Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam / Edition 1

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Overview


"Masterful. . . . Logevall presents a vivid and tragic portrait of the elements of U.S. decision-making on Vietnam from the beginning of the Kennedy administration through the announcement of the American ground war in July 1965. In the process he reveals a troubling picture of top officials in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations persisting in efforts to boost the fortunes of sucessive governments of South Vietnam, even while they acknowledged that their chances for success were remote. In addition, he places the decision-making squarely in the international context."—Robert D. Schulzinger, author of A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975

"Stunning in its research and highly sophisticated in its analysis, Choosing War is far and away the best study we have of Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the conflict in Vietnam."—George C. Herring

"In this fine book, Fredrick Logevall offers the first detailed examination of why diplomacy failed to head off the Vietnam War. Grounding himself in documentary research and other sources from several countries, Logevall comes closer than anyone ever has to explaining what happened. His clear writing and deep analysis may well change our understanding of Vietnam as a quagmire."—John Prados, author of The Hidden History of the Vietnam War

"A rising star among a new generation of historians, Fredrik Logevall has written the most important Vietnam book in years. By explaining the international context of that tragic conflict, Choosing War provides startling answers to the question, Why did the war happen? Controversial yet fair, this account challenges the reader to think through John F. Kennedy's and Lydon B. Johnson's individual responsibility for Vietnam. The effect is compelling, unforgettable history."—Timothy Naftali, co-author of "One Hell of a Gamble:" Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
Thorough and nuanced, and expressed with admiable clarity. Rarely is diplomatic history so well written these days.
NY Times Book Review
Compendious and persuasive.
Jack F. Matlock Jr.
His account of the diplomatic context in which President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to send American troops to fight in Vietnam is thorough and nuanced, and expressed with admirable clarity....[Argues] that the decision to "Americanize" the war in Vietnam, taken in what Logevall calls "The Long 1964" (mid-1963 to early 1965), was an error as clearly avoidable as it was tragic. —The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Logevall (history, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) contends that during the crucial period of 1963-65, the United States could have negotiated an end to the Vietnam War. This period (called the "long 1964") saw attempts by France and North Vietnam to negotiate peace; American leaders, on the other hand, sought to continue the war and often made illogical decisions. What was at stake, Logevall contends, was the credibility of the United States administration. Needless to say, there are numerous books about the Vietnam conflict. Logevall approaches the conflict from a foreign policy perspective and gives the reader a picture of what was happening not only in Vietnam but in Paris, Moscow, Peking, Washington, and London. It's a case of missed opportunities with tragic consequences. Meticulous reading with certain appeal for both academic and public libraries.--Mark E. Ellis, Albany State Univ., GA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Jack F. Matlock, Jr.
His account of the diplomatic context in which President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to send American troops to fight in Vietnam is thorough and nuanced, and expressed with admirable clarity....[Argues] that the decision to ''Americanize'' the war in Vietnam, taken in what Logevall calls ''The Long 1964'' (mid-1963 to early 1965), was an error as clearly avoidable as it was tragic.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A damning indictment of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy for their unremitting hawkishness on Vietnam and for refusing to accept repeated offers to enter into peace negotiations from 1963 to 1965. The consensus of historians is that Kennedy sent thousands of American advisers to Vietnam only reluctantly and was contemplating lessening the US military commitment at the time of his death. Johnson, historians say, wanted to fight the war on poverty, not the war in Vietnam. Because of North Vietnamese perfidy and because of political pressure at home from the hawkish right, Johnson was forced to escalate the war. Logevall (History/Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara) makes a strong case that the historians are wrong. He amasses a large amount of evidence to make a persuasive argument that from August 1963 to February 1964 Kennedy and Johnson had countless opportunities to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Peace offers came from North Vietnam, South Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and the UN. Each time, JFK and LBJ rejected the road to peace. They did so with the strong support of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. What was behind what Logevall calls this "single-minded American determination to pursue a military solution in Vietnam"? In part, it was political; both Kennedy (who Logevall characterizes as "no profile in courage on Vietnam") and Johnson had their eyes on the 1964 presidential election and did not want to appear weak on communism. Much more importantly, Logevall says, were their "fears for their own personal credibility." Johnson especiallyfeared "the personal humiliation that he believed would come with failure in Vietnam." Logevall calls this a failure of moral courage that led to America's "avoidable debacle in Vietnam." A major contribution to the scholarship of the making of Vietnam War policy under Kennedy and Johnson.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520229198
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/9/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 557
  • Sales rank: 323,602
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author


Fredrik Logevall is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The Kickoff

29 AUGUST 1963


We begin not in Washington or Saigon or Hanoi but in Paris: Paris with its long and tangled attachment to the affairs of Vietnam, Paris where French leaders had ruled Indochina for three-quarters of a century and where generations of privileged Vietnamese had gone to be educated. The imperial relationship was no more; the Vietnamese had learned more than they were supposed to, and a long and bloody war of independence had ended in a French defeat at the hands of the Vietminh in 1954. Yet the French social and cultural influence in Vietnam remained significant, which ensured that any official pronouncement out of Paris relating to the former colony was bound to attract notice. There would be such an announcement on this day, 29 August 1963. France's president, General Charles de Gaulle, believed that a major crisis threatened in Vietnam, one that again involved a western power, this time the United States.

    The general was far from alone in this view. The international community's attention was riveted on Vietnam in a way it had not been since the time of the 1954 Geneva Conference that ended the Franco-Vietminh War. Yet there was always a sense that this day might come, because the signing of the peace accords had not ended the struggle for Vietnam. The conferees at Geneva had divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, with the communist Vietminh assuming power in the North and noncommunist forces retaining control in the South, and with the understanding that there would be elections for reunification in 1956. The elections did not takeplace, and the division remained. The United States, determined after 1954 to create and sustain a noncommunist bastion in the South, threw its backing behind the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, supported his decision to bypass the elections, and steadily expanded its involvement in South Vietnamese affairs. Without American aid, the Catholic-dominated Government of Vietnam (GVN) would have foundered because it faced not only a hostile North under Ho Chi Minh but, beginning in the late 1950s, a Hanoi-supported insurgency in South Vietnam.

