The Vietnam War, 1954 – 1965
This may prove to be a difficult book to review, given my personal involvement in the Vietnam War, but here goes.
As the author states in the preface, there are generally 2 schools of thought in the academic scene related to the Vietnam War: the orthodox view “generally sees America’s involvement in the war as wrongheaded and unjust. The revisionist school, which sees the war as a noble but improperly executed enterprise, has published much less, primarily because it has few adherents in the academic world.” He goes on to say: Some prominent orthodox scholars have gone so far as to claim that revisionists are not historians at all but merely ideologues, a claim that is indicative of a larger, very harmful trend in American universities whereby haughty derision and ostracism are used against those whose work calls into question the reigning orthodoxy, stifling debate and leading to defects and gaps in scholarship…”
I have long been in the camp of the revisionists and this book does an excellent job of explaining the rationale behind this view.
The book begins with an examination of the central characters leading up to 1954 and ends in the summer of 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson made the decision to commit major American forces to the war. The preface itself does a very fine job of summarizing the content of the book and its major conclusions…the details are in the balance of the 418 or so pages.
A few key events:
1945 – Ho Chi Minh takes power in the norther part of Vietnam
1949 – Mao Zedong’s Communists win control of the Chinese Mainland
1949 – The French put Bao Dai in power in the South
1950 – The French inform the Americans that they will not be able to hold Vietnam alone
1954 – The French surrender at Dien Bien Phu and later sign a peace agreement with the North. The country is partitioned.
1954 – Ngo Dihn Diem is chosen by Bao Dai as premier of South Vietnam
1959 – Ho Chi Minh wins the approval of Russia and China to initiate armed insurrection in the South
1961 – Kennedy’s summit with Khrushchev
1963 – Diem is overthrown and murdered
1963 – Kennedy is assassinated
1964 – The Tonkin Gulf Incident
1965 – Johnson orders Marines into a combat role in South Vietnam
A major part of the book is devoted to an analysis of two critical events that took place during the Kennedy administration:
The transition of policy from Eisenhower to Kennedy
The coup that overthrew Diem
It is often said that Eisenhower was opposed to any involvement by the US into Vietnam, that he was content to let the French fall in Vietnam and that he thought the intervention in Southeast Asia was a bad idea. I’ve been a student of Dwight Eisenhower for a very long time and have known that these statements were baloney….the book does a fair job of relating the facts from the record.
Lets start with the French…when the French were up to their neck in Dien Bien Phu, the US had bombers on the line, ready to drop atomic weapons on North Vietnam and China. Ike had opposed the use of nuclear weapons against the civilians in Japan…only because the targets were civilian. He thought the targets were poorly chosen and should have been military targets. In the same vein, he was prepared to come to the aid of the French…..but there was a condition….Ike was strenuously opposed to the continuation of French Colonialism in Southeast Asia and made that clear. He was convinced that unless the French agreed to grant freedom to their colonies, they and their empire were doomed as was any effort to prop them up. So, he conditioned his support on the demand that the French agree to let the South Vietnamese be free of colonialism. Well, the French refused, they lost the war and they eventually had to give up their empire in Southeast Asia. As for those bombers – I have a personal friend who was there.
All of this was known to the Soviets and Chinese. The Chinese had direct experience dealing with Eisenhower during the Korean War. When Ike became president, he made it clear that under his Presidency, there would be no safe havens for our enemies and that unless there was immediate and positive movement toward a peaceful settlement in Korea, he was prepared to use nuclear weapons to end the stalemate and deny the enemy his sanctuaries in China……the Chinese and North Koreans came to the table quickly and the war ended. You did not mess with the American General named Eisenhower. The military leaders of the Soviets, on the other hand, had worked directly with Eisenhower during the Second Work War and many of them had grown to have a serious respect for the General and his abilities. They knew some things from first hand experience: Eisenhower meant what he said, had no patience with fools and made no threat he was not ready to carry thru. He was an excellent poker player but with a winning hand, he would go the limit.
As far as intervention in Asia is concerned, his statements about Laos were: “If Laos is lost, South Vietnam and Thailand will ultimately go because they would be outflanked. All Southeast Asia will be lost, and Indochina will follow and the world will be divided. I therefore place the greatest importance on the maintenance of Laos.”
On Vietnam he said: “The U.S. ought to do everything possible to prevent the deterioration of the situation in South Vietnam.”
All of this forms a backdrop to the changes that took place when Kennedy took over. In fairness to John Kennedy, following Eisenhower was a tough act. Ike had credibility in military matters like no American President of this century. Kennedy was an unknown who very quickly made a couple mistakes that brought his strength of will into question. To begin with, he wimped out during the botched invasion of Cuba, the “Bay of Pigs”. It was clear, very soon, that he had made promises that he backed out on and that soldiers died as a consequence. Then he ventured into a “summit” meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. He was totally outclassed. As the author states, “”With his strength of personality and his conversational skills, Kennedy intended to sway Khrushchev in the same way he had swayed so many American politicians and campaign contributors, while at the same time showing Khrushchev that he could not be pushed around….The meeting, however, did not at all unfold as Kennedy had desired. It would be Khrushchev who would manipulate his adversary. Kennedy was right about one thing, that from the start Khrushchev considered him weak and susceptible to bullying. After Kennedy’s debacle at the bay of Pigs, two Russian historians revealed in 1996, Khrushchev had scoffed at Kennedy’s weakness, chuckling that Eisenhower would not have allowed such an enterprise to fail.
In Kennedy’s own words: “He treated me like a little boy, like a little boy.” “Worst thing in my life. He savaged me.”
