The Erawan War by Ken Conboy

The events that Ken Convoy covers in The Erawan War: Volume 1: The CIA Paramilitary Campaign in Laos, 1961-1969 (Helion & Company, 64 pp. $29.95, paper) take place at a time when the Domino Theory was a key factor in American national security policy. That theory, which President Eisenhower first explained publicly in 1954, held that a communist takeover of one nation would inexorably lead to communist takeovers in nearby countries, which would “fall” like dominoes.

In 1961 the Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos was seen as a key nation under threat from communism as it bordered two communist countries, China and North Vietnam, as well as noncommunist Thailand, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. Consequently, the Eisenhower Administration placed remote, landlocked Laos squarely on the Cold War chessboard.  

To thwart a communist insurgency in Laos the United States in 1961 became clandestinely involved in its largest-ever paramilitary covert operation (code-named Erawan) amid a civil war between Lao factions including the communist Pathet Lao. Convoy’s concise, heavily illustrated book—nicely supported throughout by photographs and maps—describes the CIA’s efforts to reverse the advances that the Pathet Lao and its ally, the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN), made throughout much of northern and central Laos.  

Similarly, important missions were conducted to counter the PAVN’s use of the Ðuong Trường Sơn (known to Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) in eastern and southern Laos, and the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia, which the communists used to move troops and supplies into South Vietnam.    

Demonstrating incredible initiative, a handful of CIA field officers, working with Thai Special Forces, successfully imbedded themselves in Lao tribes, including the Hmong, and built a formidable fighting force to counter the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao.     

Equally impressive were the efforts to maintain trail-watching teams that collected intelligence on PAVN movements and assessed the effectiveness of the U.S. bombing campaign.    

One of the most audacious operations—Codename Fox—inserted teams into the People’s Republic of China to tap phone lines. Another trained a team of Nung—Chinese tribesmen from Vietnam—to conduct direct action ops against the PAVN on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA operations in Laos also included superb air support provided by Air America and BirdAir, and a secret U.S. bombing campaign that began in 1964.  

The story of CIA operations in Laos, one of America’s longest-running Cold War engagements, as Convoy recounts it in this book, is a fascinating one.

However, I found it odd that U.S. Army Special Forces, although not central to this story, were barely mentioned even though they conducted parallel operations in Laos from 1959-62. Although this book is clearly about the CIA in Laos, you can’t give the complete picture without mentioning in some detail the Green Berets’ Operation White Star.   

Otherwise, The Erawan War is a great military and military intelligence history book. 

–John Cirafici

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America by Michael H. Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Lost in Vietnam, Found in America: A Saga of Vietnamese Boat People (258 pp. $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is Cunningham’s fifth book, two of which are novels. The former Americal Division infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 wrote Walking Point, a memoir about that tour of duty.

After his discharge, Cunningham spent nearly 30 years working for the U.S. Customs Service and retired in 2007. Since then, he has been a veterans advocate and has supported philanthropic projects in Vietnam.

In writing Lost in Vietnam, Found in America, Cunningham set out to show the plight of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Boat People who fled their country after the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. He does this very well by focusing on the travails of one family of seven, including five children.

The first half of the book describes life in Vietnam under communism and the very difficult and dangerous process of fleeing that country. The balance of the book describes the delays and uncertainties associated with emigrating legally from Vietnam and assimilating into American culture.

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America also shows how Vietnamese people during the American war went about their daily lives, traveling freely and unmolested between villages and cities. Sometimes even younger children traveled alone to and from school and to the homes of friends and relatives in other villages. Americans are so used to reading about the Vietnam War’s battles, ambushes and booby-traps that we can lose sight of the fact that millions of ordinary Vietnamese citizens did their best to live normal lives during the conflict.

Cunningham is even-handed with his observations and evaluations of people, places, and events. He gleaned most of his information from first-hand sources, primarily ordinary Vietnamese people. His book illuminates a historic event that should be remembered and studied to help prevent its recurrence.

I highly recommend Lost in Vietnam, Found in America. Mike Cunningham has done a very good job presenting his story.

