Crooked Bamboo by Nguyen Thai

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Thank God for young historians who work with aged diplomats on their memoirs dealing with important world events. A short while ago, I read Japanese ambassador Saburo Kurusu’s The Desperate Diplomat, an account of his dealings with Americans in Washington during the weeks immediately prior to World War II. His book might never have been available for Western eyes without help from Masako R. Okura, a professor who finished editing it after a much-older historian died on the job.

Which brings us to Crooked Bamboo: A Memoir from Inside the Diem Regime (Texas Tech University Press, 272 pp., $29.95) written by ninety-year-old Nguyen Thai and edited by Texas Tech University history professor Justin Simundson. Thai was something of a favorite adopted son of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and was privy to a deep-inside look at his government. The book confirms that Diem’s regime overflowed with problems and should have collapsed after the first coup against it in 1960, rather than survive to 1963.

Simundson accepted the task of studying hundreds of pages of free-flowing thoughts and observations Thai made over many decades. As the Vietnam War historian Larry Berman notes in the book’s forward, Simundson’s prodigious editorial skills give shape to insights on crucial points in history. He is exceptionally helpful in introducing personalities and explaining their roles. 

Thai’s recollections fill gaps in the history of Diem’s misdirected leadership, and they also recreate Thai’s personal life. Simundson closely consulted with Thai while editing his notes and frequently relied on facts from Thai’s Is South Vietnam Viable?, a 1962 anti-Diem book published in a limited edition in the Philippines and nearly inaccessible today. Crooked Bamboo contains only two pages of end notes.

By 1959, corruption and authoritarianism in Diem’s government was overwhelmingly evident. The gross mismanagement had started within two years of his election in 1955. As Vietnam Press’s Director General, Thai’s close relationship with Diem compelled him to compromise the truth behind political maneuvers. 

Three chapters constitute the heart of the memoir. “The Convincing Test—Elections of 1959” shows how a rigged count kept Diem and his cronies in office. “The Aborted 1960 Coup D’etat” analyzes the political implications of in-fighting between Diem and high-ranking military officers that brought only minor changes to the government’s structure. Diem learned nothing from the unsuccessful coup, Thai says.

“Diem’s Overthrow” and assassination caused the most-bitter disappointment in Thai’s life. Thereafter, it was every man of rank for himself.

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Justin Simundson & Nguyen Thai

The book leaves many questions unanswered. For example: Who—Vietnam or America—was responsible for the war’s outcome? How important was democracy to the Vietnamese? Who should have replaced Diem?

Thai’s inconsistencies reveal the difficulty of resolving the Vietnam War dilemma even today. Simundson intensely examines these issues and others.

Crooked Bamboo is a great source for young people to begin studying South Vietnam’s early tragic political unrest—and for old timers to recall a once-familiar past.   

—Henry Zeybel

The Campaign to Impeach Justice William O. Douglas by Joshua E. Kastenberg

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One of the most powerful politicians in the United States. One with a sordid personal life replete with multiple marriages and affairs and questionable financial dealings. One who regularly violated the norms and mores of his office with his outspokenness. One abhorred by his critics, but loved by his followers. One brought before the House of Representatives in a strictly partisan manner on impeachment charges.

Donald Trump? No—in this case, it’s the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. And the impeachment attempt came in 1970 during the Vietnam War.

Joshua Kastenberg, a retired Air Force officer and professor of law at the University of New Mexico, explores the 1970 Justice Douglas impeachment attempt in The Campaign to Impeach Justice William O. Douglas: Nixon, Vietnam, and the Conservative Attack on Judicial Independence (University Press of Kansas, 336 pp., $42.50, hardcover and e book). This well-researched and accessible book is the first in-depth account of this episode. In it, Kastenberg proffers a timely reflection on the political and constitutional implications of impeachment.

In the spring of 1970, Michigan Republican Rep. Gerald Ford, at the behest of the Nixon White House, called an impeachment investigation into Justice Douglas based on allegations of financial impropriety, the undermining of national security, and violations of judicial ethics. The House embarked on a six-month investigation that ultimately cleared Douglas.

