This is an archive of the former website of the Maoist Internationalist Movement, which was run by the now defunct Maoist Internationalist Party - Amerika. The MIM now consists of many independent cells, many of which have their own indendendent organs both online and off. MIM(Prisons) serves these documents as a service to and reference for the anti-imperialist movement worldwide.
Fredrik Logevall
Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam
University of California, Berkeley
529 pp. hb

This is an overly narrow, repetitive and atheoretical book about the years leading up to the choice to send half a million U.$. troops to Vietnam under President Lyndon Johnson. However, with excellent documentation of the points that it does consider, Choosing War succeeds in dispelling one or two of the most central Amerikkkan myths or received wisdom regarding the Vietnam War.

By the 1970s, most of Amerika had come to the simple conclusion that the Vietnam War was a "mistake." In this simple notion lay hidden the idea that the war was not a problem of an imperialist system, just a policy error. This judgment also left open whether people opposed the war for moral reasons or simply because the U.$. military could not win with all the attendant waste of resources implied. For MIM, expending resources to preserve a dying system with no possibility of long-run environmental sustainability or global peace is wrong.

After the 1970s, Ronald Reagan and other yahoos resumed the nutty argument that U.$. troops in Vietnam were not "allowed to win." As memoirs from the Johnson and Nixon administrations show very clearly, the meaning of such idiocy is that some serious politicians actually existed who thought the united $tates should use nuclear weapons in northern Vietnam in or near Hanoi and risk the counter-attack from China and the Soviet Union. That's what they meant by "winning" in Vietnam, because the commitment of Mao in China to defend Vietnam was public knowledge as was the contention by the Soviet social-imperialists of the then USSR to become Vietnam's protector. Exactly for this reason, in the 1964 presidential election Lyndon Johnson thrashed Barry Goldwater, who the public saw as too willing to risk a nuclear war over such ideas as fighting the communists to the max in Indo-China. (The idea of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam as suggested by Goldwater caused one inter-imperialist split, e.g., p. 158)

Logevall does very little to explore the "win it all" ideas (p. 405) or any other ideas about the Vietnam War and instead chooses to focus on the policy elite, namely the president, "Secretary of Defense" Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. We won't say Logevall's choice is entirely unjustified, because although voiced by Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the "win it" school of the Vietnam War was in fact peripheral and mostly election campaign posturing. Nixon ended up being the one to withdraw from Vietnam in any case: the final "loss of Vietnam" happened on his watch.

Logevall chose to focus on how it came about that such a "mistake" happened. For a long time, we had heard from the likes of McNamara thirty years later, that the Johnson administration officials just did not know what was going on and did not pay sufficient attention to it. A whole school of thought arose justifying "Area Studies" at colleges, so that in the future, Amerikkkans would understand why it was that the Vietnamese peasants did not support the U.$.-backed puppets in their context and why peasants or other exploited people would not support U.$-backed puppets in other contexts. These "Area Studies" programs arose as more or less an extension of the liberal wing of the CIA/State Dept. that held that better cultural and historical understanding would lead to more efficient repression and exploitation--which is not to say that all academic works produced in these "Area Studies" programs were worthless, just that the ruling class had a self-interest in seeing such studies start.

Add to this picture that the U.$. public is generally apathetic about foreign affairs, ignorant of Vietnam and in the 1960s, coming off the McCarthy period of stupidity where even opponents of McCarthy found themselves dragged down to his level--and a picture arises of how Amerikkkans just were not sophisticated enough to understand what was going on in Vietnam from the President down to the average Joe. Logevall shows us that this whole image of naive ignorance turns out to be completely incorrect.

Although Logevall points out that the public did not know what was going on and did not really support the introduction of troops until after it happened before reversing course again in the late 1960s, he lays to rest the idea that the policy elite did not know it was fighting a losing war. It turns out that from Kennedy to Johnson to McNamara, to British intelligence, to the CIA, to the Senate, there was no one who ever thought the united $tates could really win the war in Vietnam --even before the introduction of U.$. troops. Only Nixon and Goldwater and one or two scattered columnists in the policy elite sang the same old cheerleading songs of anti-communism without really caring or answering whether they could win the war.

