Beyond the Quagmire edited by Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith

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One should not judge a book by its cover. In the case of Beyond the Quagmire: New Interpretations of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 432 pp., $29.95), one should not judge this fine collection of essays by its title.

That’s because the title suggests that after The Making of a Quagmire (1965), David Halberstam’s seminal account of the Kennedy administration’s move into the Vietnam War;  and after –Into The Quagmire (1991), a history of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war from 1964-65; and even Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos (2012), we can now move “beyond” the quagmire.

Beyond strives to move past the Vietnam War “morass,” the editors say, “by providing new ideas and directions,” and it is mostly successful in this regard. But these perspectives ironically deepen the muddle about the war and its remembrance, enhancing the conflict’s well-deserved reputation as “an awkward, complex, or hazardous situation.”

Editors Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith—historians at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Texas respectively—have compiled a collection of thirteen essays that explore many different issues, including rural development in South Vietnam under the Diem regime and the commemoration of the war through comic books. The book is divided into three sections, exploring the politics, the combatants, and the remembrance of the conflict.

The best of the essays are Nengher Vang’s treatment on the Hmong and Xiaobing Li’s review of Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War and Sino-Soviet relations. Ron Milam’s article on the role of military advisers, Susan Eastman’s on the ‘Nam comics, Doug Bradley’s on music and memory, and Heather Marie Stur’s on women, are all noteworthy additions.

Interesting perspectives, but perhaps ones that do not move beyond other scholarly work, include Martin Clemis’ essay on geography, Jeffrey Turner’s on the student movement in the South, Matthew Stith’s on the natural environment, and Sarah Thelen’s on Nixon and patriotism. The last essay would have benefited from an analysis of why antiwar activists seemed to be duped into allowing Nixon supporters to paint them as unpatriotic. Thelen’s contention that the Nixon team conceived the idea that “unity was not necessary for electoral victory” is belied by history.

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Nixon announcing the May 1970 incursion into Cambodia 

Some of the other perspectives are indeed new, but perhaps their originality underscores the limitations of their arguments. Geoffrey Stewart’s analysis on South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s rural development programs, for example, is solid in its review of Diem’s plans, but collapses under the weight of Diem’s despotism. The South Vietnamese government was not “struck by” the Buddhist Crisis in the summer of 1963 as he says, but had precipitated it through systematic repression. Even a forgiving understanding of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu would not suggest that they acted in the best interests of South Vietnam’s peasants.

Geoffrey Jensen’s treatment on the lowering of standards required for induction in the military, McNamara’s Project 100,000, has a provocative but ultimately misguided thesis. Jensen misses obvious connections to the war itself: Both were conceived with the best of intentions, both were ultimately exploited and mismanaged, and neither was adequately reformed due to obdurate and selfish politicians.

In his essay on Vietnam veterans memorials, William Allison proffers a challenging thesis, contending that when the last Vietnam War veterans pass on, those men and women—and the war in which they fought—will be forgotten. Memorials are a physical manifestation to honor the sacrifice of veterans. They are not built as tourist attractions or as a means to foster oblivion about a war. If a memorial fosters solace, this is a positive thing. It does not lead to forgetting, for healing leaves a scar.

Beyond the Quagmire presents a diverse and erudite collection of compositions. It is a welcome addition and a worthy successor to 2002’s A Companion to the Vietnam War.

–Daniel R. Hart

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Operation Linebacker I – 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

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In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a three-pronged attack against South Vietnam: from the Demilitarized Zone, the Central Highlands, and Cambodia. With few Americans remaining in country working primarily as advisers while Nixon’s Vietnamization was in full swing, the South Vietnamese were expected to protect themselves. That appeared impossible in face of the North’s disproportionate number of personnel, tanks, and artillery.

President Nixon responded by deploying massive American air power in “an almost unrestrained way” against the North, according to Marshall L. Michel III in Operation Linebacker I 1972: The First High-Tech Air War (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper: $9.99, Kindle). Using new technology in Linebacker I, Michel says, the United States “brought to bear the start of an air power revolution.”

