Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties – Richard N. Goodwin

GoodwinOn more than one occasion my father has commented that the 1960s was the scariest decade of his life.  The threat of Nuclear War, increasing tensions in Southeast Asia and the growing Civil Rights Movement captivated American society and the world.  During one conversation he turned and said to me “at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we didn’t know if we would live to see tomorrow or die in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union”.  The assassinations of several activists and politicians spread fear across the nation and to many, it seemed as if America was on the verge of total anarchy.  Richard N. Goodwin (1931-2018) worked in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and helped draft some of the most memorable speeches given by the iconic figures.  In 1988 he completed this memoir which was re-published in 2014, of the decade he spent in politics with two presidents and two presidential candidates.  And the result is a spellbinding account of a critical time in American history during which the country underwent profound heartache and change.

Goodwin’s account is in part an autobiography in which he revisits his upbringing as part of a Jewish family in the City of Boston and State of Maryland.   His exposure to racism came early as anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in the Old-Line State.  In stark contrast to his comfortable existence in Boston, Maryland would help shape Goodwin’s views that would remain with him throughout his life.  Age and opportunity is on his side and he is blessed with the fortune of working for former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).  The experience further sharpened Goodwin’s legal and writing skills which later became highly valued and sought after.   As 1960 approached, President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) focused on the remainder of his term and the upcoming election that would determine his successor.  All eyes were on the two candidates engaged in battle for the White House: John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).   The Vice-President at the time, Nixon,  represented all that Goodwin opposed and he had come to like and admire Kennedy who won the election with one of the slimmest margins in history.  The young Irish-Catholic president soon embarked on a mission to change America and usher in “the New Frontier”.   Goodwin became a clutch player and Kennedy’s point man on Latin American affairs.  Some readers will recall that it was Goodwin who met and conversed with famed revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967).  Excerpts of their discussion are transcribed, and the dialogue is interesting for it shows the missed opportunity by Washington to understand the Cuban point of view.   As the story progresses, the two develop a mutual respect and upon learning of Guevara’s death years later, the author laments:

“And I like to think that I would have done what little I could to prevent Guevara’s execution. We were both trapped in the contending forces of a world we had not made; passionate adversaries in the struggle to control the future. Yet I liked the man. He had humor and courage, intellectual gifts and an unmistakable tenderness of spirit. I understood that he also contained ruthlessness, self-defeating stubbornness, and a hatred strong enough to cripple the possibilities of practical action. It is the paradox of the revolutionary that such divergent feelings must coexist in the same man.” 

Cuba proved to be the biggest test of Kennedy’s career in 1961 and again in 1962.  Goodwin takes us behind the scenes to witness the key events from another angle and observe the inner workings of the administration as it grappled with one crisis after another.  His proximity to Kennedy allowed him to make some keen observations about the president and behind the cool public image was was another side to John F. Kennedy.  I can only say that Bobby was not the only Kennedy with a temper.  The actions and reactions by Kennedy shed light on the frustrations of running an administration that struggled to stay in cohesion.  After each debacle Kennedy did shuffle around his cabinet and had become wise to game being played by figures loyal to the establishment.  And Goodwin does not hold back regarding his issues with speechwriter Ted Sorenson (1928-2010).   However, there is no gossip here but only what Goodwin witnessed and knew for certain.  And it is because of this streamlined focus that the story moves forward as fluidly as it does.  Over time, the Kennedy Administration began to fire on all cylinders and the seasoned president began to tighten his grip over Washington.  But with every story about Kennedy’s time in office, there is always the elephant in the room and his trip to Dallas soon approaches.  Goodwin was not with Kennedy that day and can only revisit how he learned of the assassination and the events that took place later that day in Washington.  There is no smoking gun about the crime or conspiracy theories about what happened that day.  Kennedy’s death affected Goodwin deeply and he grieved with millions of Americans.  John F. Kennedy was dead but far from forgotten.  Although his time in office was short he had set into motion a chain of events.  Goodwin is far more eloquent than I and this statement explain’s Kennedy’s importance:

“John Kennedy was not the sixties. But he fueled the smoldering embers, and, for a brief while, was the exemplar who led others to discover their own strength and resurgent energy; their own passion, love, and capacity for hate.”

America had begun the process to give John Kennedy a proper send-off while adjusting to a new leader in the White House. In just a few years, Lyndon B. Johnson would change America in ways no one thought possible. Goodwin had left Washington but soon receives a call from Johnson himself who uses his trademark influence to coerce Goodwin into joining the team.  He accepts and begins to draft statements that Johnson would use to increase his popularity and push legislation through the Senate. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill was a monumental feat but like a master puppeteer, Johnson knew which strings to pull to accomplish the unthinkable.  On July 2, 1964, the bill became reality as Johnson signed it into law and a year later he signed the Voting Rights Act.  Further, he also begun to initiate programs that were part of his vision for American that he famously labeled the “Great Society”.  But a little country in Southeast Asia would change all of that and seal his fate in 1968.  Goodwin was a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of Johnson and sums up the tragic figure he becomes as follows:

“For in the single year of 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Appomattox — Lyndon Johnson reached the height of his leadership and set in motion the process of decline.” 