    By the start of 1963, the American presence in the South had grown to more than sixteen thousand military personnel, some of whom took part in combat operations, and U.S. expenditures totaled more than one million dollars per day. And yet political stability remained elusive. The insurgency continued to grow in intensity, fueled by the government's repression and by its growing dependence on American largesse. Then, in May 1963, when government troops opened fire on observers of a Buddhist holiday, a full-blown crisis erupted. An escalating spiral of Buddhist demonstrations and regime countermeasures caused South Vietnam to move, by late August, to the verge of chaos. Reports proliferated in the world press and among the Saigon diplomatic corps about growing American dissatisfaction with the Diem government and especially the increased power within it of Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the mastermind behind the crackdown against the Buddhists. There were rumors of an impending coup d'état against the government by dissident generals of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

    De Gaulle's statement, made in a cabinet meeting on 29 August and then (in a highly uncommon procedure) cited verbatim to the press by Minister of Information Alain Peyrefitte, contained no specific policy proposals. But there was no mistaking its central message. "The serious events taking place in Vietnam are being followed in Paris with attention and emotion," de Gaulle declared. The long history of French-Vietnamese relations and the close ties that France retained in "the country as a whole" led the French people to "understand particularly well, and share sincerely, the hardships of the Vietnamese people." This understanding, he continued, also allowed Frenchmen to perceive the positive role that Vietnam could play in Asia, "for its own progress and for the benefit of international understanding, once it is able to carry on its activity independent of outside influences, in internal peace and unity, and in concord with its neighbors." Today more than ever, France wanted such a result for "all of Vietnam," de Gaulle said, and he offered his country's help to realize it: "Naturally, it is up to [the Vietnamese people] and to them alone to choose the means to bring this about. But every national effort which might be undertaken in Vietnam toward this end would find France ready, to the extent she is able, to set up a cordial cooperation with this country."

    The implications were clear. Without mentioning the United States by name, the general had left no doubt that he opposed the American commitment to preserve an independent, noncommunist South Vietnam. Vietnam was one country, he had suggested, and it should be reunited. The country moreover ought to be "independent of outside influences," by which he presumably meant both the American commitment in the South and the Chinese and Soviet influence in the North. Finally, the Vietnamese could count on French support should they opt for reunification and independence. Though contemporaneous observers understood full well the importance of these assertions—the story made the front page of several major newspapers around the world the following day, and in Saigon rumors spread like wildfire that de Gaulle was laying the groundwork for a proposal to reunify Vietnam through a Laos-type neutralization—they loom even larger in hindsight, because of what we now know about policy deliberations in Washington at exactly the same time.

    When the day began in Washington on 29 August, Charles de Gaulle's statement was still a few hours away from being issued. Already, however, it was shaping up to be a day of reckoning. Overnight a cable had arrived from the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, which minced no words: "We are launched," Lodge wrote, "on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government." John F. Kennedy had this cable before him early in the day. No doubt he had already seen that day's Washington Post, which included large headlines on the previous day's civil rights march in the city and two smaller ones from Saigon: "Nhu Called Real Viet-Nam Ruler," and "Vietnamese Regime Headed for Showdown with U.S." He had certainly seen an article that appeared on the front page of the New York Times the previous day, for he now called senior State Department official Roger Hilsman about it. The article, titled "Long Crisis Seen on Vietnam Rule," and written by reporter Tad Szulc, reported that high officials in Washington believed that removing Ngo Dinh Nhu alone or both Nhu and his brother Diem was the only way to solve America's Vietnam problems. "He seems to be getting pretty close to things," Kennedy said of Szulc in asking who might be the source for the story. Pretty close indeed. A few hours later, an "eyes only" cable from Washington to Saigon gave the presidential approval for a coup d'état. Late in the day, Kennedy followed this cable to Lodge with one of his own, which affirmed U.S. support for a coup but also emphasized that he, Kennedy, reserved the right to reverse course. "When we go, we must go to win, but it will be better to change our minds than fail," the president wrote.

    Thus the logic of beginning our story at the end of August 1963: it represented a key juncture in the war. Both the documentary record and later testimonials make this clear. In retrospect, certainly, it can be said that the latter part of August brought two critical and interconnected changes with respect to the war, critical in particular given our aim of establishing why major war erupted in Vietnam in 1965 and whether that war could have been prevented. First, after mid August Vietnam for the first time became a high-priority, day-to-day issue for America's foreign policymakers, and it would remain such for the next ten years. In the last week of the month the Kennedy administration reaffirmed its commitment to defeating the insurgency in South Vietnam and demonstrated this commitment in the starkest of ways: by seeking to oust the sitting government in Saigon in favor of a new regime, one that Washington hoped would be more able and more willing to prosecute the war.

    Second, the month witnessed, in de Gaulle's pronouncement, the first major attempt at diminishing the tensions and preventing the resumption of large-scale war—what Jean Lacouture later called the "kick-off" of the diplomatic game in Vietnam. The French president had summoned the Vietnamese to be independent at the very moment Americans were moving to replace Diem with a leader more able (in their view) to pursue the war effort. He had chosen to speak of peace when the overriding concern in Washington was how to best prosecute the war. In the eighteen months that followed, more and more observers would come to share the essentials of de Gaulle's vision of the conflict, until, by the spring of 1965, most world leaders embraced them, together with important voices in the United States. In the months and years that followed, many opponents of the war would make a point of invoking his name in laying out their arguments against a military solution.

    Of course, it was one thing to endorse the French president's analysis in 1966 or 1967, when full-scale war raged in Vietnam and the end seemed nowhere in sight, and quite another to do so in mid 1963. How reasonable was de Gaulle's call for a political settlement in the context of that summer? It is a large question in history, for if the general saw things correctly it means that the Second Indochina War might have been ended before it really began, before the destruction of large portions of Indochina and the deaths of millions. To answer the question requires examining the perspectives in North and South Vietnam in the middle of 1963, as well as the thinking among the major actors in the larger international community—by common agreement, these were France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States. It is to that task we now turn. We shall find that the thinking in several of the key capitals was fluid that summer—partly because of important changes in the international system—with considerable support for the French president's analysis, including his belief in the need for a political solution. We shall also find, however, little inclination among these governments to work for a negotiated settlement, and determined opposition to negotiations from the most important player of all: the United States. It is no contradiction to say that the summer of 1963 constituted one of the great missed opportunities to prevent the tragedy that was the Vietnam War, and one that never came close to being realized.


