JFK in the Senate by John T. Shaw

John T. Shaw ‘s JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, 228 pp., $26) is a well-written, pioneering look at President John F. Kennedy’s 1953-60 tenure as the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. JFK’s time in the Senate, Shaw says, “was a period of remarkable personal and political growth in which an untested backbencher transformed himself into a man of substance and depth and a victorious presidential candidate.”

Kennedy “participated actively and sometimes boldly” during his time in the Senate “in the central policy debates of his time,” Shaw notes. On the international scene Kennedy spoke his mind on “the challenges posed by China and the Soviet Union, the icy armistice in Korea, France’s faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria” and “the appropriate defense posture for America during the Cold War.”

Kennedy had visited Vietnam as a Congressman in 1951 as part of a big fact-finding mission to Asia and the Middle East. The French at the time were enmeshed in a bitter war against communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap determined to shed the yoke of colonialism. After meeting with high-level French and U.S. military and political figures, JFK came away with a decidedly negative view of the situation.

Because of the strong American support for the French in their war against the Vietminh, Kennedy wrote in his journal, the United States was “more and more becoming colonists in the minds of the people.”

Kennedy stressed in a subsequent radio address that he strongly favored “check[ing] the southern drive of communism,” in Vietnam. But he stressed he did not want to do that relying “on the force of arms.” Rather, Kennedy called for building “strong native non-communist sentiment within these areas.”

In his first year in the Senate, Kennedy “took center stage” in the debate over whether or not the U.S. should continue to support the French, Shaw says. JFK spoke out in favor of sending U.S. aid, but also called on France to grant independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He even offered an amendment to the Senate foreign aid bill urging France to give more independence to those colonies. It was defeated.

John T. Shaw

Before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, JFK gave a Senate speech in which he warned that if the United States took over from the French militarily, the subsequent war would “threaten the survival of civilization.” He then spoke out against the U.S. pouring “money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory,” something, that “would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.”

Kennedy, in his search for a non-military solution to the problem of stopping communism in Vietnam, believed that Ngo Dinh Diem, the vehement anticommunist the CIA helped install as South Vietnam’s premier in 1954, would be the leader who could do so. JFK “began to speak of a ‘Diem miracle in South Vietnam,'” Shaw notes, “and urged American backing for his regime. He accepted, as did other American leaders, Diem’s decision not to go forward with national elections in 1956 as had been promised” in the Geneva Accords.

In a June 1, 1956, speech in Washington before the pro-Diem American Friends of Vietnam, JFK changed his stance on what America should do to support Diem. He no longer warned that the U.S. should not get heavily involved militarily in the effort to stop the Vietnamese communists, framing his argument in staunch, 1950s Cold War rhetoric.

Vietnam, he said, “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia,” JFK said, “the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dyke.” South Vietnam, he said, “is our offspring. We cannot abandon it.”

Kennedy continued his strong support of Diem through his days in the Senate and into his 1,000 days in the White House. Calling South Vietnam “a brave little state,” in a 1960 speech, JFK said that nation was “working in a friendly and free association with the United States, whose economic and military aid has, in conditions of independence, proved to be effective.”

Shaw does not address the oft-debated issue of whether JFK would have withdrawn American troops from Vietnam had he lived. But Shaw does show that during his eight years in the Senate, Kennedy changed his thinking radically on what the U.S. should do to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists. He went from strongly advocating no American military action in South Vietnam to forcefully calling for strong American aid—including sending in thousands of military advisers—to try to help that country fight the communist insurgency.

The author’s website is http://johntshaw.com

—Marc Leepson

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The Boys Next Door by R.L. Tecklenburg

“The good memories I have of Vietnam are of the people I met and befriended, most of whom were children,” R.L.Tecklenburg writes in The Boys Next Door: A Marine Returns to Vietnam (St. Johann Press, 134 pp., $24.95, paper). “Their fate haunted me for more than thirty-five years. Did the war take them? Could I have done more to save them?” The answers to those questions “eluded me until I returned in 2003 and again in 2004.”

In this short, readable book Tecklenburg juxtaposes a recounting of his time in Vietnam during the war with details of the first return trip he made to the small farming villages of Thua Luu and Nouc Ngot. He had served a 1968-69 tour there as an infantryman with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment attached to the First Marine Division, and then as part of the 3rd Combined Action Group in Phu Loc working with elements of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

Bob Tecklenburg

His time in Vietnam was never far from his thoughts after coming home, Tecklenburg, who runs the Alexandria, Virginia, Vet Center, says. “Not a day passed,” he writes, “that I didn’t think about the people I had left behind. For me, it was about commitments and relationships I had established among the Vietnamese, then abruptly abandoned when my tour of duty was up on August 4, 1969.”

