Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency by David Zarefsky

“I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Coming at the end of a 45-munite speech on the Vietnam War on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s words sent a shockwave through America. Veteran reporters, including Roger Mudd, were speechless. Given the day before, many believed it was an April Fools’ Day prank. In the days before DVRs, viewers couldn’t rewind to watch what they’d just heard, and incredulously turned to each other asking, “What did he just say?

The origin story of the speech is the basis for David Zarefsky’s new book, Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency: The Speech of March 31, 1968 (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp., $45). Zarefsky is a professor emeritus of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author or editor of twelve books, including President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History.

My first thought is that the title and subtitle ought to be reversed since as the book is an in-depth analysis of the March 31 speech. This is a minor quibble, though, about this well-researched and accessible volume of 190 pages of text and 36 pages of end notes. Zarefsky divides the work into seven chapters. The first two provide the historical context of the speech and the subsequent ones detail the design of the speech and its three main components: the bombing halt over much of North Vietnam, the limited increase in the number American troops, and Johnson’s withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race. The conclusion examines the speech’s afterlife.

Zarefsky’s contextualizing of the speech suffers from a few unforced errors: after World War II, there was no widespread consensus on avoiding nuclear war, but rather a nuclear arms race; President Kennedy did not send the first military advisers to Vietnam, President Truman did in 1950; and though Kennedy was shocked at the assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, there is no record of him weeping after he learned about it.

Zarefsky hypothesizes that when Johnson became president he believed the American people would simply support his actions in Vietnam. But that is belied by LBJ’s obfuscations and his refusal to place the country on the war footing. Johnson proved that a skeptical warrior can be a committed warrior.

The analysis of the speech is where Zarefsky is on surer ground, expertly tracing the development of it through eleven drafts. Johnson ultimately decided upon a “peace” speech over a more belligerent “war” speech. The analysis goes into granular detail on the disagreements among his advisers and the conflict within Johnson himself, providing a thorough analysis on how the sausage was made.

Due to declining health, LBJ was considering withdrawing from the race as early as the fall of 1967. But Zarefsky may be too deferential to Johnson in discounting the importance of the strong showing of Eugene McCarthy in the March 12, 1968, New Hampshire Democratic party presidential primary and the entrance of Robert F. Kennedy into the race soon thereafter.

Johnson believed that withdrawing from the race would provide gravitas to his Vietnam War policy, and he did enjoy a brief boost in the pools and in the media. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just four days after his speech and the country erupted in a violent spasm.

Johnson’s speech proved to be a temporary salve for his fractured psyche. The total tonnage of bombs dropped in Vietnam in April and May of 1968 was greater than that in February and March. By December, the military had dropped more bombs in the eight months since his speech than the prior three years combined.

A broken Johnson then all but handed the presidency over to Richard Nixon.

–Daniel R. Hart

In Good Faith by Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller’s In Good Faith: A History of the Vietnam War, Vol. I: 1945-65 (Osprey, 448 pp. $35, hardcover; $21, paper; $9.99, Kindle) a useful reference volume on the war and its origins for today’s readers who are removed from the Vietnam War by a half century. Miller, a former British Army Special Forces officer, has stitched together the war’s roots starting with the long French colonial phase, through the final years of the World War II, and into the Cold War when the fate of Vietnam had a minimal role in America’s national security concerns. The book ends with the beginnings of the full-blown American War.  

Miller includes a synopsis of U.S. national security policies starting with the 1930s in an attempt to answer the unending question: How did the United States end up in a conflict that was so costly for all parties and damaging in the long term to America’s prestige? To answer that, he analyzes the impact that communist takeover of China in 1948 and the 1950-53 Korean War had on America’s post-World War II role as leader of the so-called Free World, as well as on U.S. domestic politics.

This book does not focus on the failure of America’s senior civilian and military leaders during the Vietnam War and their deceitfulness in misleading the public. Instead, Miller takes a broader approach by examining the war primarily through its political context. Many personalities who played important roles along the path leading eventually to the American war in Vietnam appear as book moves along.