The proximate cause of both de Gaulle's pronouncement and Kennedy's coup decision was the grave crisis in U.S.-South Vietnamese relations. The Buddhist affair had brought those relations to their lowest point ever, but the warning signs had been there long before. From the moment of Ngo Dinh Diem's appointment as prime minister in 1954, American officials had been concerned about his shortcomings as a leader—his political myopia, his tendency toward paranoia, his unwillingness to delegate authority beyond his immediate family. Nevertheless they had stuck with him, partly because they thought his staunch anticommunism and fervent nationalism might make up for those weaknesses, and partly because no adequate replacement appeared anywhere in sight. "Sink or Swim with Ngo Dinh Diem" became the defining slogan. As late as April 1963, in meetings with British officials, Kennedy administration representatives stuck to this line.

    Already then, however, in the weeks before the Buddhist crisis broke, U.S.-GVN relations were poor. The Americans were distressed by the wastefulness and inefficiency with which the Vietnamese handled the material aid they received, by the regime's unwillingness to implement political reforms, and by the growing power of Ngo Dinh Nhu. For the past year, Nhu had told British and French officials that there were too many Americans in South Vietnam, and he had become more insistent on the issue in the spring of 1963. On 1 April Nhu told Australian officials in Saigon that the American "way of life" was completely inapplicable to an underdeveloped but ancient society like Vietnam and that it would be good if half the U.S. personnel currently in the country went home. He repeated the claim several times that month. Diem adhered to a more circumspect position, but it was well known to diplomats in Saigon that the president, too, chafed under the weight of the American presence.

    Then came the eighth of May and the crackdown on the Buddhists. American officials were perplexed and irritated at this government action in a country in which 80 percent of the population practiced some form of Buddhism. Ambassador Frederick Nolting was instructed to remonstrate with Diem and urge him to reduce Buddhist irritation and calm the crisis. But following some halfhearted government attempts at conciliation, the tension continued to escalate. There were more protest demonstrations, and more Nhu-orchestrated police suppression. American contingency plans for the possible emergence of a new government, already in existence but for a long time dormant, were revived. As the weeks passed and the crisis deepened, and as Diem proved resistant to following U.S. advice (American pressure in fact seemed only to make him and his brother more stubborn, with Nhu now openly sneering at Washington), a consensus developed among several senior State Department officials that the regime should be ousted. The members of this group, which included Undersecretary of State George W. Ball and Assistant Secretaries Roger Hilsman Jr. and W. Averell Harriman, won a crucial ally in their cause in Henry Cabot Lodge, the prominent Republican named by Kennedy to replace Nolting as ambassador. Firmly convinced that Nhu and, if necessary, Diem had to go, these men managed by the last week of August to get the rest of the administration to go along.

    How did the Diem government respond to all this? Did the severe downturn in U.S.-Saigon relations in the summer of 1963 make the Ngo brothers receptive to a separate peace with North Vietnam (formally the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV)? The question has long intrigued students of the war. That some contacts between Nhu and individuals from the DRV took place in this period seems clear. On 10 August, in talks with British diplomats Lord Selkirk and Donald Murray, Nhu spoke of having regular meetings with members of the "Dien Bien Phu" generation in North Vietnam. He told Selkirk that there was a considerable body of patriotic individuals in Hanoi who were nationalists first and communists second, men who were in their midforties and who had fought against the French and who naturally had been in the ranks of Ho Chi Minh's forces because he had provided the power and organization to bring about the liberation. They were persons who rightly sought a Vietnamese solution to the Vietnamese problem, and, Nhu added, "I have had some of them sitting in this room." Selkirk and the British embassy found Nhu's claims credible, including his assertion that the visitors were actual representatives of the Hanoi government rather than private citizens. Other believers included French ambassador Roger Laloulette and Mieczyslaw Maneli, the new Polish delegate to the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICC), both of whom had indeed encouraged Nhu to seek a dialogue with Hanoi. "Saigon is buzzing with rumors about secret contacts between Diem-Nhu and Ho Chi Minh," Maneli reported to Warsaw and the Soviet embassy in a top-secret cable. "On the basis of information I have received strictly privately in the North, it is possible to conclude that some kind of Ngo-Ho talks have begun, through direct emissaries in the North."

    The historian would like to know more, of course, including where in the Hanoi bureaucracy these officials toiled. More important, it remains to be determined what Ngo Dinh Nhu hoped to achieve with his gambit. American officials professed to believe, then and later in the fall, that his motive was merely to secure increased leverage with Washington, in effect to blackmail the Kennedy administration into retreating from its efforts to reform the Ngo family. No doubt this was part of it. It also seems likely, however, that by late July or early August Nhu had concluded that U.S. hostility toward him had risen to the point that an accommodation with his Vietnamese opponents might be his only chance for political survival. His wife, Madame Nhu, who in early 1964 was to affirm that talks had been going on, cited this latter motivation as most important. She even revealed that she and Nhu were prepared to send their two oldest children to school in Hanoi as a "fraternal gesture." Brigadier Robert G. K. Thompson of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam (BRIAM) told officials at the U.S. embassy that Nhu's only trump card was an American withdrawal from Vietnam, a point also made by F. A. Warner, head of the South-East Asia Department (SEAD) at the British Foreign Office. "In the long run," Warner told colleagues in London, "the only thing that can save Nhu and Diem would be an accommodation with North Vietnam, for this would produce a completely new state of affairs in which they could try and pull people together again in the South."

