The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy since Vietnam: Constraining the Colossus

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

II
THE VIETNAM CASE
AN END TO INTERVENTIONISM?

LIKE ITS COMPANIONS FOR LATER INTERVENTIONS, THE VIETNAM CASE STUDY EXAMines the relationship of public opinion to U.S. intervention policy. The Vietnam case in chapters 4 through 6 explores and analyses the links between public opinion, protest, and the war policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. It focuses on four benchmark decision periods, two for each administration. For Lyndon Johnson these include the decisions to escalate after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 and the decision following the Tet offensive in January 1968 to reduce the Pentagon-suggested troop increase, coupled with Johnson's decision to step down and cut back the bombing. For Richard Nixon they include the decision to abort the planned “Duck Hook” decisive strike against North Vietnam in the fall of 1969, and the decision to escalate and widen the war by invading Cambodia in the spring of 1970. There is also a short discussion of the period of coercive diplomacy in 1972–73.

The decision-makers in the Johnson administration were President Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford. In the Nixon administration they were President Richard M. Nixon, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.

Chapters 4 through 6 focus on the historical records and the impact of public opinion in foreign policy, using polling data, memoirs, journals, speeches, press statements, declassified documents, and the recollections of policymakers, particularly when possible in personal interviews. Chapter 4 reviews the key historical events of the Vietnam War, including public opinion and government policy during the conflict. Chapter 5 and 6 evaluate the impact of public opinion on foreign policy by concentrating on the statements of major Vietnam-era decision-makers in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. These recollections include the memoirs of presidents Johnson and Nixon, Secretaries of State Rusk and Kissinger, and Secretaries of Defense McNamara and Clifford, and interviews with Secretaries Rusk, McNamara, Clifford, and Laird. When available, there is a brief discussion of the decision-makers' political philosophy in conjunction with possible links to their decision-making. The case examines evidence of the respective policymaker's awareness of public opinion as well as of protest for how these did or did not translate into policy. These explorations

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