America and Vietnam, 1954-1963 by Michael M. Walker

America and Vietnam, 1954-1963: The Road to War (McFarland, 391 pp. $49.95, paper; $22.49, Kindle) is an exceptionally well-researched and written history. It is an outstanding single-volume look at the Vietnam War’s origins, examining how and why America’s fate became entwined with the internal struggle between Vietnamese factions.    

The goals of this book are to identify the origins of the war, the nature of the adversaries, their capabilities, and the evolving commitment of the United States. In other words, what happened that led to America’s direct and overwhelming involvement in a war the country chose to fight, not one we fought out of necessity.  

In answering that question, Michael Walker explains the very complicated power struggle following the end of the First Indochinese War in 1954 in the South, after which Ngo Dinh Diem created a functional state (the Republic of South Vietnam) in an otherwise dysfunctional mess.   

Walker, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, provides a complete picture of President Diem, who was a very complicated man, showing how he consolidated power. Walker claims that it was the one-sided and damaging treatment of Diem in the American press that contributed to the 1963 coup that resulted in his death.

Walker then explains how the North’s highly experienced and disciplined Worker’s Party quickly consolidated power after the French defeat in anticipation of future unification and the impact of the war in Laos on the conflict in Vietnam. The chaotic events of 1963–including a series a Buddhist-led protests against Diem, the U.S.-supported coup and Diem’s assasination, as well as Hanoi’s decision to exploit the post-coup instability in the South—changed the face of the war.    

To explain how a civil war between the northern and southern Vietnamese became a major part of American history Walker examines the decade immediately preceding the American war in Vietnam. He focuses on Resolution 15 issued by Hanoi in 1959, which formally began a second phase of the war, the first being the struggle for independence from the French.  

Walker addresses the creation of armies in both the North and South and provides insights into the professional and highly effective use of intelligence collection and signals intelligence by the North. Perhaps the most impressive success of the North was the placement of agents into the highest reaches of the South’s military and government.  One undercover agent who revealed his role after the war actually worked for American news correspondents and influenced their opinions about the war.  

This is an informative book that answers many questions about how the United States wound up fighting in Vietnam in a much-expanded conflict. It is well worth the time to read. 

–John Cirafici

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

Operation Embankment by Michael Trainor

Michael Trainor’s Operation Embankment: The Story of America’s First Casualty in Vietnam – 1945 (Alta Vista Group, 556 pp. $18, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an first-rate work of historical fiction. Trainor is a teacher who has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. This is his first book, the result of ten years of research and five years of writing. He has created a detailed, fly-on-the wall look at just one month, September 1945, when the United States, along with much of Europe and Asia, stood at an important crossroads.

Maj. Peter Dewey is considered to be the first American service members killed during war in Vietnam. His murder, more likely an assassination, occurred on September 26, 1945, and his name is not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His body has never been recovered and the identity of his killer has never been conclusively established.

Peter Dewey entered military service in August 1942 and worked as an intelligence officer in French and British colonies in Africa. The next year he was transferred to the OSS, where his short stature and glasses set him apart. Assigned to OSS headquarters in Algiers, he won his parachute wings and led his first team into combat. He later commanded a team of about fifty OSS men.

On September 4, 1945, Dewey’s OSS team arrived in Saigon, where they were given the task of gathering intelligence for the State Department on the three main players in the post-World-War-II power struggle for Indochina: the French, the British, and the Vietnamese. This assignment became known as Operation Embankment. The OSS team was also was given the task of finding American POWS and arranging for their release; checking on the condition of American property and installations; and investigating war crimes.

The Japanese had recently surrendered in Indochina, and France was planning to regain its former colonies. Meanwhile, an organized Vietnamese force was dead set on winning independence. The British also expected to have a say in the future of the former French colonies of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Dewey began collecting what information he could from many sources. Other topics of concern were the Chinese government and the opium trade.

Peter Dewey quickly came to realize that no European nation would ever be able maintain control over Indochina and he clashed with the British commander who wanted to crush the Vietnamese independence movement.

