In Rick DeStefanis’ novel, The Birdhouse Man: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Story (360 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), an older veteran tell his Vietnam War story to a student working on a college project. DeStefanis served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72. The book is the latest novel in his Vietnam War Series.
In it, widower Sam Walker is selling his handmade birdhouses at a campus arts and crafts festival when he meets a student, Claire Cunningham, who tells him the military insignia on his cap is the same one her grandfather had worn. Her grandfather had recently died before he could help her with her senior thesis, which was going to be based mainly on his Vietnam War experiences. Sam seldom talked about the war, except when he had taught it at the college, and he never told anyone about his personal experiences. Still, he decides to help Clair finish the thesis, even though she wants the unfiltered truth of what he did, saw, and thought.
Sam tells her he had enlisted ahead of the draft, volunteered for OCS, then went to Airborne and Ranger School. He landed in Vietnam in late 1967 and noted that everything “outside the barbed wire appeared to be a land of poverty and filth.” He goes on to say that the Vietnamese countryside was “litter, naked children, rivers, and palm trees—sort of like paradise gone to hell.” He was amazed to see a “house made of beer cans.”
Sam eventually tells the young woman of combat so intense and close-up that his rifle was once pressed against the chest of an enemy soldier when he fired it. After a few sessions with her, his nightmares return. We then learn that Claire is trying to connect with her father who served in the Army in Iraq and is on the streets somewhere suffering from PTSD. As Sam continues his story and answers her questions, he decides to help Claire find her father.
In a way the main plot is a fantasy in which a grumpy old veteran finally decides to talk about the war, but only to a young female college student who is very attractive and, as Sam says, my “kind of woman.” While on the road searching for her father the two frequently share a hotel room. One morning they eat breakfast in the room with her wrapped only in a blanket. And, to round out the fantasy, Claire hangs on every word of Sam’s story.
On the other hand, everything turns out to be on the up and up, which seems plausible. Claire loved her grandfather and sees much of him in Sam.
I was impressed with how Rick DeStefanis spun out the various threads of this story in such a way that I never once thought things might come unraveled. He has created a great story of war and the human relationships that come together because of it.
Disappointingly, R. Dean Jerde appears or is quoted only sparingly in his own book, Flashbacks: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story 50 Years Later (Luminaire Press, 260 pp. $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). His war story—as a member of a searchlight battalion during his December ’67-to-January ‘69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—could have been a much more interesting one if he had put more of himself into his own book. Jerde and his co-author Tom Pisapia, instead, have providing a lot of well-known information about Agent Orange, PTSD, the VA’s mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans, and the negative reception we received upon returning to the U.S. from the war.
As indicated by the book’s title, Pisapia put Flashbacks together after a series of conversations, meetings, and interviews he had with his old friend Jerde and his brother over the span of about a year. During those sessions Jerde’s recollections, by his own admission, amounted to a series of mostly unrelated flashbacks to his time in Vietnam.
Upon returning to the states after his tour of duty, Dean Jerde married, began a family, and immersed himself deeply into his chosen occupation as a carpenter. He buried his wartime experiences, not speaking about them, even to his wife, for fifty years. Not until his retirement with time on his hands and the advent of the conversations and meetings with his brother and with Tom Pisapi, did some of the stories and experiences come out, along with symptoms of his long-carried PTSD.
As can be the case with self-published books, Flashbacks could have used a fact checker and more editing as it contains more than a few spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.
Flashbacks, in short, is a book that needs more story and a bit of polish.
War Paint (LuLu Publishing, 288 pp. $31.52, hardcover; $18.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Lehman is the rare book that lives up to the hype on its back cover. Yes, this book really is “a quirky thriller and a naval warfare story like no other from the Vietnam War.”
Lehman served aboard a destroyer during the Vietnam War. His quirky story takes place during the waning days of American combat in the war, in early 1972, when a U.S. destroyer is used as bait by an unhinged fleet commander while a secret group of North Vietnamese commandos are making plans to board and take control of the ship.
The story begins in the present day when Jeffs Ryder gets asked that dreaded question by his grandson: “Grandpa, you ever kill anyone in the war?” This causes Ryder to begin to recall the most dangerous period in his military experience.
In the first months of 1972 the war is winding down—at least from the American perspective although thousands of NVA troops were crossing the DMZ into South Vietnam. Having been given the choice by a judge of going to jail or joining the military, Ryder enlists in the Navy and soon finds himself aboard the Navy destroyer Rattano sailing to Vietnam.
