The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History (DK, 360 pp., $40) is a coffee-table book that probably is not “the definitive” history of the war in words and pictures–but it comes close. Long on photos and other images (more than 500) and relatively short on words, the book (written by a group of historians in association with the Smithsonian Institution) concisely covers just about every political and military event associated with the Vietnam conflict from the French War in the 1950s to Indochina in the 21st century.

In between, chronologically presented, concisely written, profusely illustrated chapters zero in virtually every conceivable component of the war. Most of the short chapters deal with military and political history. But there also are images of war hardware (infantry weapons, artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles), along with diagrams and maps.

Near the end there’s a two-page chapter, “American Homecoming,” that looks at Vietnam veterans’ homecoming. As is the case with the book’s other chapters, this one is concise and accurate. It includes a picture of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair panhandling, an image of the Purple Heart, an iconic shot of the big crowd at The Wall in Washington when it was dedicated in 1992, and a picture of a Desert Storm victory parade.

And this closing sentence:

“Vietnam veterans today stand alongside those who have served in the various theaters of the war on terrorism as worthy heroes—however shocking the new mantra of “Thank you for your service” may be to Vietnam veterans who experienced a totally different reception when they came home.”

The book’s inside covers are made up of collages of more than a hundred photos of photos submitted by Vietnam veterans.

—Marc Leepson

Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Wars are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory. A war is not just about shooting, but about people who make bullets and deliver bullets and, perhaps most importantly, those who pay for the bullets. Each ethnic group in the United States gets its own notable history by which Americans remember it: Vietnamese get the war.

That just about sums up the core of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $27.95, hardcover: $12.58 Kindle), an examination of the possibility of overcoming the residual scourges of war through discussing ethics, industries, and aesthetics. The book contains a continuous flow of truths and suppositions that merit support—or beg challenge.

From the opening pages, I recognized that Viet Nguyen’s philosophy of life differs markedly from mine. Consequently, I found the book difficult to read. However, I surrendered to the strength and persistence of his arguments and read every page. Throughout the book, I detected different voices in his style. Deep into the book, the voices grew more convincing. By the end, I felt loosely bonded with Nguyen’s arguments, but had reservations about what comes next.

Viet Nguyen was born in Ban Me Thuot in 1971. His parents had moved south from North Vietnam in 1954. His family came to the United States as refugees in 1975. He grew up in San Jose, California. At UC Berkeley, he earned degrees in English and ethnic studies and a Ph.D. in English. He teaches English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His much-heralded Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizers, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Nothing Ever Dies focuses on the Vietnam War, but the arguments extend to the war’s repercussions in Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea. Viet Nguyen has traveled extensively across the areas he analyzes. His observations are eye opening, such as when he compares cemeteries of Vietnamese war casualties buried in Vietnam with American names on The Wall in Washington, D.C. His message is that nations tend to remember their own losses and forget the deaths of their opponents, with military casualties taking precedence.

Nguyen says that remembrance of war is a debt fully paid only when soldiers and civilians from both sides are included in recollections of good and evil events. That process allows a war to truly end and peaceful relations to ensue. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.

He chooses sides, favoring poor and weak nations that are victims of industrialized nations with more powerful armies. He stresses, however, that both sides overlook their ability to hurt others, which often results in inhumane actions. Forgiving inhumanities with emotions above the level of mere resignation is part of the remembrance process. In this regard, he analyses “the most horrific of horrors” inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian population, citing its difficulty to reconcile because “few are willing to acknowledge themselves as victimizers.”

Nguyen expands his idea of erasing the stigmas related to war by discussing war literature written by Vietnamese Americans. “Literature can raise the troublesome past of war and even the difficult present of racial inequality,” he writes, “so long as it also promises or hopes for reconciliation and refuge.”

He illustrates the benefits of war by explaining how participation by the South Korean army—and its 5,000 men killed in action in the Vietnam War—gave the nation a new role in global capitalization. He analyzes Korea’s post-war movies, masculinity, exploitation, and submission to “the American giant who has never learned to live outside his own world,” which has resulted in the “giant” recreating his environment wherever he goes. Faithful to his land of birth, Nguyen recalls the cruelty inflicted on Vietnamese when Koreans ran prison camps under Japanese occupation during World War II.

The description of visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum flashed me back to the awe I felt in 1987 while walking through Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow. Seeing Ho’s body as either “a heroic statue or a gruesome zombie,” Nguyen belittles the legendary leader as a “stage prop for the Communist Party.” Comparatively speaking, seeing Lenin’s body produced a quasi-religious experience within me, making me nod in appreciation of a man who changed a nation and the world. Of course, neither man had stolen my country from my me and my family.

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Award-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

One disappointment was Nguyen’s reliance on analyses of Vietnam War films. Basing conclusions on directors’ interpretations of the war left me less satisfied than, let’s say, using memoirs of participants from both sides. But it is what it is.