Following complaints from the British, Dewey was relieved of duty and ordered to leave Vietnam. On the day he was getting ready to depart, September 26, 1945, he was killed in an ambush, most likely by Viet Minh troops.

The novel tells Dewey’s Vietnam War story, as well as the investigation into his death and the shockwaves it sent around the world.

Unresolved questions include the matter of whether Dewey was the intended victim or a random one; who was behind it the killing and why; and his body’s ultimate resting place.

Trainor’s Operation Embankment is the story of one man during one month, but it’s a story that resonates in international and political circles to this day. The effort Trainor put into this massive novel should be celebrated.

–Bill McCloud

Dien Bien Phu 1954 by Martin Windrow

Martin Windrow’s Dien Bien Phu, 1954: The French Defeat that Lured America into Vietnam (Osprey, 96 pp., $24, paper) is an easy-to-follow account of the pivotal May 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended the Vietnamese war against France and determined the future of Vietnam. Rich in photographs, illustrations, and maps, and supported with a detailed chronology and order of battle tables, this concise history takes the reader right into the battle.

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was a consequence of monumental errors in French operational planning, including misunderstanding the enemy’s intentions and capabilities. The French also overestimated their own capability to maintain and defend the remote base with artillery and air support. and forces available—and underestimated the Viet Minh’s ability to commit substantial forces to the battle supplemented with artillery and antiaircraft weaponry.

The purpose of the base was to draw Viet Minh forces away from the strategically important Red River Delta, which included Hanoi and Haiphong. Ironically, the misguided plan instead isolated significant numbers of French forces, moving them away from areas where they were essential. Despite heavy losses by the Viet Minh. the French were ultimately crushed.

Although Windrow—a military historian who has written widely about the 20th century wars in Vietnam—does not compare Dien Bien Phu with the siege of the remote Khe Sanh combat base fourteen years later during America’s Vietnam War, one cannot help but look for parallels and differences. Some similarities and some important differences come to mind.

The Viet Minh, for example, zeroed their artillery in on Dien Bien Phu’s two airfields, essentially shutting them down and the North Vietnamese Army essentially did the same thing at Khe Sanh. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the overall commander of attacking forces in both battles, applied the lessons of the first to the second. French tactical airpower at DBP was sorely inadequate and encouraged Giap’s tactical boldness. In contrast, U.S. airpower inflicted heavy losses on NVA at Khe Sanh in 1968. 

Vietnamese artillery, well concealed and protected, was a key component of the siege strategy at both DBP and Khe Sanh. At DBP it was used to support assaulting troops, wipe out outposts, deny the use of the airfields, and target command and control bunkers. Fuel storage and ammunition dumps also were destroyed at Khe Sanh. The ammunition dump also was destroyed, many aircraft on the ground were hit, and movement within the camp greatly restricted. Yet Khe Sanh, supplied by airdrops, never fell to the NVA.

French troops besieged at Dien Bien Phu

Finally, an important difference: For the North Vietnamese the Siege of Khe Sanh was not the focus of the ensuing 1968 Tet Offensive. The base did not have to be actually taken. The NVA instead succeeded in its goal of drawing key U.S. combat forces (the 1st Cavalry Division) away from population centers on the eve of the South Vietnam-wide Tet Offensive.

As a veteran of the siege of Khe Sanh I wanted to learn as much as possible about Dien Bien Phu from this book. And I was pleased to see that Windrow’s narrative, maps, order of battle listings, and timelines allowed me an to “see” the battle of DBP as it unfolded.       

This book accomplishes quite a bit. It is well worth reading.          

–John Cirafici           

Logistics in the Vietnam Wars by N S Nash

“Logistics,” the British Field Marshal Viscount Wavell of Cyrenaica once said, “are a function of command.” In the Logistics in the Vietnam Wars, 1945-1975 (Pen and Sword/Casemate, 224 pp., $34.95) N S Nash examines the processes, resources, and systems involved in generating, transporting, sustaining, and redeploying or reallocating materiel and personnel in the twenty century wars in Vietnam. Nash looks at three distinct wars: the war of the Vietnamese against the French (1946-54), the Vietnamese against the Americans (1956-73), and a civil war pitting North Vietnam against South Vietnam (1973-1975).

