Losing Binh Dinh by Kevin M. Boylan

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Reading and reviewing books about the Vietnam War in recent years has taken me down an intellectual path that grows ever more difficult. In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen says that wars “are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory.” His words constitute an absolute truth when applied to the Vietnam War. Which leads to the vital question: Did America win or lose that war?

In Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War, Jessica Elkind looks at the war in 1965 and concludes that the American effort was doomed from the start. Fundamentally, nation-building failed to make South Vietnam independent, she says, because the Vietnamese did not support American geopolitical goals set by applying western practices that overlooked the reluctance of recently decolonized Asians to accept them. Consequently, the South Vietnamese rural population did not devote its collective hearts and minds to supporting the anti-communist cause.

Opinions similar to Elkind’s had not precluded President Richard Nixon—and his National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—from employing an endgame strategy that “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended.”

On the other hand, in The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam Johannes Kadura argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame for the loss of South Vietnam to the communists on Congress due to the nation’s lack of post-1973 support when Congress reduced military and economic aid.

Meticulously researched, these heavily foot-noted books are masterpieces of scholarship.

Kevin M. Boylan further pursues the question in Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971 (University Press of Kansas, 376 pp., $34.95, hardcover: $19.99, Kindle). In this book Boylan seeks to come to a determination about whether the war ended in victory or defeat.

Boylan is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. From 1995-2005, he worked in the Pentagon as DoD analyst for the U.S. Army staff. His book contains forty-three pages of notes, mainly from archives and interviews.

Pitting the orthodox (people who claim the war was unnecessary, unjust, and unwinnable) against the revisionist, Boylan questions whether “a victory to be lost” existed prior to America’s 1973 exit from Vietnam. In other words, did pacification and Vietnamization work? Following in the footsteps of the Vietnam Special Studies Group, Boylan focuses his study on heavily populated and strategically located Binh Dinh province.

He examines the province’s military, political, economic, and psychosocial aspects by comparing achievements with expectations in Operation Washington Green, a 1969 American pacification plan for the hamlets of Binh Dinh’s four districts. He gives equal attention to North and South Vietnamese and American perspectives.

Using MACV Advisory Team Activity Reports, Boylan shows how South Vietnamese dependency on American leadership continually increased throughout Operation Washington Green and how consequently the Vietnamese failed to attain self-sufficiency. His detailed accounts describe the inherent turmoil that exists when foreign troops babysit a distinctly different society, especially one threatened by insurgents.

Boylan notes that in the Vietnam War there “was, in fact, no such thing as a truly representative province,” but the problems that affected Binh Dinh occurred “throughout a dozen provinces embracing nearly half of South Vietnam’s territory.” When “studied from the bottom up,” it’s plain to see that after the Americans withdrew from the region in  1972, “‘fence sitting’ villagers threw in with the seemingly triumphant Communists,” he says.

If one accepts the failure of Operation Washington Green as a fact, Boylan’s “Conclusion: Triumph Mistaken” stands as a final verdict about the war’s outcome. The “lost victory” hypothesis (that the war was won by 1972 and that Congress “lost” the victory by cutting funds to South Vietnam) is wrong, he says. His conclusion is worth the price of the book.

Boylan points out that the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan bear disturbing similarities to the Vietnam War. Again, the United States is propping up regimes with disputed legitimacy and military forces with questionable combat motivation.

Our extensive training, material, and logistical assistance in Iraq duplicates our commitment to Operation Washington Green in the Vietnam War, he says.

Gen. David Petraeus’s resurrection of “population-centric COIN” theory allowed Americans to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, but in 2014 Islamic invaders from Syria overran one-third of the country because Iraqi security forces “displayed a shocking lack of will to fight,” Boylan says.

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Troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which took part in Operation Washington Green in northern Binh Dinh in 1969

I must add my experience of teaching COIN theory at Air University in the 1960s. We low-ranking instructors laughed inwardly at the naivete of a military plan that called for winning hearts and minds with love. We preferred more direct action, as in: “Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

Infantrymen who served in Vietnam have told me that, for them, the war ended when pacification and Vietnamization began. They recognized the futility of the task as Boylan describes it: “The government of South Vietnam could spend years—even decades, if necessary—carrying out the nation-building programs required to resolve the underlying grievances that had fueled the insurgency in the first place.”

Furthermore, troops assigned to the task had no training to accomplish it, Boylan says.

I long for the simplicity of the Cold War.

—Henry Zeybel

Aid Under Fire by Jessica Elkind

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Nearly half a century after the fact historians face the formidable task of finding a way to analyse the Vietnam War from new perspectives. Several recently written books have approached the war by examining the political climate during the years between France’s departure from Indochina and the start of the American war there—approximately 1954-65.

Jessica Elkind’s Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kentucky, 310 pp., $45, hardcover, $45, Kindle) fits into this category. A San Francisco State University history professor, Elkind teaches and writes about American foreign relations, the Cold War, and Southeast Asia. Her next book will examine U.S. involvement in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Elkind bases parts of Aid Under Fire on interviews with civilian aid workers that offer new conclusions about old discussions concerning the effectiveness of non-military nation building. Elkind provides a long introduction that includes other historians’ perspectives of the world’s political picture pre-1965. The consensus is that nation building failed to make South Vietnam independent because of misconceptions regarding historical, political, and social conditions. This background material is exceptionally helpful for following Elkind’s subsequent arguments.

