Our Man by George Packer

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“Idealism,” writes George Packer, “without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive.” This was the central tension of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s life and death, a struggle to balance a blinding ambition with American virtue.

Packer is a writer at The New Yorker and The Atlantic whose best-selling book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, won a National Book Award in 2013. Producing his latest book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, 609 pp., $30), was not a dispassionate undertaking for him. He starts Our Man with: “Holbrooke? Yes I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.”

This initial conversational prose continues throughout the book, primarily in the first person by Packer, but occasionally by a third-person narrator. At times, Packer cedes narrative control to Holbrooke, using the former diplomat’s diary to fill an entire chapter.

George Packer’s simpatico relationship with Richard Holbrooke is underscored by their mutual support for the war in Iraq. That influenced Holbrooke’s third wife and widow to allow Packer unfettered access to her husband’s previously private papers and diaries. Packer also conducted more than 250 interviews for the book.

The brilliance of the end product is in revealing the essence of Holbrooke. He is not necessarily a likable figure, and Packer is unafraid to portray the more profane aspects of his personality. Yet Holbrooke’s ambition propelled him into achieving great things for his country, most notably negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict in Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke arrived in South Vietnam in the spring of 1963 as a Foreign Service Officer in the JFK mold. He stayed for three years before leaving for Washington to work for pacification czar Robert (“Blowtorch Bob”) Komer. He would stay in Washington long enough to write a volume of The Pentagon Papers and participate in the Paris Peace Talks in 1968.

Under President Carter, Holbrooke became the youngest Assistant Secretary of State. He met his match in National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, though, who bested Holbrooke bureaucratically and consistently proscribed more-effective policies. Exiled during Reagan-Bush years, Holbrooke would fail in his life-long goal of becoming Secretary of State. He served in the Clinton and Obama presidencies in various roles, including as special envoy to the Balkans, and as special representative to Afghanistan.

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Holbrooke in South Vietnam in the early sixties

As it was during his time in Vietnam, Holbrooke’s ambition was sweeping and shameless, a characteristic Packer finds humanizing—but one that others may find revolting. Packer seemingly spares no salacious detail in the book. “He didn’t want to miss a minute of life,” Packer writes. He carried on many affairs (one famously with Diane Sawyer), played video games, watching an endless stream of movies, and wooed his best friend’s wife.

The journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson contends that if one was to read only one book about America’s foreign policy in the past fifty years, Our Man should be the book. This may be too sanguine, but it is not without merit.

Holbrooke’s perspective on foreign policy was forged by the Vietnam War, with its paradoxical mélange of exploited patriotism and sincere idealism, of earnestness and hubris, which has established the rhetorical framework for the use of American force since. His support for the war in Iraq showed that Holbrooke did not learn this lesson, allowing his egotism to destroy his idealism. When he tried to apply these lessons to his time as Special Representative to Afghanistan, he lacked the temperament to work with President Obama.

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Holbrooke at the table at the Paris Peace Talks

Our Man is a biographical masterpiece, but Packer’s history lacks a serious analytical framework. The second half of the title, “The End of the American Century,” seems to have been absorbed from others as a commentary about the current administration. In the scope of this magisterial effort, this seems like trifling criticism.

Our Man is captivating, infuriating, and engrossing. Much like Holbrooke himself.

–Daniel R. Hart

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The Mayaguez Crisis by Christopher J. Lamb

In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

This understanding of presidential perspective is central to The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations (Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 284 pp., $66) by Christopher Lamb, who is Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University.

In his book Lamb examines what U.S. leaders hoped to accomplish in their response to the Mayaguez crisis, and how those motivations influenced the manner in which the ensuing drama unfolded. He believes the motives for U.S. behavior have been widely mis-characterized and their significance misunderstood.

Often cited as the last battle of the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez Crisis began on May 12, 1975, less than two weeks after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, when Cambodian Khmer Rouge gunboats seized the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant container ship carrying a crew of forty en route to Thailand, in international waters off the Cambodian coast.

