[APPLAUSE] KENT FUCHS: Well, welcome to beautiful and dry Bailey Hall. My name is Kent Fuchs, and I have the privilege of serving as Cornell's provost. And I have the great honor of introducing Cornell's 2013 Olin Lecture.
Each year, we have the privilege here at Cornell of having a distinguished scholar and speaker who will speak about world affairs and a topic of interest particularly to higher education. This lecture series was established in 1996 by the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Foundation. And the lecture's become known as one of Cornell's annual highlights, and particularly a highlight of reunion week.
This year, we're proud to present one of Cornell's own faculty members, Professor Frederick Logevall. Professor Logevall has taught at Cornell for almost a decade, and he is both an expert in international studies and also a world-renowned historian. As the John S. Knight professor of international studies and also as the director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Professor Logevall plays an important role in implementing Cornell's goal of graduating students who are experts in global issues and also aware of cultural issues around the world.
The Einaudi Center is an umbrella organization that has a number of interdisciplinary programs including area study programs, such as the East Asia program, the Institute for African Development and thematic programs that have to do with international law as an example, and peace and conflict studies, and also development programs that affect world issues around the globe. As director of the Einaudi Center, Fred Logevall has not only enhanced the work of that center, but he's also played other important roles throughout the university and in particular this past year in serving on a task force that was charged with planning the future of international studies and engagement at Cornell. This task force was charged for advancing one of the President's Skorton's top priorities-- strengthening the university's international engagement. And I'm delighted to say that as of July 1 this year, Fred Logevall will be our new vice provost for international relations.
As a historian, Professor Logevall teaches courses on US diplomacy, foreign policy, the Cold War, and also the Vietnam War. He's the author of Choosing War, the Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, and also co-author of America's Cold War, the Politics of Insecurity among other books.
Two months ago, Fred was sitting in my office April 15, 3 o'clock, in a meeting in which we were discussing his new role as a vice provost for international relations. And his phone was receiving a number of messages that were going to voice mail. Fred did not know it, but those messages were telling him that he and his book, The Embers of War, the Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam, had just won a Pulitzer Prize in history. The Pulitzer citation describes the book as a balanced, deeply researched history of how, as French colonial rule faltered, a succession of American leaders moved step by step down a road toward full-blown war. The Pulitzer committee joins a host of other scholars and reviewers in celebrating Embers of War.
Just in the last few weeks, Fred's study has won the coveted Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, and was also named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.
After today's lecture, Embers of War will be available in the lobby, and Professor Logevall will be in the lobby available to sign copies and meet with each of you, if you'd like to talk to him.
He's a native of Sweden. And Professor Logevall earned his PhD at Yale University. He has previously taught before joining the Cornell nearly 10 years ago at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He joined Cornell's faculty in 2004 and, in 2007, served as professor of history at the University of Nottingham and also the Mellon senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge.
Before we bring Fred out to address you all today as part of the Olin Lecture, I wanted to welcome to the lecture also his family. We have here in the audience Fred's wife and also his son and daughter. Danielle is the associate director for admissions at the College of Engineering. Danielle, could you stand up? And also Emma and Joe?
So let's welcome to the stage Professor Fred Logevall as we hear about the meaning of the Vietnam War. Fred?
FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Wow, thank you, Kent. And thank all of you for coming out this afternoon. I'm deeply honored to be standing here before you as this year's Olin lecturer. I'm immensely grateful to Provost Fuchs for his kind words. And, as he maybe suggested a few moments ago, I'm particularly fond of the provost these days and of his office on the third floor of Day Hall because a certain announcement was, in fact, made when I was in there meeting with the provost. And so I'm looking for many, many more meetings, lasting for hours, in the future.
I'm also just wanting to say that it's an honor for me to be stepping in as vice provost for international relations next month. I've been honored to be part of this great university as a member of the History Department and as director of the Einaudi Center. And now to have an opportunity to help shape the university's global agenda and to be part of this great international university is just a thrill and an honor.
Today, however, I'm going to speak about Vietnam, about the war in Vietnam, which has been called the defining experience for the United States in the second half of the 20th century, which was the longest and bloodiest world conflict during that half century. It's a war that many of you in this room have a personal connection with. Some of you were here on campus during the period of heavy US involvement in the war, say, 1960, '61 through the departure of the last American ground forces in 1973. Some of you who are here from the class of 1973 were on campus for, I think it's fair to say, the most intense, the most tumultuous episodes involving the campus.
And there's an extraordinary photo that you may have seen of a protest at Barton Hall. The specific date is April 10, 1970. Some of you in this room, I think, were present on that day. Although if you say to me after the lecture today that you were also at Woodstock the previous August, I may be a little bit skeptical because I think we're up to about 12.2 million people who insist that they were at Woodstock. But I want to show you this photograph, if we could call it up.
It's a photo, as I said, of Barton Hall in-- it's an extraordinary photograph. I'll try to describe it. [LAUGHTER] Take my word for this. We may or may not get to see it.
But what it shows is a packed Barton Hall. And it shows students sitting in the front. It even shows, if I'm not mistaken, two dogs, which reminds us that this campus once upon a time was famous for letting dogs roam freely. I think there were even dogs in classrooms, if I'm not mistaken.
