Vietnam War Memoirs Point to the Involvement of General Paul D. Harkins in Kennedy's Assassination
Dedicated to the Memory of Bernard B. Fall, Ronald Lewis Brown, David Edward Porterfield, Paul Reutershan, Jerry Sobel, Norman Morrison, Roger LaPorte, Alice Herz, and Celene Jankowski
The Vietnam War is still largely a mystery, almost half a century after its end. There are many explanations, but few seem serious enough to support the horrendous reality that was that war. Here is a simple explanation that seems solid enough to bear the weight of reality and history. Accidents are often overlooked when writing history.
The short answer is that Kennedy was depressed after the death of his newborn son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. Patrick was born on August 7, 1963, and died two days later, on August 9, 1963. His depression led him to make the catastrophic mistake, fifteen days later, of approving the August 24 telegram setting in motion the decision to get rid of South Vietnam's President Diem.
Kennedy and his advisors worried that the war was being lost. Rather than bear the onus and political burden during his re-election campaign of being blamed for losing Vietnam as Truman had been blamed for losing China, Kennedy signed on to overthrow Diem thinking a new, more popular government would be better at winning the war thought being lost.
First, I will show that the United States was instrumental in the overthrow of South Vietnam's President Nho Dinh Diem. That the United States helped overthrow Diem is not a controversial position. Then I will explain how betraying our friend jeopardized the United States' global foreign policy position. Once Diem was dead, it was imperative to get rid of Kennedy to reassure the rest of our allies that betraying friends was a policy of Kennedy alone and not of the United States. Finally, I will show how I concluded that General Paul Harkins and the army were the eminence grise behind Kennedy's assassination.
Asserting that the U.S. Army was behind the assassination of a president is the same as saying the United States had a coup d'etat. I certainly have no smoking gun confirmation. This article is an attempt to show how I arrived, reluctantly and accidentally, at this conclusion.
American involvement in the overthrow and murder of South Vietnam's president Nho Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu was one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in American history. Overthrowing a head of state is an act of war and is bad enough, but stabbing a friend and ally in the back is even worse.
The betrayal of Diem, engineered by politicians, Kennedy as president, and Lodge as ambassador, enraged those in the military who were opposed to abandoning Diem and had been left out of the decision-making loop.
In Kennedy’s Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge’s book The Storm Has Many Eyes, he freely admits to having had secret communications with Kennedy, leaving General Harkins out of the loop. Lodge never says what the communications were but stoutly defends Kennedy’s right, as commander-in-chief, to leave Harkins in the dark. According to Zalin Grant’s book: FACING THE PHOENIX The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam, during the early part of the coup, Diem negotiated with the coup plotters for terms of leaving office. Unbeknownst to the coup plotters, Diem had fled the palace in anticipation of such a coup attempt and was hiding in a friend’s house in Cholon, where he had previously installed a telephone that ran through the palace switchboard. Around 7:00 a.m., Diem called Ambassador Lodge, probably to ask to surrender to the Americans and for safe conduct out of the country. Instead of saving Diem’s life, Lodge probably told Diem's location to Colonel Lucian Conein, who was with the coup plotters. In other words, the American Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge made the crucial betrayal of an ally to allow the coup to succeed.
“The machinations led Lodge himself to deceive General Paul Harkins, who had been a family friend since they served together at Fort Bliss in the nineteen-twenties. He cut Harkins out of the cable traffic about the coup and began sending his military assessments to Washington without showing them to the general [who was the commander of the American Military Assistance troops in Vietnam]. The State Department finally told Lodge to share the message traffic with Harkins, and when the general learned what was going on, he filed a strong protest against the coup.” ( Grant, p.204)
In an oral history transcript from the LBJ Library, Harkins says of Lodge, "Well, I can't say all I want to say about him." But he did say, "Lodge was the problem." Harkins continued, "Every time Lodge would stab me in the back (go behind his back in dealing with the Vietnamese generals planning the coup against Diem), he'd tell Mrs. Harkins how pretty she was." Harkins maintains that the war was being won with Diem and that the articles by David Halberstam during the Buddhist crisis in 1963 were substantially lies. However, the Kennedy administration was basing its policy on reports from the New York Times instead of on those from its military.
While deciding whether to pull the plug on Diem, Kennedy sent Marine Major General Victor Krulak, special assistant for counterinsurgency, and Joseph Mendenhall, a senior foreign service officer, to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission. Krulak said progress was being made, while Mendenhall said the regime faced collapse. In response, Kennedy quipped, "You two did visit the same country, didn't you?" According to Harkins, they didn't. Krulak went out into the field and visited the South Vietnamese troops that were engaging with the enemy. Mendenhall never left Saigon. Lodge rarely left Saigon, also.
In his interview with Major Couch Harkins says: "That was the whole problem. There wasn't any coordination. When Ambassador Nolting was there, and Mr. Richardson ran the CIA, it was fine. It worked hand-in-glove. We‒ Richardson would see me two or three times a week at my office, or I'd go over to see him, or I'd see Nolting almost every day or every other day in some way or another, or on the phone. When Lodge came in, he was a loner, and he just wanted to do it all by himself. He was very much upset when telegrams came in through the State Department to overthrow Diem."
Harkins would have been enraged at being kept in the dark. In The Army Officer's Guide, a textbook used at West Point written by Paul Harkins and his brother Phillip, it says under, "Other Courtesies to Individuals, (6) Military custom requires that intermediate commanders be informed of instructions issued to their subordinates by higher commanders." (p.443)
“Subsequently, court-martial charges were brought against Lieutenant Colonel John Dunn, Lodge’s military aide detailed to him from the office of the Army Chief Staff, by Generals Harkins and Westmoreland, on the grounds that Dunn made false statements, particularly in regards (sic) to what Harkins had been trying to tell Lodge, though not necessarily only during the coup period.” (p.213)
John Martin Mecklin was a journalist who was the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon from 1962 to 1964 and was present during the coup against Diem. In Mecklin’s book Mission in Torment, he quotes Diem as saying, “I know a coup is coming, I just can’t figure out from where.”
My guess is that Kennedy used Harkins to deceive Diem to enable the coup to succeed. If that were the case, Harkins would have been humiliated, and his effectiveness as an officer ended.
Harkins was a graduate of West Point. West Point's Cadet Code of Honor states simply: "A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do." It is easy to see why lying is so unacceptable in the military. When the enemy penetrates the perimeter, an officer can't say everything is fine to protect his reputation. So, the president or Lodge lying to Harkins or going behind his back would have been anathema to him.
Not coincidentally, the heads of the three primary departments of the US government on Vietnam policy: the executive in Kennedy, the military in Harkins and Dunn, and the State Department (diplomatic) in Lodge, all came from Massachusetts, which means that politics had its fingerprints all over the Vietnam issue, the number one foreign policy problem at that time. Kennedy wanted the top people dealing with Vietnam to be from his home state of Massachusetts, who he thought he could control politically. It was a fatal error.
The behind their back betrayal of Diem miffed the military because not only were the American soldiers under their command dying in Vietnam, but other nations started to distrust the United States' military advisory and aid missions to their countries. Three weeks after the Diem coup and two days before Kennedy's assassination, Cambodia's Chief of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk asked for an end to the $24 million annual military and economic American aid program, claiming it was being used to undermine him. (New York Times, November 21, 1963, p. 1) The United States denied the allegation, but the military knew better. America's entire global alliances were under threat. More nations could be expected to distance themselves from America in Cambodia's wake.
Such a development would have been concerning for General Harkins, who had been the head of the 42 MAAG's (Military Assistance Advisory Groups) and had traveled the world visiting them.
The United States needed to do something quick and dramatic to reassure its allies that overthrowing its friends was the policy of the Kennedy administration alone and not the United States of America. Alleging that the United States Army was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy may sound like quackery. I certainly do not have a "smoking gun." But there is abundant circumstantial evidence that connecting the dots would lead to that conclusion.
There have been four presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. Reagan was shot and wounded. Before being inaugurated, someone fired at Franklin Roosevelt in Miami, killing Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. There were two attempts on the life of Harry Truman, two on the life of Gerald Ford in one month, and several more unsuccessful domestic plots against Nixon, Clinton, and Obama. There are probably more that have gone unreported.
There are many nuts with guns running around, some of whom are probably insane or just publicity seekers. So, killing a president need not be done by the actual plotters. With connections in the security services, assassinating a major figure would be simpler; they would just let the nut through. In 1963, when Kennedy was killed, the Secret Service, which protected the president, was a part of the Treasury Department. The Secretary of the Treasury was C. Douglas Dillon, a wealthy Republican financier who had been Eisenhower's Ambassador to France from 1953 - 1957. In 1954, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and Geneva conference that resulted in the division of North and South Vietnam all occurred when Dillon was in Paris.
Dillon was intimately involved in the negotiations for the Geneva Conference on Vietnam. Ilya Gaiduk, in his Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy Toward the Indochina Conflict 1954 - 1963 writes, "As early as April 29, Douglas Dillon, the U.S. Ambassador to France, reported to his superiors that Bao Dai, the former Vietnamese emperor who at the time occupied the position of the chief of state of Vietnam, 'received arguments that Viet Minh be present at Geneva with less objection than had been feared.'" How could Dillon not have been aware of the issues and consequences of Diem's overthrow in Saigon?