The nation-building effort in South Vietnam failed, according to Elkind, because the Vietnamese did not support American geopolitical goals. That is, Americans confronted problems by applying western practices while overlooking the reluctance of recently decolonized Asians to accept them.

By dissecting five assistance programs, Elkind explains nation building setbacks in Vietnam. The five are: refugee resettlement, public administration standardization, land reform and agricultural development, police force modernization, and the creation of an educational system to advance counterinsurgency aims. Atop everything else, the U.S. supported a repressive regime. Consequently, the South Vietnamese rural population did not devote its hearts and minds to supporting an anti-communist cause, Elkind says.

At length, she delves into controversies such as “The Legacy of Colonialism” that segues into “The Political Burden of Being American,” which deals with Americans being stereotyped as “a rich man with a head full of race prejudice” who puts the government ahead of the people. Two of Elkind’s closing subtitles—”From Enthusiasm to Defeat” and “Ears of Stone”—indicate that the nation-building experiment might have been doomed from the start.

When President Kennedy issued an executive order creating the Agency for International Development (AID) in 1961, American leaders eagerly supported nation building, according to my memory. Almost immediately, my Air Force friends delivered supplies country-wide in C-123 Providers during six-month deployments. As the 1960s wore on, however, war demands consumed almost all other such USAF efforts. In 1968, my C-130 crew flew nearly eight hundred in-country support sorties. Only two in one afternoon questionably helped nation building when we relocated women, children, and old men who did not want to be uprooted.

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Refugee resettlement from North to South Vietnam in 1954

Elkind describes similar patterns of activity and points out that, in all the intervening years, “nation building” has been thought of as “military modernization” for programs in Indonesia, Brazil, Iran, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The outcomes have been the same, she says.

Aid Under Fire is part of the “Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace” series of books that examines—and mostly criticizes—the United States’ engagement with the world. The series includes the work of nineteen historians and other academics who think alike.

But to what purpose? I wonder why these folks do not organize and protest America’s endless involvement in the Middle East.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Nixon’s Nuclear Specter by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball

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William Burr, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, and Jeffrey P. Kimball, an emeritus professor of history at Miami University in Ohio, did extensive research (mainly by conducting interviews and researching declassified documents) for their book, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 445 pp., $39.95).

The book looks at the initial effort by President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam by trying to win concessions from Hanoi at the negotiating table through coercive diplomacy. This when the Madman Theory came about, with Nixon threatening excessive force, including possible nuclear strikes, to try to convince Hanoi and Moscow to end the war sooner rather than later.

Nixon started with verbal threats, then authorized bombing NVA and VC bases in Cambodia. Next came a ruse that the U. S. was planning to mine Haiphong Harbor. Planning for the nuclear option also started. That drastic step had been considered several times since World War II, including during the 1954 disaster at Dien Bien Phu when the French were begging for U.S. air support; during the 1958 Lebanon crisis; and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

This book covers the Vietnam War year of 1969 month by month in almost mind-numbing detail. It focuses on what our nation’s leaders said to whom, and when and why they did.  The key players are Nixon,  Kissinger, Russia’s Anatoly Dobrynin, Secretary of State William Rogers, Secretary of Defense William Laird, and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler.

What the authors reveal is the intense, behind-the-scenes plotting and planning that Nixon and Kissinger carried on in 1969 as they desperately tried o find a way to move the Vietnam War peace talks with Hanoi to fruition. Nixon and Kissinger resorted to playing “good cop–bad cop” with Dobrynin. Yet, always in the back of their minds was what they could do to make Moscow put pressure on Hanoi—but not go so far as to put the Soviets on the alert and escalate tensions between the super powers.

This book reveals Nixon’s negotiating strategy: talk tough, make threats, rattle sabers, then think better of the risks involved and back down. The reader or researcher hungry to know every last detail of the interactions between the aforementioned players will find this book satisfies that need and then some. The notes alone cover eighty pages. The bibliography runs sixteen pages.

Some sobering realizations came about as a result of the authors’ research. By 1969, Nixon and Kissinger—as well as the majority of Nixon’s inner circle—had decided that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. The overlying principle motivating Nixon and Kissinger therefore was not how to win the war, but how to get our forces out without appearing to have lost. The aim of the North Vietnamese was to drag out negotiations until the American people tired of the war sufficiently to demand that we throw in the towel. So, while this “unwinnable” war dragged on from 1969 until 1973, more than 21,000 Americans died.

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Another disturbing revelation is that long before the Saigon government collapsed in 1975, America’s exit policy had already been set. The term was “decent interval.” That meant getting U.S. troops home first, then blaming Democrats and the antiwar movement when Saigon was defeated by the North Vietnamese. With a “decent interval” we could also blame the South Vietnamese for losing “their” war. Nixon and Kissinger used the word “Vietnamization” in conjunction with “peace with honor.”

Nixon’s “Madman” strategy failed. His ruse of preparing to mine Haiphong Harbor and to set SAC B-52 bomber “readiness” exercises and  6th Fleet maneuvers failed to get Moscow sufficiently worried about what we were up to. It was not until 1972 when Nixon authorized Operation Linebacker II, unleashing B-52 bombers over Hanoi, that they decided to sign a peace treaty.

That’s how Nixon  wound up having  his “decent interval” to disengage from the Vietnam War and claim “peace with honor.”

—James P. Coan