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.
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