But what's remarkable about the photo for me as a historian is that it was taken, as I said, on April the 10th, 1970. And this was three weeks before Richard Nixon announced that US forces would be attacking targets in Cambodia, an announcement that spurred intense protests on this campus and all across the country. But this meeting, this protest was three weeks before.
It was also about a month before the shooting of anti-war protesters at Kent State and at Jackson State. And this suggests to me-- and I'll come back to this a little bit up toward the end of my talk-- the degree to which this campus was engaged with this long and difficult struggle in Southeast Asia for the United States.
Cornell connections, however, to the war go back long before 1970. Professor Lauriston Sharp in late 1945-- Professor Sharp had served in that part of the world during the war. He'd continued to consult in these months after the end of the Pacific war for the State Department. Professor Sharp warned his superiors in the State Department-- ah, there we go.
Barton Hall, April the 10th, 1970. It's also, I think, about a week before that the hall filled again, I believe, on April 17 for an appearance by a then fugitive Daniel Berrigan. So Barton Hall events, I think it's fair to say, were a relatively common occurrence. But I think it's an absolutely extraordinary photograph. And I wanted you to get a sense, if you were not here then-- maybe you came to campus after or maybe you were here before-- of what could be seen here on the campus.
Professor Sharp warned his colleagues that the colonial era was ending-- again, this is late 1945-- that the United States would make a grave mistake if it backed France in its effort to reclaim control over Indochina, France having lost control of Indochina during World War II to the advancing Japanese. But professor Sharp's warning fell on deaf ears.
Later, in 1953, February 20 to be exact-- February 20, 1953-- a then unknown Vietnamese, Ngo Ding Diem, who would go on to become South Vietnam's leader-- he would be America's ally as that leader. He spoke here on campus.
Castigating France-- the French war was still going on in 1953. He castigated France for clinging stubbornly to colonial rule and called, here on Cornell's campus, for the United States to assist his cause as leader among non-Communist Vietnamese. Maybe one or two of you who are here from the class of 1953 were present for Ngo Ding Diem's talk that winter day.
And then, 10 years after that, Cornell grads and researchers were among those sent as military and civilian advisors to the South Vietnamese government. They were sent by President John F. Kennedy whose assassination occurred 50 years ago this November 22. And I want to come back and say a few more words about John F. Kennedy in a moment.
Cornell even played a role in my own decision to become a historian of the war. One day in 1988, I attended a lecture in Eugene, Oregon, of all places given by Professor George Kahin. And George Kahin had just published a magnificent book called Intervention, which was a history of the war.
And I mustered up the courage-- I had not begun my doctoral studies. I mustered up the courage after the talk to go up to Professor Kahin and say, Professor Kahin, I'm interested in becoming a historian, and I'm interested in studying this war. But you've written this magnificent book. I laid it on a bit thick. You've written this magnificent book. Is there anything still to be done?
And I'll never forget. I'll never forget. He said, young man, intense scholarship on the Vietnam struggle is only in its infancy. Go to it. Those were his words.
It's my only meeting ever with the great Professor Kahin. This lasted all of two minutes. But I think it's fair to say that it's one of the reasons that I'm standing here before you today. And, of course, as many of you know, he was a giant here at Cornell in the government department, with the Southeast Asia program, that he and Professor Sharp, who I already mentioned, really got off the ground and which today is, I think, the greatest such program dedicated to Southeast Asian studies anywhere in the world.
How did the war happen? Why did two Western power, first France and then the United States, lose their way in Indochina at immense cost? And why did they do so? How did they do so despite possessing vastly superior military power vis-a-vis their adversaries, the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh. And what should we take away from the war today 40 years after US troops left Vietnam? Does the Vietnam analogy-- does it hold lessons for us in 2013?
I think these have been profoundly important historical questions, which is why the war, I think, has had such deep resonance in American political culture for the last several decades, why it continues to have that resonance today. And I want to consider those questions in my few moments with you this afternoon.
And I'm going to proceed in three parts. First, I want to consider this early period. And I'll go through it quickly. In particular, I want to say something about the French Indochina War, the war that was fought before the Americans came.
I want to say then something about John F. Kennedy. This is, as I said, the 50th anniversary of his death. And I think Kennedy is a most interesting and important character-- figure-- when we think about the Indochina struggle. I'll also say something in that same section of the talk about Lyndon Johnson, who followed him, and Richard Nixon, who followed him. And I'll offer a grave conclusion about a-- well, a determination that I've reached in 25 years of studying this war, a grave conclusion about the three men and their policies in Vietnam.
Finally, I'll say something about what I call the permissive context that allowed the war to happen, a permissive context in terms of Congress, in terms of the media, and in terms of public opinion, both elite public opinion and the broader populace, because I think it has something to teach us about later American interventions and, in particular, Iraq. I want to say something about our recent, or maybe some would say our current, war in Iraq.
But let's begin by traveling back in time, if we could. Too often, I think we debate this war, we discuss this war as though it began in the early 1960s. But, in fact, World War II, I want to suggest to you, is of huge importance to all that will happen later in Indochina. And that war, which I'll just talk about for a few seconds here, that war matters in three particular ways. And I just want to list them.