N S “Tank” Nash received his MA in Military History from Birmingham University and was a member of the British Army Catering Corps for thirty years, rising to the rank of Brigadier. He is the author of several books on military history, including Valor in the Trenches. This is his first book on the Vietnam wars.

Nash presents this work in an accessible, colloquial manner, often employing derision and sarcasm while analyzing the actions of French and American military and political leaders. During the First Indochina War, AKA, “the French war,” Nash details how France’s initial use of wheeled transport proved vulnerable given the terrain, climate, and, ultimately, the adaptability of their enemy. The French military leadership’s desire to engage the Vietnamese in a set piece battle ended disastrously when they were routed by General Vo Nguyen Giap at the famed 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

After the partition of Vietnam as a result of the Geneva Accords that year, the Americans supported the pro-Western South Vietnam government. The mobility of American forces with the use of helicopters solved most of the logistical problems the French had encountered. The American problems in Vietnam proved to be more tactical than logistical, with the only logistical issue being an overabundance of amenities and comforts for the troops.  The use of chemical defoliants and bombing proved ineffective against the guerilla tactics used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal in 1973, Nash describes the civil war between the North and the South as a fait accompli, noting that the North Vietnamese Army was far better prepared for the largely conventional war that ensued.

Though the thesis and title of the book are about the logistics of the Vietnam wars, Nash also delves into the political, diplomatic, and social machinations of the wars. When he sticks with the logistics, the book is solid. His analyses of the 1968 Siege at Khe Sahn and the M-16 are particularly noteworthy. When Nash veers into diplomatic or political history, however, the narrative is less convincing. Errors of fact diminish the storyline and distract the reader.

For example, President Kennedy did not approve 200,000 American advisers in the summer of 1961. He approved providing funding to increase the South Vietnamese Army from 170,000 to 200,000 troops. And In 1956, there were, in fact, many “pressing issues” between the North and South, as evinced by that fact that nearly a million North Vietnamese people fled to the South between 1954-56.

U.S. Marines hunkering down during the 1968 Siege at Khe Sanh

Nash is effusive in praise of Gen. Giap as “the master logistician,” and his plan for the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu is worthy of praise. But Nash also details how Giap lost the Siege at Khe Sahn due to logistical failures, led the disastrous Tet Offensive, and provided logistical support for the failed Easter Offensive in 1972. His side won the war, but his record was far from “undefeated.”

Bum Phillips once explained the brilliance of fellow football coach Bear Bryant, explaining that he “can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.” Without access to an incredibly devoted workforce of indefatigable porters and without what Nash describes as a “total disregard” for the lives of his own troops, one wonders about the genius of Giap.

Though he would have benefited from a steadier hand, Nash writes with great aplomb in exploring an under researched aspect of the wars in Vietnam.

–Daniel R. Hart

Footprints of War by David Biggs

In the seminal work on warfare, The Art of War, the Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu devotes a full chapter to the importance of terrain. French historian Fernand Braudel conceptualized history as the longue durée, (“long duration”), arguing that continuities in the deepest structures of society—including a geographical determinism—are central to history. Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter proffered that military actions produce creative destruction, imposing empty footprints that permit new spaces for development.

In Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam (University of Washington, 288 pp. $39.95, hardcover and Kindle) David Biggs weaves the concepts of Tzu, Braudel, Clausewitz and others together with an impressive array of aerial photography and maps to present a regional history of central Vietnam as a form of stratigraphy, with layers of foreign and domestic militarization and cultural iconography. 

David Biggs is a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside. His award-winning 2011 book, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, examined the environmental history of Vietnam in the 20th century. The genesis of his new work was a request from the Vietnamese government to use U.S. archival sources to locate potential environmental hazards resulting from the storage and deployment of chemicals and weaponry during the American war.

This innovative applied environmental history focuses on the narrow central coast around Hue, the former imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty in Annam, now Thua Thien Province. Though Hue is most recognizable to Americans as the scene of vicious fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the area also was the subject of Bernard Fall’s 1963 renowned book about the French Indochina War, Street Without Joy.