–Bob Wartman

Blackhorse Tales by Donald C. Snedeker

Donald C. Snedeker’s Blackhorse Tales: Stories of 11th Armored Cavalry Troopers at War (Casemate, 304 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99 Kindle), is one of the best books I have read about U.S. combat forces in the Vietnam War.

Snedeker served in 1969-70 as a platoon leader with the 2nd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry (Blackhorse) Regiment. The unit operated in the hotly contested War Zones C & D north of Saigon in places such as An Loc, Zuan Loc, Di An, Gia Ray, Bien Hoa, the Michelin Rubber Plantation, Nui Ba Den, Tay Ninh, and the Ho Bo Woods, and farther west into Cambodia.

Although he awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Snedeker writes very little about himself in this, his second book about the regiment. The first was The Blackhorse in Vietnam, which came out in 2020. His new book is almost entirely about other Blackhorse troopers and a few attached units. Through scores of interviews, they share their experiences, perspectives, and evaluations.

While writing about one combat engagement after another, Snedeker, who is the unit’s long-time historian, includes many photos, maps, and drawings. Blackhorse Tales is well designed with seven chapters interspersed with “Combat Vignettes.” The chapters include many details about Vietnamese civilians and allies, animals, terrain and weather, and how all of that affected every aspect of the lives of the troops.

These men literally lived in their APCs and tanks. Some spent months in the bush before returning to base camp. They set up fire support bases that were more like night defensive positions, and frequently were on the move. One trooper said he felt like a gypsy living in his track and constantly moving to other positions. 

Reading Blackhorse Tales, I was even more impressed with the mobility and effectiveness of armored troops in the jungles and through the rice paddies of South Vietnam. It is estimated that in its 67 months in country, the 11th Cav drove their tracked and wheeled vehicles over some 23-million miles of terrain and that the unit’s air group had flown some 250,000 sorties.

I truly enjoyed and appreciated Don Snedeker’s work in Blackhorse Tales. I highly recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

Break in the Chain by W.R. Baker

The basic premise of W.R. Baker’s Break in the Chain: Military Intelligence in Vietnam and Why the Easter Offensive Should Have Turned Out Differently (Casemate, 264 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $20.95, paper) is that the United States should not have been caught totally off-guard by the bold North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive because U.S. intelligence operatives had provided warning indicators.   

The book reads like a retrospective investigation into what transpired in the days leading up to the invasion and what continued to happen in the confusion that followed. What especially gives Bob Baker credibility is that he was an Army intelligence specialist in northern South Vietnam when the NVA’s major thrust came south across the DMZ.  

This account is a strong indictment of incompetent senior South Vietnamese generals in key positions whose strong suit was political connections—not military skill. The book also calls into question the poor use of available intelligence by senior American leaders—both military and political—all the way up to the Nixon White House. What the generals reported as the offensive unfolded had little connection to the reality on the battlefield.

Baker points out that the intelligence community—especially it’s HUMINT (human intelligence) reporting—as often discounted by senior leaders, most of whom were in the combat arms arena. This reviewer, having served in both intelligence and combat, understands completely the points Baker repeatedly emphasizes—including that no military or political leader can afford to marginalize intelligence.

Conventional military wisdom dominated the thinking of the U.S. generals in Saigon, leading them to believe erroneously that an attack, if any, would come late in January during the Tet holiday, and that it would be made up of regiment-sized infantry units—and it would target the Central Highlands. Instead, the offensive came at the very end of March. And it was fought with infantry divisions (not regiments) accompanied by armor and artillery regiments and protected by anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles. And it came south across the DMZ as well as from Laos and into the Central Highlands. The North Vietnamese, hoping to end the war on their terms, threw some 130,000 troops into the fight.

Bob Baker In Country

This book in particular illustrates that the history of battles gone wrong have repeatedly shared a common feature: discounted or ignored intelligence. Baker points out that intelligence had been disregarded prior to the Second World War’s Battle of the Bulge and the subsequent Operation Market Garden, nearly leading to disastrous consequences. And that the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was undermined by ignored intelligence. Much more recently, a heavy price was paid for selectively discounting intelligence prior to the U.S. going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. One hopes that the lessons in this book will help military and government leaders pay closer attention to intelligence and make the correct decisions in the future.   

