Aid Under Fire by Jessica Elkind

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Nearly half a century after the fact historians face the formidable task of finding a way to analyse the Vietnam War from new perspectives. Several recently written books have approached the war by examining the political climate during the years between France’s departure from Indochina and the start of the American war there—approximately 1954-65.

Jessica Elkind’s Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kentucky, 310 pp., $45, hardcover, $45, Kindle) fits into this category. A San Francisco State University history professor, Elkind teaches and writes about American foreign relations, the Cold War, and Southeast Asia. Her next book will examine U.S. involvement in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Elkind bases parts of Aid Under Fire on interviews with civilian aid workers that offer new conclusions about old discussions concerning the effectiveness of non-military nation building. Elkind provides a long introduction that includes other historians’ perspectives of the world’s political picture pre-1965. The consensus is that nation building failed to make South Vietnam independent because of misconceptions regarding historical, political, and social conditions. This background material is exceptionally helpful for following Elkind’s subsequent arguments.

The nation-building effort in South Vietnam failed, according to Elkind, because the Vietnamese did not support American geopolitical goals. That is, Americans confronted problems by applying western practices while overlooking the reluctance of recently decolonized Asians to accept them.

By dissecting five assistance programs, Elkind explains nation building setbacks in Vietnam. The five are: refugee resettlement, public administration standardization, land reform and agricultural development, police force modernization, and the creation of an educational system to advance counterinsurgency aims. Atop everything else, the U.S. supported a repressive regime. Consequently, the South Vietnamese rural population did not devote its hearts and minds to supporting an anti-communist cause, Elkind says.

At length, she delves into controversies such as “The Legacy of Colonialism” that segues into “The Political Burden of Being American,” which deals with Americans being stereotyped as “a rich man with a head full of race prejudice” who puts the government ahead of the people. Two of Elkind’s closing subtitles—”From Enthusiasm to Defeat” and “Ears of Stone”—indicate that the nation-building experiment might have been doomed from the start.

When President Kennedy issued an executive order creating the Agency for International Development (AID) in 1961, American leaders eagerly supported nation building, according to my memory. Almost immediately, my Air Force friends delivered supplies country-wide in C-123 Providers during six-month deployments. As the 1960s wore on, however, war demands consumed almost all other such USAF efforts. In 1968, my C-130 crew flew nearly eight hundred in-country support sorties. Only two in one afternoon questionably helped nation building when we relocated women, children, and old men who did not want to be uprooted.

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Refugee resettlement from North to South Vietnam in 1954

Elkind describes similar patterns of activity and points out that, in all the intervening years, “nation building” has been thought of as “military modernization” for programs in Indonesia, Brazil, Iran, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The outcomes have been the same, she says.

Aid Under Fire is part of the “Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace” series of books that examines—and mostly criticizes—the United States’ engagement with the world. The series includes the work of nineteen historians and other academics who think alike.

But to what purpose? I wonder why these folks do not organize and protest America’s endless involvement in the Middle East.

—Henry Zeybel

 

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

 

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Long ago, I picked the minds of a few USAF fighter jocks and used their expertise to write The First Ace, a novel about a man who sought that title in the Vietnam War. In the book—spoiler alert!—he didn’t succeed. But in real life, five American flyers did attain ace status. My biggest failure in writing the novel was overlooking pilots who flew for the North Vietnamese People’s Air Force who also had the goal of ace status in mind.

With MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 96 pp; $23, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dr. István Toperczer, a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon in the Hungarian Air Force, describes part of the air war over North Vietnam that I never imagined. Toperczer has written four other books about VPAF operations, including Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977. During the past twenty years, he has traveled to Vietnam to research files and interview VPAF pilots. Relationships that began when Hungarian and VPAF pilots trained together in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s helped Toperczer to gain access to newly released North Vietnamese archive files.

The air war over the North took place from April 1965 to November 1968 when America ended Operation Rolling Thunder. It resumed in 1972-73 with Operation Linebacker. During the lull, MiG-17s flew intercept missions against American AQM-34 Firebee reconnaissance drones.