The fictional Rattano is affectionately known by crewmembers as “The Rat.” The ship moves with “the swagger of an aging but still dangerous gunslinger and, like that aging gunslinger, they wore their guns out where everyone could see them,” as Lehman puts it. The Rat’s captain thought he already had made his final deployment, and welcomes his return to action as a “bonus.” He thinks of the assignment as taking an obsolete destroyer into an obsolete war.
The North Vietnamese are aware of the Rat and, in fact, it may be one of the American ships that they’ve placed a bounty on. But most of the NVA troops are hungry, existing on meager rations, and are using military equipment that in some cases once belonged to the French. Many of the young Vietnamese, like many men on the Rat, do not understand the politics of the war and just want the fighting to end so they can go home.
The chapters begin with entries that could be drawn from a chronology of the war or from letters back and forth between men serving and women waiting back home.
I greatly enjoyed this glimpse into one aspect of Navy life as the war was winding down, especially because my two younger brothers were sailors at the time. I like reading about destroyers and the different jobs men held while on-board. And I liked comparing Lehman’s enlisted men’s official conversations with what they said when no officers were around.
Brian Lehman has produced a fine novel with memorable characters and realistic dialogue. It will remain in my memory, especially sentences like this one: “As he drifted off to sleep he could hear the aft guns come to life, sounding very distant as they began to hurl round after round across the peaceful sea into the southern outskirts of what was left of the city.”
A glance at the cover of Raymond S. Greenberg’s Medal Winners: How the Vietnam War Launched Nobel Careers (University of Texas Press, 440 pp., $29.95) might suggest that winners of the Nobel Prize in any one of six fields, including literature and peace, began their careers fighting in the Vietnam War. Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts come to mind.
But the medal in question is a Nobel Prize itself—in this case, in the field of medicine. The Vietnam War and the draft are only the foundation in Part One of three parts in the book, which takes a much broader account of the careers of four research scientists who long before winning the prize worked as Clinical Training Associates at the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War.
Nobel laureates Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown (in photo, above) and Robert Leftkowitz and Harold Varmus are the subjects of Goldberg’s book. Today, for most Americans, their names are not be as familiar as another alumnus of the program from that era: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergies & Infectious Diseases and a leading member for the presidential task force battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only two chapters out of five in Part One are particularly relevant to the war. They are important ones, however, because they provide a unique measurement of the war’s impact on American society.
One chapter, “The Yellow Berets,” explains the origin and structure of the “Doctor Draft,” which began with the Selective Service Act of 1948 at the beginning of the Cold War. In 1960 it was expanded to include “male physicians, dentists, veterinarians, pharmacists, and optometrists under the age of fifty-one.”
In the 1960s to avoid the possibility of the draft interrupting their early careers years, medical doctors could apply to become officers in one of seven the Uniformed Services, which included the Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The PHS were had several branches, including the Communicable Disease Center and NIH. “Only a small percentage” of those who applied to Public Health Services programs, Greenberg writes, were accepted.
The “Ballad of the Green Berets” was the number-one song of the year of 1966. A parody of the song, from which the title of the chapter is derived, proclaimed: “Fearless cowards of the USA/ Bravely here at home they stay/ They watched their friends get shipped away/ The draft dodgers of the Yellow Berets.”
NIH associates did not see the song as applying to them. It was partly a joke, but Dr. Fauci recalls it was still “very much derogatory.”
Dr. Greenberg—a renowned cancer researcher—claims that “as emotions faded and many former Associates went on to distinguished careers, the term became a badge of honor.” One can’t help but suspect that that statement is contrived to help give the book an attention-getting chapter title.
There is a breeziness throughout the narrative that almost is offensive in which Greenberg largely gushes uncritically about the four Nobel laureates. The acclaim is deserved, but at times Greenberg seems to want to elevate them to sainthood.
Some young men who came of age during the war had choices. Although Goldstein, Brown, Leftkowitz and Varmus were among an elite group of men who avoided military service, they still served their country.
When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of NIH’s initial buildings in 1940 he noted that the institute’s mission would be to “save life and not destroy it. We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation. We must recruit not only men and materials, but also knowledge and science.”