My theory is simple and would explain both the cause of the Vietnam War and the necessity for Kennedy's removal from office. I came to it after reading hundreds of books about Vietnam, many by combat veterans.
Vietnam was unique in the fact that it has generated tens of thousands of war memoirs. In the past, soldiers were mostly illiterate, and the histories were written by and for the generals. Widespread literacy and affordable, diverse publishing technologies meant the lowliest soldier could now have his say. Everyone, from private to President of the United States, chimed in on the war. Conspicuously absent is the writing of General Paul D. Harkins, who was commanding general of American forces in Vietnam during the most controversial and seminal act of the war, the overthrow and murder of President Diem. This absence is noteworthy because Harkins was a writer from a family of writers. Why has Harkins been silent? This article hopes to answer that question.
Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy won the 1957 Biography Pulitzer Prize for his ghost-written book, Profiles in Courage.1 Kennedy fully intended to write his memoirs after leaving office. He wanted to be the final arbiter of how history would view his administration. Consequently, he made his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, promise never to write his memoirs as a condition of his appointment.
War memoirs are as old as the human race. War is fundamental to literature. Starting with Thuycidides’ Peloponnesian War, Homer's Iliad, and even the Bible, war stories are a staple of human history. But Vietnam broke the mold. While most war stories are of battles won and lost, a bird's eye view of the battlefield, the maneuvering of armies and diplomats written by generals, the Vietnam War was the first war to produce an avalanche of memoirs, not only by generals and diplomats but also by privates and tank sergeants.
One reason for this is that before the twentieth century, most of the soldiers in all armies were illiterate. Only the ruling classes could read and write, so war histories were written by and for them. War histories were the biographies and autobiographies of the generals. The class bias of military history started to change slightly during World War I, when the poems of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon, shook the very foundations of European civilization by describing trench warfare not as something heroic but as something awful and futile. Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori was the stock phrase children learned in their Latin classes in school. Translation: It is sweet (fitting) and proper to die for one's country.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And Floundring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a Devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
-Wilfred Owen (1917)
“Children ardent for some desperate glory,” a perfect description of every 17 to 19-year-old army recruit stuck in some rural place like Bells, Texas, or Detroit Lakes, Minnesota for whom the only way to get out of town is to enlist.
It is difficult, if not impossible to overstate the change that World War I wrought in the world. It created the League of Nations and a ban on the use of poison gas in warfare, as if to make combat humane. The United States, because it entered the war late, was spared the carnage of the trench warfare that destroyed a generation of French, English, and German men. Whatever the horror of the conflict, it was glossed over in the United States by the idea that it was a war, in President Wilson’s phrase, “to make the world safe for democracy.” Not commonly remembered is that many colonized troops fought in Europe in World War I: Vietnamese, Africans, Asians, the Irish. In a certain sense, World War I was just the first battle in a war that continues today in the Middle East and Iraq. The seeds of these conflicts were sown a century ago. Even today, there are thousands of books in Princeton’s Firestone Library with the following bookplate:
WILLIAM BOULTON DIXON 1915
1st LT. 151st brigade f.a.
killed in action
near thiaucourt france
october 17th, 1918
The Library knows nothing about the life of William Boulton Dixon, only that he was a member of the class of 1915. After he was killed, his friends donated $20,000 to establish a fund to buy books for the library about foreign relations. $20,000 was a huge amount of money in 1920, and there are thousands of books in the Princeton Library that have been bought with this fund.
World War I produced only a handful of writers. Owen, Sassoon, and Brooke in England; Americans Ernest Hemingway who drove ambulances during World War I and even a conscientious objector, ee cummings. In the early 20th century, publishing books was expensive. Writers had to be good and connected to get into print.
World War II
World War II was not so different literarily from World War I. Generals wrote the major memoirs: Crusade in Europe by Dwight David Eisenhower; The Memoirs of Field Marshall Mongomery; or by professional writers: Here is Your War by Ernie Pyle, U.S. Navy War Photography by Edward Steichen (a professional photographer); Tarawa: The Story of a Battle by Robert Sherrod; Assignment to Catastrophe by Edward Spears; I Saw the Fall of the Philippines by Carlos Romulo (later president of the Philippines); Invasion Diary by Richard Tregasis; Kasserine by Charles Whiting; Battle for the Solomons by Ira Wolfer; Stalingrad to Berlin: Defeat in the East by Earl Zienke. World War II produced history books, not personal memoirs.
General George Patton also wrote a memoir, War As I Knew It. Patton, the great tank commander, was born in 1885 and allegedly died in a jeep crash in 1945. His memoir made it into print thanks to the efforts of one of his subordinates, Colonel Paul D. Harkins, who annotated the text for publication. Written clearly on the title page under War As I Knew It, it says, “By General George S. Patton, Annotated by Colonel Paul D. Harkins.”
Of course, there were military engagements between World Wars I and II, the American occupation of Haiti, for example; but Korea was the next major military engagement after World War II. The Korean War produced almost no books of any kind. Clay Blair, the military historian wrote a book called, The Forgotten War. One notable exception was the memoir Hey Mac, Where Ya Been? Marines in Korea by Henry Berry. Typical of that war are standard military tomes like The Naval Air War in Korea by Richard Hallion.
However, the real reason the Korean war is a black hole in American history is that it was wholesale slaughter, if not genocide, in pursuit of less than noble ends. (See The Korean War A History by Bruce Cummings.) In most wars, the enemy armies are defeated by the victor. The capital is the last place to surrender, as in Berlin. But the atomic bomb and the end of the war in the Pacific was different. Japan surrendered with its empire essentially intact. The American strategy was to decapitate it, but the tentacles held firm. The United States inherited Japan’s empire in the Pacific intact and, under the rubric of anti-Communism, quickly became allies of Japan and its quislings.
The Korean War was fought by the so-called silent generation. Having grown up during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, having suffered the privations of rationing during World War II, the Korean War soldiers were overlooked while the World War II vets went about the business of starting their long-delayed families. Also, patriotism was an unquestioned virtue. There were a few isolated outbreaks of literary protest, like Thomas McGrath’s Ode for the American Dead in Korea.
God love you now, if no one else will ever,
Corpse in the paddy, or dead on a high hill
In the fine and ruinous summer of a war
You never wanted. All your false flags were
Of bravery and ignorance, like grade school maps:
Colors of countries you would never see
Until that weekend in eternity
When, laughing, well armed, perfectly ready to kill
The world and your brother, the safe commanders sent
You into your future. Oh, dead on a hill,
Dead in a paddy, leeched and tumbled to
A tomb of footnotes. We mourn a changeling: you:
The bee that spins his metal from the sun,
The shy mole drifting like a miner ghost
Through midnight earth all happy creatures run
As strict as trains on rails the circuits of
Blind instinct. Happy in your summer follies,
You mined a culture that was mined for war:
The state to mold you, church to bless, and always
The elders to confirm you in your ignorance.
No scholar put your thinking cap on nor
Warned that in dead seas fishes died in schools
Before inventing legs to walk the land.
The rulers stuck a tennis racket in your hand,
An Ark against the flood. In time of change
Courage is not enough: the blind mole dies,
And you on your hill, who did not know the rules.
Wet in the windy counties of the dawn
The lone crow skirls his draggled passage home:
And God ( whose sparrows fall aslant his gaze,
Like grace or confetti ) blinks and he is gone,
And you are gone. Your scarecrow valor grows
And rusts like early lilac while the rose
Blooms in Dakota and the stock exchange
Flowers. Roses, rents, all things conspire
To crown your death with wreaths of living fire.
And the public mourners come: the politic tear
Is cast in the Forum. But, in another year,
We will mourn you, whose fossil courage fills
The limestone histories: brave: ignorant: amazed:
Dead in the rice paddies, dead on the nameless hills.
The first books about the Vietnam War were public relations pro-war books. The Green Berets by Robin Moore and Outpost of Freedom by Captain Roger H. C. Donlon as told to Warren Rogers with a Foreward by Robert F. Kennedy published in 1965. Almost immediately, returning veterans started writing their books like Winning Hearts and Minds, a book of war poems by Vietnam Veterans collected by Basil T. Paquet and Larry Rottmann, self-published by the First Casualty Press, the name taken from the adage: In war, truth is the first casualty.
Winning Hearts and Mind opens with the picture of a sign reading: “If you kill for pleasure, you’re a sadist; If you kill for money, you’re a mercenary; If you kill for both, you’re a RANGER!!”
They Do Not Go Gentle
The half-dead comatose
Paw the air like cats do when they dream,
They perform isometrics tirelessly.
They flail the air with a vengeance
You know they cannot have.
After all, their multiplication tables,
Memories of momma, and half their id
Lies in some shell hole
Or plop! Splatter! On your jungle boots.
It must be some atavistic angst
Of their muscle and bones,
Some ancient ritual of their seawater self,
Some bloodstream monsoon,
Some sinew storm that makes
Their bodies rage on tastelessly
Without their shattered brains.
- Basil T. Paquet
Clearly, the Vietnam War looked to be devoid of heroics.
Bernard B. Fall: The Grandfather of Vietnam Memoirists
Even before the American buildup in Vietnam in 1965, Bernard B. Fall had been writing books about the war in Vietnam. Fall, who was born in France in 1926, was a resistance fighter who found his father murdered in a ditch when he was sixteen years old. After immigrating to the United States, he started traveling, at his own expense, to Vietnam. The books he wrote were mostly about the French -Vietnamese War from 1945-1954. He wrote Viet Minh Regime, Government and Administration in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1954; Political Development of Vietnam, VJ Day to the Geneva Cease-Fire in 1955: Vietnam Witness, 1960; Street Without Joy, 1961; The Two Vietnams; 1963, revised in 1965 and 1967; Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu; Anatomy of a Crisis, Laos 1960-1961, plus posthumously Last Reflections On A War.
