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Vietnam, Revisionist History


Tim Gratz
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Here is a review of a revisionist history of early Vietnam war. IMO the JFK-sanctioned coup against Diem may have been the biggest mistake of his presidency. As noted in the review, the main people who pushed JFK to support a coup were Henry Cabot Lodge (whom JFK had defeated for the US Senate in 1952) and Averall Harriman. Of course Halberstam was not a traitor as LBJ called him, but he was wrong about Diem. The overthrow of Diem had tragic consequences for US involvement in Vietnam.

The article notes that the New York Times refuses to review the book. Assassination researchers frustrated with the Times' unwillingness to confront the real issues of the JFK case should be able to sympathize regardless of your view on the thesis of the book.

This review appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator.

Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965

By Mark Moyar

(Cambridge University Press, 542 pages, $32)

A GOOD FRIEND VISITED Vietnam some years back, and returned telling me about his tour of the underground tunnel systems that the Viet Cong had built for protection against American bombs. The intricacy of the tunnels reinforced for him the image of the Viet Cong as an implacable foe that would fight America forever if necessary, no matter what the cost. "We were never going to win that war," he insisted, knowing that I still didn't buy it.

Buying it is easy, though, when the orthodox Vietnam narrative is so embedded in our culture. It goes something like this: Vietnam, an ancient Southeast Asian civilization, had fought against outside intruders, primarily the Chinese, for most of its history. In the 19th century the French arrived and became the country's rulers. Only after World War II did the Vietnamese throw off the colonial yoke, winning a long war against the French in 1954. That struggle was led by Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese nationalist whose goal was a unified, independent Vietnam. Ho was also a Communist, but ideology was only a means to an end. If the Americans had embraced Ho, he might have become an Asian Tito, a Communist leader working independent of Soviet or Chinese influence. But the United States instead threw its support to South Vietnam, propping up a corrupt and often brutal dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, whose repressive tactics brought discredit to the anti-Communist cause. Misreading the importance of Vietnam, foolishly buying into the domino theory, myopic about the distinctions in the Communist world between the Soviets and Chinese, and unable to understand that it faced a nationalist foe that would not surrender, the United States escalated its involvement. Even with enormous commitment of troops and resources, the U.S. suffered the nation's first defeat in warfare, sparking a social and political upheaval at home and providing a cautionary lesson for the uses of military force. And all that for a country that wasn't vital to the United States' policy goals. Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You had better sit down, because Mark Moyar says you've got it all wrong. Here goes:

Vietnam was indeed dominated by China, but the Chinese allowed a fair amount of autonomy in exchange for tribute, and the two countries fought only three wars in the nearly thousand years before the troubled 20th century. Ho Chi Minh was never going to become an Asian Tito, because Ho was a Communist above all, dedicated to the goal of international revolution. He adhered closely to Chinese directives, and also received considerable support from the Soviet Union. The corrupt dictator that America supported, Diem, was a near-great man, a leader of formidable intellect and political courage. But because he was such a staunch nationalist, Diem was always clashing with his sponsor -- the U.S. -- even though he knew that he could not prevail without American assistance. The American war planners understood early on that Communism was not a monolith, and that the potential for a split existed between the Soviets and Chinese. They focused on the danger of falling Asian dominoes, a concern borne out by the intentions of the Chinese and North Vietnamese, as well as the political fragility of many countries in the region and their leaders' fears of a U.S. abandonment of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and their allies were susceptible to discouragement when the U.S. took strong action. Vietnam was not "a foolish war fought under wise constraints," writes Moyar, "but a wise war fought under foolish constraints."

Moyar, an associate professor at the U.S. Marine Corps University in Quantico, is not the first to argue from what has become known as the revisionist position, but he has the advantage of much newly available source material from both sides of the conflict. Triumph Forsaken is the first of an expected two-volume study. It ends at July 1965, when Lyndon Johnson announced the first large-scale increase of U.S. combat troops -- a point at which, in Moyar's view, the best chances for American success had already passed, though victory was still within reach.

The U.S. failed in no small part because we viewed the Vietnamese through Western eyes-not a surprising fault, but terribly damaging nonetheless. The main source of discord between Diem and the U.S. was Diem's refusal to be as democratic as the Americans wished, even though Diem presided over a traditional culture that revered authority and did not have democratic traditions. "You may find that South Vietnam is not quite America," Diem protested to a reporter, with typical understatement. The Americans felt that Diem's authoritarianism cost him political support, but Moyar points out that the Vietnamese tended to side with the strongest ruler, one who had "moral prestige" and brought order.

