The End of Ambition: The United States and the Third World in the Vietnam War Era by Mark Atwood Lawrence

For most readers of this review, the Vietnam War was an intensely personal experience. The incidence of war altered a life’s projection, reshaping its path and having a rippling effect on relationships with family, friends, and colleagues — many far removed in time and space from the war itself.

This analogy is helpful in understanding Mark Atwood Lawrence’s brilliant new book, The End of Ambition: The United States and the Third World in the Vietnam War Era (Princeton University Press, 408 pp. $35). Lawrence makes a compelling argument that the Vietnam War, along with the social and cultural domestic changes of the 1960s, led to the downfall of liberal ambitions in the Third World so eloquently espoused by President John F. Kennedy, and were replaced with a foreign policy that favored stability—usually in the form of a dictatorship—over democracy.

Lawrence, a University of Texas history professor and one of the leading authorities of American Cold War foreign policy, is the author of Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam and Vietnam: A Concise International History. Though The End of Ambition is about American foreign policy and decision-making, Lawrence has undertaken extensive archival research about five countries.

The book’s first three chapters detail the liberal promise of President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, the transition and inheritance of Lyndon Johnson of this potential after Kennedy’s assassination, and how LBJ, who was focused on domestic policy, dealt with the world as the war in Vietnam escalated.

The next chapters are case studies of Brazil, India, Iran, Indonesia, and southern Africa, focusing on how the war effected America’s policies and relationships with them. The conclusion explores Richard Nixon and his role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

After eight years of Dwight Eisenhower and a foreign policy built on nuclear deterrence, the transition from the then oldest president to the youngest could not have been starker. Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen expressed optimism about the United States’ ability to promote democracy and development in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They argued that the U.S. had the resources and the power to implement plans that would give these former colonies the opportunity to flourish in a democratic, free market system.

Though this impulse to promote and spread democracy is part of America’s heritage, its need was amplified by the realities of the Cold War, in which competition with the Soviet Union for the world’s unaligned nations would determine the outcome of the struggle.

When he assumed the presidency in November 1963, Johnson was determined to show constancy to the American people and the international community. He retained Kennedy’s personnel and policies, but he was no acolyte of modernization and nation-building, and his instinctive reticence in foreign affairs was amplified with ongoing crises in Vietnam.

Lawrence uses a case-study approach through the five developing nations to convincingly show the transformation of American policy from promise to practicality. This is accomplished in such a concise and profound manner that each could stand alone as a brief book.

LBJ in Cam Ranh Bay, October 1966

In his conclusion, Lawrence makes the provocative argument that President Nixon should not be given credit for the innovative policies that ended the war in Vietnam, opened China, and thawed relations with the Soviet Union.

These policies, Lawrence argues, started under Johnson. In response to the turbulence of the Vietnam War, LBJ adopted a policy of cautious realpolitik to ensure stability and reliability.

But, as Lawrence so thoroughly demonstrates, Johnson was out of his element in foreign affairs, and his foreign policy was reactive. Nixon did benefit from Johnson’s policy turn, and articulated, planned, and implemented policies that had a coherent vision and measurable goals.

Lawrence laments that the U.S. did not cope constructively with the developing world in the 1960s to balance a national instinct to promote change with an understanding on the limits of its power. Though he does not explain how this could be achieved, Lawrence should not be criticized as that is a conundrum that perplexes American foreign policy to this day.

Daniel R. Hart

Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia by Arnold R. Isaacs

Because January 27, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, it is appropriate that an updated version of Arnold Isaacs’ groundbreaking 1983 book, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia: (McFarland, 446 pp. $49.95, paperback), has just been published in an updated edition.

This well-written and exhaustively researched book chronicles in great detail the last three years of the Vietnam War, particularly the political machinations leading to the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam. It was lived and written by Isaacs, an American journalist who was there almost the entire three years. The book, therefore, has the feel of being written by someone who experienced it, as opposed to someone who just merely read about it. There are lengthy chapters on the wars in Laos and Cambodia that provide comprehensive information on those events that few remember.

Isaacs severely criticizes a great number of the political decisions leading to the end of the war, calling them “callous, cynical and wrong,” but admits that by 1972 there were no good choices for the United States to make—only a choice of evils. He is particularly scornful of Graham Martin, the last U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. 

