No Greater Love by John A. Siegfried and Kevin Ferris

The November 1968 Vietnam War battle for Nui Chom Mountain, in which PFC Michael Crescenz lost his life at age 19, lasted for a week. Midway through it, Crescenz’s Americal Division’s 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry company walked into an ambush and was pinned down. One G.I. was killed instantly and four wounded.

Chaos reigned until PFC Crescenz grabbed an M60 machinegun and advanced on the nearest machinegun bunker. He killed the men in it and disabled their weapon. He then attacked two more bunkers with the same result. Wounded in the thigh, Crescenz shielded a medic tending to a casualty under fire and said, “I got this, doc. No problem,” then advanced on a fourth bunker and was mortally wounded.

Military historian John A. Siegfried and former Philadelphia Inquirer editor and columnist Kevin Ferris tell the story of Michael Crescenz’s uncommon valor in No Greater Love: The Story of Michael Crescenz, Philadelphia’s Only Medal of Honor Recipient of the Vietnam War (Casemate, 190 pp. $26.86, hardcover; $20.95, Kindle).

Crescenz was the second of six brothers, all of whom grew up and attended the same Catholic schools in Philadelphia. The authors recreate the boys’ childhoods based on interviews with many of their neighbors. They flesh out Michael Crescenz’s two months in-country out with letters he sent home and interviews they did with his fellow soldiers.

While growing up, Michael and his brother Charles excelled in everything they tried. They were outstanding athletes, tough competitors, and protectors of the bullied. Their West Oak Lane neighborhood was the core of their world. After graduating from high school, Charles enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam; Michael later joined the Army. Their father had served in World War II and their grandfather in World War I.

In parallel with Michael Crescenz’s story, the authors include an informative history of the Medal of Honor. A chapter on a 1970 posthumous MOH presentation by President Nixon for the families of 21 Vietnam War recipients—including Michael Crescenz—highlights the power the medal bestows today.

In 1968, he was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, a six-minute drive from where he grew up. Later his brother Joe replaced Michael’s plain gravestone with a government-issued white marble marker.

That change was not enough for Joe Crescenz, though, after he visited Arlington National Cemetery where more than 400 Medal of Honor recipients are interred. So he enlisted his brothers in a campaign to move Michael’s body to Arlington.

Initially, the plan met strong opposition from federal administrators. But a Catholic bishop intervened and made all the arrangements, from exhumation to reburial.

After more than a week of ceremonies that included motorcades and convoys, old comrades lay Michael Crescenz to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in 2008. The authors recreate these events with deeply moving recollections from the men involved.

Since then, many organizations have honored Michael Crescenz. Most notably, in 2014, the VA hospital in Philadelphia was renamed the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. A larger-than-life statue of Michael in full combat gear holding an M60 stands guard at the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The book’s array of excellent color photographs adds additional distinction to Michael’s short life.

—Henry Zeybel

Number One Realist by Nathaniel L. Moir

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” former Washington Post publisher Philip Graham famously said. This is particularly true about coverage of the American war in Vietnam, where the work of reporters David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Stanley Karnow, and others provided the first draft, and—when contemplating the early war years—the final draft of history.

The most prescient of the war’s reportorial voices, however, was a French professor of international relations at Howard University named Bernard Fall.   

Fall, the author of Hell in a Very Small Place and Street Without Joy, is the subject of Nathaniel L. Moir’s Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare (Oxford University Press, 376 pp. $49.95; $16.19, Kindle). Though the work is biographical in nature, Moir—a research associate in the Applied History Project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government—concentrates on Fall’s scholarship, particularly his understanding of revolutionary warfare.

The book is meticulously researched, making extensive use of Fall’s papers, and includes 100 pages of endnotes. It’s organized into eight chronological chapters, exclusive of the introduction and epilogue, and includes maps and photographs.

Bernard Fall was killed in Vietnam in February 1967 when he stepped on a landmine, his brief 40-year life having had an almost Forrest Gump quality to it. He was born in Vienna in 1926 to a traditional Jewish family which moved to France after Nazi Germany annexed Austria. After France fell to Germany in 1940, Fall’s father joined the French Resistance, only to be captured and killed by the Gestapo. His mother met a similar fate.