In the first part of his book, Lamb lucidly provides details about the four-day crisis, highlighting the words and actions of the four principle players in the crisis: President Gerald Ford, in office nine months when the crisis started; Henry Kissinger, Ford’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser; Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and Deputy National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

In the only such international incident managed through the National Security Council, the reaction was swift. The U.S. bombed the Cambodian coast, sank several vessels leaving the Koh Tang island, and used Marines to invade that island where we believed the crew was being held. Twenty-three Air Force police and crew were killed in a helicopter crash in Thailand, fifteen Marines died in action on Tang, and three were listed as missing in action.

After that military action, the Cambodians returned the ship and crew returned safely, and the Ford Administration demonstrated resolve in the wake of the unsatisfying end of the Vietnam War. The action was widely seen as successful.

Lamb’s historical account is both gripping in its prose and masterful, as is his command of the information. However, his primary motivation is not documenting the events in the White House, but understanding why they unfolded in the manner that they did. Lamb is uniquely qualified to undertake this assignment as he is the author of Belief Systems and Decision Making in the Mayaguez Crisis (1989), as well as many journal articles on the subject.

This analysis is accessible and thorough. The relatively brief text is backed up by more than fifty pages of notes. Lamb systematically reviews the potential motivations of the policy makers, which included:

  • a rescue mission, a use of coercive diplomacy against the Khmer Rouge
  • a use of military force to avoid a USS Pueblo-type prolonged hostage negotiation
  • an emotional catharsis in response to Vietnam, and
  • an effort to use the crisis to boost Ford’s reelection prospects.

Lamb shows that these reasons—even the rescue of the crew—all were secondary to the primary objective of Ford Administration policymakers: using overwhelming and rapid force to signal to North Korea and the international community the resolve of the United States.

Despite the agreement among leaders, the implementation of the policy was strained by a bureaucracy in which Kissinger exerted undue influence, and Schlesinger—who was chiefly responsible for saving the crew and preventing more deaths of Marines on Tang—was unfairly scapegoated for the loss of life.

Lamb suggests that this book is aimed primarily for the national security community, but I humbly disagree. This is an exemplary case study of crisis management that will be valuable for historians, analysts, political scientists, and anyone with an interest in the subject matter.

I give it my highest recommendation.

For more info and to order, go to bookstore.gpo.gov/products/mayaguez

–Daniel R. Hart

 

Kissinger the Negotiator by James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin

Lauding Henry Kissinger is the primary purpose of Kissinger the Negotiator, which carries the subtitle tease, Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level (HarperCollins, 448 pp.; $28.99, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $14.99, Kindle). After studying “many of the world’s most impressive negotiators,” the authors (all Harvard professors) classify the controversial Kissinger as “a breed apart.”

The authors—James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin—are experts in negotiation, diplomacy, and law. They allowed Kissinger to write the book’s forward. In it, he lauds the authors for being the first, to his knowledge, to “seriously analyze” his “most effective strategies and tactics to address different challenges at the table.” This then is the book’s “central topic,” he says, which makes it “unique.”

The authors dissect Kissinger’s most formidable negotiations by beginning with what they call the “forgotten case” of South Africa in 1976. Then they work their way through Kissinger’s involvement in the Vietnam War, with U.S.-China relations, the Cold War, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. They find “a great deal to admire and several aspects to question.”

The concluding chapter offers fifteen “Key Lessons on Negotiation from Henry Kissinger” and provides a checklist to use if you’re ever bargaining across a table. Which begs the question: What happens when your opponent has a copy of the list?

The checklist rewords old practices and self-evident truths. It reminds me of military school handouts that address concepts of leadership: “Know your job” was the first principle of those schools. This book gives similar advice; to wit: “Develop deep familiarity with the subject of your negotiation.”

The professors add a caveat, however, for leaders who negotiate in areas in which they lack knowledge: “Make sure that your team possesses this knowledge.” Do they mean “Know yourself and seek self-improvement,” which has been taught to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines for ages?

What the authors call the book’s “key lessons,” therefore, are not new. In the situations cited, they were effective because of Kissinger’s skill in choosing and applying established tactics. For example, the authors emphasize Kissinger’s talent for “zooming out” to set strategies and “zooming in” to contend with difficult opponents.

The authors describe the miasma that engulfed Kissinger in making Vietnam War policy. “No,” they say, was the operative word from everybody he encountered: the U.S. Congress and public, North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, South Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Thieu, and Chinese and Soviet diplomats. Even West German officials added to the discord.

