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Strong People Afraid to Act

This review appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

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.”

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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