Bernard Fall, age 16, with the French Maquis Resistance

The precocious teenaged Fall, now orphaned, followed in his father’s footsteps, first fighting with the French resistance group, the Maquis, and later, with the Free French forces. After the war, Fall worked as an analyst for the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. He studied in Europe, received a Fulbright Scholarship, and earned his masters and PhD at Syracuse University where he became interested in Indochina.

Fall’s great scholarly achievement was his diagnostic analysis of Vietnamese revolutionary warfare, which he codified as “RW=G+P,” revolutionary warfare equals guerilla warfare plus political action.

Revolutionary warfare, that is, is a product of political, economic, militaristic, and social factors. It occurs when violence in the form of guerilla activity is used to further an ideology.

Fall’s understanding was more than intellectual. When he first came to Vietnam in 1953 during the French Indochina War, he recognized the Viet Minh’s guerilla tactics as the same as those used by the Maquis fighting the Nazis. Fall’s great lament was that the United States did not learn the lessons from the French experience in Vietnam, and that the U.S. betrayed its ideals in pursuit of an unattainable military victory.

Moir’s writing is accessible, although too often redundant and reliant on long quotes from other scholars. Moir chooses to closely examine the impact of Fall’s work in periodicals, all but neglecting his more prominent books. Plus, the last chapter, which covers 1961-67, seems rushed and omits Fall’s reaction to the Buddhist crisis and the coup d’etat that overthrew South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Fall in Vietnam, 1966

I wish that Moir had spent more time examining Bernard Fall’s contradictory character. An ardent Zionist during World War II, Fall later renounced his Jewish identity. Committed to Civil Rights and a professor at Howard, a historically black university, Fall was nonetheless — because they shared a common view on the Vietnam War— an ally of the anti-Semitic and segregationist Sen. J. William Fulbright. The self-proclaimed “number one realist” on the Vietnam War, Fall, as Moir ably demonstrates, was actually a humanist, even a moralist, when it came to warfare.

These criticisms do not diminish the masterful job Moir has done in producing an invaluable and long-overdue work on the life and work of Bernard Fall. Fall’s books remain on many a syllabi, and Moir has done a great service in helping us understand the man behind those works.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Spirit to Soar by Jim Petersen

Jim Petersen’s The Spirit to Soar: Life Lessons and Values for a Victorious Life (Morgan James Publishing, 246 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) revolves around the themes of what sustains a person and allowing happiness to come from inside you.

Petersen, a retired Navy submarine officer who heads his own business coaching firm, tells the life story of retired USAF Lt. Col. Barry Bridger, a friend and colleague. The story begins when Bridger became an orphan at age six, and continued through a love-filled adoption, Bridger’s military service as a fighter pilot, his six years (1967-73) as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, and his post-military career as a successful family man and businessman. It’s quite a story.

The 18 chapters are filled with wisdom, positive thinking, and anecdotes that illustrate the theme of success and self-directed, positive reactions to the events surrounding you daily life. Petersen’s recounting of Bridger’s life experiences contain a solid message. That includes the need for a spiritual grounding, even though there are no chapters devoted to that subject in the book nor is there any pulpit-thumping rhetoric.

Each chapter begins with a different topic and continues with Bridger bringing his message. Themes frequently overlap—including a few repetitions of an entire paragraph.  Reading much of Bridger’s comments feels like listening to a conversation or a reminiscence containing good information. If you let it, and are open to it, the positive message in this book will grow on you as you continue to read

This is a wonderfully positive book with a genuine hero as its subject and lives up to the subtitle—plus, it‘s readable and begging to be shared with others.

The book’s website is thespirittosoar.com

–Tom Werzyn

Wesley Fishel and Vietnam by Joseph Morgan

“The world is our campus,” proclaimed John Hannah, the president of Michigan State University from 1941-69. During that time, Hannah transformed a sleepy, agricultural college into a world-class research university. The charismatic Hannah also was at the forefront of an important mid-20th century trend in American higher education: fusing academic research with public affairs through organized research units. A young Far East scholar, Wesley Fishel, was one of his stars.

