Storms Over the Mekong by William P. Head

William P. Head’s fascination with the Vietnam War stemmed from the number 176 he drew in the 1969 Selective Service lottery, which put him on the verge of being drafted into the U.S. Army. Many of his friends did serve, and some never came home, he says. Head had entered college in 1967, eventually earned a doctorate degree, and became a United States Air Force historian—as a civilian—and Chief of the Office of History at Robins AFB, Georgia. Over the past thirty-plus years, concentrating mainly on the Vietnam War, he has written and edited many books and articles about warfare.

Head’s latest book, Storms Over the Mekong: Major Battles of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 480 pp. $40.00, hardcover; $24.99, Kindle), approaches the war by presenting and analyzing “the most significant and game-changing combat events” as he sees them. Head chose the events he says, based on the consensus of “the opinions of reputable participants, scholars, and analysts.”

The book begins in 1963 with the Viet Cong defeating the South Vietnamese Army at Ap Bac. It ends with the North Vietnamese Army capturing Saigon in 1975. The battles fit into two categories: “War on the Ground” and “War in the Air.” Head presents them chronologically, thereby pretty much telling the story of the entire war. He looks at ground encounters at Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, Saigon and Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill, the 1972 Easter Offensive, and Xuan Loc. Interspersed air battles describe Rolling Thunder, Arc Light, Commando Hunt, and Linebackers I and II.

Some of the accounts previously appeared in other places, Head says, but he has revised them with “current data and historical information.” His studies of Rolling Thunder and the Easter Offensive are new work.

The book repeatedly claims that, despite America’s extravagant investment of manpower and money at the start of its military commitment, national unwillingness to fight a protracted war against a determined enemy was the fundamental reason for the conflict’s outcome.

Head recreates the self-defeating hesitancy of President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to apply air power over North Vietnam during Rolling Thunder in 1965-68. Head describes the operation as “Too Much Rolling and Not Enough Thunder.”

Johnson’s fear of greater Chinese or Soviet intervention in the war dictated his reticence throughout this time, Head says. Paralleling that feeling was Johnson’s contemptuous disregard for his generals’ opinions, which contradicted the respect shown to them in past wars. At the same time, Head faults the generals’ acceptance of unimaginative and ineffective strategies.      

The voices of political and military leaders from the U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam are heard throughout the book. Background on North Vietnam’s planning and execution of Tet are particularly enlightening.

Head typically analyzes battles from high levels of command. Even the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, in which American infantrymen paid an enormous toll, is overwhelmingly viewed from the battalion commanders’ level. In recalling the “senseless nature” of eleven attacks in ten days, Head quotes just two sentences from grunts.   

When editorializing, Head stays within reason, and his conclusions are to the point. For example, in the chapter about Hamburger Hill, he calmly names and indicts certain commanders for starting—but mostly for continuing—a battle in which significant casualties resulted and nothing was gained. He concludes that the defeat at Ap Bac was “a wake up call that the United States would have to take over the fight, the path American leaders chose twenty months later.” He summarizes the frustration bred by presidentially decreed air strategy as “what you get when airmen do not fully control air assets and run an air war.” 

His assessment of the battle of Ia Drang Valley concisely consolidates the opinions of American and North Vietnamese thinkers. McNamara’s perceptive interpretation of the battle’s outcome is a high point of the book.

Bill Head’s overall conclusion about the war chastises America for not learning the primary lesson from its involvement and thereby committing itself to duplicating similar protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He judges this as a betrayal of all those killed in the Vietnam War.

Storms Over the Mekong provides a package of facts supported by voluminous footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Well-placed maps and photographs enhance the discussions. The book should serve as a handy reference for old timers, as well as a textbook for students and others newly interested in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

What’s Going On by Michael Hayes

Before I began reading Michael Hayes’ What’s Going On: A History of the Vietnam Era (Tine Day, 139 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) I wondered how it would be possible for Hayes to approach such a complex time in America’s history in such a short book. The U.S. was undergoing great turmoil over major and unresolved social issues in the midst of the Cold War. Incredibly, the United States then entered into a war in Vietnam that further fractured American society and intensified the fires of domestic discontent. Would it be possible to do justice in a short book to a very complicated era?