First, the Viet Minh, which is the revolutionary organization led by Ho Chi Minh, as I think we all know. The Viet Minh came out of the Second World War in a much more powerful position than it had been going in, which has very important implications. Second, the Second World War drastically weakened the colonial powers, including, of course, France. And that would have very important implications as well for Indochina. And third, as a result of World War II, the United States rose to a prominence, a preeminent position in world and especially Asian politics.
And so what we find from a very early stage in this struggle is that all of the major players-- the French, the British, the Chinese, the Vietnamese revolutionaries, the Russians-- ask themselves the following question. And it's there in the archives. And it comes up again and again.
What will the Americans do? What will the Americans do? This from 1945-- in fact, even from the war time period-- is on everybody's mind. And it speaks to the importance of the United States throughout this story.
We also need to give close attention to the French Indochina War, as I suggested earlier. And that war is at the heart of my narrative in the book Embers of War that the provost mentioned. It's a war that begins in earnest in late 1946 and ends in a crushing French defeat in the spring of 1954, highlighted by a climactic defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, one of the great military encounters of modern times.
What we find, I think-- and I won't talk about the war here today-- but what we find that is, I think, of particular interest to us here today is that to an extraordinary degree, Americans followed in the path laid down by the French. To study these two wars in succession, especially if you know something about the American War going in, is to experience-- to study them in succession is to feel a sense of deja vu to a degree that I didn't anticipate when I started the research and to a degree that I don't think is adequately underscored in the existing literature.
So, for example, the soldierly complaints about the difficulty of telling friend from foe and complaints about the poor fighting spirit among our, as opposed to their indigenous, troops; the gripes by commanders about timorous and meddling politicians back home; the solemn warning against disengagement as this could dishonor those soldiers who had already fallen-- this is what social psychologists would later call the sunk cost fallacy; the stubborn insistence that premature negotiations should be avoided.
All of these refrains, which were ubiquitous in 1966, 1967 in the United States, could be heard also in France in 1948, 1949. And always, always there were promises of imminent success, of corners about to be turned. And so when US Commanding General William Westmoreland in late 1967 exulted that we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view, he was repeating a prediction made-- in remarkably similar language, by the way-- he was repeating a prediction made by French Commander Henri Navarre a decade and a half earlier in May, 1953.
Civilian leaders, meanwhile, in Paris as much as in Washington, boxed themselves in with their constant public affirmation of the conflict's importance and of the certainty of ultimate success. To order a halt and reverse course would be to call into question their own judgement and their country's judgement, to threaten their careers-- don't underestimate the importance of career to this story, to undermine their reputations.
And so what we see, again, in the record is that with each passing year after 1949, the struggle for senior French policymakers became less about the future of Indochina, less about grand geopolitical concerns, and more about domestic political imperatives, more about satiating powerful interest groups at home. The main objective, I think it's fair to say-- and it's a sobering conclusion-- the main objective now was to avoid embarrassment and to hang on, to muddle through, to avoid an outright defeat at least until the next election or vote of confidence.
Daniel Ellsberg, who many of you know, referred to this as the stalemate machine. And when Ellsberg used it, it was in the context of the American War. I want to suggest to you this afternoon that that machine was fully operational also during the French struggle.
Now for a long time, American officials didn't pay much attention to the possible links between their own war and this earlier French struggle. What mattered, these officials said, was that the French were a decadent people. The French were a decadent people trying vainly to prop up a colonial empire, their army a hidebound intellectually bankrupt enterprise.
Americans, on the other hand, Americans were the good guys, militarily invincible who selflessly had come to help the Vietnamese in their hour of need and then go home. Untainted by colonialism, possessor of the greatest military arsenal the world had ever seen, the United States was the champion of freedom, the engine in the global drive to stamp out rapacious communist expansion.
On the human side, the French experience with the cupidity, the fence-sitting of their Vietnamese collaborators, that would not repeat itself, US officials insisted, at least to themselves and each other, because this time the Vietnamese truly had something to fight for. It was, for the most part, however, self-delusional.
For one thing, the French units usually fought with bravery and determination and skill. For another, France's war was also America's war. Washington footed much of the bill, supplied most of the weaponry, and pressed Paris leaders to hang tough when their will faltered. Yes, it's true, the United States was more committed to the French more than were the French themselves. Well before the climax at Dien Bien Phu, Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues considered the United States, not France, to be their principal foe.
Furthermore, what US officials for a long time didn't fathom, and then refused to acknowledge after they did fathom it, is that colonialism is often in the eyes of the beholder. To a great many Vietnamese after 1954, the United States was just another great big Western power as responsible as the French for the suffering of the first war and now there to tell them what to do with guns at the ready. The other side, led by Ho, had opposed the Japanese and driven out the French, and thereby secured a fundamental legitimacy, a legitimacy, I would submit to you, that was fixed for all time, whatever the later governing misdeeds of the North Vietnamese government-- and there were many such governing misdeeds. There was a great ruthlessness on the part of the Hanoi government, especially towards its domestic opponents.
