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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 671-679

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Brothers in Arms

Mark Atwood Lawrence

Robert D. Dean. Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. 329 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95.

U.S. policymakers bristled with machismo as the United State geared up for war in Vietnam. "You must take the fight to the enemy," General Earle "Bus" Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, characteristically growled in early 1965. "No one ever won a war sitting on his ass." Military and civilian officials alike viewed Vietnam as a test of their courage and predicted disaster if they showed weakness. "If the communist world finds out we will not pursue our commitment to the end," asserted Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "I don't know where they will stay their hand." Ever the folksy gunslinger, Lyndon Johnson left no doubt where he stood. "Come hell or high water, we're going to stay there," declared the president, denouncing the "milquetoast," "nervous nellies," and "fleabite professors" who opposed the war. 1

For years, historians, journalists, and onetime government officials have pointed to such testosterone-saturated comments to help explain the U.S. decisions for war. In a policymaking milieu that prized toughness, these commentators have suggested, leaders recognized powerful incentives to appear muscular in pursuit of U.S. objectives in Vietnam. To contemplate negotiation or withdrawal exposed officials to career-threatening charges of weakness and effeminacy. Former National Security Council aide James C. Thomson Jr. made the point as early as 1968. "Those who doubted our role in Vietnam," Thomson wrote in an Atlantic Monthly exposé on White House decision-making, "were said to shrink from the burdens of power. . . . By implication, such men were soft-headed or effete." Journalist David Halberstam returned to the theme a few years later, asserting in The Best and the Brightest that Johnson's keen desire to demonstrate his "machismo" played "no small part" in his decision to fight in Vietnam. More recently, historian Fredrik Logevall attached even greater importance to Johnson's "macho ethos" in explaining the U.S. decisions for war. "What he really feared was the personal humiliation that he believed would come with failure in Vietnam," Logevall [End Page 671] declares in his 1999 book Choosing War. "He saw the war as a test of his own manliness." 2

For all the raw persuasiveness of the idea, however, none of these analyses delved much beneath the surface. The precise connection between gender ideologies and the Vietnam decisions remained underdeveloped, a topic in search of an author with the conceptual tools to do it justice. At last, Robert D. Dean has answered the call with his superb Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy, an important book not only for historians of U.S. foreign relations but also for scholars interested in reexamining traditional historical questions through the lens of gender. Dean, equal parts diplomatic and gender historian, corroborates what the earlier writers had suggested: the officials who committed the United States to war in Vietnam despite the evident problems of fighting there did so at least partly to demonstrate their toughness and to avoid any taint of appeasement in the face of aggression. But Dean, drawing on prodigious research, ranges far beyond this relatively simple idea to develop a complex and compelling, if sometimes problematic, argument to explain why U.S. policymakers cared so mightily in the 1960s about demonstrating their manhood.

The book argues that the principle architects of U.S. foreign policy in that period comprised an "imperial brotherhood," a group of elite national security managers bonded by a particular notion of manly behavior cultivated at prep schools, in exclusive men's clubs, and through the rigors of service in the Second World War. For these "warrior-intellectuals," writes Dean, unflinching toughness provided a way to demonstrate class loyalty and, by tapping into deep-seated American traditions of frontier stoicism, to show their fitness to lead the country despite their obvious distance from the...


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