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 Boy with a Bamboo Heart by Amporn Wathanavongs

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The opening chapter of The Boy with a Bamboo Heart: The Story of a Street Orphan Who Built a Children’s Charity (Maverick House, 2812 pp., $15, paper: $2.99, Kindle) has a newly orphaned five-year-old Thai boy named Lek next to his mother’s flaming funeral bier in a rural Thai village attempting to hold her burning hand. He is simply unable to face life without her, a frightened boy who will be thrust into a life on his own in which he must steal to survive.

“The village held nothing for me but bad luck,” author Amporn Wathanavongs writes in this memoir. “I wanted to leave this place and never see it again ever.”

Lek walks away alone, stows away on a train, and gets off at the first stop. Each rung of his life ladder to adulthood comes with a name change. His first new designation is the nom de guerre “Boney,” which the teenager acquires when recruited into mercenary action against the French.

The Indochina War from 1946-54 spilled over from Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia. Suddenly Boney finds himself in fighting in the jungle. After a brutal fight he is the sole survivor of his unit. Suffering from the stresses of battle and the loss of his family leads to two suicide attempts. Taking the advice of his hospital nurse, Boney returns to Thailand.

“There, in my natal village, I would claim my right to a family of my own,” the author writes, “or I would join my parents in death.”

Introducing himself to the Abbot of a Buddhist temple led to another name change, this time “Nehn Amporn,” a moniker presented to him along with the orange robe of a novice monk. Amporn learns to read while absorbing Buddhist philosophy from his teacher. “Words were sweeter to me than mango sticky rice,” he writes

Amporn was advised to move on from his small village temple to continue his education in Bangkok, sometimes called the City of Angels. Unable to afford admission to a large temple, he joined a smaller one with only three monks, all of whom were thirty years older. “That would allow me to study without making too many demands. I was seeking intellectual enlightenment,” he writes. This led to the third name change. He was ordained as “Bikkhu Visalo” in 1958.

His introduction to an English teacher was also his first exposure Christianity. He soon decided he was a “fake monk,” and decided to renounce Buddhism. This step led to his final name change, Amporn Wathanavongs.

He found employment at a Jesuit school called Angel Center. His celibate temple life had ended and he met his future wife near the center. “Her eyes,” he writes, “like raindrops on a banana leaf in the morning, mesmerized me.”

His marriage and earning a Master’s Degree in the Philippines completed Amporn Wathanavongs’s rise from being alone and poor to being an advocate for children in poverty. “With the Vietnam War over,” he writes, “I knew it was only a matter of time before the Americans packed up and went back home.”

Funding for humanitarian projects was difficult to find. He was hired by the non-governmental agency, The Christian Children’s Fund, and when he retired, he chartered his own agency, The Foundation for the Rehabilitation and Development of Children (FORDEC), on Valentine’s Day of 1998. He was 61 years old.

In appreciation of his work on behalf of children, King Rama IX of Thailand decorated Amporn Wathanavongs with the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. In 1996 he received an honorary doctorate from American Coastline University of Louisiana.

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Amporrn Wathanavongs with children at FORDEC

I recommend this concise, well-written (with the help of Chantal Jauvin) memoir to anyone who served in Southeast Asia.

All author proceeds will be donated to FORDEC, the charity founded by Amporn Wathanavongs.

Co-author Chantal Jauvin’s website is chantaljauvin.com

—Curtis A. Nelson, Jr.

Red Blood, Yellow Skin by Linda L.T. Baer

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This coming of age tale begins with the birth of the author, Nguyen Thi Loan, in a village sixty miles from Hanoi in 1947. Her trials, tribulations, and rare triumphs straddle the French and American wars in Vietnam. She vividly describes them in Red Blood, Yellow Skin, A Young Girl’s Survival in War-Torn Vietnam by Linda L.T. Baer (formerly Nguyen Thi Loan) (River Grove Books, 330 pp., $16.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle).