Hayes offers an abridged summary of the historical background to the Vietnam War with references to domestic social issues in the United States and key personalities. He flavors this overview with vignettes in the words of those who experienced the war and the era and with his own words illustrating personal incidents showing the divisions within American society and the abuse of power by those supposedly protecting the public.  

Hayes—who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and has taught U.S. history at the collegiate level—only briefly summarizes complicated events and issues. He often does this without the benefit of balance, when in many cases these topics are controversial. Perhaps he found this necessary in order to keep his book brief, but with an awareness that those issues warrant much greater clarification and amplification, perhaps in a lengthier book.   

The book is written in a style intended for an audience of readers younger than anyone with first-hand memories of the war and the social disunity of that period. The target audience is young adults, who are separated by a half century from that incredible time and are most likely uninformed about the pivotal events of their parents’ and grandparents’ world. Hayes has given them, in most cases, the bare essentials to minimally grasp what issues the American public—particularly war veterans—were confronting during that time of intense combat in Vietnam and serious social and political divisions at home. 

What’s Going On, then, is a sort of primer to whet the appetite of someone with little or no knowledge of the war or the era, and provides the basis for pursuing more comprehensive scholarship. To that end, Hayes provides in end notes and a three-page bibliography with recommended sources for further reading.

A minor criticism is the author’s occasionally one-sided account of history. I say this as a war veteran and activist who remains highly critical of the war, but who seeks impartiality in any discussion of it. Hayes, for instance, reminds readers how the Vietnamese people were subjugated by France’s imperialist policies, but never mentions that the Vietnamese were in their own right imperialists who subjugated non-Vietnamese people (the Chams, Montagnards, and Khmers). 

He also describes the heavy-handed policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, while failing to note the North’s brutal suppression of opposition groups. In today’s political climate objectivity is of key importance.  

That said, this book is a good starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the Vietnam War and its milieu. 

–John Cirafici

United States Marine Corps in Vietnam by Michael Green

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Michael Green uses images as his building blocks for United States Marine Corps in Vietnam: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives (Pen & Sword, 205 pp. $2.95, paper; $13.99, Kindle) and cements them together with a definitive narrative. Green, a prolific military historian, offers his version of the Vietnam War’s history in four sections: “The Opening Act” (1965), “The Fighting Increases in Scope” (1966-67), “The Defining Year” (1968), and “Coming to an End” (1969-75).

Green gleaned the photos and facts primarily from the Marine Corps Historical Center. His 150 pages of pictures alternate with 50 pages of analysis of combat from the American war’s start to its finish. Eight pages of photographs are in color.

The images include practically every weapon employed on each side of the battlefield: artillery, mortars, rifles, machine guns, pistols, flamethrowers, hand grenades, close support jet aircraft, helicopters, cargo planes, tanks, and other seldom-seen vehicles with tracks. The captions expand on what’s mentioned in the narrative and add finer details about the ebb and flow of the Marines’ war.

That said, the photographs convey little of the destructiveness of the weapons. They more resemble a catalog of military equipment.

Along with the weapons, personnel—mainly Marines, along with a few Vietnamese from North and South—appear in most of the pictures. They usually show Marines firing weapons or advancing through the bush. Green includes a handful of photos of the wounded and dead, but they are not horrifying images.

Although the images do not convey the intensity of combat, Green’s narrative does deliver that message. Citing archival accounts, he emphasizes the determination of troops on both sides and memorializes Marine Medal of Honor recipients.

His narrative discusses the difficulty of constant face-to-face encounters with the North Vietnamese Army along the DMZ, a major part of the Marines’ responsibility in northernmost I Corps. He deplores the high casualty count resulting from search-and-destroy missions. Things would have been much worse, he says, if not for “Marine supporting arms that turned the tide of battle as almost always.”

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The first Marines landing in Vietnam, March 1965, Da Nang

Green takes a hard look at the pros and cons of contentious issues between Marine Corps leaders and Army MACV commanders who usually had the final word. He concludes that Army generals generally underappreciated the Marines.

The book would be an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with the Vietnam War’s tactics, strategy, and equipment. Old timers might enjoy finding the faces of former friends.

I was not a Marine, but I flew many C-130 support sorties for them during Tet in 1968. The chapter covering that period brought back sad memories for me. Nobody had it tougher than the Marines.