Tecklenburg arrived in Hanoi in March 2003 and then embarked on an eleven-day trip with a group of other Vietnam veterans. He was able to find two people he worked with in the villages during the war. He learned that they and many other villagers “had had a difficult time” since 1975. “They were struggling to make it in the new Vietnam, but they were succeeding. Theirs was a young country, and they had not been excluded from its rewards.”

He “had to remember,” Tecklenburg writes, “that I was a part of their past—and they a part of mine. We shared memories of a time when our destinies crossed, but our lives since the war have moved in much different directions. I decided I would help them in any way I could to achieve a better future for their children.”

The author’s website is www.rltecklenburg.com

—Marc Leepson

The Lucky Few by Jan K. Herman

Jan K. Herman’s The Lucky Few: The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk (Naval Institute Press, 192 pp., $39.95) is a unique story of the final days of the Vietnam War. The remarkable thing about this book is why the story Herman tells has been overlooked for so many years. 

Perhaps our collective national denial kept this event hidden for so long, shrouded by the nation’s sole military loss. As Herman puts it: It “most likely had to do with America’s mood in 1975. The national nightmare of Vietnam was over and it was time to move on.”

This neglected story has finally surfaced in this comprehensive yet brief book. Perhaps with the passage of nearly forty years are we now able to look more objectively at this earth-shattering event that took place during one of the nation’s most troubled periods. Though it’s doubtful all of us will ever be able to come to terms with what occurred in Vietnam in 1975, this book provides an opportunity for readers to see things from a different perspective.

The difficulty with The Lucky Few—aside from the connection with defeat and tragedy—concerns the manner in which the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam occurred and its extensive media coverage. The lucky few were those fortunate enough to board U.S.-supplied helicopters, the ones that were nearly all scuttled once their overcrowded passengers were offloaded. Said passengers were mainly South Vietnamese top military and political leaders and their families.

With the description of the loss of each million-dollar aircraft, it became  increasingly more difficult for this reader to make sense of the war’s final chapter. That may be the point, however, that was lost in the chaotic ending. That is, war is always senseless, a complete breakdown of the greatest of all human abilities, an unwillingness to compromise.

The USS Kirk was a 400-foot escort destroyer commissioned in the early 1970s and deployed to the Western Pacific with the Seventh Fleet to operate in the Tonkin Gulf. With a crew of more than two hundred, this Knox Class warship performed normal naval support duties under the command of a remarkable leader, Commander Paul Jacobs. In this final episode of the war his effective leadership would result in a successful evacuation mission. Familiar with all aspects of naval command, Jacobs was a leader who led by example, developing a trust with his crew through rigorous training.

Jan Herman

“The gift of leadership, it seemed, was in Paul Jacobs’ genes,” Herman writes. Jacobs “worked very hard to keep the crew as a team and the crew responded very well to him.’”

Moreover, this destroyer (aka “tin can”) was an agile man-of-war, versatile and quick, but built with a single shaft and screw. More common twin-screw ships were easier to maneuver and more forgiving, especially during rescue work. Jacobs therefore trained his crew relentlessly. It made a difference when the need arose.

With exacting detail, the author tells the story of the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975, disclosing the valiant efforts of U.S. naval forces to evacuate both military and civilian personnel. As communist forces moved south, an escape plan was devised that included removing as much military equipment as possible to offshore Navy vessels.

Under the direction of former Navy man Richard Armitage, then a civilian operating with the Department of Defense, the plan was devised quickly, designed to use any available naval vessels—carriers, escorts, support ships. Though Armitage is described much like the unhinged Captain Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now, he devised the plan to land Huey and Cobra helicopters on nearby ships, unloading personnel, and preventing the North Vietnamese from seizing aircraft and equipment.

Helicopters landed, unloaded, and then jettisoned. In addition to airborne evacuees, the Vietnamese Navy with its former U.S. warships pitched in to help. In all, more than 30,000 refugees eventually arrived in the Philippines through the efforts of the Navy and ships including the Kirk.

To this destroyer veteran, The Lucky Few is fascinating, though it was difficult to revisit that time of sadness and misfortune. The author has done an outstanding job researching details of day-to-day shipboard life, recalling things that I have not given a thought to in many years.

Lastly, he neatly connects surviving refugees and rescuers, revealing many happy endings. I highly recommend this book, believing that enough time has finally passed to allow us to see another amazing triumph of the human spirit.

