Battle for Skyline Ridge by James E. Parker, Jr.

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James Parker was a participant, from the Central Intelligence Agency side, in the so-called “secret war” in Laos. In Battle for Skyline Ridge: The CIA Secret War in Laos (Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95) he tells a very well-researched and annotated story of the history and development of the American attempt to fight the communist Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War—an attempt that failed as Laos (along with Cambodia) became one of the dominoes that fell following the end of the American war in Vietnam.

Parker served a 1965-66 tour of duty as an Army infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He later joined the CIA in 1970 and served in Laos and Vietnam, helping evacuate Vietnamese CIA agents from Saigon in the chaotic last days of the war in April 1975. He has written a Vietnam War memoir—Last Man Out: A Personal Account of the Vietnam War (1996)—as well as two previous books on the same subject as his new one: Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (1995), and Covert Ops: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (1997).

In his new  book, Parker includes conversations and operational decisions made by the CIA about the Vietnam War. Being on the ground, and in the thick of it, he offers a unique—and a few times, overly detailed—view of the whole battlefield. He also tells lots of small stories that humanize the narrative and the participants without becoming unnecessarily chatty. His wide use of acronyms at times sent this reader scurrying back a few pages to identify things.

After telling us of a defeat of Lao forces by North Vietnamese troops on the Plain of Jars, his main story is the tale of a hundred-day battle (the longest in the Vietnam War) between North Vietnamese troops and a combined force of regular Lao troops, Thai mercenaries, indigenous Laotian Hmong, and Mountanard tribes, U.S. airp power, Air America aerial operations, and CIA case officers, operatives, and advisers—what became known as the Battle for Skyline Ridge.

This force of fewer than 6,000 fighters, led by the famed Hmong war lord, Vang Pao (right), was ultimately successful in repulsing and defeating an NVA force of more than 27,000 troops. Remarkably, anecdotes about bravery, cunning, co-operation, and support abound throughout the book. The colorfully famous CIA, and the Air America, “can do” attitude, seemed to have permeated into the assembled forces, resulting in the NVA abandoning its battle plan in what could have been a version of Dien Bien Phu.

This is a very readable account, although a lot of what Parker covers has been written about in other books about the secret war in Laos.

–Tom Werzyn

On the Gunline by David D. Bruhn and Richard S. Mathews

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On the Gunline: U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy Warships off Vietnam, 1965-1973 (Heritage Books, 374 pp., $37.50, paper) is a history of the 270 American and Aussie blue water navy ships that took part in the Vietnam War by retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. David D. Bruhn and retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Richard S. Mathews

This book is a very complete and detailed history of the contribution the Navy surface warship played in the war. The Gunline was parallel to the South and North Vietnamese coastline, about 4,000 yards offshore. Ships on the Gunline were assigned circular stations about 2,000 yards apart and designated by color code. This armada of warships provided naval gunfire support, anti-infiltration cover, and coastal surveillance operations in support of the troops on the ground in Vietnam.

Bruhn—the author of a 2012 book on Vietnam War Navy minesweepers—addresses several controversial events that occurred during the war, including the captain of the USS Vance, Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter, being relieved of his command in 1966,and the 1969 collision of the Australian aircraft carrier the HMAS Melbourne and the American destroyer the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans, in which seventy-four Evans crew members lost their lives.

He also details how the Navy placed 8,000 mines as part of a blockade in 1972, and the resulting destruction of the U.S .destroyer Warrington when it accidentally ran into the mines. In addition, he addresses Operation Frequent Wind in 1975 in which “a massive assembly of aircraft and ships” helped evacuate 7,800 South Vietnamese as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese took over the country.

This is a very well-researched book. I recommend it for anyone who served in the Navy during this period and those interested in Vietnam War history general.

The author’s website is davidbruhn.com

–Mark S. Miller

 

Two Suns of the Southwest by Nancy Beck Young

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“The chief difference between Goldwater and Johnson,” writes Nancy Beck Young, “was the former wanted to be right and the latter President.”