Fall was killed on February 21, 1967, while on patrol with U.S. Marines on The Street Without Joy. Fall’s writings, mostly in The New York Review of Books, fueled the Vietnam skeptics in the early years of the American Vietnam buildup. Although Fall’s works were read by many Vietnam-bound officers, his observations were discounted for four reasons. First, Americans in the 1960s thought of the French as poor fighters and cowards. Most of the French troops in Indochina were Vietnamese, Algerian, Moroccan, and French Foreign Legionnaires. Essentially, in true colonialist tradition, only the officers were French. The unstable French government in Paris prohibited the use of draftees outside of metropolitan France. Second, although the United States financed 80% of the French war effort in Indochina, and American military intervention was actually contemplated to save the French at Dien Bien Phu by dropping bombs, or even an atomic bomb; the United States was more confident that it could prevail where France had failed by the greater use of technology: helicopters and B-52 bombers; and third, the idea that the United States was not a colonial power and was trying to free and save the South Vietnamese rather than, like France, trying to maintain its position as a colonial power; and, fourth, the superiority of the brave American fighters who saved France twice, in World Wars I and II.
For any career United States Army officer, especially one who had fought in France in World War II, the Vietnam War was far from an unknown quantity. So, General Paul D. Harkins, who had crossed France with Patton during World War II, when he was made commander of American forces in Vietnam was not stepping into an unknown situation. Harkins certainly knew the history of French involvement and must have been familiar with the strategy and tactics of the enemy. Harkins' experience running the MACs worldwide made him a natural for Vietnam, especially because he had been commander of the secret plan to invade Laos in 1962. In addition, Harkins was from Massachusetts like Kennedy, and Kennedy thought he could turn him. Robert McNamara, Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, wrote that Kennedy was the most perusasive person he had ever met.
Writer Soldiers’ Memoirs
If Bernard Fall was the most prolific older writer on Vietnam, W. D. Ehrhart and Tim O’Brien were the most prolific combat veteran authors. W. D. Ehrhart wrote: To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired, Vietnam Perkasie, Carrying the Darkness, and Unaccustomed Mercy. Tim O’Brien wrote: If I Die In A Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. Ehrhart and O’Brien are writers who also happened to be combat veterans. If I Die In A Combat Zone, To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired, and The Things They Carried are great books. Many of their others are very, very good. In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff is another excellent Vietnam War memoir by a professional writer.
O’Brien, Ehrhart, and Wolff faced a problem common to all aspiring writers of their generation. What to do about Vietnam? Anyone who read For Whom The Bells Toll or Red Badge of Courage in middle or high school knew that war makes great material for writers. But what if one thinks the war is wrong? Is it worth fighting just to get material for a book? On the other hand, young men want to be part of the crowd. Even writers are brave and patriotic. O’Brien, Ehrhart, and Wolff come from that tradition of writer-soldiers: Owen, Brooke, Sassoon, and Hemingway.
This dichotomy is best illustrated in two brilliant memoirs by writer-soldiers, less about the war than about the aftermath of Vietnam are Desertion In the Time of Vietnam by Jack Todd and These Good Men: Friendships Forged from War by Michael Norman.
What was it really like to be a Green Beret and serve in an A-Team in Tra Bong, Vietnam, fighting alongside the Montagnards and Vietnamese allies? Forget John Wayne, Barry Sadler, and The Ballad of the Green Berets. H. Lee Barnes’ When We Walked Above the Clouds is the real deal. A veteran of the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, Barnes eschews a skating assignment on the shores of the Caribbean and volunteers for the highlands of Vietnam. If you didn’t go to Vietnam, after reading this book, you’ll think you did.
Every war produces books by writers who are also soldiers, some great books, but the number of these books is usually small. Soldiers who fought in World War II or Korea did not feel the need to write books because they felt their story was told by professional historians. They understood the strategy and their role in the fighting. They did not see the combat of their individual units as central to the conflict. A soldier participated in D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge, or the retreat from Chosin.
Soldier Writers’ Memoirs
Vietnam was a civil war. American soldiers could not tell friend from enemy. There did not seem to be a military strategy, and there were no front lines. Many soldiers felt that people back home did not understand the war or them and so they felt compelled to tell their story. These books were not by writers who became soldiers, but by soldiers who became writers merely to tell their stories.
Usually, they wrote only one heartfelt book, some confessional. Many are virtual love letters written in the memory of their dead comrades. The lack of a meaningful overall military strategy meant that the war was reduced to their immediate combat experiences: their unit, their village, their sector, their paddy. Each of these personal memoirs is like a dab of paint on an impressionist painting. Close up, it is just a seemingly isolated blur, but standing back, taken together, these books paint a clear picture of the Vietnam War. The reason they got into print was the changing economics of publishing. Everyone had an electric typewriter, printing costs were falling, and mass literacy created a market. Finally, the enlisted soldier was going to have his say.
Keep Your Head Down: Vietnam, the Sixties and a Jouney of Self-Discovery by Doug Anderson tells the life story of a combat medic in 1967. It is unique in its portrayal of how post traumatic stress disorder looks from the inside.
Service for the Dead by Robert Anderson is a beautifully written, powerful story of a teacher who gave up his deferment to fight in Vietnam. Charles R. Anderson wrote Vietnam, The Other War, and a less impressive sequel, The Grunts. Why Didn’t You Get Me Out? A POW’s Nightmare in Vietnam by Frank Anton is a great book about his five years as a prisoner of war in both South and North Vietnam. Anton remained in the army for a full career, so his book did not appear until 1997 after he retired. It is extraordinary in the sense that by staying in the military, he gained access to the documentary evidence that gives his tale the total ring of truth. A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered by Michael Archer is the best memoir about Khe Sanh, not the most comprehensive, but the best because Archer was there for the whole time, before, during, and after the siege. He was lucky to escape with his life after Khe Sanh village was overrun. Archer was a Field Radio Operator assigned to the Combat Operations Center, so he was at the center of the action. It is also a tribute to his good friend, Tom Mahoney, with whom he enlisted on the buddy plan fresh out of high school. Nam by Mark Baker was one of the first soldier memoirs. Gunbird Driver: A Marine Huey pilot’s war in Vietnam by David A. Ballentine is, as the title says, the war from a Huey pilot’s viewpoint. Ballentine earned a Ph.D. in History during his Marine career, and his memoir has the meticulous objectivity of a trained historian. Ballentine describes what being a Huey pilot was really like. In spite of, or maybe because of, its relentlessly objective style and detail, it has some extraordinarily powerful, poignant moments. Gordon Baxter chimed in with 13/13 Vietnam: Search and Destroy.
After My Lai by Gary W. Bray, by the Lieutenant of Calley’s platoon a year later. Douglas Bey’s Wizard 6: A Combat Psychiatrist in Vietnam is a really crucial book for understanding the soldier’s experience in Vietnam. Superbly written, funny, and riveting, it is a very useful book for anyone and everyone who lived through the Vietnam War era. It is one of at least 85 medical memoirs, according to Ed Moise’s bibliography. David Bowman, a soldier from Missouri, published The Vietnam Experience, a glossy coffee table book with photographs and text about the war. Matthew Brennan wrote a brilliant Brennan’s War: Vietnam 1965 - 1969 and a less personal sequel Headhunters, 1st Squad, 9th Cav. 65 - 71. Rice Paddy Grunt by John M. G. Brown is a great, archetypical description of Vietnam combat at the bottom, just what the title says. The Soldier’s Story: (Xa Long Tan) by Terry Burstall; and Lima 6 by R.D. Camp, for which he enlisted the help of Eric Hammel.
Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War was one of the earliest and most shocking soldier memoirs, a precursor of the veteran led anti-war movement to follow. Reflections of a Wolfhound in Country by Ronald Carmell; and Vietnam Blues by John Benjamin Carr are American versions of French books like Parachute en Indochine by Guy de Chezal. Semper Fidelis by Johnnie M. Clark is another of the brilliant views from the bottom, followed by a less successful Guns Up.
Peter Clark's Alpha One Sixteen: A Combat Infrantryman's Year in Vietnam is the best written of all the grunt memoirs. Clark, a student from New Trier High School and studying at highly selective Reed College, dropped out to become an infantryman relatively early in the war. He eschewed an opportunity to become a typist but still ended up being promoted to RTO. After his tour, Clark graduated from Yale Law School. Alpha One Sixteen is written like a legal brief, full of meticulously researched detail. Consequently, the reader experiences the feelings of the author. Clark shows but does not tell. Clark's book is full of the usual accidents, stupidities, psychological breakdowns, fears, injuries, and heroism. His tour was not unusual, but his telling of it is. The Vietnam War broke my heart. Alpha One Sixteen broke it all over again.