Nevertheless, they, more than the succession of governments in South Vietnam, were the heirs of an anti-colonial revolution. Which then brings me to my second subject, namely JFK, John F. Kennedy and his successors. I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that John Fitzgerald Kennedy understood this dynamic that I've been describing to you, understood it perhaps better than any other US official at the top level of the hierarchy with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, during the war, was adamantly opposed to European colonialism, colonialism in general, and the French in Indochina in particular. But certainly among later presidents and later top officials, John F. Kennedy understood the fundamental problems here.
I open my book with John F. Kennedy's visit to Indochina in October of 1951. He was 34 years old. He was on an around-the-world tour, I think at the insistence of his father Because he was running-- JFK was running for the Senate in Massachusetts the following year, and his dad or he, they wanted him to burnish his foreign policy credentials. So he was in Vietnam with his brother Bobby and with their sister Patricia.
And I open the book with that because even then, in 1951 in the midst of the French war, Kennedy saw through the French expressions of bravado and optimism. He asked penetrating questions about whether France, or by extension any outside power, any Western power, could ever overcome Ho Chi Minh's cause. He asked, is it possible to subdue revolutionary nationalists in this part of the world by force of arms? This is John F. Kennedy, 34 years old.
And if you look at his remarkable diary-- he kept a diary on the trip, which is available at the Kennedy Library-- you see him raising these questions at the time. After he returned to Boston, he said in a speech again in 1951, "in Indochina," and I'm quoting, "we have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of the French regime to hang on to the remnants of empire." Later, he said to act apart from and in defiance of innately nationalistic aims spells for doomed failure. And he said, finally, as a kind of aside, that a free election in Indochina would, in all likelihood, go in favor of Ho Chi Minh and his communists.
So my point here is that Kennedy's doubts were formed early. And they never went away, even after he became president a decade later. It's a remarkable thing about John F. Kennedy, it seems to me, that he often showed a capacity for nuanced and independent thought on world affairs, not least on Indochina. He also showed an appreciation for the vicissitudes of history and for the limits of American power.
From time to time, he expressed doubts about the ability of the West to use military means to solve Asian problems, as I suggested. And on several occasions, notably in the fall of 1961, he resisted the urgings of advisors that he commit US ground troops to Vietnam. And always, for Kennedy, the French experience gnawed at his sensibility as when he confided to an advisor early in his presidency, if Vietnam is ever converted into a white man's war, we would lose it just as the French lost it.
But here's the paradox. Here is the paradox, and I think you know where this is going. This same JFK deepened US involvement dramatically during his 1,000 days as president. In 1962, vast quantities of the best American weapons, jet fighters, helicopters, armed personnel carriers arrived in South Vietnam along with thousands of additional military advisors, some of whom secretly were taking part in combat.
By the end of 1962, American military advisors in Vietnam numbered over 11,000. By the time of Kennedy's trip to Dallas in November of '63, there were more than 16,000. And in 1964, under Lyndon Johnson, the number grew to 23,000. And also in '64, Congress voted to authorize the president to use military force as he saw fit in Southeast Asia.
Then in early '65, the so-called Americanization of the conflict, as Johnson sent large-scale ground forces and began a sustained air war against North Vietnam as well as Viet Cong-held areas in the south. By the end of 1965, 180,000 US fighting troops are on the ground in South Vietnam, and the number would continue to grow, maxing out early in the Nixon administration at more than 550,000 ground troops.
But here is that sobering conclusion I alluded to earlier. Here is the finding that I've reached on the basis of 25 years of doing research on this war. None of these presidents-- not Kennedy, not Johnson, not Nixon-- really believed in this war. None of them believed that the outcome in Vietnam was crucial to American and Western security. None had confidence, I think, that the war would ultimately be won militarily.
Kennedy grew increasingly wary during 1963, hinting to advisers in his final months of life that he wanted to withdraw from Vietnam following his 1964 reelection. Johnson, for his part, in 1964 began to question the long-term prospects in the struggle also, even with major US escalation. He began to wonder about the war's ultimate importance to American security. And Johnson said, at one point in May of 1964 in a telephone conversation-- by the way, as we have a marvelous thing called the White House tapes for these three administrations. Strangely enough, they stopped taping after Nixon.
But in one of these telephone conversations, May of 1964, Lyndon Johnson said-- and this is to McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser-- pardon my French-- what in the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is it worth to this country?
And it's just one conversation, but I think if you listen to all of them, and if you look at what Johnson said at various points in the year that followed, he had real doubts, both about the importance of the struggle and whether it could be won. But like his predecessor, LBJ was careful to articulate such sentiments only privately, and even then only to a select few. In public, he and his top advisors-- all of them holdovers from Kennedy-- stuck close to the received wisdom, insisting that the outcome in Southeast Asia was critically important to American interests, that they were committed to defending their allies in South Vietnam who had been attacked by external enemies.
And by using such an unambiguous language in public, American leaders found, just like the French before them, that backing away could be extremely difficult. They knew that hawks in the American Congress and in the American media stood ready to pounce on them if they were seen as shifting course. They backed themselves into a corner. It always amazes that leaders do this. They paint themselves into a corner in terms of their public pronouncements.