United States Marine Corps in Vietnam is Michael Green’s twenty-first book in the Pen & Sword Images of War series.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle for Chu Moor Mountain by Fred Childs

In 2010 Fred Childs attended his first unit reunion of Charlie Company, 1/22 of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division. At that reunion he volunteered to complete some unfinished manuscripts written by a few of the attendees about a seven-day fight the company had at Chu Moor Mountain in northern South Vietnam in April 1968.

The result is Childs’ The Battle for Chu Moor Mountain As Told by the Soldiers Who Were There (Author House, 128 pp. $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a short, intriguing, and well-constructed book. In his acknowledgments Childs credits ten of his fellow Charlie Company veterans for helping get the book assembled, written, and into print.

He begins each chapter with a copy of the S-3 Duty Officer’s Log for each day of the battle. He uses the logs to help reconstruct the battle incidents of each day. From those administratively terse, concise entries he fleshes out the story with quotes and remembrances from the survivors who were willing and able to speak all these years later. At the close of each chapter, Childs gives us the battalion S-3 Duty Officer’s Logs. He also notes entries from the 4th Infantry Division Operations Summary.

The narrative moves along smoothly, with comments and quotes from troopers on the ground and in the thick of it for the duration of the battle. Personnel loses are noted as well as actions by supporting U.S. forces. Childs provides enough good details to move the story, but not too much minutia. He includes a bit of history of the 4th Infantry Division and lists the KIAs of the encounter and the major medals awarded.

This battle, developing not long after the 1968 Tet Offensive, took place in the far northwest corner of II Corps in Kontum Province near the borders of Laos and Cambodia along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The 4th Division had been charged with interdicting goods and war materiel flowing into South Vietnam.

If you hanker for a well-done battle tale, this is your book. There is a bit of redundancy in the quoted material, but all of these men were in the same place at the same time fighting the same enemy. So there was bound to be some overlap.

All in all, this is a quick, informative read.

–Tom Werzyn

The Golden Brigade by Robert J. Dvorchak

In World Wars I and II and in the Vietnam War the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division earned the nickname “All American Division” and its 3rd Brigade became known as the “Golden Brigade” based on their combat performances. In the First Gulf War, Journalist Robert J. Dvorchak accompanied the 82nd in Kuwait and Iraq and wrote an Ernie Pyle-style book about it.

Thereafter, mutual admiration between Dvorchak and men of the 82nd’s Third Brigade led him to write The Golden Brigade: The Untold Story of the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam and Beyond (IBJ Book Publishing, 528 pp. $35.00).

With fifty years of experience as a journalist, author, and historian Robert Dvorchak is nearly as famous in military circles as the 82nd Division. He has won many awards for covering high-profile events during the past half century. He wrote The Golden Brigade after interviewing veterans from the 82nd who had fought in the Vietnam War, many of whom had not previously spoken about their war-time experiences. Based on the breadth and depth of its combat reporting, I rank the book a must-read. Containing more 500 pages, The Golden Brigade is a solid chunk of history.

Within days after the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong started their 1968 Tet Offensive, the 82nd deployed from Fort Bragg to the fighting in Hue. An estimated 80 percent of the 82nd personnel already had served a year in Vietnam. Undermanned, the division deployed as a single brigade under command of a colonel. For eight months the 82nd fought to control the countryside around Hue and then moved south for more than a year to protect Saigon against NVA infiltration from Cambodia.

The book contains 62 pages of excellent photographs and maps. Most of the photographs are in color and show troops in the field, which adds a you-are-there feeling to the text.

Dvorchak builds word pictures based on the memories of men of all ranks and backgrounds. He names plenty of names. When introducing veterans, he offers a clever bit of writing by paralleling the men’s activities with the war’s history. Readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War will find such passages valuable. The technique reveals the pronounced differences of operational thinking at different command levels.        

The stories of these men are captivating. They run the gamut of emotions under stress. While relating them, Dvorchak rounds out the men’s personalities by frequently flashing backward and forward to families left behind and other life experiences.

The stories also touch on controversial aspects of the Vietnam War, such as using drugs and reporting body counts.

As an honorary member of the 82nd, Robert Dvorchak tell us that some 200 veterans of the Golden Brigade attend the unit’s annual reunions. Above all else, he portrays the 82nd as an extraordinary brotherhood of warriors.