Michael Clodfelter’s Mad Minutes and Vietnam Months is another great book which, like the title, perfectly captures the tension between the boredom of being in the military and the terror of combat. Con Thien – The Hill of Angels by James P. Coan is a stupendous book about the Marine fights for Con Thien near the DMZ over the first two years of the war. It is a definitive description of the strategy and tactics, with heartrending stories of the battles. Coan was a tank gunner in the area for part of that time. Con Thien – The Hill of Angels condemns General Westmoreland for a flawed strategy based on a profound misunderstanding of the North Vietnamese goals. Frank Collins’ Eyes Over the Delta is the war from a Forward Air Controller’s viewpoint with the fear, stress, bravery, and faith that kept these pilots flying against the odds.
Don’t Tell America by Michael R. Conroy is a blow by blow, even hour by hour history of Operation Dewey Canyon I, from January 19 to March 18, 1969 battle in the A Shau valley told by the veterans who fought in it with missing pieces included from after-action reports. Dewey Canyon secretly went into Laos to disrupt and destroy North Vietnamese command, control, and supply assets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. While not a great book, it is comprehensive and thorough, depicting a real punching match, the back and forth of battle. Because Dewey Canyon was an attack on North Vietnamese base areas, it was bloody and relentless. Don’t Tell America is almost impossible to obtain, probably because the author is serving a life sentence in his native Oklahoma for rape, kidnapping, and weapons possession. [The book is available from Ex-Libris (888) 795-4274 extension 5023, ask for Sku – 0001586629781412001571 for about $40.00] This book will also explain why the veterans who returned their medals by throwing them on the steps of the Capitol in 1971 named their operation Dewey Canyon III. The Dewey Canyons were an attack into the heart of enemy territory.
West Dickens Avenue; A Marine at Khe Sanh by John (Jack) Corbett is the best book for conveying the experience of being in combat in Vietnam. Corbett, a college dropout in the spring of 1967, was already packed for going to Canada when the influence of his conservative father and a chance encounter in a bar with a wounded friend led him to enlist in the Marines. Looking for adventure, he arrived in Khe Sanh just after New Years' 1968 and spent all seventy-seven days of the siege being bombarded by the North Vietnamese. He really should have died three times: once when the ammunition dump exploded, again when he bent his head down just before a sniper’s bullet singed his hair and a third time when he miraculously emerged unscathed when a mortar blew him into a trench. Corbett’s powers of observation and detail are overwhelming, especially because his war has no ideological content. This is the facts, just the facts, presented in a way that conveys the emotional intensity of the Vietnam War. A Long Time From Home by Michael Costello, Lullabies for Lieutenants by Franklin Cox, Remains: Stories of Vietnam by William Craper, Pigman Vietnam 1968 - 1969, the story of a machine gunner, by James Crum. Dragon in the Bamboo by Robert P. Dodd is written in an avant-guard style, a disjointed, phantasmagoric, concrete description of his Marine Corps experience. Readers who extend Dodd the benefit of the doubt will be richly rewarded. The Killing Zone by Frederick Downs, From Chicago to Vietnam: A Memoir of War by Michael Duffy is the gentlest book about a soldier who arrives at Tan Son Nhut right at the start of the Tet Offensive, and The New Legions published in 1967 by Donald Duncan, a Canadian green beret, who exposed the realities of Special Forces in the early years of the Vietnam War. Also, I Protest, Khe Sanh, a book of photographs by the famous photographer David Douglas Duncan.
During World War II, Duncan was a Marine Lieutenant. He photographed Marine Corps aviation operations throughout the Pacific, fought with the famed Fijian guerrillas behind enemy lines on Bougainville, filmed Marine fighter-bomber attacks against Japanese pillboxes on Okinawa (shooting pictures from inside a plexiglass-nosed capsule under the wing of a P-38 fighter plane). Duncan made the first landing on the Japanese mainland and photographed surrender ceremonies aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. During his 1967-1968 trips to Vietnam, Duncan joined the Marines in their bunkers at Con Thien and on the DMZ while the North Vietnamese tried to dislodge them with artillery fire. Later, Duncan was with other Marines in their besieged Khe Sanh outpost. In Self Portrait USA, a book Duncan did on the Republican and Democratic national conventions in1968, he has 14 pages of photographs, pages 172- 185, of the wards of the Great Lakes Naval Hospital, which, at the time he was there, held 1,263 Marines and paratroopers who were either amputees or in traction. These photographs are love letters and a rare commodity, pictures of the inside of military hospitals during wartime. Only a fellow Marine could have gotten close enough to take them.
And one of those Marines was Rick Eilert, whose For Self and Country is an incredibly moving, wonderfully written story of a young man’s decision to go to war and the luck, strength, and fortitude required to recover from life-altering injuries to his legs. Charles V. Engelbrecht’s The Guns Fell Silent and the War Began is another book in this category. Semper Cool: One Marine’s Fond Memories of Vietnam by Barry Fixler is a book by a nice Jewish boy from Long Island who enlists in the Marines, serves a full combat tour, including the entire siege at Khe Sanh, and never received a purple heart. Books like Thumbs Up by Ron Flesch, a fictionalized account of his Vietnam experience, are uniformly less believable and more poorly written than the non-fiction accounts. The failure of fictional accounts to measure up to the actual events is explained by Pope John Paul II in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. When asked by a reporter why priests never talk about Hell anymore, the Pontiff declared, That is because what is actually going on in the world today is so much worse than anything we can imagine that Hell has lost its meaning. The Vietnam War memoirs prove his point. Redwood Delta by Ron Flesch; Visions of Nam, Volumes I, II, & III, poems by Harvey Fletcher; Date With Death by Leslie Ford; Nurses in Vietnam, The Forgotten Vets by Dan Freedman & Jacqueline Rhoads; Line Doggie, Foot Soldier Vietnam by Charles Gadd, Brothers: Black Soldiers In The Nam by Stanley Goff & Robert Sandler, Thirteen Months by K. W. Gorsky, Jr., The Khe Sanh Vet Newsletter edited by Ernie Husted, 101st Airborne Division: Vietnam - 1st Year Yearbook, Vietnam ‘68, Jack’s Journal by Jack W. Jaunal, are testimony to the breadth and doggedness of the veteran’s desire and need to tell the Vietnam story.
The Sun Sets on Vietnam: The Firebase War by Robert B. Haseman is a book about a relatively uneventful tour. Haseman is the commander of a 2nd platoon protecting the firebase when the 1st and 3rd of his company get hit while out on patrol. The worst thing that happens to Haseman is when one of his Marines, through carelessness, kills his best friend with one bullet in the head.
Gerald R. Gioglio’s Days of Decision is almost unique. It is an oral history of twenty-four conscientious objectors who served in the military, most as medics. Gioglio’s book is an eye-opener about the extent of anti-war activity within the military, especially later in the war. Combat memoirs almost universally refer to undermanned units. Days of Decision explains why this was true. Also, this book explains why the military had to go to an all volunteer army. Days of Decision also points to serious contemporary military problems. The Vietnam vets frequently marveled at the fact that they were fighting in the jungles one day, and two days later were walking the streets of San Francisco. The World War II generation had weeks of bonding with their units on the trip over to battle and on the return to decompress. The conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War point to the porous nature of the barrier between war and the home front. Today, when deployed, soldiers can return from a mission and then telephone or e-mail their families; the stress must be too great to bear. Days of Decision provides a unique perspective of the Vietnam War by those who opposed the war but patriotically went into the military anyway.
One book that deserves particular mention is Our War Was Different: Marine Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam by Al Hemingway. This book is a compendium of twenty-seven veteran stories of their time in the Combined Action Platoons. These Marines lived with the Vietnamese in small units without officers. They fought in conjunction with Vietnamese Popular and Regional Forces soldiers. These marines were the tip of the spear when it came to pacification. These Marines got to know the Vietnamese people and lived among them; that is why their war was different from the majority of soldiers who lived and fought in huge American units. Their assignment was incredibly dangerous, and the danger was constant. Acceptable Loss: An Infantry Soldier’s Perspective by Kregg P. J. Jorgenson is one of the few memoirs written late in the war when it was already unpopular at home. As a young Ranger on a long-range reconnaissance patrol, Jorgenson is awarded a Silver Star for an action where two of his five-man team are killed. Feeling unworthy of the honor and seeking revenge, he joins an Air Cavalry Blue Team and takes point for fifty-four missions. This is a great book that sets the cynicism toward and horror of the war off against the camaraderie and devotion of soldiers in combat.
And A Hard Rain Fell by John Ketwig is one of the greatest and most moving books. Ketwig did not go to college; he was just a young man trying to be a musician when he was drafted. He became a truck mechanic who cleaned the blood out of the cabs after attacks and ended up driving into Cambodia. He blames the absent fathers and “teachers who never taught us that there was anything more important than getting the next first down” for the personal disaster of the Vietnam veterans. Vietnam: The Other Side of Glory by William R. Kimball and War in Aquarius by Dennis Kitchin is the obedient college graduate’s view of the war on the downside December 1968 – December 1969, as the soldiers’ disillusion rocketed and their respect for and cooperation with their officers plummeted. The horror of the courts-martial for disobeying an order alone makes this book worth reading. Kitchin shows the bravery of soldiers both on the battlefield and against the bureaucracy. The classic Born On The Fourth of July by Ron Kovic, who became wheelchair bound as a result of his service, The Only War We Had by Michael Lee Lanning followed by the more historical sequel Inside Force Recon, Recon Marines in Vietnam by Michael Lee Lanning and Ray Stubbe; American Eagle by Larry Lee from the Navaho Indian perspective. No Shining Armor: The Marines at War in Vietnam, An Oral History by Otto J. Lehrack is a chronicle of the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines in Vietnam, as told by the soldiers in the battalion. Spoils of War by Charles J. Levy was published in 1974. Levy is a sociologist who interviewed countless combat veterans in an attempt to clarify the then-current controversy over post-traumatic stress disorder. Levy’s book is filled with first-hand accounts of combat veteran experiences on the battlefields both abroad and at home. In The Combat Zone by Kathryn Marshall, an oral history of women in Vietnam, Chickenhawk by Robert Mason, another brilliant memoir, this time from the helicopter pilot’s perspective; Platoon Leader by James McDonough.
