The Good Governor by Mathew Walsh

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Among the tens of thousands of refugees who needed resettling after the fall of the Saigon government on April 30, 1975, were the members of the Tai Dam people, also known as “Black Tai” because of the color of their clothing. Originally from northwestern (North) Vietnam and Laos, the Black Tai had their own language and system of writing.

During the French War the majority of Tai Dam sided with the Viet Minh, though some fought with the French against the insurgents. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu the Tai Dam who fought with the French fled to Laos. By the mid-1950s most had secured work as domestics, bureaucrats, and soldiers. In April 1975, Tai Dam and other ethnic groups who had worked with the French or Americans feared for their safety and streamed into Thailand looking for sanctuary.

A campaign to bring them to this country began in the summer of 1975; letters were written to thirty U.S. governors seeking help. Only Iowa’s Republican Gov. Robert D. Ray agreed to resettle the Tai Dam in his state. Today more Tai Dam live in Iowa than anywhere outside of Asia. AThere have been expected (and unexpected) adjustment problems on all sides.

Matthew R. Walsh’s The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa (McFarland, 244 pp., $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle) includes interviews with dozens of refugees and resettlement officials who paint a picture of struggle and resistance, but also of hope and promise.

Ray was alone in his compassion among sitting governors in his efforts to welcome a group whose 12th century lifestyle was bound to conflict with 20th century America. He was determined to build a workable program that would integrate the two cultures in a way that preserved both without diminishing either.

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Tai Dam women

Ray also was involved with Cambodian refugees after he and a delegation of governors visited Tai Dam and Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand in 1979.  While there he watched as men, women, and children died for lack of food and medicine.

Working with Iowa SHARES—a program that brings people together in response to humanitarian needs without respect to ideology, ethnicity, faith traditions, or other ism’s and ology’s—the needs of Cambodian refugees were also met.

As we have witnessed over the generations, our rich national fabric is strengthened and enriched by the frequent incorporation of those fleeing oppression and hate and those looking for better opportunities for their families. Now, nearly 50 years later, the Tai Dam of Iowa are no different thanks to a caring army of volunteers aided by government and non-governmental agencies moved to action by Robert D. Ray, a United States Army veteran who served as Iowa’s Governor from 1969-83.

That is the uplifting story told in his worthy book.

—Jim Doyle

 

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Improvising a War by Benjamin L. Landis

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If you want an accurate picture of how the United States Army General Staff functioned during the early years of the Vietnam War, you should read Benjamin L. Landis’ Improvising a War: The Pentagon Years, 1965-1967: Reminiscences of an Untried Warrior  (Merriam Press, 186 pp. $11.95, paper).

Landis, who graduated from West Point in 1946, wrote the book based on his staff work as a lieutenant colonel at the place and time of the title. The representative of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, his job was to see that requested and approved units went to Vietnam on their scheduled dates, he says.

That sounds easy: Cut the orders and ship the troops. But it didn’t work that way because President Lyndon Johnson would not let the Army use National Guard and Reserve troops. That left an undermanned and under-equipped Army to fend for itself.

From among a crowd of lieutenant colonels who filled junior positions in their section of the Pentagon, Landis ended up in a job for which he had no background or training. As the newest guy, he had led an ad hoc inter-staff committee designed to find, equip, and train enough men for deployment to Vietnam, a duty that no other LTC wanted.

By that time, four big combat units had been sent to Vietnam. But they were not in good-enough shape to perform their missions, as Landis saw it. The need to improve the system was exemplified by Landis’ “disillusioned and frustrated” boss, a senior colonel who told him, “If I’m going to go down because of this, I’m not going alone.”

With tacit approval from his superiors, Landis enlisted Maj. William Duba and together they “skirted [and] circumvented, rules, regulations, policies, chain of command. I exceeded my authority regularly,” he says. “We did whatever we had to do to get the required people into the units deploying to Vietnam. We were not always 100% successful. We were in a bureaucratic morass that at times engulfed us.”