In 1954, the French military suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and soon withdrew their forces from Indochina.  The staggering amount of U.S. financial aid was not enough to turn the tide against the North Vietnamese Army and the movement spearheaded by Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) known affectionately as “Uncle Ho”. Followin the Geneva Accords, the country was divided into a Communist North Vietnam and Democratic South Vietnam.  Washington continued to eye Hanoi with suspicion and tensions regrettably began to simmer.  Things came to a head in August 1964 as U.S. patrol ships traveling through the Gulf of Tonkin encountered North Vietnamese patrol boats. The events of August 2 and August 4 are still subject to examination, but Johnson used them as a pretext for Congressional approval to escalate the growing war in Vietnam.  Initially, public support is behind Johnson and the fear of the “Domino Theory” combined with misleading intelligence reports resulted in increasing numbers of U.S. troops arriving in Vietnam.  But as we see in the book, the truth about Vietnam could not be hidden forever and became increasingly clear and more disturbing as the war dragged on.  On an interesting note, there were many figures who strongly opposed the war, including Kennedy himself who was highly aware of the dangers of a war.  Goodwin revisits this earlier statement by Kennedy who was still senator at the time and several years away from the throne in Washington:

“No amount of American military assistance in Indochina,” said Senator John Kennedy in April of 1954, “can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”

As 1965 progresses, Lyndon Johnson’s fall from grace begins to accelerate.  Goodwin recalls the series of events that transpire as Vietnam becomes a dark cloud over Washington and the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum.  Although the book is not a biography of Johnson, Goodwin captures the multiple sides of of him perfectly.  And what we see is man self-destructing one step at at time due to a war he cannot end and a country turning against him.  Paranoia soon takes hold and his final descent into madness begins.  Everyone becomes a suspect and unworthy of his confidence and trust. Goodwin would also become the target of his wrath and be accused of being one of those “Kennedy people”.  A sad reality is that throughout his presidency, Johnson struggled with Kennedy’s legacy and never ceased to believe that “they” were out to get him along with the “liberals”.  The revelations by Goodwin are simply mind-boggling and as I read the story, I believe that had Johnson not stepped down, it is possible that a commission might have been formed to study his behavior.  He was clearly losing touch with reality and perhaps the entrance of Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy (1925-1968) into the 1968 election saved Johnson from himself.

After departing from Johnson’s administration and publicly voicing opposition to the war, Goodwin became public enemy number in Johnson’s eyes.  The continuing war and domestic turmoil became too much for Goodwin to accept and he begins to work for presidential candidate and Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) who sought to capture the Democratic nomination for president.  Upon his arrival at the McCarthy campaign headquarters, he soon finds that there is much work to be done. But Goodwin is a seasoned professional and soon helps to transform the campaign into a well-oiled machine. However, the looming threat of a Kennedy campaign is never far away and after the New Hampshire primary, Bobby formally announces his candidacy.  Goodwin is now placed in a difficult position and must make a decision between McCarthy and Kennedy, with whom he had become remarkably close friends. The saga and its aftermath are thoroughly explained by the author whose observations about politics are some of the sharpest I have ever seen.  And Goodwin was correct in his belief that McCarthy was a great candidate, but Bobby was presidential.  As Kenedy’s campaign kicks off, the author witnesses a transformation of the Senator from New York.  Bobby was reinventing himself and challenging any notion that he was not fit for president. In one gripping scene, Goodwin recalls this experience that shows the passion for America that served as the basis for Kennedy’s actions:

“Kennedy asked, “How many of you left school or good jobs to work in the McCarthy campaign?” Almost every hand went up. “How many of you are going to stick with it to the end, even if it goes all the way to November?” Again, nearly all the hands were raised. “I know some of you might not like me,” Kennedy continued, “think I just jumped in to take your victory away. Well, that’s not quite the way I see it. But it doesn’t matter what you think of me. I want you to know that you make me proud to be an American. You’ve done a wonderful thing. I’m only sorry we couldn’t have done it together.” With that Kennedy got up to leave, and, as we began to start down the street, he turned and waved. Every person on the steps waved back.” 

Readers who are interested in Kenney’s campaign will thoroughly enjoy David Halberstam’s (1937-2007) The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy which shows the incredible change in the candidate as the race for Washington heated up.  Like Jack Kennedy, we know that Bobby’s tragic destiny awaits, and I steeled myself as it approached.  Kennedy is riding the wave of popularity and arrives in Los Angeles determined to win California.  He won the state but was shot and mortally wounded after his acceptance speech. Doctors performed emergency surgery but the wounds to Kennedy had proved to be too devastating and ruled out any chance of survival. Goodwin goes in to see his friend for the last time and his description of Kennedy’s final moments in the hospital bring the story to a melancholy conclusion.

When I finally put the book down, I felt as if I had just taken a ride for the ages.  This is an incredible story about pivotal moments in America’s story that continue to play themselves out.  Many years have passed since Robert and John Kennedy were murdered but their messages and the issues they fought for and against are still with us. However, the past is always prologue and I do believe America can and will make great strides.  Goodwin was also a believer in America and in looking back at that decade of the 1960s, he provides the following quote that confirms his optimism:

“We cannot, of course, go back to the sixties. Nor should we try. The world is different now. Yet, two decades have passed since that infinitely horrifying day in Los Angeles which closes this book. And a new generation is emerging. They can pick up the discarded instruments and resume the great experiment which is America. There is no question of capacity, only of will.”  – Richard N. Goodwin 

ASIN : B00L8FBEWO

Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History – Wallace Terry

bloodsThe last time I saw my Uncle William in person, we discussed his time in Vietnam and later discharge from the military in the 1960s.  During a routine physical, it was discovered that he had suffered damage to hearing in one of his ears due to being too close to the 50-caliber machine gun while on patrol.  As a result, his balance and coordination began to suffer, and he was declared not fit for active duty.  He accepted the discharge and found work with the postal service before moving on to the private sector. Over the years he has only talked about Vietnam on a handful of occasions and the stories were typically very brief.  He never went into too much detail but there are couple of stories that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. His experiences are like those of other black veterans of the Vietnam War whose struggles have not received the full attention that they undoubtedly deserve.  Wallace Terry (1938-2003) was a journalist and oral historian who conducted interviews with dozens of veterans and chose twenty of them which are the focus of this book.  It is a detailed look at the life of black soldiers in a war that remains a dark memory in American history. 