Fate Unknown: Reflections of a Combat Tour by First Sergeant Galen G. Mitchell USA (Ret.) is a rare look at the war from the non-commissioned officer standpoint. Mitchell, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, went into the army in 1961 and was discharged after his enlistment was up. Then he re-enlisted, fought as a grunt in Vietnam before being promoted to Sergeant, and was discharged a second time before finally deciding to make the army his career. Mitchell, who was a grunt in the early years of the war sometimes under Major David Hackworth, rips him a new one for incompetence and egomania. Mitchell gives a whole new meaning to Hackworth's book title About Face. Guts and Glory by Randall K. McGlone is an artillery forward observer's view of the intense fighting in Operation Badger Tooth along the Cua Viet River, south of the DMZ, a crucial part of the supply route to Dong Ha and Khe Sanh. A self-described hillbilly from eastern Kentucky, McGlone is a genius at his job, a grunt in an officer's role. McGlone is a great chronicler of the social structure and combat doctrine of the Marines as viewed from the bottom. Guts and Glory is one of the best books describing the brutality and horror of close combat. Not brilliantly written, but riveting nonetheless is We Were Soldiers Once, And Young by Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, Rows of Corn by Herb Moore describes Marine Training circa 1963 by someone who did not go to Vietnam, just for a little contrast of how combat affects attitude.
What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes is a recent seminal book about combat and Vietnam. Marlantes, a National Merit Scholar who went to Yale and then was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He served in the Marines near the DMZ in 1969. Marlantes is a genius who provides the definitive analysis of the reasons for and the self-defeating results of the body count strategy in Vietnam. This book is packed with other gems, as well. Marlantes spent thirty years writing a 600-page novel, Matterhorn, which has also been published recently. Matterhorn is the only Vietnam novel that is better and more believable than the author’s non-fiction. Originally, the book was 1,600 pages, but Marlantes could only get 600 of them published. As one reviewer wrote, “It’s not a novel, it’s a deployment.”
Timefighter: A Marine in Vietnam by Gary Murtha, The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up by Charles Nelson is a great book, the Vietnam War told from a gay hospital corpsman’s perspective. Gay people, the dirty little secret of the military, have served with distinction in all branches in all wars. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh is the Vietnam War as seen from the North Vietnamese enlisted man’s perspective. Green Knight, Red Mourning by Richard E. Ogden, another great, heartbreaking book by a man whose reading disability and stepfather’s encouragement landed him in the Marines in Vietnam, G.I. Diary by David Parks, one of the few Black written memoirs. Parks is the son of the famous photographer, Gordon Parks. A Year in Hell: Memoir of an Army Foot Soldier Turned Reporter in Vietnam, 1965-1966 by Ray Pezzoli, Jr. is a riveting account of the beginning of the war. Assigned as a grunt for three months early in the war to protect the engineers building the harbor at Cam Ranh Bay, Pezzoli witnesses the early errors requiring a change in doctrine. He is then detailed to the Public Information Office as a reporter and, while still going on patrols where contact is expected, has the luxury of leaving the field when he likes. So Pezzoli’s perspective on the war is almost unique, an infantryman who is generally rested, as opposed to the exhausted grunts who rarely got out of the field. Pezzoli, the son of a policeman who was exempt from World War II, is adamantly pro-war and says the US won. Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau and a book that is an absolute must-read. Reading Prochnau is like living through the Kennedy Administration's two-year advisory and press ordeal before Diem's overthrow. For those too young to have been there, this book is the best for understanding the politics of how we stumbled into the Vietnam War. Fortunate Son by Lewis B. Fuller, Jr. Fuller, the son of legendary Marine Corps Commandant Chesty Puller, wanted nothing more than to be an English teacher. He even scalded himself accidentally at the age of nine, and although his eyesight was too poor to get into the Marines, his father’s connections produced the needed exemption. Dad, the Marine Corps Commandant, was not to be denied. Lewis entered the Marines and was mortally wounded in Vietnam. Had he been anyone other than Chesty Puller’s son, he would have been left to die, but he was saved, although he never walked again. After attending law school and with a nice job at the Pentagon, a wife, and family, Puller had his fair share of drinking and marital problems. He wrote this really great book before finally killing himself a few years after its publication. An equally tragic life and death awaited the son of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. In the early 1960s, sons were routinely forced to pursue the careers of their parents’ choosing.
Mekong by James R. Reeves is a novel about Navy SEALS, Mourning Glory: The Making of a Marine by David Regan is one of the best because Regan enlisted in December 1964 and was in basic when the buildup in Vietnam began. Regan’s memoir mirrors perfectly in his own life the transformation of the American attitude toward the war. It is also stupendously well written. The Walking Dead by Craig Roberts and Charles Sasser. Blood Trails: The Combat Diary of a Foot Soldier in Vietnam by Christopher Ronnau is based on the daily diary he kept to keep himself awake at night in listening posts and on ambushes. Not To Reason Why: A Vietnam Journal by Bernard Rustad, Everything We Had and To Bear Any Burden by Al Santoli, From Classrooms to Claymores: A Teacher at War in Vietnam by Ches Schneider, a married schoolteacher gets drafted as the war winds down. To Heal A Nation by Jan Scruggs & Joel Swerdlow.
Riverine: A Brown Water Sailor in the Delta, 1967, by Don Sheppard is the story of the swift boats in the Mekong Delta told by a "too young for World War II" thirty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Commander. This is the war up close and personal. No Arc Light B-52 raids, no fast movers, just mortars, M-60's, M-16's and helicopters. This is the war with bloodshed, vomit, and killing kids who throw hand grenades. One great thing about Riverine is to read it in conjunction with Postmark Mekong by Chaplain Raymond W. Johnson. Johnson and Sheppard both served in the Mekong Delta at the same time and described the same sailors. The contrast between the brave, gungho view of the troops by their commander and the scared kids seen by the Chaplain is a lesson in itself. POW: Two Years With the Viet Cong by George E. Smith, a great book by a soldier held captive by the Viet Cong for two years early in the war. Released as part of a peace token, it was interpreted as weakness, so the South Vietnamese and Americans concluded they could continue to fight on to victory.
Welcome To Vietnam, Macho Man by Ernie Spencer, a book about Vietnam and especially the siege of Khe Sanh by a Marine who was there. A Doctor’s Vietnam Diary by John F. Stahler, M.D., a great book; Faces I Tried To Forget by John Steer; Once A Hero, by Howard Swindle (newspaper reporter), a true story of one man’s journey from Vietnam to Leavenworth; Dress Gray by Lucian K. Truscott IV, a book about West Point by a member of a family of distinguished soldiers.
Robert J. Topmiller wrote Red Clay on My Boots: Encounters with Khe Sanh 1968 to 2005, a memoir of Khe Sanh and his life since. Topmiller wanted to join the Marines at 17, but his parents would not sign. So he joined the Navy and became a medic at Khe Sanh during the siege. After twenty years in business, he returned to school and got a Ph.D. in History. Topmiller wrote the definitive history of the Buddhist crisis of 1964 - 1966. Red Clay On My Boots tells the story of the siege and the eleven return trips to Vietnam in the 1990s and 2000s. Topmiller’s book is almost unique in that he devotes a lot of time and energy to understanding the South Vietnamese perspective. His take is that the United States spent a decade and billions of dollars creating the South Vietnamese Army and then, by encouraging it to overthrow Diem, turned it loose to destabilize the civilian government.
Consequently, after Diem, the South Vietnamese Army was preoccupied with domestic politics, leaving the combat role against the communists to the Americans. Red Clay On My Boots is an important book. His conclusion: “My one-time enemies in Vietnam greeted me with open arms, former ARVN hailed me on the street everywhere in the south and recounted how much they still liked Americans, while war-loving chicken-hawks in the U.S. launched repeated, shameful attacks on Vietnam vets.” Topmiller committed suicide just shy of his 60th birthday in 2008.
Perry A. Ulander's Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War, A Memoir is a unique, very important contribution to the history of Vietnam and warfare in general. Ulander's tour was in 1970 when the army was drug-fueled, 90% of the soldiers were against the war, and threats of fragging were rife. Ulander's book shows how the grunts bonded and demonstrates why their love for each other became the strongest ties in their lives. He also explains the source of combat veterans' alienation from almost everyone. Beautifully written, Ulander's book is a meditation on the changes a soldier must undergo to survive and proves the absurdity of thinking soldiers can ever recover from combat.
Home Before Morning by Lynda Van Deventer, the searing story of a happy go lucky girl who becomes a nurse and ends up in Vietnam. This book, by one of the few women vets, will tear you up. Charlie’s Paradise 67-68 by Mike Vitel, Civilian POW: Terror and Torture in South Vietnam by Winnie Wagaman and Norman Bookens, the story of a civilian employee of the state department held prisoner by the Viet Cong for five years; Fields of Fire by James Webb, a novel by an Annapolis graduate who fought in Vietnam and went on to become Secretary of the Navy and a United States Senator from Virginia. One of the best, if not the best, novel by another member of a distinguished military family.
