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

The Year of the Hawk by James A. Warren

“We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home,” Lyndon Johnson said during the 1964 Presidential campaign, “to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” In his accessible The Year of the Hawk: America’s Descent into Vietnam, 1965 (Scribner, 320 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) James A. Warren focuses on the American plunge into the Vietnam War from the fall of 1964 through the summer of 1965.

Warren is a military historian, foreign policy analyst, and author, most recently of God, War, and Providence, as well as several books on the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. A former acquisitions editor at Columbia University Press, he recently was a visiting scholar in American Studies at Brown University.

Warren divides his book into three sections. The first looks at the crucial military and political decisions made by the Johnson Administration from November 1963, when he assumed the presidency, to the big build-up of American ground forces in July 1965. The second examines the ramifications of those decisions, and the third contains Warren’s assessment of, and reflection on, those events. Warren relies heavily on secondary sources and published memoirs to support his analysis.

As way of background, Warren provides an overview of Vietnamese resistance to French colonial rule in the aftermath of World War II, the American support of France during the First Indochina War (1945-54), and the deepening commitment to a noncommunist government in South Vietnam under the Kennedy Administration from 1961-63.

When Johnson became president, he felt it necessary to continue Kennedy Administration’s commitment to a non-communist South Vietnam out of fear of damage to his credibility and to American international prestige. Warren rightfully opines that the American commitment and strategy in the Vietnam War was largely shaped by domestic politics. He comprehensively details the nascent antiwar movement, while pointing out that in 1964-65 there was broad support for the war and President Johnson’s handling of it.

Warren explains the internecine struggle between the Marine Corps strategy of counterinsurgency and pacification, the so-called “other war,” and the Army’s preference for big-unit engagements and search-and-destroy operations. Gen. William Westmoreland’s insistence on the strategy of attrition prevailed, and—coupled with a flawed and ineffective air campaign—created a doomed American policy.

Westmoreland thought his strategy was justified following the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang— made famous by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joe Galloway’s book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young—in which the Moore’s 1st Cavalry Division troops inflicted significant battlefield casualties on the North Vietnamese. After that bloody engagement the communists adjusted their tactics and largely avoided large-unit confrontations. Warren argues that Westmoreland’s approach was deeply flawed, but believes his treatment by historians has been unfair, saying that any American general with any strategy would have been ineffective in Vietnam.

LBJ, Cam Ranh Bay, 1967

Warren’s analysis follows the accepted historical orthodoxy: Ho Chi Minh was a courageous leader uniting his people; South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his predecessors were corrupt despots; and the U.S. did not understand the revolutionary spirit that was sweeping the countryside.

On the other hand, the North attempted to provoke three general uprisings that would have toppled the unpopular South Vietnamese regime—in 1964, 1968, and 197—and failed each time.

Warren contends that the 1968 Tet Offensive’s crucial objective was to inflict a psychological blow on the American public and government. But that was Tet’s crucial outcome, not its intent. Tet was designed to incite a revolution in South Vietnam and win the war. Only when the North invaded in 1975 with the conventional forces of the North Vietnamese Army did the communists prevail.

Though Warren’s use of headings within each chapter allows the narrative to move quickly, his overuse of long quotations and colloquialisms slows things down. That said, this book is a solid and readable introduction to a conflict that continues to resonate in American politics and culture.

–Daniel R. Hart

Drawn Swords in a Distant Land by George Veith

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.

LBJ and Nguyen Van Thieu

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

Dien Bien Phu 1954 by Martin Windrow

Martin Windrow’s Dien Bien Phu, 1954: The French Defeat that Lured America into Vietnam (Osprey, 96 pp., $24, paper) is an easy-to-follow account of the pivotal May 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended the Vietnamese war against France and determined the future of Vietnam. Rich in photographs, illustrations, and maps, and supported with a detailed chronology and order of battle tables, this concise history takes the reader right into the battle.

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was a consequence of monumental errors in French operational planning, including misunderstanding the enemy’s intentions and capabilities. The French also overestimated their own capability to maintain and defend the remote base with artillery and air support. and forces available—and underestimated the Viet Minh’s ability to commit substantial forces to the battle supplemented with artillery and antiaircraft weaponry.

The purpose of the base was to draw Viet Minh forces away from the strategically important Red River Delta, which included Hanoi and Haiphong. Ironically, the misguided plan instead isolated significant numbers of French forces, moving them away from areas where they were essential. Despite heavy losses by the Viet Minh. the French were ultimately crushed.

Although Windrow—a military historian who has written widely about the 20th century wars in Vietnam—does not compare Dien Bien Phu with the siege of the remote Khe Sanh combat base fourteen years later during America’s Vietnam War, one cannot help but look for parallels and differences. Some similarities and some important differences come to mind.

The Viet Minh, for example, zeroed their artillery in on Dien Bien Phu’s two airfields, essentially shutting them down and the North Vietnamese Army essentially did the same thing at Khe Sanh. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the overall commander of attacking forces in both battles, applied the lessons of the first to the second. French tactical airpower at DBP was sorely inadequate and encouraged Giap’s tactical boldness. In contrast, U.S. airpower inflicted heavy losses on NVA at Khe Sanh in 1968. 

Vietnamese artillery, well concealed and protected, was a key component of the siege strategy at both DBP and Khe Sanh. At DBP it was used to support assaulting troops, wipe out outposts, deny the use of the airfields, and target command and control bunkers. Fuel storage and ammunition dumps also were destroyed at Khe Sanh. The ammunition dump also was destroyed, many aircraft on the ground were hit, and movement within the camp greatly restricted. Yet Khe Sanh, supplied by airdrops, never fell to the NVA.

French troops besieged at Dien Bien Phu

Finally, an important difference: For the North Vietnamese the Siege of Khe Sanh was not the focus of the ensuing 1968 Tet Offensive. The base did not have to be actually taken. The NVA instead succeeded in its goal of drawing key U.S. combat forces (the 1st Cavalry Division) away from population centers on the eve of the South Vietnam-wide Tet Offensive.

As a veteran of the siege of Khe Sanh I wanted to learn as much as possible about Dien Bien Phu from this book. And I was pleased to see that Windrow’s narrative, maps, order of battle listings, and timelines allowed me an to “see” the battle of DBP as it unfolded.       

This book accomplishes quite a bit. It is well worth reading.          

–John Cirafici