Linebacker I and II coincided with Michel’s Air Force career. From 1970-73, he flew 321 combat missions as part of both campaigns. Last year he wrote Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s Are Sent to Hanoi, which is an excellent companion to this book.  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/operation-linebacker-ii-1972-by-marshall-l-michel-iii/

In this look at Linebacker I Michel provides a detailed account of political and military actions prior to and during the bombing operation, including explaining Nixon’s changing diplomacy. Linebacker I concentrated on interdicting North Vietnamese supply lines, much like Rolling Thunder had done from 1965-68. Linebacker I had broader approval to target airfields, SAM sites, and GCI radars than Rolling Thunder did.

To buttress his claim that this was the start of “an air power revolution,” Michel describes the use of new equipment on Linebacker I missions from April through October 1972.

He calls precision guided munitions (PGM) “the most important Air Force weapon in the campaign.” These 2,000-pound smart bombs either were laser guided (LGB) by a designator in the back seat of an F-4 or they were electro-optically guided (EOGB) by a Pave Knife external pod.

Delivering LGBs required two aircraft: one to lase and one to bomb. Pave Knife allowed an aircraft to deliver and track its own EOGBs, as well as those dropped by the rest of an attacking flight. Full-page illustrations in the book help explain this maneuver and others tactics, such as the mining of Haiphong Harbor.

Smart bombs were not new in 1972. When I flew with Spectre in 1970, our F-4 escorts occasionally carried LGBs, which our slowly orbiting gunship targeted with lasers against antiaircraft sites or road intersections in the relative safety of Laos. The advantage enjoyed with smart bombs during Linebacker I occurred from marrying them to sophisticated electronic gear that permitted aircrews to guide their munitions while flying at high speeds in extremely hostile environments.

The new technology’s many successes included new accuracy that destroyed the Paul Doumer and Thanh Hoa (Dragon’s Jaw) bridges, vital transportation links that had survived years of attacks.

During Linebacker I, chaff received fresh life. Chaff bombs established corridors one hundred miles long, allowing aircraft in these paths to become invisible to equipment on the ground.

Improved technology did not solve every problem, though, according to Michel. The USAF and Navy used different air-to-air tactics, which created dissent, he says. Navy pilots who had trained under the Topgun program scored a high victory ratio over MiGs, while USAF crews suffered losses as a result of poor tactical maneuvers. Michel show how MiG domination against the Air Force pilots brought about the creation of the Red Flag training program and modernized tactics.        

Along with technological gains, command-and-control changes further increased air power effectiveness. B-52s delivered their “incredible number of bombs day or night in any weather conditions,” as Michel puts it, and “changed targets quickly to meet the ground tactical situation very close to allied troops.” As a result of these capabilities, the 200 B-52s from Guam and Thailand concentrated their strikes on close air support in South Vietnam during Linebacker I.

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Bombing a bridge in North Vietnam, May 1972

What’s more, the Navy’s Red Crown GCI system provided instant information to attacking aircraft. On the other hand, Teaball—a new USAF GCI system—proved of “limited usefulness” because communications broke down and caused “high value losses,” Michel says.

On the ground, the North Vietnamese improved defenses by moving SA-2 launch sites closer to the DMZ and employing shoulder-launched SA-7s on the battlefields.

From start to finish, Michel repeatedly lauds the less glamorous C-130 combat support sorties that kept South Vietnamese forces supplied at An Loc and Kontum. In conclusion, he cites an over dependency by the ARVN on American air power, a point proved when North Vietnam again invaded the South in 1975. The ARVN “collapsed,” he says, “ending the conflict once and for all.”

Michel excels as a military historian because he impartially presents well-researched views of observers and participants from both sides of the war.

As usual, this Osprey Publishing book includes outstanding images. Artist Adam Tooby provides three dazzling double-page pictures of aircraft. Additionally, virtually every page has one or more evocative photographs.

—Henry Zeybel

Bait by James D. McLeroy & Gregory W. Sanders

baitThe title of James D. McLeroy and Gregory W. Sanders’ Bait: The Battle of Kham Duc Special Camp (Hellgate, 318 pp., $26.95) refers to Gen. William Westmoreland’s use of a “lure and destroy” defensive attrition strategy, which he believed complimented his search and destroy offensive attrition strategy. Both were later called into question.