For years, Kissinger pursued America’s Vietnam War goals for good or bad despite Richard Nixon’s showing his hand by withdrawing troops starting in 1969. The authors classify Kissinger’s early bargaining position with the North Vietnamese as “weak.” But his determination was formidable, they say, in pursuing tasks bordering on the impossible.

While reading about Kissinger versus the North Vietnamese, I kept thinking that he could have stayed home if a president had targeted B-52s over Hanoi seven, or even five, years earlier.

With more than one hundred of the book’s pages devoted to notes, bibliography, and index, arguments about negotiation techniques fill less than three hundred pages. Nevertheless, the book provides interesting views of history and Kissinger’s role in the action.

—Henry Zeybel

Eisenhower & Cambodia by William J. Rust

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The journalist, editor, and author William J. Rust specializes in mid-twentieth century interactions between the United States and Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the three nations that once comprised French Indochina. His most recent book is Eisenhower & Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War (University Press of Kentucky, 374 pp.; $40.00, hardcover; $31.20, Kindle).

Rust has mastered the art of reviving the past as he piles fact upon fact to recreate the political and military climate of the time. Footnotes abound. The bibliography delves deeply into government documents and histories, oral histories, and interviews, memoirs, and the best secondary sources.

The book’s major player is Norodom Sihanouk, who served both as king of Cambodia and as its prime minister for decades. Caught between the United States and communist-inspired Viet Minh interests, Sihanouk worked hard for Cambodian independence and neutrality.

The latter stance created turmoil because the Eisenhower administration wanted Cambodia to take an anti-communist position similar to that of South Vietnam and Laos. Consequently, the book focuses on misdirected diplomacy, border incursions, and unfulfilled coups. The title of one chapter—”Many Unpleasant and Different Things”—could serve for the entire book.

Rust contends that President Eisenhower’s administration failed at finding common ground with Sihanouk, even though he had pro-Western inclinations. Rust labels Cambodia as “an afterthought in U.S. relations with Indochina.” Eisenhower’s two-volume memoir mentions Sihanouk only once, Rust says, which shows the limit of his interest. Rust also says that American leaders felt “contempt for the prince personally.”

The influences of anti-communist Cambodian dissidents and their patrons from South Vietnam and Thailand, as well as from India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, China’s Zhou Enlai, and the Soviet Union, the Philippines, and French leaders compounded the diplomatic problems confronting America’s Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his ambassadors to Cambodia.

Despite the many Westerners who viewed him as incompetent, from 1953-61 Sihanouk kept Cambodia from suffering political and military turmoil similar to that experienced by South Vietnam and Laos. A failed 1959 CIA-supported plot to overthrow him succeeded only in solidifying his leadership role, Rust says.

Eventually, limited American financial and military aid to Cambodia brought the two nations closer together. “Cambodia was a relatively peaceful front in the cold war,” Rust writes, when John F. Kennedy became president in January 1961.

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Prince Sihanouk on his throne

Finger pointing will never go out of style when it comes to writing about the causes and the outcome of the Second Indochina War, aka the Vietnam War. Three recent books, for example, accuse American leaders of harming the nation’s Vietnam War credibility. In The War after the War, Johannes Kadura offers a “new interpretation” of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s multiple plans—called “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy”—to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. Nixon and Kissinger’s quest for a positive self-image transcended their honesty, Kadura says.

In The American South and the Vietnam War Joseph Fry writes that political leaders in the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) felt that Asiatic peoples were inferior and undeserving of protection. Tears Across the Mekong by Marc Philip Yablonka challenges the CIA and the United States government for failing to recognize Hmong contributions to the war in Laos.

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William J. Rust

Rust’s Eisenhower & Cambodia is particularly significant because the Eisenhower administration’s activities preceded much of the other actions related to the war and provided a foundation for what followed. In this respect, Rust’s Epilogue, which deals with the 1961-63 deterioration of relationships within and between Southeast Asian nations, is a lucid summation for everything he explains earlier.

“The coup d’état in South Vietnam on November 1 [1963], and the assassination of [Prime Minister Ngo Dinh] Diem and [his brother Ngo Dinh] Nhu confirmed Sihanouk’s worst fears about the United States,” Rust says. It caused Sihanouk to end all U.S. military, economic, and cultural assistance.