THIS CULTURAL DIVIDE was best demonstrated by the Buddhist uprising of 1963, which played such an important role in destroying American support for Diem. New information from the North Vietnamese indicates that the protest movement was significantly infiltrated and spurred on by the Communists. The protests' leader, Tri Quang, was likely a Communist operative, though North Vietnam has never conceded this. The self-immolation of monk Quang Doc -- the iconic photos of which so shocked the West -- may have been coerced by the Communists, Moyar suggests. Military raids on the pagodas restored order and put down the unrest, but key figures in the Kennedy administration, as well as American journalists like the young David Halberstam, were disgusted by Diem's tactics. Both, in their own ways, worked to make a coup inevitable.

The main plotters against Diem in Washington were Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman at the State Department and Michael Forrestal of the National Security Council, who collaborated with the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Republican Henry Cabot Lodge. President Kennedy appointed Lodge ambassador in part to get him out of the country, as he was widely viewed as a potential rival in 1964. To avoid partisan charges from Lodge about his conduct of the war, Kennedy gave the ambassador a wide berth -- and Lodge made it wider through his brazen freelancing and misapplication of presidential directives. Working with South Vietnamese generals, Lodge helped engineer the coup that ousted Diem from power, and killed him, in November 1963, just weeks before Kennedy's assassination. Ho's reaction was telling: "I can scarcely believe that the Americans would be so stupid." [Emphasis supplied.]

David Halberstam, whose The Best and the Brightest is a cornerstone of orthodox history of the war, died this past April. He was lauded in the New York Times, the paper for which he had reported from Saigon, "as a gifted storyteller who was determined to tell his readers the truth." For Moyar, Halberstam's devotion to truth was slipshod at best, though he certainly was good at telling stories, many based on information from corrupt sources, including Communist agents. Halberstam's relentless undermining of Diem in the New York Times included inaccurate battlefield reports, gross exaggerations of both the size of the Buddhist population in Vietnam and government violence against the protesters, and false reports of dissension within the army's officer corps. His work, Moyar argues, affected the generals' confidence in Diem, especially since they saw the Times as the organ of the American government's position. In truth, opinion was more divided back in Washington. Kennedy, who comes off as weak and not in charge of policy, was despondent when he got news of Diem's murder. Lyndon Johnson later said of Halberstam, "That man is a traitor... they give Pulitzer Prizes to traitors nowadays."

The elimination of Diem is the original sin in this book, and as Moyar would have it, of the entire Vietnam War, coloring everything that followed.

Yet even after Diem's demise, Moyar makes clear that the U.S. still had many options in 1964 and 1965. Johnson, however, frittered away precious time with "proportionate" responses to the North's increased belligerence, and the Communists began to take the president at his word that he wanted "no wider war." Only in July 1965 did he feel forced to make his move. By then, allies like General Marjadi of Indonesia, among others, had urged him along, telling him that "Asia respects power, and has no respect for weakness or for strong people afraid to act."

Johnson spoke with another general in 1965 -- former president Dwight Eisenhower, who gave him prescient advice: "When you go into a place merely to hold sections or enclaves," he said, "you are paying a price and not winning.... This is a war, and as long as [the North Vietnamese] are putting men down there, my advice is 'do what you have to do!'" The old general disliked the idea oflimited war, and preferred to "go after the head of the snake instead of the tail." If the South Vietnamese suffered without Diem, the U.S. sorely missed the guidance of an Eisenhower, whose strength and judgment were not nearly so common as he made them appear.

Any book with as relentless a catalogue of mistakes as this one invites the question of hindsight. Moyar discusses U.S. reluctance to take more aggressive action against North Vietnam in 1964-65, fearing that it would provoke the Chinese into sending combat forces and create another Korea. Johnson was haunted by Douglas MacArthur's erroneous prediction that the Chinese would not get into the Korean fighting. Moyar's scholarship indicates, however, that the Chinese dreaded another Korea even more than the Americans did (emboldened by U.S. timidity, they would eventually send divisions to protect North Vietnam). Johnson's concerns, Moyar writes, were "based not on real evidence of China's current intentions and capabilities, but rather on a general fear of history repeating itself and the recognition that an enemy... can react in unpredictable ways." True enough. But Moyar might have acknowledged history's tragic dimension by noting the difficulty of making high-stakes judgments in real time, hindered by imperfect information and painful memories of the recent past.