    There is much to commend in this argument. The idea that Nhu and his brother could long have survived in power following any kind of deal with Hanoi seems altogether doubtful, but it is not so crazy to think Nhu would give it a try if he knew—as he surely did by the last half of August—that Washington was determined to remove him from all political power, through a coup if necessary. The prospect of, say, twelve or eighteen months in power following an accord would look quite appealing if the alternative might be an ouster within weeks. Whether Diem would have gone along with such a scheme is, of course, anything but certain. Given Diem's unshakable anticommunism throughout his nine years in power, it indeed may be doubted. Opposition from Diem may have mattered less now than it would have a few months earlier, however, given Nhu's growing power in the Saigon government. By the middle of August, the diplomatic community in Saigon appears to have been in broad agreement that the man now in effective control of the government of Vietnam was Ngo Dinh Nhu.


Nhu's claims regarding the existence of North-South contacts take on added credibility when one considers that it was in North Vietnam's interest to explore the thinking of the de facto leader of the southern regime. The available evidence suggests strongly that Hanoi leaders in this period were broadly sympathetic to a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Well before this point, in fact, northern officials had expressed hopes for a settlement. In March 1962, for example, while the negotiations for a neutral Laos were still ongoing, North Vietnamese foreign minister Ung Van Khiem had formally asked the cochairs of the 1954 Geneva Conference, Britain and the USSR, to "proceed to consultations with the interested countries to seek effective means of preserving the Geneva settlement of 1954 and safeguarding peace." The following month another senior Hanoi official had suggested publicly that a new Geneva conference be called to discuss South Vietnam, on the theory that the "Laotian model" could be applied there as well. The same appeal was made in midyear by the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), the political arm of the Vietcong. And at the end of 1962, Ho Chi Minh advocated peaceful reunification of North and South Vietnam through negotiation.

    Leaders in the North appear to have reasoned that, although Washington was more committed to the Vietnam conflict than to the one in Laos, the administration was reluctant to intervene directly in the struggle against the Vietcong. According to William J. Duiker, an authority on Hanoi's strategy in the war, the North Vietnamese in 1962 believed that the Kennedy administration might be willing to accept a diplomatic solution, even if it were really a disguised defeat. Such a solution would allow Hanoi to meet one of its core aims—to avoid a direct military confrontation with the United States—and satisfy demands from both Beijing and Moscow that the Indochina conflict not be allowed to get out of hand. In July, senior Politburo member Le Duan accordingly instructed the leadership of the southern resistance to avoid a major escalation of the war by keeping the fighting confined to the mountain and rural areas of South Vietnam (direct attacks on the cities could result in the Americans intervening directly in the war) and to work for a negotiated settlement and a U.S. withdrawal.

    In March 1963 Premier Pham Van Dong elaborated on Hanoi's vision for negotiations. In a meeting with the Polish diplomat Maneli, Pham Van Dong said a Geneva conference on South Vietnam should be convened, with the aim of establishing a neutral South Vietnam led by a coalition government. This government would include the NLF as well as other groups. There would be no need to adopt neutralization also for North Vietnam, since there were at present no foreign troops or foreign bases on North Vietnamese soil. (On the issue of DRV infiltration of men and supplies into the South, the premier was silent.) Pham Van Dong emphasized, however, that he understood that the United States could not be expected to lose face and must be allowed to "withdraw with honor satisfied"; as a result, reunification of the two zones of Vietnam would take place only gradually, and the coalition government would be a democratic one (in the "western" sense of the word, he said). J. Kenneth Blackwell, who headed the small staff at the British consulate in Hanoi, gave a very similar sense of North Vietnamese intentions. Hanoi leaders, he told London in April, "are now clearly working towards a negotiated settlement through an international conference and are apparently prepared to accept ... the indefinite neutralisation and independence of South Vietnam."

    Blackwell had some reason to speak with such confidence about Hanoi's intentions: at various times in the early months of 1963 he spoke with Foreign Minister Ung Van Khiem, with the Soviet ambassador in Hanoi, and with members of the French delegation there. All suggested to him that North Vietnam, though in no way slackening in its commitment to ultimate victory (which meant reunification under its control), sought to give the Americans a face-saving way out of the war and was prepared to delay reunification—an important concession, in Blackwell's view, given the emotional appeal of making Vietnam one nation again—in order to achieve this result.

    The question is why. In Blackwell's view, two main motives moved the DRV leadership in this direction. First, though they remained fundamentally confident about long-term trends in the war effort, they had concluded to their dismay that the large-scale increase in the American advisory presence during 1962 had made an important difference on the ground, improving to some extent the military position of the GVN. The result, northern strategists surmised, could be a lengthy stalemate in the South, with the Vietcong controlling much of the countryside and the Diem regime maintaining its grip on the cities. (Recall Le Duan's directive to the Vietcong to refrain from launching major attacks on urban areas.) For this reason alone, exploring the possibilities of negotiated solution made sense—if such a deal would get rid of the Americans, all other problems were soluble. In addition, Blackwell believed that the deepening Sino-Soviet split had affected Hanoi's thinking. He saw the North as walking a "tightrope" between the two Communist powers, and that, notwithstanding the pro-Chinese rhetoric coming out of Hanoi at various times in 1963, its leaders were anxious to avoid unduly alienating Moscow. Like his colleagues at the Foreign Office, and indeed virtually all international observers, Blackwell thought the Vietnamese basically anti-Chinese, and his contacts with northern leaders convinced him they were acutely concerned about the prospect of becoming a vassal of Beijing, and about the possibility of a major war between China and the United States fought on North Vietnamese soil and using Vietnamese men.

    The growing rift between Washington and the GVN in the spring and summer may also have inclined Hanoi to probe for an early settlement. North Vietnamese leaders could reasonably expect any successor government in Saigon to be too dependent on the United States to agree to a compromise settlement, and conclude that the time to act was now, especially given the rising tenor of Ngo Dinh Nhu's anti-American outbursts. (One can imagine their satisfaction at hearing Nhu declare the American way of life inapplicable to Vietnam and asking for half of the American contingent to leave.) In addition, the North, with much less arable land than the South, was that year experiencing the worst drought it had known since the end of the war against France, in 1954. All available hands, including schoolchildren and office workers, were pressed into service to dig canals and to irrigate the fields. Nevertheless, more than two hundred thousand hectares of rice paddy were ravaged, and in many areas river levels dropped too low for the water to reach the rice fields. Hanoi was forced to ask China and the Soviet Union for food aid, which only left it even more at the mercy of their growing rivalry. According to procommunist Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, Ho Chi Minh told him all this was an added incentive for making a deal with Saigon. Similarly, Hoang Tung, the Communist Party head of propaganda, confirmed to journalist Stanley Karnow in Hanoi in 1981 that it was partly because of the drought that the North Vietnamese had tried to "probe the depth of differences" between the Ngo brothers and the United States.

