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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Bob Wartman

Blackhorse Tales by Donald C. Snedeker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Bob Wartman

JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century by Fredrik Logevall

“To pour money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.” What American leader said it and when?

It wasn’t Sen. George McGovern, the World War II veteran who opposed the Vietnam War beginning in the early 1960s. Nor was it Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who ran on a strong antiwar platform in the 1968 Presidential campaign. And it wasn’t retired Lt. Gen. James Gavin or the architect of the containment doctrine, George Kennan, who spoke out against the war during the 1966 Senate Fulbright hearings.

The speaker, in fact, was Sen. John F. Kennedy, and the year was 1954. The young Democratic senator from Massachusetts was reacting to the Eisenhower Administration’s support of France during the First Indochina War, which had been doing on since 1945. The remarks were given in April as Viet Minh forces be sieged the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu and the French frantically pleaded with the Americans to save them from an impending disaster. Eisenhower, whose administration underwrote the majority of French war, ultimately decided not to intervene militarily. In May the French were routed.

That was not the first time a John Kennedy had shown interest in Indochina. In 1951, then Rep. Kennedy went on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East and Asia that included a prominent stop in Vietnam. The news of the trip would burnish his foreign policy bona fides, effectively enhancing Kennedy’s credentials his successful run for the United States Senate the following year.

By 1956, Kennedy had changed his tune. He characterized the U.S. as South Vietnam’s “godparents,” and promised to defend that nation from a communist insurgency. “Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike,” Kennedy proclaimed in the keynote speech he gave to the American Friends of Vietnam, a group created in 1955 to promote and defend democracy in the nascent country of South Vietnam. Kennedy was a charter member.

In JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 (Random House, 816 pp., $40, hardcover; $20, paper; $14.99, Kindle) Frederik Logevall’s magisterial slice-of-life biography of John F. Kennedy, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian searches for answers to this paradox and the other complexities of the thirty-fifth president of the United States.

Though the historiography on Kennedy is voluminous, Logevall’s work is the first to fully contextualize Kennedy in his times in this massive book that divided into 22 accessible chapters and supported by 65 pages of endnotes. Logevall, perhaps the foremost scholar of the American war Vietnam, is a professor of history and international affairs at Harvard University. His previous books include Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (1999) and Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (2012), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

This first volume of a planned two-volume exploration of Kennedy’s life spans JFK’s first thirty-nine years, ending with his unsuccessful run in 1956 for the Democratic nomination for Vice President. That loss was ultimately a win for Kennedy, though, as it propelled him to prominence as a national political figure and solidified his decision to run for President in 1960.

Despite his domineering father, Logevall’s Kennedy is more independent, and—despite his well-documented womanizing—more earnest than he has been depicted in other historians. Logevall does not avoid the many deficits in Kennedy’s character—he was a poor friend, exploitative in many of his relationships, and too often favored his public image over his character—but he does tread lightly over two incidents in Kennedy’s life that would come to define the young politician: the disputed authorship of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, and his failure to vote for the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in December 1954.

Kennedy’s early commentary on the war in Vietnam and private doubts belying his public rhetoric produce a complicated picture that would inform his war policies after he was elected President. But this will have to wait for Logevall’s much-anticipated second volume.

I, for one, can’t wait.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Year of the Hawk by James A. Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LBJ, Cam Ranh Bay, 1967

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

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

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

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

–Daniel R. Hart

Spies on the Mekong by Ken Conboy

You might need a note pad to keep track of the characters and acronyms in Ken Conboy’s Spies on the Mekong: CIA Clandestine Operations in Laos (Casemate, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle). Be prepared, for one thing, to find names such as Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong, and Phoumi Nosavan in the same sentence.

Despite those potential obstacles, Conboy has written a mind-boggling, yet pleasingly informative, account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s operations in Laos before and during the American war in Vietnam. Conboy writes with a certainty that made me feel as if he had been present at all the many events he describes.

An expert on South and Southeast Asia, Conboy has written more than 20 books on military and intelligence operations in those areas. A graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, he has lived in Indonesia since 1992.

After World War II the U.S. saw the Kingdom of Laos as the key to stopping communism’s westward spread into Thailand—and beyond. In 1950, communist Pathet Lao forces deployed into Laos; the CIA followed in 1953.  