In our own time, of course, Vietnam is the painful recent past, and the orthodox view has colored many interpretations of our current difficulties in Iraq. It is unlikely Vietnam can teach us much, though, if our understanding of the conflict is still so incomplete. Orthodox Vietnam historians, Moyar writes, tend to dismiss revisionists as politically motivated, since the issues surrounding the war, in their view, have long since been settled. The New York Times has not reviewed Moyar's book, even though it is a major work that makes clear that this is not the case. Triumph Forsaken throws down a mighty challenge to orthodox historians; they should engage Moyar instead of ignoring him. As they ought to know, truth is its own reward, but it can also be damn practical.

Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal. This review appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator.

Edited by Tim Gratz
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Orthodox Vietnam historians, Moyar writes, tend to dismiss revisionists as politically motivated, since the issues surrounding the war, in their view, have long since been settled.

All history books are politically motivated. That includes revisionists or apologists for clearly failed policies. Of course supporters of the invasion of Iraq want to believe that if US troops stayed in Vietnam for 20 years it would now be a fully functioning democracy. No doubt in 20 years time revisionist historians would be arguing that this could have been achieved in Iraq if US troops had stayed longer. However, unlike in a military dictatorship, a democracy does not allow its leaders to follow such a policy. People are not willing to have their sons killed over a long period for such an objective. It would be different if these soldiers were not part of an occupying army but were defending their own country from attack such as with Britain between 1939-45. However, even the Second World War only lasted six years.

The book reviewer does not consider why the Vietnam War took place. According to people like Johnson and Goldwater, the US troops were preventing communism spreading to the US. The so-called “Domino Theory”. Did this happen when the US pulled out of Vietnam. No, it was a myth. Those 58,000 US soldiers died as a result of political propaganda. As a supporter of this political disaster, I would have thought that and your political ideologues should keep quiet about the Vietnam War.

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John, as the review and book make clear, the road to disaster started with the JFK-sponsored removal of Diem (as I said a lot of blame falls on Republican Henry Cabot Lodge) and continued with LBJ's failure to follow the prescient advise of Dwight David Eisenhower. Vietnam was a disaster engineered by Robert Strange McNamara. But by 1973, the South Vietnamese government could have held its own but for Congress refusing to provide it with any more material support. Of course, at the time RN was powerless due to his mistakes in Watergate.

The North Vietnamese victory spelled disaster for the people of Vietnam for many years. The US loss in Vietnam was more a loss for the people of Vietnam than it was for the United States.

Yes, it makes no sense to lose 58,000 Americans in a losing war (and how about the millions of Vietnamese lost in the war). But had we supported Diem in 1963, and fought with the advise of DDE (fight to win, don't fight a war of defense only the war could have ended differently with far fewer casualties.

For the record, I never supported the policies of LBJ and Robert Strange McNamara--McNamara who supported increaasing troop strength for a war he believed we could not win!

RR showed how to win the Cold War--not by policies of "containment" but by putting the Communists on the defense. That was what was needed in Vietnam. Even RN did not get it.

If the US should "win" in Iraq (an outcome that I know will nauseate you, John) then Bush's presidency will be applauded by the historians. Had LBJ succeeeded in ending the war victoriously by 1968, he would have been re-elected in a heartbeat. It is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback.

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John, as the review and book make clear, the road to disaster started with the JFK-sponsored removal of Diem (as I said a lot of blame falls on Republican Henry Cabot Lodge) and continued with LBJ's failure to follow the prescient advise of Dwight David Eisenhower.

I suggest you read David Kaiser’s book American Tragedy on the overthrow of Diem. He uses the released documents to show why JFK agreed with the removal, but not assassination, of Diem. His advisors told him that the US government was supporting a corrupt dictator who had lost the support of the population because of his persecution of the Buddhists. The idea that these monks who were setting fire to themselves because they were communist dupes is laughable. JFK came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to keep South Vietnam non-communist unless he could create a government that was acceptable to the majority of the people. This was also the view of JFK’s advisers who had been influenced by the events in Cuba.

But by 1973, the South Vietnamese government could have held its own but for Congress refusing to provide it with any more material support. Of course, at the time RN was powerless due to his mistakes in Watergate.