Now, to be sure, Kennedy's freedom of maneuver and Johnson's freedom of maneuver had been constrained already by the choices of their predecessors as I lay out in the book. By Truman's active support of the French war effort, by the Eisenhower administration's move in 1954, a hugely monumental decision to intervene after the French had been defeated, to build up and sustain a non-communist South Vietnam thereby displacing France as the major external power.
And Johnson also had the added burden of Kennedy's escalation that I alluded to earlier. So Johnson faced that as well when he came in November of 1963. For more than a dozen years, the United States had committed itself to preserving a non-communist toehold in Vietnam. And both men, both Kennedy and Johnson, feared that to alter course now, even under the cover of a fig leaf negotiated settlement, could be harmful to their credibility, their country's credibility, their party's credibility, their own personal credibility. They were not willing to risk it.
If this stance speaks poorly of their political courage, Kennedy wrote a book called Profiles in Courage, would not apply to himself in this particular instance. If it speaks poorly of their political courage, it also had a certain political logic behind it. But then again, so did the skeptic's reply.
The skeptic said that the credibility of the United States and of the Democratic Party and of them themselves would be hurt much more by getting drawn into a bloody and extended slugfest in a conflict of peripheral strategic importance in forbidding terrain thousands of miles from America's shores. Ultimately, Kennedy and Johnson and later Nixon found what a long line of French leaders had found, that in Vietnam, the path of least political resistance, especially in domestic political terms, was to stand firm and hope that somehow things would turn out fine or at least be bequeathed to a successor.
As Democrats, Kennedy and Johnson felt the need to contend with the ghosts of McCarthy and the charge that they were soft on communism. Truman also acted partly with this concern in mind as, indeed, did Eisenhower. This was not exclusively a Democratic concern. Nixon as well. Eisenhower's decisions in 1954, I don't think, can be understood apart from the charged domestic political atmosphere in which they were made.
But the perceived power of this political imperative was even greater in the early 1960s as the two presidents, feeling the vulnerability that all Democrats felt in the period, feeling the concern about avoiding another "who lost China" debate stood firm. This concern was seldom discussed in the major magazines and newspapers of the period. You won't find it if you go back and look in newspapers. It's also not the sort of thing that people put down in documents. You don't want to indicate that you're doing something in national security terms because of a concern about a re-election or because of the worries about domestic political implications. So it's not easy to find in the internal record, but I believe it's critical.
What I'm saying here is this, that the three presidents most closely associated with the conflict in Vietnam, with America's war-- John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon-- escalated and perpetuated a war that they privately doubted was either winnable or necessary. They sent 58,000 Americans to die for a cause they did not fully believe in.
These numbers, ladies and gentleman, matter. In addition to those 58,000, more than 300,000 Americans were wounded in Vietnam with 153,000 cases serious enough to require hospitalization. 75,000 American veterans were left severely disabled. And while Americans who served in Vietnam paid a grave price, a conservative estimate of Vietnamese deaths found them to be proportionally 100 times greater than those suffered by the United States.
The most sophisticated analysis that we have of wartime mortality in Vietnam-- this one was conducted in 2008 by the Harvard Medical School and by the University of Washington, a team from both institutions-- suggested that a reasonable estimates might be 3.8 million violent war deaths, combatant and civilian, which is a finding that I think is consistent with the Vietnamese government finding from 1995 which estimated that more than 3 million Vietnamese died, 2 million of them civilians. The numbers matter.
I'm not suggesting here, ladies and gentleman, that geopolitical considerations were entirely absent from American decision making. Especially in the early years, fears of falling dominoes-- should Indochina fall, it would cause the others to begin to fall-- fears of falling dominoes shaped US policy, no question, especially after the victory of Mao Zedong's communists in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and the start of the Korean War in 1950. Nor would I deny that a sense of idealism spurred American leaders, a belief that the United States had a commitment to defend the non-communist Vietnamese against outside aggression, a belief that ultimately the intervention would be what's best for the Vietnamese, would serve the Vietnamese people. I don't deny that those idealistic sentiments existed, but what I would say is that I think the evidence shows clearly that these concerns did not drive American policy, especially in the period of heavy US involvement.
If we create a causal hierarchy-- and I believe we historians of decision making have an obligation to do so-- these motives, motivations would not be at the top of that hierarchy. I submit to you, rather, that for all the presidents who dealt with Vietnam in a serious way, from-- this is six presidents; it's from Truman to Ford-- all of them, Vietnam mattered, in large part, because of the damage it could do to their domestic political position. That was true of the French leaders before them. I think it's true also of American leaders later.
But it won't do to stop there. And this brings me to my third and final subject. It won't do to stop there. We can't simply place all of the responsibility for America's war in Vietnam on the presidents and their advisers because the circle of responsibility was wide.
The escalation of US involvement from the mid-1950s and for the next decade occurred within which what I would refer to as a permissive context, as I suggested earlier, a permissive context. The near unanimous passage in August of 1964 of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Johnson, as I think you all know, wide latitude to wage the war as he saw fit, the near unanimous passage of that resolution should not obscure the fact that the most respected, most senior democratic legislators on Capitol Hill privately opposed a large-scale increase in the American commitment-- William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, Richard Russell, Hubert Humphrey, who would go on become vice president under LBJ.
