Making History by Bruce Olav Solheim

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Bruce Olav Solheim is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California. As the blurb on the back cover of the second edition of Solheim’s Making History: A Personal Approach to Modern American History (Cognella Academic Publishing, $68.95, paper) notes, this history book is “The Education of Henry Adams meets On the Road.”

In other words, the book is a personal approach to U.S. History. What does that look like? In Chapter One, title “Reconstruction,” the first sentence is: “After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, my brother Alf was sent to radio school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.”

No other American history book would tell us that the author’s brother is named Alf, let alone that he did basic training in Texas. How can this be justified in a chapter about Reconstruction?  Solheim does that quite neatly.

He goes on to say that his brother Alf entered a barbershop in Biloxi with a black airman from Detroit, a friend of his. The friend was asked to leave the barbershop, and Alf got his lesson in the results of Reconstruction in the South: Jim Crow. In Chapter Two, “Rapid Industrialization,” we get the same format—and the same smooth introduction to a difficult concept made clear by the use of a personal anecdote.

In twelve cogent, well-organized chapters, Solheim provides history students introductions to U.S. Imperialism, the Progressive Era, World War I, the Twenties and the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Era, the War in Vietnam, the Conservative Revolution, and the “American Empire in Decline.”

It had been a long time since I studied American history in an organized manner, so I was quite gratified to get this refresher course. I needed it.

Each chapter begins with a one-page comic strip by Gary Dumm, giving pictorial voice to the words that follow. A modest disclaimer: On page 298, at the beginning of the Vietnam War chapter, I am introduced as a comic strip character, sitting at a typewriter in Vietnam, typing a memo for the colonel for whom I worked for a year.

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Bruce Solheim

Bruce’s brother Alf is also in this strip. The text notes that Alf Solheim is a disabled veteran after his two tours in Vietnam, that he suffers from PTSD and from Agent Orange-related leukemia.  Rarely is the butcher’s bill of war made so personal in an American History book.

This fine book is a revolutionary piece of work. It knocks over the apple cart of all clichéd, hidebound history books that don’t even try to reach an audience that desperately needs to know more about the history of their complex country. I thank Bruce Solheim for daring to risk breaking out of the bonds of traditional learning and teaching.

If I were still in the classroom, I would use this book as a textbook every quarter and be proud to do so.

—David Willson

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Why Vietnam Matters by Rufus Phillips

“This is an inside history of what really happened in Vietnam and why it matters.”

That’s the first line of one of the most important books on the early history of the Vietnam War, Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned by Rufus Phillips. This 2008 memoir—now out in paperback for the first time (Naval Institute, 448 pp., $24.95—is an insider’s account of the fateful 1950s and early 1960s decisions that set in motion the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Phillips, who turned 88 last month, was sent to South Vietnam in 1954 as a member of the first CIA team there, led by the legendary intelligence agent Edward Lansdale, a career USAF officer who worked with the OSS in World War II and the CIA after the war. Phillips spent most of the next decade doing undercover and pacification work in Vietnam. He played an important behind-the-scenes advisory role in the high-level power struggle that developed over how the United States would help South Vietnam defeat the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Rufus Phillips (who is a featured commentator in the new Ken Burns PBS Vietnam War documentary) was a strong proponent of what came to be known as the “hearts and minds” approach: helping build a stable democratic government in the south, one that the people of South Vietnam would put their lives on the line to preserve. At the same time, he (like his mentor, Lansdale) spoke out strongly and consistently against sending in American combat troops. That includes speaking face-to-face with President John F. Kennedy in the White House on September 10, 1963–a memorable meeting that Phillips describes in detail in the book.

As we wrote in our 2008 review, this is a revealing inside-baseball memoir, in which Phillips provides a fascinating look at how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations never gave the pacification approach more than lip service.