    The skeptical reader may wonder why, if this analysis is correct and the Hanoi leadership favored a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in this period, it did not work harder to try to get one. There was no full-fledged campaign by DRV officials for a Geneva conference in 1962-1963, after all, no strong efforts through diplomatic channels to get talks going. Probably the answer is that the foregoing is not the whole picture. Even as Hanoi saw the benefits of negotiations, it also saw dangers. Its leaders knew from 1954 that victories gained on the battlefield could be taken away at the conference table, and they were reluctant to put forth proposals that might bind them to a specific course of action or to dealing with a specific group. They therefore may have preferred clandestine bilateral talks with Saigon to reactivating the Geneva conference machinery, as the latter could be cumbersome and less responsive to their desires. A bilateral deal would also avoid the DRV having to face charges from the world community that it was violating the Geneva Accords by having troops in neighboring Laos. Moreover, the North Vietnamese were not yet desperate. As concerned as many senior officials were about various developments—about the deepening Sino-Soviet split; about perhaps falling under Chinese control in the event of an expanded war; about the prospect of future droughts like the current one; and about the likelihood of a coup in Saigon that would bring in a regime wholly dependent on the United States—they also had reason to feel pretty good about the overall course of the war in the South. True, the influx of Americans had improved the Saigon regime's military position and made the prospect of an early GVN collapse less likely. But the Vietcong continued to apply pressure on the government, continued to score military victories, continued to win recruits. The Diem regime, meanwhile, continued to lose support among the people, to the point that—as both Hanoi officials and foreign diplomats in Saigon knew—very few southerners were willing to fight and die for its survival. Hanoi leaders could also take comfort in the fact that the fighting had not yet put much strain on North Vietnamese resources—the insurgency in the South was to a large extent self-sustaining. All this helps explain the apparent lack of urgency with which the DRV approached the issue of diplomacy. After all, why strive for an accommodation with Ngo Dinh Nhu when he and his brother were in the process of antagonizing so many important segments of the southern population?

    Finally, and paradoxically, it may be that the Sino-Soviet split, while on the one hand making the North Vietnamese more attracted to a political solution in the South, also may have inhibited them from actually pursuing one. Notwithstanding their determination to avoid antagonizing either side in the ideological dispute and to make decisions in terms of what best served the DRV's interests, they saw no reason to alienate the powerful neighbor next door unless absolutely necessary. More often than not, North Vietnamese public statements in 1963 echoed the Chinese position in the Sino-Soviet dispute—that is, as good Marxist-Leninists they claimed that the USSR under Nikita Khrushchev had deviated from pure doctrine in supporting "revisionism" in Yugoslavia and in espousing "peaceful co-existence" and "world peace." Though European diplomats were correct in not reading too much into this rhetoric, it does suggest that North Vietnamese officials were skittish about sounding too accommodating with the West, too eager for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in South Vietnam.

    Nevertheless, the original point stands: the period from early 1962 to mid 1963 witnessed a more forthcoming North Vietnamese position on the subject of diplomacy than had been seen previously. If Hanoi officials were sufficiently suspicious of diplomatic bargaining generally, and sufficiently pleased with the state of the insurgency, to prefer a wait-and-see approach over an active search for negotiations, there can be little doubt that they were more open than hitherto to the idea of shifting the struggle to the political plane. More than that, key elements in the northern leadership in mid 1963 sincerely hoped for a political solution to the conflict and were prepared to compromise—by agreeing to a delay in unification—in order to get it. The potential benefits of such a move were too obvious for them to rule out. Thus in August, Ho Chi Minh suggested publicly that a cease-fire be worked out in the South. Robert Thompson captured the DRV's basic motivation well: to ensure an American withdrawal, he told officials at the American embassy, Hanoi would pay almost any price. Poland's Maneli and France's Laloulette believed likewise, as did Ramchundur Goburdhun, the Indian delegate to the ICC who spoke to Hanoi leaders on a regular basis.


The constellation of forces within Vietnam thus suggested the possibility in the middle of 1963 for fashioning some kind of political solution to the Indochina conflict, whether by way of a bilateral North-South deal or a multipower conference. What about the position of forces outside the country? Here, too, informed observers saw genuine possibilities for a negotiated solution. This was a sound interpretation, though it also contained a certain degree of wishful thinking, at least if these observers expected such a solution to be actually implemented. It was sound because several of the world powers that would have attended a reconvened Geneva conference were broadly supportive of attempting a negotiated settlement to the conflict. It was wishful thinking because each of these governments preferred to adhere to the same wait-and-see attitude adopted by the North Vietnamese, and because the United States was resolutely opposed to an early political settlement.

    Among the major world powers, France felt most strongly that no reasonable alternative existed to some kind of peaceful resolution, whether by a bilateral accord between Saigon and Hanoi or via an international meeting. De Gaulle's pronouncement of 29 August came as no surprise to close observers of his foreign policy. For years he had been convinced that the United States-Ngo Dinh Diem alliance was destined to fail. This conviction grew in part out of his low opinion of Diem; he had always seen the Saigon leader as the wrong man for the job, neither popular among his people nor capable of uniting the various political factions in South Vietnam. More important, de Gaulle determined in the late 1950s that the United States would not succeed in Indochina where France had failed, even with superior military power, because the struggle in Vietnam was fundamentally a political and not a military problem—a struggle for the minds and hearts of the people of South Vietnam—and one that demanded an internal solution. Therefore, the Americans and not the North Vietnamese were the outsiders in the conflict. De Gaulle was convinced that in an age of decolonization, nationalism would prevail even over a superpowerful United States, and thus some form of neutralization was the best that could be hoped for. Neutralization would not be tantamount to the surrender of Southeast Asia to communism, as Americans believed; even should all of Vietnam become communist, neighboring countries would not necessarily follow suit. Above all, neutralization would bring peace to the region without substantially endangering the West's position in the world balance of power. On each of these points de Gaulle had the support of the French representatives in Saigon and Hanoi as well as Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville and other top officials at the Quai d'Orsay.

