Author and Editor Fredrik Logevall presented a lecture on the Vietnam War at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, MI, on November 9, 2017. The lecture is the first of a four-part series on the Vietnam War.
Fredrik Logevall is the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Professor of History. He is a specialist on U.S. foreign relations history, was previously elected President of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, is a member of the Society of American Historians and Council on Foreign Relations, and has provided commentary to the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Politico, and other publications.
With his book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, Logevall was the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner. In his book, Logevall traces the path that led France and the United States to tragically lose their way in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Logevall began the lecture briefly describing how the French-Indochina War and World War II contributed to the Vietnam War. Logevall posits that World War II impacted the Vietnam War as the Viet Minh were in a much better position to fight the French returning into Indochina after WWII because the war had drastically weakened the imperial powers (particularly France). From WWII, the world also saw the rise of the United States in East Asian affairs.
Additionally, Logevall theorized that the French-Indochina War beginning in 1946 and ending with the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 contributed to the Vietnam War because the Americans followed in the same path as the French. He cited a few similarities between the French and U.S. wars in Vietnam such as “soldierly complaints about the difficulty of telling friend from foe,” poor fighting spirit of the supporting Vietnamese troops, field commanders complaining of politicians at home meddling in combat operations, warnings against disengagement dishonoring fallen soldiers, and avoiding early peace settlement negotiations.
Logevall then moved to the three U.S. Presidents “at the center of the Vietnam War” John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Logevall indicated that President Kennedy’s personal diaries showed how he understood the difficulty of thwarting revolutionary nationalism in 1951 and raised questions as to whether any Western power could overcome Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary cause. Logevall then pointed out that President Kennedy, contrary to his own misgivings, in fact deepened U.S. involvement in Vietnam by delivering more military assets in the region.
By citing other examples, Logevall illustrates how Presidents Johnson and Nixon deepened the U.S. military campaign, but concluded that “none of these three Presidents really believed in the war during their administrations.” Logevall stated that the three Presidents doubted the prospects of victory or whether it mattered to U.S. security but they did believe in the “domino effect” of losing Vietnam to communism and the “hubris” of the U.S. at the time. Logevall reinforced his point by playing 1964 telephone recordings between President Johnson with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and President Johnson with Senator Richard Russell, where the men voiced their own doubts about the war.
Logevall concluded that he sees connections with the lessons from Vietnam and the present day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He indicated that the antiwar movements put constraints on how Johnson and Nixon could prosecute the war and that the “permissive context” of politicians, press, and citizens not demanding answers from the Administration exists today in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Logevall summarized that the takeaways from Vietnam are: the political utility of force is narrow; wars are to be won politically if won at all; counterinsurgency is expensive, risky, and difficult for a local population to feel that a foreign invading military is its friend; and exaggerating the stakes in a war can reduce maneuverability and place the personal credibility of the President and politicians on the line. On his last point, Logevall stated, “The overriding goal, too often becomes, keeping the patient alive, avoiding defeat at least until the next election.”
Logevall concluded the lecture by answering questions from the audience.