In her new book, Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle Between Liberalism and Conservatism (University Press of Kansas, 304 pp., $34.95, hardcover; $34.95, e book), Young analyzes the 1964 presidential election between these two distinct Southwestern personalities—and their diametrically different visions for the future of America.

Nancy Beck Young is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author of many books on American history. They include Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II and Forgotten Feminist: Lou Henry Hoover as First Lady.

This accessible, succinct book (207 pages of text) is billed as the “first full account of this critical election and its legacy for U.S. politics.” Despite its concision, the book is thorough and well researched, though Young at times relies too heavily on secondary sources.

She starts with the 1952 election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower and concludes with an embittered Goldwater unwilling to concede to Johnson on election night 1964. Her depiction of the Republican Party regrouping around the moderate Eisenhower in the mid-1950s is somewhat inflated, as the schism between the moderate and conservative wings of the party would fester and manifest itself in 1964.

The book mostly ascribes to the conventional academic orthodoxy on conservatism and liberalism, which weakens the overall thesis. When Johnson, for example, abides the overt racism of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention, Young writes that he was being “pragmatic.” And she sees Johnson’s reaching out to disaffected Southern voters by employing the Eastern elite straw man as unifying and expansive. When Goldwater does the same thing, Young says he is appealing to the electorate’s basest instincts .

In drawing a distinction between the two candidates, Young sporadically indulges in both overstatement and contradiction. She writes that LBJ’s message was “universal” and his liberalism was “consensus;” whereas the Republicans looked to “destroy.” Johnson is lauded for embarking on “lawmaking in a nonpartisan, statesmanlike way,” but then we learn that this statesman describes his strategy for cajoling votes by saying: “somehow I gotta get my hand under their dress.”

Young compares Johnson to Eisenhower in seeking to forge a “mainstream, moderate political movement,” but later she discredits LBJ for ignoring the Democratic Party apparatus, and deems him the country’s “most liberal president.”

The book focuses almost exclusively on domestic politics and policy, which accurately describes the race, but Young misses an opportunity to explore the election’s foreign-policy ramifications. In her overview of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration, for example, there is little discussion of the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Crisis, or the wars in Vietnam and Laos. The tremendous irony of Johnson’s position as the candidate of peace and considered judgment and his later decision to steeply escalate the Vietnam War is not analyzed.

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Nancy Beck Young

Though her “sun” allegory can become a bit tiresome and forced (Johnson’s “sun of inclusivity,” and Goldwater’s sun as “dark”), Young’s conclusion about Goldwater’s desire to be right and Johnson’s to be President is an exceptionally apt analysis of the race. Young is proficient in detailing and explaining the ideologies and personalities of the two candidates, but can over conflate the two. Goldwater, that is, lost the race in part because of his self-described “extremism,” but much more so because he was a horrible political candidate for national office.

Did Barry Goldwater’s ideas ultimately defeat Lyndon Johnson’s? Perhaps, but Goldwater’s form of conservatism was given credibility due to government mendacity that started with Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.

Notwithstanding these critiques, this important and thoughtful book carefully examines an election that because of the inadequacy of Barry Goldwater as a candidate—and the rout by Johnson—is often overlooked.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Girls Next Door by Kara Dixon Vuic

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Most works of history can be placed in one of two categories: they either provide context to a specific era or topic or they present an argument based on a historic question. Kara Dixon Vuic’s The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Harvard University Press, 392 pp., $29.95) is in the former category. The book examines—and provides a comprehensive history of—the topic of women’s work in military entertainment from World War I through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book is a largely anecdotal and accessible history. Its ninety pages of end notes evince its comprehensive research. Vuic is a rofessor of War, Conflict, and Society in Twentieth-Century America at Texas Christian University and the author of the award-winning Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War.