Martin, who didn’t speak Vietnamese or venture out of Saigon, was indecisive and unrealistic, and made decisions that may have cost lives. However, Isaacs, who covered the war for the Baltimore Sun, praises the final evacuation as well-executed despite the Ambassador’s delays and lack of preparation.

Isaacs notes that America’s allies, including the South Vietnamese, were cut out of the negotiations of the Paris Peace Accords. This is also what the United States later did to its Afghanistan allies and is one reason he decided to republish the book. 

The haunting echoes of end of the Vietnam War were heard and repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least, Isaacs writes, the evacuation in Vietnam was successful, compared to the evacuation of American personnel from Afghanistan.

The book’s title, Without Honor, may stick in the craw of those who served in the Vietnam War, their friends, families, and survivors, but Isaacs is referring here only to America’s promise to millions of Vietnamese who depended on U.S. protection against a ruthless and determined enemy.  Abandoning our Vietnam War effort was an act of betrayal for which the overwhelming majority of Americans who did not serve—including our leaders and their critics—share the responsibility.

Arnold Isaacs

Isaacs has little criticism of individual American troops, virtually all of whom did serve with honor. The American military did not lose the war. He writes about an encounter just before Saigon surrendered to the Communists in 1975 to illustrate that point.

U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who was serving on the American negoiating team as the war drew to an end, said to a North Vietnamese liaison officer, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” 

The Communist officer considered for a moment.  “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

Without Honor should be required reading for any American politician contemplating the issues of war, particularly American involvement in a war in Asia.

Isaacs’ website is

–Harvey Weiner

The Air War in Vietnam Michael E. Weaver

Many people have written about their combat flying experiences in the Vietnam War. Some have also have gone as far as evaluating the successes and failures of the overall activities of American air power in that war.

One of the most recent analysts is Michael E. Weaver, an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Airpower at the United States Air Force Command and Staff College. In his new book The Air War in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 612 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $22.49, Kindle), Weaver reaches conclusions similar to those of other historians, and solidly supports his arguments with new evidence from little-known archival sources—primarily documentation from the Air Force with support from Navy and Marine Corps records.

In my estimation, Weaver’s book is nothing less than the final word in regard to the application of air power in the Vietnam War.

In 411 pages of tightly-packed text (some 265,000 words) and 158 pages of notes (3,000 citations), Weaver dissects the efficacy of American airpower in the war by weaving history and theory to the application of that power. He concentrates on air superiority, national policy, air support, coercion, and interdiction. The depth of his research makes his arguments, old and new, irrefutable.

Weaver blames Vietnam War air campaign problems on poor strategic choices made by American presidents and their generals. As he puts it in his concluding chapter:

“American air power was about as successful as it could have been given the character of the war. The main deficiency was the absence of a single manager for air operations. Most aircrews discovered from the start that their training had not prepared them for combat [of the type demanded].

“The North Vietnamese considered the war their highest national priority. The Americans did not really want to fight the war in the first place. The nature of the United States’ purpose for involvement placed a cap on American commitment and endurance that was below that of their enemy. The most fundamental failure of the war was not the misuse of air power but the lack of a competent understanding of statecraft on the part of the American executive branch.”       

Weaver emphasizes that military and political actions should complement each other by having a common purpose, which was not a policy adopted by self-serving presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as well as Nixon’s National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Conversely, American generals too often unilaterally fought their own wars. For example, unrestrained bombing of an enemy’s homeland gains no meaningful outcome unless the destruction creates political repercussions favorable to the side doing the bombing.

In essence, Weaver says, the highest-level American decisionmakers relied on the myth of limited war that holds that a great power can easily defeat a small, backward country with a minimum of commitment, material, violence, and time.

My Vietnam War experience stretched from 1967-73, navigating 772 support sorties in C-130s during Tet ‘68 and 158 interdiction missions in AC-130s (including Lam Son 719), and undergoing two months-long assignments as a Special Operations adviser throughout the Easter Offensive and Operation Linebacker II in 1972.

On the flight line and in staff meetings I kept my eyes and ears open. Everything Weaver says about operations in which I participated parallels what I saw. That includes the repercussions of tactics based on erroneous planning. Additionally, I have read and reviewed more than 340 books about the war, many written by airmen; their opinions invariably coincide with Weaver’s. With that understanding in mind, I cede to his conclusions about operations less familiar to me.