McLeroy was on the ground, participating in the May 1968 battle at Kham Duc. Sanders came arrived in-country a bit later. Their ten-plus years of research and collaboration has resulted in this excellent book. It’s been a good while since this reviewer has read such a superbly researched and well-written Vietnam War military history book.

A prologue and a fact-filled preface detail the people, places, and things—from both sides of the battlefield–covered in the book. Visits, interviews, searches of archival records, and many personal conversations are woven into the book. The authors provide more than twenty tightly spaced pages of sources. The end notes following each chapter are as interesting as the narratives they support.

The story takes us into meeting rooms in the White House, the Pentagon, MACV, and on down through levels of field command, right to the battlefield. McLeroy and Sander, without rancor, correct errors that have been allowed to stand as fact and provide insights into operational decisions and their results.

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A CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down while attempting to land during the fighting at the Kham Duc-Ngok Tavak Special Forces Camp airfield.

They begin with a modern-day visit to the battle site, then flesh in the back-story leading up to the May 10-12, 1968, engagement at the Kham Duc-Ngok Tavak U.S. Army Special Forces Camp in western I Corps up against the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also touch briefly on the SOG operations that operated out of this camp.

In a telling worthy of the best Tom Clancy and Brad Thor thrillers, the authors recount earlier skirmishes and the subsequent Mother’s Day battle with a tightly packed and crisply flowing time line, toggling among at least a half dozen locations. We follow decision trees and commo exchanges that had an impact on all the players on the ground and in the air.

The story of the encounter in which at least two NVA regiments tried to overwhelm the heavily outnumbered defenders kept this reader turning the pages.

Bait is a great read—a fact-filled telling of a largely unremembered battle.

–Tom Werzyn

Topgun by Dan Pedersen 

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Selected to create an advanced training program for U.S. Navy fighter pilots, Dan Pedersen operated in accordance with an afterthought from his commander: “Don’t kill anybody, and don’t lose an airplane.” Otherwise, Pedersen was on his own.

In his memoir, Topgun: An American Story (Hachette, 320 pp. $28, hardcover and Kindle; $35, audiobook), Pederson tells how as a lieutenant commander in 1969 he handpicked eight highly experienced F-4 Phantom crewmen—four pilots and four backseaters—to develop the program.

First, they named it “Topgun.” Then, after analyzing the combat capability of the F-4 Phantom “well beyond the parameters set by McDonnell Douglas,” they designed a curriculum that taught crew members how to use the airplane and its armament to become “the best sticks in the sky,” as Pedersen puts it. They also taught their students “how to teach other pilots” the same skills.

In measuring their success, the facts speak for themselves. From the beginning of Topgun to the end of the Vietnam War, the Navy kill ratio against MiGs was 24:1. Its ratio for the entire war was 12:1, but that was still far better than USAF’s overall ratio, Pedersen says.

The intensity of Pedersen’s commitment to perfecting aerial combat skills makes this book exceptionally interesting. He shares his learning experience. Living to dogfight, he flew any plane available at every opportunity. Part of Topgun’s success was due to his access to Area 51 (the highly classified section of Edwards AFB in Nevada) to fly MiGs that the U.S. government had acquired clandestinely.

Although flying took precedence over everything else in his life, that characteristic did not diminish Pedersen’s worth as a compassionate leader. In the book he frequently memorializes friends killed in combat or accidents. He also hero-worships flyers from World War II and the Korean War.

He concedes that death waits only one mistake away and says, “When you’re a fighter pilot, alone in that cockpit, your fate is in your hands.”

Prior to his Topgun assignment, Pedersen flew F-4s from the U.S.S. Enterprise on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam in 1968. He describes sorties that provided close air support in South Vietnam, day and night interdiction of traffic in Laos, and strategic bombing of targets in North Vietnam. Repetitive and unproductive targeting dictated by Washington created discontent among Navy flyers, particularly when losses multiplied, he says.

In 1973, Pedersen flew a shorter second tour from the Enterprise, bombing trucks in Laos after the Paris Agreement halted U.S. combat action in South Vietnam.

