The Vietnam War

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Michael P. Sullivan. The Vietnam War: A Study in the Making of American Foreign Policy. The University Press of Kentucky. 1985. Pp. ix, 198. $20.00. Cloth: ISBN 0812115280


Lisa Harry, Spring 2007

The “major goal of this book,” says Sullivan, “is to place the Vietnam War and, more broadly, American foreign policy into several different contextual perspectives.”(6) He asserts that these perspectives are “familiar to most.”(7) First, he looks at changing American perceptions of the Vietnam War using the “most basic unit of analysis, the individual.”(7) How much attention was given to the Vietnam situation from the late 1940s through the early 1970s? Was Vietnam always important? Second, in terms of the three American Presidents most heavily involved in the war, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, how did they define the conflict in Vietnam? What was their rhetoric like during the 1961-72 period and did it change? The next perspective is decision making. Was there a national interest involved in the Vietnam War to which the American decision makers were responding? Was their response a calculated one, designed to achieve the large-scale goal of containing communism? He looks at how the internal process of decision making on Vietnam can best be characterized. He addresses the fact that a “lengthy debate has raged over how to best describe foreign policy decision making in general and, more specifically, in the case of Vietnam.”(8) Some argue “that nonrational, incremental decision making was involved,” while others “argue that although that might have been the case in some decisions, nonetheless decision makers by and large knew what they were doing.”(19) Finally, he considers the Vietnam War from the perspective of long-term trends. He asks if the American involvement in the war was at least partly a function of the larger Cold War, containment, anti-Communist stance of the United States at the time, then “how much effect did the overarching perception of the Cold War between the United States and Russia and the necessity and advisability of the containment policy have in terms of producing decisions for further American involvement?”(21)

Another significant question arises while Sullivan addresses these perspectives - whether or not the American involvement in the Vietnam War was an aberration, “something that most Americans recognize as a mistake, which will not be repeated soon?”(115) He asserts, “in so much of the discussion concerning the American involvement in the Vietnam War, there seems to be the very implicit and subtle notion that if we could somehow replay the early 1960s those crucial decisions resulting in the further United States involvement would not be made.”(115) Sullivan concludes we should not “treat Vietnam merely as an aberration in American history, a unique event that can now be forgotten.”(156) He also argues that we shouldn’t explain America’s involvement “simply in terms of a few decisions that got out of hand.”(156) He asserts that the war and the decisions producing it “took place within an unfolding dynamic containing several crucial factors in a way militating for further American involvement, and not against it, and it is unlikely that a replay, with the same factors involved, would radically alter the outcome.”(156) He then identifies these “crucial factors.” First, while for many years Vietnam was not an important issue, the key decision makers “nonetheless perhaps unwittingly allowed it to become one of overriding concern once early decisions had been made for involvement.”(157) Second, “the public favored the war and as those early decisions were being made, the public and the leading decision makers, were still engrossed in their extroverted view of the world.”(157) The American involvement in the Vietnam War was “justified as part of the larger, Cold War policy of Russian containment; even though, while that justification was used time and again, the Vietnam War itself had virtually no effect on that Cold War.”(156)

To address the questions he lays out, Sullivan analyzes a number of different models and theories. For instance, in order to determine what decision makers were really interested in he looks at the Papers of the President from 1946 to 1970. To generate a general picture of the attention given to Vietnam he uses "a simple frequency count of the number of page references in the index."(27) He then analyzes the Pentagon Papers. He charts the pages of official documents on Vietnam and the numbe of justifications for the war that were given. As involvement increased, "decision makers, in addition to paying more attention to Vietnam, felt more and more compelled to justify it."(31) He concludes that except for those years in which decisions were being made, Vietnam was not the focus of a great deal of attention."(33) Using the Papers of the President again he analyzes the rhetoric of the presidents using a 32-word symbol list. He believes that these symbols, such as responsibility, challenge, secure, and loyalty to name a few, "measure the emotional and ideological commitment of the presidents to the Vietnam situation."(35)He concludes that there were changes in "the symbolic rhetoric of the presidents and their perception of the Vietnam situation from 1961 to 1973."(39)Throughout this period "Vietnam was not viewed as a constant and vitally importnat symbolic issue to the presidents."(39)

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