During his first year at the Pentagon, Landis worked without a computer despite needing to search Army records worldwide to fill assignments. Guidance came from Army Regulation 220-1 Field Organizations Unit Readiness. Landis attaches a copy of that reg at the end of his book. He also includes photographs of the most important players involved in the deployment program.

Improvising a War is a good read because Benjamin Landis wrote it fifteen years after leaving the Pentagon when his on-the-job notes and vivid memories were fresh. In 2012, he pulled the draft from his files, edited it, and added anecdotes from his long military career, then published it this year.

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His writing style delighted me. He uses real names, and the guilty are not forgotten. Landis describes a fellow officer as “undoubtedly the worst lieutenant colonel I ever encountered” who “could very well have been the worst lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army at that time.” He says an orientation talk about his new job from his new boss was “cordial, concise, and imprecise.” He tells a story about a major general who carried “tradition to the outer limits of absurdity.”

Landis, by the way, also lauds his heroes.

His insight into the dreams, schemes, and machinations of full and light colonels in quest of their next promotions validates the suspicions often held by lower-ranking personnel. The book also provides an eye-opening lecture on Army readiness in the mid-sixties.

Shuffling paperwork can be a lackluster pursuit, but Landis has turned his deployment task into a management adventure as entertaining as any I have read.

Vietnam veterans who served in the 9th or 25th Infantry Divisions or the 196th Infantry Brigade should find interest in Landis’  inside stories of the war-time deployment of their units.

—Henry Zeybel

An Idea, and Bullets by William Haponski

William Haponski graduated from West Point in 1956. He earned a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature in 1967 while teaching English at his alma mater. The next year Haponski volunteered to go to Vietnam.

He first served as the senior staff officer in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment under the command of Col. George S. Patton (the son of the famed general). Then, from January to July of 1969, Haponski commanded the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry in the First Infantry Division.

His sterling academic credentials and battlefield credibility are on display in An Idea, and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 582 pp., $19.99, paper; $5.49, Kindle). This is a well-written, well-researched examination of the French and American wars in Vietnam based on a primary and secondary sources and on Haponski’s  on the ground in Vietnam during the war. The book also has a thesis: its long subtitle’s contention that the American and French wars in Vietnam were unwinnable.

After more than 450 pages of history and analysis, Haponski sums up the book’s message in its last two sentences.

The American war in Vietnam, he concludes, “was lost before the French Expeditionary Force fired its first round, before the South fielded its first soldier in the National Army of Vietnam, before the first U.S. advisor set foot in the country. An idea—independence and unity—would triumph over bullets.”

Bill Haponski in country

Haponski’s main point, that is, is that most Vietnamese saw American intervention as another attempt by a foreign power (after China, Japan, and France) to prevent all Vietnamese from uniting into one nation. And—more importantly—that the North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and their civilian supporters possessed the will to see that ideal realized.

As Gen. Dave Palmer says in the book’s forward, the enemy in Vietnam had “the will to persevere unto victory no matter how long it took or how powerful the cost.

“In the end, willpower trumped firepower.”

—Marc Leepson

Making History by Bruce Olav Solheim

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Bruce Olav Solheim is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California. As the blurb on the back cover of the second edition of Solheim’s Making History: A Personal Approach to Modern American History (Cognella Academic Publishing, $68.95, paper) notes, this history book is “The Education of Henry Adams meets On the Road.”

In other words, the book is a personal approach to U.S. History. What does that look like? In Chapter One, title “Reconstruction,” the first sentence is: “After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, my brother Alf was sent to radio school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.”

No other American history book would tell us that the author’s brother is named Alf, let alone that he did basic training in Texas. How can this be justified in a chapter about Reconstruction?  Solheim does that quite neatly.

He goes on to say that his brother Alf entered a barbershop in Biloxi with a black airman from Detroit, a friend of his. The friend was asked to leave the barbershop, and Alf got his lesson in the results of Reconstruction in the South: Jim Crow. In Chapter Two, “Rapid Industrialization,” we get the same format—and the same smooth introduction to a difficult concept made clear by the use of a personal anecdote.