Along with him telling of the creation of Topgun, Pedersen also recalls historic world events and personal trials and tribulations as they relate to flying:

  • Dogfights over North Vietnam in 1972.
  • Israel’s desperate battle for survival in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
  • The costly maneuvers to rescue the U.S.S. Mayaguez crew that same year.
  • A sorrowful depiction of people fleeing Vietnam in 1975.
  • Development of the F-14 Tomcat.
  • Technology that gave Topgun even greater superiority over USAF training.
  • Duty as “Skipper” of the U.S.S. Ranger.
  • A near-demise of the Topgun school.
  • Politics leading to his retirement as a captain in 1983 after twenty-nine years of service.
  • Making the movie,”Top Gun.”

Plus, buried among these spellbinding recollections, there’s a love story with a happy ending.

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Capt. Pedersen

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Pedersen’s Navy views with those of USAF pilot Gaillard R. Peck, Jr. in his new book, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Both books cover the same times and events.

Pedersen’s memoir left me disappointed (not quite to his depth, of course) that he never shot down a MiG. At the same time, I envied his powerful influence on improving the combat skills of so many flyers.

In my eyes, a great teacher is a great man.

—Henry Zeybel

Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for a Revolution by Virginia Morris

The enigma of Ho Chi Minh continues to both fascinate and mystify. In Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution: In the Words of Vietnamese Strategists and Operatives (McFarland, 395 pp., $45, paper; $24.99, Kindle) the British security and defense analyst Virginia Morris uses first-hand accounts of Vietnamese officials to try to understand how Ho could defeat two vastly superior armies and unify a country. Morris says her work is “distinctive” because it is “told from the point of view of communist leader Ho Chi Minh.”

She argues that what made Ho’s “blueprint” unique was not the insurgent strategies and tactics that have been used for centuries, but how he “combined [them] and then used the population that made his unified system new.” Through an exhaustive use of interviews, Morris thoughtfully examines Ho’s use of female couriers, his implementation of both regular and irregular armies; and his deft approach to communications and logistics, mass propaganda campaigns, and domestic and international diplomacy. Ho’s nationalist vision of an independent and unified Vietnam, Morris shows, never wavered.

Almost all serious works on Ho Chi Minh center on one question: Was he, as the historian Sophie Quinn-Judge described him, the “Nationalist Saint” of Vietnam, or was he the “Machiavellian Apparatchik” of the Chinese and Soviets?

Morris’ work places Ho squarely in the first camp. Her enthusiasm for the subjects in her book is palpable, but this sympathetic portrayal impugns an objective treatment of the material as Morris either belittles or ignores the violence and terror of the communist system. There is no mention of the more than one million Vietnamese who fled North Vietnam in 1954, the thought reform campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s that persecuted so-called “class enemies,” and the North Vietnamese tactic of placing civilians in harm’s way to use casualties for propaganda purposes.

In sections on the communist infiltration into the South Vietnamese government and other organizations, when direct propaganda or blackmail proves ineffective, Morris casually mentions that targets were “eventually killed.” The land reforms that led to the deaths of thousands were Ho’s “concession” to the Chinese and the Soviets, she writes, for their financial and military support. These tactics, though abhorrent, were effective, but are not part of the “blueprint.”

The implication of the title is that Ho Chi Minh’s blueprint is transferrable, but Morris does not make this case. Though it is implicit in her work, she misses the key element of all successful revolutions: the cult of personality in leaders as disparate as Mao, Nehru, Lenin, Castro, and Tito.

The book would have been strengthened with an examination into the myth making of “Uncle Ho.” One question not answered: When he was internally criticized in the early 1960s and ultimately forced out of the leadership by Le Duan, why was Ho willing to become a ceremonial figurehead?

Morris asserts that few people understand the strategies behind Ho’s blueprint, but this does not stand up to scrutiny. In her epilogue, she lists the banal, self-help tactics that Ho employed:

“Have a clear objective and robust strategy on how to achieve it. Create a strong brand. Use the people and utilize their traits, strengths and weaknesses… Be diplomatic. Form alliances.” In trying to prove that the blueprint was unique, Morris may be missing that it was Ho Chi Minh who was inimitable.