The events emboldened the Soviets and Chinese to press forward with the armed actions in South Vietnam and would eventually lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the closest we ever came to nuclear war. The biggest mistake that Kennedy made was to appoint Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador to Vietnam, a decision that those within the Kennedy administration have admitted was made based solely on purely political considerations. Kennedy was haunted by the fear of “losing Vietnam” in the same way that Truman had been been condemned for “losing China”. Lodge was a somewhat liberal Republican who had been Richard Nixon’s running mate in the 1960 election. Kennedy reasoned that if he put Lodge in Vietnam as ambassador and things went badly, he would have some cover in the events with Lodge there. It also kept Lodge from causing too much trouble and voicing too much criticism…or so the reasoning went. Kennedy had suffered thru the Bay of Pigs and the disastrous summit in Vienna and he knew that he could not afford any more problems with foreign policy, especially as the Republicans and Eisenhower were getting pretty nervous over his performance.
One additional cause for nervousness was Kennedy’s handling of the Communist involvement in Laos. Eisenhower had made it clear that he thought Laos was critical to the success of the South Vietnamese. In 1960, the South Vietnamese had been successful in destroying the first “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, the path thru which the North sent its supplies and soldiers into the South. This first trail was located entirely within South Vietnam. The response of the North was to shift the trail westward, into Laos. As the author states: “When the North Vietnamese failed to withdraw their forces in 1962 as stipulated in the agreement (agreed to between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna), Kennedy refrained from sending American forces into Laos to stop the continuing infiltration. It was a disasterous concession to the enemy, a concession that would haunt South Vietnam and the United States for the remaining fourteen years of the war.” This highlights again the differences in the quality of leadership and decision making between Eisenhower and Kennedy….Ike had threatened China with atomic weapons over the sanctuaries in China during the Korean war…..and they knew he meant it. They also knew that Kennedy did not have the….whatever….to deal effectively with Laos.
Lodge, however, became something of a loose cannon. In particular, he took the position that the Vietnamese, and Diem, needed to move their country sharply toward democracy in order to be successful. The news media at the time was filled with complaints by Buddhist monks that they were being discriminated against by the Catholic Diem and that there was not enough freedom in Vietnam. The American newsmen on the scene also bought into this idea. Diem, however, did not accept the idea that he could move his country quickly from a rural peasant society to a working democracy. He also knew something that the others refused to accept and which has been proven accurate – the Buddhists were allied with and funded by the Communists and sought his downfall. Between Lodge and the personnel he brought into the country and the news media, a strong steady drumbeat of criticism flowed against Diem. Lodge had political ambitions and enjoyed the media attention and actively solicited their advise. Advise that is, from civilians with no foreign policy or strategic background or experience. In time, Lodge and his media allies began to plot to get Diem removed from power with the aid of the CIA. Unfortunately, they never bothered to figure out who might take over in his place and what a change in leadership might bring. Nor did they consider how this would impact the war.
To make matters worse, Lodge deliberately misled the State Department and Kennedy as to his actions and intentions. In a series of moves calculated to confuse and mislead, he managed to get a coup engineered. By the time Kennedy realized what was happening, while there was time to stop the coup, he chose to let it happen. He was afraid of the political fallout of directly opposing Lodge. In fact, he should have fired Lodge for insubordination but he lacked the balls to do so. So, Diem was overthrown and murdered. In his place was a big fat zero….empty space.
Diem had moved Vietnam from a floundering nation under serious Communist threat to a nation that was more than holding its own against its enemies. He had built up a strong and dependable military and had the Communists on the run in the vast majority of the country. Is this speculation? Not hardly, the facts are all there to see in the records of the Vietnamese Communist Party which have been made available for study after the normalization of relations with the US. The coup that toppled Diem was seen as the best thing that happened to the Communists in many years…they could hardly believe their good fortune.
Diem was the only man that Ho Chi Minh ever feared.
Shortly after the coup, Kennedy is murdered and Lyndon Johnson becomes president. Johnson was later quoted as stating that the coup was the worst decision ever made.
What followed next set the stage for the rest of the war. South Vietnam had the enemy on the run and was growing stronger by the day until Diem was killed. The aftermath yielded no national leader of any significance, reputation or strength. The core and morale of Diem’s military was diminished by the removal of his supporters as coup led to coup and counter-coup and a regular rotation of weak leaders. The military began to unravel and the Communists were able to recover their strength. Events continued to spiral downward for the next 2 years. Finally, the US realized that the nation was about to be lost. When the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred, Johnson had the rationale required to introduce American ground forces to stem the tide.
Johnson had neither the personal courage or integrity to commit the forces required to win….the rest, as it is said, is history……
What was most interesting about the version of events put forth in this book is that it draws very heavily on records from Vietnam that became available only recently. They are not the political records of the time but the military evaluations and reports from the Communist army in the field and the political leaders in Hanoi. They made it quite clear that, had Diem not been removed, that the Chinese and Soviets were poised to pull the plug on their support as they were not willing to continue funding and supporting an effort that was failing. The author concludes that the failure is to be laid at the doorstep of the media who pressured Lodge and the CIA to engineer the coup and on John Kennedy who allowed it to happen.
That’s a conclusion that is difficult to argue against……
Having finished this review, I was left with a distinctive feeling of sadness. It took some conversation with a friend and adviser to get to the bottom of this but it really comes down to a very sad feeling that all of this could have been avoided. The mistakes that were made were made by persons with a lack of courage. Perhaps that is a bit harsh, but at the very least, the decisions made by John Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson were from a place of weakness. There are some similarities to current events, but I plan on dealing with this in a separate page.