During the first two world wars and through the Korean War, prominent agencies including the YMCA, Salvation Army, Red Cross, and USO recruited college-educated, attractive, adventurous, and “middle-American wholesome” female volunteers. In coordination with the military, the women were deployed overseas to manage canteens, play games, and provide a familial reminder to bolster morale and commitment. The women were symbols of domestic Americana.

During the Cold War—and particularly during the Vietnam War—the Army’s Special Services was the leading provider of these programs, most notably through the Red Cross’ Donut Dolly program. With the advent of the all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War as more women joined the armed forces through the 1980s, the programs appropriately shifted to serve families.

In documenting the history of women in military entertainment, Vuic also traces “the evolution of wartime gender ideologies and connects women’s work for the military to “their changing place in the nation.” This is underscored in the war in Vietnam, where the splintering of American culture was particularly evident.

In Vietnam, the intrinsic tension in the role of the women between conventional purity and sexual desire was exposed. The military used both the wholesomeness of the Donut Dollies and provocative USO shows to try to maintain esprit de corps. The title of the book and the cover photograph of a Donut Dolly in Da Nang illustrate the popular Vietnam War-era Playboy image of the “Girl Next Door” that fused innocence with sexuality.

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Vietnam War Donut Dollies

The most poignant parts of the book are the stories of the women who consistently worked within the confines of their rigid roles to create new, more-meaningful aspects of their service. Though technically both provided “entertainment,” it seems unfair to group the Donut Dollies, who lived in country and had personal relationships with troops, with the touring USO performers.

The epilogue is disappointing as it includes a polemic featuring the scandal that forced Al Franken’s resignation from the U.S. Senate. But this is a minor quibble in a book that successfully examines a specific theme and provides an excellent reference on the historic role of civilian women who worked with the troops in America’s 20th and 21st century wars.

—Daniel R. Hart

Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War by Ingo Trauschweizer

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As the commanding general of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Maxwell Taylor parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. He later became an architect of Vietnam War policy during his tenure as a White House military adviser and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Kennedy Administration, and ultimately as ambassador to South Vietnam from 1964-65 under President Johnson. Taylor died in 1987.

He was called a hero, an optimist, a manipulator, a micro-manager, a wise man, and by some, a liar. He never wavered in his belief that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front.

Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War: From Berlin to Vietnam (Unirvesity Press of Kentucky, 328 pp. $45, hardcover and Kindle) by Ohio University historian Ingo Trauschweizer examines Taylor’s role in developing U.S. military strategy and doctrine. It is an academic work that chronologically recounts policy debates and bureaucratic conflicts in detail. The book is based extensively on newly declassified government archives.

This is not a biography. The book seeks instead to provide a “more complete” picture of “military, strategic, policy, institutional, intellectual, international, and diplomatic history”—a rather tall order that sometimes gets as bogged down as the Vietnam War itself. Ultimately, what stands out is Taylor and other decision-makers’ arrogance, mis-assumptions, and wishful thinking, particularly with Vietnam War policymaking.

Maxwell Taylor stepped into controversy in 1960 when his book, The Uncertain Trumpet, came out after he’d retired from the military as the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff. Trauschweizer describes the book as a “scathing indictment of the national security system and the shortcomings of massive retaliation” as a deterrent defense strategy.

In the book, Taylor called for building capacity and flexibility for “limited wars” with graduated pressures. Vietnam became the stage on which to test components of the doctrine as a “layered structure” of air war, ground war, counterinsurgency, and pacification. One major flaw in Taylor’s argument, Trauschweizer points out, was the failure to anticipate the dynamics of escalation. Another was a fatal misreading of the resolve of Hanoi’s leadership—and the Vietnamese people—in refusing to be figuratively and literally bombed into submission by the United States.

Later, in hindsight, Taylor cited several factors that led to the failure of his doctrine in the Vietnam War: the lack of a formal declaration of war, the lack of hard intelligence data, and the lack of “a comprehensive media information campaign” directed at the American people—something that also might be called a massive propaganda campaign.

