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

Unbreakable Hearts! by Earl “Dusty” Trimmer

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Earl “Dusty” Trimmer’s Unbreakable Hearts! A True, Heart-Wrenching Story about Victory… Forfeited! (Dog Ear Publishing, 556 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $29.99, paper: $9.99, Kindle) is like no other Vietnam War book I’ve come across. In Trimmer’s third book, he remains almost spectral; very little is said regarding his background and history beyond the fact that he served as an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968-69 and that he has had his run-ins with the VA.

The book consists of eleven pages of a glossary and sources, 116 pages of photos, and 450 pages of text. Trimmer covers lots of topics, but most curve back to the original premise of the book: the oppression of the Vietnamese people. He delves deeply into the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia and the people who have lived there.

The country we know today as Vietnam was not always so. Trimmer includes information on the earliest invasions by the Chinese, starting around 200 BC. Vietnam’s “simple farmers, with pitchforks and knives,” he writes, have repulsed the Mongol hordes three times, the Chinese perhaps a half dozen times, the Japanese during World War II, the French before and after the war, and finally the Americans, who were trying to save everyone from communism.

Trimmer portrays the Vietnamese throughout these invasions and conflicts as fighting to preserve and protect a homeland—not to attack or to take and hold additional real estate.  He waxes eloquently in defense of these efforts as he recounts, often in great detail, the nation’s long history of repelling invaders. He shows that the Vietnamese were just trying, over all these years, to live in peace, in one country.

Trimmer also goes over the politics and people involved in what the Vietnamese call the American War. He then reaches into the current U.S. administration for instances of both validation and recrimination. At times, the book’s path isn’t clear; at other times, it’s confusing. This book, though, is full of interesting historical facts, well laced with a recounting of Dusty Trimmer’s experiences as an infantryman.

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Trimmer in country

The seventeen chapters read as if each were proofread and edited by different people. There are, for example, short paragraphs that are repeated almost word-for-word, frequently close together. And there are spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.

Trimmer has offered quite an interesting story. It could have been presented much better had it been more tightly edited and proofed.

The book’s website is unbreakableheartsbook.com

–Tom Werzyn

Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson

The United States, Southeast Asia and Historical Memory edited by Mark Pavlick with Caroline Luft

Who controls history? How is collective memory formed? In the case of historical accounts of the Vietnam War, the famous maxim most widely attributed to Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors,” is problematic. While the North Vietnamese won the war, the Americans have had both the resources and the freedom to win the proverbial battle for the memory of that conflict.

It is within this context that The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory (Haymarket, 450 pp. $22, paper) is written. The book, edited by Mark Pavlick, a longtime activist in the U.S. antiwar movement, and Caroline Luft, is the second edition of a work originally published in 2007. It consists of thirteen chapters: eight essays, two Noam Chomsky articles from the 1970s, one book excerpt, and two interviews.

Curiously, the editors never define historical memory. For the record, historical memory is the way groups of people or nations create and then identify with specific narratives about historical periods or events.

The book’s epigraph provocatively quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening address before the Nuremberg Tribunal of November 21, 1945, with a clear implication that the United States was guilty of war crimes in Southeast Asia on par with those committed by Nazi Germany. The works of Noam Chomsky and Fred Branfman fall within the vein of this polemical perspective.

The balance of the book, however, belies this overtly hostile style, with six essays that are scholarly in nature, promoting cogent theses without provoking raw emotion.

The essays on cluster bombing in Laos by Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell  and the use of Agent Orange by Tuan V. Nguyen are scholarly and thoughtful. The former even acknowledges the legitimacy of the bombing—if not its proportionately.

“Iraq, Another Vietnam? Consider Cambodia” is well considered even if its conclusion that there is a causal relationship between the American bombing in Cambodia and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge is tenuous. “The Indonesian Domino” by Clinton Fernandes proffers a thought-provoking thesis: that due to the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party by 1967, that domino could no longer fall, invalidating the justification for the war predominant during the Kennedy Administration.

Gareth Porter’s treatment of the My Lai massacre, written from a definitive perspective, is authoritative in its research. Nick Turse’s essay is a powerful, if completely personal, indictment of the war. Ngo Vinh Long’s essay on U.S. policy toward Indochina since 1975 treads the familiar ground that this country is responsible for the stagnancy of Vietnam in the postwar years.

An interview and republished essays by Noam Chomsky, as well as the introductory essay by Fred Branfman, are the raison d’etre for the book. Polemics aside, these essays are problematic in their exploitation of history, which weakens their arguments.

Providing a different perspective to the perception of American mass propaganda is incredibly important, but it cannot be justified at the expense of its context. The thesis can fall into Manichean simplicity: America and its allies were unjust; therefore, North Vietnam and its allies must be just.