A significant part of Joseph Morgan’s biography, Wesley Fishel and Vietnam: A Great and Tragic American Experiment (Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 252 pp., $100, hardcover; $45, Kindle), is an examination of America’s descent into the war in Vietnam. The book is well researched and accessible. An assistant professor of history at Iona College, Morgan’s previous book, The Vietnam Lobby: The American Friends of Vietnam, 1955-1975, examined that advocacy group—of which Fishel was an integral member—set up just after the end of the French Indochina War to help the newly formed government of South Vietnam become free and democratic.

If there was a casting call for the role of an academic who would play a prominent role in that endeavor as a close adviser to South Vietnam’s first president Ngo Dinh Diem, it likely would not have been Wesley Fishel. After graduating from Northwestern, the Cleveland native served as a Japanese-speaking Army intelligence officer during World War II. Following the war, Fishel earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, studying under the famed Hans Morgenthau. A chance 1950 meeting with Diem changed Fishel’s life.

While ostensibly an unlikely pairing, the two shared much in common—each lost a brother to war; were diminutive in size but large in brainpower; believed in using intellectual ideas to transform society; and were virulently anti-communist. In 1954 Fishel decided he would not merely be a pundit on foreign affairs, but would shape them. The next year, the U.S. government awarded MSU a $2-million contract to advise the nascent South Vietnamese government. Morgan posits that Fishel’s relationship with Diem was the deciding factor in Michigan State winning the contract.

Fishel relished his access to power and his role as a maker of public policy, to the extent that some were put off by his egotism. His closeness to Diem led to charges that the relationship clouded his judgment. Fishel also proved to be a poor administrator, leading to conflicts in the MSU advisory group, as well as with the U.S. government agencies. But Diem’s obstinacy worked in Fishel’s favor, as he remained one of the few Americans with whom the autocratic head of state would confide.

Despite their relationship, most of Fishel’s advice to Diem was ignored, and, as Diem concentrated power, he became even less willing to listen. When Fishel’s colleagues published a series of articles in 1961 denouncing Diem’s rule, the MSU contract was terminated. A disillusioned Fishel broke with Diem in 1962, and the next year was working with the State Department on possible Diem replacements.

Fishel and family in Saigon, 1956

After Diem was assassinated in 1963, Fishel continued to vigorously defend American intervention in Vietnam, becoming a lightning rod for protestors. In the late 1960s, Fishel went to Southern Illinois University to help create the Center for Vietnamese Studies, a project that ultimately failed for several reasons, one of which was that the controversial Fishel headed it. He died suddenly in 1977.

Morgan astutely observes that Wesley Fishel’s career mirrored America’s war in Vietnam: Both were filled at first with hopeful optimism, only to be waylaid by frustration and ultimately disaster.

Morgan’s assessment of Fishel in his conclusion—that he was largely inconsequential in forming policy, contributed little to scholarship, and abetted Diem in creating a dictatorship—is both harsh and not borne out by his own impressive research.

Nonetheless, this book is a thoughtful reflection on the role the U.S. academy played in the Cold War and of one’s man role at the outset of what would become a “tragic American experiment.”

–Daniel R. Hart

Richard Tregaskis by Ray E. Boomhower

Some Vietnam War veterans believe that you could count civilian war correspondents who supported the American war effort in Vietnam on one hand. Whether true or not, that group included AP photographer Eddie Adams and Peter Braestrup, the Washington Post’s Saigon bureau chief. And the novelist John Steinbeck wrote a series of positive dispatches on the war for Newsday in 1967 at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson.

Another prominent Vietnam War supporter was the famed World War II combat correspondent Richard Tregaskis, the subject of Ray E. Boomhower’s new biography, Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam (University of New Mexico Press/High Road Books, 356 pp; $34.95, hardcover; $19.22, Kindle).

Tregaskis, a fierce anti-communist, wanted “a firsthand, eyewitness look,” he said, “at the strange, off-beat, new-style war in which we find ourselves engaged in the miserable little jungle country called Vietnam, which our nation’s leaders have decided is pivotal and critical in our Asian struggle with Communism.”