Logevall found a number of great quotes and statements about the private views of all the major players. Almost without exception they shared John F. Kennedy's initial view that the Vietnamese were going to "throw our asses out of there at almost any point. But I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the people to reelect me."(pp. 38-9) Let's recall that Kennedy won a very narrow victory over Nixon in the 1960 election, an election so close it may have been stolen the way Bush stole Gore's, if we are to believe some Republicans talking about Daly's vote-gathering tactics in Chicago in 1960.

The scary parallels with today

The really astonishing thing about this book is that it came out in 1999 and cannot be thought of as attempting any parallel with what has happened since September 11, 2001; however, because of the longevity of certain politicians and because of family names passed down through generations, even many of the names in the Vietnam War are the same as in today's wars.

Even though they were fighting Vietnamese communists, the Johnson administration would not talk with them directly. So the Johnson administration officials saved their fire for the French--namely Charles DeGaulle, the hard-right republican leader of France, who told the Amerikkkans there was no way to win so they should negotiate for a neutral Indo-China and hope for Vietnam to become like Tito's Yugoslavia. France exercised considerable diplomatic muscle across-the-globe and Uncle $am found itself diplomatically isolated, with only Australia, New Zealand and southern Korea willing to support Uncle $am with troops.(pp. 372-3) (Australia was also one of the few combatants in the war on Iraq in 2003.)

Even England refused to send combat troops, which led Johnson to literally offer $1 billion for a British brigade to show up in Vietnam, so that the Amerikkkan public would know the "Free World" really agreed with Uncle $am.(p. 373) Today, the English are calling Tony Blair, Amerikkka's "poodle" for backing whatever war Uncle $am wants. Yet, already in 1999 before the current flaps over Iraq, Logevall touched on how the British rulers planned to criticize the Johnson administration after the 1964 elections regarding Vietnam but eventually chickened out. "Not for the first time, and not for the last, Britain gave top priority to its desire for good relations with Washington."(p. 88)

It also turns out that already in the 1960s, the rulers were making mincemeat of the word "terrorism," using it even to apply to war between trained militaries,(p. 310) instead of using it to refer to political intimidation through attacks on civilians, which is the original meaning of the word. Logevall had no way of knowing about the whole 911 furor to arise after his book, but we can see in the book how the United $tates was already cheapening the use of the word "terrorism," and thereby encouraging real terrorist attacks on Amerikkka from foes who may have otherwise fought in wars against Amerikkka. It stands to reason that people going to be labeled "terrorist" no matter what they do lose incentive not to attack civilians for the purposes of political intimidation.

Some other passing points of history

Before we get to the meat of the argument in this book, we would also like to mention that already by 1964, the imperialist policy elite was thinking of using the Sino-Soviet split to make Ho in Vietnam another Tito. (e.g., pp. 19, 56. 121, 362, 406) Among others, an employee of the NSC (National Security Council) was in favor. (p. 273) It proves that the imperialists still appreciated Tito to some degree for his independence from the rest of the alleged socialist bloc. At the time of course, there were many who would deny that Tito was an Amerikan lackey. Books like Logevall's leave little doubt that Titoism was the bone the French imperialists like DeGaulle sought in Vietnam but which the u.$. imperialists did not find enough to satisfy for their purposes.

More damnation of Ho Chi Minh from our communist vantage came from Burmese secretary-general of the United Nations U Thant who advised Uncle $am that Ho "'is more Russian than Chinese.'"(p. 187)

Similarly, for those utter morons, racist scum (e.g., the entire Trotskyist milieu being Russophilic as a matter of racial identity) or opportunists seeking the reopening of Kremlin purses for their bureaucratic careers who still think the Soviet Union under Khruschev and not Mao in China was the true heir to Lenin, through no direct intention, Logevall demonstrates that the New York Times and other imperialists sought to interest Khruschev in reining in Vietnam in 1963 to prevent its radicalization through Mao's influence.(pp. 57-8) In other words, the imperialists already knew which of China or the phony Soviet Union was more dangerous to u.$. imperialist designs in Vietnam; even though Stalin had been dead only 10 years and criticized by Khruschev only seven years prior. Contrary to what some say about the decision to go into Vietnam, the imperialists were up on things and knew the significance of the Sino-Soviet split, unlike many calling themselves communist to this day. The one who the Vietnam War was sometimes named after in the phrase "McNamara's war," "Secretary of Defense" Robert McNamara confided that Khruschev was his "only" hope in the whole matter, since like everyone else in the imperialist elite, McNamara knew the Amerikkkans would lose the war.(p. 368)