You are rewriting history here. Nixon went into the 1968 election promising the US people that he would bring the troops out of Vietnam. In reality he escalated the war in an attempt to leave with “honour” and therefore giving the impression that the war had been won. This was an impossible PR exercise and he was eventually forced to order his troops to runaway from the battlefield.

Yes, it makes no sense to lose 58,000 Americans in a losing war (and how about the millions of Vietnamese lost in the war). But had we supported Diem in 1963, and fought with the advise of DDE (fight to win, don't fight a war of defense only the war could have ended differently with far fewer casualties.

You are living in a dream world. The US could never have won in Vietnam. When are you going to learn the lesson of guerrilla warfare? The most advanced military armed forces are powerless against it. It is because you have not learnt the lessons of Vietnam that you are in the mire of Iraq.

RR showed how to win the Cold War--not by policies of "containment" but by putting the Communists on the defense. That was what was needed in Vietnam. Even RN did not get it.

Did that work with China? Twenty-five percent of the world’s population live in a state ruled by a communist dictatorship. China is also the fastest growing economy and will eventually replace the US as the world’s main superpower. So much for the US winning the Cold War?

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John wrote:

I suggest you read David Kaiser’s book American Tragedy on the overthrow of Diem. He uses the released documents to show why JFK agreed with the removal, but not assassination, of Diem. His advisors told him that the US government was supporting a corrupt dictator who had lost the support of the population because of his persecution of the Buddhists. Note below, but that is not what RFK told him, and subequent events proved his "advisors" (Harriman and Lodge) wrong.

Contrast Kaiser's opinion with that of the book's author:

The Americans felt that Diem's authoritarianism cost him political support, but Moyar points out that the Vietnamese tended to side with the strongest ruler, one who had "moral prestige" and brought order.

As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating (did I get that right?). Kennedy's advisers were wrong about Diem. Witness the many regime changes that S Vietnam went through in a period of less than a year after Diem was deposed. The mistaken coup destabilized our ally. Like the other old saying goes, don't change horses in the middle of the stream. The book quotes Ho as saying after the coup "How could the Americans have been so stupid?"

RFK opposed the coup. He was right. Lodge and Harriman were wrong. JFK should have listened to his brother.

Diem was not overthrown by a popular coup. He was overthrown by a military coup sponsored and endorsed by the US State Department.

John also wrote:

You are living in a dream world. The US could never have won in Vietnam

What a ridiculous statement. Of course we could have won. We could, for instance, have followed Lemay's advise and bombed North Vietnam into the stone age, or we could have nuked Hanoi. The question is whether we could have won short of such draconian methods. IMO and the opinion of military historians we could have won had we been willing to take the war north. John is not a military historian.

John also wrote:

[Nixon] was eventually forced to order his troops to runaway from the battlefield.

But that is not what happened. Had North Vietnam honored the peace accords it had signed, the government of S Vietnam would have survived without further US troop presence. But Congress pulled the plug and RN was powerless to do anything about it.

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John also wrote:

You are living in a dream world. The US could never have won in Vietnam

What a ridiculous statement. Of course we could have won. We could, for instance, have followed Lemay's advise and bombed North Vietnam into the stone age, or we could have nuked Hanoi. The question is whether we could have won short of such draconian methods. IMO and the opinion of military historians we could have won had we been willing to take the war north. John is not a military historian.

Do you really believe that bombing North Vietnam into the stone age would have won the war for the United States? That is of course what your buddy, Barry Goldwater wanted to do. Luckily for us the American people decided that was not a good idea and elected LBJ instead. As anybody with even a basic understanding of world politics realised, China would not have taken too kindly to having atom bombs dropped on its border. The US would have triggered off a nuclear war if it used these weapons on Vietnam. Not only would you have not won that war, the world would not now exist if Goldwater had been allowed to carry out his policy.

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John, John, John!

1. China did not have the ability to deliver nuclear weapons to the U.S.

2. BG never advocated "nuking" Hanoi. You fell for LBJ's lies. I thought you knew he was a xxxx.

Had BG been elected, he would have not put fetters on the military, as LBJ did, and the war would have been over in a year or two.

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Robert MacNeil on Barry Goldwater:

I did not think, at the time, privately, that Goldwater would make a good president. But, in a year or two afterwards, as the Lyndon Johnson White House became paralysed by self-deception over Vietnam, I wondered whether we, and the country, had undervalued Goldwater’s integrity, and whether it might not have served the country better.