Virginia Morris

The book’s strength is its use of primary-source interviews. Here, Morris’ efforts are exemplary. Although the sources are generally put in context, more analysis and narrative would have elevated the prose. Quotes from the sources generally run over a page, which weakens the narrative integrity.

The use of maps and diagrams is mostly effective, but some are presented in a level of detail that renders them challenging to follow.

Despite these shortcomings, Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution is a welcome and important work on the conundrum of Ho Chi Minh.

–Daniel R. Hart

 

The Third Force in the Vietnam War by Sophie Quinn-Judge

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In September 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, U.S. Army Major Allison Thomas turned to the leader of the Vietnamese guerrillas he had led in training with one question: was he a communist?  “Yes,” replied Ho Chi Minh, “but we can still be friends, can’t we?”  Unfortunately for the Vietnamese people, the answer to that query turned out to be a resounding no.

Sophie Quinn-Judge in her book, The Third Force in the Vietnam War: The Elusive Search for Peace, 1954-1975 (I.B. Tauris, 336 pp., $110, hardcover; $29, Kindle) probes an often overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War: Was there a neutral coalition of Vietnamese citizens that could have brought peace to that country?

Quinn-Judge, the author Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, concludes that a neutral coalition was active in South Vietnam and would have been able to either avoid the war, or bring it to a peaceful conclusion once the violence had started—if it had been given legitimacy.  t best, members of this Third Force were ignored or marginalized by autocratic South Vietnamese political leaders and American policy makers; at worst, they were exiled or imprisoned as communists or communist sympathizers.

Quinn-Judge rejects the claim made by both sides that war was inevitable. The Vietnamese had a legitimate stake in their nation; they were not mere pawns in a global war between Sino-Soviet communism and American democracy. She introduces a myriad of South Vietnamese political and religious leaders who organized around the idea of a neutral South Vietnam, and a peaceful conclusion to the war. Though the American public—and most American policymakers—viewed communism as an evil monolith, Quinn-Judge reveals the evolutionary nature of North Vietnamese communism and the varying degrees of Soviet and Chinese influence over the long course of the conflict.

She uses utilizes state archives from more than eight countries and draws upon her own experience as a volunteer in Vietnam with the American Friends Service Committee from 1973-75.  The early history of French colonialism in Vietnam, the rise of the communist party in North Vietnam, and the split of the country in 1954 as a result of the Geneva Accords, are summarized succinctly. The book then follows two parallel narratives, that of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, and the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, concluding with North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon in April 1975.

Although the book is entitled “The Third Force” implying a military solution, Quinn-Judge quickly discards that term for “Third Way” or “Third Segment,” reasoning that a military solution for peace was disabused as early as 1956. It is curious for the book’s title to be discarded so early in the narrative.

In South Vietnam, Quinn-Judge focuses on the “non-violent political and social forces that attempted to play the role of intermediaries.” However, she admits that this group is difficult to define, because a tactic of the North Vietnamese communists was infiltration into South Vietnamese political, social, and religious groups. Though Quinn-Judge describes individuals espousing South Vietnamese neutralism, she struggles with a definition for neutralism, before defining it as the embodiment of “a concept of Third World spiritual exceptionalism.”

It is uncertain if “neutralism” here meant an independent, Democratic South Vietnam, or an eventual reunification with the North Vietnamese.  It is clear what many neutralists were advocating against; at times, it is unclear what they were fighting for.

Quinn-Judge does a skillful job summarizing the transforming Vietnamese nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. She cites communism as an aspect of the quest for change and identity, but only a facet of the broader cultural, political ,and religious shifts in society.

Ho Chi Minh, who is mainly a figurehead in Quinn-Judge’s telling of the tale, led the formation of the Viet Minh during World War I, and received help from the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Though Quinn-Judge points out that the relationship was severed as a result of the United States’ backing of France’s colonial aspirations after the war, Ho’s unapologetic allegiance to communism was at least as responsible.

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Ho Chi Minh in 1951

She correctly discloses the fluctuating nature and influence of the Chinese and Soviets on the North Vietnamese. China aggressively espoused an armed a revolt against the West, while the Soviets believed in revisionism, or the peaceful co-existence with capitalism and an eventual end to the class struggle.