Though he had been in Vietnam before—on assignment for True magazine in 1948, during which he covered the battles between the French and Viet Minh forces, and in 1957, during the Diem regime–Tregaskis got a third chance in 1962. His aim was to do research for a book to be titled Vietnam Diary, following in the tradition of his best-selling World War II book, Guadalcanal Diary.

While Tregaskis’ endeavors in Vietnam take up a small portion of his book, Boomhower does a very good job comparing the differences between war coverage during the Vietnam War and in World War II. The most famous WWII war correspondents were, most famously, Scripps Howard News correspondent Ernie Pyle, Stars and Stripes reporter Andy Rooney, and radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow. None of those journalists would have dared to criticize the American efforts during World War II.

Vietnam War reportage was very different. And Tregaskis didn’t like it, once telling New York Times correspondent David Halberstam, “If I were doing what you are doing, I’d be ashamed of myself.”

For his part, Halberstam “believed it was his job and the responsibility of other journalists in Vietnam to report on the news, positive or negative,” Boomhower notes. “We were finding out stuff we didn’t want to find out. We wanted the Americans to win,” Halberstam said.

The civilian press corps soon understood, though, that MACV wanted only good news from the press and, “any other interpretation was defeatist and irresponsible.”

Tregaskis in Vietnam

Tregaskis’ spent much of his time in Vietnam in 1962 close to the action, as he did during World War II, flying on sixty assault missions on a variety of helicopters. Falling back on his memories of covering WW II, of Vietnam he wrote, “There was no one big D-Day; every day is D-Day and the front is everywhere.” No doubt the civilian press corps with which he was at odds and he could all agree on that.

Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam would make an excellent addition to the libraries of students of World War II and the Vietnam War.

–Marc Phillip Yablonka is the author of Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film

Close Up on War by Mary Cronk Farrell 

The first time I interviewed the renowned French photojournalist Catherine Leroy for Stars and Stripes in 1997 she said, “When I photographed war, it went from dying soldiers to dead civilians. In the wars of one little world against another, one sees the senseless violence. It should be about being alive.”

Leroy’s stirring images, many of which appeared in Life and Look magazines, are alive in Mary Cronk Farrell’s new biography, Close-up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam (Amulet Books/Abrams, 320 pp. $22.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).

In this biography for young adults Farrell tells the story of how Leroy had little to no photographic experience—little more than snapping photos of her cats in her Paris apartment—when she arrived in Saigon in 1966 with a one-way ticket, $100, and a Leica camera. Her dream was to capture images like the ones she saw back home in Paris Match magazine.  

Her first stop was the Associated Press. “When Catherine walked into the AP office, the men all stopped work and turned to look at her,” Farrell writes. “She pulled herself up to her full height, not quite five feet, took a breath, and asked for Horst Faas.”

Faas, the famed AP war photojournalist, later said that Leroy was “a timid, skinny, very fragile-looking young girl who certainly didn’t look like a press photographer as we were used to arriving for assignment in Vietnam. She looked very young, had a nice pigtail on the back of her head. She came in, introduced herself as a photographer from Paris, and I looked her over like everybody else had in the office, and said, ‘My god, here comes another one.’”

Faas asked the young Frenchwoman if she had experience. Leroy lied and said she did. He then reached into his bottom drawer, she remembered later, and plonked three rolls of black-and-white film in front of her. “If you can get anything I can use,” he said, “I’ll pay you fifteen dollars a picture.”

Catherine Leroy had definitely infiltrated a man’s world in Saigon, and many male journalists resented her presence. Not the soldiers and Marines she photographed, however.

“When I got to Vietnam, I spoke three words of English. I slept in the same shitholes as the GIs,” Leroy told me in 1997. And, as Farrell recounts, she also managed to talk her way into parachuting into combat during Operation Junction City, in early 1967 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Catherine Leroy getting ready to jump during Operation Junction City

One of the highlights of Farrell’s book is the fact that it also tells the story of the Vietnam War through Cathy Leroy’s story. An additional endearing highlight of the book is the fact that it is graced with English translations of many letters Leroy wrote home to her mother.