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Tim, I think you're quite wrong on a number of points. One is that I'm fairly certain Goldwater DID advocate the use of "tactical nuclear" weapons in Vietnam, and anywhere there was a communist threat. His thoughts, and those of many on the right, was that the U.S. should use its nuclear advantage to its...advantage. I think Nixon felt the same way. They believed that if your adversaries knew, going in, that you would only use nukes as a last resort, then they would be much more aggressive.

I think you're also wrong about "bombing them into the stone age." LBJ and Nixon both tried that. They found that, for every soldier they killed, two more enlisted. Please read the Pentagon Papers to get the exact numbers. This left them with bombing civilians as their last alternative. Thankfully, they both realized that non-stop bombing of civilians would ultimately hurt America's prestige, which was far more important internationally than some rice paddies in Asia.

You're also wrong about 1973. Read the Palace File, Decent Interval, or even Caro's new book on Kissinger and Nixon. Nixon and Kissinger KNEW that North Vietnam would resume activity after a decent interval, which was designed to make it look like it wasn't our fault, but the fault of North Vietnamese aggression. We'd promised the South Vietnamese that we'd come to their rescue if such an event transpired, but had NO intention of keeping this promise. In fact, if I remember correctly, Ford fired Schlesinger after he made moves to defend the South Vietnamese.

The historical fact, which Republicans seem unable to accept, is that Eisenhower got us into Nam, Kennedy tried to get us out, LBJ stupidly turned it into a land war, but then tried to get us out, and then Nixon committed treason and convinced the South Vietnamese to walk away from the peace talks. Then, after four more years of carnage, in which Nixon tried to back out without having it ruin his chances of re-election, he offered the South Vietnamese the SAME treaty he'd convinced them to walk away from in 68! Four years of war, a million or so dead, and nothing gained EXCEPT Nixon's re-election! Truly despicable, IMO. When one adds in the destabilization of Cambodia caused by Nixon's and Kissinger's strategies, and the millions who died as a result, I think it's fair to say that Nixon and Kissinger were two of the worst people of the second half of the twentieth century. Fortunately, for the world as well as their legacy, they DID make nice with the Chinese and the Soviets. So... it's tough to say...

But they're certainly not good role models for the current administration...

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Pat wrote:

I think you're also wrong about "bombing them into the stone age." LBJ and Nixon both tried that. They found that, for every soldier they killed, two more enlisted. Please read the Pentagon Papers to get the exact numbers. This left them with bombing civilians as their last alternative. Thankfully, they both realized that non-stop bombing of civilians would ultimately hurt America's prestige, which was far more important internationally than some rice paddies in Asia.

Pat, respectfully, neither LBJ nor Nixon ever tried LeMay's strategy.

How often, if ever, did we bomb Hanoi? Do you know? We should have gone after the leadership of North Vietnam.

And tell me this, in WWII did we forego bombing Berlin? And remember WWII only ended after we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan killing hundreds of thousands. Do you think that the war would have continued had we in fact "nuked" Hanoi? Note I am bot advocating that and I have very serious moral reservations over Hiroshima and Nagaski, decisions made by a Democrat president. My point is simply that despite what John said, we COULD have won the war in Vietnam.

P.S. I do agree with some of the RN criticism in "The Palace File". I once, at Howard University, had a nice chat with the author of the book.

Edited by Tim Gratz
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Tim, I think you're quite wrong on a number of points. One is that I'm fairly certain Goldwater DID advocate the use of "tactical nuclear" weapons in Vietnam, and anywhere there was a communist threat. His thoughts, and those of many on the right, was that the U.S. should use its nuclear advantage to its...advantage. I think Nixon felt the same way. They believed that if your adversaries knew, going in, that you would only use nukes as a last resort, then they would be much more aggressive.

You are of course right about this. In a television interview during the 1964 election campaign Goldwalter explained that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons against communist forces in Vietnam. It was this interview that was the most important factor in his defeat. As such an avid supporter of Goldwater, I find it difficult to believe that Tim did not know about this interview.

As it happens, Cambridge University Press sent me a copy of “Triumph Forsaken” to review on my website. It is completely misleading to suggest that JFK ordered the removal of Diem. As Moyar points out on page 264-65 JFK agreed with General Harkins that any involvement in the proposed coup violated official American policy. Moyar quotes a cable that JFK sent to Lodge where he pointed out that the US would not use its power to interfere in this domestic dispute. This also meant that it would not use its influence to “delay or discourage a coup”. JFK did believe that South Vietnam would be better off without Diem. He favoured the setting up of a broad-based coalition government. However, he was completely against the killing of Diem. As Moyar points out on page 269, Lodge attempted to arrange for a limousine flying American flags to take Diem to the airport. Diem refused to accept the offer and replied “I will never leave according to the request of a group of rebellious generals or of an American ambassador.” (page 270)

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John, John, John!