Break In the Chain is the book to read for an accurate picture of what really took place during the pivotal 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive.

The book’s website is breakinthechain.com

–John Cirafici

The Year of the Hawk by James A. Warren

“We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home,” Lyndon Johnson said during the 1964 Presidential campaign, “to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” In his accessible The Year of the Hawk: America’s Descent into Vietnam, 1965 (Scribner, 320 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) James A. Warren focuses on the American plunge into the Vietnam War from the fall of 1964 through the summer of 1965.

Warren is a military historian, foreign policy analyst, and author, most recently of God, War, and Providence, as well as several books on the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. A former acquisitions editor at Columbia University Press, he recently was a visiting scholar in American Studies at Brown University.

Warren divides his book into three sections. The first looks at the crucial military and political decisions made by the Johnson Administration from November 1963, when he assumed the presidency, to the big build-up of American ground forces in July 1965. The second examines the ramifications of those decisions, and the third contains Warren’s assessment of, and reflection on, those events. Warren relies heavily on secondary sources and published memoirs to support his analysis.

As way of background, Warren provides an overview of Vietnamese resistance to French colonial rule in the aftermath of World War II, the American support of France during the First Indochina War (1945-54), and the deepening commitment to a noncommunist government in South Vietnam under the Kennedy Administration from 1961-63.

When Johnson became president, he felt it necessary to continue Kennedy Administration’s commitment to a non-communist South Vietnam out of fear of damage to his credibility and to American international prestige. Warren rightfully opines that the American commitment and strategy in the Vietnam War was largely shaped by domestic politics. He comprehensively details the nascent antiwar movement, while pointing out that in 1964-65 there was broad support for the war and President Johnson’s handling of it.

Warren explains the internecine struggle between the Marine Corps strategy of counterinsurgency and pacification, the so-called “other war,” and the Army’s preference for big-unit engagements and search-and-destroy operations. Gen. William Westmoreland’s insistence on the strategy of attrition prevailed, and—coupled with a flawed and ineffective air campaign—created a doomed American policy.

Westmoreland thought his strategy was justified following the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang— made famous by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joe Galloway’s book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young—in which the Moore’s 1st Cavalry Division troops inflicted significant battlefield casualties on the North Vietnamese. After that bloody engagement the communists adjusted their tactics and largely avoided large-unit confrontations. Warren argues that Westmoreland’s approach was deeply flawed, but believes his treatment by historians has been unfair, saying that any American general with any strategy would have been ineffective in Vietnam.

LBJ, Cam Ranh Bay, 1967

Warren’s analysis follows the accepted historical orthodoxy: Ho Chi Minh was a courageous leader uniting his people; South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his predecessors were corrupt despots; and the U.S. did not understand the revolutionary spirit that was sweeping the countryside.

On the other hand, the North attempted to provoke three general uprisings that would have toppled the unpopular South Vietnamese regime—in 1964, 1968, and 197—and failed each time.

Warren contends that the 1968 Tet Offensive’s crucial objective was to inflict a psychological blow on the American public and government. But that was Tet’s crucial outcome, not its intent. Tet was designed to incite a revolution in South Vietnam and win the war. Only when the North invaded in 1975 with the conventional forces of the North Vietnamese Army did the communists prevail.

Though Warren’s use of headings within each chapter allows the narrative to move quickly, his overuse of long quotations and colloquialisms slows things down. That said, this book is a solid and readable introduction to a conflict that continues to resonate in American politics and culture.

–Daniel R. Hart

UH-1 Huey Gunship vs NVA/VC Forces by Peter E. Davies

Veteran military historian Peter E. Davies’ UH-1 Huey Gunship vs NVA/VC Forces: Vietnam 1962-75 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is the book for anyone who wants to know just about everything about the UH-1 Huey helicopter in the Vietnam War. Rich in photographs and illustrations, this concise book examines and explains virtually every detail about that famed helicopter, from its inception to its war-fighting variants. The Huey, formally named the Iroquois based on the Army’s use of American tribal names for its helicopters, was the backbone of U.S. air mobility warfare in Vietnam.