Today when we look back at Vietnam, we can clearly see how and why multiple administrations made miscalculations in their approaches to Indochina. Washington never seemed to have clear objective and the threat of communist expansion never materialized into the global threat that the west had long feared. In fact, the story of Vietnam is an example of paranoia and ego, both of which led to the deaths of more than 58,000 American soldiers and over one million Vietnamese deaths. Had Vietnam been a “conventional” war, the attack would have been focused directly on Hanoi with swift and brutal assault. But American military forces found themselves constricted in what was permitted as the People’s Army of Vietnam (“NVA”) and National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam or FNL (“Viet Cong”) stepped up attacks on American forces. Washington wanted to end a war that was not supposed to be a war. And as one vet in the book puts it:

I come to realize really that the purpose of the war was something more than any of the men who were fighting realized at the time. It was like a power play. And the people in charge kept getting overcommitted, overextended, and just didn’t know how to pull out. No matter how patriotic we was fighting it, we was like cannon fodder. And I will always be thinkin’ that way until the government shows me how we benefited from it.”

Specialist 4 Haywood T. “The Kid” Kirkland (Ari Sesu Merretazon) Washington, D.C. Recoilless Rifleman 25th Infantry Division 4th Infantry Division U.S. Army Duc Pho May 1967–April 1968

The veterans are frank in their assessment of the war. And Terry does not intervene in the book but gave the veterans a platform to speak their minds. Some of the stories are nothing short of horrific and I warn readers sensitive to descriptions of violence to use discretion. Most of the veterans came home still physically intact but some were not so lucky. They suffered devastating or life long injuries that constantly reminded them of Vietnam. While reading the book I thought of the late Ronald Stinson of Brooklyn, New York, who was a family friend for many years and a Vietnam veteran. Ron, as we called him, had suffered a shrapnel wound to the face and always kept tissues on hand because his left eye constantly teared up many years after serving. He had a personality that we all loved and even many years later, his death still hurts. All of the veterans in the book paid a heavy price either physically or mentally and, in some cases, both. I found this quote to be a direct and accurate summation of the black experience in Vietnam:

“I don’t think you can call Vietnam a success story for the young blacks who served there. A few stayed in service and did very well. But those who experienced the racism in a war we lost wear a scar. Vietnam left a scar on them that won’t go away. The black soldier paid a special price.” 

Lieutenant Commander William S. Norman Norfolk, Virginia Airborne Controller U.S.S. Ranger November 1963–May 1964 Airborne Controller U.S.S. Coral Sea January 1965–July 1965 Combat Warfare Officer Commander, Carrier Division 3 September 1969–June 1970 U.S. Navy Yankee Station South China Sea

Readers will be searching the elephant in the room and the soldiers do discuss race and how it played a part of their experience. At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was in high gear and the reality of the war began to hit home, it was inevitable that the soldiers would have to contend with it as they tried to stay alive in a war that none of them wanted. And even when they left Vietnam, they face another war at home just to be accepted as human beings and not to be judged on account of their dark skin. Their experiences are a double tragedy of the Vietnam War.

As I read through the account of Haywood Kirkland, I jumped in my seat. Readers who have seen the Hughes Brothers’ film Dead Presidents will instantly recognize where the filmmakers got their inspiration. In fact, the movie is based on the book itself, but Kirkland’s account is clearly the basis for the fictional “Anthony Curtis” played by actor Lorenz Tate. The film is done well although it the levels of profanity and violence are high. However, it does capture the frustration of many black veterans returning home to America after the war. However, while in country, the stakes were high, and blacks knew they had to have each other’s backs as the ugliness of American society made its away more than thirteen thousand miles away as the Confederate Flag and outright hostility served to undercut the morale needed for a successful claim and the military’s claims of being ‘integrated”. As Terry explains:

“They spoke loudest against the discrimination they encountered on the battlefield in decorations, promotion and duty assignments. They chose not to overlook the racial insults, cross-burnings and Confederate flags of their white comrades. They called for unity among black brothers on the battlefield to protest these indignities and provide mutual support. And they called themselves “Bloods.”

Despite the racial tensions back at base, there are positive moments in the book through lifelong friendships formed between veterans of all backgrounds, some of whom had never seen a black of Hispanic person before being drafted into the military. And many veterans are clear to point out that whatever issues they had back at base fell to the side once out on patrol as they had to be a cohesive unit to survive each day. And over time, many came to respect each other through their performances on the battlefield and close living proximity.

There are dozens of books written about Vietnam and many films that showed the war from various perspectives. However, none come close to capturing the black experience as well as this book does. If you want to hear directly from black veterans of the Vietnam War and do not personally know anyone who served, this is the book for you. And even if you do know a black veteran who did serve in Vietnam, this book is a good source of information that will help you understand what that former soldier heard and saw during a conflict that haunts America to this day. 

