I have often wondered why my uncle and many other veterans that I have met, were sent to Vietnam. He and others never speak of the war, choosing instead to internalize their memories and feelings. But from the few things about being Vietnam that my uncle has told me, I cannot image what it was like to be fighting a war in a jungle 13,000 miles away from home. Today he is seventy-two years old and his memories of Vietnam are as sharp today as they were when he left the country to return home. And there is a part of him that still remains in Vietnam, never to leave its soil. He is one of five-hundred thousand Americans that served in a war that claimed fifty-eight thousand lives.
The reasons for America’s involvement in Indochina have been muddled and in some cases omitted from discussions. Secrecy became the standard method of communication in more than one administration in Washington as the United States became deeper involved in a conflict with no end goal in sight. Daniel Ellsberg gained fame and infamy when he revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the country. The New York Times later published a review of the documents and today it is available in the form of a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War. The book is enlightening and contains a trove of information regarding how and why decisions were being made in the White House as control of the government passed through several presidents. Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) published his own memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. The book has its fans and critics. McNamara has often been blamed for the war and the vitriol towards him was so strong that in later years he declined to talk about the conflict. True, he was a participant in the events leading up to the war, but many other players had a hand in the game which became deadlier as time went on. To understand their roles and the policies enacted, it is necessary to revisit the complete history of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina. David Halberstam (1934-2007), author of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy, conducted his own research into the war’s origins and the result was this New York Times bestseller that is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Halberstam admits that he knew Ellsberg and in fact, he reviewed the Pentagon Papers as he wrote the book. In addition he conducted hundreds of interviews but was careful not to reveal any of their names. When Ellsberg was indicted and had to stand trial, Halberstam was subpoenaed to give testimony, unaware then of how Ellsberg came into possession of the documents. But what started out as a look at the life of former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), grew into this definitive account of the reasons for the Vietnam War.
The book follows a carefully guided timeline and the story of Vietnam begins in China before moving on to Korea and eventually Southeast Asia. These parts are critical for they set the stage for foreign policy decisions in the years that followed and explain many of the mistakes that were made. As President Eisenhower winds down his time in office, a new young Catholic Democrat gripped parts of the country as he declared himself the next person to occupy the White House. By the time John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office, the road to Vietnam had already been paved. It is at this point in the book where the pace picks up and never slows down. The concept of the best and the brightest came to Halberstam as he thought of a phrase for Kennedy’s cabinet of intellectuals who were set on reshaping Washington in the image they believed was right to push the country forward. One by one he introduces us to all of the characters that have a role in the story, tracing their origins and helping us to understand how they reached their positions in the government. Some of them are as mysterious as the country’s then paranoia about communism taking over the world. But as they come together, something still is not quite right and Vietnam becomes the issue that will not go away. And for the thirty-three months Kennedy was in office, the American involvement would grow in Indochina but the nation had not yet entered a war. The growing crisis however, had begun to cause a rift in the White House and the deception employed by those loyal to the military and war hawks is eye-raising and chilling. I also believe that it helps explain Kennedy’s murder in November, 1963. We can only guess what would have happened if he had lived. There are those who strongly believe we would have withdrawn from Vietnam. I believe that is what would have happened, probably sooner rather than later. But Kennedy was gone and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the nightmare of Vietnam.
As Johnson settles in to being the new Commander-In-Chief, Indochina becomes a thorn in his side and he becomes conflicted with the decisions he will eventually make. This part of the book is the crux and the key to the final push by the military for a war. Many of Kennedy’s cabinet members continued to stay and at first worked under Johnson. But as time passed and the ugly truths about Vietnam came back from Saigon, they would fade out as Johnson led the nation down the path of escalation. Halberstam is a masterful story-teller and the scenes he recreates from his research are spellbinding. Nearly everyone in the book is now deceased but as I read the book I could not help but to scratch my head at their decisions and actions. The warning signs of Vietnam loomed ominously large but tragically were ignored or discounted. Washington suffered from a tragic twist of fate: although it had the best and the brightest in Washington, they still made mistakes that literally made little sense. And that is a central theme in the book. The war’s architects were all brilliant individuals with endless accolades yet they failed to understand what was considered to be a peasant nation far away from home. Many of them would suffer in one way or another. For Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam eventually became the final nail in the coffin that sealed his chances at reelection.
During the reading of the book, I also noticed at how Halberstam explained the actions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong. In order to understand why Vietnam became a stalemate, it is not just necessary to understand the failures of Washington, but the strategy of Ho Chih Minh and the generals under him. The small peasant nation took on a colossus and refused to give up. And the battles of Vietnam changed warfare and showed the world what many believed to be impossible. Arrogance and in some cases, racist beliefs laid at the base of some foreign policy decisions regarding the war. History has a strange way of repeating itself and the repeated warnings from the French fell on deaf ears as American troops landed in a place many of them knew nothing about. Looking back with hindsight, the critical failures are clearly evident and although Halberstam shows us how we became involved in Vietnam, we are still baffled about why. How could so many minds filled with so much knowledge make such rudimentary and baseless decisions? The answers are here in this book in the form of official cables that withheld information, overzealous military advisors, an unstable South Vietnamese government, National Security Action Memos and the idea that the United States could solve any of the world’s problems. This book is a must-read for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War.