent of the problems nor the secret plans to rectify them. Most Americans
believed the U.S. commitment would stay at about the same level which made
them think of Johnson as a moderate.
- Ball operated just
outside the inner circle and advocated a negotiated U.S. withdrawal. He was
worried and he detailed his concerns in a memo on Oct 5 offering up a
political solution. He argued withdrawal wouldn’t be a humiliation. It does
not appear that his memo was seriously discussed at any high level meetings.
He was a minority of one and that is what was expected of him for historical
purposes. Ball wasn’t too pushy in his beliefs either, as he had his own
personal political agenda and he didn’t want to diminish his chances with LBJ.
- Johnson wins the
election in a landslide.
Chapter 9 The Freedom To
Change November and December 1964
- It was fairly unanimous
that the ’64 election would be a turning point in the war effort.
- LBJ’s massive win was a
sign of the public’s comfort with a fairly low level and peaceful involvement
- The election results
gave the admin the choice to dramatically escalate the war or find some sort
of face saving exit, an expanded war at this moment wasn’t preordained and the
big win gave the admin options if they wanted them.
- The decision makers were
not ignorant about the problems nor were they confident in the solutions they
were adopting. They walked into this with their eyes wide open, under no
illusions about the chronic weakness of the GVN, about the absence of popular
support for the Saigon govt or about the growing strength of the Vietcong.
- The day before the
election Johnson ordered the creation of a National Security Council Working
Group to study American alternatives in Southeast Asia. Chaired by assist sec
of state William Bundy and middle level people at state, defense and the CIA,
they would report to McNamara, Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, McCone at CIA, George
Ball and the head of the Joint Chiefs Wheeler who would in turn make
recommendations to the president.
- Johnson wanted consensus
and victory, and if not that then at least not defeat.
- Working Group came up
with three Options
- Continue Present
Policies (including a refusal to negotiate)
- Early heavy military
pressure, which once the upper hand was truly gained negotiation would be
- The middle road
between the first two, a continuation of present policies but with added
military pressure (negotiation would be played by ear)
- Nobody really considered
the 4th possible option of disengagement
- How to escalate the war
in the absence of governmental stability in Saigon? A week after the election
Taylor suggests that it should no longer be a requirement to the escalation.
He has a lot of sway.
- As always there was a
huge difference between the public stance—a peaceful solution and the private
one—fear of a peaceful solution.
- The state dept "more
flags' initiative failed because while other governments were sympathetic to
the broader objectives of the U.S. most didn't agree on the 'domino effect' of
a loss in Vietnam.
- The U.S. did ask for
military contributions to the war effort from countries that might oblige--
Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and the UK.
- Johnson claimed to
Walter Lippman that his options to maneuver were non-existent-- many later
students of the war have agreed with this but a closer examination suggests
that the president was far less constrained than he asserted. 1) he was the
dominant politician with majorities in both Houses, 2) polls showed him to
have widespread support, 3)he was Times man of the year in ‘64, 4) the public
that gave him high marks expressed little interest in a larger war.
- Late Dec there was some
public opinion being expressed against the war—religious leaders, newspapers
and powerful politicians (Mansfield, Russell, Morse, Fulbright) were all
Chapter 10 “Stable
Government or No Stable Government” January and February 1965
- New Year’s Eve 1964:
Senator Richard Russell came out in the NY Times as against any expansion of
the war and for a reevaluation of the American commitment in South Vietnam.
Staunch supporters in the press changed their tune and advocated
disengagement, the UK told told Bundy not to expect increased support, LBJ
told Taylor to remove American dependents in anticipation of wider action and
that he was sympathetic to the use of ground forces, a village of 6000
Catholics was under attack by the Vietcong and for the first time in the war
more than 1000 men had been deployed
- Lawmakers, including
those who agreed with LBJ called for a full senate debate.
- The admin worked to
avoid a senate debate that might endanger LBJ’s domestic policy. He was
successful at this prevention due to his skill for flattery and threats but
also because the targets allowed themselves to be stifled.
- The strong Saigon govt
that the US was looking for “actually meant a government with broad-based
support, which meant a govt neither created by nor sustained by the US, which
meant a govt committed to ending twenty years of warfare.” The closer it was
to DC the less legitimate.
- The admin continues to
mislead lawmakers and the public
- A bloodless coup was
launched early Jan 27th as Khanh and the armed forces council overthrew
Huong's govt. An alliance between Khanh and the Buddhists was
responsible--two elements adverse to U.S. interests.
- A key moment had
arrived. To seek stability through escalation as opposed to before
escalation. Johnson now moved to implement the policy that he had already
agreed to in principle in Dec. He authorized the resumption of destroyer
patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin in the hope of provoking the North to attack.
- At the very moment that
the U.S. was prepared to move forward, the Soviets sought to restrain the
North and provide a face-saving means for the U.S. to withdraw.
- The US was waiting for
a provocation that would allow them to escalate and on Feb 7th
after the Tet holiday cease fire a company of Vietcong guerillas attacked a US
helicopter base and barracks near Pleiku they got one and the US retaliated.
- Bundy wanted LBJ to make
it clear to the American public that the Vietnam struggle would be long,
Johnson refused hoping to keep the new policy secret as long as possible.
Chapter 11 Americanization
February To July 1965
- The idea that LBJ could
escalate the war and keep it a secret was preposterous.
- The press recognized
obvious strategic shifts like three aircraft carriers off the coast instead of
one and the removal of dependents as signs of escalation.
- Late winter 1965 the LBJ
admin moved to implement the policy decisions that had been taking shape since
early ’64 but only now had been adopted. Hope of a diplomatic solution all
but end here from this point on diplomacy attempts shift from trying to
prevent a major military conflict to trying to end one well underway.