ASIN : B00ATLA8JS

 

Ho Chih Minh: A Life – William Duiker

UncleHoOn April 30, 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam and Viet Cong forces succeeded in the occupation of the city of Saigon in the wake of withdrawal by United States Armed Forces.  America’s departure marked the end of the Vietnam War and provided the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam with the opporunity to unify North and South Vietnam.  The final act of unification would have been welcomed by the first Prime Minister of North Vietnam Nyguen Ai Quoc who was known to the world as Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969).  Older Vietanemse sometimes refer to him as “Uncle Ho”, a benevolent figure who’s life as devoted to completely independence in Indochina from French and Chinese rule.   Ho Chih Minh has always come across as a slightly mysterious figure and some parts of his life are still unknown.  However, author William Duiker provides an informative and thought-provoking biography that explains Ho’s life and the true tragedy of the Vietnam War.

In 1976, Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chih Minh City in honor of Uncle Ho.  It was a fitting tribute to the man who truly believed in one Vietnam and made it his purpose to see it come to pass. But just who was the real Ho Chih Minh?  One adjective is surely not enough to describe this mysterious figures whom we learn about deeply in this biography.  The author has exhaustive researched the book and his recreation of the key events in Ho’s life during his evolution into a world leader provide the picture needed for readers to understand the thoughts behind his decisions and actions.

Familiarity with the Vietnamese language and/or Vietnamese history is not required but possession of either or one of them may result in the book becoming a more enjoyable read.  I found the story easy to follow and from the start, Ho’s intrigue is irresistable.  Some readers might be thrown off by the number of Vietnamese names in particular the name Nguyen which appears frequently in the first half of the book.  There are other names as well, including several used by Ho Chih Minh.  And the name by which he was internationally known has its own back story that the author makes sure to cover.

As I read through the book, I began to see that the key to understanding Ho Chih Minh undoubtedly begins in the 1920s and 1930s when France kept Indochina under strict rule.  The young revolutionary then known as Nyugen Ai Quoc, had determined from a young age that Vietnamese Independence was the only thing that matter.  After surrender in World War II, the Japanese military was forced to significant troops from previously occupied territory across Asia. The power vacuum created by Japanese withdrawal provided the opening needed for the August Revolution which changed history for good and set the stage for many battles to come.

Ho’s actions following the war and Washington’s responses or lack thereof are some of the most sobering moments in the book and instantly caused me to think of my uncle who served in the Vietnam War.  Anyone who has long sought to understand why the United States became involved in Vietnam will find this book enjoyable. At times I was speechless as I read and at one point back to understand how a war could have been prevented nearly 20 years before happening.  This part of the book is simply mind-blowing.   The battles within the U.S. State Department are just surreal and tragically, warnings given by those who foresaw a deadly war coming in the future, were largely ignored.  I do wonder what would have changed had North Vietnam and Washington been able to find common ground in the wake of World War II.  From the very start, Washington never seemed to fully grasp what it meant to be Vietnamese for Ho and other party members determined to resist the French and other nations committed to  colonial rule in Southeast Asia.

There are some parts of Ho’s life that show up on rare occasion in the story. In fact readers will notice the lack of several things typically found in a biography.  However,  Duiker does points out that Ho Chih Minh was a man of many secrets and some records have probably been lost for good. Perhaps that is by design or just unfortunate evens. The lack of romance in Ho’s life, particularlly after the August Revolution is certainly one of the more puzzling aspects of the story.  And even for the women that do enter his life, their time is brief for Ho has his mind set on Vietnamese independence at all costs.

The Vietnam War rightfully enters the story towards the end of the book. However, Duiker does not go off course and devote too much time to it.  I believe that was a good approach because by extensively discussing the war, it would have distracted from Ho’s personal story.  Further, Ho died in 1969, several years before the fighting ended. And in his later years, his duties had been adjusted by party members who were responsible for the American threat and the development of a new Vietnam.   Regardless, I believe that it is safe to say that there can be no discussion of modern day Vietnam with taking a long look at the life of Uncle Ho that stretched across several continents, included several spoken languages, arrests, questions of paternity and a battle against colonialism.  The Vietnamese movement for independence remains one of the most important struggles in world history and in the process, Ho Chih Minh went from radical student to a leader on the world stage.

ISBN-10: 0786863870
ISBN-13: 978-0786863877

JFK & Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power – John M. Newman

Newman JFK Vietnam March 29, 2019, marked the forty-six anniversary of the departure of the last remaining United States troops in South Vietnam.  Two years after their departure,on April 30, 1975, Siagon fell to North Vietnamese forces as Hanoi tightened its grip around the country.  By the time the war ended, fifty-eight thousand American soldiers had lost their lives in Vietnam.  North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong losses were estimated to be well over one million.  Civilian deaths were even higher in number but despite the large numbers of casualties, North Vietnam refused to surrender and was determined to achieve reunification.  The withdrawal of American troops was a sobering reality and cold hard truth:  the American effort in Southeast Asia had not succeeded.   To this day, there are many people who still wonder how and why the United States became entangled in Vietnam.   The defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 should have served as a reminder that military might is not always a guarantee of success.  In January, 1960, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office and from the beginning of his administration until his death, the issue of Vietnam continued to fester like an open sore. Kennedy died before he could implement any further plans regarding Vietnam and took many secrets with him to his grave.  But declassified documents and political memoirs shed much light on what was really happening in his administration as it grappled to combat the growing Viet Cong menace.

