Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer prize-winning Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam has understandably sparked renewed interest in and debate over the origins of America’s involvement in Vietnam.[1] As Lloyd Gardner and other historians have argued, the heart of Logevall’s book is his analysis of the crucial events of 1954.[2] In sharp contrast to the image of President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a generally restraining force fighting off those who were committed to intervention, such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Logevall argues that the President’s words and deeds “suggest a man who was fully prepared to intervene with force under certain circumstances and who sought to maintain his freedom of maneuver for whatever contingencies might arise.”[3]

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Andrew Preston and Gordon Goldstein provide two very different looks at National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s role in the decision to escalate America’s war in Vietnam.  Preston hones in on Bundy’s Cold War worldview, inherited largely from his mentor Henry Stimson, and his efforts to concentrate power in the National Security Council, which put him in a critical if not decisive position to shape U.S. policy towards Vietnam during the years in which Washington made the decisions for war. In doing so, Preston challenges what he sees as too great an emphasis on presidential decision-making in extant literature on the war’s escalation. Goldstein, on the other hand, working largely from interviews and conversations conducted with Bundy just before the latter’s death, writes a sympathetic account of Bundy’s involvement in the war’s escalation. While certainly not uncritical, Goldstein’s conclusions often align with Bundy’s, especially in highlighting the paramount responsibility of the commander-in-chief to accept or reject his cabinet’s advice and make decisions for war or peace unilaterally.  Goldstein’s contribution, it seems, is less in explaining why Bundy advocated the policies he did or even the weight those recommendations carried with the president, and more in illuminating how the former national security advisor made sense late-in-life of his involvement in the critical decisions to wage war in Vietnam.

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