CIA agents—and there were hundreds of them—centered their activities in Vientiane, the capital. Most of the agents were World War II veterans with Ivy League educations and previous foreign postings. Despite that commonality, they had differing approaches to intelligence surveillance.

People in the book—friends and foes—come through clearly in Conboy’s thoughtful vignettes about them. He presents backgrounds of many men and a few women in a manner that personalizes each—for good or for bad. Some of them practically walk off the page and greet the reader.     

Through this chronicle of the CIA’s surveillance activities in Laos, Conboy offers an insider’s look at the country from the 1950s to 1970s. He shows us the nation’s leaders and their interactions with a multitude of opponents attempting to outwit the prime minister and gain control of the nation: agents, diplomats, and ambassadors from the U.S., North and South Vietnams, China, and Russia.

Conboy’s history lesson offers more intrigue than violence. The book begins with the 1954 Geneva Accords that “foisted a mantle of diplomatic neutrality upon Laos, theoretically exempting it from the Cold War rivalry,” Conboy says. But nobody abided by the Accords. The Lao National Army was not up to the task of defending the Royal Lao Government against communist Viet Minh and Pathet Lao forces that refused to leave the country as agreed. The most heinous pitfall, according to Conboy, was the International Control Commission’s failure to adjudicate ceasefire violations.

JFK explaining U.S. policy in Laos, 1961

With so many nations working on contradictory goals, failures took center stage. As Conboy puts it: “The Lao soap opera irrevocably veered off script.” In his telling, events such as a tribal peasant leading a coup that temporarily controlled Vientiane played like a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Conboy writes in detail about the long and arduous ploys and counter ploys that pitted the CIA against the communists right through the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. He shows the problems of underwriting the Lao government’s budget, which often included bribes; as well as how the CIA promoted civic-action programs for rural development; resolved leadership strife; monitored elections; armed the Hmong hill tribe; enlisted Thai surveillance teams; coped with Japanese activists opposing the war; oversaw commando raids against the North Vietnamese; attempted to subvert foreign agents; dealt with the opium trade; challenged misinformation; helped to form a coalition government; and dismantled a vast paramilitary network.

Everything tumbled down with the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. At that point, “communist morale across Indochina began to skyrocket,” Conboy says. Laotian students and workers stormed U.S. facilities in Laos. Teens with guns controlled the countryside. Americans fled the country by air; Lao Royal Army soldiers and American cohorts evacuated the nation by boat across the Mekong River to Thailand. The Lao king abdicated, the Pathet Lao established the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and the last domino of Indochina toppled, Conboy says.

Based on what Conboy tells us, the CIA’s productivity in Laos boiled down to a delaying action. Similar to what happened in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the ending was always in sight. The defeat and exit of the French in 1954 and the positioning of Pathet Lao forces provided an unconquerable homefield advantage for the communists. Conboy’s book shows that spy-world operations are limited in scope, and that its practitioners understand that situation.

Along with 16 pages of photographs, Spies on the Mekong contains maps, a bibliography, and endnotes. I enjoyed reading the endnotes. For me, they were like a final chapter because they linked minor details about a few open questions. In that way, the endnotes provided a surprise package of gee-whiz facts.

—Henry Zeybel

Drawn Swords in a Distant Land by George Veith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LBJ and Nguyen Van Thieu

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

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

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

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

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

–Daniel R. Hart

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM by Peter Caldwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Bob Wartman

A Shau by Jay Phillips

Six years before he went to Vietnam and became an infantryman with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1967, Jay Phillips began studying the war. Wounded three times, he spent 21 months in-country. In 1976, he received a BA in history from the University of Denver. Fascinated by the war and its outcome, he accumulated a library of some 1,300 books on the topic and did a large amount of research in the files of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University to write A Shau: Crucible of the Vietnam War (Izzard Ink, 542 pp. $39.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).

Phillips characterizes the A Shau Valley as “one of the most consequential pieces of real estate in all of South Vietnam.” In the book he analyzes how the United States never controlled the Valley after the North Vietnamese overran a U.S. Special Forces camp at A Luoi in March 1966, and how that influenced the war’s outcome.       