Biggs goal is to understand how military processes become embedded and woven into multiple landscapes. The six chapters of the book are organized chronologically, starting with a history of the area through 1885, followed by chapters covering the end of World War II, the French War, the Viet Minh era, the American War, and concluding from 1973 to present day.

The crux of the book is the American involvement in Vietnam as Biggs seeks to use the environment as an archive to contextualize the war. He contends that landscapes, like people, preserve memories of the devastation that was reaped upon them long after the fact. Biggs returns to the titular “footprints” often, employing the term literally and metaphorically. He argues that while an environmental footprint can be measured and analyzed, a socio-cultural footprint is as important, but infinitely more difficult, to discern.

Biggs outlines the guerrilla activity in the region dating back to the 1400s and the Tay Son Rebellion, a devastating late 18th century civil war that included for the first time a legion of French advisers. The French invaded the region in 1883 and ruled until World War II. World Wars I and II and communist revolutions in Russia and China spurred a generation of Vietnamese nationalists, including Ho Chi Minh, who fought alongside the Allies in World War II.

New technologies, including airplanes, aerial photography, and radios, were used for social and ecological engineering. A leitmotif of the book is how the Vietnamese used technology to enhance their enviro-social networks—using radios to establish an underground community, for example—when the French (and later the Americans) believed that technology could overcome the terrain.

David Biggs

The American response to the historic spatial limitations of Vietnam was to ramp up bombing, and, when that was ineffective, to send in more troops and helicopters. The futile efforts of the Americans to mold the environment proved to be a bitter irony.

The spaces the U.S. military cleared allowed North Vietnamese Soviet-built tanks unfettered access to Saigon in 1975. The book ends on a hopeful note outlining attempts to regreen, redevelop, and reclaim landscapes long devastated by war.

The book can be periodically dense and assumes the reader has a degree of understanding of Southeast Asian history. But these are minor quibbles.

This is a pioneering study written with great enthusiasm.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Dragon in the Jungle by Xiobing Li

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Xiaobing Li, a professor of history and the director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, served in China’s People’s Liberation Army from 1970-72. His new book, The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War (344 pp. Oxford University Press, $34.95), is rooted in his military experience—along with sixteen years of research on the subject.

Li’s goal is to provide an international perspective to help readers gain a better understanding of the the Vietnam War and China’s role in it. He offers answers to questions about China’s objectives, the planning and carrying out of its fighting methods, why the nation withdrew its forces from Vietnam before the war ended—along with the impact China’s intervention ultimately had on the modernization of the its army.

What this book brings to the discussion is a better understanding of the ground-level actions of the Chinese army in the Vietnam War. It also provides a view of the war through the eyes of Chinese officers and soldiers, obtained by interviews with the author.

Historically, China had once dominated both Vietnam and Korea, and entered the second-half of the twentieth century with the view that both countries were still within its defense orbit. China and Vietnam fought with the Allies against Japan in World War II. The Chinese supported the North Vietnamese in their 1946-54 war against France, known as the French Indochina War and First Indochina War, and then continuing supporting the communist North during the 1955-63 civil war.

The worlds’ two largest communist nations, China and the Soviet Union, openly split with each other during the 1956-64 period,  known as the Sino-Soviet Rift. Each nation saw the other as a rival for the support of the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam always tried to remain neutral in this rivalry.

Early in the American War, also known as the Second Indochina War (1965-73), Chinese troops entered North Vietnam in response to the U.S. Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Eventually, more than 300,000 Chinese service personnel would serve, mostly in air defense, railroad and highway construction, and combat engineering. China wanted to avoid a major war against the United States, but did not want Vietnam

to be under Western control. China also supported North Vietnam to reduce its need for aid from the Soviet Union.

As the war went on, the Soviet Union began significantly increasing its military aid to the North. China then saw itself as battling two superpowers, the U.S. militarily, and the Soviet Union politically. Eventually, China withdraw all its troops from Vietnam. The nation was dealing with economic limitations, a serious technological gap and continuing rivalry with Moscow, as well as serious concerns of getting into a war with the U.S.