A vote was never taken, and the proceedings never captured the public’s imagination. Tepid news coverage faulted Douglas for undermining his credibility, but also criticized Ford and Nixon for an unnecessarily malicious attack on his the justice’s integrity.

Kastenberg expertly details the players, the alliances, and the political machinations that compromised these events. In 1969, at risk of impeachment due to his financial ties to a dubious foundation, Douglas protégé Justice Abe Fortas resigned from the Court. The Senate rejected two Nixon picks to fill the Fortas seat, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harold Carswell, both Southerners with troubling Civil Rights records. Conservatives in Congress turned their enmity to a Douglas, a liberal, unconventional, and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War whom they had previously threatened with impeachment three times.

Kastenberg’s thesis rests on the context of the impeachment allegation. Two weeks after Ford’s allegations, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops moved into neutral Cambodia, sparking outage and protests. Kastenberg posits that the Douglas impeachment was meant to be a public distraction from the invasion. If the incursion went poorly, Douglas would be an ideal scapegoat. Further, Kastenberg writes that Ford’s allegations were a “threat to the efficacy of the nation’s constitutional institutions,” mainly the sanctity of judicial independence.

But Kastenberg does not adequately proved a direct link existed between the impeachment and the Cambodian incursion. He also describes the other reasons for the impeachment as nefarious, but they may be best categorized as politically distasteful: conservatives’ abhorrence of Douglas, a desire to reverse the changes of the Warren Court, and a need to protect Nixon’s policies.

Kastenberg does show that Douglas was in many ways his own worst enemy, providing his opponents with multiple reasons to impugn him. The Constitution does not explicitly state that federal judges serve for life, but that “they shall hold their offices during good Behavior.” While Ford was incorrect when he stated that impeachment is solely a political—not constitutional—process, the two are not, as Alexander Hamilton pointed out, mutually exclusive.

Impeachment is the only mechanism in which the powerful can be held to account. Kastenberg misses the irony that Douglas, at times contemptuous of stare decisis, relied on the history and rarity of judicial impeachment as his primary defense.

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Prof. Kastenberg

In the end, Kastenberg’s charges of Ford and Nixon endangering constitutional institutions and American democracy itself are hyperbolic because the system worked, and the case was quietly dismissed.

Nevertheless, this is an important, provocative, and meticulous book, a welcome addition to the history of the Court—and of contemporary America.

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 seventeen chapters read as if each were proofread and edited by different people. There are, for example, short paragraphs that are repeated almost word-for-word, frequently close together. And there are spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.

Trimmer has offered quite an interesting story. It could have been presented much better had it been more tightly edited and proofed.

The book’s website is unbreakableheartsbook.com

–Tom Werzyn

Ambush Valley by Eric Hammel

The prolific author and journalist Eric Hammel has written fifty books and nearly seventy magazine articles on military history. He specializes Marine Corps activities. The republication of his Ambush Valley: I Corps, Vietnam, 1967—The Story of a Marine Infantry Battalion’s Battle for Survival (Casemate, 310 pp. $22.95, paper) demonstrates the high value of his research and expertise. Originally published in 1990, the book tells the story of four companies of the 3rd Battalion 26th Marines matched against a North Vietnamese Army regiment near Con Thien.

Hammel’s account of the fighting is a work of art because he weaves together exhaustive interviews with nearly two dozen men who were there. He began the interviews in 1983 and the final round took place in 1989. As for official documents, Hammel found merely three pertaining to the battle. One was inaccurate; the others were illegible and incomplete.

He gives space in the book to men of all ranks who speak repeatedly and at length describing those memorable six days in September 1967. Hammel puts the reader into the middle of the battlefield and shows multiple perspectives and differing mentalities of men under fire. An aura of disaster permeates much of the interviewees’ reflections.

Readers are expected to understand everyday details of field operations. Hammel, for example, offers no explanation about how a Claymore mine works.