Nor were these Democratic giants in the Senate alone. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but certainly in the Senate, a clear majority of Democrats and moderate Republicans were either downright opposed to Americanization or deeply ambivalent while, at the same time, vocal proponents of taking the war to the north, to turn North Vietnam, in other words, of escalating the struggle were very, very few in number. Publicly, however-- here's the key-- publicly, the vast majority of lawmakers voiced staunch support for standing firm in the war, not merely in August of 1964 but in the critical months that followed.
In the press as well, leading newspapers were disinclined to ask tough questions in the months of decision, to probe deeply into administration claims regarding the situation on the ground in South Vietnam, and the need to take new military measures even though-- and we know this, again, from archives privately these editors were asking themselves very tough questions, raising skepticism of the type that they did not really want to push the administration on.
And among the broader public, finally, apathy was the order of the day. Most Americans, like most Frenchmen and Frenchwomen before them, most Americans were too preoccupied with their daily lives to give much thought to a small Asian country thousands of miles away.
And here is where I see a connection between Vietnam and our own time. Here is where I see the Vietnam analogy having, at least for me, special resonance with respect to Iraq, with respect to Afghanistan. And I want to say just a few words about the former, about the war in Iraq.
At the end of an earlier book that the provost mentioned, Choosing War, which was focused on Kennedy and Johnson and the escalation, I argued that though Vietnam was a war of choice, an unnecessary war, and was seen as such by many people at the time, something very much like it could happen again. The continued primacy of the executive branch in foreign affairs together with the eternal temptation of politicians to emphasize short-term personal advantage over long-term national interests ensures that the potential exists. This could happen again.
A leader would assuredly come along, I wrote, who, like Lyndon Johnson, would take the path of least immediate resistance and in the process produce disastrous policy provided that there was a permissive context that would allow it. Lyndon Johnson's war was also America's war, I said. The circle of responsibility, again, was wide. That was published in 1999.
Four years after that, the administration of George W. Bush invaded Iraq. And it did so, I would suggest this afternoon, within the same kind of permissive context. In the press, reporters for leading newspapers in the key months accepted with little question administration claims regarding Saddam Hussein's intentions and capabilities. By and large, they failed to probe beneath the surface, to ask tough questions, to give serious attention to the views of skeptics.
Same thing on Capitol Hill, most lawmakers of both parties were content to avoid asking tough questions. Or, if they did ask those questions, to also make very clear that they too wanted to be tough on Saddam. Many more legislators voted against the authorization to use force-- this was in October of 2002-- than had voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. So there is a difference there. But, again, the White House got a very comfortable margin of victory in that vote.
Some who voted yes, especially Democrats, would later claim that they were not authorizing war, but merely giving Bush the ability to use coercive diplomacy. And they would say that they were duped by the administration. A claim, I would say, that not untrue, perhaps, but doesn't reflect particularly well on those lawmakers. None of them acknowledged that crass, political calculation had anything to do with their votes at that time.
And this permissive context in 2002, 2003 extended also to the general public. Most Americans in these months were content to go along with the alarmist White House claims concerning the threat posed by Saddam's regime. Few legislators reported widespread demands from their constituents for hearings or pressure from their constituents for more evidence that preventive war was actually needed against Saddam. University campuses, by and large, were pretty sleepy places prior to the invasion.
And the costs of this war in Iraq are monumental. The latest reckoning that I've seen comes to a staggering $2.2 trillion dollars. This is a study out of Brown University. The study also found that at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians died and that the death toll could be up to four times higher. An estimated 36,000 US military personnel were also killed or injured during the war.
But here's my final question to you before I wrap up. Is this permissive context immutable? And I would say to you that the answer is no. And the Vietnam experience again proves it.
Consider again, if we could get the photograph back up, consider again the photograph. This photograph does not suggest to me a permissive context. We can debate the impact of the anti-war movement on policy during the Vietnam War. This is something that scholars get very agitated about. Did the anti-war movement really affect policy? Some scholars say yes. Some say not so much.
But I think the kind of agitation that we see reflected in this photograph had an effect over time. There's no question in my mind. It put constraints on what Lyndon Johnson could do in, roughly speaking, the last year of his administration. And, by the way, I think Lyndon Johnson was a hawk on Vietnam right down to the end, which is one reason I think he preferred to see a Richard Nixon victory in that election than his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey. That's something we can discuss.
So it put limits on what Lyndon Johnson could do in 1968. It put limits on what options Richard Nixon had beginning in January of 1969. I think that's clear from the record. It's also clear from this marvelous resource that I mentioned, the Nixon tapes, the White House tapes. By the way, the other thing that comes through in those tapes is that Richard Nixon saw all of his Vietnam options through the lens of the 1972 election.
So this part of America's Vietnam chapter gives me hope. Even if we do not see today at Cornell or any other campus the kind of agitation that we saw in the photograph, the kinds of intense political engagement that was on display April 10, 1970, Barton Hall. The students and the faculty who demonstrated against the war at Cornell and elsewhere didn't get everything right. They tended quite often to romanticize the Viet Cong. They tended quite often to romanticize the Hanoi government. They often, I think, for me at least, exaggerated the supposedly economic imperatives that they thought undergirded American policy.
