An accidentally timely rejoinder to Robert McNamara's recently published memoir. Historian Gardner (Rutgers; Spheres of Influence, 1993, etc.) traces the trajectory of the Vietnam War from a small-scale police action to a full-scale (but undeclared) conflict, showing how its conduct coincided with Lyndon Johnson's attachment to New Dealera programs meant to improve the lives of the downtrodden. Johnson's making the war an international expression of Great Society ideals of freedom and prosperity, Gardner demonstrates, introduced entangling political elements into a military problem and cast a certain unreality on the whole affair: ``If one could go to the moon,'' Gardner imagines a loyalist reasoning, ``and if one could help grandma with new medical miracles, surely it would be possible to convince Ho Chi Minh to accept a dam on the Mekong River instead of a residence in Saigon.'' Manipulated by Rusk and McNamara, Johnson consistently valued bad advice over good, believing that his schemes of regional economic development would bear him out as a savior of the world's oppressed. So strong was this conviction that an advisor said, ``The president is prepared to stake everything on this vision of what we can bring about in Southeast Asia''whether Southeast Asia asked for it or not. The well-known result of the president's hubristic gamble was disastrous: civil unrest and the erosion of confidence in the American way of life, to say nothing of a military defeat far from home. And, as the protagonist in Robert Stone's novel Dog Soldiers puts it, ``What a bummer for the gooks.'' Gardner's suggestion that Vietnam was in some measure a moral drama played out in the dark recesses of LBJ's conscience is an intriguing, controversial contribution to the ongoing debate on the war, one that he backs up with thorough research and sound scholarship.