Within 48 hours of the bombing of Vietnam by Uncle $am, China had sent three dozen MIG aircraft to Vietnam.(p. 207) It goes to show how everyone had to know that there was a limit in how much the united $tates could attack northern Vietnam without a response. Even in the case of the Soviet Union, the Amerikkkans knew that there might be a problem counting on Khruschev or Brezhnev, because the Soviet Union had its own imperialist interests to attend to despite being at one with the Amerikkkans in spirit.

The labor aristocracy

Logevall was not able to link any theory to the major facts he presented. What a Marxist theory or world system theory or any other theory would be like in his field of interest did not bother him much, which makes it typical for an Amerikkkan history publication. In the end Logevall resorts to such crudities as Lyndon Johnson's persynal machismo (e.g., p. 399) as an explanation why he wanted to fight a losing war to the end. (And if he just wanted to be macho, Johnson could have picked a fight anywhere in the world, so we will not back down from saying that Third World communism was relevant to his choice.)

However, from what Logevall does present, it appears that the policy-making elite knew something about Vietnam but was not able to remove itself from the anti-communist hysteria it had constructed in the 1950s. Kennedy did not want to lose elections over being "soft on communism"; Barry Goldwater ran on a platform of sending force to Vietnam; Nixon called for waging war in Vietnam; although as president he later backed out; Johnson carefully scripted everything in 1964 so that Vietnam would not cost him the election. Even after Johnson won his election in 1964, he still told people he would be "impeached" if he lost Vietnam, which is not to mention that in 1965 when the U.$. started landing Marines in Vietnam, Johnson wanted to win elections again in 1968.

Logevall dismisses Johnson's "impeachment" remark in particular,(p. 393) but for MIM, it points out something about imperialist steering. Most of the imperialist elite would have liked to do something different in Vietnam, but the bottom line is that the nature of the imperialist partner called the "labor aristocracy" made nimble steering too difficult even for a massively re-elected politician to consider. Whether it be Goldwater, Gerald Ford, Nixon or Henry Cabot Lodge or even Thomas Dodd of Connecticut who also favored more military action in Vietnam (p. 135), Johnson was afraid there would be some politician able to make him pay for doing the rational thing in Vietnam. Even Dwight Eisenhower suggested to Johnson that he consider using nuclear weapons.(p. 350) Logevall emphasizes that public opinion in 1964 was largely ignorant and soft. Of course Logevall is correct that most could not locate Vietnam on a map, but Lyndon Johnson was still correct that politicians existed who could change all that and make him pay if anything newsworthy happened regarding Vietnam. If Johnson made waves, politicians would get into the newspapers and TV to explain it, most crucially by using the buzzwords necessary: "communist" and "Soviet." Once the politicians had used the correct buzzwords and explained who in Vietnam was communist, the war-mongering politicians could be assured of forthcoming public support. Hence the structuralist question regarding political careers was never what the public knew, but what it would say after all the bourgeois politicians with access to the media had had their say in a high-profile matter. In this the public was completely predictable and it was Johnson not Logevall who correctly estimated political reality. Just the previous decade the public was aiding politicians red-bait members of the State Department, where no communists existed. The police informant hysteria was helping to destroy entire careers, but in Vietnam where there actually were people who thought of themselves as communists and where they were actually winning, the target had every possibility of generating even greater hysteria among the lower ranks of the exploiter classes that comprised the Amerikan majority.