For more info on the book, go to the publisher’s website.

—Henry Zeybel

Mystery of Missing Flight F-BELV by Stephen Wynn

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Stephen Wynn examines the gamut of flying difficulties in attempting to solve the Mystery of Missing Flight F-BELV (Pen and Sword, 192 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). Said mystery: the disappearance of a Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner on a routine flight from Vientiane to Hanoi on October 18, 1965.

The airplane, which belonged to the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICSC), carried nine delegates from India, Canada, and Poland who monitored hostilities in Indochina. One of the nine, a sergeant in the Canadian army, was Wynn’s uncle, a fact that significantly stimulated his search for a solution to what happened to the airplane, its passengers, and crew—and to this book.

Wynn uncovered data on the aircraft’s maintenance, its French crew’s proficiency, the terrain it overflew, the day’s weather, the probability of mistaken identity, Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese antiaircraft weapons, and even the insight of a clairvoyant. He also includes an in-depth review of regional politics at the time of the plane’s disappearance.

Although an on-and-off search for F-BELV continued until 2002, no wreckage has been discovered. Nevertheless, Wynn reaches a definitive conclusion as to the plane’s fate, which we will not reveal here.

Following a thirty-year career as an English police constable, in 2010 Wynn began writing books. He has produced more than a book a year since then, six of which he has co-written. Events in England—such as the stories in Pen and Swords’ “Towns and Cities of the Great War” series—had been his principal topic until now.

Solving the Mystery of Missing Flight F-BELV repeatedly veers off into discussions about America’s role in the Vietnam War. The tone of Wynn’s comments contains a fatalistic puzzlement over how a great nation committed itself to such a blunder-filled endeavor. He emphasizes the negative effects that the Central Intelligence Agency and Air America had on the progress and outcome of the war. His conclusion: “The biggest influence in South Vietnamese politics wasn’t communism, but the continuous interference by elements of the CIA.”

Along with those bashings and the F-BELV mystery, Wynn provides inside facts on his uncle and the ineptitude of the ICSC, which was established in 1954 to enforce the Geneva Accords following the end of the French Indochina War. It was made up of members from then pro-communist Poland, anti-communist Canada, and neutral India.

For old timers, this slim book brings back an evening’s worth of head-shaking memories—with pictures.

—Henry Zeybel

The Dragon in the Jungle by Xiobing Li

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Xiaobing Li, a professor of history and the director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, served in China’s People’s Liberation Army from 1970-72. His new book, The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War (344 pp. Oxford University Press, $34.95), is rooted in his military experience—along with sixteen years of research on the subject.

Li’s goal is to provide an international perspective to help readers gain a better understanding of the the Vietnam War and China’s role in it. He offers answers to questions about China’s objectives, the planning and carrying out of its fighting methods, why the nation withdrew its forces from Vietnam before the war ended—along with the impact China’s intervention ultimately had on the modernization of the its army.

What this book brings to the discussion is a better understanding of the ground-level actions of the Chinese army in the Vietnam War. It also provides a view of the war through the eyes of Chinese officers and soldiers, obtained by interviews with the author.

Historically, China had once dominated both Vietnam and Korea, and entered the second-half of the twentieth century with the view that both countries were still within its defense orbit. China and Vietnam fought with the Allies against Japan in World War II. The Chinese supported the North Vietnamese in their 1946-54 war against France, known as the French Indochina War and First Indochina War, and then continuing supporting the communist North during the 1955-63 civil war.

The worlds’ two largest communist nations, China and the Soviet Union, openly split with each other during the 1956-64 period,  known as the Sino-Soviet Rift. Each nation saw the other as a rival for the support of the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam always tried to remain neutral in this rivalry.

Early in the American War, also known as the Second Indochina War (1965-73), Chinese troops entered North Vietnam in response to the U.S. Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Eventually, more than 300,000 Chinese service personnel would serve, mostly in air defense, railroad and highway construction, and combat engineering. China wanted to avoid a major war against the United States, but did not want Vietnam

to be under Western control. China also supported North Vietnam to reduce its need for aid from the Soviet Union.