In this tightly focused study of only eighty pages Davies—aided by illustrators Jim Laurier and Gareth Hector—takes the reader from the first use of helicopters in combat to the development of the gunship as an assault helicopter. Davies goes step-by-stop from concept through design innovation, evaluation, and the emergence of a new capability on the battlefield. He then discusses air mobility in the Vietnam War and how tactics and weapons evolved to meet a changing battlefield.

He also addresses the counterstrategy the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese developed to try to neutralize the challenges of air mobility. In doing so, Davies examines NVA and VC tactics and weapons systems and how they evolved to meet the air-assault threat.

The limits of the helicopter in fighting in the Vietnam were exposed during Operation Lam Son 719 in 1971 when the NVA set up an intensive anti-aircraft artillery defense in Laos, taking a heavy toll on the assaulting helicopter force. 

Although this book is well researched, I found a few minor errors. Davies writes, for example, that the 1st Cavalry Division’s fixed-wing aircraft (the CV-2 Caribous and OV-1 Mohawks) were turned over to the U.S. Air Force in 1966. In fact, the Mohawks remained with the 1st Cav. 

That said, UH-1 Huey Gunship vs NVA/ VC Forces is an outstanding reference book. For anyone looking for a well-informed examination of Hueys in the Vietnam War, this is it.

–John Cirafici

Drawn Swords in a Distant Land by George Veith

History is not kind to losers. Those who appease, such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, or step down like President Richard Nixon, become exemplars of not only defeat, but of moral failing as well. In Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam’s Shattered Dreams (Encounter Books, 660 pp. $40.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) the historian George Veith attempts a rehabilitation of South Vietnam’s longest-serving president, Nguyen Van Thieu.

Thieu resigned his post in the spring of 1975 as the North Vietnamese advanced on Saigon, ensuring that the nation of South Vietnam was resigned to the pages of history. The military historian Lewis Sorley wrote that Thieu was “arguably a more honest and decent man than Lyndon Johnson, and—given the differences in their respective circumstances—quite likely a more effective president of his country,” suggesting that Veith’s revisionism is meaningful.

Veith, a former Army captain, is a PhD candidate who has written two books on American POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War. His most recent book is Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-1975 In that 2012 book, he argues that the South Vietnamese were “quite capable of defeating the North Vietnamese,” but failed mainly because the U.S. Congress didn’t support them adequately because of the influence of “antiwar crusaders,” “major media institutions,” and the “Left around the world.”

Drawn Swords in a Distant Land is a monumental achievement in its breadth and scope. The massive tome is divided into 24 chapters and supported by 43 pages of endnotes. In addition to many American and Vietnamese primary and secondary sources, Veith interviewed an array of former South Vietnamese officials.

In the past two decades, some Vietnam War historians have emphasized the South Vietnamese experience, though most of this literature has focused on the regime of the first President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. In his book, Veith covers the Diem regime and the rotation of South Vietnam governments after his 1963 assassination before spending the bulk of the book on Thieu.

The book is primarily a political biography of Thieu and his effort to build a democratic republic with a viable economy and rule of law. He had to accomplish this while fighting a war against an indigenous communist enemy and the well-armed and well-trained conventional forces of the North Vietnamese Army. The book contextualizes the role of the United States through the South Vietnamese perspective, which effectively lessens the American role.

Veith posits that Thieu’s role has been unfairly relegated to that of the losing and last President of South Vietnam, effectively devaluing many of his accomplishments. He implemented land reform, returned political power to the local level, oversaw several elections, and held together a fractured nation, all while leading the armed forces. Vieth’s sympathetic portrayal of Thieu reveals a resilient individual who was transformed from a modest military general to an inspired yet practical politician.

Though under his regime regional and religious allegiances dissipated, Thieu could never unify the competing groups of South Vietnamese nationalists. Veith portrays him as a model of probity who nonetheless oversaw a government plagued by corruption and scandal that he was unable to control.

LBJ and Nguyen Van Thieu

These issues are endemic to all fledgling democracies, and, though there was dissatisfaction among the South Vietnamese with Thieu’s government, it remained preferable to communism. In the end, Thieu could not both build a nation and fight an enemy after it lost the support of its American patron.