A cast of characters worthy of a Charles Dickens novel runs through this story of Loan’s extended family, both the loved and the hated. Loan was often left to provide for herself and her siblings,  encountering and sometimes eating crabs, water bugs, scorpions, buffalo leaches, snakes, and tigers, as well as being caught in crossfires and bombings. Loan’s father was killed in the French war, leading to her dependence on uncles, neighbors, strangers, corrupt officials,  an abusive dtepfather, and deceitful cousins.

Chapter titles such as “Mountain Of Broken Glass” and “Saigon Tea” signify milestones during Loan’s tumultuous childhood. A close friend is killed in “Tiger’s Paw.” “Concrete Pillow” refers to Loan being homeless in Saigon.

The family moved often in search of safer villages and for opportunities for the author’s stepfather’s medical practice. He was very strict with little patience. Loan was often whipped and once even buried in a hole for allowing a baby to fall out of a hammock. She was rescued by neighbors. “Everyone saw the way my stepfather mistreated me, but there were no rules or laws against spousal or child abuse at that time.”

Loan and family joined some 900, 000 other refugees from Northern Vietnam relocating to the south in 1954 after the country was divided. Operation “Passage to Freedom” took Loan and family to Saigon from Haiphong aboard a U.S. Navy ship. Thirty-eight babies were born on the voyage, including Loan’s step-sister Nho. The family settled in Long Phuoc. It was there that 13-year-old Loan decided to go out on her own since her family was too poor to care for her.

“I’m going to Saigon to look for a job,” she writes. “Don’t worry, I’m thirteen years old, and I can take care of myself.”

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Linda L.T. Baer (Nguyen Ti Loan)

Arriving in Saigon with no money, no job, and one bag of clothes, Loan thought: “I’ve reached my destination. Now what am I going to do? I left home because of the treatment I received there and I quit a job because I had been taken advantage of. I made up my mind that things had to be different.”

The sixteen year old made this declaration in 1963. She soon met 28-year-old Lynn and finally Loan’s life appeared to be on a sustainable path. She and Lynn lived on Le Loi St., a familiar street to many Americans who served in Vietnam. The two women operated a successful bar and dance club until Lynn’s child was killed and the club was sold.

Loan’s determination to succeed, along with her stepfather’s  transformation, provide welcome respite from her calamitous childhood. Her mother and stepfather moved to Vung Tau, about 50 miles from Saigon.

In the chapter “Cicada Shell” she is eighteen years old and five months pregnant and approaching this gripping memoir’s finale.  The chapters titled “Garden Of Love” and “Dancing Rainbow” reveal how Loan’s long-suffering saga concludes. I look forward to the release of the sequel.

—Curt Nelson

 

A War of Logistics by Charles R. Shrader

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Historian Charles R. Shrader borrows a quote to describe the First Indochina War between Viet Minh and French Union forces as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” His research backs up the quote in the sense that poor logistical support can defeat an army.

There’s no doubt about the depth of Shrader’s research; it’s evident in the seventy pages of notes in his book,  A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 (University Press of Kentucky, 488 pp., $60, hardcover and Kindle).

 
The book is based on “declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material,” as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies, Schrader says. Viet Minh sources are limited to contemporary documents captured by the French, POW interrogations, and the writings of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Maps, tables, figures, and photographs abound to support the text.

 
The book’s first half explains the influence of Vietnam’s terrain on troop movements. Most of the fighting took place in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin. The rugged terrain stymied the development of a system of highways, railroads, and waterways capable of supporting large-scale military activities such as those used in World War II.

Shrader goes on to discuss the disproportionate sizes of the opposing combat forces, then explains how their logistical systems were organized and operated, and compares the opposing transportation systems. He presents detailed summations of the dependency for war supplies that the Viet Minh had with what was then known as Communist China and the French Union with the United States.

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Viet Minh fighters during the French Indochina War

Helicopters were scarce and used primarily for medical purposes. Poor weather conditions, widely scattered airfields, limited numbers of aircraft and aircrews, and constantly improving Viet Minh antiaircraft capability minimized the effectiveness of the French Union air force. The Viet Minh had no air support.

 
The book’s second half describes the war itself and how logistical factors influenced the outcome of combat operations. Initially, a series of political and military actions forced the Viet Minh to find refuge in the countryside while the French occupied the cities. From there, differing military philosophies pitted the mobility of the self-sufficient individual Viet Minh soldier against the mobility of the technologically dependent French Union army.

