25 June 2010

THE ABBREVIATED LBJ

Michael H. Hunt, Lyndon Johnson’s War: America’s Cold War Crusade in Vietnam 1945-1968, New York: Hill and Wang, 1996, 128 pages.

While the history of the “Americanization” of the Vietnam War is well-tread territory, there have been few books that have applied the same laser-focus to the topic seen in Lyndon Johnson’s War. In this book, Michael H. Hunt explores the period between the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident and the decision to send an air mobile division in July 1965, which made formal (if not declared) the ground war that the United States had already been waging in Vietnam for months. In contrast to his detailed treatment of the escalation, Hunt dedicates only a few dozen pages to the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years before or the years that followed. Hunt’s Lyndon Johnson’s War is, at its heart, an examination of the psychology that led Johnson and a team of brilliant advisors to act “largely ignorant of Vietnam itself and with only lukewarm public approval” (p. 107) in plunging America into war in Vietnam.

Hunt’s critique does not focus on containment or Cold War ideology itself, but rather their application to Vietnam, a nationalist, anti-colonial war painted in Cold War colors. Hunt argues that Johnson and his advisors, as had their predecessors, saw Vietnam in “well-worn Cold War terms” (p. 79). Ultimately, Hunt argues, Johnson’s reasons for entering the conflict “amounted to Cold War clich├ęs” (p. 93). But, while Johnson’s policies were the logical extension of his predecessors’, Hunt does not excuse Johnson of culpability in the final outcome of the war. His concise retelling of the period highlights the ways in which Johnson chose to stave off disaster in Vietnam, rather than truly commit to winning. Because “he did not want Vietnam to interfere with his domestic program” (p. 99), he gave Vietnam just enough attention to keep it from falling during his term.

Surprisingly, Lyndon Johnson’s War does not suffer for its brevity. While one could easily choose other events during the period or other of the administration’s choices to reinforce these points, Hunt has very successfully distilled this period to those essential elements that highlight the perceptions of the parties most directly responsible for the escalation. His summation and critique of the standard charges made against the Johnson administration (in the fourth chapter of the book) is as solid an analysis as can be found in any lengthier work. Neither villain nor tragic hero, Hunt’s Johnson was a man weathering the forces of domestic and international politics, trying and failing to chart a middle course for the nation between war with China and appeasement to Communism, ignorant of the nature of the enemy he actually faced. Political forces drove him toward self-preservation and legacy-building while international forces drove him to resist extremists on both sides of the aisle. In the end, however, Hunt’s Lyndon Johnson was consumed by these forces he tried to hold at bay.

10 June 2010

ASSIGNING BLAME

H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, New York: HarperCollins, 1997, 352 pages.

Even if he had never written Dereliction of Duty, H.R. McMaster would still go down in history as one of the most colorful American military figures of his generation. His exploits as a tank company commander at the Battle of the 73 Easting in the Gulf War, as commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar in the Iraq war (immortalized in Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco), and as a driving force behind the 2007 surge strategy that may well have salvaged the Iraq war (immortalized in Bob Woodward’s The War Within) have already cemented his place in American military lore. His authorship of Dereliction of Duty only adds to his legend. In writing this book, McMaster applied the same super-natural ability to be in the right place at the right time that has marked his military career; just as he began Dereliction of Duty, many of President Johnson’s records and oval office recordings were released to the public . The result is an intriguing, if opinionated, portrait of the decision-makers that lead the United States into war in Vietnam.

Dereliction of Duty covers the critical period between 1964 and 1965 when the Vietnam War transformed from a Vietnamese war into an American war. In his analysis, H.R. McMaster finds plenty of blame to spread around. At the top , “Johnson’s preoccupation with his domestic legislative program led him to obscure from the public and the Congress the extent of the difficulties in Vietnam” (p. 210). Robert McNamara repeatedly “misled the senators and representatives by misrepresenting America’s role” in Vietnam (p. 134). But McMaster reserves his most damning indictments for Gen. Wheeler and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), because “the president’s plan of deception depended on tacit approval or silence from the JCS” (p. 330). In short, the JCS’ failure to speak out when their recommendations were misrepresented amounted to a dereliction of duty.

From the title to the final page, Dereliction of Duty exudes H.R. McMaster’s personality. To the audacious cavalryman, inaction and indecision are even more grievous sins than wrong action or wrong decision. While McMaster gives a very thorough treatment to the public statements of the actors during this key period, he neglects even a cursory discussion of memoirs or private documents that might have yielded a much richer appreciation of the uncertainty and pressures with which they were faced. In his effort to clearly assign blame and argue the guilt of the accused, McMaster loses an opportunity to provide an understanding of the forces that ultimately thrust America into the Vietnam War.

That having been said, Dereliction of Duty makes a compelling case. One can argue with its omissions, but not its scholarship . It is an exemplary work and deserves a place in any Vietnam War collection.

06 June 2010

UNDERSTANDING VIETNAM

Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam. Berkley, CA: University of California, 1994, 428 pages.

Four decades of oppression by a brutal communist regime have not erased Vietnam’s rich literary history. From the oldest written record of Vietnamese creation myths to the underground poetry smuggled out of the country through embassies and emigrants , literature has marked the troubled history of Vietnam. In Understanding Vietnam, Neil L. Jamieson combines his extensive knowledge of this rich literary history with personal insights gained during over four years of work as a civilian advisor in Vietnam during and after the war to provide a rare look at Vietnam from Vietnamese perspectives. The book begins with the dawn of Vietnam’s quoc ngu--anglicized written Vietnamese--literary history (at the beginning of the French colonial period) and concludes at the beginning of the 1990s. But beyond being a history, Understanding Vietnam also provides a unique window into how the Vietnamese saw and still see the world.

Jamieson contends that the Vietnamese have framed every conflict in their history in the context of this world view . The tides of insurgency and liberalism marked the waxing and waning of yin (the feminine, informal, and chaotic) and yang (the masculine, formal, and ordered) in nature’s attempt to balance the Tao. The governments of North and South--and the individual’s obligation to each--were seen in the context of filial obligation (hieu), class-based right behavior (nghia), and the centrality of the village. The arrival of the French and Western values called all of these values into question. Jamieson describes both the French Indochinese War and the subsequent American war in Vietnam as, ultimately, foreign intervention in the internal conflict between competing Vietnamese “super-villages” (competing ideological camps ) to reset the “thermostat” of the Vietnamese value system.

If one could find any fault with Understanding Vietanm, it would be in its heavy-reliance, to the near-exclusion of all other media , on quoc ngu literature. The pre-quoc ngu history he describes was told by people who lived in the shadow of French colonists. Surely this influenced what history was told or lost, which works were translated or not from the older, pictographic, Sinic Vietnamese. Likewise, Jamieson touches briefly on Vietnam War-era television, but completely excludes film or radio sources. These mass-media sources might paint a much different picture of the Vietnamese public’s perceptions, North and South, especially during the war.

These are minor complaints about an otherwise exemplary book. Understanding Vietnam eschews the common intellectual short-hand about causes for the Vietnam War--Cold War clich├ęs and dogmatic comments on counter-insurgency or international relations. In fact, this book eschews assigning cause at all. Instead, as he concludes, Jamieson masterfully ties the ancient concept of the Tao, yin and yang, to modern systems theory to reveal that, rather than an effect of some discreet cause, the Vietnam War was an emergent phenomenon that existed in an “evolving context,” the context of the Vietnamese world view.