In the summer of 1963, the Americans seemingly listened to what the South Vietnamese people were telling them. They replaced Ambassador Frederick Nolting, who was sympathetic to President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Lodge wimmediately distanced himself from Diem, demanded that Nhu be removed from power, and openly sided with the oppressed Buddhists. Diem was soon replaced in a violent coup by the moderate and popular Duong Van Minh.

However, in this critical time period, the North Vietnamese were most influenced by the Chinese, and advocating for peace or revisionism was a crime. That left any Third Segment in the South without a partner in the North. But the North as a peace partner is discounted, as Quinn-Judge argues that by 1964, “the decisions leading to war had already been made in Washington.”

Though they have a minor role in her book, Quinn-Judge saves most of her vitriol for American politicians and policymakers, saying that “crushed” peace campaigns. She sympathizes with some of the communists, whom she believes were closer in their “ideological outlook” to a Third Segment than to Stalinism or Maoism.

However, even if some Vietnamese communists desired peace, neither their rhetoric nor their actions matched that sentiment. She notes, for example, that as early as January 1959, the 15th Plenum of the Communist Party espoused a “violent struggle” as the path to revolution in South Vietnam.

Quinn-Judge places great importance in the 1968 Paris Peace Accords, which were perhaps known best for the long argument over the shape of the conference table. She blames Presidential candidate Richard Nixon for illegally interfering with the talks, though historian Robert Dallek wrote Nixon’s actions “probably made no difference.”

She also points out that the majority of the scholarship on the “missed opportunities” for peace in Vietnam is from a Western perspective.  n that regard, Quinn-Judge’s work—along with recent scholarship from Jessica Chapman, Philip Caton, and Edward Miller—is an important one in understanding the efforts of the Vietnamese people who desired peace.

Nguyen Manh Ha, a noncommunist Catholic who served in Ho Chi Minh’s government; Ngo Ba Thanh, an attorney educated in America; and Tran Ngoc Chan, the Secretary General of the Lower House, are among the many leaders that are too briefly portrayed. Duong Van Minh, the leader of 1963 coup, is the veritable Forest Gump of South Vietnamese society—present at most every important event, including assuming leadership before the unconditional surrender of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1975.

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Sophie Quinn-Judge

Was he a leader or a survivor? A patriot or an opportunist?  Quinn-Judge does not explore those questions.

It is disheartening that Quinn-Judge believes that by the 1966, just over a year after the entry of American ground forces, the Third Segment had eroded. Quinn-Judge does not analyze the apparent lack of leadership or organizing principle among the Third Segment, and she laments that neutralists had no Western sponsor, which belies the central tenet of her work.

Nevertheless, The Third Force in Vietnam is a worthwhile contribution to the field, providing an understanding of the desire for peace of many Vietnamese.

–Dan Hart

Bystanders to the Vietnam War by Ronald Allen Goldberg

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Ronald Allen Goldberg’s Bystanders to the Vietnam War: The Role of the United States Senate, 1950-1965 (McFarland, 159 pp., $35, paper; $18.99, Kindle) provides a foundation of diplomatic and political history to understand how and why Americans came to a tipping point in committing to military intervention in the Vietnam War. It might easily fit on a reading list for a college survey course or seminar on the war.

Under the Constitution, presidents provide leadership in foreign relations and serve as the military’s commanders-in-chief. Congress holds the purse strings. Presidential decisions cannot occur in a vacuum; they depend on legislative support and that of voters. The key issue is whether support comes before or after actions are taken and to what degree. That was true in the 1800s and continues to be the case today.

Goldberg’s main point in Bystanders to the Vietnam War is that the U.S. Senate should play a more forceful role in shaping foreign policy and decisions that lead to war. Implicit in that is a desire for better outcomes, as well greater accountability. However, few decisions in life are perfect. Most involve risk, some with deeply tragic stakes. Outcomes are rarely guaranteed and there often are unforeseen consequences.

