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Journal of Cold War Studies 2.2 (2000) 109-111

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Book Reviews

Choosing War:
The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam

Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 529 pp. US$35.00.

Young historians sometimes make their reputations by attacking their elders and offering bold new interpretations of the past. Fredrik Logevall confidently asserts that the prevailing historical consensus, which depicts Lyndon Johnson as having been trapped in an almost inevitable war in Vietnam, is wrong. He dismisses the concept that U.S. involvement in the 1963 coup that overthrew the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, foreordained the Americanization of the war. Such arguments, he claims, simply "do not persuade" (p. 74).

Logevall's thesis is clear, if frequently exaggerated. American escalation of the Vietnam War was not inevitable; it was, rather, a deliberate choice made in l964 by Lyndon Johnson and his top advisers, notably McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and Robert McNamara, all of whom were holdovers from the Kennedy administration. The author explores neglected international aspects of the war and shows that U.S. allies, led by Charles de Gaulle, favored a negotiated settlement. He also shows that China and the Soviet Union would have backed such a face-saving outcome. Yet despite the consensus abroad in favor of withdrawal, and despite the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Saigon after the November 1963 coup, Johnson and his advisers never gave serious consideration [End Page 109] to a diplomatic solution. Instead, they deliberately chose the path of military escalation, disguising this decision until after Johnson's reelection in 1964 and then implementing it piecemeal in 1965 to avoid a national debate over U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Choosing War has several important strengths. Logevall makes a persuasive case for his decision to focus on 1964 as the time when Johnson ruled out withdrawal and decided in favor of escalation. Johnson's refusal to explore diplomatic initiatives and his determined effort to prevent a public debate over the growing U.S. embroilment in an election year demonstrate that he and his three top advisers effectively committed the United States to a military solution in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Logevall never specifies exactly when the decision for war was made. He cites a number of potential dates, but fails to indicate which one is best: November 1963, when Johnson approved National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 273 and vowed that he "will not lose in Vietnam" (p. 77); March 1964, when Johnson's approval of NSAM 288, according to Logevall, "laid the foundation for major escalation" (p. 129); or late December 1964, when, Logevall claims, "Lyndon Johnson and his top aides made the final plans to go to war in Vietnam" (p. 257). Despite this vagueness and imprecision, Logevall rightly emphasizes the importance of studying the decision-making process in 1964, rather than focusing, as previous scholars have, on the escalation that began in 1965.

Logevall is equally successful in developing the international context of the war, especially the role played by Charles de Gaulle. The book makes clear that the West European allies were opposed to escalation in Vietnam and repeatedly offered to help the United States find a peaceful way out. The irony, of course, is that Johnson kept insisting that American credibility throughout the world required a willingness to honor U.S. military commitments in Southeast Asia. In reality, American escalation in Vietnam ended up alienating the very countries Johnson was hoping to impress.

Perhaps the most telling contribution Logevall makes is his characterization of domestic critics who failed to press their case against escalation. George Ball, later lionized for his repeated warnings against the use of force, comes across as an ambitious bureaucrat who places loyalty to his president above duty to his country. Logevall suggests that Ball's ambition to succeed Rusk as secretary of state lay behind his refusal to go public with his dissenting views. The...