Elbridge Dubrow’s War in Vietnam by Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr.

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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.

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Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr.

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

 

The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffrey Shaw

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“Revision” is defined as “the act or procedure of revising… change, modify; a corrected or new version.” Perhaps it was with this intent that the historian Geoffrey Shaw in The Last Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam (Ignatious Press, 314 pp., $24.95)  attempts to modify—or even correct—the story of former Republic of Vietnam leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Unfortunately, what the reader is given is neither new nor correctly modified.

What we have instead is a reworking of the facts of the well-documented overthrow of a controversial twentieth century figure. The facts, however, simply cannot be altered, even though some may have been “lost down the memory hole,” in James W. Loewen’s phrase.

Shaw believes that Diem—a misunderstood, “betrayed” U.S. ally in the 1960s, and a person who was close to being a “man of the cloth” (a former seminarian and life-long celibate)—was removed from office and assassinated due to conflicting religious beliefs. In other words, the author is seeking to modify or revise what has clearly been established.

As the historian Mark Moyer puts it: “Shaw reveals how the anti-Catholic crowd in the U.S. State Department manipulated President Kennedy to authorize the removal of South Vietnam’s first president.” What may be referred to by some as religious propaganda, this book looks at a particularly ugly time in our history.  A closer look at the facts may provide a differing view.

Shaw, the president of a counterinsurgency warfare think tank called the Alexandrian Defense Group, explains the Diem policy of appointing  only fellow Catholics to government positions by saying that there were fewer qualified people (“killed off by the Viet Cong”) and that only the Catholic schools in Vietnam were adequately preparing students for public service. Plus, the Buddhist infrastructure, he says, was unable to provide leadership.

Even more importantly, the Vietnamese Roman Catholics were staunchly anti-communist. Essentially, the argument becomes one of religious dogma: Who were the most ardent anti-communists and who suffered most at the hands of the Viet Cong?

I believe that the political arena is best left void of religion. Diem, a modern-day Junipero Serra, offered much to the peasantry of Vietnam. But that came with enormous costs. Ultimately, it took the American press to shed light on the opportunism and exploitative practices of this controversial leader.

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Diem in Washington, D.C. in 1957 greeted by President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles

In 1962 and 1963, American correspondents David Halberstam of The New York Times and Neil Sheehan of UPI wrote that the war in South Vietnam was being lost mostly because of Diem’s corrupt and self-serving government. Diem’s Strategic Hamlet Program was a “sham,” they wrote, and also caused “avoidable military losses involving American casualties.” Shaw writes that despite praising the correspondents’ research and writing CIA Saigon Station Chief William Colby thought they were wrong.

The press, Shaw writes, was causing difficulties for U.S. ambassador Nolting and “Halberstam became the leader of the ‘get Diem’ press group in Saigon.”
 
In the end, a controversial religious struggle within the political arena and a disregard for the disclosure of factual information established the environment in which a violent overthrow was all but inevitable. We’ve known this at least since the 1980s.  As Halberstam put it in The Best and the Brightest: “A lie had become the truth and policy makers were trapped in it;  their policy was a failure, and could not admit it.”
 
Diem’s removal was unavoidable and Shaw cannot alter the facts. His religious bias is clear in his writing. This book brings little to the conversation of accuracy and  U.S. history in the 1960s.  Or, as James W. Loewen wrote in Lies my Teacher Told Me:  “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat the eleventh grade.”
—Peter Steinmetz

JFK in the Senate by John T. Shaw

John T. Shaw ‘s JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, 228 pp., $26) is a well-written, pioneering look at President John F. Kennedy’s 1953-60 tenure as the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. JFK’s time in the Senate, Shaw says, “was a period of remarkable personal and political growth in which an untested backbencher transformed himself into a man of substance and depth and a victorious presidential candidate.”

Kennedy “participated actively and sometimes boldly” during his time in the Senate “in the central policy debates of his time,” Shaw notes. On the international scene Kennedy spoke his mind on “the challenges posed by China and the Soviet Union, the icy armistice in Korea, France’s faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria” and “the appropriate defense posture for America during the Cold War.”

Kennedy had visited Vietnam as a Congressman in 1951 as part of a big fact-finding mission to Asia and the Middle East. The French at the time were enmeshed in a bitter war against communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap determined to shed the yoke of colonialism. After meeting with high-level French and U.S. military and political figures, JFK came away with a decidedly negative view of the situation.

Because of the strong American support for the French in their war against the Vietminh, Kennedy wrote in his journal, the United States was “more and more becoming colonists in the minds of the people.”

Kennedy stressed in a subsequent radio address that he strongly favored “check[ing] the southern drive of communism,” in Vietnam. But he stressed he did not want to do that relying “on the force of arms.” Rather, Kennedy called for building “strong native non-communist sentiment within these areas.”

In his first year in the Senate, Kennedy “took center stage” in the debate over whether or not the U.S. should continue to support the French, Shaw says. JFK spoke out in favor of sending U.S. aid, but also called on France to grant independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He even offered an amendment to the Senate foreign aid bill urging France to give more independence to those colonies. It was defeated.

John T. Shaw

Before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, JFK gave a Senate speech in which he warned that if the United States took over from the French militarily, the subsequent war would “threaten the survival of civilization.” He then spoke out against the U.S. pouring “money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory,” something, that “would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.”

Kennedy, in his search for a non-military solution to the problem of stopping communism in Vietnam, believed that Ngo Dinh Diem, the vehement anticommunist the CIA helped install as South Vietnam’s premier in 1954, would be the leader who could do so. JFK “began to speak of a ‘Diem miracle in South Vietnam,'” Shaw notes, “and urged American backing for his regime. He accepted, as did other American leaders, Diem’s decision not to go forward with national elections in 1956 as had been promised” in the Geneva Accords.

In a June 1, 1956, speech in Washington before the pro-Diem American Friends of Vietnam, JFK changed his stance on what America should do to support Diem. He no longer warned that the U.S. should not get heavily involved militarily in the effort to stop the Vietnamese communists, framing his argument in staunch, 1950s Cold War rhetoric.

Vietnam, he said, “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia,” JFK said, “the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dyke.” South Vietnam, he said, “is our offspring. We cannot abandon it.”

Kennedy continued his strong support of Diem through his days in the Senate and into his 1,000 days in the White House. Calling South Vietnam “a brave little state,” in a 1960 speech, JFK said that nation was “working in a friendly and free association with the United States, whose economic and military aid has, in conditions of independence, proved to be effective.”

Shaw does not address the oft-debated issue of whether JFK would have withdrawn American troops from Vietnam had he lived. But Shaw does show that during his eight years in the Senate, Kennedy changed his thinking radically on what the U.S. should do to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists. He went from strongly advocating no American military action in South Vietnam to forcefully calling for strong American aid—including sending in thousands of military advisers—to try to help that country fight the communist insurgency.

The author’s website is http://johntshaw.com

—Marc Leepson