Chomsky makes no comment on the morality of North Vietnam’s execution of up to 25,000 “class enemies” in the mid-1950s, other than to point to the American exaggeration of the figure. He quotes Bernard Fall, but omits his estimate that the Viet Cong assassinated eleven South Vietnamese officials every day during the early 1960s.

The premise of moral equivalency is decidedly unhelpful in analyzing the Vietnam War. But Chomsky indulges irresponsibly in this matter, even taking a decidedly paternalistic and ahistorical view that communism in Vietnam was a monolithic movement among all Vietnamese people. But one million people fled North Vietnam in 1955 rather than live under communist rule, and two million left the country after the communists took in 1975.

Vietnam remains a closed society in which historians are denied access, and in which journalists are routinely imprisoned. They seemed to be rewarded for their totalitarian lack of transparency.

No matter one’s politics, this book will provoke and outrage.

–Daniel R. Hart

Elbridge Dubrow’s War in Vietnam by Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr.

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American involvement in the Vietnam War continues to confound. It is unfathomable that such a small country exacted such a profound toll on America.

Building upon decades of work by historians to answer the question of who shaped American foreign policy in Vietnam in the early years of American involvement (1957-62) , Millersville University Professor Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr. in Elbridge Durbrow’s War in Vietnam: The Ambassador’s Influence on American Involvement, 1957-1961 (McFarland, 271 pp., $49.95,, paper) attempts to answer the question by examining the turbulent relationship between American Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Frankum has written extensively about the American war in Vietnam, including books on Operation Rolling Thunder, the U.S. role in the migration of a million Vietnamese from North to South Vietnam in 1955, America’s relationship with its wartime ally Australia, and a Vietnam War historical dictionary. Frankum’s new book is a companion to his Vietnam’s Year of the Rat: Elbridge Durbrow, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Turn in U.S. Relations, 1959-1961, which came out in 2014.

In his new meticulously researched analysis, written in clear and accessible prose, Frankum indicates that Durbrow and Diem’s disagreements were partly personal and partly cultural, though neither doubted the other’s anticommunist bonafides. The crux was on how to best govern South Vietnam. This discord spread to their departments, with MAAG commander Gen. Samuel T. Williams—and to a lesser though notable extent, Edward Lansdale—on the pro-Diem side. Frankum’s analysis of the inter-connectivity of Laos and Cambodia, Diem’s management of his foreign policy, and American reaction to it, is particularly strong.

The narrative at times falls victim to the exhaustive nature of the research, lessening the drama, for example, of the 1960 attempted coup of Diem. Frankum’s allegiance to limiting the book to Durbrow and Diem’s relationship from 1957-61 is laudable, but more background and context would have strengthened the work.

How much, for example, did Durbrow’s work in Eastern Europe and Russia influence his perspective? Was Williams influenced by Eisenhower’s special representative Gen. J. Lawton Collins, a member of the anti-Diem group, who in 1944 had demoted Williams? Was there significance to the coup occurring just two days after the 1960 U.S. presidential election?

Regardless of Durbrow’s heavy-handed treatment of Diem and the internal strife between Williams and Durbrow, the political situation in South Vietnam was dire. There were, for example, expressions of outrage over Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership, includingthe failed coup and the Caravelle Manifesto, a political tract produced by South Vietnamese intelligentsia that criticized Diem’s rule.

Frankum believes that Durbrow and his team were largely to blame for the mistrust. He presents a largely sympathetic portrayal of Diem, while Durbrow is seen as arrogant and jingoistic. Frankum criticizes Durbrow for being more concerned about perceptions than actual situations, but in politics and diplomacy there rarely is a clear distinction.

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Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr.

If the origins of distrust did start with Durbrow, then the Kennedy Administration sought to address the issue by following Lansdale’s advice and removing Durbrow in favor of the accommodating Frederick Nolting, providing Diem with someone he could trust and respect. That the political situation deteriorated further under Nolting—who, along with MAAG commander Paul Harkins, supported Diem—suggests the incompatibly of American involvement.

The systematic issues with American foreign policy in South Vietnam are manifest throughout the book, including the willingness to accept authoritarianism to defeat communism, the fissure between the Defense and State Departments, and the temporizing and equivocating in Washington. For all the problems with strategy, there was an unquestioning adherence to the axiomatic principle: A loss in Vietnam would have deleterious consequences on the United States. In the end, even Durbrow believed that Diem was the best option.

Along with Frankum’s earlier work, this is an important book and a positive addition to the record of America’s early involvement in the Vietnam War.

–Daniel R. Hart

 

Operation Starlite by Otto Lehrack

In Operation Starlite: The Beginnings of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, August 1965 (Casemate, 233 pp. $19.95, paper), first published in hardcover in 2004, former Marine Otto Lehrack offers a tightly developed and very well researched and engaging telling of the story of the first major combat action of the Vietnam War.