- The negotiating
positions of the NLF and Hanoi harden.
- The most important
voices of opposition (the Senate Dem leadership and the British govt)
continued to refuse to state publicly what they believed privately.
- Other foreign powers
comment and distance themselves.
- LBJ did a seriously good
job courting the legislature but in the end senate finally begins a debate on
war and peace in Asia.
- Based on polls and the
like the US public doesn’t appear to think the Vietnam policy has to be all or
- At the UN a number of
delegates agreed with de Gaulle that a chance for diplomacy was fast
disappearing. Thant pressed Stevenson in January for talks with
Hanoi--Stevenson expressed Washington's reluctance because of the
embarrassment that would result if word of it leaked. Thant asked for a
meeting of the 5 great powers, France, Brits, U.S. China and the Soviets along
with North and South Vietnam but there was no response from the White House.
Thant spoke out publically.
- The most significant
attempt at stopping and reversing the move to war came from VP Hubert
Humphrey. Humphrey produced a memo that focused more on the domestic
political dilemmas that were sure to result from any escalation. It was not
well received and ultimately Humphrey’s views and expressions thereof got him
pushed out of the inner circle for a long time.
- Another coup takes place
in Feb bringing Ky to power.
- By the end of Feb the
most important US policy initiatives were in place and major military moves
had taken place including the first non retaliatory air strikes.
- The USSR was in a tough
spot. They seemed to want to encourage settlement (& they had things to gain)
but they could not appear to abandon their ally anymore than the US felt it
could abandon its. Particularly since they were struggling for dominance with
- China was the other
nation besides the US most hostile to diplomacy
- If LBJ felt trapped by
his decisions the poor results of the air war didn’t cause him to change his
mind. He refused to give up. LBJ had inherited a difficult Vietnam problem
but one that in no way compelled him to put the country on the course of
escalation it was now following.
Chapter 12 Choosing War
- In March 1965 when the
first marines went ashore at Danang the 18 month period of debating what to
next came to an end. No one yet knew how large the US commitment would become
but all informed observers knew a line had been crossed.
- Walter Lippman said in
the spring of 65, "It used to be a war of the South Vietnamese assisted by the
Americans. It is now becoming and American war very inefficiently assited by
the South Vietnamese."
- Deep doubts about how
Vietnam mattered to Western security kept many from supporting the war
- Out of 126 nations in
the world in 1965 the US had the unequivocal support for it’s Vietnam policy
of exactly one … Australia.
- The critics didn't deny
Johnson faced a difficult situation after 10 years of increasing U.S.
involvement and American reaffirmations to stand firm, but most didn't think
it would be a big blow to American prestige to walk away especially before
ground troops were deployed.
- There were several
possible ways for the US to get out, the most obvious being the evident
unwillingness of the South Vietnamese to live up to their end of the bargain.
- America’s credibility
suffered from the decision to wage large scale war in Vietnam
- Many wondered why in the
wake of LBJ’s huge election victory and large majorities in congress did he
not opt for de-escalation?
- Since the initial
decision to aid the French 15 years earlier U.S. policymakers always opted to
expand the nation's involvement rather than decrease it. That the Johnson
White House operated mostly alone on this would not make them the first to
press ahead despite long odds
- Diplomacy held almost no
place in containment policy after 1945 but by ‘63 there was recognition by
both superpowers of the other's legitimacy and therefore reduced attachment to
the notion of irreconcilable ideological differences and most western allies
agreed by ‘63 that communism was not monolithic and that Ho Chi Minh possessed
nationalist credentials that his counterparts in the South lacked.
- The Kennedy question: a
surviving Kennedy would have kept his advisors (who became Johnson's) at least
through the ‘64 election, he would have beaten Goldwater, wanted to keep
Vietnam on a back burner, crunch time would have come at about the same time
it did for LBJ. An argument can be made that he would have done more or less
what Johnson did but one can also be made that he would have chosen some form
of disengagement. Kennedy would have faced Vietnam in his second and final
term when domestic implications would have been less pressing and the relative
freedom to maneuver might have led him to reevaluate Vietnam policy. Kennedy
was no Southeast Asia expert but he had a more sophisticated understanding of
it than Johnson. He privately doubted the validity of the domino theory and
he knew there were limits to what the U.S. could accomplish in that part of
the world. Further their personalities were very different. Kennedy didn't
share Johnson's deep self doubt about his role as commander in chief and he
was a skeptic.
- Some responsibility for
the war must be given to those who opposed Americanization including Hanoi,
Western critics who failed to challenge Johnson directly, and the timidity of
those in the governments of Britain and Canada, at the UN, Democrats even
George Ball who put loyalty before principle. None of these people or groups
spelled out how a political solution could be reached.
- Alternative options?
Disengagement was possible in the 3 mos following the election. Hans
Morgenthau’s suggestions: 1) South Vietnam could have told us to get out. 2)
a Geneva conference which would have neutralized all of Southeast Asia and
left China as the dominant power and 3) a bilateral deal with the North to
establish a coalition government--a Ho government--communist but not
subservient to Moscow or Beijing.
- Can a war like Vietnam
happen again? “The continued primacy of the executive branch in foreign
affairs together with the temptation of politicians to emphasize short term
personal advantage over long term national interest ensures the potential
Choosing War, by Frederik Logevall
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.
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
Chapter 1, The Kickoff
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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”
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
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
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”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Politicians abroad were also starting to grow more worried with
the trend they saw Johnson following.
Chapter 6, Campaigns at Home and Abroad
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
By the end of 1964, the administration, who had been moving
towards this in the previous months anyway, were setting up to Americanize the
Chapter 10, “Stable Government or No Stable
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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?
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?
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?