The book focuses exclusively on what happened in I Corps from 1961-72 in the area between A Shau and the nearby Laotian border to the west. The North Vietnamese Army used the 28-mile long valley as a supply route into South Vietnam. This greatly benefitted NVA activity, particularly the extended fighting in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive—a turning point in the war.

Although he never set foot in the A Shau—which Phillips states for the record in the book—his familiarity of time and place is admirable. U.S. Air Force CHECO Reports primarily provide his source material, but he also cites other official reports, award citations, secondary sources, memoirs, and interviews. I applaud the scope and intensity of his research.

Phillips offers up his interpretations of successful and unsuccessful actions in the field and at leadership at all levels of command. He speculates. He contradicts. He finds fallacies and corrects errors. To put it simply and bluntly: He calls bullshit when necessary.

Despite not maintaining a permanent force in the A Shau Valley, American forces conducted large- and small-scale, short-term incursions there. Phillips brings to life epic operations: Delaware, Somerset Plain, Dewey Canyon, and others. He takes the reader to the infamous Hamburger Hill.

In the A Shau Valley, 1968

Phillips recreates operations with details that should more than satisfy military history lovers. He describes the glory—and the suffering—of American combatants in the A Shau: primarily the 1st Cavalry, 101st Airborne, and the 9th Marines. Those units used reconnaissance and search-and-destroy tactics in forested mountains, much like Americans in the rest of South Vietnam did. At the same time, he weaves in the actions of smaller groups such as Rangers and LRPPs to complete a picture of the complex and fluctuating U.S. tactics.

A Shau has no photographs beyond the dust jacket, but includes maps that clarify each operation.

Jay Phillips now works with support groups for victims of Parkinson’s disease, which he contracted from exposure to Agent Orange. The Parkinson’s Foundation named him 2020 Volunteer of the Year

—Henry Zeybel

Air Power’s Lost Cause by Brian D. Laslie

Brian Laslie presents history in a formidable style that challenges the reader to evaluate facts and question the conclusions he derives from them. His latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp. $39, hardcover; $36, Kindle), divides and analyzes the U.S. Air Force’s combat in the Vietnam War into six parts. The book is part of the War and Society Series, which investigates the history of the conduct of war, along with its social consequences.

Laslie, who holds a doctorate from Kansas State University, is the NORAD and USNORTHCOM deputy command historian at Peterson AFB in Colorado and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and The Citadel.

I read and enjoyed Laslie’s previous book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015). In it, he said that inadequate pilot training was the primary cause of aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Because of that the Air Force revised its training and Laslie explained how, under a new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine. I found his arguments credible, although sometimes slanted.

Air Power’s Lost Cause includes material from The Air Force Way of War, but in greater detail. By separating Air Force operations into six phases, Laslie presents a sharper view of the differences between units at different stages of the war. Chapter 7, “Laos, Cambodia, and the War against the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” instantly attracted me because I flew on AC-130 Spectre gunships over Laos during 1970-71.

Laslie says that the U.S. military failed to interdict the Trail because of problems on the ground rather than in the air. He mentions airpower twice: short-lived, fast-FAC Misty F-100 missions in Laos, and B-52 bombings of NVA supply depots in Cambodia. He blames the failure on technical problems with Operation Igloo White’s sensor system, with Lima TACAN radar sites’ inability to function and survive under attack, and the fact that the Trail had no central artery to cut because it was a network of often-changing paths.

To my chagrin as a crewdog on Spectre missions over the Trail, Laslie never mentions those SOS operations in Southern Laos. He completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of trucks destroyed and damaged—sometimes amid controversy—year after year. Laslie’s omission was like leaving a story about a Yankees’ seventh World Series game out of the sports section of The New York Times.

North Vietnamese Army truck on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Two other segments deal with areas of the war I knew well: “The War in the South: Buildup and Close Air Support,” which I saw as a C-130 navigator in 1967-68, and “To Deter Hanoi…The War in the North,” which fighter jock friends have described to me at length and about which I have read in dozens of memoirs.

I found no surprises there. “The Buildup” massed aircraft of every design. “Close Air Support” employed fighters against Viet Cong and NVA troops using tactics that firmly bonded Air Force efforts to Army ground combat needs in the South.