In late August 1965, three battalions of U.S. Marines engaged with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment outside the newly created Marine base camp of Chu Lai in I Corps. This action included the first amphibious Marine landing since 1950 during the Korea War, and began the heavy use of helicopters, both offensive and defensive, in the coming escalation of the Vietnam War.

While this was the first important and successful battle of the war, it is often overlooked. About three months later the First Cav moved into the Ia Drang Valley and ran into a massive North Vietnamese Army force. The ensuing battle has been immortalized in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and the movie based on it, as well as other books and magazine articles.

Lehrack’s extensive interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle provide him the context to fully flesh out the timeline and background of the engagement. His visits to the battlefields and camps after the war further expanded his ability to describe what took place. As he tells the story of the battle, Lehrack—who served two Vietnam War tours of duty—successfully integrates information about units, locations, battlefield developments, and the personal stories of the Marines involved, as well as the experiences of former Viet Cong .

During his conversations with the one-time VC fighters Lehrack learned about the lessons they learned from facing the American Marines’ method of engaging, attacking, fighting, and retrieving the wounded and fallen—as well as the employment of supporting arms and force multiplier weapons and tactics.

Otto Lehrack

In the introduction and epilogue, Lehrack speaks of the long history of aggression against the Vietnamese people. He notes the oft-disregarded idea that the Vietnamese simply sought their own sovereignty and relief from outside oppressors, including by the Americans

“It is one of the great tragedies of America, and of Vietnam War, that American policymakers were not more familiar with Vietnam’s history of dealing with foreign invaders,” Lehrack writes.

“America’s enemy, at least after 1965, consistently and successfully portrayed the war as the result of American Colonialism, and painted the South Vietnamese as American puppets.”

This is a good book, with a good battle history. Highly recommended.

–Tom Werzyn

Editor’s note: We briefly reviewed the book after it come out in hardcover in the March/April 2005 print edition of The VVA Veteran.

The Men and the Moment by Aram Goudsouzian

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The velocity of events in 1968 are staggering. Their importance is underscored by the need for only a word or a phrase to appreciate their significance. The events remain not just historically important, but cultural touchstones. Tet. LBJ not running. MLK in Memphis. RFK at the Ambassador. Chicago Democratic Convention. Columbia University sit-in. Nixon’s comeback. Earth rise aboard Apollo 8.

In the midst of this upheaval, America not only elected a new president, but also witnessed a change in how the candidates were chosen—and the birth of a profound realignment of the party system.

Aram Goudsouzian, a University of Memphis history professor, examines the eight men who vied to be the next president in The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America (University of North Carolina, 240 pp., $25). This brisk and accessible (147 pages of text) study focuses on the character of the candidates and their responses to the moment.

Despite its brevity and its heavy reliance on secondary sources, the sixty pages of end-notes evince the book’s meticulous research. Goudsouzian leans particularly on contemporary articles from the New York Times, Time, U.S. News & World Report, and Newsweek, among others.

The 1968 political cycle marked the final stand of the political machines in choosing a candidate. Strong showings and even victories in the primaries did not translate into delegates, as the party leaders had the ultimate discretion in choosing their candidate. This fact cannot be emphasized enough, for despite Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic insurgency, Robert Kennedy’s star power, Nelson Rockefeller’s muddled efforts, and Ronald Reagan’s patient opportunism, the eventual candidates always were likely to be Nixon and, after LBJ’s decision not to run, Vice President Humbert Humphrey because of their work in securing the delegates.

Even though he announced he would not run, Lyndon Johnson remained the de facto leader of the Democrats, which meant that Humphrey’s delegates were actually Johnson’s, effectively handcuffing Humphrey’s campaign. Mixed into this mélange was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ran one of the most successful—albeit the most despicable—third party campaigns in American history.

Goudsouzian proficiently explores each man’s character and ambitions, though the work’s concision and use of anecdotal evidence can at times veer into sensationalism. Were the Chicago police really chanting, “Kill, kill, kill” at the Democratic Convention? Did Johnson yank out his penis in response to a reporter’s question about why the U.S. was in Vietnam? Though entertaining, these seem apocryphal.

Goudsouzian proffers a fine analysis of the “New Politics” campaigns directed to the people through rallies and modern technology, but he all but ignores the critical William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal television debates. It is telling that Buckley is grouped in with the John Birch Society, the right-wing group he helped de-legitimize, and that there are more references to Stalin and Hitler (three) than to Vidal and Buckley (one).

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The chapter on Nixon is, perhaps ironically, titled “The Loser,” and this moniker is repeated throughout the book. Goudsouzian frequently invokes Nixon’s use of the “silent center,” but Nixon did not use this phrase until November 1969. Though credited with the greatest comeback in American political history, there is perhaps too much presentism on Nixon, the eventual winner of this consequential campaign.

There is a reason that this is at least the fourth book in as many years devoted exclusively to the 1968 election. While the material is well trod, Goudsouzian has provided a useful perspective and enjoyable precis on the candidates and their times.

–Daniel R. Hart