So they didn't get everything right. But many of them-- many of you in this room-- many of them at various levels of American society grasped the essentials of the struggle, drew lessons from that struggle even then that, I think, have great utility today.
First-- here are some of those lessons-- that the political utility of force is really quite limited, indeed, that the exertion of force can be counterproductive. Second, that definitive victory of the kind that leads to a surrender ceremony on the deck of an American ship, that kind of definitive victory in our day and age is rare. And third and connected, that ambiguous results are going to be the norm, and that the costs of those results is going to be much greater in all likelihood than even the most conscientious war planner is likely to estimate. And fourth, that for these reasons, the wise statesman is going to use force only as a last resort and only when truly vital national interests are at stake. I think that to consider the long and bloody chronicle of modern history, to consider big wars and small wars alike, is to acknowledge, is to see just how important these lessons are.
As I conclude, travel with me once more, this time to 1965, to the time when large-scale escalation in Vietnam is just getting underway. Consider a Frenchman, long since transplanted to the United States, who felt a gripping sense of foreboding as that year, as 1965 progressed, and who figures prominently in my book. His name is Bernard Fall.
Bernard Fall, over the previous decade, had become America's most respected expert on the first Indochina War, as it was now starting to be called. He was the author of numerous books and articles noted for their dispassionate analysis and their informed judgment. And, by the way, Bernard Fall had his own Cornell connection. He wrote his PhD dissertation right here in Ithaca. It was a Syracuse dissertation. We'll forgive him for that. But he thought Ithaca would be a really nice place to write this dissertation, so he wrote it right here in town.
Fall, in 1965, fully acknowledged that the United States was immensely more powerful than the French, especially from the air. But even as he made that comparison, he doubted that he would make a decisive difference in the end. The unleashing of massive American firepower might make the war militarily unlosable, as he put it. It might make it militarily unlosable in the short term, but at immense cost, the destruction of Vietnam.
He quoted Tacitus. They have made a desert and called it peace. Even then, Fall said, Ho's communists would not be vanquished for in this conflict military prowess meant only so much. The war had to be won politically if it was to be won at all. This was the pivotal point about the French analogy, while Fall maintained this was the lesson that must be learned.
Yet few, Fall thought, even in 1965, few in Washington seemed prepared to learn that lesson, seem prepared to consider closely what the French experience in Indochina might teach, what it might have to teach Americans. For as he once put it, as Fall once put it, Americans were dreaming different dreams than the French, but walking in the same footsteps. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you. I would be delighted to take-- we have a few minutes for questions. And you may commence firing from all sides. Yes, sir?
SPEAKER 1: You did not mention the powerful military-- chronic military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us against, their PACs, their influence, their money. How did that influence our decisions and the senators' and congressmen's decisions on going ahead? Are you aware that it probably matters in almost every conflict?
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Yes, the question was about the military industrial complex, which I did not mention. And I think Eisenhower's farewell address in early 1961 is an extraordinary farewell address, arguably the greatest we've had because of his warning against that complex. He himself helped to create it, which is the part he didn't mention in the speech. But it's a warning that, I think, is well taken.
Interestingly enough, in the case of the Vietnam conflict, I think it matters less than one might expect. And what I mean by that is that I don't see good evidence that key players in that complex in the months of the decision, or in the years of decision. If we begin in the mid-'50s and go to the mid-'60s, I don't see that leading members of that complex-- and, by the way, Eisenhower originally called it military industrial congressional complex. But he was a very smart politician, and he thought maybe I'll leave Congress out of the description.
But I don't think the key members of that complex helped to drive the decision. In fact, this is what's interesting about this. I already suggested that congressional leaders had real doubts about whether Vietnam was the place to do this. I think that captains of industry, that leading members in corporate America and in finance also had doubts. Many of them then benefited in the end from the war, but I don't see them as being particularly crucial in the lead up to that conflict.
Let's go over here. Yes?
SPEAKER 2: Thank you for the brilliant lecture and kind of a vindication for all of us who protested in the '60s and '70s.
I appreciate it immensely. And I went to Vietnam to teach English in '97 in Ho Chi Minh City, the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. I may go back in the next year or so. But I wonder about the facts that I found there. Ho Chi Minh was reported to have met with-- at the age of 19 as a leader of an immigrant or expatriate Vietnamese group in Paris, he went to see Woodrow Wilson asking for support for the Vietnamese revolution and presenting a constitution they had written and modeled on our own. So these facts-- or, if this is, indeed, historic fact, as I believe it is-- indicate that even a great university professor like Woodrow Wilson voted five times--
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: I thought you were talking about me there for a second.
SPEAKER 2: Well, I'm hoping you'll avoid the mistakes of Woodrow Wilson when you become president of Cornell.
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Good one.
SPEAKER 2: Thank you. Thank you. I'm looking forward to it. But in any case, just to end there, had he made a right decision to support the Vietnamese at that point, the whole nature of the next 50 years would have been substantially different.
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Well, your mention of Woodrow Wilson is important. And I, in fact, open the preface to the book with a Ho Chi Minh renting a morning coat, if you can imagine. This is at Versailles in 1919. He's a little older than 19, but he's a young man. He rents formal wear because he wants to get an audience with, yes, Woodrow Wilson.