Doctors in military service sometimes resented those who had “cushy” NIH jobs, but there were ways to gain respect. Across the street from NIH was the National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center). Some NIH research physicians, including Fauci, volunteered to treat troops there—men who were “flown in with serious complications of wounds” because the military hospital didn’t have an infectious disease department.”
The second notable chapter on the Vietnam War deals with NIH’s “Campus Life.” As in much of America at the time, there were currents of protest and paranoia at NIH. In 1969, a group of activists organized a Vietnam Moratorium Committee and invited the pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, a fierce opponent of the war, to speak on October 15 in conjunction with the National Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. The NIH director, accountable to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, denied a request to hold the event on campus, but was thwarted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit. Spock told a crowd of several thousand that the U.S. was the aggressor in the war, rather than “the good guys,” and the war was illegal and immoral.
Most employees at the prestigious NIH were not politically active. Many believed that speaking out against the war would put their careers at risk. NIH security officers sometimes would take pictures of people who attended antiwar meetings and ask for lists of members.
In his epilogue, Greenberg describes many factors, beginning in the 1990s, that have contributed to a decline in physicians choosing to become research scientists and subsequently winning Noble Prizes. His overarching thesis, however, is that the Vietnam War and the influence of the draft were the forge in which a unique alchemy produced a Golden Era out of “Yellow Berets.”
Historians should not overlook that structural force in assessing the war’s legacy.
During his 28-year Air Force career Steve Ladd spent 25 years in flying squadrons and fighter wings. He held command positions, but did not allow those duties to keep him on the ground. Even in his final job as Commander of the 549th Joint Training Division (Air Warrior) at Nellis AFB Ladd “managed to saddle up and fly [A-10 Warthog] missions three or four times a week,” to teach close air support tactics, he writes in From F-4 Phantom to A-10 Warthog: Memoirs of a Cold War Fighter Pilot (Air World/Casemate, 220 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle).
Commissioned through ROTC at the University of South Carolina, Ladd earned his wings in 1968. Shortly thereafter, he landed at Ubon RTAFB in Thailand and piloted 204 Vietnam War missions in the F-4D Phantom. He volunteered for a second tour, but the Cold War trumped the Vietnam War and the Air Force sent Ladd to Spain for F-4E Victor Alert nuclear weapon delivery duties.
That brief background marks the beginning of Ladd’s memoir, the engaging story of his 4,400 flying hours equally split between the title’s two aircraft.
Ladd describes almost no air war action in this memoir. Instead, he briefly tells a couple of combat stories, then explains: “I’m much more interested in providing an insight into behaviors and experiences which make this noble profession unique, rather than providing an autobiographical portrayal of my own year in the combat zone.”
Nevertheless, Ladd’s ego is evident throughout the book. Suffice it to cite that he believes that if “you never met a fighter pilot, you missed one of life’s great experiences.”
The book contains a wealth of anecdotes about the peacetime adventures of fighter pilots. Ladd primarily speaks from the heart, which makes recollections significant. He praises his fellow pilots, but also finds fault with them, particularly their flying ability. And he calls out questionable behavior related to maneuvering for leadership positions and competing for promotions. He also accepts a role as the butt of a joke. Above all, Steve Ladd’s devotion to the U.S. Air Force is flawless.
The best among the book’s many eye-opening reminiscences is Ladd’s account of transitioning from flying the F-4 to the A-10. In that regard, he says, “Dogfighting makes movies. Close air support wins wars.” His descriptions of flying the A-10 and firing its huge gun made me feel as if I were in the cockpit.
He also provides an excellent account of a trip he and his wife took to Berlin before the Wall came down. And his account of heading an accident investigation is a lesson in complete thoroughness.
Ladd’s military career had great depth. Beyond Thailand, his overseas assignments included sojourns in Spain, Iran, England, and Germany. Stateside, he flew from Moody, MacDill, Homestead, Nellis, and Davis-Monthan AFBs in eight different jobs. Ladd was relegated to sitting behind what he calls a “Big Gray Desk” for a few years in the late 1980s, performing what he calls “shoe clerk duties.”
Sixteen pages of mostly crispy color photographs of Ladd, his wife, airplanes, and patches highly personalize this memoir.
When I first picked up John P. Maloney’s Little by Slowly: From Trauma to Recovery (Lotus Design, 222 pp. $21.95, paper), I did not know what to expect. As a former educator, I have always been interested in the human condition. Why do some people adapt, adjust, and overcome when faced with adversity? Why do others succumb to their plight and seek to escape their pain through alcohol and drugs?
In this book Vietnam War veteran Jack Maloney takes us on his own personal Magical Mystery Tour in the form of a vivid first-hand account of alcoholism and its exacerbating effects on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Actually, the book is more like a detour from reality that many of us have experienced following shock and trauma.
Maloney has a compelling story. As you read, you get a sense of the suffering and pain he continues to deal with. He presents a clear picture of the alcoholic father who abused him verbally and physically. He give us a vivid look at the psychological demons that alcoholics possess, including their pompous superiority and pretentiousness to the point of being so self-absorbed and wrapped up in their own arrogance that they cannot empathize with others who are suffering—unless they do so superficially because there is something in it for them.
Being raised in an alcoholic environment, brought periodic explosions of anger and rage from Maloney’s father, followed by remorse. I would guess that Maloney had reached a fork in the road at the ripe old age of sixteen: become an alcoholic like his father or pursue a more-sober path. Like most people suffering from the disease, he really didn’t have a choice. If you do not deal with the disease, it will deal with you.
Maloney faced several traumatic events as a Marine in the Vietnam War, and portrays himself in the book as being overly sensitive. This was a conundrum for me. After growing up in a household with an abusive alcoholic father, I expected he would be well and truly desensitized to any emotions, especially empathy.
In one passage Maloney recounts how he felt after seeing a young Vietnamese boy crushed beneath the deuce and half truck he rode escort on: “Even though I did not actively knock the kids off the trucks, one of them fell under the truck tires and was killed instantly,” he writes. “The sight and sounds remain, at times, as an indelible memory that I will always carry in my heart and cause nightmares to this day.”
Jack Maloney endured through one traumatic event after another and kept climbing back up. His story is truly remarkable, and one I would recommend to anyone dealing from PTSD who chooses alcohol or drugs to self medicate.
Little by Slowly shows that there is another way. Another choice. I would also recommend this memoir to all of Jack Maloney’s family and friends, especially his grandchildren.
The Girl To His Left (Bermondsey Books, 318 pp. $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is an entertaining novel about the military and the antiwar movement in the Sixties written by Stephen P. Learned, who says he didn’t serve in the military or take part in the protests against the Vietnam War. Learned is a retired U.S. Justice Department trial attorney who has been a long-time volunteer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
We meet the title character, Shawn, on the first page as she takes a seat next to Paul Bondra at a pizza place. It’s the spring of 1966 in Pittsburgh and the two strike up a conversation. Paul is about to join the Marines and they bond over the next month, deciding to write each other while he’s gone in hopes they can maintain their relationship. They promise to be faithful to each other. “As long as you’re alive,” Shawn tells Paul, “I’m yours. But don’t come back a different person.”
After his first military haircut Paul says he looks “like one of those Mormon guys who knock on your door.” With Paul on active duty, Shawn transfers to the University of Wisconsin and becomes involved in the antiwar movement. She keeps it a secret from most people that she has a boyfriend in the Marine Corps.
In February of 1967 Paul’s plane lands at DaNang and he is quickly bused to Hill 327. While he is setting up security and night ambushes, Shawn is engaged in antiwar activities, including attending draft card burnings.
Soon Paul finds himself in the thick of things. He “felt the change in pressure caused by bullets snapping overhead,” Learned writes, coming from the “nasty clap of a Russian SKS semi-automatic carbine.” Paul notes that an after-action search of a hamlet bombed by Americans uncovered dead bodies. “Bad guys, good guys, who knew?”
As a platoon leader, Paul decides he “wasn’t going to kill anyone until his men killed first. Sure, he was a killer. But his job was to lead killers, not be one.”
Paul learns that he can get an early out if he extends his tour in Vietnam for six months. He considers it, but remembers that Shawn made him promise he would return as soon as he could.
He writes to her, spelling out his reasons for extending. She writes back saying she’s completely opposed to the idea. What’s more, she suggests that if he does extend his tour it would be a selfish act and she would end their relationship.
As you would expect of a good novel—and this is a very good one—bigger-picture historical moments are personalized through the eyes of the characters. This gives the reader a better understanding of exactly what those events meant to those who lived through them.
Elsewhere Than Vietnam: A Story of the Sixties (261 pp. Sticky Earth, $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a quite enjoyable novel. The author, David Schwartz, served as a U.S. Army Czech language intelligence interrogator in Germany from 1969-72. The title comes from a 1971 Armed Forces Journal article by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in which he wrote that the morale of U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower “than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” The colonel then added: “Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”
It’s the “elsewhere” that this story is concerned with, mainly antiwar protests on college campuses and underground resistance in the active-duty military, both in the U.S. and on bases abroad.
Schwartz’s main character Steven Miller is a student at Yale University in 1968 and, along with all the other young men on campus and around the nation, he finds that he is constantly thinking about the military draft.
“We knew the war was wrong,” we learn from Miller, “and we didn’t want to be involved in it.” Before long, though, he loses his student deferment and receives a draft classification of I-A, fit for service. “Fit to shoot people,” Miller thinks, “and fit to be shot at in return, simply because their ideas were not our ideas.” He begins attending meetings on resisting the draft. And then he gets a letter to report for induction.
Miller realizes he’s not brave enough to flee to Canada and wonders if his new girlfriend will wait for him for a couple of years. At Fort Dix he passes the stockade and hears another GI say, “The Army had to invent something worse than Vietnam to get people to go there.”
He begins “learning how to soldier. The soldier was the opposite of the student. The student should engage in critical thinking; the soldier should not question what he is told.” Miller’s goal is to avoid being sent to Vietnam. So he agrees to extend his service time a year in exchange for being sent to the Army’s Czech language school. Whenever possible, he goes off base to a local coffeehouse, the headquarters of a local radical newspaper and the scene of frequent antiwar discussions.
Miller graduates from language school and is sent to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for interrogation training. Here he learns that “it is a misconception that you need a cruel streak to excel as an interrogator. You just need to be a good actor.” Nothing is said about physical torture.
Miller’s then shipped to Germany where he works on developing intelligence reports. A German girl tells him that Americans are always immediately recognizable because they “all walk around loose and relaxed, like cowboys.” He continues to lead a double life: being a good soldier on-base while getting involved in resistance activities outside the gates.
The subtitle, A Story of the Sixties, is certainly accurate and everything in this novel rings true. This is a book about an honorable, conflicted man who gives his body and mind to the military, but not his heart and soul. It is a good story about a good man.
Lake George in the eighteenth century. The Western Front in Europe in 1917. Guadalcanal in the Pacific and Stalingrad in Russia during World War II. Khe Sanh in the Vietnam War.
With case studies of these five battlegrounds, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jobie Turner examines logistic support advancements from preindustrial times to the modern era in Feeding Victory: Innovative Military Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh (University Press of Kansas, 400 pp. $39.95). The depth of Turner’s research is the foundation for the highly informative framework he uses to analyze modes of transportation and materiel delivery under bitterly contested combat conditions.
Turner holds a PhD in military strategy with an emphasis on logistics. During his twenty-four-year USAF career he served mostly in airlift operations as a pilot and commander of C-130J Super Hercules squadrons. During that time he logged 3,200 flight hours. Today he works for NORAD’s U.S. Northern Command as a J8 Program Analyst.
Improved modes of transportation have brought about great changes in logistics, Turner says. The military has benefitted from advances in technology ranging from wooden wagons and ships in the French and Indian War, to railroads and aircraft in the industrial age, and nuclear weapons and computers today. Across sea, land, and air, logistics have experienced a 165-fold expansion in cargo capacity since the late eighteenth century, thereby altering the critical relationship between logistics and warfare—and, ultimately, geopolitical dynamics.
Better transportation also has increased economic activity between nations. Following World War II, American technological dominance and a robust economy supported by a vast industrial base allowed the nation to dominate logistics worldwide—and made the President of the United States the leader of the free world, according to Turner.
Each of his five studies in the book emphasizes the advantages gained by the side that best controlled the period’s dominant mode of transportation. Turner’s analysis of the 1968 Siege of Khe Sanh, for example, reveals a turning point in logistical theory. The United States supplied the base primarily (totally at times) by aircraft; the NVA relied on 2.5-ton trucks or materiel moved on foot. Both sides managed to fulfill their troops’ basic needs.
“What the North Vietnamese Army lacked in technology,” Turner notes, “it made up for in sheer numbers of soldiers and support groups.”
