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.
April 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.