Though a generous depiction of Thieu — at times too sympathetic as many historians would challenge Veith’s contentions on Thieu’s land reforms and fair elections —Veith concedes that when South Vietnam needed Thieu to be at his best, he was at his worst.

Veith’s ambitious undertaking is worthwhile in its reassessment and a challenge to the belief that South Vietnam was a corrupt American puppet in a Cold War drama. But this perspective may be slightly off-balance by overly diminishing the American role. Vieth’s commitment to his subject leads to indulgent rhetorical flourishes, and the level of detail he provides allows the narrative to meander.

Given the large cast of characters, the book would benefit from a dramatis personae, and would have been enhanced by a more robust conclusion.

But these are minor quibbles in an important revisionist history in understanding America’s South Vietnamese ally.

–Daniel R. Hart

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           

SOG Chronicles, Vol. I by John Stryker Meyer

The Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was one of the most misidentified and misnamed special operations units in the American war in Vietnam. With his 2017 book, SOG Chronicles, Volume I (SOG Publishing, 210 pp. $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), former Army Green Beret John Meyer gives us the first of a series telling the stories of the men who took part in the secret SOG actions.

Changing some names “to protect those involved,” Meyer tells us of the birth and mission of SOG, which was in place under MACV from 1964-72. He also includes some of the history that drove its inception and goals.

The Special Forces troops of SOG and their Vietnamese comrades, including Montagnards, went where they weren’t supposed to go and did what they weren’t supposed to do with the knowledge that the U.S. government would disavow their existence and missions into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam if they were discovered.

SOG Chronicles focuses on the 1970 Operation Tailwind, in which 16 Green Berets and some 120 Montagnard fighters went deep into western Laos to draw the NVA’s attention away from another operation being run by CIA forces in eastern Laos.

This operation turned into a four-day fight, a greater-than-expected engagement with more than a few casualties. The men were finally extracted with 60 wounded, all of whom were kept alive by the sole medic in the unit, Gary Mike Rose, with the help of an indigenous assistant. In 2017, Rose belatedly received the Medal of Honor for those beyond-the-call-of duty actions.  

Meyer also includes a rundown of other SOG operations, as well as details about some of the minutia and high jinx that took place in camps and on the trail. He heaps great praise on the airborne assets assigned to SOG, those who transported the men out and back and provided air support.

This is a well-written, well-edited, and informative book and a tribute the men of SOG.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

–Tom Werzyn

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM by Peter Caldwell

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM (Taote Publishing, 150 pp. $9.95, paper; $4.25, Kindle) is Dr. Peter Caldwell’s take on what happened during the American war in Vietnam. He therefore opens the book by asking: “How difficult is it for someone who wants to try and get up to speed on the history of American involvement in Viet-Nam?”

My experience reading this book was just that—difficult. It’s a wonderful book, but there is so much diverse material with many outside references in it that I had to re-read a few sections to understand the full picture Caldwell was trying to paint.

He has packed nearly 100 excerpts from publications written by Americans (both war hawks and doves) and Vietnamese (from the South and North) into this short book. The endnotes and bibliography lend credence to his observations and comments, causing me to rethink my opinions about the war.

From 1966-67 Caldwell served as a Navy Battalion Surgeon for the Marines in the Hue-Phu Bai area. He later made several trips back to Vietnam on volunteer medical missions and to visit his in-laws. In 1960, Caldwell’s Vietnamese wife Olga Hoang Hai and her family had moved to Hawaii where and met her and they later married.

Here are a few strategic changes that Caldwell believes could have reversed the outcome of the war:

  • Periodically invading southern areas of North Vietnam and moving into sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  • Pursuing the enemy into Cambodia and Laos
  • Continuing support for President Ngo Dinh Diem
  • Expanding the USMC’s Combined Action Platoon program
  • Integrating the ARVN command structure with ours and giving the South Vietnamese military more autonomous responsibilities
  • Reducing access to untruthful news outlets

I enjoyed reading Up to Speed on VIET-NAM and feel I now have a more well-rounded understanding of the Vietnam War. I highly recommend it.

–Bob Wartman