In twelve cogent, well-organized chapters, Solheim provides history students introductions to U.S. Imperialism, the Progressive Era, World War I, the Twenties and the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Era, the War in Vietnam, the Conservative Revolution, and the “American Empire in Decline.”

It had been a long time since I studied American history in an organized manner, so I was quite gratified to get this refresher course. I needed it.

Each chapter begins with a one-page comic strip by Gary Dumm, giving pictorial voice to the words that follow. A modest disclaimer: On page 298, at the beginning of the Vietnam War chapter, I am introduced as a comic strip character, sitting at a typewriter in Vietnam, typing a memo for the colonel for whom I worked for a year.

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Bruce Solheim

Bruce’s brother Alf is also in this strip. The text notes that Alf Solheim is a disabled veteran after his two tours in Vietnam, that he suffers from PTSD and from Agent Orange-related leukemia.  Rarely is the butcher’s bill of war made so personal in an American History book.

This fine book is a revolutionary piece of work. It knocks over the apple cart of all clichéd, hidebound history books that don’t even try to reach an audience that desperately needs to know more about the history of their complex country. I thank Bruce Solheim for daring to risk breaking out of the bonds of traditional learning and teaching.

If I were still in the classroom, I would use this book as a textbook every quarter and be proud to do so.

—David Willson

Why Vietnam Matters by Rufus Phillips

“This is an inside history of what really happened in Vietnam and why it matters.”

That’s the first line of one of the most important books on the early history of the Vietnam War, Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned by Rufus Phillips. This 2008 memoir—now out in paperback for the first time (Naval Institute, 448 pp., $24.95—is an insider’s account of the fateful 1950s and early 1960s decisions that set in motion the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Phillips, who turned 88 last month, was sent to South Vietnam in 1954 as a member of the first CIA team there, led by the legendary intelligence agent Edward Lansdale, a career USAF officer who worked with the OSS in World War II and the CIA after the war. Phillips spent most of the next decade doing undercover and pacification work in Vietnam. He played an important behind-the-scenes advisory role in the high-level power struggle that developed over how the United States would help South Vietnam defeat the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Rufus Phillips (who is a featured commentator in the new Ken Burns PBS Vietnam War documentary) was a strong proponent of what came to be known as the “hearts and minds” approach: helping build a stable democratic government in the south, one that the people of South Vietnam would put their lives on the line to preserve. At the same time, he (like his mentor, Lansdale) spoke out strongly and consistently against sending in American combat troops. That includes speaking face-to-face with President John F. Kennedy in the White House on September 10, 1963–a memorable meeting that Phillips describes in detail in the book.

As we wrote in our 2008 review, this is a revealing inside-baseball memoir, in which Phillips provides a fascinating look at how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations never gave the pacification approach more than lip service.

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Phillips offers intimate, revealing portraits of the Lansdale, the colorful CIA operative Lucien Conein, South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, President JKennedy, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and a slew of other Kennedy and Johnson higher-ups.

Phillips clearly shows that those best and brightest, especially McNamara, exhibited “poor judgment, bureaucratic prejudice, and personal hubris” as they steered Vietnam War policy in a disastrous course. Phillips adds a short chapter on lessons learned from the Vietnam War calamity.

As I wrote in 2008, this book should be mandatory reading in Washington, D.C. It still should.

The author’s website is whyvietnammatters.com

—Marc Leepson

MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

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Dr. Istvan Toperczer’s writing focuses on fighter pilots and their aircraft, with an emphasis on the Vietnam War. In his latest book, MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 135 pp.; $23, paper), he writes that thirteen MiG-21 Fishbed pilots from the Vietnam People’s Air Force became aces during that war, with a combined total of eighty-six kills.

The Appendix lists Fishbed pilots with four or more victories as verified by VPAF official records. United States records, however, label many of these claims as “not confirmed” or “loss attributed to antiaircraft artillery or SAM.” The downing of AQM-34 Firebee drones also accounts for part of the VPAF total.