    Neutralization is a protean term, and de Gaulle did not specify precisely what he meant by it. Fundamentally, he used the term to describe a situation in which the Vietnamese themselves would settle their conflict without external interference. In terms of how that settlement would be reached, de Gaulle had in mind an end to the war against the Vietcong insurgents by the Saigon government and a move to more normal contacts with Hanoi, the creation of a coalition government in Saigon including the Vietcong, the reduction of and eventual ending of the American military presence in the South, and the eventual negotiating of a North-South confederation and perhaps unification. The process might begin with a Geneva-type conference of major powers, or a bilateral deal between Saigon and Hanoi.

    De Gaulle saw little to fear in the prospect of a reunified Vietnam under communist control, which he conceded was the most likely ultimate outcome in the event of an American withdrawal. For de Gaulle, ideologies were passing phenomena in the life of nations, which he saw as the only realities. He reasoned that traditional Vietnamese animosity toward China would make Chinese control of Indochina highly unlikely and that a unified Vietnam suspicious of the West and led by Ho would likely turn to the USSR as the most trusted and geographically remote friend. The Soviets, with no territorial ambitions in the region, would welcome an ally there. As a result, Chinese ambitions would be checked, and peace would come to Southeast Asia.

    De Gaulle grew more confident as 1963 progressed that, for the first time in many years, there might be an opportunity to fashion a political settlement. A key issue for him appears to have been the deepening of the Sino-Soviet split that occurred in the spring and summer. For de Gaulle, the split had important implications for the Vietnam conflict. The USSR, anxious to keep Chinese influence from spreading in the region, would welcome a negotiated settlement. More important, North Vietnam would be more amenable to it than previously. De Gaulle knew from the French delegation in Hanoi that the North Vietnamese felt squeezed between Moscow and Beijing and that key elements in the DRV leadership, though still wholly committed to achieving eventual reunification of the country under communist control, were beginning to look for relief in the fighting in the South as a means of reducing the pressure from Beijing and lowering the chances of North Vietnam becoming a Chinese satellite. "It is not improbable," a late-summer assessment by the British embassy in Paris said, "that some time during August General de Gaulle decided that for the first time since 1954 it was possible to believe that the North might be willing to lower the temperature in the struggle with the South in order to avoid a further escalation of the guerrilla war which would force them further into the arms of the Chinese."

    The Saigon leadership would have far less to gain from any talks, but de Gaulle believed that it, too, might be amenable to some kind of deal, given the increased pressure from Washington and the rumors of coup plotting by ARVN generals. He received encouragement on this point from the French ambassador in Saigon, Roger Laloulette. Like de Gaulle, Laloulette had long been dubious about the prospects for the U.S.-GVN alliance, and he thought that Ho Chi Minh might be prepared to accept a cease-fire in the conflict rather than run the risk of being forced by China into a gradual escalation of hostilities. In addition, Laloulette believed that war-weariness among the South Vietnamese people had become so deep and pervasive that an early end to the war was essential, and he dismissed the notion that any successor regime the Americans might bring in could hope to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Beginning in early 1963 Laloulette warned the Ngos against allowing too many Americans into the country and advised them to open a dialogue with Hanoi. Then in early August he returned to Paris for consultations, and a decision was made that he would promote the concept of neutralization with Diem and Nhu. He did so on at least one occasion in late August. Laloulette told the brothers it would be in their interests to distance themselves from the United States by requesting that some American advisers leave South Vietnam. Following that action, Laloulette suggested, a negotiated settlement with the NLF and perhaps Hanoi could be reached. Diem and Nhu sounded receptive, Laloulette reported.

    What about the United States? Did the general believe that the Kennedy administration would seriously consider abandoning America's longstanding pursuit of a military solution in Vietnam in favor of a political one, especially in view of the weak negotiating position held by the South Vietnamese and United States? It is difficult to say. Probably he doubted it. But de Gaulle could point to the Laos crisis of 1961 as a situation that bore important similarities to the current one in Vietnam, and in which Kennedy had opted for negotiations rather than war, in part because of the advice he received from France and Britain. If JFK had shown such wisdom once, why not again? In addition, de Gaulle may well have surmised that the evident oppressiveness of the Saigon regime, together with its blatant disregard of American advice, made disengagement for Kennedy a much less costly proposition, in domestic political terms, than at any time previously. Finally, it is also possible, perhaps likely, that de Gaulle did not much concern himself with the American position. After all, French interests would be advanced regardless of how Washington responded. If the administration agreed to negotiate for a withdrawal, France would get worldwide credit for helping to facilitate that result and would be in a position to increase its own influence in Southeast Asia; if it declined, the Paris government would still win kudos from nonaligned nations everywhere, particularly in the Third World, and de Gaulle would have furthered one of his chief aims since taking power in 1958: to distance his country from the American colossus and stake out a more independent French position within the western alliance.

    Herein lies the main reason for the general lack of urgency in the French government's pronouncements on the war, not only in 1963 but later as well. Serene in the conviction that his analysis of the Vietnam situation was correct, and that French interests would be served regardless of how Washington responded to his appeals, de Gaulle was content to be vague in his comments and to see how events played themselves out in Saigon before becoming more centrally involved. He was no agitator for negotiations. In mid 1964 an American official would say after a meeting at the Elysée Palace that on Vietnam the general was "merely waiting for things to come his way." The phrase aptly describes his policy a year earlier. His statement of 29 August was an unmistakable critique of American policy in Vietnam, but it did not, it will be recalled, explicitly demand negotiations.