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 “Oppose the American infringement upon the Vietnamese Democratic Republic!” – February 1965 Chinese Propaganda Poster

The Dragon in the Jungle is an especially important book because, while it focuses on China’s military, it also analyzes the military actions of the U.S., Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. That’s a lot of ground covered.

Xiaobing Li frequently uses newly available sources to take this deep dive into the Chinese military’s strategy and planning, tactical decisions, and problem-solving efforts. This is a major work that unearths new and important information about China’s role in the American war in Vietnam.

–Bill McCloud

Contested Territory by Christopher Lentz

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A recurring theme of American participation in the Vietnam War is the inability to distinguish between friendlies and enemies, most often identified as between farmers and Viet Cong. This monocentric perspective belies the diaspora of ethnic, religious, and class distinctions in both North and South Vietnam.

In Contested Territory: Dien Bien Phu and the Making of Northwest Vietnam (Yale University Press, 352 pp., $35, hardcover and Kindle) Christopher Lentz proffers a geographic and sociopolitical history of the Black River borderlands, the former French colonial territory that became Northwest Vietnam. Focusing roughly on the First Indochina War, from 1945-60, Lentz uses the eponymous battle of May 7, 1954, to explore how political, cultural, and militaristic processes—fueled by anti-colonial liberation—both naturally and coercively gave rise to an independent Vietnam.

Lentz is an assistant professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He expounds on his dissertation in Contested Territory, a thoroughly researched tome utilizing archival resources from France and Vietnam, as well as first-hand fieldwork in the area.

Lentz starts his narrative with a provocative claim: “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu changed the world.” This is a thesis worth exploring, but it is not the focus of this book.

Contested Territory is a geographic history of the Dien Bien Phu area, incorporating an exhaustive examination of the political economy of the Black River and its complex ethnic and cultural mores. The book is divided into six chapters. The first and last use an unpublished memoir of a prominent political leader to examine his thesis, while the middle chapters focus on the military operations of the Northwest Campaign (1952) and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1953-54) to analyze the political and social transformations of the area.

An international image of national liberation, the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu is among the most important symbols in modern Vietnam. But its territorial nationality—its very essence as part of Vietnam—was in doubt before and after battle.

The most powerful and populous of the more than twenty ethno-linguistic groups—among them the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu—were the Tai, an ethnicity more tied to neighboring Thailand than to Vietnam. The Viet or Kinh, who made up the majority in the emerging Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, consisted of less than one percent of the population in this section of the country.  Lentz carefully examines the concept of the muang, the prevailing political and economic system that organized the society.

Incorporating this area as part of Vietnam was “an act of imagination and aggression,” as the coercive nationalization of labor and exploitation of the spirit of anti-colonialism effectively made the communist state. For the poor and vulnerable, it was an Orwellian existence—“meet the new boss, same as the old boss”—as the Tai and Kinh used political hegemony and bureaucratic corruption to mobilize and control human and natural resources.

In the aftermath of the battle, an indigenous millenarian movement named “Calling for a King” was violently suppressed by DRV. Hanoi viewed the Northwest with the same lens as it did the South.

Implicit in the book are the lessons not learned by the United States in its war in Vietnam. The lesson from Dien Bien Phu was not the danger of garrisoning large troops in remote areas, a focus that led Lyndon Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to overstress the importance of the fighting at Khe Sanh in 1968, but on the logistical and transportation capabilities of North Vietnam.

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Viet Minh fighters at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

This an academic book aimed at fellow scholars, and the narrative occasionally becomes unwieldy. There are great books about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, among them Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, Kevin Boylan and Luc Olivier’s Valley of the Shadow, and Martin Windrow’s The Lost Valley. But Christian Lentz provides an invaluable resource that zeroes in on the people who struggled before, during, and after the battle.

Contested Territory also erodes North Vietnamese propaganda claiming that Vietnam is a unified nation, manifesting its violent assemblage. The historiography of the Vietnam and Indochina Wars is enriched for his efforts.