America’s final major operation of the war—Linebacker II—perfectly exemplified the disassociation between high-level thinking and on-scene performance. On the first two nights of the bombing of North Vietnam, I saw how betrayed the B-52 crewmen felt after being ordered to perform questionable tactics dictated from SAC headquarters half a world away.

The B-52 flyers felt as dispossessed as American fighter pilots who, for years under similar misdirected guidance, had met the challenge of on-again, off-again missions as strategic bombers against North Vietnam. In both cases among the crews, dedication to duty too often became a fatal flaw.                       

The thirty photographs of airplanes and six maps in The Air War in Vietnam provide excellent memory jogs to those of us who were part of that aspect of the conflict more than a half century ago.

—Henry Zeybel

America and Vietnam, 1954-1963 by Michael M. Walker

America and Vietnam, 1954-1963: The Road to War (McFarland, 391 pp. $49.95, paper; $22.49, Kindle) is an exceptionally well-researched and written history. It is an outstanding single-volume look at the Vietnam War’s origins, examining how and why America’s fate became entwined with the internal struggle between Vietnamese factions.    

The goals of this book are to identify the origins of the war, the nature of the adversaries, their capabilities, and the evolving commitment of the United States. In other words, what happened that led to America’s direct and overwhelming involvement in a war the country chose to fight, not one we fought out of necessity.  

In answering that question, Michael Walker explains the very complicated power struggle following the end of the First Indochinese War in 1954 in the South, after which Ngo Dinh Diem created a functional state (the Republic of South Vietnam) in an otherwise dysfunctional mess.   

Walker, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, provides a complete picture of President Diem, who was a very complicated man, showing how he consolidated power. Walker claims that it was the one-sided and damaging treatment of Diem in the American press that contributed to the 1963 coup that resulted in his death.

Walker then explains how the North’s highly experienced and disciplined Worker’s Party quickly consolidated power after the French defeat in anticipation of future unification and the impact of the war in Laos on the conflict in Vietnam. The chaotic events of 1963–including a series a Buddhist-led protests against Diem, the U.S.-supported coup and Diem’s assasination, as well as Hanoi’s decision to exploit the post-coup instability in the South—changed the face of the war.    

To explain how a civil war between the northern and southern Vietnamese became a major part of American history Walker examines the decade immediately preceding the American war in Vietnam. He focuses on Resolution 15 issued by Hanoi in 1959, which formally began a second phase of the war, the first being the struggle for independence from the French.  

Walker addresses the creation of armies in both the North and South and provides insights into the professional and highly effective use of intelligence collection and signals intelligence by the North. Perhaps the most impressive success of the North was the placement of agents into the highest reaches of the South’s military and government.  One undercover agent who revealed his role after the war actually worked for American news correspondents and influenced their opinions about the war.  

This is an informative book that answers many questions about how the United States wound up fighting in Vietnam in a much-expanded conflict. It is well worth the time to read. 

–John Cirafici

Number One Realist by Nathaniel L. Moir

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” former Washington Post publisher Philip Graham famously said. This is particularly true about coverage of the American war in Vietnam, where the work of reporters David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Stanley Karnow, and others provided the first draft, and—when contemplating the early war years—the final draft of history.

The most prescient of the war’s reportorial voices, however, was a French professor of international relations at Howard University named Bernard Fall.   

Fall, the author of Hell in a Very Small Place and Street Without Joy, is the subject of Nathaniel L. Moir’s Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare (Oxford University Press, 376 pp. $49.95; $16.19, Kindle). Though the work is biographical in nature, Moir—a research associate in the Applied History Project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government—concentrates on Fall’s scholarship, particularly his understanding of revolutionary warfare.

The book is meticulously researched, making extensive use of Fall’s papers, and includes 100 pages of endnotes. It’s organized into eight chronological chapters, exclusive of the introduction and epilogue, and includes maps and photographs.

Bernard Fall was killed in Vietnam in February 1967 when he stepped on a landmine, his brief 40-year life having had an almost Forrest Gump quality to it. He was born in Vienna in 1926 to a traditional Jewish family which moved to France after Nazi Germany annexed Austria. After France fell to Germany in 1940, Fall’s father joined the French Resistance, only to be captured and killed by the Gestapo. His mother met a similar fate.