Author John M. Newman is currently in the middle of a multi-volume set regarding Kennedy’s murder. I have reviewed three of them so far and eagerly await the publication of the next volume.  The books are incredible and the amount of information Newman provides is nothing short of staggering.  But as we see here, he a long time player in the game and in 1992, this masterpiece was released.  If you have seen the film ‘JFK’ by Oliver Stone, you will recall the scene where Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) meets the character who calls himself “X” (Donald Sutherland).   What many viewers may not know is that Newman helped Stone create those scenes.  His research served as the basis for the dialogue between the two as X enlightens Garrison to many dark secrets surrounding Kennedy’s plans on Vietnam.  The scenes are moving but do not come close to telling the entire story.  This book however, does that and more and should be on the bookshelf of any reader who has an interest in the Vietnam War and in particular, its origins.

Newman takes us back to 1961 as the Kennedy Administration is recovering in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle.  The seeds of distrust had been sown and when the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to press him on Laos, Kennedy was wise to the game.  But the generals had a backup plan and if Kennedy would not go into Laos, then Vietnam was next on the list.  However, the generals had a tough road ahead and knew that the young president would not give in easily to their demands.  As a result a pattern of deception developed and before long Kennedy and his own administration were at odds over American foreign policy in Saigon.   The depth of that deception will surely surprise many and still has me shaking my head in disbelief.   I had been aware of many facts in the book but Newman brings even more to light.

The book is exhaustively researched and the information contained within it will cause shock and anger.  But what I liked the most about the book is while Newman makes the case for what Kennedy was thinking about Vietnam at the time of his death, he is also frank about where Kennedy made mistakes that helped contribute to an already precarious situation.  In all fairness to Kennedy, he never had the opportunity to defend himself regarding his decisions on Vietnam.  But the paper trial he left behind, shows definitive actions he took and intended to take as he grappled with South Vietnam and a cabinet that had split down the middle.

The key to understanding how the deception started is to understand how intelligence was being gathered in Southeast Asia.  Newman breaks down the various divisions in military command and the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Kennedy’s advisors are also on the hook and the actions of several of them add even more shock value to an already incredibly eye-opening account.  The realization that members of  his administration were deeply divided and at odds with each other, hovers like a dark cloud over the story as the crisis in South Vietnam unfolds.  All of the members of his administration are now deceased and we can only wonder as to why they committed some of the actions that they did.

No book about Vietnam would be complete without a discussion of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.  Both played a critical role in the development of the war and Newman provides a thorough explanation as to why the brothers were important to American success in Vietnam and where they went terribly wrong. The coup that resulted in their deaths, changed the course of history and gave the war a new face.  A few weeks after their assassinations, Kennedy himself was assassinated.  And although there is no proven link between the two events, actions of several figures in high positions in the time period between the two murders are quite suspicious and will surely cause readers to take notice.

Without giving away too much information, I would like to say that readers will benefit by paying close attention to the National Security Action Memos (NSAMs) signed by Kennedy regarding his policy on Vietnam.  They speak volumes and should paint a clearer picture of the forces he was up against.   National Security Actions Memos 55, 56, 57 and 111 are pivotal for they directly addressed many of the pressing issues Kennedy was facing at home and abroad.  The author discusses each so that the reader can easily understand the many nefarious elements that had been influencing foreign policy in some of the most scrupulous of ways.

Seasoned readers might be wondering where Lyndon Johnson fits into the story.  His role is covered here and the suspicious actions on his part are paid close attention to.  The war escalated greatly under his administration but we can only wonder how much Johnson knew and Kennedy did not.  Newman does not discuss any Kennedy assassination theories or give any attention to any suggestions of LBJ being complicit in the crime.  But what he does show is that the vice president certainly had an agenda of his own and it would be shown after the events in Dallas.  National Security Action Memo 263 is one of the book’s most critical moments and readers should pay extremely close attention to this part of the story that highlights the stark differences between the late and sitting presidents and their views on the raging conflict in South Vietnam.

A common question I have heard from Vietnam veterans and others who lived through the war is why were Americans being sent 13,000 miles away from home to fight a war against a country many of them had never heard of?   It is a critical question and I believe that Newman has many of the answers they seek.  By no means is the book a complete account of the war. In fact, I believe a better overall account of the entire conflict would the best-selling ” The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War“.   The authors there discussed Kennedy’s administration but concluded that they could not say for sure what Kennedy would have done regarding Vietnam due to his assassination in Dallas.  Newman takes it further and I believe that he clears up much of the mystery surrounding Kennedy’s record on Southeast Asia.

Many years have passed since the Vietnam War ended but for millions of veterans, the wounds and dark memories remain.  Some were sent to Vietnam not yet twenty years of age to a foreign country in which death was prevalent.  They watched their friends die in gruesome manners and were exposed to the horrors of war in a conflict that did not seem to have an endgame.  North Vietnam and the Viet Cong showed Washington that it would not be an “easy” war.  Hanoi was determined to succeed in unifying the country and no amount of United States pressure or troops would change that mission.  In the end, Hanoi did succeed and America was left to wonder what went wrong.   As we move forward as a nation, let us not forget the tragedy of Vietnam which serves as an example of the dangers of misguided and intentionally deceitful foreign policy that changes nations and history.  Newman absolutely nailed the subject in this incredible book that will surely satisfy anyone who decides to open it up.