—Peter Steinmetz

American Statecraft by J. Robert Moskin

J. Robert Moskin’s American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service (Thomas Dunne, 1,229 pp., $35) is nothing less than a recounting of the entire story of the U.S. Foreign Service from its beginnings during the American Revolution into the 21st century. It’s a mammoth undertaking that includes a short chapter on the Vietnam War as told primarily through the actions of State Department higher-ups such as Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Dean Rusk and U.S. Ambassadors to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker and Graham Martin.

Moskin—the author of The U.S. Marine Corps Story and other books— starts with the spring of 1776 when the Continental Congress sent Connecticut merchant Silas Deane on a secret mission to the court of Louis XVI to secure French support for the fight against the British. Working mostly chronologically and writing journalistically, Moskin goes on to tell the story of American foreign policy primarily through the stories of many of the men (and later women) who served in the Foreign Service. As is the case with the Vietnam War, he concentrates mainly on Secretaries of State and ambassadors, but also includes tales of professional Foreign Service men and women working in the many and varied foreign-policy trenches aboard and in Washington.

Robert Moskin

In his Vietnam War chapter, Moskin looks at, among other things, the 1968 Tet Offensive. His assessment: The results “were mixed. The Communists lost a large number of men but demonstrated their ability to carry the war to the cities. In the end, the South Vietnamese people did not rise [against their government as the VC had hoped]; while in the United States two-thirds of those polled no longer supported President Johnson. The tipping point of the American opinion against the war was Tet’s most important result.”

Moskin has less-than-flattering things to say about Kissinger and his handling of the Vietnam War. In 1969, Moskin says, he interviewed Kissinger when he was President Nixon’s National Security Adviser. Moskin asked Kissinger if Vietnamization, his plan to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, would “prepare the South Vietnam army to fight the Viet Cong or the strong North Vietnam forces.”

Kissinger, Moskin says, “pushed a button under his desk and an Army colonel appeared. Kissinger repeated the question. Colonel Alexandrer M. Haig, Jr. said, ‘I don’t know, sir. But I’ll find out.’

“Neither of them knew. They were concentrated on the domestic political effect of Vietnamization in the United States, not on foreign policy.”

The author’s website is www.jrobertmoskin.com

—Marc Leepson

Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel by John Podlaski

VVA member John Podlaski served in Vietnam from 1969-71 with the Wolfhounds of the 25th Infantry Division and the 501st Infantry Brigade of the 101st Airborne division. The lead character in Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel (CreateSpace, 456 pp., $16), Podlaski’s fine first novel, is John Kowalski, often called “Polack,” which the character says is preferable to being called “Ski.”  This book is fiction, but Podlaski lets us know that “many of the events and anecdotes are based upon actual experiences of the author.”

Early in the book our hero arrives at the 90th Replacement Battalion, Long Binh, the big in-country RePo Depot. This is a very different place in 1970 than it was when I passed through in the summer of 1966. The author’s descriptions are a good reminder that everyone who served in Vietnam had a different war and—even if they served in the same place at the same time. It was, in other words, a different war for everyone.

After some in-country infantry training, John and his best buddy Bill are assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry—the Wolfhounds. They are sent to Firebase Kien.

This is a big book of more than 400 pages. The astonishing wealth of detail that Podlaski martials explains why it is twice as long as most books about one-year tours of duty. Podlaski seems to have an eidetic memory for every sortie and every firefight he was involved in a lifetime ago, and he is brilliant at picking the details that bring those long-ago events alive on the page.

Podlaski is a gifted storyteller. He invests this novel with narrative tension so that the reader is constantly involved in what might happen next. We are introduced to many memorable characters who come alive, even though most of them do not survive the war. When they are killed or horribly mutilated we feel John’s grief and pain.

No space is wasted on poetic or metaphysical fustian and there is no evidence that Podlaski has had a classical education that he feels necessary to foist off as underpinning for his powerful story of an infantryman. This is not a novel about all wars, but a novel about John’s war. It is powerfully evoked. 

One carping note, though, from this retired reference librarian. Harry Houdini did not die of drowning, but of a ruptured appendix, and his ghost does not roam anywhere.

Also: John Wayne is name-checked more than once, and we also are treated to lots of familiar Vietnam War fiction territory: friendly fire, “beans and mother fuckers” (a new one on me), a colonel obsessed with body counts, the black clap, shit burning, Agent Orange, Bob Hope, a mother’s concern that her son is killing women and children, fragging, the ARVN being worthless soldiers, Arlo Guthrie, REMFs, black power, free love, and Fort Apache. At least Jane Fonda does not get any mention.

