Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam by Fredrick Logevall
Few books are more aptly titled that Fredrick Logevall’s Choosing War. Virtually no one writing about Vietnam today would argue that the war was a good idea. Clearly, the war was a mistake. The explanatory problem of Logevall’s book addresses is, why did the Johnson administration “Americanize” and escalate the war? As the title says: why did it choose war? The reigning interpretation of the war is that escalation was inevitable. This interpretation goes something like this: the long post-World War II history of American involvement in the area, the idea that Vietnam could be America’s Munich, the Domino theory, and of all of this Cold War baggage limited the ability of policymakers to dream of a policy that did not lead towards a full-on American war in Vietnam. As Logevall summarizes this position, “[t]oo much of a commitment to South Vietnam’s survival had been made, too much credibility was at stake, for any American president to realistically have altered course.” Because of the weight of this history and the structure and ideology of American foreign policy, Lyndon Johnson lacked any “real choice.” Logevall’s book is a – very – long and powerful attack on this interpretation.
Of course, argues Logevall, Vietnam was a war of choice. There were plenty of alternatives to escalation on the table at the time – it is not just hindsight that makes the war so obviously contingent. Critics of American like foreign policy like Charles de Gaulle were warning of the dangers of further involvement in Vietnam. It was not just intractable critics like the French President who were warning against Americanization. International allies – like the British – prominent columnists – like Walter Lippmann – and domestic allies of the administration – like Mike Mansfield – all were opposed or skeptical of increased American involvement in Vietnam. South Asian allies – those dominoes most likely to fall after Vietnam – were opposed to escalation as well.
The political context within South Vietnam, itself, argued against further American involvement. The South of Vietnam was deeply unstable (in no small part thanks to American meddling). Its leadership lacked popular support and nationalist credentials – unlike their foes in the North. Observers were noting that America’s supposed allies – those they would be fighting to save from Communist tyranny — were becoming increasingly anti-American. It is not impossible, nor implausible, to imagine a world were the Johnson administration used these conditions as a pretext for de-escalation and withdraw. In fact, there was a recent precedent in the Laos settlement for just such an outcome.
Logevall argues that it was not the domestic political scene that drove Johnson into escalation. He notes that the political landscape was very “permissible” when it came to Vietnam. Public opinion was nominally in support of a continued presence in South East Asia but was “soft” and also showed an openness to withdraw and a diplomatic solution. Many Congressmen and Senators – such as the above noted Mike Mansfield – were opposed or skeptical but many remained willing to follow Johnson’s lead. All of this gave Johnson a large amount of room to maneuver politically.
Why, then, did Johnson escalate the war in Vietnam? Fundamentally, Logevall points to contingency – the character of LBJ. Two elements of Johnson’s psyche loom large in Logevall’s argument for why Johnson chose to take his nation down such a disastrous path. The first contribution of LBJ’s personality to the choice to was the President’s tendency to make every political and foreign policy issue personal and his deep insecurity and need to prove himself. As Logevall puts it, “[i]t would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this conflation of national interest with [LBJ’s] personal interest in Johnson’s approach to Vietnam.” This fed Johnson’s other psychological tic that drove him forward towards escalation: his intolerance of dissent. It was not that Johnson wasn’t aware of criticism of his policies. He heard dissenting voices but did not listen to them. Johnson’s cracking down on anyone he felt was being disloyal made this tendency worse. This caused many critics, inside and outside the administration, to keep their voices low, to not invoke the President’s wrath. Johnson’s personal foibles created a perfect storm of contigency that closed the door to any other policy but escalation. Now, while Logevall does place blame on other actors in the adminstration – especially Dean Rusk – the fundamental villain of the piece is the “decider:” the president.
All of that taken, Logevall significantly damages the pestle upon which the “inevitability thesis” rest but he does not topple it. Reading through Logevall’s voluminous book one gets a feeling that many of the structures – American Cold War attitudes, the weight of past involvement in Vietnam, etc. – that make the “inevitability thesis” work play a much larger role than Logevall is willing to give credit. While Logevall is right to stress the contingent elements of Johnson’s personality and their consequences for policy, he perhaps pushes himself too far out on an analytic limb and fails to fully account for the structures that shaped Johnson’s world view.
TIE-IN: Logevall’s account of LBJ contrasts completely with Thomas Schwartz’s assessment in Lyndon Johnson and Europe.
 Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berekley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1999), xvii.
 Ibid, 392.