Cambodia and Kent State by James A. Tyner and Mindy Farmer

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“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant,” President Richard Nixon famously said in an April 30, 1970, address to the nation, “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

During that speech Nixon announced plans for a joint South Vietnamese-American operation into Cambodia to confront the North Vietnamese Army, which had long used the territory as a sanctuary to launch missions into South Vietnam. The address spurred an immediate reaction from antiwar activists across college campuses, culminating in confrontations that led to Ohio National Guard troops shooting to death four students at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, and Mississippi state police officers killing two students at Jackson State College on May 15.

In their book, Cambodia and Kent State: In the Aftermath of Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War (Kent State University Press, 88 pp. $12.95, paper) Kent State professors James A. Tyner and Mindy Farmer provide a concise introduction to the domestic and international context of the shootings, as well as an overview of the historical memory in Kent and Cambodia. The book relies on secondary sources and the authors’ knowledge of the university where Farmer serves as the director of the May 4 Visitors Center.

The book’s thesis—connecting the incursion into Cambodia and the ensuing domestic protests to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, while also examining the collective memory in both countries—is laudatory. It is a helpful primer on both topics, and its strength is the closing chapter on the commemorations of the four victims in Kent and the millions in Cambodia.

But the book’s brevity does not account for curious unforced errors or reductive analysis. The world’s previous conflict was not World War II, as the author say, but the Korean War. What’s more, Kissinger and Nixon did not create realpolitik; it was a 100-year old political philosophy. And the South Vietnamese Army was a full participant in the operation, committing more than 60,000 troops and suffering some 600 killed in action.

“Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War,” as the subtitle puts it, is important to the authors’ conception of the incident, but the context of the decision is more nuanced than the familiar Nixonian caricature. As the authors document, the North Vietnamese had long violated Cambodia’s neutrality, and when Prince Sihanouk was deposed in mid-March 1970 and replaced by the pro-Western Lon Nol, who welcomed the incursion, it provided the opportunity for something that the American military had long yearned.

Though Nixon’s Secretaries of Defense and State opposed the plan, there were no “fierce objections,” and the incursion had the support of the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, the South Vietnamese Embassy, and the National Security Adviser. The pacing of the book can be frenetic, jumping between the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter with alacrity.

The Nixon Administration anticipated domestic fallout from the Cambodian action, but they underestimated how severe that reaction would be. In Kent, the protests were marked by an escalating level of violence, including burning the campus ROTC building. A Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for the killings.

Not explored in this book, but important to the historical context, is the infamous New York City “Hard Hat Riot” that occurred four days after the shootings, and the subsequent May 20 rally that drew some 100,000 Nixon supporters. In 1972, Nixon won reelection by more than 18 million votes.

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Four Dead in Ohio

The coda of the book is an appropriate elegy to the senseless deaths of four students on a beautiful Monday afternoon in Ohio, and to the millions who perished at the hands of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

In the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, this succinct treatment is a welcome addition to the historiography of the “end of the Sixties.”

–Daniel R. Hart

United States Marine Corps in Vietnam by Michael Green

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Michael Green uses images as his building blocks for United States Marine Corps in Vietnam: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives (Pen & Sword, 205 pp. $2.95, paper; $13.99, Kindle) and cements them together with a definitive narrative. Green, a prolific military historian, offers his version of the Vietnam War’s history in four sections: “The Opening Act” (1965), “The Fighting Increases in Scope” (1966-67), “The Defining Year” (1968), and “Coming to an End” (1969-75).

Green gleaned the photos and facts primarily from the Marine Corps Historical Center. His 150 pages of pictures alternate with 50 pages of analysis of combat from the American war’s start to its finish. Eight pages of photographs are in color.

The images include practically every weapon employed on each side of the battlefield: artillery, mortars, rifles, machine guns, pistols, flamethrowers, hand grenades, close support jet aircraft, helicopters, cargo planes, tanks, and other seldom-seen vehicles with tracks. The captions expand on what’s mentioned in the narrative and add finer details about the ebb and flow of the Marines’ war.

That said, the photographs convey little of the destructiveness of the weapons. They more resemble a catalog of military equipment.

Along with the weapons, personnel—mainly Marines, along with a few Vietnamese from North and South—appear in most of the pictures. They usually show Marines firing weapons or advancing through the bush. Green includes a handful of photos of the wounded and dead, but they are not horrifying images.

Although the images do not convey the intensity of combat, Green’s narrative does deliver that message. Citing archival accounts, he emphasizes the determination of troops on both sides and memorializes Marine Medal of Honor recipients.

His narrative discusses the difficulty of constant face-to-face encounters with the North Vietnamese Army along the DMZ, a major part of the Marines’ responsibility in northernmost I Corps. He deplores the high casualty count resulting from search-and-destroy missions. Things would have been much worse, he says, if not for “Marine supporting arms that turned the tide of battle as almost always.”

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The first Marines landing in Vietnam, March 1965, Da Nang

Green takes a hard look at the pros and cons of contentious issues between Marine Corps leaders and Army MACV commanders who usually had the final word. He concludes that Army generals generally underappreciated the Marines.

The book would be an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with the Vietnam War’s tactics, strategy, and equipment. Old timers might enjoy finding the faces of former friends.

I was not a Marine, but I flew many C-130 support sorties for them during Tet in 1968. The chapter covering that period brought back sad memories for me. Nobody had it tougher than the Marines.

United States Marine Corps in Vietnam is Michael Green’s twenty-first book in the Pen & Sword Images of War series.

—Henry Zeybel