In This Review

LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War
LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War
By George C. Herring
University of Texas Press, 1994, 228 pp.

Herring, the author of two previous books on Vietnam, looks at L.B.J.'s war leadership and finds it (not surprisingly) seriously wanting. In a crisply written and well-informed study, the author chronicles the growing distrust between civilian and military officials, amounting to a veritable crisis in civil-military relations, as the "all out limited war" heated up from 1965 to 1968; he shows that "pacification" was pursued half-heartedly and with maximum bureaucratic confusion; he notes the odd coincidence of a poverty of strategic thinking by civilian leaders alongside incessant micromanagement.

Herring, however, dodges some critical questions he ought to have taken up; in this respect the study apes the very failures it chronicles. Though the baleful influence of "limited war theories" is a leitmotif of the book, the author never takes up the question of whether or how the United States might have won the war. He argues that such counterfactual speculations are of dubious value, citing the judgment of another historian that the great interpretive problems "rage over questions about which the historian is least able to determine the truth." That is true; it is true also that these tend to be the most important questions, which obliges the historian to take them up. In order to make sense of his criticism of "limited war," we need to know, for example, whether L.B.J.'s fear that escalation would bring in China or Russia was solidly based or a fantasy. What precisely were the limits of this "limited war"? Herring doesn't say. As a result, it is unclear whether the bitter debates he chronicles were among blind men arguing about the proper disposition of the chairs on the Titanic or serious disputes whose proper resolution by the commander in chief would have made the difference between victory, however conceived, and ignominy.