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War highlights seven men who achieved ace status as MiG-17 pilots, one of whom also flew the MiG-21. The book devotes a lone chapter to the pilots of the supersonic, but short-lived, MiG-19 Farmer.

The story line follows air battles—often on a day-to-day basis—across North Vietnam as reported by VPAF pilots. Toperczer presents the high and low points of the air war without taking sides and provides interesting explanations of the MiGs’ ever-evolving tactics to outwit USAF and USN attackers.

For example, MiG pilots initially had to be taught that it was more important to hit bombers, rather than take part in dogfights with escort aircraft. Self-survival instinct taught MiG pilots to develop and refine maneuvers to dodge air-to-air missiles. Toperczer recreates the spring of 1967 when the Vietnamese lost ten of their best pilots in seven aerial battles and had few aircraft to fly during the summer after many had been damaged on the ground.

Toperczer cites additional disadvantages under which the enemy operated. To begin, North Vietnam started from scratch in 1956 when the first pilot candidates entered training in China and the Soviet Union. Candidates were small in stature with limited technical knowledge and skills. To finally take shape in 1959, VPAF principally relied on a Soviet gift of MiG-17s. During the war, American aircraft far outnumbered the enemy’s fleet.

On the ground, VPAF aircraft found their safest sanctuaries in mountain caves distant from airfields, to where Mi-6 “Hook” helicopters airlifted them. In battle, MiG pilots had limited autonomy and often broke off attacks at the command of ground controllers. The MiG-17 lacked air-to-air missiles, and its pilots depended entirely on cannon fire, preferring to dogfight at low altitudes in the horizontal plane because the aircraft’s major advantage was unequaled low-speed maneuverability.

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Dr. Estvan Toperczer

Aerial victories discussed by Toperczer are debatable. His summary of accomplishments of MiG-17 aces shows that many kills listed in VPAF records are contradicted by United States records that call them “loss attributed to anti-aircraft artillery.” Similarly, a high percentage of MiG-17 kill claims are “not confirmed by U.S. records.” Statements such as “U.S. records show no loss as a result of aerial combat on that day” conclude several accounts. In a reversal of misfortune, Toperczer points out that some USAF and USN kill claims are not substantiated by North Vietnamese records.

Along with ten pages of color plates of MiG-17/19 aircraft and several color maps, black and white photographs of crewmen and aircraft appear on almost every page. I would have appreciated, however, a page of data that summarized MiG-17 /19 specifications and performance.

Otherwise, Toperczer taught me that my novel lacked dimension by failing to spell out that North Vietnam’s pilots fought with the same degree of intensity and bravery as American Air Force and Navy jocks did.

—Henry Zeybel

Witness to the Revolution by Clara Bingham

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Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul (Random House, 656 pp., $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is neither a polemic nor an unquestioning ode. Bingham uses oral histories of people who served in the Vietnam War, along with those who were involved in the political and cultural movements of the era, concentrating on the year of 1968. The individual testimonies are not long discussions or recollections; they are shorter sections interwoven into the narrative to make a complex tapestry.

The book is divided into sections such as the draft, Woodstock, My Lai, and Kent State. The chapters contain histories and the words of many of the movers and shakers of the day, including Mark Rudd and Bernadette Dohrn of the Weather Underground, Daniel Ellsberg, Timothy Leary, the journalist Seymour Hersh (who broke the My Lai story), and Oliver Stone. Bingham also makes good use of the voices of Vietnam veterans.

The Vietnam War was the cyclone around which most division centered during the 1960s and 70s. Questioning the most divisive overseas war in U.S. history made people question almost everything else, from feminism to government programs and policies to music.

The book contains two of the most famous and galvanizing photos of the Vietnam War: South Vietnamese Gen, Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a VC prisoner in Saigon during Tet, and the naked Vietnamese girl running and screaming after being hit with napalm. Bingham also recounts the often-told tale of the My Lai massacre.

