Containment and Credibility
The Ideology and Deception that Plunged America into the Vietnam War
Carrell Books, New York, 2016, 532 pages
Book Review published on: July 7, 2017
Pat Proctor’s Containment and Credibility reads like a companion to H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty. Where McMaster shows how the joint chiefs proved unable or unwilling directly to challenge President Lyndon Johnson and his principal advisors regarding the war in Vietnam, Proctor shows how the Johnson administration’s unreflective faith in the ideology and goals of containment led it to mislead Congress and the American people in order to secure its objectives.
As the title suggests, Proctor’s work focuses on the relative importance of both the Cold War consensus regarding containment of Soviet-inspired communism and the Johnson administration’s reputation for truthfulness to the success of the American intervention in Vietnam. He provides a detailed contextualization of these two themes, situating each in the wider domestic political, social, and economic currents that ebbed and flowed throughout the mid-1960s. Moving to specifics, Proctor traces the evolution of establishment opposition to the war from its original skepticism of containment to its outright attacks on the administration’s pronouncements. His chapter on the extrication of U.S. troops and the concomitant erosion of domestic support for Vietnam is well-crafted; it highlights the fact that it was the Johnson administration’s record of half-truths and outright lies that undermined American support for Vietnam and not the nihilistic but vocal public protesters. Moreover, this record forced the Nixon administration to continue troop withdrawals in order to demonstrate good faith even when the president wished to slow or halt them altogether. Finally, Proctor shows that, to the very end of South Vietnam’s days, the American people schizophrenically maintained faith in the worthiness of containment while simultaneously rejecting any further effort on behalf of our erstwhile allies in Saigon. The concluding chapter, “Refighting the Vietnam War,” traces the pernicious effect of the Johnson administration’s mendacity regarding Southeast Asia on subsequent administrations’ proposed or actual military interventions.
Proctor’s defense of his thesis rests on an impressive array of primary sources, including extensive use of congressional records and an exhaustive list of contemporary news accounts. He supplements these with an effective use of secondary sources that taps heavily into both revisionist and triumphalist diplomatic historiography. He is to be commended for having put together a comprehensive argument, one that owing to the sheer volume of material available was probably not possible at the time. Of the many arguments made in the text, the one that strikes most forcefully is Proctor’s assertion that 1967 should be considered “the most important year in the Cold War.” In his view, the decision by Sen. J. William Fulbright in that year to shift his tactic from attacking the ideology of containment to exposing Johnson’s lack of credibility regarding how Vietnam “saved” the Cold War. It did so by leaving the existing consensus in place while permanently altering the character of executive branch relations with Congress on the topic of authorizing the use of military force.
Proctor’s book is a welcome addition to an already crowded field of Cold War histories. Although perhaps a bit too densely argued to appeal to the casual reader, this book’s arguments and conclusions will appeal to historians of the period as well as politicians, diplomats, professional soldiers, and anyone else involved in the crafting of national strategy.
Book Review written by: Thomas E. Hanson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas