American involvement in the Vietnam War continues to confound. It is unfathomable that such a small country exacted such a profound toll on America.
Building upon decades of work by historians to answer the question of who shaped American foreign policy in Vietnam in the early years of American involvement (1957-62) , Millersville University Professor Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr. in Elbridge Durbrow’s War in Vietnam: The Ambassador’s Influence on American Involvement, 1957-1961 (McFarland, 271 pp., $49.95,, paper) attempts to answer the question by examining the turbulent relationship between American Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Frankum has written extensively about the American war in Vietnam, including books on Operation Rolling Thunder, the U.S. role in the migration of a million Vietnamese from North to South Vietnam in 1955, America’s relationship with its wartime ally Australia, and a Vietnam War historical dictionary. Frankum’s new book is a companion to his Vietnam’s Year of the Rat: Elbridge Durbrow, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Turn in U.S. Relations, 1959-1961, which came out in 2014.
In his new meticulously researched analysis, written in clear and accessible prose, Frankum indicates that Durbrow and Diem’s disagreements were partly personal and partly cultural, though neither doubted the other’s anticommunist bonafides. The crux was on how to best govern South Vietnam. This discord spread to their departments, with MAAG commander Gen. Samuel T. Williams—and to a lesser though notable extent, Edward Lansdale—on the pro-Diem side. Frankum’s analysis of the inter-connectivity of Laos and Cambodia, Diem’s management of his foreign policy, and American reaction to it, is particularly strong.
The narrative at times falls victim to the exhaustive nature of the research, lessening the drama, for example, of the 1960 attempted coup of Diem. Frankum’s allegiance to limiting the book to Durbrow and Diem’s relationship from 1957-61 is laudable, but more background and context would have strengthened the work.
How much, for example, did Durbrow’s work in Eastern Europe and Russia influence his perspective? Was Williams influenced by Eisenhower’s special representative Gen. J. Lawton Collins, a member of the anti-Diem group, who in 1944 had demoted Williams? Was there significance to the coup occurring just two days after the 1960 U.S. presidential election?
Regardless of Durbrow’s heavy-handed treatment of Diem and the internal strife between Williams and Durbrow, the political situation in South Vietnam was dire. There were, for example, expressions of outrage over Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership, includingthe failed coup and the Caravelle Manifesto, a political tract produced by South Vietnamese intelligentsia that criticized Diem’s rule.
Frankum believes that Durbrow and his team were largely to blame for the mistrust. He presents a largely sympathetic portrayal of Diem, while Durbrow is seen as arrogant and jingoistic. Frankum criticizes Durbrow for being more concerned about perceptions than actual situations, but in politics and diplomacy there rarely is a clear distinction.
If the origins of distrust did start with Durbrow, then the Kennedy Administration sought to address the issue by following Lansdale’s advice and removing Durbrow in favor of the accommodating Frederick Nolting, providing Diem with someone he could trust and respect. That the political situation deteriorated further under Nolting—who, along with MAAG commander Paul Harkins, supported Diem—suggests the incompatibly of American involvement.
The systematic issues with American foreign policy in South Vietnam are manifest throughout the book, including the willingness to accept authoritarianism to defeat communism, the fissure between the Defense and State Departments, and the temporizing and equivocating in Washington. For all the problems with strategy, there was an unquestioning adherence to the axiomatic principle: A loss in Vietnam would have deleterious consequences on the United States. In the end, even Durbrow believed that Diem was the best option.
Along with Frankum’s earlier work, this is an important book and a positive addition to the record of America’s early involvement in the Vietnam War.
–Daniel R. Hart