One example, from before the jump with the 173rd and before she was briefly captured in Hue by North Vietnamese Army troops when she was covering the 1968 Tet Offensive:

Chère Maman, Talking about Saigon now. A very pleasant town that you would like. People are insouciant and smiling. Many Americans in civil dress. All this doesn’t give the impression of being in a country at war. You can write to me at the Continental [hotel], I go there every day to pick up my post. Love, Cath’.”

Of course, Vietnam was a country deep at war—a war that Catherine Leroy (who died in 2006) brilliantly captured. Those images and her story are also captured superbly in Close-up on War.

The author’s website is marycronkfarrell.net

–Marc Phillip Yablonka

The reviewer is a military journalist whose latest book is Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film:

America’s National Treasures by Rodney L. Kelley

In America’s National Treasure: Biographical Sketches of the United States Military Personnel Killed in Action on the Deadliest Day of the Vietnam War—January 31, 1968 (262 pp. $15, hardcover; $10, paper, $7, Kindle) retired U.S. Army Col. Rodney Kelly has produced a tribute to the 247 American servicemen who died in Vietnam on that bloody day—the first day of the 1968 Tet Offensive. American losses that day were the highest in any twenty-four hour period during the Vietnam War.

Kelley served in 1970 in Cambodia and later as MACV senior advisor for a Mobile Advisory Team in Phu Yen Province in South Vietnam. His military career stretched from 1969-99.

America’s National Treasure honors 12 airmen, 164 soldiers, 59 Marines, and 12 sailors. Each man’s life story is set down on a single page and each story captures something important and interesting about the man’s life. There also is a photograph and comments from family and friends for each entry. I applaud the effort that Kelley put into gathering the men’s biographies. Each one tells a story of innocence and dedication; altogether, they America’s citizens at their very best.

Five Security Policemen at Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa were among the twelve Air Force personnel who died that day. They were the first line of defense confronting a surprise attack by overwhelming numbers of North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops. Their actions delayed the enemy until additional units responded to defend the airfields they defended. I was in-country during Tet, and turning the pages of Kelley’s book brought back memories of how much Air Force members at all levels admired the valiant response of the Security Police. One of those men, Reginald Victor Maisey, Jr., received the Air Force Cross for his courage under fire that day.

Seven corpsmen stood out from among the twelve Navy casualties. They selflessly gave their lives caring for Marines locked in battle at Hue. The reflexive spontaneity of their responses also became a topic of great admiration among my peers. Navy Cross recipient Daniel Benedict Henry was one a corpsmen casualties. Only one of the men was older than twenty-three.

The youngest Army and Marine men bore the brunt of casualties suffered on that day in battles throughout South Vietnam. Forty of the fifty-nine marines were killed in action, generally by small arms fire, lost their lives in Hue. The majority were nineteen years old.

Turning the pages of the book and reading the biographies turned into a distinct lesson in humility. The section devoted to the 164 Army casualties seemed endless. Most were nineteen- or twenty-years-old and many had been in the service less than a year, rushed through training and sent to battle.

Most died while fighting in small groups overrun by enemy forces of superior size. They experienced everything (arguably more) that happened to men from other services, including ambushes, helicopter shoot downs, and death by friendly fire. The vast majority were shot by small arms or shattered by mortar shells or rockets.

Half a century after the event, reading about so many deaths in such a short time offers a lesson in self-sacrifice. Even opponents of the Vietnam War should be impressed by the devotion of so many young men to their nation, right or wrong. With America’s National Treasure, Rodney Kelley has produced a guide for future employment of forces if the right people read it.  

A story of boyhood friends—Owen Garnet, 20, and William Goldberg, 21—typifies the core of the book. One enlisted in the Army while the other was drafted. Their Army service numbers were sequential. Owen Garnet died at Long Binh on the first day of Tet; nine days later, Billy Goldberg was killed in action in the Mekong Delta.

They were buried in Miami on the same day.

—Henry Zeybel

Honor through Sacrifice by Robert E. Lofthouse

The question, “Where does America get such gallant men?” resonates repeatedly in Honor through Sacrifice: The Story of One of America’s Greatest Military Leaders (Koehler Books, 206 pp. $25.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) by Robert E. Lofthouse. The answer focuses on Gordon Lippman, who fought in more than twenty battles in eleven campaigns in a twenty-two-year military career extending from World War II to the Vietnam War.