Nothing Ever Dies is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. Nguyen also has earned several teaching and service awards.

—Henry Zeybel

Secrets and Lies in Vietnam by Panagiotis Dimitrakis

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“All’s fair in love and war,” Miguel de Cervantes once suggested, but he could have added “and in espionage.” Panagiotis Dimitrakis emphatically makes that point in Secrets and Lies in Vietnam: Spies, Intelligence, and Covert Operations in the Vietnam Wars (I.B. Tauris, 312 pp.; $57.14; $32,  Kindle). Dimitrakis examines the underworld of espionage in Vietnam by depicting the activities of agents and their masters from World War II to 1979.

An expert on intelligence and military history, Dimitrakis holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London. Among a broad span of other work, he has written books on Afghanistan, the Cold War, and the Middle East.

Each chapter of Secrets and Lies in Vietnam focuses on individual spies and chronologically shows how North Vietnamese intelligence agents outwitted the French and more than held their own against the Americans. Dimitrakis heavily documents his writing with notes primarily from Western sources. He skillfully recreates stories that have been told before, but gives them new life by adding details that flesh out the people and events involved.

The first third of the book describes the turmoil in Vietnam from the end of World War II to the 1954 defeat of the French in Indochina. Dimitrakis writes about the intrigues among France, England, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to influence the destiny of Vietnam. The country was rife with assassinations, bombings, sabotage, terrorism, raids, code breaking, theft of plans, signal intercepts, leaks, and duplicity. Dimitrakis weaves these factors together to present a succinct yet solid explanation for North Vietnam’s victory at Dien Bien Phu.

From there, he segues to the accomplishments of a Viet Minh mole who infiltrated the U.S. Saigon Military Mission in 1954. As North Vietnamese Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap put it: “We are now in the United States’ war room!”

Introducing the book, Dimitrakis says, “We will not analyze strategy, military operations, counterinsurgency, or international diplomacy.” Instead, “readers will witness events through the eyes of the spy.” Nevertheless, he provides a good deal of insight about military actions, much of which was new to me. For example, he describes United States-sanctioned black ops in the early 1960s against the Hanoi government. Similarly, he delves into the politics of leadership changes in South Vietnam.

The last third of the book provides the greatest enlightenment concerning espionage. The unpredictable interplay of personalities Dimitrakis unveils in the chapter titled “Molehunt and Spies in the Vietcong” shows the uncertainties of “the never-ending difficulty of intelligence gathering.”

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The author

He also follows the trail of lies and deception into the White House to assess Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s intrusion into intelligence work. The results of this research reminded me of The War after the War: the Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam in which Johannes Kadura shows the president and his closest advisers colluding to mislead the entire nation for purely personal political reasons.

Books such as Secrets and Lies in Vietnam are important because they offer new perspectives about what happened in the war, both militarily and politically. Declassifying old government files and opening new sections of archives for perusal frequently reveal previously unobtainable facts. Even though the information is fifty or more years old, it is new to most people.

Panagiotis Dimitrakis—and similar scholars—merit praise for finding and presenting such facts in a highly readable format for the general public. More often than not, they permit veterans to validate complaints against leadership, especially inadequacies at higher levels.

—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

 

Vietnam’s High Ground by J.P. Harris

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Clarifying the fine points of exactly how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War might keep historians busy forever. Of course, the Domino Theory offers an obvious answer—one nation falls to communism and that pushes over others. But that choice resembles a conclusion such as “Joe committed suicide after growing tired of living” without examining Joe’s broken marriages, job losses, PTSD, and Agent Orange symptoms.

In other words, examining underlying details reveals reasons for the war that are far more interesting.

In 2015, Charles R. Shrader published A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 in which he described the First Indochina War—fought by the French in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin—as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” Research proved his conclusion in the sense that poor logistical support can (and, in this case, did) defeat an army. Schrader based his argument on what he found in declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material, as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies.

In Vietnam’s High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965 (University Press of Kansas, 552 pp. $45, hardcover; $27.99, Kindle), J.P. Harris provides a fitting continuation to Shrader’s history. Harris—a senior lecturer in war studies at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England—moves the action southward and makes large-scale use of Vietnamese communist sources and American archives. His research examines the evolution of military action in Vietnam’s Central Highlands from subversion, insurgency, and counterinsurgency through the major battles of 1965.

Despite the dates in its subtitle, Vietnam’s High Ground focuses on military action in the 1960s with the last half of the book devoted to 1965. Concluding his accounts of fighting that was costly to both sides in the Ia Drang Valley, Harris says, “It would have taken a reckless pundit to pick a winner at this stage.”

