Rogue Diplomats by Seth Jacobs

“Diplomacy,” said the writer and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce, “is the patriotic art of lying for one’s country.”

In Rogue Diplomats: The Proud Tradition of Disobedience in American Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 406 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $17.20, Kindle) Seth Jacobs examines the role and conduct of diplomats in the shaping U.S. foreign policy. American diplomacy—often overlooked by historians and political scientists who concentrate on executive power and the military—has had a profound impact on the many achievements that have helped establish contemporary America.

Seth Jacobs is Professor of History at Boston College. His books include Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam and America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia.

Jacobs’ opening thesis statement is striking; he contends that the most important triumphs in American history came a result of American diplomats disobeying orders. Using a case-study approach, Jacobs uses six examples:

  • John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin negotiating the Paris Peace Treaty that ended the Revolutionary War
  • Robert Livingstone and James Monroe bargaining for the Louisiana Purchase
  • Nicholas Trist ending the 1946-48 war with Mexico
  • Walter Hines Page as Ambassador to England during the World War I
  • Joseph P. Kennedy in the same post in period immediately preceding the Second World War
  • Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963.

In all five of the six cases, Jacobs argues, insubordination was ultimately the correct course of action.

Of particular interest is the case study on Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. The patrician Republican Lodge was a curious choice for the Democratic President, John F. Kennedy, as the new U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963. Aside from their party differences, Kennedy had defeated Lodge for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952, and again when Lodge was Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960.

When Lodge arrived in Saigon in August 1963, the embers of the Diem Administration’s raids on Buddhist pagodas in South Vietnam were still smoldering. A lone wolf who kept his own counsel, Lodge soon dominated the diplomatic scene in South Vietnam and forged his own policy in the wake of vacillation from Washington.

Henry Cabot Lodge looming large over Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963

In Saigon, the South Vietnamese populace had tired of Ngo Dinh Diem’s autocratic rule, and there were as many as twelve coup d’état plots against his government. Lodge delicately walked the tightrope of not thwarting any of the coups while maintaining plausible deniability of American involvement.

Jacobs overstates the case of Lodge’s perfidy, but there is no doubt that he, as much as any American, helped cause the overthrow of the Diem government.

Lodge’s rogue quality rested more on his unmanageability than dishonesty. Despite Jacobs’ characterization of Lodge’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador as one rife with disobedience and insubordination, he credits Lodge with ultimately making the right choice in helping oust the Diem government.

Jacobs’ book is an original piece of scholarship that is written in a manner that makes it entertaining, informative, and relevant. It is a rare book of American foreign policy that is accessible to both the casual reader and the academic.

The diplomats he writes about were both a reflection and a refraction of the culture of their times, rendering a distinctly American approach to foreign policy. In the end, Jacobs proves his provocative thesis that America was made by knaves and scoundrels who went their own way.

–Daniel R. Hart

In Good Faith by Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller’s In Good Faith: A History of the Vietnam War, Vol. I: 1945-65 (Osprey, 448 pp. $35, hardcover; $21, paper; $9.99, Kindle) a useful reference volume on the war and its origins for today’s readers who are removed from the Vietnam War by a half century. Miller, a former British Army Special Forces officer, has stitched together the war’s roots starting with the long French colonial phase, through the final years of the World War II, and into the Cold War when the fate of Vietnam had a minimal role in America’s national security concerns. The book ends with the beginnings of the full-blown American War.  

Miller includes a synopsis of U.S. national security policies starting with the 1930s in an attempt to answer the unending question: How did the United States end up in a conflict that was so costly for all parties and damaging in the long term to America’s prestige? To answer that, he analyzes the impact that communist takeover of China in 1948 and the 1950-53 Korean War had on America’s post-World War II role as leader of the so-called Free World, as well as on U.S. domestic politics.

This book does not focus on the failure of America’s senior civilian and military leaders during the Vietnam War and their deceitfulness in misleading the public. Instead, Miller takes a broader approach by examining the war primarily through its political context. Many personalities who played important roles along the path leading eventually to the American war in Vietnam appear as book moves along.

