“We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home,” Lyndon Johnson said during the 1964 Presidential campaign, “to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” In his accessible The Year of the Hawk: America’s Descent into Vietnam, 1965 (Scribner, 320 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) James A. Warren focuses on the American plunge into the Vietnam War from the fall of 1964 through the summer of 1965.
Warren is a military historian, foreign policy analyst, and author, most recently of God, War, and Providence, as well as several books on the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. A former acquisitions editor at Columbia University Press, he recently was a visiting scholar in American Studies at Brown University.
Warren divides his book into three sections. The first looks at the crucial military and political decisions made by the Johnson Administration from November 1963, when he assumed the presidency, to the big build-up of American ground forces in July 1965. The second examines the ramifications of those decisions, and the third contains Warren’s assessment of, and reflection on, those events. Warren relies heavily on secondary sources and published memoirs to support his analysis.
As way of background, Warren provides an overview of Vietnamese resistance to French colonial rule in the aftermath of World War II, the American support of France during the First Indochina War (1945-54), and the deepening commitment to a noncommunist government in South Vietnam under the Kennedy Administration from 1961-63.
When Johnson became president, he felt it necessary to continue Kennedy Administration’s commitment to a non-communist South Vietnam out of fear of damage to his credibility and to American international prestige. Warren rightfully opines that the American commitment and strategy in the Vietnam War was largely shaped by domestic politics. He comprehensively details the nascent antiwar movement, while pointing out that in 1964-65 there was broad support for the war and President Johnson’s handling of it.
Warren explains the internecine struggle between the Marine Corps strategy of counterinsurgency and pacification, the so-called “other war,” and the Army’s preference for big-unit engagements and search-and-destroy operations. Gen. William Westmoreland’s insistence on the strategy of attrition prevailed, and—coupled with a flawed and ineffective air campaign—created a doomed American policy.
Westmoreland thought his strategy was justified following the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang— made famous by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joe Galloway’s book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young—in which the Moore’s 1st Cavalry Division troops inflicted significant battlefield casualties on the North Vietnamese. After that bloody engagement the communists adjusted their tactics and largely avoided large-unit confrontations. Warren argues that Westmoreland’s approach was deeply flawed, but believes his treatment by historians has been unfair, saying that any American general with any strategy would have been ineffective in Vietnam.
Warren’s analysis follows the accepted historical orthodoxy: Ho Chi Minh was a courageous leader uniting his people; South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his predecessors were corrupt despots; and the U.S. did not understand the revolutionary spirit that was sweeping the countryside.
On the other hand, the North attempted to provoke three general uprisings that would have toppled the unpopular South Vietnamese regime—in 1964, 1968, and 197—and failed each time.
Warren contends that the 1968 Tet Offensive’s crucial objective was to inflict a psychological blow on the American public and government. But that was Tet’s crucial outcome, not its intent. Tet was designed to incite a revolution in South Vietnam and win the war. Only when the North invaded in 1975 with the conventional forces of the North Vietnamese Army did the communists prevail.
Though Warren’s use of headings within each chapter allows the narrative to move quickly, his overuse of long quotations and colloquialisms slows things down. That said, this book is a solid and readable introduction to a conflict that continues to resonate in American politics and culture.
–Daniel R. Hart