No Wider War by Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller’s In Good Faith, the first book in his two-volume history of the Vietnam War, covered 1945-65. No Wider War: A History of the Vietnam War, Volume 2, 1965-1975 (Osprey, 528 pp. $40) immediately takes the reader deeper into the war with the first American combat units that arrived in 1965 and engaged enemy forces. As you read about the steady flow of U.S. units, you are made aware of the big lie: Combat troops were sent there, at least initially, to provide base security after a series of Viet Cong attacks, and not to Americanize the war. The nature of the war, however, quickly changed as hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into South Vietnam in the next five years and aggressively sought out the enemy.

Miller covers the seemingly endless engagements between American forces and the elusive North Vietnamese Army—officially known as PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam)—leaving the reader wondering how either side could ever have hoped to achieve a military victory.

On one side, we have Americans trained for a conventional war, transported 10,000 miles, and then thrust into the frustration of fighting an elusive enemy in rugged, jungle-covered terrain and the marshes of the Mekong Delta. With the mobility of helicopters, American generals hoped for surprise and fluidity on the battlefield, and with immense firepower resources, the means to annihilate the enemy once he had been fixed in place. Yet, one cannot help but have a sense of awe at the NVA’s tenacity, endurance, and commitment to a conflict from which many would not return alive.

The American war depended on body counts as a key metric for success; in the end, however, the number of enemy dead had little impact on the war’s outcome. The North also used body counts, but as a political device that had an impact on American public opinion and the national and political will to continue to continue the fighting. NVA troops would roam battlefields looking for wounded Americans to execute to elevate the numbers of dead that would be reported in the increasingly troubling news sent back home.

Gen. William Westmoreland’s 1967 speech before a joint session of Congress reflected optimism that the United States was clearly on the road to victory. Then the Tet Offensive of 1968 significantly altered America’s belief in that victory. 

Miller, a former British Army intelligence corps officer who served in the Persian Gulf War, revisits the NVA’s strategy for the Tet Offensive and explains how it played out. From a military perspective, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. However, it turned into a political victory for them because of the images broadcast on the nightly news in American homes. That visual evidence flew in the face of the optimism Westmoreland expressed to Congress.     

The American attempt to win the war militarily ended when President Nixon began withdrawing troops, what became known as Vietnamization. The 1970 Cambodian incursion was as a key part of the plan to cripple the NVA’s offensive capabilities, as was the subsequent move into Laos.

This well-researched book takes the reader through the North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive, the convoluted four-year-long peace negotiations in Paris, the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and finally the face-saving Paris Peace Treaty allowing the United States to extricate itself from a war it should have never entered.    

No Wider War covers quite a bit of ground, yet successfully captures the essence of the American war with all its blemishes, including the My Lai massacre and the military’s serious drug addiction problem during the last few years. The closing chapter recounts the sudden collapse of South Vietnamese resistance and the end of a very long war. As predicted, the South Vietnamese people then entered into a very difficult period under the North Vietnamese during which even many former Viet Cong did not escape Hanoi’s wrath.

We are now some five decades from that highly destructive war that was damaging in so many ways. For one thing, it would take years for the U.S. military to recover from discipline and morale issues in the war’s final years. Yet much of this is barely known or understood by many Americans today.

This book and its earlier companion provide a handy reference to that war and how America fought it—militarily and politically.   

–John Cirafici

In Good Faith by Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller’s In Good Faith: A History of the Vietnam War, Vol. I: 1945-65 (Osprey, 448 pp. $35, hardcover; $21, paper; $9.99, Kindle) a useful reference volume on the war and its origins for today’s readers who are removed from the Vietnam War by a half century. Miller, a former British Army Special Forces officer, has stitched together the war’s roots starting with the long French colonial phase, through the final years of the World War II, and into the Cold War when the fate of Vietnam had a minimal role in America’s national security concerns. The book ends with the beginnings of the full-blown American War.  

Miller includes a synopsis of U.S. national security policies starting with the 1930s in an attempt to answer the unending question: How did the United States end up in a conflict that was so costly for all parties and damaging in the long term to America’s prestige? To answer that, he analyzes the impact that communist takeover of China in 1948 and the 1950-53 Korean War had on America’s post-World War II role as leader of the so-called Free World, as well as on U.S. domestic politics.

This book does not focus on the failure of America’s senior civilian and military leaders during the Vietnam War and their deceitfulness in misleading the public. Instead, Miller takes a broader approach by examining the war primarily through its political context. Many personalities who played important roles along the path leading eventually to the American war in Vietnam appear as book moves along.

Of parallel importance, Miller revisits decisions made in the White House and the Pentagon that reveal confused policies and diametrically opposed positions held by senior leadership and their principal lieutenants. He also reports on the seemingly endless American fact-finding missions to Vietnam and their often misleading and politically motivated findings and recommendations. There’s also a full account of the Kennedy Administration’s complicity in the November 1963 coup and subsequent murder of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem (about which Ho Chi Minh supposedly said, “I can scarcely believe that the Americans would be so stupid.”), and the downward spiral of the South in its aftermath.

JFK and his Defense Secretary, Robert S. McNamara

What was particularly interesting to this reader was to once revisit the arguments for U.S. military escalation in Vietnam and against commitments that would entangle the country in an almost certain disastrous war in Southeast Asia. Central to Washington’s inexcusably poor decision making were the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson’s top foreign policy advisers who made supposedly well-informed arguments to take the fight to the Viet Cong North Vietnamese Army. The few voices who unequivocally stated that involvement in the war would be a monumental mistake with grave consequences for both the United States and Vietnam were all but ignored

The single most important event discussed in this book is the August 4, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin Incident, after which the Johnson Administration reported to Congress that North Vietnamese torpedo boats made two attacks on two U.S. Navy destroyers: the Maddox on August 2, and the Maddox and the Turner Joy on August 4, in international waters with no provocation. The resulting Tonkin Gulf Resolution is important for two reasons: First, the second attack never took place; second, Congress’ passage of the resolution amounted to a de facto Declaration of War, authorizing the Johnson to conduct combat operations against North Vietnam. Thus began an unnecessary war that America would come to deeply regret.

Reading this book, you might conclude that the wrongheaded arguments leading to the catastrophic U.S. war in Vietnam—what was essentially a war of choice, not necessity—were so transparently fallacious that no president would ever ignore the lessons learned in that war and repeat such a costly error in judgement. Yet, that is exactly what happened just thirty-five years later in the Persian Gulf when, once again, “wise men” who should have known better pushed for a president to go to war. 

–John Cirafici