The Vietnam War was an unconventional war that lasted, as many believe, for ten years. The case can be made that the war started much earlier than that and for the American government it was a slow increase in military activity and military spending over decades rather than a explosive beginning to a long war. How could America have such heavy involvement in a war that took decades to develop? Would American leaders have not seen the coming problems that would entrap them? In the second edition of America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975 by George C. Herring it is these questions that are directly addressed.
George C. Herring is an Alumni Professor at the University of Kentucky. The bulk of his academic career has focused on political history with America's foreign policies and relations with other states during the Cold War era being the focus. In between 1982 and 1986 he served as the editor of the scholarly publication of Diplomatic History as well as the President of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations in 1990. His other works include The Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War: The Negotiating Volumes of the Pentagon Papers (1983) and Aid to Russia, 1941-1946: Strategy, Diplomacy, the Origins of the Cold War (1973).
The scope of this text is quite large, one might think overwhelming. Herring covers twenty-five years, with six different Presidential administrations, of history between America and Vietnam in roughly under three hundred pages. However, out of those six the focus rests on the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. The recognition of the administration in question is important for Herring deals directly with the policies of these administrations. For example, Herring spends a good amount of text on the Eisenhower administration and the policies developed during it's run under the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. This includes the acceptance of the 'domino' theory and the aid giving to the French in their attempts to hold on to Vietnam as a colony or a member of their Union. Herring looks directly at the effectiveness of Johnson's decisions to escalate the war effort and how they play out on the ground in Vietnam as well as the congress floor. Herring of course deals with Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's plans to bring about an 'honorable peace' and the backdoor talks with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union to achieve this goal. All in all quite a bit to stuff into three hundred pages.
The thesis of Herring's text can be found in three main threads of thought. First, America's extended involvement in Vietnam stemmed from the fear of America's place in the balance of power during the Cold War. This is about the 'domino theory' which suggested that when a non-Communist country got a Communist next door neighbor they would soon become Communist themselves. In the case of Vietnam this also suggests that the American government believed that Third World states were incapable of resisting this ideology. A second thread is the political and military decisions made during this period that were based on incomplete, misunderstood or exaggerated information and views, which led to deepen America's involvement in Vietnam, or in the later years escalating the war effort, all to contain Communism or to keep American foreign policy promises. The last thread is how the distinct personalities involved guided these decisions. In short, one bad choice after another kept digging the hole that the United States government was standing in deeper and deeper.
Even though Herring is covering twenty-five years of history in a small volume he is focused on the political decisions that led directly to America's involvement in Vietnam. He covers the policy formed during the Eisenhower administration by Dulles to help the French retain their claim in the name of containment. Herring covers the aid given, the military advisers helping the French and how the failure of the French to achieve their goals leads to America's increasing nervousness over the Communists in North Vietnam. This leads to the coverage of the escalation of violence during the Johnson administration. Herring makes a clear case of how much politics in America went into the decisions concerning Vietnam. For example Johnson's decision increasing the number of bombing targets in North Vietnam to appease the pro-war faction in Washington. Herring also follows the twisted path of the Machiavellian peace efforts made during the Nixon administration and how they continued the war longer than necessary to gain political advantages in Washington. Herring clearly discusses what the decisions were, why they were made, who was involved and how that decision played out. Herring stresses the importance of not just the policy itself but the people, like Kissinger and Dulles as well as leaders in South Vietnam who had a hand in how the policy effected all concerned.
Herring's work is pure political history. This is all about the elite political players, with the focus being the Americans, and their world views. This text is an over view of the Vietnam War and not an in depth look into any one aspect. Essentially, this text is to help answer why America was involved in the war and what should be taken away as the lesson for being involved in the war. He addresses America's leaders and their world view of American exceptionalism and their own individual quirks and concern for their careers as the driving force behind the mistakes made during the twenty-five years of America involvement with Vietnam. As Herring points out at the end of this edition American politicians were taking in the view from the 'city on the hill' and were not seeing an accurate picture of the reality of the world they were operating in and how America really fit in to that reality. Herring says, 'the United States must recognize it's vulnerability, accept the limits to its power, and accommodate itself to many situations it does not like. Americans must understand that they will not be able to dictate solutions to world problems or to achieve all of their goals.' Herring's text is about the pitfalls of over extending a states power for unrealistic goals based on overly simplistic ideologies and world views.