The Road to War by Marvin Kalb

In The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed (Brookings Institution, 280 pp., $29.95) veteran journalist and Harvard professor emeritus Marvin Kalb brings new depth of meaning to the adage “a man is only as good as his word” as he guides the reader through the political maze of the Vietnam War by focusing on the actions of American presidents that brought us into the war without a congressionally approved declaration of war.

Kalb’s easy-to-follow, well-documented book describes how Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had at least three major Vietnam-War policy-making things in common: none had a clear plan for winning the war; all firmly believed in the Domino Theory; and none wanted to be known as the president who lost a war.

The book clearly shows that Congress exerted little of its power to influence the war one way or another—except to provide funds. Late in the Vietnam conflict, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which restricted the president’s ability to wage war longer than 60-90 days without congressional approval.

America’s participation in the war began with Truman’s commitment not to interfere when France decided to reclaim Indochina as a colony after World War II. Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence for Vietnam and overtures for cooperation with the United States fell on fear-deafened ears in Washington. Fears of communist expansion were fueled by the aggressiveness of the Russians and Chinese. Communist control of Indochina was seen as a threat to our national security.

Marvin Kalb

The United States became involved in the Korean War in the early 50’s. At that same time France was losing its war in Vietnam. Staying true to their commitments to fighting communism in that arena, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower sent military advisers, air support, and financial aid to bolster the French  in Indochina. By the time of the defeat of France by the North Vietnamese in 1954, the United States was paying 75 percent of the bill.

While President Kennedy was reluctant to send combat troops to Vietnam, he did send thousands of advisers and huge amounts of weaponry. American pilots took part in combat missions. It was also at this time that reporters coined the term “the Americanization” of the war.

Disgusted at the corruption and ineptness of the South Vietnamese political leaders, Kennedy didn’t interfere with the 1963 removal (and assassination) of President Ngo Dinh Diem from office. When the military and political situations didn’t improve, Kennedy began to withhold funds from the war effort. Several weeks later,  Kennedy was assassinated.

Wanting to stay true to the commitment to prevent the dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, President Johnson chose to heed his advisers, who told him victory was still possible in Vietnam. Several others told him to cut and run as victory was impossible.

Instead Johnson widely escalated the war. Like his predecessors, LBJ did not want to be known as the president who lost the war. However, the stalemate in Vietnam and rising antiwar sentiment at home convinced Johnson not to run for re-election in 1968.

While the war did come to an end during the presidency of Richard Nixon, it took an additional five years of massive destruction, tens of thousands of deaths, and enormous expenditures. Searching for an honorable exit from Vietnam, President Nixon visited both China and Russia. He asked the communist leaders to help him find an honorable exit from the war. When the Paris peace negotiations fell apart, Nixon ordered the unrestricted bombing of North Vietnamese on a scale not seen since World War II.

In the end, however, when the North Vietnamese blatantly violated the terms of peace treaty, Nixon was unable to fulfill his commitment to help South Vietnam due in large measure to the Watergate scandal.

Marvin Kalb uses the last part of his book to describe U.S. commitments to other countries during the Vietnam War era, especially to Israel. Then, during the second Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan, Kalb points out that once again there is “no clear plan of action.”

President Obama has used the word “ironclad” to describe America’s defense commitment to the Israelis. Kalb suggests that it’s time for an official defense treaty with Israel. It would assure Israel—and its enemies—that the U.S. this time is finally serious about a commitment to an ally.

—Joseph Reitz

Dai Uy Hoch by Wesley A. Hoch

Wesley Hoch graduated from the Maine Maritime Academy in 1953, served for a year in the Merchant Marines, then joined the U.S. Navy. He went to Vietnam in 1962 and served for eighteeen months as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Navy’s 4th Coastal District Junk Force in Phu Quoc.

“He is a strange mixture of soldier, sailor, dentist, mechanic, linguist (he speaks a fractured Vietnamese), doctor, and teacher,” the journalist Orville Schell wrote in the Boston Globe in 1963. “This rare dedication has one visible side effect among the sincere and grateful Vietnamese: to them, Dai Wei Hoch already is a living legend.”

Dai Uy (“Captain”)  Hoch (right) with a South Vietnamese sailor

Dai Wei (“chief”) Hoch died in 2004. He had been working on a book about his experiences in Vietnam. His brother David and his wife Isobel worked with that manuscript and in 2009 produced Dai Uy Hoch: “A Legend in Remote Seas” (Xulon Press, 444 pp., $22.99, paper), Wes Hoch’s memoir that also contains quotes from other Vietnam veterans who served with him.

It’s a readable book, filled with a good deal of reconstructed dialogue, that reveals a deeply religious man who was dedicated to the Vietnamese people, and who worked during his entire tour to better their lives.