Harris’ book is formidable. Opening it to any page provides a wealth of facts and explanations on major and minor events of the time and area. All of it offers perspectives of actions from all participants. Excellent maps, photographs, and forty-five pages of notes perfectly complement the text.
Reading the book made me feel humble. Harris covers all that I was familiar with about the early fighting in the Highlands. Well beyond that, though, he delves into actions that were unknown to me. His depth of investigation presents a stand-alone education about that phase of warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s High Ground adds valuable insight to The University Press of Kansas’s Modern War Studies Series.

—Henry Zeybel

The War after the War by Johannes Kadura

 

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Four minutes before six o’clock on the morning of January 28, 1973, I awoke in my Tan Son Nhut BOQ room when four mortar rounds hit the base. We were six hours ahead of Greenwich, where it was nearly midnight and the start of the ceasefire designated by the Paris Peace Accords. No further rounds followed, but Big Voice kept ordering people to shelters. I rolled over in bed and smiled.

The North Vietnamese were telling us that they hadn’t quit, I thought with a touch of admiration. Two years and three months later, the NVA rolled into Saigon.

Events that led to that morning and followed it are the subject of The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility During America’s Exit from Vietnam (Cornell University Press, 231 pp.; $45) by Johannes Kadura. The story revolves around the Indochina endgame strategy employed by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford with counsel from National Security Adviser/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon and Kissinger, Kadura explains, used two basic plans to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. They called their plans “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy.” Kadura discusses the plans and then offers his “new interpretation” of what occurred during the years immediately before and after the signing of the Peace Agreement in Paris. He focuses on the U.S. perspective and does not attempt to tell the Vietnamese version of the story.

The book is a masterpiece of research that is carefully footnoted. Kadura holds a doctorate in American history. He studied at Yale and Cambridge. He is Managing Director of AKRYL, an Internet company based in Hamburg and Beijing.

After American forces departed Vietnam and our POWs returned home, Nixon and Kissinger “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended,” Kadura says. “The implications were obvious: the United States had fulfilled its basic obligations and could focus on more important things; the South Vietnamese had to figure out the rest on their own.” Nixon and Kissinger soon shifted their attention to more critical international matters, such as the Yom Kippur War, the oil crisis, and relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

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Johannes Kadura

The book convincingly argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame on Congress for America’s lack of post-1973 support for the vulnerable nations of Indochina, particularly when Congress reduced military and economic aid to those nations each year.

Nixon’s distraction by Watergate and his eventual resignation forced Kissinger to guide America’s foreign policy for a considerable period, Kadura says. Ford, however, proved to be his own man, no more so than when he pardoned Nixon. Ford, emulating Nixon, continued to blame Congress for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ending up under communist rule.

The book presents information that filled gaps in my education. Like many people, I had stopped worrying about Southeast Asia in 1973. Material new to me included the fact that some 207,000 NVA regulars moved into South Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Accords; the North’s paving of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and its construction of SAM sites at Khe Sanh and A Shau—all in preparation for its final offensive. I also didn’t know about Nixon’s gross failure to take decisive action against cease-fire violations and of the political machinations that led to the fall of Cambodia. Kadura’s history lessons ensure that the reader sees the big picture.

Overall, Kadura convinced me that among Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, pessimism prevailed throughout the post-peace agreement period. Their goal had been to exit Vietnam without looking like they were running away (“peace with honor”), and they feared being accused of having done exactly that. Kadura barely mentions “peace with honor,” which was a byword of the era. He does discuss the “decent interval,” a goal that might have resulted in more favorable outcomes for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Loas. A two-year interval was not long enough.

The end of South Vietnam triggered a lot of soul searching in this country. Study groups from the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council came up with conflicting summaries of lessons learned. Kissinger’s insistence that “Washington had bought vital time for Southeast Asia’s non-communist nations to develop” became a popular but questionable conclusion because America had not prosecuted the war with that goal in mind, according to Kadura. The “buying vital time” claim, however, reassured other allies that Washington would help them fight communist aggression.

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Nixon in China

Looking “beyond defeat in Indochina,” Kadura shows that America retained post-Agreement influence in Southeast Asia during the Mayaguez incident, as well as with our denial of help to Hanoi, and through worsening relations with China.

Kadura’s conclusion: “The overall effects of Washington’s defeat in Indochina were quite limited. The strategic balance did not shift decisively in favor of the Soviets or Chinese. Washington emerged tarnished yet relatively strong. Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger did manage to control the damage caused by the U.S. defeat.”

The author’s website is johanneskadura.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

The American South and the Vietnam War by Joseph A. Fry

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I graduated from a Pittsburgh high school in 1951 and from Penn State in 1955. While talking about the American Civil War, my teachers inculcated me with the belief that the eleven states of the Confederacy were still a world apart from the rest of the nation. As northern liberals, my teachers had looked down on Southerners, disparaging their pride and dedication to the Confederacy and its lost cause.