Bingham also deals with Vietnam War veterans’ post-war emotional adjustments, including these words from Vietnam Veterans of America’s founder Bobby Muller: “You come back, you’re in a normal place, you’re not in a war zone, you think about the shit you did, and you don’t believe that you fucking did this. And then you live with the memory.” He later says: “These are the good guys. We look at what goes on in the world and we think it’s a subspecies of human beings. It’s not. It’s us.”

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Clara Bingham

Nineteen-sixty-eight was the height of the war and the height of the protests at home, along with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Many folks at home who had comfortable lives could not cope with the turmoil and our country suffered a huge divide. All these events are included in the book and all are told by the people involved at the time.

To read what those involved had to say—and still have to say—is to be transported back to that time. To those who lived through it, details return with clarity. For those who were not around in those days, their ideas and actions will arrive with clarity.

—Loana Hoylman

 

Yes, Sir, Yes Sir, 3 Bags Full by Jerry Hall

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The mission took top priority with Jerry Hall even when it required disobeying orders or regulations. For him, considering the consequences of actions came afterward.

As a forward air controller, Hall flew the O-2 Skymaster out of Bien Hoa during his 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty. He recreates that year in a two-volume book: Yes Sir, Yes Sir, 3 Bags Full: Flying, Friendshipsand Trying to Make Sense of a Senseless War, (Sundance, 329 pp. and 263 pp., $17.99 and $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle). The covers foretell the content of each volume. On the first, Jerry Hall grins enthusiastically. On the second, Hall’s sullen frown emphasizes his depiction as a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The subtitle defines the books’ contents.

The two volumes comprise one continuous story that begins with Hall’s flight training in the United States. He spares no details in presenting a picture of pilot training—and then some. He next walks the reader through the Air Force pipeline that ends in Vietnam. In the latter area, his stories brought back many memories of serving in the Air Force in the Vietnam War. In an informative and entertaining style he describes the pluses and minuses of a flyer’s preparation for war.

Hall’s experiences in Vietnam fill the second half of Volume 1 and all of Volume 2. In both books he is blunt and to the point. His two best friends were self-ordained “Father” William (a fellow FAC) and Joey (an Australian helicopter gunship pilot). They flew all day, and drank all night to forget the ugly events of the day.

Primarily, Hall and Father William directed fighter strikes during troops-in-contact situations. Both felt great pride in their work. Hall, “loved flying in combat,’ he says. The details he provides about flying should fascinate anyone. Often, he makes you feel as if you are performing the feats he once accomplished.

Concerning the rest of the Air Force, Hall had a love-hate relationship with authority, particularly with anyone who interfered with accomplishing a mission. To him, administrators, whom he calls “staff-weenies,” personified all that was wrong with the military. They constantly confronted him for daring to ignore limitations in flying and for his misdeeds while under the influence.

Under the stress of combat, Hall’s psychological makeup progressively deteriorated. On a ten-day R&R drinking spree in Hong Kong, he endured a prolonged episode of torment, recrimination, and regret that set the stage for decades of PTSD. He came to feel that life outside of an airplane lacked meaning.

Jerry Hall died in 2015 of lung cancer attributed to being exposed to Agent Orange while escorting C-123 Operation Ranch Hand spray planes. With Three Bags Full, he left a perceptive history lesson about the role of O-2 FACs and personal commitment during the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

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Vietnam’s High Ground by J.P. Harris

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Clarifying the fine points of exactly how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War might keep historians busy forever. Of course, the Domino Theory offers an obvious answer—one nation falls to communism and that pushes over others. But that choice resembles a conclusion such as “Joe committed suicide after growing tired of living” without examining Joe’s broken marriages, job losses, PTSD, and Agent Orange symptoms.

In other words, examining underlying details reveals reasons for the war that are far more interesting.

