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Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam

Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 421
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  • Book Info
    Perils of Dominance
    Book Description:

    Perils of Dominanceis the first completely new interpretation of how and why the United States went to war in Vietnam. It provides an authoritative challenge to the prevailing explanation that U.S. officials adhered blindly to a Cold War doctrine that loss of Vietnam would cause a "domino effect" leading to communist domination of the area. Gareth Porter presents compelling evidence that U.S. policy decisions on Vietnam from 1954 to mid-1965 were shaped by an overwhelming imbalance of military power favoring the United States over the Soviet Union and China. He demonstrates how the slide into war in Vietnam is relevant to understanding why the United States went to war in Iraq, and why such wars are likely as long as U.S. military power is overwhelmingly dominant in the world. Challenging conventional wisdom about the origins of the war, Porter argues that the main impetus for military intervention in Vietnam came not from presidents Kennedy and Johnson but from high-ranking national security officials in their administrations who were heavily influenced by U.S. dominance over its Cold War foes. Porter argues that presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were all strongly opposed to sending combat forces to Vietnam, but that both Kennedy and Johnson were strongly pressured by their national security advisers to undertake military intervention. Porter reveals for the first time that Kennedy attempted to open a diplomatic track for peace negotiations with North Vietnam in 1962 but was frustrated by bureaucratic resistance. Significantly revising the historical account of a major turning point, Porter describes how Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara deliberately misled Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, effectively taking the decision to bomb North Vietnam out of the president's hands.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94040-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Selected Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. 1 The Imbalance of Power, 1953–1965
    (pp. 1-31)

    For decades, no distinction was made between different periods in the diplomatic history of the Cold War, because no one had noted any marked change in the fundamental relationship between the two major antagonists. Since the late 1980s, however, a few scholars have established that a key turning point in U.S. Cold War policy occurred during the Korean War and that this was directly attributable to the achievement by the United States of clear-cut dominance over the Soviet Union in strategic weapons.¹

    The emergence of the United States as strategically dominant vis-à-vis the Soviet Union changed the relationship between the...

  7. 2 The Communist Powers Appease the United States
    (pp. 32-68)

    Accounts of U.S. Vietnam policy only rarely refer to the Vietnam policies of the USSR and China. Given the Cold War rationale for U.S. policy, the marginal role of the Communist powers in the story of the U.S. road to war in Vietnam would appear to be anomalous. It is easily explained, however, by the imbalance of power that had emerged by 1953. A wealth of evidence now available from Soviet, Chinese, and Vietnamese sources makes it clear that the Communist powers acted consistently from 1954 through the early 1960s to shore up the status quo of a divided Vietnam...

  8. 3 Eisenhower and Dulles Exploit U.S. Dominance in Vietnam
    (pp. 69-107)

    In keeping with the Cold War consensus explanation for the U.S. road to war in Vietnam, interpretations of Eisenhower administration policy during the Indochina crisis of 1954 have attributed its nonintervention in the war to its inability to meet stiff congressional conditions for a multilateral military operation with its allies and to opposition from the British.¹ This conventional view of the Eisenhower administration’s policy assumes that either President Dwight D. Eisenhower or Secretary of State John Foster Dulles actually had wanted to intervene to save the faltering French military effort against the Viet Minh or even to replace the French...

  9. 4 North Vietnamese Policy under the American Threat
    (pp. 108-140)

    When he explained the new line of the Vietnam Workers’ Party (VWP) at the Sixth Central Committee Plenum in mid July 1954, just before the final phase of the Geneva negotiations, Ho Chi Minh was confronting the first dramatic shift in global power relationships since the triumph of the Chinese Communists in late 1949. In his report to the Sixth Plenum, Ho explained why it was necessary to accept an agreement at Geneva that represented a major retreat from the aims of the resistance and why the party’s primary task had to shift from military victory over the French to...

  10. 5 Kennedy’s Struggle with the National Security Bureaucracy
    (pp. 141-179)

    No issue in the interpretation of U.S. policy on the road to war in Vietnam has stirred as much controversy as the role of John F. Kennedy. For decades, historians portrayed Kennedy as a militant anti-Communist who believed that defeating communism in Vietnam was vital to U.S. national security.¹ In the past few years, that picture of Kennedy as Cold War zealot has begun to change, as new accounts of his policies in the Cuban Missile Crisis and toward Vietnam have shown that, whatever his faults as a leader, he was willing and able to step outside the Cold War...

  11. 6 Johnson, McNamara, and the Tonkin Gulf Episode
    (pp. 180-202)

    Were Lyndon Johnson’s Cold War beliefs and insecurity the primary reasons the United States went to war over Vietnam in 1965? That is the overwhelmingly dominant interpretation in the literature on U.S. Vietnam policy.¹ The focus on Johnson is not surprising. He lacked Kennedy’s analytical bent and had little patience with diplomacy. Furthermore, he exhorted his aides during 1964 to do more to defeat the Communist insurgencywithinSouth Vietnam—something Kennedy had never done.² Finally, once he regarded himself as irrevocably committed to war in Vietnam in mid 1965, Johnson fiercely defended that course. The frustrations of the war...

  12. 7 Bureaucratic Pressures and Decisions for War
    (pp. 203-228)

    When they set about formulating a recommendation on Vietnam on November 3, 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s principal advisers already knew what policy they wanted the president to approve, and now that Johnson had won the presidential election, they believed he would approve the policy they would recommend. Just five days into the exercise, Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent a cable to General Maxwell Taylor, who had succeeded Henry Cabot Lodge as U.S. ambassador in Saigon, describing the “present high-level tendency, not yet discussed at highest levels,” to support adoption of a program of four to six weeks of “reprisals against...

  13. 8 Dominoes, Bandwagons, and the Road to War
    (pp. 229-258)

    The account of U.S. policy making with respect to Vietnam in this study sharply contradicts the conventional interpretation that successive administrations blindly followed Cold War doctrines about containing Communism down the road to war. It shows that the national security bureaucracy was attuned to the signals of U.S. military dominance over its adversaries rather than to the threat of Communism in Southeast Asia. Most readers will nevertheless wonder whether it ignores evidence that presidents and national security advisers alike were led astray by the belief that the loss of South Vietnam would lead to dire consequences in Southeast Asia. After...

  14. 9 Conclusion: The Perils of Dominance
    (pp. 259-276)

    I have argued in this study that it was not Cold War ideology or exaggerated notions of the threat from communism in Southeast Asia that paved the U.S. road to war in Vietnam but the decisive military dominance of the United States over the Soviet Union. The extremely high level of confidence on the part of national security officials that the United States could assert its power in Vietnam without the risk of either a major war or a military confrontation with another major power conditioned the series of decisions that finally led to war. To put it another way,...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 277-360)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 361-382)
  17. Index
    (pp. 383-403)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 404-404)