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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.”
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.
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