The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked

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Brookings Institution Press, Jun 29, 2001 - Political Science - 387 pages
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Few analysts of U.S. involvement in Vietnam would agree with the provocative conclusion of this book. The thesis of most postmortems is that the United States lost the war because of the failure of its foreign policy decisionmaking system. According to Gelb and Betts, however, the foreign policy failed, but the decisionmaking system worked. They attribute this paradox to the efficiency of the system in sustaining an increasingly heavy commitment based on the shared conviction of six administrations that the United States must prevent the loss of Vietnam to communism. However questionable the conviction, and thus the commitment, may have been, the authors stress that the latter "was made and kept for twenty-five years. That is what the system—the shared values, the political and bureaucratic pressures—was designed to do, and it did it." The comprehensive analysis that supports this contention reflects the widest use thus fare of available sources, including recently declassified portions of negotiations documents and files in presidential libraries. The frequently quoted statement of the principals themselves contradict the commonly held view that U.S. leaders were unaware of the consequences of their decisions and deluded by false expectations of easy victory. With few exceptions, the record reveals that these leaders were both realistic and pessimistic about the chances for success in Vietnam. Whey they persisted nonetheless is explained in this thorough account of their decisionmaking from 1946 to 1968, and how their mistakes might be avoided by policymakers in the future is considered in the final chapter.

 

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Contents

Introduction
1
Decisions Getting into Vietnam
7
Patterns Dilemmas and Explanations
9
Dilemmas
11
A Range of Explanations
14
Stereotypes Fail
23
Three Propositions
24
Recurrent Patterns and Dilemmas from Roosevelt to Eisenhower
27
Pressure from the Top and from the Bottom
236
Concluding Observations about the Imperative Not to Lose
240
Means The Minimum Necessary and the Maximum Feasible
247
Constraints
249
Four Strategies for Winning
252
The Fate of the Winning Strategies
258
Building and Breaching Firebreaks
267
Pressures and the President
272

The Asian Berlin
30
The Roosevelt Administration
32
The Truman Administration
36
The Eisenhower Administration
50
Picking up the Torch The Kennedy Administration
69
1961
72
Buildup and Breakdown
79
1963
86
Intervention in Force The Johnson Administration I
96
1964
97
Early 1965
116
Late 1965
130
Coming Home to Roost The Johnson Administration II
144
196667
145
Debate Diplomacy and Disillusionment
156
The Reckoning of 1968
170
Goals The Imperative Not to Lose
179
National Security Coals and Stakes
181
The Cautious Route to Commitment
182
Exploring the Security Issue
190
The Domino Theory
197
Domestic Political Stakes
201
The Two Phases of American Policy on Vietnam
203
Practical Political Considerations
220
The Bureaucracy and the Inner Circle
227
Pressures to Do Both More and Less
273
Presidential Responses
278
Presidential Management of the Political System
286
How the System Helped the President
291
The Presidents Dilemmas
294
Perceptions Realism Hope and Compromise
297
Optimism Pessimism and Credibility
299
Contradictions and Hedging
300
The Roots of Internal Estimates
302
The Cycle of Highs and Lows
310
Estimates and Escalation
318
The Strategy of Perseverance
323
The Stalemated War
324
Elements of the Strategy
331
Conclusions
345
The Lessons of Vietnam
347
Nixons and Fords Policies
348
How the System Worked
352
Two Schools of Thought on the Lessons of Vietnam
354
Recommendations
363
Documentary Appendix
371
Bibliographical Note
375
Index
377
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About the author (2001)

Leslie H. Gelb is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former columnist at The New York Times, where he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism. Gelb has worked as a senior official in the State and Defense departments. Richard K. Betts is a professor of political science at Columbia University. He was a Senior Fellow and Research Associate at the Brookings Institution and has taught at Harvard and the Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Professor Betts has also served on the staff of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and as a consultant to the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency. Professor Betts is a member of the National Commission on Terrorism.

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