As the war went on, the Soviet Union began significantly increasing its military aid to the North. China then saw itself as battling two superpowers, the U.S. militarily, and the Soviet Union politically. Eventually, China withdraw all its troops from Vietnam. The nation was dealing with economic limitations, a serious technological gap and continuing rivalry with Moscow, as well as serious concerns of getting into a war with the U.S.

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 “Oppose the American infringement upon the Vietnamese Democratic Republic!” – February 1965 Chinese Propaganda Poster

The Dragon in the Jungle is an especially important book because, while it focuses on China’s military, it also analyzes the military actions of the U.S., Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. That’s a lot of ground covered.

Xiaobing Li frequently uses newly available sources to take this deep dive into the Chinese military’s strategy and planning, tactical decisions, and problem-solving efforts. This is a major work that unearths new and important information about China’s role in the American war in Vietnam.

–Bill McCloud

Waging Peace in Vietnam edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright, and Barbara Doherty

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Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War (New Village Press, 256 pp., $35, paper) is a-large format, heavily illustrated book that looks at the role played by active-duty troops and Vietnam War veterans in the antiwar movement. The book—edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright, and Barbara Doherty—is based on a multimedia exhibit that has been shown in this country and in Vietnam.

The editors begin with a 1964-73 timeline of the Vietnam War antiwar movement.  Then comes an essay, “Dissent and Resistance Within the Military During the Vietnam War,” by Cortright, a former Army draftee who was active in the GI peace movement who today is professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. In the essay Cortright writes that by 1970 U. S. ground troops had ceased fighting as an effective fighting force. The reason, he says, was opposition to the war from within fomented by underground GI newspapers and other antiwar activity.

Other essays, oral histories, and reprinted newspapers, posters, flyers and photographs deal with Jane Fonda, John Kerry, and nearly all the usual suspects who played important roles opposing the Vietnam War. There also are brief sections on important places and people in Vietnam, such as Long Binh Jail, aka LBJ.  There is a good photo of LBJ, which communicates what the place must have been like for those locked behind its bars.

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The biographical section at the end contains good information on the voices heard in the book and the men pictured on the front cover. I enjoyed reading those bios and learned a few things I had not previously known.

This is a valuable reference book and should be a part of every Vietnam War section in college and public libraries.

The book’s website is wagingpeaceinvietnam.com/book

–David Willson

Contested Territory by Christopher Lentz

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A recurring theme of American participation in the Vietnam War is the inability to distinguish between friendlies and enemies, most often identified as between farmers and Viet Cong. This monocentric perspective belies the diaspora of ethnic, religious, and class distinctions in both North and South Vietnam.

In Contested Territory: Dien Bien Phu and the Making of Northwest Vietnam (Yale University Press, 352 pp., $35, hardcover and Kindle) Christopher Lentz proffers a geographic and sociopolitical history of the Black River borderlands, the former French colonial territory that became Northwest Vietnam. Focusing roughly on the First Indochina War, from 1945-60, Lentz uses the eponymous battle of May 7, 1954, to explore how political, cultural, and militaristic processes—fueled by anti-colonial liberation—both naturally and coercively gave rise to an independent Vietnam.

Lentz is an assistant professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He expounds on his dissertation in Contested Territory, a thoroughly researched tome utilizing archival resources from France and Vietnam, as well as first-hand fieldwork in the area.

Lentz starts his narrative with a provocative claim: “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu changed the world.” This is a thesis worth exploring, but it is not the focus of this book.

Contested Territory is a geographic history of the Dien Bien Phu area, incorporating an exhaustive examination of the political economy of the Black River and its complex ethnic and cultural mores. The book is divided into six chapters. The first and last use an unpublished memoir of a prominent political leader to examine his thesis, while the middle chapters focus on the military operations of the Northwest Campaign (1952) and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1953-54) to analyze the political and social transformations of the area.

An international image of national liberation, the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu is among the most important symbols in modern Vietnam. But its territorial nationality—its very essence as part of Vietnam—was in doubt before and after battle.

The most powerful and populous of the more than twenty ethno-linguistic groups—among them the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu—were the Tai, an ethnicity more tied to neighboring Thailand than to Vietnam. The Viet or Kinh, who made up the majority in the emerging Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, consisted of less than one percent of the population in this section of the country.  Lentz carefully examines the concept of the muang, the prevailing political and economic system that organized the society.