My brother-in-law calls Toperczer a “communist propagandist,” and refuses to read his work. Regardless of discrepancies in the numbers—and my brother-in-law’s opinion—in his new book Toperczer provides insightful and interesting stories about VPAF training, tactics, and encounters with American Air Force and Navy aircraft.

Toperczer is a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon. For the past twenty years, he has interviewed VPAF pilots and researched VPAF archives. According to his publisher, Toperczer is “one of the few individuals from outside Vietnam to be given open access to the files of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force.”

His chapter on training somewhat duplicates information he presented in his MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union provided the most useful support in this area.

The interwoven tactics and combat story lines in the book describe and analyze air battles, frequently on a day-to-day basis. They explain the evolution of Fishbed interception practices against American fighter-bombers, which were sometimes based on recommendations from Soviet advisors. The stories explain both successes and failures of VPAF planners in 1966-67. The second half of the book covers VPAF operations from 1968 to Linebacker II.

Toperczer pays homage to USAF Operation Bolo led by Col. Robin Olds and the results that grounded the MiG-21 921st Fighter Regiment for several months “in an attempt to make good its losses.” According to Toperczer, for the remainder of 1967, the VPAF and Americans fought on even terms with both sides altering tactics but failing to gain a decisive advantage.

The best parts of the book occur when Toperczer explains the VPAF pilots’ actions and reactions to unusual situations. For example, the account of the encounters with the U.S. Navy’s RIM-8 Talos ship-to-air missiles was eye-opening. I had been completely unaware of the long-range capability and success of the Talos against MiG-21s.

Likewise, I had not realized how, as early as 1969, VPAF designed and practiced tactics to use against B-52s if they overflew the North. The VPAF also attempted but failed to attack B-52s over Laos.

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As far as I am concerned, Toperczer provides a great deal of information not found elsewhere.

Regardless of what my brother-in-law believes, overall MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War pays justifiable tribute to the Vietnamese pilots who flew against the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

Brutal Battles of Vietnam edited by Richard K. Kolb

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Richard K. Kolb, the recently retired long-time publisher and editor-in-chief of VFW magazine, has spent more than a decade preparing the newly published Brutal Battles of Vietnam: America’s Deadliest Days, 1965-1972 (VWF, 480 pp., $29.95). This worthy book is the fruit of Kolb’s research, writing, and editing of a long-running series in his magazine called “Vietnam’s Deadliest Battles.”

Brutal Battles is a reader-friendly, heavily illustrated coffee-table-sized tome that, as Kolb puts it, stands as “the first and only” book that presents “a comprehensive U.S. battle history of Vietnam in a single volume.” Kolb and his team of writers (including the noted Vietnam War specialists Al Hemingway and Keith Nolan) do not deal with politics at home, geopolitics, the antiwar movement, life in the rear, diplomacy, strategy, accounts of the ARVN (or NVA or VC)—or any kind of in-depth analysis of tactics. In other words, as Kolb puts it, the book “is not Vietnam 101.”

Instead, Brutal Battles is a compelling, well-written compilation of on-the-mark reports on dozens of Vietnam War engagements that ended in significant casualties. In other words, that is, the deadliest, most brutal, of the war’s all-out battles and other engagements.

Each one gets a relatively short but meaty chapter told from the point of view of the Americans who did the fighting. We get the voices of everyday troops who fought in the battles, along with cogent descriptions of what took place, as well as tributes to those who perished and those who performed courageously under fire.

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Rich Kolb, who served in Vietnam with the Army’s 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions in 1970-71, shaped the magazine series and the book to include actions involving every American infantry division, independent infantry brigade, and separate regiment that took part in the war. They are presented chronologically through 1972.

What follows is a section on Navy and Air Force engagements. Then comes a tribute to the war’s most highly decorated troops and statistical info, including a 1959-72 combat chronology.

For purchasing info, go to the VFW store.

—Marc Leepson