Of parallel importance, Miller revisits decisions made in the White House and the Pentagon that reveal confused policies and diametrically opposed positions held by senior leadership and their principal lieutenants. He also reports on the seemingly endless American fact-finding missions to Vietnam and their often misleading and politically motivated findings and recommendations. There’s also a full account of the Kennedy Administration’s complicity in the November 1963 coup and subsequent murder of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem (about which Ho Chi Minh supposedly said, “I can scarcely believe that the Americans would be so stupid.”), and the downward spiral of the South in its aftermath.

JFK and his Defense Secretary, Robert S. McNamara

What was particularly interesting to this reader was to once revisit the arguments for U.S. military escalation in Vietnam and against commitments that would entangle the country in an almost certain disastrous war in Southeast Asia. Central to Washington’s inexcusably poor decision making were the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson’s top foreign policy advisers who made supposedly well-informed arguments to take the fight to the Viet Cong North Vietnamese Army. The few voices who unequivocally stated that involvement in the war would be a monumental mistake with grave consequences for both the United States and Vietnam were all but ignored

The single most important event discussed in this book is the August 4, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin Incident, after which the Johnson Administration reported to Congress that North Vietnamese torpedo boats made two attacks on two U.S. Navy destroyers: the Maddox on August 2, and the Maddox and the Turner Joy on August 4, in international waters with no provocation. The resulting Tonkin Gulf Resolution is important for two reasons: First, the second attack never took place; second, Congress’ passage of the resolution amounted to a de facto Declaration of War, authorizing the Johnson to conduct combat operations against North Vietnam. Thus began an unnecessary war that America would come to deeply regret.

Reading this book, you might conclude that the wrongheaded arguments leading to the catastrophic U.S. war in Vietnam—what was essentially a war of choice, not necessity—were so transparently fallacious that no president would ever ignore the lessons learned in that war and repeat such a costly error in judgement. Yet, that is exactly what happened just thirty-five years later in the Persian Gulf when, once again, “wise men” who should have known better pushed for a president to go to war. 

–John Cirafici

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prof. Kastenberg

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

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

Daniel R. Hart

Unbreakable Hearts! by Earl “Dusty” Trimmer

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Earl “Dusty” Trimmer’s Unbreakable Hearts! A True, Heart-Wrenching Story about Victory… Forfeited! (Dog Ear Publishing, 556 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $29.99, paper: $9.99, Kindle) is like no other Vietnam War book I’ve come across. In Trimmer’s third book, he remains almost spectral; very little is said regarding his background and history beyond the fact that he served as an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968-69 and that he has had his run-ins with the VA.

The book consists of eleven pages of a glossary and sources, 116 pages of photos, and 450 pages of text. Trimmer covers lots of topics, but most curve back to the original premise of the book: the oppression of the Vietnamese people. He delves deeply into the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia and the people who have lived there.

The country we know today as Vietnam was not always so. Trimmer includes information on the earliest invasions by the Chinese, starting around 200 BC. Vietnam’s “simple farmers, with pitchforks and knives,” he writes, have repulsed the Mongol hordes three times, the Chinese perhaps a half dozen times, the Japanese during World War II, the French before and after the war, and finally the Americans, who were trying to save everyone from communism.

Trimmer portrays the Vietnamese throughout these invasions and conflicts as fighting to preserve and protect a homeland—not to attack or to take and hold additional real estate.  He waxes eloquently in defense of these efforts as he recounts, often in great detail, the nation’s long history of repelling invaders. He shows that the Vietnamese were just trying, over all these years, to live in peace, in one country.

Trimmer also goes over the politics and people involved in what the Vietnamese call the American War. He then reaches into the current U.S. administration for instances of both validation and recrimination. At times, the book’s path isn’t clear; at other times, it’s confusing. This book, though, is full of interesting historical facts, well laced with a recounting of Dusty Trimmer’s experiences as an infantryman.

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Trimmer in country

The book’s website is unbreakableheartsbook.com

–Tom Werzyn

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