13 August 2011

The Making of a Quagmire

Jeffrey P. Kimball, To Reason Why: The Debate about the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War, Eugene, OR: Resource, 1990, 384 pages.

To Reason Why is a collection of answers to a single question: how did America become embroiled in the Vietnam War?  Unlike Jeffrey Record’s The Wrong War, which reviews schools of thought on a similar question (why did America lose the Vietnam War?) in order to reach its own, independent conclusion, Jeffrey Kimball simply catalogues the answers of others, with no attempt to answer the question himself.  The book begins with a very thorough historiography that organizes the arguments of scholars, politicians, and opinion leaders into schools of thought.  The remainder of the book consists of excerpts of the actual arguments as written by the people who made them.

Jeffrey Kimball groups all of the arguments in To Reason Why into seven broad categories--“the official view” (containment and the “domino theory”), “states of mind” (leaders became fixated on the Cold War context of the Vietnam War), “the process of involvement” (once escalation began, it took on a momentum all its own), “the buck stops here” (the presidents were the driving force behind escalating involvement), “the advisers” (the men closest to the president drove the country into war), “pressures and aims” (political and economic forces propelled American leaders into the war), and “ways of living” (the interaction of American and Vietnamese culture drove America into the war).
While Kimball never posits an answer of his own to the question of why the US became involved in the Vietnam War, this is not to say he does not have or express an opinion.  While he never indicates to which school of thought he subscribes, Kimball dismisses out of hand what he calls the “official view,” that America fought the Vietnam War as part of its policy to contain the expansion of communism.  Kimball writes, “Most academics would probably maintain that the official argument is on the whole false and not worthy of serious consideration. Yet others continue to use it to explain why the U.S. government intervened in Vietnam and should intervene in other ‘Vietnams’” (p. 22).

By not advocating a point of view himself, Kimball leaves the reader free to draw his own conclusions.  This might be frustrating for the more casual reader who might prefer a thesis-argument-conclusion presentation to the more open-ended form that To Reason Why provides.  Additionally, while Kimball’s historiography is very thorough, the excerpts he provides are sometimes not long enough for the reader to thoroughly evaluate the merits each argument.  However, as an exercise in cataloguing the many answers to the question of why American became trapped in the quagmire of the Vietnam War--which is, to be fair, Jeffrey Kimball’s intent--To Reason Why is beyond reproach.

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