Bernard Fall, age 16, with the French Maquis Resistance

The precocious teenaged Fall, now orphaned, followed in his father’s footsteps, first fighting with the French resistance group, the Maquis, and later, with the Free French forces. After the war, Fall worked as an analyst for the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. He studied in Europe, received a Fulbright Scholarship, and earned his masters and PhD at Syracuse University where he became interested in Indochina.

Fall’s great scholarly achievement was his diagnostic analysis of Vietnamese revolutionary warfare, which he codified as “RW=G+P,” revolutionary warfare equals guerilla warfare plus political action.

Revolutionary warfare, that is, is a product of political, economic, militaristic, and social factors. It occurs when violence in the form of guerilla activity is used to further an ideology.

Fall’s understanding was more than intellectual. When he first came to Vietnam in 1953 during the French Indochina War, he recognized the Viet Minh’s guerilla tactics as the same as those used by the Maquis fighting the Nazis. Fall’s great lament was that the United States did not learn the lessons from the French experience in Vietnam, and that the U.S. betrayed its ideals in pursuit of an unattainable military victory.

Moir’s writing is accessible, although too often redundant and reliant on long quotes from other scholars. Moir chooses to closely examine the impact of Fall’s work in periodicals, all but neglecting his more prominent books. Plus, the last chapter, which covers 1961-67, seems rushed and omits Fall’s reaction to the Buddhist crisis and the coup d’etat that overthrew South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Fall in Vietnam, 1966

I wish that Moir had spent more time examining Bernard Fall’s contradictory character. An ardent Zionist during World War II, Fall later renounced his Jewish identity. Committed to Civil Rights and a professor at Howard, a historically black university, Fall was nonetheless — because they shared a common view on the Vietnam War— an ally of the anti-Semitic and segregationist Sen. J. William Fulbright. The self-proclaimed “number one realist” on the Vietnam War, Fall, as Moir ably demonstrates, was actually a humanist, even a moralist, when it came to warfare.

These criticisms do not diminish the masterful job Moir has done in producing an invaluable and long-overdue work on the life and work of Bernard Fall. Fall’s books remain on many a syllabi, and Moir has done a great service in helping us understand the man behind those works.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Price of Loyalty by Andrew Johns

John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1933-41, famously described his office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” To the engaging, optimistic, and dedicated Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, a beguiling and tragic figure of the Cold War, being Lyndon Johnson’s vice president from 1965-69 proved to be worth even less than that.

For if that warm bucket is worthless, at least it does not cost anything. For Humphrey, being Johnson’s vice president cost him just about everything.

That is the argument set forth by the historian Andrew Johns in The Price of Loyalty: Humbert Humphrey’s Vietnam Conflict (Rowman and Littlefield, 186 pp., $48, hardcover; $45.50, Kindle). Johns, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, is one of the leading practitioners of the study of American Cold War foreign policy and the author or editor of six books, including Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War. The Price of Loyalty is a meticulously researched, concise book.

In February 1965, just one month into the Johnson-Humphrey administration, Vice President Humphrey wrote LBJ a memorandum that set out his thoughts on why the new government should extricate itself from the burgeoning conflict in Vietnam. Though the topic was foreign policy, the memorandum was rooted in domestic politics, as Humphrey argued that 1965—following the ticket’s landslide triumph at the polls the previous November—would be the year in which there would be minimal political risk in withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam. 

Though the memo would prove to be sagacious and prescient, there were two big problems: Humphrey had been told not to write such policy memoranda and the policy Humphrey espoused was in conflict with Johnson and his chief advisers. After he read the memo Johnson exiled Humphrey from all the big debates on the Vietnam War. Considerably chastened, and in an effort to gain favor with the President, Humphrey became one of the leading spokesmen for LBJ’s Vietnam War policies.

Johns sketches Humphrey’s metamorphosis from “apostate to apostle” on the Vietnam War, from a skeptic in 1964, that is, to a hawk in 1966. This transformation is the central thesis of the book, as Johns attempts to understand why Humphrey, after having his advice rejected and suffering personal humiliation at the hands of Johnson, would attach himself so closely to the President and his war policies. Johns contends that Humphrey ignored his own principles out of a combination of political expediency, ambition, and allegiance.

When Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968, Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic Party frontrunner for the nomination, but during the campaign he struggled to convey a coherent political strategy on Vietnam. Johnson was of no help to his beleaguered Vice President, believing Richard Nixon would be a better successor.

Johns describes Johnson’s behavior toward Humphrey as part of the “Johnson treatment,” LBJ’s proclivity to humiliate his subordinates. But Johnson did not treat his inherited staff that way, underscoring that the “treatment” may have had more to do with Humphrey’s willingness to take the abuse.

Johns also posits that it is a “great irony” that Humphrey struggled so mightily with the war, when two other liberal anticommunist Democrats, Kennedy and Johnson, escalated the war and sent in the first U.S. combat troops. Earlier in the book, Johns astutely notes that these two impulses, liberalism and anticommunism, created a disconnect when the they conflicted. It was not ironic, but endemic.

President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey in 1968

In his conclusion, Johns, in an effort to provide a foil to Humphrey, makes a case for Pete McCloskey, a liberal Republican first elected to Congress in 1967, being an exemplar of placing principle over politics. But that is an iffy comparison. Though an admirable politician, McCloskey never wavered about his position on the war after being elected as an antiwar candidate. McCloskey was also one of 435 Representatives, so–unlike Humphrey–he had little risk of overexpressing his views and no practical responsibility in shaping foreign policy.

Johns’ work is an overdue, a significant addition to the historiography of the Vietnam War, and one that elucidates a relevant lesson for contemporary politics on the struggle over virtue and loyalty. Only someone as skilled as Andrew Johns could have written such an accessible and compelling book in such a succinct manner.

“Dump the Hump?” Perhaps, but first read the book.

–Daniel R. Hart

Wesley Fishel and Vietnam by Joseph Morgan

“The world is our campus,” proclaimed John Hannah, the president of Michigan State University from 1941-69. During that time, Hannah transformed a sleepy, agricultural college into a world-class research university. The charismatic Hannah also was at the forefront of an important mid-20th century trend in American higher education: fusing academic research with public affairs through organized research units. A young Far East scholar, Wesley Fishel, was one of his stars.

A significant part of Joseph Morgan’s biography, Wesley Fishel and Vietnam: A Great and Tragic American Experiment (Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 252 pp., $100, hardcover; $45, Kindle), is an examination of America’s descent into the war in Vietnam. The book is well researched and accessible. An assistant professor of history at Iona College, Morgan’s previous book, The Vietnam Lobby: The American Friends of Vietnam, 1955-1975, examined that advocacy group—of which Fishel was an integral member—set up just after the end of the French Indochina War to help the newly formed government of South Vietnam become free and democratic.

If there was a casting call for the role of an academic who would play a prominent role in that endeavor as a close adviser to South Vietnam’s first president Ngo Dinh Diem, it likely would not have been Wesley Fishel. After graduating from Northwestern, the Cleveland native served as a Japanese-speaking Army intelligence officer during World War II. Following the war, Fishel earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, studying under the famed Hans Morgenthau. A chance 1950 meeting with Diem changed Fishel’s life.

While ostensibly an unlikely pairing, the two shared much in common—each lost a brother to war; were diminutive in size but large in brainpower; believed in using intellectual ideas to transform society; and were virulently anti-communist. In 1954 Fishel decided he would not merely be a pundit on foreign affairs, but would shape them. The next year, the U.S. government awarded MSU a $2-million contract to advise the nascent South Vietnamese government. Morgan posits that Fishel’s relationship with Diem was the deciding factor in Michigan State winning the contract.

Fishel relished his access to power and his role as a maker of public policy, to the extent that some were put off by his egotism. His closeness to Diem led to charges that the relationship clouded his judgment. Fishel also proved to be a poor administrator, leading to conflicts in the MSU advisory group, as well as with the U.S. government agencies. But Diem’s obstinacy worked in Fishel’s favor, as he remained one of the few Americans with whom the autocratic head of state would confide.

Despite their relationship, most of Fishel’s advice to Diem was ignored, and, as Diem concentrated power, he became even less willing to listen. When Fishel’s colleagues published a series of articles in 1961 denouncing Diem’s rule, the MSU contract was terminated. A disillusioned Fishel broke with Diem in 1962, and the next year was working with the State Department on possible Diem replacements.