Song of Napalm by Bruce Weigl; David’s Story: A Casualty of Vietnam written by Victor Westfall, David’s father, who never got over the loss of his son (David died at Con Thien and his death is described in Con Thien: The Hill of Angels by James P. Coan); Touched With Fire, The Future of the Vietnam Generation by John Wheeler; REMF Diary by David A. Willson. Combat soldiers called those in the military bureaucracy rear echelon mother fuckers (REMFs). This is a great book. First Recon: Second to None: A Marine Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam, 1967-68 by Paul R. Young is probably the best description of what it was like to be a combat soldier in Vietnam. Young was on his way to being a lifer but left the corps in 1971 to become a teacher. His book describes the constant fear of combat and the extraordinary care that had to be taken to survive. Young was already twenty-eight years old and a father when he went to Vietnam, so he was more mature than most of the other soldiers and had a better perspective. Childhood Lost: A Marine’s Experience in Vietnam by Willie Zavala, Jr. is combat from a cotton picker’s perspective with the most horrifying description of cowardice, which was rife but largely missing from most memoirs. Tank Sergeant by Ralph Zumbro is the war memoir of a tank driver. A heavy equipment operator in civilian life, Zumbro shows that those big dump trucks on the highways are not trucks, they’re tanks, and the 18 wheelers are railroad cars. Remember that when driving. Finally, My Father, My Son by Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., and Elmo III. Zumwalt was the chief of Naval Operations during Vietnam. His son was a sailor on the rivers of Vietnam, valiantly diving into the Agent Orange polluted waters. He got cancer and died in his early forties.
Special mention must be made of F. J. “Bing” West, Jr.’s The Village, the best book for understanding the Vietnam War. Viewed from the long-term perspective of a Marine Combined Action Platoon in Binh Nghia Village, West carefully describes the rules by which neighbors fight and kill each other. The book covers the seventeen months, from June 1966 to October 1967, that the Marines were stationed in Binh Nghia. This is the Vietnam war by scalpel, up close and .personal. The Marines and Vietnamese Popular Forces have names. The battles and tactics are described in detail, and the strategic dilemmas are thoroughly explored. The Village shows what winning hearts and minds was all about. In this book, there are no napalm attacks or helicopter gunship runs. This is just the soldiers on both sides, armed with rifles and grenades, fighting for control of a village, trying to do the difficult job of winning the support of the people who live there. If there ever was a book showing the double-edged nature of war, this is it.
All these books have one thing in common, the author survived. Many were written to memorialize friends and assuage survivor’s guilt. There is one unique memoir called Too Young to Die, Letters Home from Vietnam by Mark Ryan Black. Mark was a Master barber from Sweetser, Indiana, who enlisted in the Marines when the draft started breathing down his neck. An outstanding athlete, generous person, and assiduous attendee at church, Mark’s last words before leaving for boot camp were, “Don’t expect me to write.” He ended up writing 93 letters and sent 26 audio tapes during his sixteen months in the Marines. While the survivor memoirs concentrate on the battles and trauma, Mark’s letters show the Vietnam War as it was: filling sandbags and endless patrols with no contact. He was on five different operations from the delta to the DMZ before joining a Combined Action Platoon near Cam Lo. Mark was killed on August 14, 1967. This is a wonderful and horrifying book. This is the best book for seeing the war from the grunt’s point of view, and it is all online, including the audio recordings, at http://lcplmarkblackusmc.com
This is not even a comprehensive list of combat soldier memoirs, just the tip of an iceberg, with more still coming, even into the next generation. The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam is a brilliant book by Tom Bissell. His father, John, a graduate of Georgetown, married the colonel’s beautiful daughter and was on his way to a career in the Marines when Vietnam intervened. Tom, his son, has spent his life trying to understand the war’s effect on his father. A non-fiction book, it reads like a novel. The author is a professional writer, and this book is unique in more ways than one. It proves, if a proof is needed, that wars never end. And the grunts were not the only ones who have been writing. The diplomats have been hard at work, too, trying to understand and explain the Vietnam War.
Vietnam, A Diplomatic Tragedy by Victor Bator. Planning A Tragedy: The Americanization of the Vietnam War by Larry Berman.
One of the most important books about the Vietnam War is Mercenaries and Lyndon Johnson's "More Flags": The Hiring of Korean, Filipino and Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War by Robert M. Blackburn. Blackburn was a soldier in Vietnam and published this diplomatic history in 1994. Blackburn's book shows not only that the domino theory was wrong, but that the decision-makers knew it was wrong when they were escalating the war. The U.S. intervened in Vietnam putatively to protect other nations in the area, including Thailand. Yet, Thailand refused to help fight in Vietnam unless handsomely rewarded by the United States. This book is a little known smoking gun.
Anatomy of Error by Henry Brandon. The Lost Crusade by Chester Cooper. To Move A Nation by Roger Hilsman, The Right Hand of Power by U. Alexis Johnson, The Secret Search for Peace in Vietnam by David Kraslow and Stewart Loosy, a great book for showing what a president does. Kraslow and Loosy, two low-level functionaries in the state department, spend more than 200 pages describing a series of peace feelers in which they were involved. In Lyndon Johnson’s Vantage Point, he treats these feelers, along with four others that Kraslow and Loosy knew nothing about, in one paragraph. Although not a diplomat, Allan E. Goodman wrote: The Lost Peace - America’s Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War. Goodman’s excellent history, published in 1978, posits the uncomfortable question of whether the seeking of a negotiated settlement in itself was a major reason the war was lost. The Storm Has Many Eyes by Henry Cabot Lodge, the ambassador during the coup against Deim, wrote this crucially important book that has been largely ignored. What a strange coincidence that the two major American officials in Vietnam during the Diem Coup either did not write a book or the one who did, the American Ambassador’s, was largely ignored. Lodge’s book was barely mentioned by The New York Times upon publication. Mission In Torment by John Mecklin, the embassy press officer during the coup against Diem; From Trust to Tragedy: Diem & Kennedy by Frederick Nolting, the American Ambassador to Vietnam who was replaced by Lodge just before the coup which toppled Diem.
Rufus Phillips, a CIA officer in the 1950s and then an Army officer advisor to the South Vietnamese, was a protege of Edward Lansdale and a personal friend of Diem's. He wrote Why Vietnam Matters: A Story of Lessons Not Learned about the well-documented disconnect in command decision organizations between boots on the ground and distant decision-makers in air-conditioned offices playing politics in the capital. This disconnect is because, according to Louis Galambos' Eisenhower, Becoming Leader of the Free World, while military organizations are highly structured at their lower levels, the relationships at the top are personal, and power does not necessarily depend on the position held.
In the end, Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote As I Saw It, a memoir. The reason he broke his promise to Kennedy not to write a book is that his son, who had served in the Marines (but not in Vietnam), came home from Alaska and camped on his doorstep until his father agreed to tell his side of the story.
One memoir of special note is Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval. Snepp was a CIA analyst in Saigon for five years, including during the truce period after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement. After the fall of Saigon, Snepp wanted to write an after-action report on the collapse. There was no appetite in the CIA for such an undertaking, so Snepp went ahead on his own. He was sued by the government for violating the secrecy vetting agreement he signed as a condition of his employment and lost the royalties of the book. Published in 1977, it is as relevant today as it was then. Snepp is the mold of Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg, insider whistleblowers who, at tremendous risk to themselves, expose malfeasance and incompetence in life and death situations. The first of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points was: “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall always proceed frankly and in the public view.” Snepp, Manning, and Ellsberg reify Wilson’s first point. Decent Interval is worth reading.
One of two unique additions to this category is Tiger in the Barbed Wire: An American in Vietnam 1952 - 1991 by Howard R. Simpson. Simpson was a United States Information Service officer, who also served as a reporter during the waning years of the French war. Arriving in Saigon in January 1952, he visited and stayed through the defeat at Dien Bien Phu and was asked to assist the press operation of the newly installed President Nho Dinh Diem's. Simpson lived in Vietnam with his wife, and his first children were born there. Simpson was intimately involved in Diem's seizure of power from Emperor Bao Dai and his consolidation of control through the fight against the Binh Xuyen gangsters, plus the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects. Sadly, Diem's much-vaunted victory was pyrrhic. More than one Frenchman told Simpson that the United States was destroying the indigenous anti-communist forces and turning the country over to the Viet Cong. And those areas that had been under the control of the gangsters and sects were taken over by the communists after the defeat of their armies because Diem's forces alone could not control all of South Vietnam.
The other diplomatic memoir from someone with a decade-long involvement with Vietnam is Robert Hopkins Miller's Vietnam and Beyond: A Diplomat's Cold War Education. Miller, who turned 18 three weeks after V-J Day, had a 40-year career with the State Department. He was assigned to NATO and lived in Paris during the 1954 Geneva Conference and witnessed the French exit from Indochina. In 1962, he moved to Saigon with his family and returned to Paris for the Peace talks. After the American defeat, he became Ambassador to Malaysia, where the biggest item on his plate was dealing with resettling the refugees from Vietnam. Miller's perceptive take on the war is that the United States had neither a strategy for fighting the war nor one for ending the war because the Americans never thought they could lose. He also details the far-reaching, long-term domestic damage that the conflict did to American society.