For decisions to go to war in the future, Trauschweizer describes Taylor’s idea of a clear-headed, four-point test of the “national interest”:

  • The gain to be anticipated by success
  • The probable cost to achieve success
  • The probability of failure
  • The additional costs that failure would impose

Taylor also emphasized, in Trauschweizer’s words, “the need for a president to be absolutely certain of sustained popular support and to rely on a military prepared to win quickly and decisively.”

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Secretary of Defense McNamara, Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor, and President Kennedy at the White House, January 15, 1963 – JFK Library photo

One is tempted to respond: “If pigs had wings had wings, they could fly,” or at least to add that it would be advisable that every president contemplating war has a perfect crystal ball. For Taylor’s scenario to work, limited wars probably require the massive application of military power at the outset to avoid the risk of becoming protracted wars. Unforeseen consequences are also often inevitable.

If nothing else, Maxwell Taylor’s prescription can be used to assess the Unites States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and today’s risk of war with Iran, whether intentional or miscalculated.

–Bob Carolla

Broken Arrow by Jim Winchester

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Explaining the loss of a nuclear bomb is only a small part of the wealth of historical information Jim Winchester provides in Broken Arrow: How the U.S. Navy Lost a Nuclear Bomb (Casemate, 272 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $19.99, Kindle).

The Navy lost a one-megaton weapon during a 1965 loading drill. Deck crewmen of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (“Tico” in Navy slang) accidentally pushed an A-4 Skyhawk, which carried the bomb, into the South China Sea. Trapped in the cockpit, the pilot, twenty-four-year-old Lt JG Douglas Morey Webster, sank with the plane and the weapon. The Navy covered up the accident for nearly a quarter of a century.

Jim Winchester presents step-by-step accounts of the incident, its aftermath, and related events. An authority on Navy operations, Winchester has written or edited more than twenty books on military topics. His best-know work is a history of the A-4 Skyhawk. He also has gone to sea with ships from several of the world’s navies.

As background for understanding the significance of the lost bomb, Winchester provides the following:

  • A history of the Tico
  • The short life of Douglas Morey Webster
  • Difficulties inherent in aircraft carrier operations
  • The Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP)—a targeting matrix for nuclear weapons
  • The investigation and cover-up of the loss of the bomb
  • Tico fighter-bomber action over North Vietnam

Each category contains eye-opening information. For example, the Tico, commissioned in May 1944, barely survived hits by Japanese kamikaze fighters in World War II. Thereafter, the rebuilt ship seemed accident-prone with problems such as a “stopcock incident” that caused the ship to start sinking as far as the hanger deck. Winchester vividly shows that working and living aboard a carrier exposes crew members and fliers to a continuous stream of accidents and death during both war and peace.

11111111111111111111111111A redacted accident report written in 1965 did not mention a nuclear weapon involved, but it did place the greatest blame for the accident on Webster, primarily citing him for inattention.

Winchester’s discussion of the SIOP serves as an extended footnote to explain why an aircraft carrier supporting the Vietnam War needed nuclear weapons. I worked under the Strategic Air Command Emergency War Order and the SIOP from 1957-63 as a B-47 and B-52 radar-navigator and I can vouch for Winchester’s insight into a virtually forgotten strategy. At that time, the Air Force controlled 92 percent of the Free World’s striking power; inter-service rivalries and jealousy overwhelmed the have-nots.

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DoD  “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980”

A cover-up ensued because the United States—or perhaps the Navy—acted in its own interest and violated a nuclear-free-area treaty with Japan. In 1989, two American researchers uncovered everything about the Tico incident. There were protests in Japan for several weeks, but they came far too late.

“In December 1989, Japan closed the book on the submerged bomb,” Winchester says.

Jim Winchester summarizes the dilemma of nuclear weapon disasters across the years—at least to the degree that the services have made them public. Overall, he illuminates virtually every lesson available about the incident.