At the age of eighteen in March 1943 Lippman quit high school and enlisted in the Army. By the time he completed advanced training, Lippmann had been promoted to staff sergeant based on his leadership qualities.

In 1944, as a member of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, Lippmann saw action in Italy and, soon afterward, parachuted behind German lines into Southern France, a surprise operation that sent the German Army fleeing from the coastal region. Continually advancing northward, the 517th eventually fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Lofthouse presents a great amount of historical detail in addition to telling the story of his first cousin’s life. After describing the turmoil of the pivotal Battle of the Bulge, for example, he analyzes events twenty-one miles north of Bastogne that Lippman took part in. For his leadership and daring under fire during the Battle of the Bulge, Gordon Lippman earned a battlefield commission to second lieutenant at the age of twenty.

In his account of cousin’s actions in the Korean War Lofthouse follows the same historical pattern, but tells more about the man who led the all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment platoon. Although Lippman unhesitatingly risked his own life, he always kept his men’s survival in mind. In Korea, he received a Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a promotion to captain. Following the war, Lippman advanced through the ranks. As a lieutenant colonel, he joined the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division at Lai Khe inside the Iron Triangle in 1965.

Lofthouse writes that political machinations led to the U.S. military failure in the Vietnam War. “Civilian control of the military does have its consequences,” he writes, noting that “the U.S. military had long been schooled in offensive warfare and was very good at it. Regardless of political policies, U.S. commanders were institutionally and psychologically unsuited to a defensive mission, which is what was called for in Vietnam by successive presidential administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.” 

In this “caldron of contention,” Gordon Lippman served mainly as a staff officer, although he occasionally joined troops in the field. Once, he even took a turn as a door gunner on a helicopter. He also was a believer in hearts-and-mind programs, especially helping school-age children.

Lt. Col. Lippman

On the night of December 11, 1965, following dinner with his fellow officers, Lippman announced that he was going to check on “the boys.” He donned his web gear, left the quarters, and was shot. A helicopter immediately medevacked him to Saigon, but he died during the night.

In concluding Honor through Sacrifice, Lofthouse examines Lippman’s legacy, along with those of other military heroes. He also includes “Memories from the Family,” a collection of remembrances about his cousin from the people closest to him.

Between wars, Lippman lived a model life. Following his strong Roman Catholic principles, he and his wife adopted three children. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees and wrote articles about leadership, a few of which Lofthouse summarizes in the book.

Honor through Sacrifice rightfully lauds the life of an exceptional citizen-soldier and simultaneously offers history lessons about American involvement in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

I lived through those years and knew a lot about much of what Lofthouse writes in the book about those wars. On the other hand, he delved into minutia that reached a new and revelatory depth for me.

I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in infantry combat.

—Henry Zeybel

JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century by Fredrik Logevall

“To pour money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.” What American leader said it and when?

It wasn’t Sen. George McGovern, the World War II veteran who opposed the Vietnam War beginning in the early 1960s. Nor was it Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who ran on a strong antiwar platform in the 1968 Presidential campaign. And it wasn’t retired Lt. Gen. James Gavin or the architect of the containment doctrine, George Kennan, who spoke out against the war during the 1966 Senate Fulbright hearings.

The speaker, in fact, was Sen. John F. Kennedy, and the year was 1954. The young Democratic senator from Massachusetts was reacting to the Eisenhower Administration’s support of France during the First Indochina War, which had been doing on since 1945. The remarks were given in April as Viet Minh forces be sieged the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu and the French frantically pleaded with the Americans to save them from an impending disaster. Eisenhower, whose administration underwrote the majority of French war, ultimately decided not to intervene militarily. In May the French were routed.

That was not the first time a John Kennedy had shown interest in Indochina. In 1951, then Rep. Kennedy went on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East and Asia that included a prominent stop in Vietnam. The news of the trip would burnish his foreign policy bona fides, effectively enhancing Kennedy’s credentials his successful run for the United States Senate the following year.