Newsmen and Historian Memoirs
The New Face of War by Malcolm Brown. The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchette. The Fall of Saigon by David Butler. Vietnam: A Political History by Joseph Buttinger. The Crazy War: Travels in Vietnam by Karl Eskelund is a short travelogue by a Danish writer, published in 1966 but not translated into English until 2012. Eskelund, who spent his life writing about out of the way places, lived in Saigon in the early ’40s during World War II, and his book is almost unique in having historical perspective and old acquaintances to consult. It is clear from Eskelund’s book that the Marine Combined Action Platoons were America’s only hope for winning the war and that the big unit search and destroy and bombing was alienating the population rather than winning support for the government. It’s all here in 112 pages. A Personal War In Vietnam by Robert Flynn is a most balanced view of the war. Flynn, a thirty-eight-year-old former Marine, spent two months with a Combined Unit Pacification Program team from Golf Company, Fifth Marines, in late 1970. Although accredited to the war, his sponsor refused to publish his dispatches. They were finally published as a book, without revision, in 1989. The seminal insight of the grunts in Flynn’s book is that Vietnam, an ancestor worshipping society, thought of strategy in terms of generations, while Americans thought in terms of years. Vietnam, The Secret War by Kevin Generous, The Perfect War by James William Gibson, Charlie Company, What Vietnam Did To Us by Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller was written by two Newsweek Magazine reporters who were asked to do a cover story on Vietnam Veterans. In the course of their investigation, they found enough material for this excellent book about the war and its aftermath. The Making of a Quagmire by David Halberstam, Dispatches by Michael Herr, Tragic Mountains: War in Laos 1942 - 1992 by Jane Hamilton Merrill, Ambush Valley and Khe Sanh, Siege in the Clouds by Eric Hammel, The Struggle for Indochina by Ellen J. Hammer, My Lai 4 by Seymour Hersh, Our Vietnam Nightmare by Marguerite Higgins, and The Devil and John Foster Dulles by Townsend Hoopes. To What End by Ward S. Just, who was a newspaper reporter before he became a novelist, was written in 1967 and published in 1968. Just describes Vietnam before the Tet offensive and the destruction of Hue. Sadly, this book is still worth reading almost fifty years later. Vietnam - A History by Stanley Karnow, Payback by Joe Klein, Vietnam. The Cat From Hué by John Laurence, the reporter for CBS, is unique since Laurence was in Vietnam three times for a total of twenty-two months. His first posting was at the beginning of the war in 1965, then he was in Hué during the Tet Offensive, and finally back in 1970 as the war was winding down. There are other unique things in this 848-page book that the author wrote over thirty years. A Reporter’s War by Hugh Lunn, The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Mangold and Penycate, The Vietnamese and their Revolution by John McAlister and Paul Mus, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred McCoy, They Marched Into Sunlight by David Maraniss, JFK and Vietnam by John M. Newman, Into Laos, The Battle for Hue, Tet 1968, and Death Valley - Summer Offensive in I Corps by Keith William Nolan, Tet! The Turning Point In the Vietnam War by Don Oberdorfer, Page after Page by Tim Page, a British photographer’s memoir, Kennedy’s Quest for Victory (1961-1963) by Thomas Paterson, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War by John Prados, Kennedy and Vietnam by William J. Rust, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam by Morley Safer, Hamburger Hill: The Brutal Battle for Dong Ap Bia Mountain May 11-20, 1969 by Samuel Saffiri, Behind the Lines - Hanoi by Harrison E. Salisbury, War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam by David L. Schalk, The Real War by Jonathan Schell, Bitter Heritage - The Vietnam War and the American Dream by Arthur Schleshinger, Jr., The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam by Franz Schurmann, Peter Scott and Reginald Zelnik (published in 1966), A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. Sheehan spent 16 years writing this classic bestseller, a history of the American involvement in Vietnam as told through the life of Colonel John Paul Vann. Wings For the Valiant by Robert W. Sisk, Looking Away: Hollywood and Vietnam, by Julian Smith, The Vietnam Experience by Time-Life Books; Why Vietnam? By Frank N. Trager, a 1966 history of the French War and Diem Regime that concludes by being supportive of the war. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War by Brian Van De Mark; A Piece of My Heart: 26 Women Vets by Keith Walker.
Vietnam Diary by Richard Tregaskis is important and unique. Tregaskis was a trained newspaper correspondent who went in with the Marines at Guadalcanal in World War II. His book, Guadalcanal Diary, was a best-seller, was made into a movie in 1943, and for a while, was required reading for all Marine officer candidates. Vietnam Diary is based on his three months in Vietnam from October 1962 to the beginning of January 1963. Published in 1963, this is the advisor’s Vietnam. All the Americans are older, career officers. No draftees. Yet, it is clear that in the emphasis on helicopter mobility lay the hope of victory. Tregaskis’s book ends where Neil Sheehan’s begins, with the Battle of Ap Bac and a helicopter crash that took six American lives. Tregaskis is an anti-communist, and this is the war fought by the South Vietnamese with advisors from Yale, Dartmouth, and West Point. Yet, even in 1962, no one thought we were winning the war.
The most important newsman’s book, one that explains the United States – Communist China relationship from 1945 to 1972, is On the Front Lines of the Cold War by Seymour Topping. Because the United States did not have diplomatic relations with Peking until 1972, there are no official documents of their contacts. Topping’s book is the closest anyone will ever come to writing the official history of US – Communist Chinese relations of that period. Topping is a newspaper reporter who was in the right place at the right time. As a high school student, attracted by Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, Topping became a newspaper reporter and covered the civil war in China from 1945 – 1949. Posted to Saigon in 1950, he covered the French Indochina war, met for two hours with John and Bob Kennedy, and was questioned by them during their visit to Vietnam in 1951. Topping was instrumental in contributing to the success of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Vietnam and Korea. Chinese leaks to Topping were the only way the Chinese could communicate their negotiating position to the Americans because they had no official contacts. Topping played the same role that John Scali played in the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the Korean War, Chou En-Lai told the Canadians to tell the Americans that the Chinese would not intervene unless American troops crossed the 38th parallel. Truman and his advisors ignored the message, thinking it was a bluff.
Topping was subsequently posted to Berlin in the late 1950s and was in Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Additionally, he married the daughter of Chester Ronning, the career Canadian diplomat who was instrumental in the most important peace feeler of the Vietnam War. His familial relations give Topping an additional non-American perspective. Topping retained excellent relations with Huang Hua and Chou En-Lai all through their lives. Topping ultimately became an editor at the New York Times. It is difficult to understand the Chinese dimension of the Vietnam War and American foreign policy of the 1950s and 1960s without reading this book. Also, this book is one of the few that details forthrightly the amount and kind of aid the Communist Chinese gave to the Vietnamese. Giap, the history teacher, was not the military genius he is made out to be. Many of Ho’s troops were trained and supplied by the Chinese. On the Front Lines of the Cold War is an inside account of events most historians of the period never knew happened. Topping has some interesting conclusions that bear on contemporary foreign policy issues, the most jarring of which is his contention that air power is too big a hammer and is essentially useless in fighting guerilla or civil war because killing innocent people (which is inevitable) just alienates the people one is trying to win over.
Military Officer Memoirs
None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam by George W. Allen is an indispensable book. Allen spent the fourteen years from 1954 – 1968 exclusively on Vietnam as a military analyst for the army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the CIA. Allen’s book is filled with golden nuggets, the most shocking of which is the description of distortions and information suppression of the pre-Tet American public relations campaign designed to persuade the American people that the war was being won. This public relations blitz was the cause of the subsequent shock of the Tet offensive. Had the political and military leaders told the truth, then the public would have been better prepared for the widespread attack. Unfortunately, like all the other memoirs of high officials with decades of involvement in Vietnam, Allen’s book has a black hole where the overthrow and murder of President Diem should be. All he says is that army intelligence was against it.