ASIN: B01N7YNXQ6

Hue: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam – Mark Bowden

BowdenSeveral months ago, my uncle and I had a discussion about aging and how health becomes more important as the years pass by.  He recalled when he left the military following his service in Vietnam.   His hearing is permanently damaged as a result of being stationed near the 50 caliber machine gun while out on patrol.  Over the years, he has spoken about Vietnam on rare occasions but I know for a fact that he and millions of other veterans of the war, carry with them many dark memories and emotional scars from their time in a war that has been viewed negatively for several decades.  Author Mark Bowden revisits the war in this phenomenal account of the battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  My uncle was not stationed in Hue but in another part of the country and has told me many things about the war that made my skin crawl.  For the United States Armed Forces, the battle of Hue and the Tet Offensive changed the war in Vietnam and the for the first time, it became increasingly clear, that this was a war that America could possibly lose.

Bowden opens the book by setting the stage for the events that led up to Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration that marks the first day of the lunar new year.  American forces led by Gen. William Westmoreland (1914-2005) had assumed that Khe Sanh would be the place where the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would launch a surprise attack during Tet.  Some downplayed the attack as rumors with no basis of truth.   However, when the NVA launched its operation on January 30, 1968, it was a wake up call for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and Washington, where President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) became haunted by a war with no ending in sight.  The book picks up pace at this point and it never slows down.

Instantly I was pulled into the story. Memories of Olive Stone’s ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ by Stanley Kubrick came back to me as different but very vivid portrayals of the conflict in Vietnam.  Both films are classics but neither touches in depth on the Tet Offensive.  This book is different and what Bowden reveals shows a side of the war that neither filmmaker had enough time or resources to cover.  The story at hand follows the Marines and Hue is ground zero. The battle was bloody, protracted and tragic for both sides.  The concept of a happy ending does not apply here.  In fact, not one person Bowden interviewed, viewed the war in a positive light.   What I did find was that there is bitterness, heartache and the question of why the United States became entangled in Vietnam to begin with.  It is a question America has struggled to answer.  Former Rand employee Daniel Ellsberg revealed much of what Washington was thinking when he provided confidential memos that have become known as the The Pentagon Papers.  The memos are striking and reveal monumental failures among the brightest minds in Washington.  We may never know all of the details regarding the decisions to become engaged in Southeast Asia.

I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart.   The injuries and deaths among the Marines are nothing short of horrific.  We meet many of them, learn about their lives and follow the paths they took to Vietnam.  Some of them do not survive and for those that do, Hue became a permanent memory that would haunt them for years to come.  What shocked me, among many things, were the ages of the Marines we become acquainted with.  Some are as young as 18 years of age and deposited into a place that they see as hell on earth.  The scenes are savage and young men are forced to make decisions and carry out orders that cause them to question what is truly right and wrong. The common adage is that war is hell and it certainly applies here.

The author focuses not only on the battle at Hue but also on the domestic issues raised in the United States.  While Gen. Westmoreland, known to many as “Westy” gave figures on the death toll and the successes of U.S. troops, many were skeptical including the late American journalist Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), whose trip to Vietnam is covered in the book.  Americans had started to learn that something was not quite right about the reports coming back from Saigon and Cronkite became one of the leading voices in holding Washington accountable to what was happening to the boys overseas. Cronkite’s  findings and Johnson’s realizations are one of the pivotal parts of the book and for the troops in Vietnam, a sobering reality.

The book is primarily centered around Hue and is not intended to be a full discussion of the war’s origin.  In fact, the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969),  makes only a brief appearance in the story.   The author never loses focus and the story remains on the dedicated Marines, the constant reality of death and the mission to retake the City of Hue.  Throughout the book, we come to know many of them intimately and towards the end, Bowden relays what happened to some of them after leaving Vietnam and how they adjusted to life back in the United States.  Each does their best to put Vietnam behind them upon rotating back to America.   As I read the book, I could not help but to wonder where many other veterans of the conflict are.  Undoubtedly, some are now deceased but there are many others who served and fought in Hue who have done their best to forget that experience.  This book is a testament to the bravery and perseverance required by the Marines in Hue.  It is also a painful look at the misguided policies of Washington that plunged America into a conflict with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

After finishing the book, I thought of the the Ken Burn’s Netlfix documentary series The Vietnam War, which I watched several months ago.  The series is riveting and Burns captures the era and conflict perfectly through remastered archival footage and interviews with those who served.  It is an amazing work of art and highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the Vietnam War.

ASIN: B071Y87H9H

The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War- Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, E. W. Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield and James L. Greenfield

ellsbergThe names of the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War that are found on the memorial in Washington, D.C., are a reminder of a conflict deemed by many to be the worst the United States has ever been involved in.  The withdrawal of U.S. forces in March, 1973, brought a sigh of relief to the American public which had long grown tired of a war with no end in sight.  The dark truth which we now know is that we did not by any means accomplish the mission.  And the mighty American war machine failed to secure a victory. I have met many veterans of the war and have an uncle who served.  What I recall most about all of them is that they do not speak of their experiences while in combat.  I know the memories are there and for some of them, they were unable to leave parts of the war behind.  Today we call it PTSD, but back then you simply found a way to move forward in life.   But why were they in Vietnam to being with?  Was the domino effect really a threat to the United States?