Since 1956, except for overseas military assignments and extended vacations, I have lived in the South. I have encountered situations that confirmed or denied my teachers’ lessons. But long ago, I learned to accept each event according to its own merits.

Historian Joseph A. Fry resuscitated a few prejudices for me in The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie (University Press of Kentucky, 467 pp., $35.57, hardcover; $33.79, Kindle). The book describes the struggle between pro- and antiwar individuals and organizations, emphasizing the influence that like-thinking people from the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) exerted on the Vietnam War and America at large.

Fry approaches this with a brief history lesson about Southerners and United States foreign relations from 1789-1973. Fry’s twelve southern states share a distinct regional perspective, viewing needs of the world as contrary to their domestic desires and favoring “unrestrained military intervention aimed at decisive victories rather than diplomatic negotiations.”

He next addresses Southerners’ opposition to the Vietnam War. As they do throughout the book, racism and other sensitive issues play a large part in the discussion. Ill will, anger, threats, violence, shootings, and killings frequently accelerated the dissension between opposing sides. Fry withholds judgment and allows facts to tell the story.

He astutely shows how powerful conservative Democratic Sens. Richard Russell of Georgia, John Stennis of Mississippi, and Harry Byrd of Virginia influenced the nation to minimize overseas military assistance from 1953-64. They contended then that intervention in South Vietnam would be too costly and its people were an inferior race unwilling to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, obsessed with a need to contain communist expansion, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson gave aid to South Vietnam. A strong sense of honor and manhood made maintaining international credibility a necessity for Johnson. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the impetus for him to gain a congressional resolution to prosecute war in Vietnam, Fry says.

Unfortunately, the resolution, which Congress overwhelmingly supported, did not solve the problem of how to run the war. Fry clearly shows that debates over the scale, pace, duration, and cost of the war never ended.

The book’s second half covers Southerners’ views on the war’s conduct, their contribution to the decision to withdraw from Vietnam (1968-70), and their views on ending the war (1971-73). Southern thinking seldom matched national attitudes about domestic policies, racial problems, military appropriations, foreign aid, and other contentious issues. Often, southern regionalism promoted self-serving behavior, which compounded disagreements. At times, racial assumptions and the quest to procure government military spending trumped party politics, Fry says.

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LBJ and Sen. John Stennis

Two sections—”Southern Soldiers” and “Southern College Students”—interrupt the book’s chronology. These chapters might hold the greatest interest for Vietnam veterans. “Soldiers” exemplifies southern manliness by describing horrific combat scenes in which Southerners engaged. But Fry’s argument here is weak because men from all sections of the country experienced similar horrors in Vietnam.

Much of Fry’s support material comes from books written by Southerners. Nevertheless, this chapter might educate readers unfamiliar with the war about death and destruction, leadership, religion, race relations, and post-war attitudes among fighting men.

The chapter focuses on the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, including the fighting at Landing Zone Albany, all but glorifying them as engagements led by southern officers in which Southerners suffered the highest number of casualties. In fairness, Fry then cites the My Lai massacre, which was led by Southerners, as a failure in ethics. Later in the book, Fry reviews the political fallout from My Lai. He points out that it required “moral courage” by another Southerner to reveal the breadth of the massacre.

I disliked Fry’s long and emphatic references to characters from novels to “celebrate the South’s warrior tradition,”  even though one character reflects the thinking of former Marine and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, according to Fry. I believe Fry should have quoted Webb directly or quoted other courageous infantrymen—there are plenty of them—to make his point. As I see it, fiction is fiction and does not adequately serve a history book’s purpose.

“Students” does an excellent job reporting on the diverse antiwar activities by organized groups. Until the end of the war, University of Texas students, for example, led protests that unbalanced the South’s pro-war stance but never toppled it. Within Dixie, “antiwar students lost all the battles and the war for majority southern opinion regarding Vietnam,” Fry says.  He quotes fellow historian George C. Herring on the student issue: “The antiwar movement lost every battle but eventually won the war—the war for America’s mind and especially for its soul.”

Fifty-seven pages of endnotes support Fry’s study. Rather than listing sources alphabetically, he includes a bibliographic essay that relates sources to each other. Fry’s research included delving into oral histories, transcripts, interviews, memoirs, and letters by leaders, along with those from ordinary citizens, students, and military personnel.height-200-no_border-width-200

Andy Fry taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for nearly forty years. His courses included U.S. foreign relations, the history of the American South after 1850, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

At times I feel that Americans have overburdened themselves with their arguments about the Vietnam War. After fifty years of arguing, we should accept that we learned nothing from the war. Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, tricked us into fighting in Southeast Asia, which we failed to recall when another Southerner, George W. Bush (aided by Dick Cheney’s misdirection), misled us into Southwest Asia.

In this election year, Fry’s book might best serve as a voters’ guide: Do not cast your ballot for anyone who professes a correlation between manhood and war.

—Henry Zeybel