“Up North” bombing did not work, Laslie says. The crux of the matter was that the U.S. used conventional weapons designed for conventional war against an unconventional enemy with minuscule supply needs. He includes a sound argument—with which he disagrees—that heavier bombing earlier in the war would have ended it sooner. He suggests that nothing short of a ground invasion of Laos could have cut the Trail. He mentions but does not analyze the disastrous 1971 Operation Lam Son 719.

With those facts and opinions in mind, here’s my analysis of the entire book:

Air Power’s Lost Cause abounds with declarative conclusions. It validates the idea that the whole war was overly compartmentalized. In the North, Air Force fighter-bomber tactics were predictable and costly. SAC refused to let go of its preferred method of war and paid a heavy price.

The Air Force used the wrong equipment in the wrong way. The Navy did it better. The air war often was a learning experience on tactics and technology, and the Navy immediately applied new lessons during the war while the Air Force waited until later. The Navy’s Top Gun school, for example, came up with a training program eventually used for post-war Air Force fighter pilot training.

Laslie’s chapter, “Air to Air War,” is an excellent summation of dogfighting combat. It includes a glimpse of North Vietnamese pilots.   

In showing the pros and cons of American air wars in Vietnam, Laslie avoids lengthy political analyses. He more than suggests, however, that many military problems were born outside of the military environment. He points out, for example, that away from the battlefields, American politicians interfered with military aims and objectives. In that regard, Laslie quotes David Halberstam: “America, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamics, which fed the indigenous force they were fighting.”

Laslie ends the book with a story from Mark Bowden about former U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who “told a North Vietnamese counterpart, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ to which the Communist officer replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”

The aim of Air Power’s Lost Cause is to tell the complete history of Laslie’s six air power groups from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. He definitively does so, but leaves some loopholes for a reader to challenge his thinking. 

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam 1972: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South by Charles Melson

Charles D. Melson’s Vietnam 1972: Quang Tri: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is interesting on several levels. It’s about the hard-fought battle to retake Quang Tri during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive and the crucial role the South Vietnamese Marines (VNMC) played in defeating the NVA. It also is an account of the U.S. Marine Advisory Unit’s role during the offensive. 

Charles Melson, as a former Marine Corps Chief Historian, has an in-depth familiarity with his book’s subjects, especially the Vietnamese Marines and their American advisers. Before jumping into the central thesis of the battle for Quang Tri, Melson dwells on the culture and traditions of the VNMC. As a side note he addresses the political alliances between elite units and their benefactors. 

In 1972 the VNMC had a special relationship with South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. The Vietnamese Airborne, in contrast, was aligned with Ky’s rival, President Nguyen Van Thieu. That situation likely played a role in the poor command relationships in the Marines, including senior officers who were more political than professional.

Both units were highly reliable combat forces that formed the strategic reserve of the South Vietnamese military. Before the narrative moves on to the Easter Offensive Melson provides a detailed account of the orders of battle of both sides and descriptions of key personalities.  

The pace of the book picks up once Melson begins his play-by-play description of the Easter Offensive’s thrust across the DMZ and the fall and recapture of Quang Tri. The rapid NVA divisions heavily equipped with armor and air defense systems brought out the very best—and the disgraceful worst—in the South Vietnamese forces. Most glaring was the lack of effective leadership and operational sense at the most senior levels of command.  

This happened as some South Vietnamese units, mainly the Marines, tenaciously fought to prevent a North Vietnamese breakthrough to Da Nang and Hue and what would have been an envelopment of South Vietnamese forces. The fall of Quang Tri City was a major setback for the South Vietnamese because it had tremendous symbolic value for the North and was a humiliation for the South.

South Vietnamese troops entering Quang Tri City, late July 1972

The final chapters of this history capture the bitter struggle by both sides as the South’s Marines and Airborne Division supported by Rangers defeated the North’s best units in ferocious fighting. After 138 days of occupation, Quang Tri was finally liberated by South Vietnamese forces.

For some, it may be an eye-opener to learn about South Vietnamese units that had no reluctance to take on the best the North had to offer—and to defeat them. For that alone, it’s worth the time to read this short, heavily illustrated book. The excellent maps, illustrations, and photos are a real plus.

–John Cirafici