Every Army Man Is with You by Nicolaus Mills

It is easy to misjudge a book by its cover. Every Army Man Is with You; The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed by Nicolaus Mills (Rowman and Littlefield, 258 pp., $37) is no exception.

The football action scene depicted on the cover could lead a reader to believe that this is just a sports book. The thoroughly documented narrative, however, brings the reader so much more than the excitement of West Point football.

Nicolaus Mills moves the reader from the stadium bleachers into the minds and hearts of athletes who loved football and also loved their country.    Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, during World War II, said: “I want an officer for secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.”  Every Army Man is with You provides insight into what those words meant during the Vietnam War.

The author, a Sarah Lawrence College American Studies professor, follows the careers of seven men from West Point from the mid-sixties to the present. Early on he provides a list of military academy gridiron notables beginning with Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. All are USMA graduates, except Roger Staubach, who went to the United States Naval Academy. Staubach was the nemesis of the 1964 West Point team.

The Army- Navy game that year was the first Army victory over Navy in six years. The book contains many quotes that make interesting reading because they provide insights into the Army players on and off the field.

Eisenhower, for example, said: “It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance I attach to participation in sports,” and “I so loved the fierce bodily contact of football that I suppose my enthusiasm made up somewhat for my lack of size.” This from a man of 152 pounds.

The chapter on Gen. William Westmoreland contains an excellent summary of his military career. Westmoreland also noted the importance of football at West Point. “It is my conviction that West Point should strive for excellence in every endeavor,” he said. “This applies to academics, military duties, extracurricular activities, and athletics—not to exclude football.”

Nicolaus Mills

While the football theme flows through the entire book, this reader was amazed by the amount of enlightening military and political history the author included. The interaction between MacArthur and Westmoreland when the latter served as superintendent of West Point provides insight into the character of both men. Mills also includes a short conversation between John F. Kennedy and MacArthur in 1961 about the approaching war in Southeast Asia.

In the sections that cover the history of the Vietnam War Mills does not spend a lot of time detailing battles. But he still provides a clear picture of the dedication and suffering many soldiers lived with on a daily basis. The follow-up of each man’s return from the war clearly depicts the life changes they experienced.

For sports fans, Mills concludes with a brief history of Army football.That includes a review of the infamous 1951 cheating scandal that severely damaged the team. Mills also relates how many West Point men became critical of the U.S. policy of body counts as a measurement of success in the Vietnam War.

This book is easy to follow, concise, heartfelt, and blends history with the great sport of football. The author is clear, however, that football is a game, and war is not.

—Joseph Reitz

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So Much to Lose by William J. Rust

In So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos (University Press of Kentucky, 376 pp., $40) William J. Rust offers a meticulous account of President John F. Kennedy’s vacillating actions toward Laos in the early 1960s.

So Much to Lose is a sequel to Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961. In that 2012 book Rust examined how both President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy attempted to deal with the rising threat of communism in Laos prior to the big U.S. build up in Vietnam.

Kennedy inherited Eisenhower’s policies, which grew out of President Truman’s decision to provide American support to the French effort to reclaim its Indochinese colonies after World War II. The French, of course, were defeated, and Eisenhower’s famous “domino theory” became American policy. The idea was to keep Laos neutral so that the widening war in South Vietnam—and American military involvement there—didn’t grow still wider.

To an extent, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed that the two superpowers had no interest in Laos, and supported neutrality. But even though North Vietnam was in some ways a Soviet client state, Khrushchev could not control Hanoi’s leadersship.

Kennedy might have wished that Laos was a problem that would go away. He found himself supporting the FAR (the Laotian army, or, from the U.S. point of view, the good guys), as well as the so-called “neutralists” in battles on the Plain of Jars against the North Vietnamese-supported Pathet Lao. But Kennedy had no thought of direct intervention for fear of widening the war and destroying entirely the idea of neutrality. This proxy war, supported by the State Department and the CIA, blew hot and cold during JFK’s shortened presidency until, with Kennedy’s assassination, the problem became President Johnson’s in 1963.

William J. Rust

Infighting among the American-supported factions, a coup, and increased pressure from the Pathet Lao combined to effect the primary communist objective: the security of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Said Trail, leading through “neutral” Laos and Cambodia, greatly facilitated the much bigger war in South Vietnam.

Kennedy was reluctant to commit American troops even though he was fiercely anti-communist and a believer in the domino theory. But he never had to deal with the increased power and ferocity of the North Vietnamese. Rust can’t say if JFK’s reaction to the North Vietnamese aggression would have been similar to that of Johnson who committed, at the height of the war, more than a half million American troops.

Rust’s diplomatic history provides plenty of details for speculation about what JFK would have done in South Vietnam (and Laos) had he lived. So Much to Lose, in fact, may provide too much detail for the general reader. But if you want to learn about how wars get started—and wobble out of control—this book will tell you.

—John Mort