The book’s story line is simple: NVA soldiers that had operated south of the DMZ for more than a year repeatedly outmaneuver U.S. Marines. The fighting at Ambush Valley was bloody. Both sides suffered enormously. Desperation dictated many decisions for the men of 3/26.

Along with being nightmarishly outnumbered by waves of NVA forces, 3/26 also confronted a full array of other problems: indecisive higher-level planning that bred fatigue and a “hurry up and wait” lethargy among the troops; poor ammunition resupply; limited artillery and air support; loss of its tanks; and NVA troops disguised as U.S. Marines.

Military historians believe that the Americans prevailed by the narrowest of margins. In the early morning hours of September 11, the NVA disengaged and disappeared. During the final day of battle, American artillery and air power had finally coordinated and left “hundreds of North Vietnamese bodies scattered around American positions,” Hammel says. Mixed among them were many dead Marines.

Hammel’s research for Ambush Valley completes the story of a battle otherwise reduced to merely a body count.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson

Revolution and Renaissance by Daniel Forbes Hauser

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When did “The Sixties” as known in American collective memory begin? When did that era end? Rarely does the socio-cultural phenomena that define a generation fit neatly into a proscribed ten-year period. A black-and-white photo of John F. Kennedy and the Whiz Kids in early 1961 does not evoke “The Sixties” the way the violence of the 1968 Tet Offensive or the 1969 peace of Woodstock do.

In Revolution and Renaissance: 1965 to 1975 (History Publishing Co., 430 pp. $33.99) Daniel Forbes Hauser examines this period through the prism of his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Reflecting on the turbulence of this decade, Hauser analyzes this period of profound cultural transformation by examining the unprecedented confluence of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and—most significantly—the coming of age of the Baby Boomers.

Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield contributes the foreword to the book, which is organized by a chapter per annum, with each chapter containing the author’s reflections on a year’s seminal events, interviews, and personal musings. It is regrettable that given the expansive nature of the material covered, the book does not have end notes. The book is loosely centered on Boulder as Hauser introduces two contrasting protagonists: Mark, a poor kid from the wrong side of town who would serve in Vietnam, and Tom, the Asian-American son of a University of Colorado physics professor awhose brother would become a member of the Weather Underground.

Hauser’s goal, he says, is to create an expeditious and entertaining book, and in that regard he has succeeded. That his engaging and breezy commentary can intermittently be glib can be forgiven given the context, though Hauser falls into the trap of placing his and his cohort’s memories as “America’s” or as the “general public’s.” These gross generalizations can diminish his perspective and erode his thesis.

There are some minor historical errors. Contrary to popular myth, for example, the vast majority of troops in World War II were draftees, not volunteers; Walter Cronkite did not say the Vietnam War was “unwinnable” in 1968, (he said it was a “stalemate”); and it was a South Vietnamese (not an American) plane that accidentally bombed the village that led to famous “Napalm girl” photograph. Hauser writes about the movie MASH in his section on 1967, hyperbolically stating it “helped destroy any last vestiges for America’s will to win in Southeast Asia.” But the novel was published in 1968, and the movie released in 1970. Though the subtext of the film and the later television series was the Vietnam War, contrary to Hauser’s recollection the setting was the Korea War.

Other mistakes can be more jarring: Hauser transposes the Medal of Honor for any military decoration and writes that John Kerry threw his Medal of Honor in a river. He also mistakenly writes that the 1973 Paris Peace Accords called for the reunification of Vietnam, and in writing about the period American military engagements of the 1950s and early 1960s he egregiously omits to mention that 37,000 Americans were killed and 95,000 wounded in the Korean War.

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Hauser ties his tome together with the bizarre story of Renner Forbes, the Marshall of a small town outside of Boulder called Nederland. In 1971, Forbes murdered and placed the body of a local hippie, Guy “Deputy Dog” Gaughnor, in an abandoned mine shaft. In ill health, Forbes confessed to the murder in 1997, and died in 2000. If this tale was not sufficiently sensational, in 2016 a former friend of Deputy Dog, in a futile act of vengeance, tried to blow up the Nederland Police Department.