Rust’s book also fills a niche in the University Press of Kentucky’s excellent Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series, which explores the significance of developments in U.S. foreign relations from the eighteenth century to the present.

—Henry Zeybel

The War after the War by Johannes Kadura

 

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Four minutes before six o’clock on the morning of January 28, 1973, I awoke in my Tan Son Nhut BOQ room when four mortar rounds hit the base. We were six hours ahead of Greenwich, where it was nearly midnight and the start of the ceasefire designated by the Paris Peace Accords. No further rounds followed, but Big Voice kept ordering people to shelters. I rolled over in bed and smiled.

The North Vietnamese were telling us that they hadn’t quit, I thought with a touch of admiration. Two years and three months later, the NVA rolled into Saigon.

Events that led to that morning and followed it are the subject of The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility During America’s Exit from Vietnam (Cornell University Press, 231 pp.; $45) by Johannes Kadura. The story revolves around the Indochina endgame strategy employed by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford with counsel from National Security Adviser/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon and Kissinger, Kadura explains, used two basic plans to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. They called their plans “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy.” Kadura discusses the plans and then offers his “new interpretation” of what occurred during the years immediately before and after the signing of the Peace Agreement in Paris. He focuses on the U.S. perspective and does not attempt to tell the Vietnamese version of the story.

The book is a masterpiece of research that is carefully footnoted. Kadura holds a doctorate in American history. He studied at Yale and Cambridge. He is Managing Director of AKRYL, an Internet company based in Hamburg and Beijing.

After American forces departed Vietnam and our POWs returned home, Nixon and Kissinger “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended,” Kadura says. “The implications were obvious: the United States had fulfilled its basic obligations and could focus on more important things; the South Vietnamese had to figure out the rest on their own.” Nixon and Kissinger soon shifted their attention to more critical international matters, such as the Yom Kippur War, the oil crisis, and relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

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Johannes Kadura

The book convincingly argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame on Congress for America’s lack of post-1973 support for the vulnerable nations of Indochina, particularly when Congress reduced military and economic aid to those nations each year.

Nixon’s distraction by Watergate and his eventual resignation forced Kissinger to guide America’s foreign policy for a considerable period, Kadura says. Ford, however, proved to be his own man, no more so than when he pardoned Nixon. Ford, emulating Nixon, continued to blame Congress for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ending up under communist rule.

The book presents information that filled gaps in my education. Like many people, I had stopped worrying about Southeast Asia in 1973. Material new to me included the fact that some 207,000 NVA regulars moved into South Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Accords; the North’s paving of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and its construction of SAM sites at Khe Sanh and A Shau—all in preparation for its final offensive. I also didn’t know about Nixon’s gross failure to take decisive action against cease-fire violations and of the political machinations that led to the fall of Cambodia. Kadura’s history lessons ensure that the reader sees the big picture.

Overall, Kadura convinced me that among Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, pessimism prevailed throughout the post-peace agreement period. Their goal had been to exit Vietnam without looking like they were running away (“peace with honor”), and they feared being accused of having done exactly that. Kadura barely mentions “peace with honor,” which was a byword of the era. He does discuss the “decent interval,” a goal that might have resulted in more favorable outcomes for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Loas. A two-year interval was not long enough.

The end of South Vietnam triggered a lot of soul searching in this country. Study groups from the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council came up with conflicting summaries of lessons learned. Kissinger’s insistence that “Washington had bought vital time for Southeast Asia’s non-communist nations to develop” became a popular but questionable conclusion because America had not prosecuted the war with that goal in mind, according to Kadura. The “buying vital time” claim, however, reassured other allies that Washington would help them fight communist aggression.

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Nixon in China

Looking “beyond defeat in Indochina,” Kadura shows that America retained post-Agreement influence in Southeast Asia during the Mayaguez incident, as well as with our denial of help to Hanoi, and through worsening relations with China.

Kadura’s conclusion: “The overall effects of Washington’s defeat in Indochina were quite limited. The strategic balance did not shift decisively in favor of the Soviets or Chinese. Washington emerged tarnished yet relatively strong. Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger did manage to control the damage caused by the U.S. defeat.”