Turner thoroughly explains the thinking of logisticians from the U.S. and North Vietnam and how geopolitics influence them. At Khe Sanh, the deciding factor was that “the line of communication through the air equated the capacity of land and water,” Turner reports. Air then became an equivalent mode of transportation in war.
Although Khe Sanh was a tactical victory for the United States, it became part of a geopolitical setback at home among the American population.
Feeding Victory leaves its reader somewhat stranded in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, over a half century ago. More-recent cases, such as the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, could have made Turner’s arguments even more conclusive. He suggests the idea, but does not pursue it.
The book is not a casual read. It provides many facts and history lessons that provoke questions. Occasionally, I had to reread a section to fully understand Turner’s reasoning. He includes a dissertation-like density of material on all sides of each study. Nearly a hundred pages of tightly packed notes, a bibliography, and an appendix support the text, which contains many figures and tables.
Although logistics are the book’s primary theme, Turner also includes detailed accounts of military tactics and strategies, particularly in the last three studies.
Above all, Turner’s work proves the timeless value of studying the past.
Very few people know the burden of being born with a famous name. Some struggle with unfair expectations. Some shun the public and seek anonymity. Of those who enter the same field as their legendary predecessors, few reach the same levels of accomplishment.
Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1902-1985) was a three-term U.S. Senator, the longest-serving American Representative at the United Nations, as wall as U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam (twice), West Germany, and the Vatican. He also advised five presidents and was continuously in public service for nearly five decades. As a young man with wealth, looks, and a Harvard degree, he made a curious choice to join the Army Reserve when the military was at its post-World War I nadir. He would serve his entire adult life in the Reserves before retiring with the rank of Major General.
Lodge, out of now-antiquated notions of probity, wrote two autobiographical sketches of his life, but no memoir. Luke A. Nichter’s The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and the Making of the Cold War (Yale University Press, 544 pp. $37.50, hardcover; $22.99, Kindle) is the first complete biography of this consequential American statesman. Nichter is a History professor at Texas A&M University–Central Texas and the co-editor of The Nixon Tapes, 1971-1972. In The Last Brahmin Nichter mines the wealth of secondary scholarship and Lodge’s archived material, as well as those of all the presidents from Eisenhower to Ford. The exhaustive nature of his research is evidenced by the book’s ninety pages of endnotes.
Lodge was the grandson—not the son—of Henry Cabot Lodge, the contemptuous Massachusetts Senator notorious for his stand preventing the United States from joining the League of Nations after World War I. The Cabots and the Lodges were the epitome of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy. Their forbearers gained wealth in shipping before turning to public service. Lodge’s forefathers included a Secretary of State, a Secretary of the Navy, and six U.S. Senators.
At age 42, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. became the first sitting U.S. Senator since the Civil War to resign his seat and enter active military service and fight in a war. As it did for a generation of Americans, World War II changed Lodge from an isolationist (like his grandfather) to a zealous internationalist. He was re-elected to a third term in the Senate in 1946, but continuously clashed with the conservative Republican Old Guard. Determined to prevent another Republican loss in 1952, he convinced Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to run. Lodge spent so much time working as Ike’s campaign manager that he neglected his own re-election campaign and lost his Senate seat to a young Congressman named John F. Kennedy.
After eight years at the UN, Richard Nixon tapped Lodge to be his running mate in the 1960 presidential election. They narrowly lost to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. After the election Lodge considered himself too old to run for political office, but too young to retire. He crossed party lines and agreed to become Kennedy’s Ambassador to South Vietnam in the summer of 1963. It would seem a curious move for the patrician politician—working for a man who had defeated him twice in a remote, violent land with a fledgling government.
Despite an impressive career, the first three months Lodge served as Kennedy’s ambassador in Saigon are the most renowned of his life and the rightful cornerstone of Nichter’s work. A secretly recorded conversation implies that JFK gave Lodge approval to support a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Politically, Lodge was a nationalist in the best definition of the word; he valued loyalty and discretion, and did as well as he could in an extremely volatile situation. Lodge never explained his actions in Vietnam, but Nichter’s work is an important contribution in understanding America’s early involvement in what would become the nation’s most controversial overseas war.
In his effort to include as much as detail as possible, Nichter’s prose, though consistently accessible, can periodically be uneven. This is minor problem, though, given the scope of Nichter’s important work.
hgjkThe Last Brahmin is an impressive and authoritative account of a leading figure of the Cold War.