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Phillips offers intimate, revealing portraits of the Lansdale, the colorful CIA operative Lucien Conein, South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, President JKennedy, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and a slew of other Kennedy and Johnson higher-ups.

Phillips clearly shows that those best and brightest, especially McNamara, exhibited “poor judgment, bureaucratic prejudice, and personal hubris” as they steered Vietnam War policy in a disastrous course. Phillips adds a short chapter on lessons learned from the Vietnam War calamity.

As I wrote in 2008, this book should be mandatory reading in Washington, D.C. It still should.

The author’s website is whyvietnammatters.com

—Marc Leepson

MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

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Dr. Istvan Toperczer’s writing focuses on fighter pilots and their aircraft, with an emphasis on the Vietnam War. In his latest book, MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 135 pp.; $23, paper), he writes that thirteen MiG-21 Fishbed pilots from the Vietnam People’s Air Force became aces during that war, with a combined total of eighty-six kills.

The Appendix lists Fishbed pilots with four or more victories as verified by VPAF official records. United States records, however, label many of these claims as “not confirmed” or “loss attributed to antiaircraft artillery or SAM.” The downing of AQM-34 Firebee drones also accounts for part of the VPAF total.

My brother-in-law calls Toperczer a “communist propagandist,” and refuses to read his work. Regardless of discrepancies in the numbers—and my brother-in-law’s opinion—in his new book Toperczer provides insightful and interesting stories about VPAF training, tactics, and encounters with American Air Force and Navy aircraft.

Toperczer is a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon. For the past twenty years, he has interviewed VPAF pilots and researched VPAF archives. According to his publisher, Toperczer is “one of the few individuals from outside Vietnam to be given open access to the files of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force.”

His chapter on training somewhat duplicates information he presented in his MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union provided the most useful support in this area.

The interwoven tactics and combat story lines in the book describe and analyze air battles, frequently on a day-to-day basis. They explain the evolution of Fishbed interception practices against American fighter-bombers, which were sometimes based on recommendations from Soviet advisors. The stories explain both successes and failures of VPAF planners in 1966-67. The second half of the book covers VPAF operations from 1968 to Linebacker II.

Toperczer pays homage to USAF Operation Bolo led by Col. Robin Olds and the results that grounded the MiG-21 921st Fighter Regiment for several months “in an attempt to make good its losses.” According to Toperczer, for the remainder of 1967, the VPAF and Americans fought on even terms with both sides altering tactics but failing to gain a decisive advantage.

The best parts of the book occur when Toperczer explains the VPAF pilots’ actions and reactions to unusual situations. For example, the account of the encounters with the U.S. Navy’s RIM-8 Talos ship-to-air missiles was eye-opening. I had been completely unaware of the long-range capability and success of the Talos against MiG-21s.

Likewise, I had not realized how, as early as 1969, VPAF designed and practiced tactics to use against B-52s if they overflew the North. The VPAF also attempted but failed to attack B-52s over Laos.

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As far as I am concerned, Toperczer provides a great deal of information not found elsewhere.

Regardless of what my brother-in-law believes, overall MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War pays justifiable tribute to the Vietnamese pilots who flew against the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

Brutal Battles of Vietnam edited by Richard K. Kolb

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Richard K. Kolb, the recently retired long-time publisher and editor-in-chief of VFW magazine, has spent more than a decade preparing the newly published Brutal Battles of Vietnam: America’s Deadliest Days, 1965-1972 (VWF, 480 pp., $29.95). This worthy book is the fruit of Kolb’s research, writing, and editing of a long-running series in his magazine called “Vietnam’s Deadliest Battles.”

Brutal Battles is a reader-friendly, heavily illustrated coffee-table-sized tome that, as Kolb puts it, stands as “the first and only” book that presents “a comprehensive U.S. battle history of Vietnam in a single volume.” Kolb and his team of writers (including the noted Vietnam War specialists Al Hemingway and Keith Nolan) do not deal with politics at home, geopolitics, the antiwar movement, life in the rear, diplomacy, strategy, accounts of the ARVN (or NVA or VC)—or any kind of in-depth analysis of tactics. In other words, as Kolb puts it, the book “is not Vietnam 101.”