    The French approach to the war matters especially because of the unique relationship that existed between France and its former colony, which would have increased the potential impact of a determined effort out of Paris to promote negotiations. It was not uncommon for foreign diplomats in both Saigon and Hanoi to remark on the powerful hold of the French language and culture on the country, and on how the passage of time appeared to have blunted the feelings of bitterness toward France engendered by the Franco-Vietminh War. ("Already a [North] Vietnamese Minister can talk of having fought the French with `tenacity' but fighting the Americans with 'hatred," one British observer noted in May 1963.) The Vietnamese, according to this view, no longer feared France as a colonial power and were, after several generations of French education, more prepared to listen to the French than to any other western people. Kenneth Blackwell marveled at the genuine sympathy that existed between the French delegation in Hanoi and the leading Vietnamese officials, including Ho Chi Minh and his chief ministers. French correspondents were among the few foreign journalists allowed in Hanoi.

    The French connection was particularly close in the South. Some 17,500 French citizens lived there in mid 1963, about 6,000 of them born in France. Eleven thousand Vietnamese children, including those of the ruling Ngo family, attended French-run primary schools and lycées, and when they fell ill they often were treated by French doctors in hospitals built by the French. Several members of Diem's cabinet were married to French women. France's economic presence in South Vietnam remained considerable, with French citizens in 1963 owning most of the public utilities, hotels, breweries, cigarette factories, and rubber plantations. About 85 percent of the GVN's foreign earnings came from rubber, and three French companies produced about 95 percent of the annual rubber crop. France was South Vietnam's best customer, buying 43.6 percent of its exports in 1962. Then there were the less tangible ties, unmistakable to any perceptive visitor. Bouillabaisse and bifteck-pommes frites were common features in Saigon restaurants, along with Algerian vin ordinaire. For young urbanites French was still the language to learn, not English, and Paris was the city a student dreamed about, not New York or San Francisco. The French capital, as a result, had a large South Vietnamese émigré population in 1963, much of which was clamoring for an end to the war through negotiations.


If the French were circumspect in their public pronouncements on the conflict and what ought to be done to settle it, the Soviet Union and Great Britain were doubly so. As cochairs of the 1954 Geneva Conference, these two powers would be expected to occupy an important role in any international effort to end the war. In mid 1963, both saw a good deal of merit in the French analysis (though both were suspicious of de Gaulle's motives in speaking up), but they were more reluctant than the Paris government to state their position publicly. Indeed, what is fascinating about the Soviet and British outlooks on Vietnam is the degree to which both shared a general desire to maintain as low a profile as possible, not only in the summer of 1963 but also in the eighteen months that followed. As such, they would be highly important players in the diplomatic game leading up to the 1965 outbreak of large-scale war, but in the negative sense—like the dog that did not bark, they would be important for what they did not do rather than for what they did.

    The Soviet Union's outlook on Southeast Asia was no mystery to western observers. Moscow had traditionally favored negotiated settlements in this part of the world, if only because such settlements reduced the chance of a major great-power confrontation resulting from a head-on collision between the United States and China; from the Kremlin's perspective such a conflagration would be a disastrous development. Now, in the middle months of 1963, with the worsening Sino-Soviet relations and the welcome moves toward détente with Washington, the Khrushchev government was even more desirous of lessening the tensions in the region—any escalation of the fighting, whether in Laos or Vietnam, would in the Kremlin's estimation only benefit the Chinese. A settlement would also provide another token of East-West agreement in an area of lesser Soviet interest. Accordingly, in early 1963 the Kremlin tacitly encouraged a political settlement leading to neutralization, and it probably encouraged Mieczyslaw Maneli's efforts to facilitate North-South contacts in the summer.

    At the same time, Khrushchev had to worry about appearing too intent on seeking accommodation with the western powers, because such a posture would solidify Beijing's claim to being the true champion of national liberation movements around the world. The pressure increased after the signing of the partial Test Ban Treaty in midsummer, as both Beijing and Hanoi denounced the "modern revisionists" in Moscow for dealing with the imperialists at the expense of the Vietnamese people. This was the dilemma that would bedevil Soviet officials for years to come: how to keep the Vietnam conflict from escalating to a major war while affirming Soviet support for Hanoi's struggle for national liberation. It proved an insoluble dilemma, and it suggested to Kremlin leaders that the best posture on Vietnam was a low-profile posture.

    The London government of Harold Macmillan felt very much the same, though for different reasons. British thinking on the war was not yet as uniformly pessimistic as it would be a year later—whereas a Kenneth Blackwell in Hanoi even now thought the American-sponsored effort in the South was destined to fail, others, including BRIAM's Robert Thompson, in the spring of 1963 thought the war effort was going reasonably well. (By mid 1964, Thompson would be converted to the Blackwell point of view.) Still, British officials were in general agreement among themselves on several key propositions. One was that any American decision to step up U.S. involvement in South Vietnam would be unwise; if the war was to be won, the South Vietnamese themselves would have to win it. Harry F. Hohler, the British ambassador in Saigon, spoke for many when he said in April 1963 that there were already too many Americans on the scene and that Washington's policy was based on the dubious premise that "if a large gift does not produce results, a larger one must." British officials were also in full accord that there should be no significant increase in the United Kingdom's commitment to the war effort, regardless of how much pressure Washington might apply in that direction. This conviction grew in part out of the belief that more westerners in Vietnam were not the answer and indeed would worsen things by making southerners too dependent on outside aid. In addition, Vietnam was not perceived by the Macmillan government to be a vital theater in the Cold War, either for Britain alone or for the West as a whole. One finds nary a reference in the large British internal record to the idea that preserving a noncommunist South Vietnam ought to be a strategic priority for the West. Ever since the Korean War, in fact, British leaders had consistently seen Asian communism as less of a threat to world peace than did their American counterparts. They did not see communism as monolithic and were dubious about notions of falling dominoes. As a result, from the time of the Geneva Conference of 1954 important differences separated London's and Washington's thinking on the nature of the struggle in Indochina. Harold Macmillan gave some sense of his thinking a few days after de Gaulle's August pronouncement: "I agree with the Foreign Office," Macmillan scribbled at the bottom of one internal memo. "With so many other troubles in the world we had better keep out of the Vietnam one."

