Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Marigold: The Last Chance for Peace in Vietnam

Fri, 02/22/2013 - 4:12am


Marigold: The Last Chance for Peace in Vietnam by James G. Hershberg.  Published by Stanford University Press, California, 2012.  936 pages.

After the publication of countless books on Vietnam, from Stanley Karnow’s classic “Vietnam: A History,” (New York: Viking, 1991) to General H.R. McMaster’s “Dereliction of Duty,” (New York: Harper, 1997) and even the Office of the Secretary of Defense History on decision making in Vietnam, Marigold: The Last Change for Peace in Vietnam offers a new and controversial angle on this conflict.  Marigold is James Hershberg’s, an Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, second book, and it is sure to stir debate about the Vietnam conflict.  The large and heavily cited volume explores the secret Polish-Italian diplomatic initiative to broker a de-escalation and potential peace agreement between the United States and Vietnam during the Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) Administration in 1966.  The talks were codenamed “Marigold,” and critics contend that LBJ botched a breakthrough for peace by bombing Hanoi.  Defenders of U.S. policy in the Marigold exchange contend that Poland never had the authority to open direct talks, and that Hanoi was not ready to negotiate.  Marigold, almost 1,000 pages in length, challenges the latter assertion. 

Hershberg recreates the talks by using archival research interviews and by using his own experiences from travelling to several countries.  What is perhaps the biggest takeaway was the linkage between the discussions and the planning for the 1968 Tet Offensive.  The book explores the complexity of talks, which are shaped by personalities like Januz Lewandowski.  Lewandowski, the Polish Communist diplomat, would become a major conduit from North Vietnamese leaders to the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, John Gronowski, who interacted with the Polish Foreign Minister.  Included in this is a cast of characters are Averill Harriman, Henry Cabot Lodge, Ho Chi Minh and members of his Politburo.

Marigold investigates multiple themes from the difficulty of negotiations, distrust, a failure to appreciate the extent of Sino-Soviet animosity, and the distrust Hanoi harbored against China, a traditional and historic adversary.  Multi-lateral negotiations do not boil down to people at the negotiating table, but the constituencies and leaders they represent.  Ambassador Averill Harriman’s aide Chester Cooper discovered the open channel to Hanoi in talks with the Italians, and the book examines how this was developed to include the Polish government. One interesting aspect of the book were the hardliners among the North Vietnamese Politburo, who had to balance the clear objective of evicting American forces from Vietnam and the reunification of the country with negotiating and end to the escalating conflict.  This, coupled with the impact of U.S. bombings of North Vietnam, resulted in many favoring an open channel between Hanoi and Washington through “Marigold.”

The end of these secret talks left many sides feeling each had acted in bad faith, and the war would continue for another nine years.  There is much in this book that stimulates the “What Ifs?”  I could not help but ponder about the composition of the 1954 International Control Commission (ICC) set up after the French withdrawal from Vietnam that left the country divided at the 17th Parallel.  It consisted of India, Canada, and Poland as monitors and had no enforcement powers through the United Nations.  Marigold is not only controversial, but it does not answer this single question--who squandered the opportunity? While the author blames the LBJ Administration, his large volume takes you into twists and turns from all the parties that does not easily render clear and definitive outcomes for peace possible. However, for those interested in Vietnam, the mechanics of secret peace talks, and the national decision making of several countries will find this an important and historic work.     

Author’s Note: Commander Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Defense University Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy.  He wishes to thank the National Defense University Library for providing the book, and his Teaching Assistant, Ms. Sara Bannach a student of International Affairs at George Mason University for her edits that enhanced this review.         


About the Author(s)

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.  


Who squandered the opportunity for peace may be a moot point, because we have evidence now that the Hanoi party leadership's real power behind the scenes was held by Le Duan who had effectively marginalized an ailing Ho Chi Minh, who, had he been in control might have embraced negotiations as he had earlier with the French.

Unfortunately, peace never had a chance in my view because with the hard liners under Duan it was always about the war in the South first, and the rebuilding of the North secondary along with the price in suffering the North Vietnamese would have to pay, willing or not, as Duan had also effectively created a police state up North.

Toujours Fidele Covan