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

 

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

The Soldiers’ Story By Ron Steinman

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First published in 1999 in conjunction with a six-hour Learning Channel documentary series, Ron Steinman’s The Soldiers’ Story: An Illustrated Edition: Vietnam in Their Own Words has been republished in a new, large-format, expanded edition (Wellfleet Press, 400 pp., $28).

Steinman served as the NBC News bureau chief in Saigon “through much of 1966, all of 1967, and most of 1968,” he tells us in the book’s Introduction. Steinman also tells us that his “mandate” for the TV show (and the previous editions of this book) was to tell the stories of men “in battle” through their own words. The result here is a long, profusely illustrated book that, indeed, concentrates heavily on first-person testimony from American soldiers and Marines who saw battle action in the war.

There are six chapters—on The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, The Siege height-200-no_border-width-200of Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, The Secret War (mostly in Laos and Cambodia), The Air War, and The Fall of Saigon. Steinman provides context, and seventy-seven men provide the voices of combat.

The book is handsomely produced. And the stories told by the former combatants ring true. We are given many riveting descriptions of all forms of combat.

Reading this book would give the uninformed the idea that the American war in Vietnam was one long series of battle action. That’s because the voices of the overwhelming majority of men and women who served in support roles in the Vietnam War are absent. Still, that was not Steinman’s mission, and he delivers what he promises: real-life stories of men in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

 

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