On May 11, 1973, Daniel Ellsberg found himself the talk of the town as charges pending against him for espionage were dismissed by U.S. District Judge William Byrne. He had been indicted for leaking what became known as The Pentagon Papers, the subject of this book and the topic of the movie The Post starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.  The New York Times, after several battles in court, was finally allowed to move forward with its plan to publish The Pentagon Papers and contained in the pages of this book are the documents that the U.S. Government tried in earnest to hide from the American public under the guise of “national security”.   Ironically, the facts that are revealed in this book have absolutely nothing to do with national security but rather several presidential administrations that failed to find a workable solution to Indochina.

The late Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) has been called the architect of the war and was loathed by many because of it. However, the title is misleading and in some ways unfair. The war had many architects either by wishful thinking, uncontrolled ego or naiveté.  What is truly ironic is that as the war waged on, McNamara became a strong voice of dissent.  And in spite of what we have been led to believe, our existence in Indochina began many years before 1965.  The story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam is a long tale, filled with hard truths, false truths, deception and ultimately failure.  But this is how it happened and why.

The papers are divided into several sections which correspond to a different aspect of the conflict.  The administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson are examined to understand what each cabinet did and did not do as it grappled with the growing headache.   Step-by-step Southeast Asia opens up as black hole as more advisors are committed, instability rages in South Vietnam and war hawks finally get their wish as the United States jumped nearly feet first into a jungle conflict that proved to be nothing short of disastrous.  Rolling Thunder, troop deployments and South Vietnamese politics are just some of the issues that antagonized Washington for nearly a decade.

If you served in Vietnam, I forewarn you that the book might anger you in many ways. For others, this is a critical source of information in order to understand the war from a behind the scenes view.   We are often told that the military fights to protect the country and our freedoms that we take for granted.  But did a nation over 13,000 miles from U.S. soil really pose a threat to the most powerful nation on earth at the time? And what would we have accomplished if we had in fact won the conflict?   Perhaps Vietnam would have become a second Korea, partitioned between a communist controlled North-Vietnam and a U.S. controlled South-Vietnam.   Following the U.S. withdrawal, Saigon fell and the North achieved its goal of reunification.  Today the war is a distant memory for young Vietnamese but for the older generation, many painful memories remain.  The figures in the book are long gone but their actions will stay with us and the Vietnam war will always be a regrettable example of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.

ISBN-10: 1631582925
ISBN-13: 978-1631582929

The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam-Douglas Valentine

douglas-valentine-phoenix-programThe wars that have been fought by mankind contain many secrets that have survived the test of time.  Hindsight has become society’s treasured tool in investigating the past to learn what really happened.  The Vietnam War is among the most unpopular conflicts in American history.   The war continues to haunt the United States as a reminder of failed foreign policy and according to some as a premonition of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As we look back on the Vietnam War, we come to learn about the very dark side of the American involvement in Southeast Asia and the devastation that occurred when two nations collided in a struggle that pitted ideology against weapons at war. Douglas Valentine, author of The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, returns with this account of his research into The Phoenix Program, which for many years remained a mystery to those outside of military and political circles.  But just what was the Phoenix Program and how much of it as true?

The story begins with a gentlemen named Elton Manzione, who is a former member of the armed forces. Manzione claims to have been part of the program but Valentine readily states that his service records do not show him being a part of the program or in country at the time.   For some readers that may be enough to disregard what follows but the key to following the book is not Manzione’s story but the complex web that composed the program itself.  I forewarn the reader that the number of acronyms is staggering. If you have served in the military or are a Vietnam Veteran, then you will probably be familiar with many of the terms. But for the average reader, many of them will be unfamiliar and a challenge to remember.  Regardless, the story is interesting but I do believe many parts of it will be lost to history.  But what we can learn from the book is that there did in fact exist a program whose purpose was to infiltrate North Vietnamese and Viet Cong strongholds through the use of counterintelligence and other black operations.  Somewhere along the line, things took a dark turn and many regrettable incidents took place that forever cast a dark cloud over any success the Phoenix Program may have had.

To be fair to Valentine, the book is not simply an account of atrocities that occurred.  The My Lai Massacre and other incidents have been documented and the accounts are not for readers who do not possess a strong composition.  Valentine does provide broad descriptions of shocking incidents but spares the reader of extensive and more revolting details.  The book can be tedious to read and requires that the reader follows along closely to get a visual of the many parties in operation in both North and South Vietnam.  But the key to understanding the book is not to memorize all of the names but to follow the bigger picture.  What is paramount to remember is that many honorable men and women served in Vietnam, some of them part of the Phoenix Program.  They in particular might agree with Valentine or feel that his book is way off base.   There were also darker elements of the U.S. military apparatus and intelligence communities whose actions during the war could possibly be considered war crimes.  And through Valentine’s work, we are forced to inquire about the real objective of the United States Armed Forces in Vietnam.  We will never know many secrets of the war but books such as this provide a look inside of some of the more controversial aspects of America’s most unpopular war.