Instead, Brutal Battles is a compelling, well-written compilation of on-the-mark reports on dozens of Vietnam War engagements that ended in significant casualties. In other words, that is, the deadliest, most brutal, of the war’s all-out battles and other engagements.

Each one gets a relatively short but meaty chapter told from the point of view of the Americans who did the fighting. We get the voices of everyday troops who fought in the battles, along with cogent descriptions of what took place, as well as tributes to those who perished and those who performed courageously under fire.

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Rich Kolb, who served in Vietnam with the Army’s 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions in 1970-71, shaped the magazine series and the book to include actions involving every American infantry division, independent infantry brigade, and separate regiment that took part in the war. They are presented chronologically through 1972.

What follows is a section on Navy and Air Force engagements. Then comes a tribute to the war’s most highly decorated troops and statistical info, including a 1959-72 combat chronology.

For purchasing info, go to the VFW store.

—Marc Leepson

Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 by Michael A. Eggleston

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After a thirty-year career in the U.S. Army, Michael A. Eggleston became a historian. His first five books focused on the American Civil War, U.S. Marines in World War I, and Vietnamization. He addresses a different aspect of the Vietnam War in Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 (McFarland, 224 pp. $35, paper;  $9.99, Kindle).

The North Vietnamese designed an offensive in and around Dak To, Eggleston writes, to try to draw U.S. and South Vietnamese forces away from the large cities, thereby setting the stage for the 1968 Tet Offensive. What’s called “Hanoi’s Plan” changed the enemy’s strategy from replying primarily on Viet Cong guerrilla warfare to a conventional North Vietnamese Army offensive designed to “cause a spontaneous uprising [among South Vietnamese] in order to win a decisive victory in the shortest possible time.”

Con Thien, Dak To, and Khe Sanh were the primary NVA targets. In other words, the North expected to “win in a single stroke,” Eggleston says.

The plan appeared unrealistic and did not work, as Eggleston notes. At the same time, he explains a disparity in American strategic thinking regarding a choice between pacification and attrition programs. In the end, Gen. William Westmoreland’s costly body-counting war of attrition strategy prevailed.

The core of the book is a long chapter about the many battles fought along the Cambodian and Laotian borders near Dak To. This chapter alone—in which Eggleston recreates a series of hill battles—is worth the price of the book.

“Vietnam’s bloodiest campaign started on 15 June [1967], when the 24th NVA Regiment annihilated a CDIG [Civilian Irregular Defense Group] patrol led by two U.S. Special Forces advisors near Dak To,” he writes. After that, the men of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade did the brunt of the fighting. The combat lasted until Thanksgiving.

The recounting of five days of fighting for Hill 875 tells as much about the horror of war as anything I have read. Eggleston calls this engagement “the costliest fight of the Vietnam War.”

Eggleston’s most informative research comes from unpublished memoirs written by infantrymen who fought in the battles. Their actions and observations fascinated me; among them the fact that the extraordinary became routine. Additionally, Eggleston uses published memoirs by infantrymen, Combat Operations After Action Reports, secondary sources, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletter excerpts, TV reports, and other video sources. He also relies on personal knowledge gained during his two tours at Pleiku.

He concludes with a chapter, “Aftermath,” that summarizes what happened during the 1968 Tet Offensive and follow-on action across South Vietnam. And he takes the narrative up to 1975 when the North finally prevailed.

Eggleston is opinionated and readily points fingers at those he believes were responsible for America’s failure to keep South Vietnam out of communist hands. “If any single person can be blamed for precipitating our full involvement in the war in Vietnam,” he writes, for example, “it was [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.” Eggleston also faults Gen. Westmoreland failing to see the war’s big picture. Additionally, he names and blames lower-level commanders who put their careers ahead of the lives of the men they led.