If a reader is looking for one big Vietnam War infantry book to read, I suggest this one unreservedly.

—David Willson

Assignment in Samarra by Frank M. Smart

22222222222222222222222222222Frank M. Smart was drafted into the Army in 1964 and served on active duty for seven years. He arrived in Dong Ha in May of 1968, and was assigned to the First Cavalry Division’s 42nd Public Information Detachment. His MOS was 71Q20, Combat Reporter. He had received his military education at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, the same place I learned to be an Army stenographer. 

Smart’s Assignment in Samarra (Tate Publishing, 192 pp., $12.99, paper) “is a work of fiction,” the author says. It’s a handsome little book, with a title that echoes that of John O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra. That echo is all that Smart’s novel has in common with O’Hara’s book, however, other than it also is set in the Middle East. On the first page, the hero gives a short speech about the deja vu of being in another “God forsaken hell hole,” and how he doesn’t want to die to make Islamic fanatics free.

He then expresses disgust for South Vietnam’s ARVN troops, who, he says, were “perfectly willing for me and my fellow soldiers to die to make them free, but they were not necessarily willing to die for it.” The implication is that ARVN troops avoided casualties in South Vietnam. I checked the statistics, and ARVN troops did die, in at least three times the numbers as American troops did.

Frank Smart

I’ve read criticisms elsewhere about the bravery of ARVN troops, but one cannot question their fatalities. Brave or not, they died. Maybe they died hiding under their mothers’ beds, but they did die. It’s a myth that they did not.

Jack Spraggins, the hero of this book, is a Vietnam veteran who gets picked, at a handsome fee, to go to Iraq with a seven-member fact-finding group. They go there to investigate allegations of bribery, graft, and poor workmanship. He and his committee are ambushed and Jack uses his Vietnam-War-honed fighting skills to defeat a large contingent of insurgents with weapons he obtains in a manner that can only be called divine intervention.

Jack is unsure if the cavalry will come in and save him and his cohorts in time. I won’t ruin the suspense, but will say that the reader is told that there will be a sequel with more of Jack’s derring-do. The next time it looks as though he will be going into Southeast Asia to rescue American POWs, which has been a life-long obsession. He knows they are there.

This short thriller will please those who agree with Smart’s vision of the world. He has a lot of positive things to say about Vietnam veterans, always a refreshing change. And he mentions a lot of American icons, including John Wayne, who is quoted non-ironically saying “Saddle Up.”

That’s always a good thing to do in times of crisis.

—David Willson

The Illegal by John Mort

John Mort served as an infantryman, often walking point, with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1969-70. He has written several worthy works out of that war experience, including the novel Soldier in Paradise, which won the W.Y. Boyd Award for best military fiction in 1999.

His latest novel, The Illegal (Southeast Missouri State University, 270 pp., $15, paper), is not directly about the Vietnam War, but there is a vividly portrayed Vietnam veteran in the book, a man named Abraham Potts, “a bald irritable black man bound to a wheelchair,” as Mort describes him.

“I’m a disabled veteran,” the novel’s main character, Mario Oliveros, says. He goes on to say: “Senor Abraham Potts had reason to be angry, but that did not make him wise.”  That is a typical observation from Oliveros, who is always riveting, from the first page until the last. Vietnam veterans are a recurring leitmotif in this novel.

John Mort

Mario Oliveros fully inhabits this book, which often seems less contemporary than post-apocalyptic in tone and content. He is on the run for most of the novel, trying to make it as in illegal in America after being left for dead in the river that separates the United States and Mexico. Through no fault of his own, he is a soldier without a country, dead in Mexico, and not acknowledged to be a person in America.

Our hero battles to find existence and love in the United States, a country that is a mystery to him even though he speaks excellent English and is an educated man. His willingness to do anything to survive, including to wander forty days in the desert wilderness with a toe eaten off by a boar hog, insures that he is not going to fail in America.

His journey shows us the underbelly of the American Dream. And, indeed, sometimes it seems all underbelly. He sleeps under bridges and steals clothes to keep from having to wander naked.

Hogs play a large part in this book, and so does Walmart. In fact, Walmart plays such a large role that the store almost figures as one of the main characters.

Mort does a brilliant job making this book engrossing and often exciting. He is brilliant at creating characters the reader roots for—as well as characters we don’t root for. I was sad when the book ended and I could no longer follow Mario Oliveros’s odyssey.

I’d love to read another novel about him. I wonder how he will do in Canada—yet another mysterious country to figure out. Good luck to him.

—David Willson