History: Sometimes it Rhymes

Last Thursday night, distinguished historian, author and scholar Fredrik Logevall spoke in front of history students, community members and faculty on a brief comparison of the events leading up to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and then more recent action taken in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Logevall is a writer and educator of the Vietnam War legacy; in fact, he is the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in History for his most recent work “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” which also won the 2013 Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians.

While Molly Wood, a history professor, introduced Logevall she joked that he has written more books than she has fingers on her hand. Logevall is the author and editor of eight books aside from “Embers of War;” some of his other works include: “America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity,” “Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam,” and “Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977.”

Logevall, an expert in U.S. foreign relations and 20th century international history, holds a PhD in history from Yale University, and is now the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a professor of history in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Thursday’s colloquium was titled “Vietnam to Afghanistan: How does history repeat itself?” and Logevall began his speech with an answer to that question in the form of a loosely stated Mark Twain quote: “history does not repeat—at best, it sometimes rhymes.”

In short, when posed with the question how history repeats itself Logevall states, it doesn’t. He addressed the roles of politics, careerism and ‘American credibility’ on the overall decision for the United States’ involvement in foreign military affairs, in particular those decisions made in and prior to 1955 Vietnam War.

Wood felt her students were “well served by his emphasis on the significance of the Vietnamese war with the French, and with an emphasis on the period right after the end of World War II as being crucial for understanding increasing American involvement.”

JFK, Johnson and Nixon’s presidential role in U.S. involvement of the war was indeed discussed; in particular, Logevall says that after years as a historian and scholar, he has come to an exceedingly troubling conclusion: not one of those three men really believed in the war, each one of them doubted its prospects and miscalculated the impact of the war of the United States.

Logevall also touched on Nixon’s decision to continue the war in his presidency causing two hundred thousand American soldiers to perish, and sharing a quote from Johnson stating, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out.”

Logevall expressed his understanding that we view history in a contextual manner. Fifty years ago, the natural orientation of a person’s mindset was in the past. In the present, as the people have progressed as a nation and as intellectual individuals there is a new ‘looking toward the future’ ideal as realization of some broken features and necessary changes come to light.

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