1. China did not have the ability to deliver nuclear weapons to the U.S.

Maybe this is what the CIA thought at the time. I am sure that is what right-wingers wanted to believe. However, it is a very big gamble. What happens if the intelligence is faulty, as it was in Iraq? Also, how would the Soviet Union had reacted if the US started using nuclear weapons on an ally? Any sane politician would have been able to accurately answer these questions and rightly decided not to take this risk. Goldwater might not have meant it. However, the American public were right to conclude that the election of Goldwater would have been a highly dangerous act.

2. BG never advocated "nuking" Hanoi. You fell for LBJ's lies. I thought you knew he was a xxxx.

I answered this point yesterday. I can understand why you have decided not to reply to the points made by Pat Spear and myself.

Had BG been elected, he would have not put fetters on the military, as LBJ did, and the war would have been over in a year or two.

What do you mean by this comment? What tactics would Barry Goldwater have used in North Vietnam that would have brought an end to the war in 2 years?

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Daniel wrote:

Finally, it's embarrassing to see someone so easily refer to the use of nuclear weapons as an "option" -- the immediate vaporization of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Same goes for the "option" of "bombing people into the Stone Age." Some minds can see these things as "winning." But those are some minds......

Daniel, I did NOT advocate that. Let me point out that the wholesale internment of innocent Japanese-Americans in WWII was carried out by a Democrat and the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians was also the decision of a Democrat president.

Look at the record: RR won the Cold War with virtually no bloodshed in his administration. I am absolutely convinced that had BG been elected President in 1964, there would have been far less bloodshed in Vietnam.

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Here is a review of a revisionist history of early Vietnam war. IMO the JFK-sanctioned coup against Diem may have been the biggest mistake of his presidency. As noted in the review, the main people who pushed JFK to support a coup were Henry Cabot Lodge (whom JFK had defeated for the US Senate in 1952) and Averall Harriman. Of course Halberstam was not a traitor as LBJ called him, but he was wrong about Diem. The overthrow of Diem had tragic consequences for US involvement in Vietnam.

The article notes that the New York Times refuses to review the book. Assassination researchers frustrated with the Times' unwillingness to confront the real issues of the JFK case should be able to sympathize regardless of your view on the thesis of the book.

This review appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator.

Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965

By Mark Moyar

(Cambridge University Press, 542 pages, $32)

A GOOD FRIEND VISITED Vietnam some years back, and returned telling me about his tour of the underground tunnel systems that the Viet Cong had built for protection against American bombs. The intricacy of the tunnels reinforced for him the image of the Viet Cong as an implacable foe that would fight America forever if necessary, no matter what the cost. "We were never going to win that war," he insisted, knowing that I still didn't buy it.

Buying it is easy, though, when the orthodox Vietnam narrative is so embedded in our culture. It goes something like this: Vietnam, an ancient Southeast Asian civilization, had fought against outside intruders, primarily the Chinese, for most of its history. In the 19th century the French arrived and became the country's rulers. Only after World War II did the Vietnamese throw off the colonial yoke, winning a long war against the French in 1954. That struggle was led by Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese nationalist whose goal was a unified, independent Vietnam. Ho was also a Communist, but ideology was only a means to an end. If the Americans had embraced Ho, he might have become an Asian Tito, a Communist leader working independent of Soviet or Chinese influence. But the United States instead threw its support to South Vietnam, propping up a corrupt and often brutal dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, whose repressive tactics brought discredit to the anti-Communist cause. Misreading the importance of Vietnam, foolishly buying into the domino theory, myopic about the distinctions in the Communist world between the Soviets and Chinese, and unable to understand that it faced a nationalist foe that would not surrender, the United States escalated its involvement. Even with enormous commitment of troops and resources, the U.S. suffered the nation's first defeat in warfare, sparking a social and political upheaval at home and providing a cautionary lesson for the uses of military force. And all that for a country that wasn't vital to the United States' policy goals. Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You had better sit down, because Mark Moyar says you've got it all wrong. Here goes:

Vietnam was indeed dominated by China, but the Chinese allowed a fair amount of autonomy in exchange for tribute, and the two countries fought only three wars in the nearly thousand years before the troubled 20th century. Ho Chi Minh was never going to become an Asian Tito, because Ho was a Communist above all, dedicated to the goal of international revolution. He adhered closely to Chinese directives, and also received considerable support from the Soviet Union. The corrupt dictator that America supported, Diem, was a near-great man, a leader of formidable intellect and political courage. But because he was such a staunch nationalist, Diem was always clashing with his sponsor -- the U.S. -- even though he knew that he could not prevail without American assistance. The American war planners understood early on that Communism was not a monolith, and that the potential for a split existed between the Soviets and Chinese. They focused on the danger of falling Asian dominoes, a concern borne out by the intentions of the Chinese and North Vietnamese, as well as the political fragility of many countries in the region and their leaders' fears of a U.S. abandonment of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and their allies were susceptible to discouragement when the U.S. took strong action. Vietnam was not "a foolish war fought under wise constraints," writes Moyar, "but a wise war fought under foolish constraints."

Moyar, an associate professor at the U.S. Marine Corps University in Quantico, is not the first to argue from what has become known as the revisionist position, but he has the advantage of much newly available source material from both sides of the conflict. Triumph Forsaken is the first of an expected two-volume study. It ends at July 1965, when Lyndon Johnson announced the first large-scale increase of U.S. combat troops -- a point at which, in Moyar's view, the best chances for American success had already passed, though victory was still within reach.

The U.S. failed in no small part because we viewed the Vietnamese through Western eyes-not a surprising fault, but terribly damaging nonetheless. The main source of discord between Diem and the U.S. was Diem's refusal to be as democratic as the Americans wished, even though Diem presided over a traditional culture that revered authority and did not have democratic traditions. "You may find that South Vietnam is not quite America," Diem protested to a reporter, with typical understatement. The Americans felt that Diem's authoritarianism cost him political support, but Moyar points out that the Vietnamese tended to side with the strongest ruler, one who had "moral prestige" and brought order.

THIS CULTURAL DIVIDE was best demonstrated by the Buddhist uprising of 1963, which played such an important role in destroying American support for Diem. New information from the North Vietnamese indicates that the protest movement was significantly infiltrated and spurred on by the Communists. The protests' leader, Tri Quang, was likely a Communist operative, though North Vietnam has never conceded this. The self-immolation of monk Quang Doc -- the iconic photos of which so shocked the West -- may have been coerced by the Communists, Moyar suggests. Military raids on the pagodas restored order and put down the unrest, but key figures in the Kennedy administration, as well as American journalists like the young David Halberstam, were disgusted by Diem's tactics. Both, in their own ways, worked to make a coup inevitable.

The main plotters against Diem in Washington were Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman at the State Department and Michael Forrestal of the National Security Council, who collaborated with the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Republican Henry Cabot Lodge. President Kennedy appointed Lodge ambassador in part to get him out of the country, as he was widely viewed as a potential rival in 1964. To avoid partisan charges from Lodge about his conduct of the war, Kennedy gave the ambassador a wide berth -- and Lodge made it wider through his brazen freelancing and misapplication of presidential directives. Working with South Vietnamese generals, Lodge helped engineer the coup that ousted Diem from power, and killed him, in November 1963, just weeks before Kennedy's assassination. Ho's reaction was telling: "I can scarcely believe that the Americans would be so stupid." [Emphasis supplied.]

David Halberstam, whose The Best and the Brightest is a cornerstone of orthodox history of the war, died this past April. He was lauded in the New York Times, the paper for which he had reported from Saigon, "as a gifted storyteller who was determined to tell his readers the truth." For Moyar, Halberstam's devotion to truth was slipshod at best, though he certainly was good at telling stories, many based on information from corrupt sources, including Communist agents. Halberstam's relentless undermining of Diem in the New York Times included inaccurate battlefield reports, gross exaggerations of both the size of the Buddhist population in Vietnam and government violence against the protesters, and false reports of dissension within the army's officer corps. His work, Moyar argues, affected the generals' confidence in Diem, especially since they saw the Times as the organ of the American government's position. In truth, opinion was more divided back in Washington. Kennedy, who comes off as weak and not in charge of policy, was despondent when he got news of Diem's murder. Lyndon Johnson later said of Halberstam, "That man is a traitor... they give Pulitzer Prizes to traitors nowadays."