In 2015, Charles R. Shrader published A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 in which he described the First Indochina War—fought by the French in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin—as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” Research proved his conclusion in the sense that poor logistical support can (and, in this case, did) defeat an army. Schrader based his argument on what he found in declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material, as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies.

In Vietnam’s High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965 (University Press of Kansas, 552 pp. $45, hardcover; $27.99, Kindle), J.P. Harris provides a fitting continuation to Shrader’s history. Harris—a senior lecturer in war studies at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England—moves the action southward and makes large-scale use of Vietnamese communist sources and American archives. His research examines the evolution of military action in Vietnam’s Central Highlands from subversion, insurgency, and counterinsurgency through the major battles of 1965.

Despite the dates in its subtitle, Vietnam’s High Ground focuses on military action in the 1960s with the last half of the book devoted to 1965. Concluding his accounts of fighting that was costly to both sides in the Ia Drang Valley, Harris says, “It would have taken a reckless pundit to pick a winner at this stage.”

Harris’ book is formidable. Opening it to any page provides a wealth of facts and explanations on major and minor events of the time and area. All of it offers perspectives of actions from all participants. Excellent maps, photographs, and forty-five pages of notes perfectly complement the text.
Reading the book made me feel humble. Harris covers all that I was familiar with about the early fighting in the Highlands. Well beyond that, though, he delves into actions that were unknown to me. His depth of investigation presents a stand-alone education about that phase of warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s High Ground adds valuable insight to The University Press of Kansas’s Modern War Studies Series.

—Henry Zeybel

Code Warriors by Stephen Budiansky

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These days we apply different terms to an important game heroes and villains play: Leaking. Hacking. Phishing. Today’s players are Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, numerous Russians, and anybody else with a computer who searches deeply into the files of others—in other words, spies at work. Back in the day, they called it espionage.

One of the world’s most interesting espionage battles took place during the Cold War—from the end of World War II to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Stephen Budiansky recreates this period in Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War against the Soviet Union (Knopf, 410 pp., $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle).

The story extends back to before World War II and describes America’s espionage tactics that led to the 1952 creation of the National Security Agency, which in turn led to crypt-analysis techniques capable of deciphering “unbreakable” codes.

An historian and lecturer, Budiansky has written fourteen books about military and intelligence history, science, and the natural world. In this highly informative book Budiansky tells less than a complete story because, as he explains, NSA “continues to this day to be extremely chary of revealing any details of its successes against Soviet cryptology.” In writing Code Warriors, Budiansky primarily relied on archival sources and document collections.

Nevertheless, Budiansky—the former national security correspondent and foreign editor at U.S. News & World Report—presents fresh perspectives on NSA triumphs and failures against Germany and Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and, most of all, the Soviet Union. He shows how NSA evolved into an organization in which “what had been acceptable in wartime but anathema in practice became the norm for peacetime, too.” While reading about the tactics NAS used on foes and friends, foreign and domestic, I vacillated between love and hate for the agency and its leaders.

Budiansky’s summation of the early years of the Vietnam War could dredge up unpleasant memories for veterans of that conflict. He cites many cases of American “overconfidence” and “disdain for the intelligence capabilities of the enemy,” along with falsification and concealment of the truth by NSA. Much of the latter aimed to appease the White House and established precedents that eventually were used to justify going to war in Iraq, he concludes.

111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111The scientific problems of code breaking are inseparable from politics, Budiansky says, but his accounts “give a sense of what the code breakers were up against without assuming any special knowledge of cryptology or mathematics on the part of the reader.”

Budiansky does not ignore aficionados of code breaking, however. His five appendixes challenge the mind:

  • Enciphered Code, Depths, and Book Breaking
  • Russian Teleprinter Ciphers
  • Cryptanalysis of the Hagelin Machine
  • Bayesian Probability, Turing and the Deciban
  • The Index of Confidence

When I reached that point in the book, I signaled a time out that is still in effect.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

The War after the War by Johannes Kadura

 

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Four minutes before six o’clock on the morning of January 28, 1973, I awoke in my Tan Son Nhut BOQ room when four mortar rounds hit the base. We were six hours ahead of Greenwich, where it was nearly midnight and the start of the ceasefire designated by the Paris Peace Accords. No further rounds followed, but Big Voice kept ordering people to shelters. I rolled over in bed and smiled.