For decades the imperialists had fed the labor aristocracy crude anti-communism. In the 1950s, the imperialists realized that even anti-communist hysteria was still hysteria that could go too far and they had to rein in McCarthy just a bit. Still, the majority rule of exploiters did hold some disadvantages for the imperialist policy-making elite despite its overall advantage of stability, because the average Joe labor aristocrat of Amerikkka would not steer as nimbly as the imperialist elite. When enough children of the petty-bourgeoisie died in Vietnam, then it would become acceptable to withdraw and even Nixon would do the withdrawing. Before that, the imperialists were trapped in a position of their own making.

Logevall points out that Johnson tried to keep Vietnam out of the news as much as possible simply by withholding information from the public in 1964, except for carefully scripted material about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This desire to keep domestic politics calm was so strong that the u.$. imperialists prevented any changes of policy on the ground in Vietnam that would have to be reported. Nothing to escalate or de-escalate the conflict was allowed until after the elections.

On a theoretical plane, something MIM would emphasize that others do not is that the bursting of a particular class alliance often precedes social revolution. Even when it does not lead to social revolution, the sundering of a class alliance is a traumatic event often wrapped up in coups and civil wars. The imperialists were unwilling to risk even informing the labor aristocracy better about the Vietnam War. It shows that the millions of the labor aristocracy exerted a real pressure that could not be ignored no matter what the imperialists thought.

Some may ask how the imperialists could afford the crude kind of unity that they enjoyed with the labor aristocracy. Didn't the imperialists need a more nimble approach? While the situation was awkward, there were many reasons that the imperialists did not directly suffer for letting the public stay uninformed. After all, the imperialists were not going to send their kids to die in Vietnam and the Vietnamese people killed counted as naught to the u.$. imperialists. Although the imperialists knew that the Vietnam War would inflict a public and humiliating defeat and damage the economy as well, the imperialists still felt they had no better alternative than to keep the labor aristocracy in its philistine existence. The alternative was to risk telling the labor aristocracy something it did not want to hear and have McCarthy type politicians come to power. Instead, the imperialists chose to let the labor aristocracy learn from military experience about communism and the Third World. As even Strom Thurmond said before he died one cannot lead by being too far separate from the ones being led.

Genocide and imperialism

Although Logevall does not touch the class structure and nature of the exploiter alliance governing in the united $tates at the time of the Vietnam War, the pronouncements of fear regarding elections speak to the labor aristocracy partnership as the underlying cause for why the imperialists could not steer out of Vietnam more nimbly. The imperialists did not want to encourage the imperialist country petty-bourgeoisie to pull out of every military confrontation in the Third World, so they faced this difficulty in explaining to their battle-hardened and tested labor aristocracy allies of how to tell when it was good to get out and when to stay and fight for "freedom." The bottom line was that the imperialists decided that both in terms of the Amerikkkan population and international allies, there was a benefit to the "keep it simple stupid" principle. At home, the line the rulers fed the labor aristocracy regarding anti-communism was not exactly what the imperialist rulers wanted, but it was simple and worked in most circumstances. Abroad, the fact that Uncle $am stayed in Vietnam proved that allies in other contexts could count on Uncle $am to the bitter end. Hence, for the imperialists it was a matter of a trade-off between steadfastness/stability on the one hand and nimbleness and quickness on the other. It's not surprising that the spokespeople for the status quo chose stability and steadfastness over risky maneuvering with allies accustomed to blunt handling.

Given that the imperialists wanted to keep their alliance with the labor aristocracy in tact, with a political majority and simple anti-communism, the imperialists then turned to what could be gained from what was obviously going to be a long-term loss. The imperialists concluded that they could not win but they could bleed a Third World country of millions of lives. While the Vietnam War would throw the U.$. economy into crisis, the effect for the Vietnamese was even worse.

When the imperialists decided their goal, they set out to stop diplomatic discussions of neutrality regarding Vietnam around the world. (e.g., p. 81) The u.$. imperialists far from being "out-of-the-loop" deliberately refused to meet on the question of Vietnam or Indo-China, because they knew they would have to bargain from a position of weakness. The u.$. imperialist strategy everywhere was to make negotiations for peace impossible and hope for a better military position in the distant future. While they all knew and Logevall proves that the real reason was their military weakness and total lack of political support in Vietnam, in public, Uncle $am said the reason it would not attend a conference regarding peace in Indo-China as suggested by Charle DeGaulle in 1964 was the communists' "terror,"(pp. 188, 199) an early misuse of the word "terror" in reference to a civil war and battle against foreign intervention.

