25 June 2010


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 clichés” (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.

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