Of parallel importance, Miller revisits decisions made in the White House and the Pentagon that reveal confused policies and diametrically opposed positions held by senior leadership and their principal lieutenants. He also reports on the seemingly endless American fact-finding missions to Vietnam and their often misleading and politically motivated findings and recommendations. There’s also a full account of the Kennedy Administration’s complicity in the November 1963 coup and subsequent murder of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem (about which Ho Chi Minh supposedly said, “I can scarcely believe that the Americans would be so stupid.”), and the downward spiral of the South in its aftermath.

JFK and his Defense Secretary, Robert S. McNamara

What was particularly interesting to this reader was to once revisit the arguments for U.S. military escalation in Vietnam and against commitments that would entangle the country in an almost certain disastrous war in Southeast Asia. Central to Washington’s inexcusably poor decision making were the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson’s top foreign policy advisers who made supposedly well-informed arguments to take the fight to the Viet Cong North Vietnamese Army. The few voices who unequivocally stated that involvement in the war would be a monumental mistake with grave consequences for both the United States and Vietnam were all but ignored

The single most important event discussed in this book is the August 4, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin Incident, after which the Johnson Administration reported to Congress that North Vietnamese torpedo boats made two attacks on two U.S. Navy destroyers: the Maddox on August 2, and the Maddox and the Turner Joy on August 4, in international waters with no provocation. The resulting Tonkin Gulf Resolution is important for two reasons: First, the second attack never took place; second, Congress’ passage of the resolution amounted to a de facto Declaration of War, authorizing the Johnson to conduct combat operations against North Vietnam. Thus began an unnecessary war that America would come to deeply regret.

Reading this book, you might conclude that the wrongheaded arguments leading to the catastrophic U.S. war in Vietnam—what was essentially a war of choice, not necessity—were so transparently fallacious that no president would ever ignore the lessons learned in that war and repeat such a costly error in judgement. Yet, that is exactly what happened just thirty-five years later in the Persian Gulf when, once again, “wise men” who should have known better pushed for a president to go to war. 

–John Cirafici

Crooked Bamboo by Nguyen Thai

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Thank God for young historians who work with aged diplomats on their memoirs dealing with important world events. A short while ago, I read Japanese ambassador Saburo Kurusu’s The Desperate Diplomat, an account of his dealings with Americans in Washington during the weeks immediately prior to World War II. His book might never have been available for Western eyes without help from Masako R. Okura, a professor who finished editing it after a much-older historian died on the job.

Which brings us to Crooked Bamboo: A Memoir from Inside the Diem Regime (Texas Tech University Press, 272 pp., $29.95) written by ninety-year-old Nguyen Thai and edited by Texas Tech University history professor Justin Simundson. Thai was something of a favorite adopted son of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and was privy to a deep-inside look at his government. The book confirms that Diem’s regime overflowed with problems and should have collapsed after the first coup against it in 1960, rather than survive to 1963.

Simundson accepted the task of studying hundreds of pages of free-flowing thoughts and observations Thai made over many decades. As the Vietnam War historian Larry Berman notes in the book’s forward, Simundson’s prodigious editorial skills give shape to insights on crucial points in history. He is exceptionally helpful in introducing personalities and explaining their roles. 

Thai’s recollections fill gaps in the history of Diem’s misdirected leadership, and they also recreate Thai’s personal life. Simundson closely consulted with Thai while editing his notes and frequently relied on facts from Thai’s Is South Vietnam Viable?, a 1962 anti-Diem book published in a limited edition in the Philippines and nearly inaccessible today. Crooked Bamboo contains only two pages of end notes.

By 1959, corruption and authoritarianism in Diem’s government was overwhelmingly evident. The gross mismanagement had started within two years of his election in 1955. As Vietnam Press’s Director General, Thai’s close relationship with Diem compelled him to compromise the truth behind political maneuvers. 

