It is sometimes called the forgotten war, the conflict which remains in the background as World War I, World War II and Vietnam take center stage as the wars that defined the United States Military and U.S. foreign policy. Unbeknownst to many Americans, the Korean war never officially ended. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 bringing a halt to the firing from all sides. But the armistice did not permanently resolve the conflict and to this day the 38th parallel, instituted after World War II, remains as the dividing line between the Communist North and the Democratic South. Recently, U.S. President Donald J. Trump attended a peace summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Washington claimed the summit a success but only time will tell if the Korean War will officially come to an end and peace is finally obtained. For veterans of the conflict, feelings run deep and mixed thoughts on the summit are bound to exist. Two years ago, a veteran of the war close to my family died after several years of declining health. Curiously, he never spoke of the war, preferring to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself for more than 50 years. And as he went to his grave, he took with him, knowledge of the war and memories that most people would never want to have. But the questions still remain, what caused the conflict and why did war wage for three years? Furthermore, why did the fighting eventually cease?
Author T.R. Fehrenbach (1925-2013) served in the Korean War and was later head of the Texas Historical Commission. In 1963, this book was published, ten years after the fighting had ceased. His memories are crisp and the reporting second to none. He takes us back in time as history comes alive, letting us step inside the war beginning those fateful days in June, 1950 when the North Korea People’s Army invaded its southern neighbor. Under the direction of Kim Ill Sung (1912-1994), North Korea initiated the opening salvo in a war that claimed over two million lives. News of the invasion sent shock waves through Washington and President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was faced with a decision that would change the course of history. On June 30, 1950, he ordered ground troops into South Korea to assist the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK). At the time no one could have imagined what lay in store.
From the beginning the story pulls the reader in as Fehrenbach recounts the Japanese occupation of Korea and the long-lasting effects of Japanese rule on Korean society. In fact, to this day, influences of Japanese culture can still be found in Korea. Following the falls of the Japanese Army in World War II, Korea found itself in a position to chart a new course. But similar to Germany and Japan, the country became a pawn in the chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unsure of what to do with South Korea, the nation remained in a vulnerable position until the North made its move. And once the fighting began, the speed picked up and refused to die down. North Korean and U.N. forces lead by the United States, engaged in deadly combat that saw casualties climb exponentially on both sides. but what was clear from the beginning as we see in the book, is that Korea was an entirely new type of conflict for America.
Savage is the adjective that comes to mind to describe the fighting between opposing nations and ideologies. Beyond brutal, the Korean conflict was akin to hell on earth for all of its participants. And just when we think that the war might swing in the favor of the U.N. forces, the war takes a darker and more dramatic turn as the People’s Republic of China enters the fray changing the scope and the rules of the Korean War. At the time China enters the story, the fighting has already claimed thousands of casualties. But it is at this point that the battle reaches a higher and more deadly level. Quite frankly, the world stood on the verge of the next holocaust. Today we know that did not happen. But why? America had the troops and the money to fund the war but what was it that held back the United States from entering into a full-scale ground assault? The answers are here and this is the crux of the book. Following World War II, American attitudes towards war began to change and Korea was the first testing ground for the gaining influence of politics over armed conflict.
What I liked most about the book is that aside from the statistics of casualties and the descriptions of the deaths that occur in the book and POW internment camps is that Fehrenbach explains how and why events progressed as they did and also why Washington was committed to fighting on a limited scale. The fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was still fresh in the minds of nations across the world. President Truman gave the order to drop the bombs and I believe no one doubted his willingness to use them again if necessary. Whether he would have eventually given the order is unknown as his time in office came to an end and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded him. But for the new president, the conflict still raged and opinion towards the war had become negative. And while peace did come during his term, the body count climbed up until the very last day.
The story of the Korean War is one that is rarely mentioned in textbooks and never discussed today. But this book by Fehrenbach truly is a classic study of the war. In a meticulous and chronological order, he tells the story from start to finish and along the way, incorporates relevant parts of American society and world history into the story. Although not a “textbook” in the classic sense, the book very well could be for it gives a concise explanation for the causes and effects of the war and how it was eventually resolved. If you are interesting in expanding your knowledge of the Korean War, this is the perfect place to start.
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.
The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War- Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, E. W. Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield and James L. Greenfield
The 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.
Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford-Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin
The 20th Century was filled with some of the most earth-shattering events the world has ever seen. The home video shot by Abraham Zapruder that recorded the assassination of John F. Kennedy stands as one of the most important pieces of motion picture ever captured. During that film, as former Firs Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy reaches to the trunk of the car to retrieve a portion of JFK’s skull, a secret service agent can be seen leaping on the trunk of the car as the motorcade sped down the Stemmons Freeway en route to Parkland Hospital. The agent, Clint Hill stands out in the film as only one of two agents to make any major movement to help the fatally wounded Kennedy and Gov. John Connally. Hill would go on to serve three more presidents and today is a best-selling author with several books published about his time working in the United States Secret Service.
Teaming up with Lisa McCubbin, who worked with Hill on his first book, ‘Mrs. Kennedy and Me’ and subsequent memoir ‘Five Days In November’, Hill recounts his experiences during a career that stretched over five administrations, beginning with the legendary Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The secret service of today is far advanced from the days of Eisenhower’s administration and as Hill shows us, the secret service was still developing as the agency tasked with the daily protection of the commander-in-chief. As Eisenhower’s administration comes to an end, a new president takes office and his administration would change Hill’s life forever. Primarily assigned to guard Mrs. Kennedy, she and Hill become close friends and as fate would have it, he was included in the motorcade on November 22, 1963. The murder of JFK and the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson are still surreal and continue to capture the public’s attention as more books are published about that day.
Moving on to Johnson’s administration, we see the stark contrast between the two presidents. But Hill allows us to see the private side of LBJ, not often seen or discussed in books or magazines. He would stay with Johnson throughout the remainder of his term until the top office in the land was assumed by Richard M. Nixon. Nixon’s presidency and the events that followed would shock not only Hill but the entire nation. The Vietnam War and Watergate scandal permanently marked Nixon’s time in office and his resignation is the only one to have ever occurred by a sitting U.S. President. The prior resignation of then Vice-President Spiro Agnew began to erode the already crumbling confidence in the U.S. government. And by the time that Gerald Ford took office, things had reached the point where the nation was threatening to become unhinged. Regardless of their personal shortcomings or questionable judgment calls, Hill stood by each one and recalls his time with each and remarks fondly and gracefully on the proud career he left behind.
This book is not a “smoking gun” about JFK’s murder nor is it a gossip column. It is a memoir by a remarkable person who had an even more remarkable career. His life was and is extraordinary by far and in the book an entire cast of characters make an appearance such as Arnold Palmer, Frank Sinatra and even Elvis Presley. Assassinations and attempted assassinations, infant deaths, racial tension, war and social change are relived as Hill’s memory comes alive. And as he Hill points out, not many agents have worked in as many details as himself making his story all the more valuable as a piece of history recounting America’s most dangerous moments.