What began as mere ambushes by the Viet Minh grew into head-on collisions with the French. The titles of Shrader’s chapters tell the war’s story: “The Campaign for the Lines of Communication,” “The Limits of Aerial Resupply,”  “The Triumph of the Porters.”

 
Logistically the French relied on mechanized transportation and awaited air and sea supply shipments from France, which were often four months away. Meanwhile, day by day, Viet Minh porters carried supplies on their backs from the border with China.

 
Shrader presents a continuous string of eye-opening stories and facts. For example, the French Union employed a third of its infantry forces in Indochina keeping roads and waterways open to traffic. Both sides had about ninety battalions in Tonkin, but the French assigned sixty-four of theirs to protecting lines of communication and rear areas, leaving only twenty-five battalions for mobile offensive operations.

Basically, the French Union’s logistical effort went mainly toward resupplying posts where the troops protected trucks and boats from ambush in order to resupply themselves. Meanwhile, dispersed groups of Viet Minh porters moved nearly unopposed along trails hidden in the jungle.

 
Accounts of the Viet Minh invasion of Laos and of the battle of Dien Bien Phu are as fresh and interesting as if they occurred yesterday. “The Viet Minh refused to recognize the theoretical limitations on their logistical capabilities,” Shrader says, “and they frequently surprised the French by their rapidity of movement, their ability to concentrate men and supplies undetected, and their logistical stamina.”

 
The Viet Minh proved decisively , he says, that “even in the mid-twentieth century, a lack of superiority in material could still be overcome by the intelligent application of sheer manpower and a determined will.”
Reading this book saddened me—again. Much of what Shrader tells us reminded me of the American war in Vietnam.

Every fact in his book was available before the United States committed itself to the Vietnam War and then more or less duplicated the French Union’s effort. What more is there to say?

 
—Henry Zeybel

Retreat from Cao Bang by Richard Baker

Richard Baker’s Retreat From Cao Bang: A Short History and Guide for Tourists (Ink and Lens, 92. pp., $8.50, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is just what the title and subtitle claim: a short—pithy, even—guidebook. Baker, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Band, packs a lot of information into fewer than a hundred pages. There are many photographs in this small book, and they give a good sense of the history of Cao Bang in far northern Vietnam, where the Viet Minh defeated the French in a large battle in 1950.

Baker’s information is detailed and helpful. For instance, when he tells the reader about a war memorial worth visiting, he says, “Do not arrive between noon and 2 pm. Like everything in Viet Nam, the entire country shuts down at this time causing great frustration to tourists who are most active during these hours. Not even a bottle of water can be bought.”

If you are a collector of hand-woven fish traps, this book tells you where such an item can be obtained. Baker also offers details on a park where you can see twenty species of bats and forty species of reptiles. I pictured those beasts peeking out of my boots.

Baker cautions the reader that few relics of the French and Viet Minh era remain visible along any route. This materiel has long since been melted down “for more useful purposes even as the bomb craters from the American war have been ploughed under.”

The point is made more than once to not drink the water. One of the reasons the French lost their war in Indochina, he says, was due to thirst that drove them to drink the water, which caused dysentery and other stomach and intestinal ailments. “Viet Nam is flooded with water, none of it potable,” Baker tells us.

The racism of the French that helped lead to their defeat is discussed; it reminded me of my time in Vietnam. “They never imagined the Viet Minh were capable of hauling guns through the jungle and into the hills,” he writes of the French, “so they had not prepared for such an attack.”  We did not learn from the failures of the French.

NVA Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap (pointing) following the Battle of Cao  Bang in 1950

The French wanted “set-piece battles” from the Viet Minh, who failed to oblige them, preferring to fight using hit-and-run tactics. Many memoirs and novels I’ve read by Americans complain bitterly that the enemy would not stand and fight like men. But, as Baker shows, the Vietnamese communists knew that fighting a European-type war would result in disaster. So they avoided it.

There is lots to appreciate in this little book.  I highly recommend reading it before you embark on a tourist journey of battlefields in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.asiaoncall.com

—David Willson