    Macmillan's choice of words was important, for by "keep out" he meant not merely that his government should steer clear of a deeper involvement in the cause of the GVN but also that it should avoid deeper diplomatic engagement to try to end the conflict. Great Britain should stay out, period. This aversion to working for a negotiated settlement did not arise out of a belief that such a pursuit would necessarily fail. Indeed, most London officials appear to have seen early negotiations as imperative if the GVN did not soon show a capacity to beat back the Vietcong challenge—and on its own, without increased American participation. "If the conclusion is reached that the Viet Cong are not being beaten," one analyst at the Foreign Office wrote in late summer, "the only alternative is negotiation." The West's bargaining position would be poor, this and other British analysts agreed, but the likely end result, a reunified, Titoist Vietnam, would be acceptable. ("The prize of a Tito-istic Vietnam would be a great let-out for the West," as one put it.) Moreover, given Hanoi's desire to be rid of the Americans, it ought to be possible at a conference to negotiate a concession that would help the Americans save face—the most likely such concession being a delay in reunifying the two halves of the country. Like de Gaulle, Harold Macmillan appears to have seen the Laos example as something that could be duplicated for Vietnam, even after tensions among the factions in Laos intensified in April 1963. In talks with Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson in London in early May, Macmillan agreed with Pearson's concerns about the growing American involvement in South Vietnam and said that President Kennedy had been very sensible in Laos in choosing a political solution over a military one.

    Why, then, the Macmillan government's total lack of interest in using its cochair role to facilitate negotiations on Vietnam? In large part it resulted from a long-standing agreement with Washington that Britain would refrain from pushing for negotiations until the war was clearly on the path to being won. "The policy which we have agreed with the Americans is to avoid international discussion on Vietnam until the military situation has been restored," F. A. Warner wrote in mid 1962, succinctly summarizing the British position. Nine months later, he spoke to the issue again: "We must be careful not to say anything about future possibilities of negotiation, because this would only upset the Americans and make them think we want to sell out South Vietnam to the Communists." Warner was not unduly bothered by implications of this Anglo-American agreement—in early 1963, he was one of those Britons skeptical of the potential for a diplomatic solution to the conflict—but his choice of words was telling. Even talk of future negotiations, he had indicated, was out of bounds. Edward H. Peck, a Foreign Office specialist on Southeast Asia, acknowledged in an internal memo in April 1963 that there were indications of the possibility of negotiation between North and South under international auspices. But he, too, warned against any British initiative in that direction. "If the Americans start talking of a negotiated settlement, we may need to reconsider," Peck noted, but in the meantime the best policy was to wait and see.

    This unwillingness of London officials to challenge the Americans over Vietnam, even privately in diplomatic channels, would remain largely intact in the months and years to come, with highly important implications. Understanding the phenomenon requires understanding the quandary in which successive British governments found themselves in the 1960s: how to preserve Britain's great-power role in the context of the nation's shrinking economic—and hence military—power. It was not merely that the economy was in frequent trouble in these years, but that Washington had to be asked to come to the rescue. As London grew ever more dependent on American financial largesse, and its military contribution to the western alliance diminished, British leaders were little inclined to try to influence U.S. foreign policy. The Anglo-American "special relationship," they knew, had become a client relationship. On top of all that, the Macmillan government sought American backing in handling Britain's own emerging Southeast Asian problem, the defense of the newly created Malaysia Federation against aggressive designs by Sukarno's Indonesia. A quid pro quo—U.S. support on Malaysia for British support on Vietnam—seemed the order of the day.

    Internal dissenters against this hands-off policy were few, but they did exist. Kenneth Blackwell in Hanoi, confident that the DRV sought a compromise settlement, thought it foolish to say that there would be no negotiations until the military situation improved; no such improvement was likely, and therefore the time to pursue an international agreement was now, when the two sides were at least somewhat evenly matched. "We have avoided all reference to negotiations or neutrality as dirty words, chiefly, I imagine, so as to give Diem and the Americans the chance to show whether they could achieve a military solution, and not sabotage their efforts in the meantime," Blackwell wrote London. Now that such an outcome seemed utterly remote, however, Britain "should feel justified in recommending measures which seem more likely to produce results, and which would take the heat out of this potential point of conflict between the East and West blocs." The measure Blackwell had in mind was a Laos-type agreement, which would bring peace to Vietnam and give the actual 1962 Laos agreement a proper chance to work. The recommendation found few takers among Blackwell's colleagues, whether in Vietnam or in London. Some rejected his gloomy analysis in favor of Robert Thompson's argument that the war effort was in fact starting to go better, which meant that it was still premature to seek negotiations; others thought the absence of a centrist, Souvanna Phouma-type figure in South Vietnam made the Laos model more problematic than Blackwell allowed. Almost all were loath to do anything that might annoy Washington.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
Preface
List of Abbreviations Used in the Text
1. The Kickoff: 29 August 1963
2. Breaks and Continuities: September to November 1963
3. "I Will Not Lose in Vietnam": November 1963 to January 1964
4. "A Deeply Dangerous Game": February to April 1964
5. Rumblings of Discontent: April to June 1964
6. Campaigns at Home and Abroad: June and July 1964
7. Provocations: August 1964
8. Standing Logic on Its Head: September and October 1964
9. The Freedom to Change: November and December 1964
10. "Stable Government or No Stable Government": January and February
1965
11. Americanization: February to July 1965
12. Choosing War
List of Abbreviations Used in the Notes
Notes
Bibliography
Index
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  • Posted October 25, 2011

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    Important Historical Study

    Professor Logevall's thorough history of the American path to escalation of its war in Vietnam comes from detailed and impartial review of the historical record of the period when the United States still had the chance to obtain a negotiated settlement. This is an important work. I consider it one of the very best histories of the Vietnam War. It deserves a much better review than mine. It fulfills earlier histories that explored the same interval such as those by Larry Berman. The writing is clear. The arguments are well-founded and presented with hard evidence or judicious opinion. I highly recommend it.

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