ISBN-10: 1504032888
ISBN-13: 978-1504032889

Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam-James A. Warren

20180603_011021April 30, 1975-The city of Saigon, the capital of  South Vietnam, falls to the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.  The siege of the capital is the final push by North Vietnam on the course towards reunification. The final withdrawal by U.S. military and government personnel marks the of a deadly and protracted war that cost 58,000 American lives and over 1 million Vietnamese lives.  To date, it is the only loss suffered by the United States Armed Forces.  The success of North Vietnam is a shining moment in the Vietnamese struggle for independence for colonialism by France and the anti-communism policies of the United States.  Ho Chih Minh becomes a legend in Vietnamese history and many years later Saigon is renamed in his honor.  Ho died on September 2, 1969, several years before the war’s conclusion, but his ideology and belief in a free Vietnam helped his successors continue his goal of unconditional victory.  Looking back at the war, it seems almost absurd that a country the size of Vietnam was able to resist and defeat efforts by the French and Americans to impose their will.  Both nations were equipped with better weapons, bigger budgets and highly skilled armies.  However on the Vietnamese side, there was a general who proved to be just as sharp as any the French or the United States had to offer.  And by the end of the war, he would also become a legend in his own right.  His name was Võ Nguyên Giáp. (1911-2013)

Giáp was one of the 20th centuries modern marvels.  Having lived to 102 years of age, he remained the sole survivor from the time in which several nations battled each other for control over Indochina.  His death on October 4, 2013 brought closure to a time in history that changed the world and the view of the American military.  James A. Warren has taken another look at the wars in Vietnam in order to examine how this dynamic general helped the People’s Army of Vietnam accomplish two successful military campaigns. It should be noted that the book is not a biography of  Giáp.  It is strictly about his contributions in the wars.  There are other books on Giáp and he wrote several himself.  What Warren has done with this book is to take the reader step by step throughout each war to see and understand how and why the wars developed and why the aggressors ultimately failed in their missions to seize control of Vietnam.

Numerical data is critical to any military commander with victory in mind.  It is assumed that in order to beat your enemy you must eliminate more of them and they do of you. Warren highlights the data to show us how the age-old strategy of elimination by numbers  was virtually impossible in Vietnam. The policies of limited warfare and a Vietnamese nation intent on defending itself until the end through its military and guerrilla fighters. combined to formed a bottomless hole which threatened to first engulf France and subsequently the United States.  With an unlimited amount of soldiers at his disposal,  a superior knowledge of Vietnam’s terrain and a shrewd mind, Giáp evolves in the book as one of the true greats in military history.  And to the Vietnamese, he is one that nation’s greatest figures forever standing tall with the late Uncle Ho.  For those seeking to understand the Vietnamese success in the Vietnam wars, this is a good place to start.

ISBN-10: 0230107125
ISBN-13: 978-0230107120

 

 

 

Born On The Fourth of July-Ron Kovic

KovicOn January 20, 1968, Ron Kovic was shot and critically injured while leading a reconnaissance mission near the village of My Loc north of the Cua Viet River.  The injury leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.   After being transported back to the United States, he is moved to the Bronx VA hospital and witnesses first had the substandard treatment given to soldiers injured in the conflict.  Upon his discharge, the young marine leaves the hospital a changed man forever, no longer an innocent 18-year-old kid with dreams of being a rough and tough marine. As outcry against the war continued to grow and he began to read literature given to him by his cousin’s husband, his views on the war began to change and he eventually became one of the most outspoken anti-war activist in country.

This autobiography is Kovic’s life story and what he has learned before and after Vietnam.  The Long Island native of Massapequa, brings us back to a time where communism was the paranoia gripping the country and southeast Asia, the hotbed of U.S. military intervention.  The book at times is haunting and reminds the reader of the horrors of war.  Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he revised the book adding a new foreword.   Thirteen years have passed since the invasion of Iraq, but Kovic’s words were prophetic and his wisdom unchallenged.  Movies and documentaries sometimes glorify war, but this is the view from a side we often never see.  A deeply moving account, Kovic is the living example of the horror of war that can afflict any young man or woman.  His story is so moving that in 1989, director Oliver Stone released ‘Born On The Fourth of July’, Kovic’s life story in which he is played by actor Tom Cruise.   The film remains a personal favorite and chilling look into a dark side of war.

ISBN-10: 1888451785
ISBN-13: 978-1888451788

The Short Timers-Gustav Hasford

hasfordThe late Stanley Kubrick left behind a collection of films that have stood the test of time and have been used as inspiration by filmmakers to this day.   Known for such hits as The Shining and A Clockwork Orange,  his legacy continues to grow in American cinema.  In  July, 1987, Warner Brothers released Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick’s gritty portrayal of the Vietnam War focusing on the Marines and their role in the conflict.  The film is considered a classic and the performances by several actors are still revisited today.   Presented in two parts, the first shows the young men as they learn to become marines and the second, their experience in the war.  The film, as it is widely know, is based on of this novel by the former and late Marine Gustav Hasford (1947-1993).

Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, the short novel pulls the reader in refusing to let go.  We are introduced to the characters of Joker, Cowboy, Animal Mother, Rafter Man, Doc Jay and Capt. January, all of whom make an appearance in the film adaptation.  The notable differences are the characters of Sgt. Gerheim and Alice.  In the film they are changed to Sgt. Hartman and Eightball.  Because the book was written by a former Marine, military jargon, comradeship and the pride that comes with being a Marine is found throughout the book.  Hasford did a masterful job of taking the reader into the battle zones with Joker, Alice, Animal Mother and the unit to witness the terror, fear and carnage that is war.   He followed up this book with ‘The Phantom Blooper’ and had planned a third book but died before it could be written.  This novel has been called the best work of fiction about the Vietnam War and Full Metal Jacket is a film full of unforgettable performances and memorable scenes.  Next to Oliver Stone’s  Platoon and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it remains one of the best films about the Vietnam War.   However, Hasford’s novel is even better and those who love the film will find this book to be priceless.

ISBN-10: 0553267396
ISBN-13: 978-0553267396