Vietnam Tragedy Could Have Been Averted, Claims Author of New Study

Oct 04, 1999

Was the Vietnam War inevitable and President Lyndon Johnson caught in a momentum that he found impossible to reverse? An emphatic "no," said Fredrik Logevall, author of Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, at a Cold War International History Project seminar on October 4 held at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Logevall has amassed a large amount of evidence (using multiarchival sources, many of them recently declassified) to show that from August 1963 to February 1964 Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had countless opportunities to negotiate a peaceful settlement -- but chose war instead.

Dr. Mary-Lea Cox, editor of the Center's Web site, conducted the following interview with Logevall during his visit to the Center.

Interview with Fred Logevall, author of Choosing War

COX: The literature on the Vietnam War is large. What is the main contribution of your book?

LOGEVALL: I decided when I started this project that in order to really understand why the Vietnam War happened and whether it could have been avoided, I needed to put American decision making in the period prior to the war in its wider international and domestic context. Too often, previous authors have focused entirely on the U.S. and then only on the top level -- at the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon. Unless we see how the war played outside the United States and outside the boundaries of Vietnam, and indeed outside the executive branch of the United States, we cannot understand the sources and consequences of American officials' decisions, the options they faced, the choices they did or did not have. Up till now, no one has really examined the war from this wider perspective. No one has looked at the Europeans for example, or looked at how the Congress and the press in the United States viewed the war in the key months prior to escalation in 1965.

COX: What did you mean by the title, Choosing War?

LOGEVALL: The title is meant quite simply to convey that there was a choice, that American leaders had options besides escalation in 1964-65. There was nothing preordained about the war. From at least 1963, they framed their choice in stark terms: either to escalate dramatically U.S. involvement or to get out of Vietnam altogether. For as long as possible, John Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson postponed that choice. But in the wake of the 1964 presidential election, Johnson and his top assistants could postpone no longer. I argue that at that point the key U.S. allies opposed escalation and counseled negotiations, as did the Senate Democratic leadership in the United States, as well as leading voices in the American press. U.S. officials themselves, it turns out, were pessimistic about the prospects in Vietnam, and many of them doubted the importance of the conflict to U.S. and Western security. The Hanoi government, meanwhile, expressed a willingness to enter talks with the United States or attend a reconvened Geneva Conference. Finally, within South Vietnam itself, war weariness was widespread, and calls increased in late 1964 for an early end to the conflict.

COX: You refer to the "Long 1964." What does that mean?

LOGEVALL: The term "long 1964" refers to the period from late August 1963 to late February 1965. Though my book covers the whole period from the start of 1961 to July 1965, I focus on this Long 1964 because I believe it to be the most important period in the making of major war. At the start of the period, in August 1963, Vietnam for the first time became a high priority, day-to-day foreign policy issue for the United States, and the first efforts were made in the international community to bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict. At the end of the period, in the late winter of 1965, American officials under Lyndon Johnson "Americanized" the War, opted to essentially take over the main burden of the fighting against the Hanoi-sponsored insurgents known as the Viet Cong. Many authors have emphasized the critical nature of the spring and summer of 1965, but while those months were important for determining how large the war will become, I argue that the crucial period in the decision making culminated with the start of the bombing campaign (Rolling Thunder) and the dispatch of the first ground troops. After that point, it becomes much harder to envision an early negotiated settlement.

COX: But was there ever really a prospect for a diplomatic settlement?

LOGEVALL: I believe there was. Britain and France for example believed that a settlement could be arranged that would allow the U.S. to emerge with its credibility intact. Both felt confident that Hanoi, anxious as it was to avoid a major American intervention, would agree at a conference to a sizeable delay in reunification of the country. The Soviet Union, likewise, sought a negotiated settlement to the conflict in order to avert an increased Chinese penetration of Southeast Asia. In the U.S. Congress and in the press, influential voices were confident that negotiations even from an inferior position were preferable to an escalation of the war. Why then did it not happen? Principally because senior U.S. officials were unprepared to consider early negotiations, and partly because the many important proponents of diplomacy in the international community and in the U.S. were unwilling to press hard on behalf of that objective.

COX: So is this what you mean by the "permissive context"?

LOGEVALL: Yes. Too many opponents of an American war in Vietnam were timid about making their position known, both to Lyndon Johnson and his top aides and to the public. Particularly important in this regard were the British government and the Senate Democratic leadership in the U.S. The general public, too, must accept some responsibility for the making of the war because of its apathy about Vietnam in the critical months. The public could have forced a genuine national debate on what should happen in Vietnam had it wanted to; enough information existed. Thus while responsibility for the war rests primarily with Lyndon Johnson and his top advisors, it rests also with these other audiences.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project