By 1956, Kennedy had changed his tune. He characterized the U.S. as South Vietnam’s “godparents,” and promised to defend that nation from a communist insurgency. “Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike,” Kennedy proclaimed in the keynote speech he gave to the American Friends of Vietnam, a group created in 1955 to promote and defend democracy in the nascent country of South Vietnam. Kennedy was a charter member.

In JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 (Random House, 816 pp., $40, hardcover; $20, paper; $14.99, Kindle) Frederik Logevall’s magisterial slice-of-life biography of John F. Kennedy, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian searches for answers to this paradox and the other complexities of the thirty-fifth president of the United States.

Though the historiography on Kennedy is voluminous, Logevall’s work is the first to fully contextualize Kennedy in his times in this massive book that divided into 22 accessible chapters and supported by 65 pages of endnotes. Logevall, perhaps the foremost scholar of the American war Vietnam, is a professor of history and international affairs at Harvard University. His previous books include Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (1999) and Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (2012), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

This first volume of a planned two-volume exploration of Kennedy’s life spans JFK’s first thirty-nine years, ending with his unsuccessful run in 1956 for the Democratic nomination for Vice President. That loss was ultimately a win for Kennedy, though, as it propelled him to prominence as a national political figure and solidified his decision to run for President in 1960.

Despite his domineering father, Logevall’s Kennedy is more independent, and—despite his well-documented womanizing—more earnest than he has been depicted in other historians. Logevall does not avoid the many deficits in Kennedy’s character—he was a poor friend, exploitative in many of his relationships, and too often favored his public image over his character—but he does tread lightly over two incidents in Kennedy’s life that would come to define the young politician: the disputed authorship of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, and his failure to vote for the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in December 1954.

Kennedy’s early commentary on the war in Vietnam and private doubts belying his public rhetoric produce a complicated picture that would inform his war policies after he was elected President. But this will have to wait for Logevall’s much-anticipated second volume.

I, for one, can’t wait.

–Daniel R. Hart

Kapaun’s Battle by Jeff Gress

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Kapaun’s Battle (3rd Coast Books, 239 pp. $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is the inspiring story of the final year of the life of Emil Kapaun, a man of God who became the most decorated chaplain in U.S military history.

When the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950, United Nation forces, mainly from the U.S., moved in to aid the South Koreans. Among them was Father Kapaun, 34, who had served as a Catholic chaplain in World War II and rejoined the Army to go to Korea because, he said, he had “orders from God.” Upon his arrival “No one but the generals understand why we’re here,” Kapaun said.

In early action he had his helmet knocked off by rifle fire and later he was blown off his feet by a mortar round. Another time a bullet split Kapaun’s pipe in two while was holding it. He taped it back together. One soldier called him “the most fearless chaplain I’ve ever seen.” He always seemed to be surprised to be complimented for his bravery.

Father Kapaun was with the troops as they moved across the border into North Korea, frequently using the hood of a Jeep as an altar. He was also with them when China entered the war with human wave attacks that broke through the American lines. Kapaun was seen dragging wounded men to cover again and again during the assault, constantly moving among them, treating the wounded, and praying over them. He was in a command post when it was overrun by the Chinese.

Gress, a screenwriter, pulls no punches when describing deaths on the battlefield. Much of it involved hand-to hand-fighting, which Gress characterizes as “hell on earth.”

As the Chinese moved south, nearly a thousand captured Americans were marched north. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot. As the POWs marched, Kapaun prayed just loud enough for the men around him to hear.

Eventually Kapaun and the other POWs were put in camps where dead bodies were stacked up by the hundreds. During the winter of 1950-51, one of the coldest on record, the POWs slept “with their cold feet clamped in the armpits of others,” Gress writes.

During their captivity Kapaun constantly prayed and comforted the men. He also actively stole food for them, and once tried to dig a grave, though he only had dog tags and sticks to do it with. In the spring of 1951 he defiantly gave an Easter service.

Father Emil Kapaun died in captivity in May 1951 and was buried in a mass grave. He was awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Legion of Merit Award, and decades later, was posthumously given the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama.

Kapaun’s Battle is a well-written book about a courageous, selfless man who is being considered for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. It was an honor to read it.

The book’s publisher, Ron Mumford, served with the Americal Division’s 6/11th Artillery in 1970.

–Bill McCloud