Fishel and family in Saigon, 1956

After Diem was assassinated in 1963, Fishel continued to vigorously defend American intervention in Vietnam, becoming a lightning rod for protestors. In the late 1960s, Fishel went to Southern Illinois University to help create the Center for Vietnamese Studies, a project that ultimately failed for several reasons, one of which was that the controversial Fishel headed it. He died suddenly in 1977.

Morgan astutely observes that Wesley Fishel’s career mirrored America’s war in Vietnam: Both were filled at first with hopeful optimism, only to be waylaid by frustration and ultimately disaster.

Morgan’s assessment of Fishel in his conclusion—that he was largely inconsequential in forming policy, contributed little to scholarship, and abetted Diem in creating a dictatorship—is both harsh and not borne out by his own impressive research.

Nonetheless, this book is a thoughtful reflection on the role the U.S. academy played in the Cold War and of one’s man role at the outset of what would become a “tragic American experiment.”

–Daniel R. Hart

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici

Humane by Samuel Moyn

“War is hell,” Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman famously said. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” But in the twenty-first century, technology has enabled some aspects of war to be far less infernal.

In Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp. $30, hardcover; $20, paper; $14.99, Kindle) Samuel Moyn argues that today’s forms of warfare, which do not involve indiscriminate killing of civilians and noncombatants, is paradoxically not a sign of human progress, but a guise for the continuation of endless war.

Because war is waged under the auspices of legalese and casualties are limited—in Sherman’s words, less cruel—there is no resultant significant public response to America’s actions, and therefore no incentive for policymakers to stop waging war.

Moyn, a Yale Law School and history professor, has written extensively on human rights, most recently in Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (2018). His new, accessible tome of scholarly merit is divided into eight sequential chapters. Though the book curiously lacks a bibliography, Moyn’s work is supported by 47 pages of notes and a useful timeline.

Moyn starts and ends his book by looking at Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist (War and Peace, et al.) who disdained armed conflict and believed that efforts such as the Red Cross trying to make war more humane would only make war more likely. Tolstoy is an unlikely bedfellow to a diverse group of military leaders,including the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Gen. Sherman, and U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who believed in total war and the complete destruction of the enemy.

Tolstoy yearned for peace, while Clausewitz and his ilk aimed for victory. But all believed that war should be brutal enough to prevent its reoccurrence. Moyn does not advocate brutality as Tolstoy did, but deems Tolstoy’s stance as prescient: American war has reached a level of efficiency, and even safety, that may be waged at virtually any time and in any place.

Moyn does not place the origins of easy on the World War II atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski nor on the September 11 attacks, but rather on the Vietnam War. He argues that the daily, televised violence; the use of chemical defoliants; and, in particular, the horror of the My Lai massacre forced American military policymakers to rethink their strategy of unrestrained warfare.

But it is difficult to prove this causation. Far from being unrestrained, American troops in Vietnam often were confused by contradictory rules of engagement. What’s more, My Lai sharply divided the American public, and Moyn discounts the importance of the draft in the mobilization of opposition to the war.

Moyn is correct that war has changed. Military engagements have been legalized to the extent that American leaders must consider humanitarian and international law before acting. Moyn decries this because he believes it has desensitized the American public.
The main problem, then, becomes government lawyers who have enabled the proliferation of war. This focus on legalism, however, overestimates its importance.

Professor Moyn

What’s more, Moyn neglects other factors that are more significant in the evolving norms of military restraint: the use of technology and specialized military units and the very nature of war involving non-state actors rather than nation-states.

Moyn’s conclusion is vexing. He says that the worst thing about war is not physical violence, but the assertion of American hegemony, claiming that “humane war is another version of the slavery of our times.” Since war cannot be abolished, Moyn takes the Tolstoian view that any effort to make it more humane is meaningless, and only becomes an inducement for further American domination.

Though Moyn chides President Obama for expanding America’s drone wars, he also calls him “brilliant, eloquent, and extraordinary,” an apt description of Moyn’s book. But as Obama’s eloquence could not mask his contradictory actions, all of Moyn’s erudition provides a provocative, yet flawed, thesis.

–Daniel R. Hart

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