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Michael Eggleston

Along with a list of definitions for acronyms, he includes biographical sketches of key participants in the book, a chronology of Vietnamese history from 1930-77, unit organizations, and a list covering nineteen pages of the names of U.S. personnel killed in the Dak To fight.

Eggleston labels the organizational style of his writing a hybrid because it “merges the official history of the war with the oral history of people who were there.”

The depth of his research provides personalities for each of his accounts of battle. He delivers an extremely interesting approach to history.

—Henry Zeybel

Broadcasters: Untold Chaos by Rick Fredericksen

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Rick Fredericksen, the author of Broadcasters: Untold Chaos (Amazon Digital, 207 pp., $4.99, Kindle), is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War. Fredericksen, a veteran journalist and author, has written an interesting and readable book about the many years he spent in Southeast as a foreign correspondent, including a stint as CBS News’ Bangkok bureau chief. Broadcasters is sort of all over the place, which is fine with me as it is written in easy-to-read sections and deals with subjects I enjoyed reading about.

The one I found the most interesting was the fairly long section on Agent Orange. Because I have Multiple Myeloma, which is associated with exposure to dioxin among Vietnam War veterans, I was eager to read what he had to say.

In contrast to nearly everything else I’ve read about dioxin, Fredericksen focuses on what Agent Orange and the other dioxins the U.S. military sprayed in Southeast Asia have done to the people who live there. Most books and articles about AO published in this country tend to start with the havoc that the spraying and exposure has wrought on veterans and all but ignore the citizens of Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Fredericksen includes photos of the displays in Vietnam that are available for tourists to view that show how dioxin affects the fetus. Horrible, scary stuff. I actually felt lucky that AO has done so little to me by comparison. And to my offspring.

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Rick Fredericksen during the Vietnam War

I recommend this book to those who want to dip into some readable and interesting essays by a man who has spent much of his life in Southeast Asia writing and thinking about what the American presence there has meant. Not all of it is good and not all of it is popular among the folks who live there.

Even Filipinos have some bad things to say about Americans in this book. I enjoyed reading about Imelda Marcos and her 3,000 pairs of shoes.

So there is some fun in this book. Quite a bit, actually. Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

The Revolution of Robert Kennedy by John R. Bohrer

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In The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest after JFK (Bloomsbury Press, 384 pp. $30, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) the journalist John R. Bohrer analyzes Robert F. Kennedy’s impact on America by examining three years of his life following the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During that period, RFK transformed himself into a national leader with aspirations to win the presidential election of 1968.

Bohrer explains how Bobby Kennedy shifted his persona from that of an upper-class, nationally known politician to that of a close friend of the working man. Before then, he had primarily served as JFK’s closest advisor and as his Attorney General.

Military manuals define leadership as “The art of influencing and directing men in a way that will win their obedience, confidence, respect, and loyal cooperation in achieving a common objective.” Bohrer shows how RFK’s evolution touched each aspect of leadership with underdogs, but also created rancor among Washington big dogs, particularly President Lyndon B. Johnson.

By 1966, after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, Bobby Kennedy’s causes included supporting migrant farm workers, civil rights workers in the South, and those suffering under apartheid in South Africa. Furthermore, he backed the War on Poverty, which included correcting a general imbalance in the distribution of property and raising the welfare and educational levels of poor blacks. He also challenged the need for American involvement and increasing use of military power in the Vietnam War.

Bohrer clearly describes the turmoil of the era by citing contradictory opinions of influential American leaders on all of those social and political issues.

The Revolution of Robert Kennedy is Bohrer’s first book. His writing credentials include work as a reporter, interviewer, television news producer, and historian. One can only speculate that Bohrer has plans for a follow-up volume on the year and a half after this one ends, which would cover the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

—Henry Zeybel