—Marc Leepson

Huey by Jay Groen and David Groen

Jay and David Groen are brothers who both served in the Vietnam War, and they are the co-authors of Huey: The Story of An Assault Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam, a fine novel first published in 1984 and now available as an e book (Artha, 282 pp., $7.97, Kindle).

Jay Groen was a U. S. Air Force Intelligence linguist.  David Groen was a warrant officer who flew Hueys in Vietnam as a pilot and an aircraft commander. He flew hundreds of combat sorties, earning the nickname “The Flying Dutchman.”

“I want to honor and acknowledge the contributions of all Americans, the South Vietnamese and the allied nations who fought with us,” David Groen says in his end notes. He and his brother based this novel on his experiences.

In the novel, John Vanvorden, later known as the Flying Dutchman, arrives in South Vietnam in July 1970, twenty years old, a warrant officer, and a helicopter pilot. He will fly the UH-1H Iroquois, known as the Huey. He is assigned to the 155th Assault Helicopter Company in Ban Me Thuot, Camp Corriel.

Those who have read the classic book of helicopter combat in Vietnam, Chickenhawk by Robert Mason, but who still have an appetite for more books of that sort can do no better than to read this novel.  After reading Huey, I am convinced that the Groens used all of the most exciting of the combat sorties involving mission that David Groen flew as the basis for most of the action in this book.

The book is not all non-stop action, which would have been too much of a good thing. There are many death-defying near misses for our hero, including the one that starts the novel off with a bang, and left me to wonder for many pages whether the pilot survived that direct hit between the legs or, at best, just lost his manhood. There are many hospital scenes; they are moving and sometimes as scary as the combat scenes.

The philosophical beating heart of this sensitive book comes when the Flying Dutchman is in the hospital for a long time and encounters a spiritual librarian who leads him to  Buddhism and the concept of Karma and how it relates to reincarnation and the Golden Rule. Don’t think for a moment that this is boring stuff. The Groens make it exciting.

Huey also takes us with the Flying Dutchman on R&R, a scene that is the longest I’ve ever read on that subject. We also get the usual stuff about shit burning, John Wayne, how violent and scary the ROK troops were, and the wire mesh on bus windows. C-rat ham and lima beans (”ham and motherfuckers”) is mentioned here, too, linked with the memory of a dying comrade who used them to play a funny trick on his buddies.

The new Kindle version contains a lengthy biographical section on both authors. I was saddened to learn that Jay Groen is dead. But this fine novel will live after him.

Read it and tell your friends about it. I think they’ll love it as much as I did.

For more info, go to http://arthapub.com/huey

—David Willson

Dispatches by Michael Herr

The unique thing about discovering Michael Herr’s Vietnam War tale, Dispatches (272 pp., 1977) in a used-book venue was the cover—it really catches the eye. Citing in bold lettering no less than John Le Carre’s rather lofty assertion (“The best book I have read on men and war in our time”) it became something I had to read for myself.

Though the cover through the years has undergone many changes, including several with photographs of the author, the cover on the edition I bought is most striking, Along with the quote is the ubiquitous camo-covered helmet with the ever-present graffiti, in this case, “Hell sucks.”

Herr, in Hemingway-like brutality creates a graphic narrative of his time spent as a journalist in Vietnam for Esquire magazine and Rolling Stone. Hence the numerous sixties popular song lyrics Herr connects nicely to the incidents he relates.

As to the book’s authenticity, when asked if he was a reporter, Herr replied, “No, I’m a writer.” And a gifted and talented one indeed.

But whether fiction or non, there is no denying his presence in describing places like Hue, Khe Sanh, or Vinh Long during the Johnson presidency years. There are no pulled punches here as the author addresses the scathing racism of the conflict in this quote: “Ain’t a slope bitch in this whole fucked-up country that loves it.”

Michael Herr

He also speaks frankly on the rampant drug-usage: “Sometimes sleeping at Khe Sanh was like sleeping after a few pipes of opium, a floating and a drifting in which your mind still worked.”

With masterful craftsmanship, this embedded journalist (long before the phrase became cliché) uses a stream-of-consciousness style to relate images, incidents, and events he either witnessed or heard about. Often Herr provides little in the way of background information, merely easing into one story from the last.

First published in 1977, this literary gem is still relevant to anyone who lived through the Vietnam War period, veteran or not. As a WestPac sailor with a limited view of Vietnam—mainly H & I missions in South Tonkin or Seadragon operations north of the DMZ—I found this collection of war reporting fascinating.

But for those who were there, Dispatches will be compelling reading, fact or fiction, perhaps dredging up decades-old memories. For writing style alone, this is worthwhile reading.

—Peter Steinmetz