The North Vietnamese were telling us that they hadn’t quit, I thought with a touch of admiration. Two years and three months later, the NVA rolled into Saigon.

Events that led to that morning and followed it are the subject of The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility During America’s Exit from Vietnam (Cornell University Press, 231 pp.; $45) by Johannes Kadura. The story revolves around the Indochina endgame strategy employed by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford with counsel from National Security Adviser/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon and Kissinger, Kadura explains, used two basic plans to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. They called their plans “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy.” Kadura discusses the plans and then offers his “new interpretation” of what occurred during the years immediately before and after the signing of the Peace Agreement in Paris. He focuses on the U.S. perspective and does not attempt to tell the Vietnamese version of the story.

The book is a masterpiece of research that is carefully footnoted. Kadura holds a doctorate in American history. He studied at Yale and Cambridge. He is Managing Director of AKRYL, an Internet company based in Hamburg and Beijing.

After American forces departed Vietnam and our POWs returned home, Nixon and Kissinger “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended,” Kadura says. “The implications were obvious: the United States had fulfilled its basic obligations and could focus on more important things; the South Vietnamese had to figure out the rest on their own.” Nixon and Kissinger soon shifted their attention to more critical international matters, such as the Yom Kippur War, the oil crisis, and relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

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Johannes Kadura

The book convincingly argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame on Congress for America’s lack of post-1973 support for the vulnerable nations of Indochina, particularly when Congress reduced military and economic aid to those nations each year.

Nixon’s distraction by Watergate and his eventual resignation forced Kissinger to guide America’s foreign policy for a considerable period, Kadura says. Ford, however, proved to be his own man, no more so than when he pardoned Nixon. Ford, emulating Nixon, continued to blame Congress for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ending up under communist rule.

The book presents information that filled gaps in my education. Like many people, I had stopped worrying about Southeast Asia in 1973. Material new to me included the fact that some 207,000 NVA regulars moved into South Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Accords; the North’s paving of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and its construction of SAM sites at Khe Sanh and A Shau—all in preparation for its final offensive. I also didn’t know about Nixon’s gross failure to take decisive action against cease-fire violations and of the political machinations that led to the fall of Cambodia. Kadura’s history lessons ensure that the reader sees the big picture.

Overall, Kadura convinced me that among Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, pessimism prevailed throughout the post-peace agreement period. Their goal had been to exit Vietnam without looking like they were running away (“peace with honor”), and they feared being accused of having done exactly that. Kadura barely mentions “peace with honor,” which was a byword of the era. He does discuss the “decent interval,” a goal that might have resulted in more favorable outcomes for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Loas. A two-year interval was not long enough.

The end of South Vietnam triggered a lot of soul searching in this country. Study groups from the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council came up with conflicting summaries of lessons learned. Kissinger’s insistence that “Washington had bought vital time for Southeast Asia’s non-communist nations to develop” became a popular but questionable conclusion because America had not prosecuted the war with that goal in mind, according to Kadura. The “buying vital time” claim, however, reassured other allies that Washington would help them fight communist aggression.

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Nixon in China

Looking “beyond defeat in Indochina,” Kadura shows that America retained post-Agreement influence in Southeast Asia during the Mayaguez incident, as well as with our denial of help to Hanoi, and through worsening relations with China.

Kadura’s conclusion: “The overall effects of Washington’s defeat in Indochina were quite limited. The strategic balance did not shift decisively in favor of the Soviets or Chinese. Washington emerged tarnished yet relatively strong. Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger did manage to control the damage caused by the U.S. defeat.”

The author’s website is johanneskadura.com

—Henry Zeybel