The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked

The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked

The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked

The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

The American experience in Vietnam was the greatest trial of U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War. Among its legacies is a strong desire by many citizens to understand the process by which decisions were made to increase the scope and intensity of American operations in Vietnam.

Only recently have the perspective of time and the opening of documentary sources made possible a comprehensive study of that process. This book relies heavily on the official records published in the Defense Department's history of U.S.-Vietnam relations, known as the Pentagon Papers. in addition, it is the first comprehensive scholarly work to make combined use of recently released parts of the Pentagon Papers dealing with secret negotiations, as well as declassified portions of White House files on Vietnam that are now available in the Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy presidential libraries. the analysis marshals these official documents and many secondary studies and memoirs to explain the history and logic of U.S. decisionmaking about Vietnam.

Leslie H. Gelb conceived the book and wrote the bulk of it while a senior fellow in the Brookings Foreign Policy Studies program. His research was informed by his prior U.S. government experience as director of the Pentagon Papers project. He is grateful to Morton H. Halperin, Richard Holbrooke, Anthony Lake, Richard H. Ullman, and his wife, Judith C. Gelb, for helpful comments as the writing progressed, and to Len Ackland, Lee Niedringhaus Davis, and Sally Shelton for research assistance in the early stages. Richard K. Betts wrote the introduction and chapters 3, 4, and 5 and contributed to other parts of the book as well. He began his work while on the faculty of Harvard University and completed it as a Brookings research associate.

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