The elimination of Diem is the original sin in this book, and as Moyar would have it, of the entire Vietnam War, coloring everything that followed.

Yet even after Diem's demise, Moyar makes clear that the U.S. still had many options in 1964 and 1965. Johnson, however, frittered away precious time with "proportionate" responses to the North's increased belligerence, and the Communists began to take the president at his word that he wanted "no wider war." Only in July 1965 did he feel forced to make his move. By then, allies like General Marjadi of Indonesia, among others, had urged him along, telling him that "Asia respects power, and has no respect for weakness or for strong people afraid to act."

Johnson spoke with another general in 1965 -- former president Dwight Eisenhower, who gave him prescient advice: "When you go into a place merely to hold sections or enclaves," he said, "you are paying a price and not winning.... This is a war, and as long as [the North Vietnamese] are putting men down there, my advice is 'do what you have to do!'" The old general disliked the idea oflimited war, and preferred to "go after the head of the snake instead of the tail." If the South Vietnamese suffered without Diem, the U.S. sorely missed the guidance of an Eisenhower, whose strength and judgment were not nearly so common as he made them appear.

Any book with as relentless a catalogue of mistakes as this one invites the question of hindsight. Moyar discusses U.S. reluctance to take more aggressive action against North Vietnam in 1964-65, fearing that it would provoke the Chinese into sending combat forces and create another Korea. Johnson was haunted by Douglas MacArthur's erroneous prediction that the Chinese would not get into the Korean fighting. Moyar's scholarship indicates, however, that the Chinese dreaded another Korea even more than the Americans did (emboldened by U.S. timidity, they would eventually send divisions to protect North Vietnam). Johnson's concerns, Moyar writes, were "based not on real evidence of China's current intentions and capabilities, but rather on a general fear of history repeating itself and the recognition that an enemy... can react in unpredictable ways." True enough. But Moyar might have acknowledged history's tragic dimension by noting the difficulty of making high-stakes judgments in real time, hindered by imperfect information and painful memories of the recent past.

In our own time, of course, Vietnam is the painful recent past, and the orthodox view has colored many interpretations of our current difficulties in Iraq. It is unlikely Vietnam can teach us much, though, if our understanding of the conflict is still so incomplete. Orthodox Vietnam historians, Moyar writes, tend to dismiss revisionists as politically motivated, since the issues surrounding the war, in their view, have long since been settled. The New York Times has not reviewed Moyar's book, even though it is a major work that makes clear that this is not the case. Triumph Forsaken throws down a mighty challenge to orthodox historians; they should engage Moyar instead of ignoring him. As they ought to know, truth is its own reward, but it can also be damn practical.

Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal. This review appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator.

Written as that war still raged.

VIETNAMESE

We have seen the endless blaze

Emitting from your land

Watch you crouch in fear

Of your countrymen and mine

Not French or Yank turned willing tread

To slay you or to die

The greed of Godless men planned your fate

And our own

"Our brothers" they oft proclaim it

Ensnared us in that lawless horror

Your fear is our fear...your death, our death

We are the people!

{c} Harry J. Dean

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Daniel wrote:

Finally, it's embarrassing to see someone so easily refer to the use of nuclear weapons as an "option" -- the immediate vaporization of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Same goes for the "option" of "bombing people into the Stone Age." Some minds can see these things as "winning." But those are some minds......

Daniel, I did NOT advocate that. Let me point out that the wholesale internment of innocent Japanese-Americans in WWII was carried out by a Democrat and the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians was also the decision of a Democrat president.

Why do you always relate events to whether they were Republicans or Democrats? Cannot you judge events as a human being rather than as a party hack.

Daniel wrote:

Look at the record: RR won the Cold War with virtually no bloodshed in his administration. I am absolutely convinced that had BG been elected President in 1964, there would have been far less bloodshed in Vietnam.

You repeatedly make this claim as if it is a fact. What about the role played by the anti-communists or the reformist communist leaders in Eastern Europe? What is more the Cold War was not won in 1989. The Cold War really started after the fall of China to the communists. This was the trigger for McCarthyism and the search for traitors in the Democratic Party. Communism in China is stronger than ever. The Chinese population now makes up 25% of the world's population and the next superpower will be a communist state. I am personally not very happy with that as I have an intense hatred of communism (state capitalism). However, we have to face up to reality that the Cold War has yet to be won.

Also, could you please explain how Barry Goldwater would have won the Vietnam War in two years?

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