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How’s this for provocative: a book arguing that the Vietnam War was ultimately justified, written by a Jesuit priest who spent the better part of the 1980s arguing that dropping the Bomb was immoral.

Actually, for Francis X. Winters, the two propositions are deeply intertwined. In The Year of the Hare: America in Vietnam, January 25, 1963-February 15, 1964, Winters suggests that the Kennedy administration worried so desperately about the possibility of a nuclear war in Europe that it sought a different venue in which its conventional forces could assert America’s resolve against the Soviets. Voilà: Vietnam.

Though he says this idea “is nowhere in the standard academic books,” Winters, a Georgetown School of Foreign Service professor, started pondering it in 1988 after interviewing former Secretary of State Dean Rusk (who, despite attracting his share of criticism from Winters, “was completely charismatic—the greatest living American I’ve ever actually met”).

“I got the link from him, and it rang a bell with me, because I had devoted the previous 15 years to worrying about the European accident that was about to happen,” Winters says. “If what happened in 1989 had happened in 1979—if there had been uprisings in East Germany, for instance—we could very easily have had a third world war, which the northern hemisphere would not have survived.”

Winters, 63, also takes aim at other choice targets, including the otherwise-lauded corps of young New York Times correspondents, America’s then-ambassador to Vietnam (“the soul of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was the brevity of his wit,” Winters writes), and the naive hubris of American foreign policy-makers.

On the hubris point, Winters places the watershed of the Vietnam conflict many years before most other observers had suggested: the American-sponsored coup against Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963. Winters, a strong advocate of the inviolability of national sovereignty, says that America’s tendency to try to remake the world in its own democratic image is naive and misguided.

“We didn’t want to kill Diem, but we wanted somebody to be a better sell in the American media,” Winters says. “It’s in the nature of American journalists to be outraged by autocrats, but there was nothing there but autocrats. So we got eight autocrats in a row after the coup.”

Winter’s ideology-bending arguments—he believes that the U.S. effort in Vietnam did scare the Soviets and helped avoid nuclear war, but he deplores America’s decision to invade Cambodia in the process—are sure to be controversial, because so much scholarship across the political spectrum is either vested in democratic, humanitarian impulses or the notion that the U.S. made an inexcusably bad decision by fighting in Vietnam. But for a book on as perennially popular a topic as Vietnam, The Year of the Hare has generated surprisingly little attention. In the two months since its release, only one newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, has reviewed it.

Indeed, Winters says his own Gen X students aren’t especially up on the subject, either. “They haven’t studied Vietnam before, or if they did, all the textbooks are against it,” he says. “At this point, they don’t really know enough to make up their minds.”

—Louis Jacobson