In June 1997, former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara chaired a remarkable series of meetings in Hanoi with the military commanders and senior foreign policy officials who fought the Vietnam War. Under the guidance of McNamara and Nguyen Co Thach, who had served as Vietnamese foreign minister, the former adversaries from the United States and North Vietnam convened for three days of intensive talks to grapple with a historically consequential and provocative question: Were there missed opportunities for peace in the anguishing conflict that consumed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and well over 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians?
The McNamara mission to Hanoi, conceived and coordinated by the innovative scholars James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang, was populated not only by former officials from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations but also by a cadre of historians and political scientists. One invited expert, the talented Cold War historian James G. Hershberg, found in the proceedings multiple avenues of new evidence to explore, including a clue to understanding a widely discussed but poorly documented aspect of the war: the secret diplomatic channel of 1966 between Poland, Italy, the United States and North Vietnam known as “Marigold,” which came tantalizingly close to initiating direct negotiations between Washington and Hanoi to end the war.
(Stanford University Press/Woodrow Wilson Center) - “Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam”’ by James G. Hershberg
Hershberg was startled by disclosures from Nguyen Dinh Phuong, a Vietnamese diplomat who described secretly flying from Hanoi to Warsaw to provide guidance for a clandestine meeting with the United States expected to occur on Dec. 6, 1966. While the plan for the meeting had been known for decades, Phuong’s participation was nowhere to be found in the documentary record, and his account contradicted the established history of why the United States and North Vietnam failed to consummate that encounter.
“I believed that Phuong was telling the truth,” Hershberg recalled, “and that the disparate Marigold evidence . . . when meticulously pieced together, revealed a previously obscured portrait of a diplomatic disaster of grievous proportions.” For the historian, a passionate quest commenced: “Trying to reconstruct what happened, I spent more than a decade ransacking archives from Austin to Kew Gardens to Warsaw to Rome to Moscow and beyond and interviewing surviving participants.”
The product of Hershberg’s inquiry is “Marigold,” a staggering exercise in historical scholarship leveraging both established sources and a huge array of newly surfaced documentary materials and research drawn from 15 countries around the world. With his nearly 900-page cinder block of a book, Hershberg has achieved his presumptive goal of writing the definitive study of a hidden history that had been the subject of intense speculation over the years but never comprehensively told.
At the heart of the book is a protagonist whom the author discernibly identifies with, for all the right reasons. In 1966, Janusz Lewandowski was a 35-year-old Polish diplomat, the only communist ambassador in non-communist Saigon. It was Lewandowski’s dream, Hershberg writes, “to alter the course of history” by brokering a covert negotiation to end the Vietnam War. After discovering in 2003 that Lewandowski was alive and living comfortably in Warsaw, Hershberg jumped on an airplane to conduct the first of myriad extended interviews. Day after day, the historian and the diplomat met in a hotel bar, Hershberg writes, “our table strewn with documents, books, and my tape-recorder, the air smoky from Lewandowski’s Polish cigarettes, the two of us transported to wartime Saigon and Hanoi.”