Three chapters constitute the heart of the memoir. “The Convincing Test—Elections of 1959” shows how a rigged count kept Diem and his cronies in office. “The Aborted 1960 Coup D’etat” analyzes the political implications of in-fighting between Diem and high-ranking military officers that brought only minor changes to the government’s structure. Diem learned nothing from the unsuccessful coup, Thai says.

“Diem’s Overthrow” and assassination caused the most-bitter disappointment in Thai’s life. Thereafter, it was every man of rank for himself.

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Justin Simundson & Nguyen Thai

The book leaves many questions unanswered. For example: Who—Vietnam or America—was responsible for the war’s outcome? How important was democracy to the Vietnamese? Who should have replaced Diem?

Thai’s inconsistencies reveal the difficulty of resolving the Vietnam War dilemma even today. Simundson intensely examines these issues and others.

Crooked Bamboo is a great source for young people to begin studying South Vietnam’s early tragic political unrest—and for old timers to recall a once-familiar past.   

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson

The Men and the Moment by Aram Goudsouzian

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The velocity of events in 1968 are staggering. Their importance is underscored by the need for only a word or a phrase to appreciate their significance. The events remain not just historically important, but cultural touchstones. Tet. LBJ not running. MLK in Memphis. RFK at the Ambassador. Chicago Democratic Convention. Columbia University sit-in. Nixon’s comeback. Earth rise aboard Apollo 8.

In the midst of this upheaval, America not only elected a new president, but also witnessed a change in how the candidates were chosen—and the birth of a profound realignment of the party system.

Aram Goudsouzian, a University of Memphis history professor, examines the eight men who vied to be the next president in The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America (University of North Carolina, 240 pp., $25). This brisk and accessible (147 pages of text) study focuses on the character of the candidates and their responses to the moment.

Despite its brevity and its heavy reliance on secondary sources, the sixty pages of end-notes evince the book’s meticulous research. Goudsouzian leans particularly on contemporary articles from the New York Times, Time, U.S. News & World Report, and Newsweek, among others.

The 1968 political cycle marked the final stand of the political machines in choosing a candidate. Strong showings and even victories in the primaries did not translate into delegates, as the party leaders had the ultimate discretion in choosing their candidate. This fact cannot be emphasized enough, for despite Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic insurgency, Robert Kennedy’s star power, Nelson Rockefeller’s muddled efforts, and Ronald Reagan’s patient opportunism, the eventual candidates always were likely to be Nixon and, after LBJ’s decision not to run, Vice President Humbert Humphrey because of their work in securing the delegates.

Even though he announced he would not run, Lyndon Johnson remained the de facto leader of the Democrats, which meant that Humphrey’s delegates were actually Johnson’s, effectively handcuffing Humphrey’s campaign. Mixed into this mélange was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ran one of the most successful—albeit the most despicable—third party campaigns in American history.

Goudsouzian proficiently explores each man’s character and ambitions, though the work’s concision and use of anecdotal evidence can at times veer into sensationalism. Were the Chicago police really chanting, “Kill, kill, kill” at the Democratic Convention? Did Johnson yank out his penis in response to a reporter’s question about why the U.S. was in Vietnam? Though entertaining, these seem apocryphal.

Goudsouzian proffers a fine analysis of the “New Politics” campaigns directed to the people through rallies and modern technology, but he all but ignores the critical William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal television debates. It is telling that Buckley is grouped in with the John Birch Society, the right-wing group he helped de-legitimize, and that there are more references to Stalin and Hitler (three) than to Vidal and Buckley (one).

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The chapter on Nixon is, perhaps ironically, titled “The Loser,” and this moniker is repeated throughout the book. Goudsouzian frequently invokes Nixon’s use of the “silent center,” but Nixon did not use this phrase until November 1969. Though credited with the greatest comeback in American political history, there is perhaps too much presentism on Nixon, the eventual winner of this consequential campaign.

There is a reason that this is at least the fourth book in as many years devoted exclusively to the 1968 election. While the material is well trod, Goudsouzian has provided a useful perspective and enjoyable precis on the candidates and their times.

–Daniel R. Hart