He's read the 14 points. He has heard Wilson speak about national self-determination. And he says he's going to be my ally in this. And, of course, doesn't get to see Woodrow Wilson. Doesn't get to see any of the other Allied leaders, either. Returns his rented morning coat. And I think you're right to see this as an extraordinary moment and as a missed opportunity.
And Ho-- and this is one of the things that's remarkable about him. And I detail this in the book. For a long time, Ho believed that the Americans will be my ally. The United States was founded in an anti-colonial reaction to Great Britain. This is precisely what I'm about. And we can say that Ho Chi Minh was naive, that it took him far too long to realize that, in fact, no, the Americans are not going to be my ally. They're going to be my adversary.
But I think I can show that as late as '47, '48, he thought that the Americans would come around, that they would oppose what the French were doing, and they would be his allies, which, by the way, doesn't mean that Ho Chi Minh was going to be some kind of a close friend of the United States necessarily. I think he was a dedicated communist from the 1920s on. And so I don't want to fall into the-- I don't want to overly romanticize his close connections potentially to the United States. But he believed it. And the Wilson-- that moment at Versailles in 1919 is an extraordinary. Yes?
SPEAKER 2: Thank you.
SPEAKER 3: I was a student of George Kahin's, I believe, when he first came in the early '50s. Could you please trace his thinking from that time forward?
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: I'm not sure that I could do justice to it. What I can tell you is that I think, for me, as somebody who met him, as I said, for a grand total of two minutes but read his work and have met many others besides yourself who either studied under him or worked with him here at Cornell, he is a hugely important figure in the study of Southeast Asia. Not only of Vietnam, but in some ways, he's probably known more as a specialist on Indonesia. and helped make this Southeast Asia program, as I said, the envy of the world.
I think there was, to some degree, an evolution in his views. I don't think I know it well enough. I can see some differences between his early writings on the war and his later.
But I think what's remarkable more is the consistency. So that what I see on the subject of Vietnam, which is where I know him best-- I don't know him as well in terms of his work on Indonesia-- I think what George Kahin was writing in the late '60s, very much at the height of the American war, is very consistent with what he said in his great book Intervention, which is the one that I referred to earlier.
SPEAKER 3: How about the early '50s?
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Well, you may have stumped me there, I think. Are you suggesting that there is an important evolution here?
SPEAKER 3: Yes, I am because my knowledge, which is only 60 years old, or 60 plus, tells me that perhaps he was not so anti at the very beginning.
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Well, I think that's very fair. And, by the way, he wouldn't be alone in that regard. I think that hopefully one of the things we can do as human beings, even scholars, even historians, is to take cognisance of new information, to learn from what we're studying, and to adjust our views accordingly.
I might say that I've changed my own views a little bit. I think I've come to realize that we need, for example, to take non-communist Vietnamese and their aspirations, their dedication to Vietnamese independence, we need to take it seriously. They were the losers in this particular war, but I think it's nevertheless important for us to acknowledge that they had their own commitment to this. They were not successful in the end. So I've changed my views.
I wanted to take, Provost Fuchs, one more question from the top, if we can.
KENT FUCHS: Anyone up--
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Oh, I thought you were-- no.
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE]
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Yes, but I think you're supposed to go to a mic. Maybe I can repeat the question.
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE]
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Yes. OK, I'll repeat it. Yes
SPEAKER 4: I'm a Vietnam-- Vietnam-era veteran. You know, we've heard of many atrocities that the US military did to the Vietnamese. What atrocities did they do to our troops? Can you comment on that?
FREDRICK LOGEVALL: Well, I think there were certainly terrible things perpetrated on both sides of this conflict. The question was about Vietnamese atrocities against US troops, I think, in particular. And, look, the Viet Minh against the French, the Viet Cong against the Americans, the MVA against the Americans were capable of great ruthlessness. There is no question about it, the treatment in various prisoner of war camps and so forth.
I think there's a lot of that on both sides. What I've focused on here in this particular lecture is the American experience in Vietnam and more, as you'll recall, on the decision, the political decision making than on the war itself. But there's no question that this went on on both sides.
I think we're out of time. I'm going to turn this back to the provost.
KENT FUCHS: Yes. Thank you, Fred.
As we leave the building, I want to remind you Embers of War are out in the lobby. Professor Logevall will be out there as well.
I also wanted to acknowledge that we had a large number of people watching this streaming over the internet. And I wanted to thank them as well as all of you here that are back for reunion. Have a wonderful weekend. And thanks again, Fred.
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It's perhaps the most important question of America's past half century: Why did we go to war in Vietnam?
In this year's Olin Lecture, Cornell history professor Fredrik Logevall, one of the world's leading scholars of the war, considers U.S. intervention in Vietnam anew, drawing from his Pulitzer Prize-winning new book, Embers of War.
Logevall will pay particular attention to the views and decisions of John F. Kennedy, in this the 50th anniversary year of the Dallas assassination. He'll also examine the lessons of the war for Americans today.
Logevall is the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and Professor of History at Cornell, where he serves as director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. On July 1, 2013, he will become Cornell's vice provost for international relations.