—Henry Zeybel

Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam by William C. Haponski with Jerry J. Burcham

Retired U.S. Army Col. William C. Haponski presents his interpretation of the outcome of the Vietnam War in Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam (Casemate, 336 pp. $32.95). “The Vietnam War,” he says, “was lost before French expeditionary corps or American combat units came ashore. Said another way, there was never a war there which could be won. The reasons lie in the history of Vietnam and the character of its people going back more than 3,000 years.”

Haponksi makes his case with a tight package of facts based on extensive research, supplemented by his experiences as a 1968-69 Vietnam War commander with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1/4 of the 1st Infantry Division.

Haponski is the author of three other Vietnam War books: One Hell of a Ride: Inside an Armored Cavalry Task Force in Vietnam, Danger’s Dragoon: The Armored Cavalry Task Force of the Big Red One in Vietnam, 1969, and An Idea and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam. 

Col. Jerry J. Burcham, a retired Vietnam War brigade commander, worked with Haponski on Autopsy.

In the book’s three parts, Haponski analyzes what he calls the French War, the American War, and the Vietnamese War stretching from 1945-75. He contends that independence and unification were virtually the lifeblood of the Vietnamese people during that time. “Events show that neither the French nor the Americans nor the South Vietnamese governments and militaries could ever have won a war in Vietnam regardless of who led the efforts,” he writes.

His analysis of the French War focuses on leadership. Continuity of command greatly benefited the Viet Minh, he says. From 1945-56, Ho Ch Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap controlled the North politically and militarily, while France practiced revolving-door leadership. At times, his account of French activities resembles a novel of international intrigue—except no fiction writer could have imagined the trickery he reveals.

Haponski emphasizes Ho’s opposition to colonialism by tracing his communist affiliation back to World War I. Haponski notes that Ho “was particularly enamored of Lenin,” and recognized the necessity for “revolutionary violence.”

The book’s account of the American War could be titled “Good Intentions, Poor Execution.” Haponski analyses each stage of U.S. involvement: Advisory, Search-and-Destroy, Big Unit Warfare, and Vietnamization. He describes operations written about by many other authors.

The historic value here comes from descriptions of difficulties he encountered as a commander. Problems compounded: new clear-and-hold plans reverted to search-and-destroy operations; Americans tortured prisoners during interrogations; a Vietnamese district chief refused to cooperate; American soldiers shot civilians; strategic hamlets failed to materialize; the Pacification program failed; and the MACV commander fell asleep while Haponski briefed him.

The final third of the book covers the ultimate encounter between North and South—NVA versus ARVN. Haponski describes the struggle in a fresh and straightforward style. He emphasizes that the North’s communism “was uniquely Vietnamese” and followed no monolithic control from Moscow. Yet, after the communist victory, Haponski says, a dedicated cadre of doctrinaire believers ruled the nation while “lower down” motivation was mostly patriotism produced by compulsion.

Although the book is flawlessly organized and a pleasure to read, I cannot agree with Bill Haponski’s conclusion that the North’s victory was based on a long Vietnamese desire for independence. To me, the communist takeover of the nation boiled down to another twentieth-century dictator’s success. Ho Chi Minh followed the paths of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Today the Vietnamese people live under ideas formulated by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century—not ones based on their three-thousand-year-old temperament.

Haponski says he presents “as succinctly as possible the essence of the contest itself inside the political and social framework that constrained and guided it on both sides—that is, within Vietnam,” and he leaves it “to the reader to discern what lessons could have been learned.” In that manner, he ignores the violent communist re-education of Southerners that followed the North’s victory.

A book of this magnitude should offer guidance for the future—at least a warning to wake up members of Congress. Otherwise, America could become entangled in another misdirected war, one lasting perhaps as long as nineteen years.

Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam provides a challenging thesis that stirs the mind.

—Henry Zeybel