In a situation like 1975 in Indo-China, peace negotiations could help the communist side, because even the imperialists recognized that neutrality of the region favored China. Of course, withdrawal of u.$. forces would increase Chinese influence. Thus, when a People's War already has a dictatorship of the proletariat of a "great power" backing it, peace treaties and talk of neutrality may do more to legitimize and speed up communist victory. The reason for that in Vietnam's case is that China already had the upper hand in the area, so neutralizing the U.$. influence meant an overall gain for China's influence.


Logevall dedicates less than a paragraph to Marxist and world-systems theory (p. 386); even though, Logevall indicates his interest in finding the "causes" of the Vietnam War from the introductory pages of the preface. Because so much of the imperialist elite knew from the beginning that the Amerikkkans were going to lose in Vietnam, and because Johnson won such a resounding election victory in 1964 over ultra-militarist Barry Goldwater, Logevall does not believe the Johnson administration "had to" send troops to Vietnam. That's why the title of the book is as it is.

In contrast, it would seem to us "structuralists" opposed to Logevall's (attempted) atheoretical approach to history that Logevall in fact shows that powerful forces are at work that no one can deny. If even Lyndon Johnson after the 1964 election could not back out of the war and spoke of his own "impeachment" and if Lyndon Johnson ended up ending his own political career on this very subject, we cannot dismiss the profound social forces giving rise to the u.$. Marines' landing in Vietnam as trivial individual choices. Although Logevall gets into persynal details of Johnson's psychology, he does not explain how a self-interested politician would end up refusing to run for re-election in 1968, the way Johnson did. Obviously Johnson was caught up in profound forces or he would not have given up his career to let someone else have a crack at his job. Johnson's alleged character defects regarding machismo, action or stifling of dissent do not jive with his giving up his post.

For MIM, there was a class struggle during the Vietnam War, not one just between the proletariat with oppressed nation allies like the Black Panthers on the one hand and the imperialists on the other. In this case, an important class struggle involved the labor aristocracy against the Vietnamese toilers. How that worked ended up shaping the imperialist-labor-aristocracy class alliance in the imperialist countries. In particular, the labor aristocracy got a real say in the limits of its role as the stabilizing force and shock troops of imperialism. It would not be a matter of having the imperialists just send as many petty-bourgeois or oppressed nationality kids to battle anymore. The labor aristocracy went to war--enthusiastically at first--but it came back from Vietnam saying that there have to be limits and here is what they are. Ever since that time, every imperialist politician has known that the goals of war have to be clear, simple and quickly winnable for the best chances of success.

In the end, the labor aristocracy criticism of the Vietnam War was quite limited. That is why the consensus in Amerikkka is that Vietnam was a "mistake," not a crime of genocide indicative of the whole system. Even the ignorance of the U.$. public was a conscious ignorance--and this we are happy to agree with Logevall on--"John Q. Citizen was also ignorant because he preferred it that way."(p. 403) Of course there were the resources and discussion materials available to any citizen who really wanted them with regard to Vietnam and Logevall successfully proves that such materials were well-circulated among the elite as early as 1963 and 1964.


On the plus side, this book is a contribution to a forensic history of the u.$. intervention in Vietnam: "what did they know and when did they know it" are good war crimes tribunal questions. At the cost of asking over and over again the same question of "what did they know about the possibilities for victory in Vietnam," Logevall paints the reader a previously unknown picture of the rulers of the Johnson administration.

Many will be put off that Logevall does not spend much energy on the "morality" of the war or its implications for global peace. Like horse-race commentators common in the Vietnam War era and today, Logevall focuses on the who's winning questions, not whether specific killings of Vietnamese are possibly morally justified.

On the negative side, this book is blinding historical idealism. It's difficult to engage the question of causality and hence theory when one sets out to focus on the history of four people's ideas--those of Johnson, McNamara, Rusk and Bundy. In this case, the agenda or set of questions predetermines that not much of scientific value can arise from Logevall's study.