Deadly Bet: LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1968 Election, The
Johns, Andrew L
The Deadly Bet: LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1968 Election, by Walter LaFeber. Vietnam, America in the War Years series. Lanham, Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005. x, 217 pp. $24.95 US (cloth), $17.95 US (paper).
More than three decades since the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War continues to fascinate students and scholars alike. Courses on the war remain among the most popular offered on campuses, and scholars continue to examine new evidence and reconsider old questions in an effort to understand the conflict and its ramifications. The Deadly Bet, the third book in Rowman & Littlefield’s series, “Vietnam: America in the War Years,” focuses on the major personalities and issues of the 1968 presidential election in the context of the Vietnam War. Walter LaFeber, a distinguished historian of US foreign relations and author of some of the most important works in the field over the past several decades, has undertaken the daunting task of distilling the myriad aspects of this watershed election into a mere 217 pages.
The book is organized around biographical sketches of key players in the Vietnam conflict and the US presidential election. In addition to profiling six major candidates in both parties, LaFeber includes chapters on civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.; the US commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland; and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu. He uses these individuals to highlight critical aspects of the conflict and the campaign, as well as examining their contribution to the debate over the war. One of the book’s strengths is LaFeber’s liberal use of British sources from the Public Records Office (now the National Archives), which provide an intriguing external perspective on both the war and the US electoral process, not to mention the candidates seeking the White House. He also effectively employs a variety of primary and secondary sources to bolster his argument, including some terrific quotations from the key players and observers.
LaFeber is at his best in the conclusion, succinctly pulling together the strands of his argument. He concludes that the war as an issue during the election campaign was virtually “meaningless,” and this contributed to the continuation of American involvement in Vietnam into 1973, resulting in an additional 30,000 dead US soldiers (p. 177). He recognizes, correctly, that as a result of his lack of specificity regarding his plans for resolving the conflict, Richard Nixon possessed nearly total freedom of action in constructing a Vietnam policy during his administration. Part of the reason for this was that his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, preferred (like Nixon) to avoid Vietnam as much as possible during the campaign. Indeed, as LaFeber notes, “law and order” concerns dominated the campaign for most of 1968, a fact recognized by both foreign and domestic observers (p. 23).
That being said, this book has several flaws. Uncharacteristically for a LaFeber book, the writing tends to be stilted and scattered. Perhaps this is a result of trying to cover too much important material in such a limited forum. Whatever the reason, it gives the appearance of having been thrown together quickly, which results in a lack of unity and flow in the text. But the content of the book is problematic as well. While the biographical approach can be effective, especially for undergraduates, in this instance it disturbs the continuity of the events and detracts from the compelling nature of the material. For example, LaFeber mentions Humphrey’s September 30 speech in Salt Lake City, Utah – in which the vice president broke with the administration and which nearly propelled him to victory in November – on page 141. Yet, he does not discuss it in depth until the next chapter, and does not mention it at all in the earlier chapter devoted to Humphrey. Readers lacking the requisite background information on the campaign and the war could have difficulty integrating the chapters into a coherent narrative.
In addition, the book misjudges or glosses over some key points relating to the campaign. LaFeber does not fully appreciate the significance of the Republican contenders for the presidency, particularly George Romney, whose candidacy was derailed by his inability to manage the Vietnam issue and not solely by the “brainwashing” comment to which the author refers briefly, (p. 105) Given the nature of the book, this brevity is perhaps understandable. Yet LaFeber gives the mistaken impression that Nixon lacked credible challengers for the nomination. Moreover, the chapter on Nixon inaccurately identifies his shift in thinking on the war as occurring after Tet rather than in 1967, when Nixon began to tone down his hawkish rhetoric in anticipation of the 1968 campaign. LaFeber also underestimates the struggle over the Vietnam plank in the Republican platform at the Miami convention (pp. 103, 110-111). In the bibliographic essay, LaFeber does not include recent scholarship that illuminates several critical issues in the campaign. Finally, much of the book exceeds the parameters of Vietnam and the 1968 election; the chapter on Dr. King, for instance, focuses more on the civil rights movement than the war, although LaFeber does a good job discussing King’s vocal (if delayed) opposition to the conflict. While putting the election and the war into context is important, LaFeber spends too much time with the forest at the expense of the trees.
Recognizing both the domestic political dimensions of the Vietnam War and the influence of the conflict on the political process (and its participants) are vital to a complete understanding of this important episode in American history. In considering the 1968 presidential election, The Deadly Bet falls short of the high expectations one would have for a book of such potential interest by a scholar of LaFeber’s stature. Indeed, one might say it is an opportunity lost.
Andrew L. Johns
Brigham Young University
Copyright Canadian Journal of History Spring 2006
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