PLANNING A TRAGEDY: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam by Larry Berman

PLANNING A TRAGEDY: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The tragedy in question is the ""personal and national"" one that followed from Lyndon Johnson's decision, in July 1965, to escalate US involvement in Vietnam. Some hitherto classified documents, according to political scientist Berman (Univ. of California, Davis), leave the burden of the war on Johnson's shoulders. Reconstructing a series of meetings between the president and his advisors, Berman shows that Secretary of Defense MacNamara wanted an all-out commitment of 44 US battalions, together with a call-up of 100,000 reserves. George Ball alone argued that the best long-term decision would be to ""cut the losses"" and get out right away--knowing that Hanoi would subsequently take over but that the only other choice was commitment to a prolonged, probably losing war. The only newish item here is a memo by McGeorge Bundy, Johnson's National Security Advisor, that was critical of MacNamara's suggestion and raised serious questions about long-term goals. Everyone else, cabinet members and Joint Chiefs, lined up near MacNamara; and Bundy, apparently realizing Ball's isolation, stopped pushing his exasperating questions. Johnson, as is known, gave Ball full opportunity to express himself--as a show of listening to all sides, says Berman. (Ball, in his forthcoming memoirs--p. 310--tells it differently.) In the end, Johnson went for escalation; but not all the way. For fear of jeopardizing his Great Society program, Johnson made the troop commitment; but tried to soft-pedal the escalation by not asking Congress for a supporting resolution, by not calling up the reserves, and by announcing the move at an afternoon press conference rather than during a prime-time address to the nation. In this way, Johnson the politician tried to maneuver out of a tough situation--bequeathed him, Berman notes, by Kennedy--only to get stuck in his own mess. In blaming Johnson, Berman absolves his advisors; at the same time, he shows that Johnson's advisors weren't yes-men, and he didn't bowl them over. None of this, in short, constitutes a new understanding of our entry into the Vietnam ""tragedy."" The narrative is useful to a degree; but Bali's account is the one that must be seriously considered.

Pub Date: May 10th, 1982
ISBN: 0393953262
Publisher: Norton