Incorporating this area as part of Vietnam was “an act of imagination and aggression,” as the coercive nationalization of labor and exploitation of the spirit of anti-colonialism effectively made the communist state. For the poor and vulnerable, it was an Orwellian existence—“meet the new boss, same as the old boss”—as the Tai and Kinh used political hegemony and bureaucratic corruption to mobilize and control human and natural resources.

In the aftermath of the battle, an indigenous millenarian movement named “Calling for a King” was violently suppressed by DRV. Hanoi viewed the Northwest with the same lens as it did the South.

Implicit in the book are the lessons not learned by the United States in its war in Vietnam. The lesson from Dien Bien Phu was not the danger of garrisoning large troops in remote areas, a focus that led Lyndon Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to overstress the importance of the fighting at Khe Sanh in 1968, but on the logistical and transportation capabilities of North Vietnam.

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Viet Minh fighters at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

This an academic book aimed at fellow scholars, and the narrative occasionally becomes unwieldy. There are great books about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, among them Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, Kevin Boylan and Luc Olivier’s Valley of the Shadow, and Martin Windrow’s The Lost Valley. But Christian Lentz provides an invaluable resource that zeroes in on the people who struggled before, during, and after the battle.

Contested Territory also erodes North Vietnamese propaganda claiming that Vietnam is a unified nation, manifesting its violent assemblage. The historiography of the Vietnam and Indochina Wars is enriched for his efforts.

–Daniel R. Hart

Crooked Bamboo by Nguyen Thai

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Thank God for young historians who work with aged diplomats on their memoirs dealing with important world events. A short while ago, I read Japanese ambassador Saburo Kurusu’s The Desperate Diplomat, an account of his dealings with Americans in Washington during the weeks immediately prior to World War II. His book might never have been available for Western eyes without help from Masako R. Okura, a professor who finished editing it after a much-older historian died on the job.

Which brings us to Crooked Bamboo: A Memoir from Inside the Diem Regime (Texas Tech University Press, 272 pp., $29.95) written by ninety-year-old Nguyen Thai and edited by Texas Tech University history professor Justin Simundson. Thai was something of a favorite adopted son of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and was privy to a deep-inside look at his government. The book confirms that Diem’s regime overflowed with problems and should have collapsed after the first coup against it in 1960, rather than survive to 1963.

Simundson accepted the task of studying hundreds of pages of free-flowing thoughts and observations Thai made over many decades. As the Vietnam War historian Larry Berman notes in the book’s forward, Simundson’s prodigious editorial skills give shape to insights on crucial points in history. He is exceptionally helpful in introducing personalities and explaining their roles. 

Thai’s recollections fill gaps in the history of Diem’s misdirected leadership, and they also recreate Thai’s personal life. Simundson closely consulted with Thai while editing his notes and frequently relied on facts from Thai’s Is South Vietnam Viable?, a 1962 anti-Diem book published in a limited edition in the Philippines and nearly inaccessible today. Crooked Bamboo contains only two pages of end notes.

By 1959, corruption and authoritarianism in Diem’s government was overwhelmingly evident. The gross mismanagement had started within two years of his election in 1955. As Vietnam Press’s Director General, Thai’s close relationship with Diem compelled him to compromise the truth behind political maneuvers. 

Three chapters constitute the heart of the memoir. “The Convincing Test—Elections of 1959” shows how a rigged count kept Diem and his cronies in office. “The Aborted 1960 Coup D’etat” analyzes the political implications of in-fighting between Diem and high-ranking military officers that brought only minor changes to the government’s structure. Diem learned nothing from the unsuccessful coup, Thai says.

“Diem’s Overthrow” and assassination caused the most-bitter disappointment in Thai’s life. Thereafter, it was every man of rank for himself.

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Justin Simundson & Nguyen Thai

The book leaves many questions unanswered. For example: Who—Vietnam or America—was responsible for the war’s outcome? How important was democracy to the Vietnamese? Who should have replaced Diem?

Thai’s inconsistencies reveal the difficulty of resolving the Vietnam War dilemma even today. Simundson intensely examines these issues and others.

Crooked Bamboo is a great source for young people to begin studying South Vietnam’s early tragic political unrest—and for old timers to recall a once-familiar past.   

—Henry Zeybel