The book would have been strengthened by more insights and commentary about Mark (the Vietnam War veteran) and Tom (the physics professor’s son), and more analysis of the Deputy Dog story. Still, Revolution and Renaissance it is an enjoyable and fast-paced trot through a most revolutionary decade.

The book’s website is revolutionandrenaissance.com

–Daniel R. Hart

The United States, Southeast Asia and Historical Memory edited by Mark Pavlick with Caroline Luft

Who controls history? How is collective memory formed? In the case of historical accounts of the Vietnam War, the famous maxim most widely attributed to Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors,” is problematic. While the North Vietnamese won the war, the Americans have had both the resources and the freedom to win the proverbial battle for the memory of that conflict.

It is within this context that The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory (Haymarket, 450 pp. $22, paper) is written. The book, edited by Mark Pavlick, a longtime activist in the U.S. antiwar movement, and Caroline Luft, is the second edition of a work originally published in 2007. It consists of thirteen chapters: eight essays, two Noam Chomsky articles from the 1970s, one book excerpt, and two interviews.

Curiously, the editors never define historical memory. For the record, historical memory is the way groups of people or nations create and then identify with specific narratives about historical periods or events.

The book’s epigraph provocatively quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening address before the Nuremberg Tribunal of November 21, 1945, with a clear implication that the United States was guilty of war crimes in Southeast Asia on par with those committed by Nazi Germany. The works of Noam Chomsky and Fred Branfman fall within the vein of this polemical perspective.

The balance of the book, however, belies this overtly hostile style, with six essays that are scholarly in nature, promoting cogent theses without provoking raw emotion.

The essays on cluster bombing in Laos by Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell  and the use of Agent Orange by Tuan V. Nguyen are scholarly and thoughtful. The former even acknowledges the legitimacy of the bombing—if not its proportionately.

“Iraq, Another Vietnam? Consider Cambodia” is well considered even if its conclusion that there is a causal relationship between the American bombing in Cambodia and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge is tenuous. “The Indonesian Domino” by Clinton Fernandes proffers a thought-provoking thesis: that due to the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party by 1967, that domino could no longer fall, invalidating the justification for the war predominant during the Kennedy Administration.

Gareth Porter’s treatment of the My Lai massacre, written from a definitive perspective, is authoritative in its research. Nick Turse’s essay is a powerful, if completely personal, indictment of the war. Ngo Vinh Long’s essay on U.S. policy toward Indochina since 1975 treads the familiar ground that this country is responsible for the stagnancy of Vietnam in the postwar years.

An interview and republished essays by Noam Chomsky, as well as the introductory essay by Fred Branfman, are the raison d’etre for the book. Polemics aside, these essays are problematic in their exploitation of history, which weakens their arguments.

Providing a different perspective to the perception of American mass propaganda is incredibly important, but it cannot be justified at the expense of its context. The thesis can fall into Manichean simplicity: America and its allies were unjust; therefore, North Vietnam and its allies must be just.

Chomsky makes no comment on the morality of North Vietnam’s execution of up to 25,000 “class enemies” in the mid-1950s, other than to point to the American exaggeration of the figure. He quotes Bernard Fall, but omits his estimate that the Viet Cong assassinated eleven South Vietnamese officials every day during the early 1960s.

The premise of moral equivalency is decidedly unhelpful in analyzing the Vietnam War. But Chomsky indulges irresponsibly in this matter, even taking a decidedly paternalistic and ahistorical view that communism in Vietnam was a monolithic movement among all Vietnamese people. But one million people fled North Vietnam in 1955 rather than live under communist rule, and two million left the country after the communists took in 1975.

Vietnam remains a closed society in which historians are denied access, and in which journalists are routinely imprisoned. They seemed to be rewarded for their totalitarian lack of transparency.

No matter one’s politics, this book will provoke and outrage.

–Daniel R. Hart