Goldberg, a retired Thomas Nelson Community College history professor, reveals the decision-making process that led to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. But he often seems to contradict his thesis that the Senate was a bystander. He describes forty 40 different Senators speaking out about the war, some repeatedly, pro and con, from 1950-65.

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President Eisenhower, particularly, was influenced by Senate opinion.  At various points, individual Senators also offered amendments to appropriations, legislation or resolutions which, even when dropped or defeated, created pressure for consensus—either through clarification or as often is the case, deliberate vagueness.  Goldberg seems to want clearer votes, coming sooner in a shared decision-making process. It is a laudable hope, but probably unrealistic and in some cases possibly unwise.

It is of course disillusioning to realize that presidents, senators, and institutions in making decisions often move forward uncertainly, incrementally, frequently without complete information—or worse, blindly or impetuously, based on mis-assumptions, misinformation, or lies. The point of Goldberg’s work is to warn that such risks remain grave concerns today.

A shortcoming in Goldberg’s book is that except for top leaders, he does not identify most of the Senators he quotes by their states, party, or membership on key committees. Such basic information is still relevant to consider what factors may have influenced the Senators.

Under Eisenhower, while also holding the Senate majority, Republicans generally were the more moderate, dovish voices; Democrats the more hawkish ones. After Democrats took back the Senate in landslide 1958 midterm elections, and narrowly the presidency in 1960, Republicans became the more hawkish party. Goldberg does not bring into sharp relief the historical significance of the 1958 elections, and to a much lesser degree, those in 1962.

President Kennedy greatly increased military advisers and aid to South Vietnam, while the Senate, Goldberg writes, limited itself to “comments of caution, confusion and sometimes outrage.” But Kennedy also was cautious, uncertain, and sometimes outraged. In September 1963, in response to South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem’s corruption and violent oppression of Buddhist opponents, Kennedy publicly denounced the Saigon government for having “gotten out of touch with the people.” Soon after, the Senate passed a resolution stating that American aid should be stopped and advisers withdrawn if reforms did not occur.

On November 2, 1963, Diem was assassinated and replaced by a military junta. Three weeks later, Kenned was assassinated. It is impossible to know what direction he would have taken had he lived and won-re-election in 1964, but Goldberg neatly summarizes arguments and evidence that like Eisenhower, JFK probably would have refused to intervene with American combat troops.

President Johnson was a different breed. First elected to Congress in 1937 one of the defining lessons of World War II for his generation was the risk of appeasement. A fierce anti-Communist, he was a great believer in his force of personality, as well as unilateral American action on the world stage. He was more inclined—and able–to bend Congress to his will, particularly after winning the 1964 presidential election by a landslide.

At Johnson’s request, Congress adopted the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964 in response to two American naval incidents with North Vietnam. Coming before the election, the resolution approved “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” It was essentially a blank check for American military intervention in Vietnam.

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Sec. Def. McNamara explaining the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Aug. ’64

 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the resolution lasted one hour and 40 minutes. Overall, committee hearings, debate and voting in both the Senate and House of Representatives totaled less than nine hours. The House passed it unanimously.  The Senate vote was 88-2.  One Democrat and one Republican voted against it.

The 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, had run as a fierce war hawk. By comparison, the Republican Party enabled Johnson to run as “the peace candidate,” while the Tonkin Gulf Resolution allowed him to maintain a position of strength, an olive branch in one hand, but with arrows in another.

Although not covered by Goldberg’s study, the Democratic Party which began the escalation, would split apart because of the war. Democratic Senators would challenge Johnson for the party’s presidential nomination in 1968, contributing to, if not forcing,  his decision not to run for re-election.

Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency pledging “peace with honor,” but the Democratic majorities in Congress would still be responsible for ultimately for ending the war—albeit with considerable Republican support.

Nixon resigned in August 1974. Four months later, North Vietnam violated the 1973 peace agreement, and rapidly began overrunning the South. President Gerald Ford requested renewed military assistance that Nixon had promised South Vietnam in the event of resumption of the war. Congress voted against it by a wide margin. On April 30, 1975, the Vietnamese communists took Saigon and the South Vietnamese government surrendered unconditionally.

—Bob Carolla

The reviewer served as a senior legislative assistant to former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) from 1985-94.