–Daniel R. Hart

Unbreakable Hearts! by Earl “Dusty” Trimmer

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Earl “Dusty” Trimmer’s Unbreakable Hearts! A True, Heart-Wrenching Story about Victory… Forfeited! (Dog Ear Publishing, 556 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $29.99, paper: $9.99, Kindle) is like no other Vietnam War book I’ve come across. In Trimmer’s third book, he remains almost spectral; very little is said regarding his background and history beyond the fact that he served as an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968-69 and that he has had his run-ins with the VA.

The book consists of eleven pages of a glossary and sources, 116 pages of photos, and 450 pages of text. Trimmer covers lots of topics, but most curve back to the original premise of the book: the oppression of the Vietnamese people. He delves deeply into the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia and the people who have lived there.

The country we know today as Vietnam was not always so. Trimmer includes information on the earliest invasions by the Chinese, starting around 200 BC. Vietnam’s “simple farmers, with pitchforks and knives,” he writes, have repulsed the Mongol hordes three times, the Chinese perhaps a half dozen times, the Japanese during World War II, the French before and after the war, and finally the Americans, who were trying to save everyone from communism.

Trimmer portrays the Vietnamese throughout these invasions and conflicts as fighting to preserve and protect a homeland—not to attack or to take and hold additional real estate.  He waxes eloquently in defense of these efforts as he recounts, often in great detail, the nation’s long history of repelling invaders. He shows that the Vietnamese were just trying, over all these years, to live in peace, in one country.

Trimmer also goes over the politics and people involved in what the Vietnamese call the American War. He then reaches into the current U.S. administration for instances of both validation and recrimination. At times, the book’s path isn’t clear; at other times, it’s confusing. This book, though, is full of interesting historical facts, well laced with a recounting of Dusty Trimmer’s experiences as an infantryman.

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Trimmer in country

The book’s website is unbreakableheartsbook.com

–Tom Werzyn

A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom by Tham Huy Vu            

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The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 marked the beginning of the worst years of the life of Tham Huy Vu, who served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. Within nine days, the victorious communists marched him into the first of six re-education camps where he would spend five years. Seven years later—on his sixth try—he escaped and found freedom for his family in the United States. Those trials highlight A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom, 1935-1987 (Xay Dung, 270 pp.; $20, paper).

Born in northern Vietnam in 1935, Vu also provides a history of his country because political  changes strongly affected his family. In his childhood, although his family was “one of the most prosperous in the village,” he says, they suffered under “the harsh rule of the French colonialists.” During World War II, Japanese soldiers destroyed his family’s crops after defeating the French. After the war, France regained control of the nation until the Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh’s communist party prevailed in the French Indochina War in 1954.

Vu’s childhood experiences foreshadowed events for the remainder of his life in Vietnam: He labored in rice fields, was exposed to gunfire when the French made his Vietminh-controlled home area a free-fire zone, witnessed the execution of a landowner by the Vietminh, and attended communist education classes. Facing the threat of the father’s death because he was a landowner, Vu’s family left everything behind in 1955 and fled to Saigon.

Drafted into the ARVN, Vu worked on rural pacification and development. He admits to being “an ordinary military officer” who was “unable to do much to improve things.” He also married and had three children.

As a prisoner of war, he defines “re-education” as revenge for having opposed communism. He shows that the re-education camps consisted of slave labor; starvation; living amid filth; inadequate medical treatment; and repetitive brainwashing classes, essay-writing, and group discussions.

Released from the camps and treated as an outcast, he determined that escape from Vietnam was his only course for a viable life. This led to intrigue and drama that Vu shared with many others desperate to escape from communism.

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Tây Ninh re-education camp, 1976 – Photo by Marc Riboud

Vu expresses eternal love for America for providing a refuge for his family. He wraps up his memoir with a cogent explanation of why the South Vietnamese people lost their freedom. His strongest argument is that American leaders “knew themselves, but knew not enough about their enemies,” combined with his belief that “most South Vietnamese did not know the truth about Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades.”

He also points out that America “did not have an appropriate strategy”; acted in its own interests; and experienced “a spasm of congressional irresponsibility” following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Vu’s “I-was-there” background and rational approach to an age-old problem refreshed my interest in the unsolvable.

—Henry Zeybel