The author’s website is johanneskadura.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

So Much to Lose by William J. Rust

In So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos (University Press of Kentucky, 376 pp., $40) William J. Rust offers a meticulous account of President John F. Kennedy’s vacillating actions toward Laos in the early 1960s.

So Much to Lose is a sequel to Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961. In that 2012 book Rust examined how both President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy attempted to deal with the rising threat of communism in Laos prior to the big U.S. build up in Vietnam.

Kennedy inherited Eisenhower’s policies, which grew out of President Truman’s decision to provide American support to the French effort to reclaim its Indochinese colonies after World War II. The French, of course, were defeated, and Eisenhower’s famous “domino theory” became American policy. The idea was to keep Laos neutral so that the widening war in South Vietnam—and American military involvement there—didn’t grow still wider.

To an extent, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed that the two superpowers had no interest in Laos, and supported neutrality. But even though North Vietnam was in some ways a Soviet client state, Khrushchev could not control Hanoi’s leadersship.

Kennedy might have wished that Laos was a problem that would go away. He found himself supporting the FAR (the Laotian army, or, from the U.S. point of view, the good guys), as well as the so-called “neutralists” in battles on the Plain of Jars against the North Vietnamese-supported Pathet Lao. But Kennedy had no thought of direct intervention for fear of widening the war and destroying entirely the idea of neutrality. This proxy war, supported by the State Department and the CIA, blew hot and cold during JFK’s shortened presidency until, with Kennedy’s assassination, the problem became President Johnson’s in 1963.

William J. Rust

Infighting among the American-supported factions, a coup, and increased pressure from the Pathet Lao combined to effect the primary communist objective: the security of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Said Trail, leading through “neutral” Laos and Cambodia, greatly facilitated the much bigger war in South Vietnam.

Kennedy was reluctant to commit American troops even though he was fiercely anti-communist and a believer in the domino theory. But he never had to deal with the increased power and ferocity of the North Vietnamese. Rust can’t say if JFK’s reaction to the North Vietnamese aggression would have been similar to that of Johnson who committed, at the height of the war, more than a half million American troops.

Rust’s diplomatic history provides plenty of details for speculation about what JFK would have done in South Vietnam (and Laos) had he lived. So Much to Lose, in fact, may provide too much detail for the general reader. But if you want to learn about how wars get started—and wobble out of control—this book will tell you.

—John Mort

Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War by Pierre Asselin

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If you have any doubt that the war waged by North Vietnam against the Republic of (South) Vietnam and the United States was, above all, a political one, Pierre Asselin’s Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (University of California Press, 319 pp., $55), should change your mind.

Asselin, a Hawaii Pacific University history professor who specializes in the Vietnam War, has come up with a well-researched, in-depth look at the decision-making process in Hanoi from the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 to the start of the American war in 1965. He makes a strong case that North Vietnam’s communist leaders—led by the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Duan, who wrested real power away from the slightly less doctrinaire nationalist/communist Ho Chi Minh—were dogmatic revolutionaries who shaped their war against the Americans in three “separate but related modes of struggle”: the political, diplomatic and military.

Several Vietnam War historians, including Lien-Hang T. Nguyen of the University of Kentucky in her book Hanoi’s War, have recently uncovered new evidence showing the prominent role of Le Duan (1907-2013) in the North Vietnamese hierarchy. Asselin, who also delved deeply into communist Vietnamese archives, comes to the came conclusion.

              Le Duan (left) and Ho Chi Minh in 1960

Asselin describes Le Duan (born Le Van Nhuan) as “a stern, dogmatic, and stoic revolutionary,” and writes that “other observers are more blunt, characterizing him variously as ‘violent,’ ‘authoritarian,’ ‘tough,’ and ‘ruthless.’” Le Duan was “fully determined,” Asselin notes, “to achieve reunification of Vietnam whatever the cost.”

That cost included sacrificing what turned out to be an almost unfathomable number of North Vietnamese lives in the American war. As the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations learned, fighting “relentlessly, sacrificing selflessly, and winning totally became the hallmarks of [Le Duan and the other communist bosses’] worldview, which shaped both the course and the outcome of the Vietnam War.”

—Marc Leepson