Trung Ta Bac Si by Lt. Colonel Wesly Grimes Byerly. Slow Burn: The Rise and Bitter Fall of American Intelligence in Vietnam by CIA operative Orin DeForest is a handbook of how to run an intelligence operation during a war. The actionable intelligence was produced in droves once the torture stopped. This book will change the mind of anyone who thinks enhanced interrogation techniques in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan are protecting the American people. Quite the contrary. The Advisor by John L. Cook. Infantry in Vietnam by Lt. Colonel Albert Garland. About Face by David Hackworth, and Inner Circles: How America Changed the World by Alexander Haig. Through the Eyes of a Tiger: An Army Flight Surgeon’s Vietnam Journal by Jay Hoyland (pen name for James G. Hall, M.D.) is unique to the extent that Hall’s entire tour in the Delta took place between December 1962 and November 1963, during the advisory effort, when Kennedy was Commander-in-Chief. Hall was with the 134th Medical Detachment, the Soc Trang Tigers, supporting the ARVN soldiers involved in the famous Battle of Ap Bac. This is the war before Americans became involved in combat; when ferrying the ARVN soldiers to and from battle and setting up aid stations to help treat the injured South Vietnamese was what Americans did. The War Managers by Douglas Kinnard, a seminal book based on a 60 part questionnaire sent to 173 Army Generals who had commanded in Vietnam, of whom 64 percent completed the survey. Kinnard also wrote The Certain Trumpet, a biography of Maxwell Taylor focusing primarily on Vietnam. Johnny’s Song and other poems by Captain Steven Mason is probably the best single poem to emerge from the Vietnam War, which was read at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., The Twenty-Five Year War by General Bruce Palmer, Jr. Why Vietnam? By Archimedes Patti, Three War Marine by Francis Fox Parry is by a 1940 Annapolis graduate who served in the artillery at Guadalcanal, Chosin, and in Westmoreland’s headquarters. This excellent book is war from the artillery perspective. When Thunder Rolled: An F-105 Pilot over North Vietnam by Ed Rasimus is a great book about aerial warfare. It is easy to say, “let’s bomb North Vietnam.” The reality is far more complex. Rasimus’s book shows that airpower is a difficult and complex undertaking. Thunderbolt - Creighton Abrams by Lewis Sorley, the closest thing to an autobiography of Abrams, who was dying of cancer while serving as Commander in Vietnam and passed away soon after the end of his tour. On Strategy by Harry Summers, Jr. The Uncertain Trumpet and Swords and Plowshares by General Maxwell D. Taylor, who served as Kennedy’s Chief of Staff and military advisor; Surviving Hell, A POWs Journey by Leo Thorsness; Our Endless War - Inside Vietnam by Tran Van Don; Strange War, Strange Strategy by Lewis Walt; A Soldier Reports by William C. Westmoreland, the Commanding Officer of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, from 1965 - 1968. Note that Westmoreland washes his hands of the war by depicting himself as a simple soldier making a report, not an architect of the failed strategy. Reported to be Alive by NBC newsman Grant Wolfkill is the chronicle of fifteen months of captivity by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese in Laos in 1961-62. Gruesome, but it shows what humans can endure under difficult circumstances. In spite of the abuse and deprivation of his imprisonment, Wolfkill lived to the ripe old age of 94. Da Nang Diary: A Forward Air Controller’s Year of Combat over Vietnam by Colonel Tom Yarborough is an excellent, unique look at the Forward Air Controller’s art. Yarborough was part of a secret operation fighting in Laos, as well as Cambodia. The epigraph to Da Nang Diary is the most appropriate of any book on the Vietnam War: “Give honor to our heroes fall’n, how ill/so’er the cause that bade them forth to die.” William Watson “The English Dead”.
Special mention must be made of Nationalist in the Viet Nam War, Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier by Nguyê͂n Công Luâ̩n, an incredible, intimate examination of the war from the perspective of a soldier who spent nineteen years in the South Vietnamese Army. Luâ̩n has no doubt that he was fighting on the right side. Born in 1938 in a small village near Nam Dinh south of Hanoi, his father was a member of the nationalist party VNQDD. After his father was arrested and died in a Viet Minh jail, Luâ̩n moved with his family to Saigon in the resettlement following the 1954 Geneva Accords. Luâ̩n was trained at Fort Bragg in 1957 and rose relentlessly in the ranks. Uniquely, he spent three years as a director in the Chiêu Hồi program, where he dealt with defectors from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, so he has an excellent understanding of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict. He returned for another course at Fort Bragg that ended in March 1975. Nevertheless, he returned to South Vietnam, just in time for the end. After the collapse of South Vietnam, Luâ̩n spent eight years in communist prisons in both north and south Vietnam. After another eight years, he moved with his family to San Diego under the orderly departure program. Luâ̩n’s observations are important and priceless. If nothing else, the complexities and nuances of the conflict are illuminated by someone who spent the thirty years from 1945 to 1975 immersed in the war. This book makes the strongest possible case for why the United States was right to fight in Vietnam. For anyone looking for a book to make a veteran feel great about his or her service, this is it.
On the other hand, no list of military memoirs is complete without the classic War Comes to Long An by Jeffrey Race. Race graduated from Harvard in 1965 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army. He spent from October 1965 to June 1967 as an officer in Vietnam, one tour in the signal corps, and another with a MACV advisory team. While in Vietnam, Race taught himself to read and speak Vietnamese. After his discharge in June 1967, Race returned to Vietnam in July as an independent researcher and spent a year interviewing everyone, including defectors, and reading through documents. He returned to Harvard and wrote his Ph.D. Thesis on the Vietnam War, specifically trying to answer the question of why the Viet Cong soldiers were so much better motivated to fight than the government troops. What he discovered was that the Communists saw the distribution of social power as the key to security. The government thought that first there needed to be security, and that the social and economic reforms had to wait until then. The Communists not only gave soldiers and their families a positive incentive to fight by giving them land (that they would lose if the soldier deserted) but also required affirmative action, where peasants were promoted in both the military and civilian sectors into positions of power. In this way, the communist apparatus came to represent the people. The government claimed elections as proof of legitimacy, but most of these contests were rigged, and candidates favoring negotiation or communist programs were excluded from the ballot. Furthermore, Race came to realize that the tactics employed by the government and Americans, massive military sweeps, bombing, and defoliation, were strengthening the communists by alienating the peasants from the government. As Ho Chi Minh wrote in 1924: “And what a funny way to civilize: to teach people to live well, by killing them.”
In the end, Race concludes: “But man is moved by the need for spiritual values as well: a sense of power over his own destiny, a sense of respect from his fellow man. A humane society provides wide satisfaction for these spiritual needs, reaping domestic peace as its reward. Yet while material plenty comes from nature, societies are made by men…. A decade and a half of killing and destruction in Long An proves evidence of the superhuman sacrifices which some men, deprived of these values, will endure to redress their deprivation; yet it also provides a melancholy example of the lengths other men will go, already abundantly enjoying these values, to perpetuate their privilege.” Race’s conclusions are cautionary for America today. For poor people, perhaps even more than for others, being treated with respect is important because it is all they have.
Elected and Appointed Official Memoirs
Counsel To the President by Clark Clifford, presidential counselor and Secretary of Defense. Two United States Senators also wrote books about Vietnam. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas wrote The Arrogance of Power, and Vance Hartke of Indiana wrote The American Crisis in Vietnam. In Retrospect and The Essence of Security by Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the buildup in Vietnam. One book that is missing is the memoirs of McGeorge Bundy, the alleged genius, who was Kennedy’s and Johnson’s National Security Advisor, and one of the major architects of the Vietnam War. Bundy wrote a memoir, but it was never published. However, a copy was given to Bui Diem, a long-time South Vietnamese diplomat who negotiated with the French in 1954 and was Ambassador to the United States. Bui Diem wrote In the Jaws of History with David Chanoff and made extensive use of Bundy’s memoir. The revelations are truly horrifying. Bui Diem’s book is the closest anyone is going to get to a Mac Bundy memoir, but at least Bundy was honest enough to admit that the American involvement had nothing to do with the Vietnamese; it was a totally American decision.
.Paul Harkins’ Memoir
What does this list of books prove? It proves that if everyone from Presidents, Senators, diplomats, military officers, combat veterans, and their sons have been writing books about Vietnam, it is strange indeed that the commanding general in Vietnam during the most controversial event of the Vietnam War, the overthrow and murder of President Diem and his brother-in-law Nhu, the head of the secret police, has written nothing. (Along with McGeorge Bundy, another major player who remained silent.)
Well, you say, that doesn’t prove anything. Why should Harkins write a book? The answer is because he already had, and he came from a family of writers. His father and brother were novelists. He annotated George Patton’s memoirs after his death. Paul Harkins himself collaborated with his brother Philip to write The Army Officer’s Guide, a how-to book for young officers that was used at West Point. Published in 1951, reflecting the lessons learned from World War II just in time for Korea, this 545-page book was published by McGraw-Hill with a Foreword by Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, Deputy Chief of Staff, who became the military advisor to President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs disaster and was a major player, though not always a successful one, in the decisions concerning Vietnam. Clearly, Harkins took his soldiering seriously, or else he would not have presumed to write a textbook on soldiering. So the fact that Harkins left almost no record of his time as commander in Vietnam is strange indeed, especially seeing as so many other people have spent decades of time, effort, and money to get their stories into print, no matter how seemingly insignificant.
To support my thesis that Harkins was instrumental in Kennedy's assassination, it is necessary to delve into the general's state of mind to understand how he viewed the world.
Who Was Paul Harkins?
Paul Donal Harkins was born in Boston on May 15, 1904. In 1922, when he was eighteen years old, Harkins joined the Boston National Guard just to learn how to ride a horse and play polo.
While in the National Guard, Harkins took the competitive exam for an appointment to West Point, from which he graduated in 1929. At West Point, Harkins was the captain of the polo team. He then joined the horse cavalry at Fort Bliss, which is based in El Paso, Texas. At Fort Bliss, Harkins first met Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge was a Major in the Reserve or National Guard and came down to Ft. Bliss to do his two weeks' duty in the summer. One summer, on maneuvers in Louisiana, Lodge was one of Harkins' assistants.
In 1933, Harkins took the advanced equitation course at Ft. Riley, Kansas, where he remained for six years, the final four as an instructor. It was at Ft. Riley that Harkins first served with General George Patton, who was director of instruction for a short term.
After Ft. Riley, he went to Fort Myer, Virginia. There, Harkins again served under General Patton in the Third Cavalry Regiment, the Old Guard, the army's official ceremonial unit and escort to the president. It participates in ceremonies at the White House, the Pentagon, other national monuments in the capital region. It has the honor of keeping continuous vigil over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Harkins was commander of F Troop.
From Ft. Myer Harkins trasferred to the Second Armored Division, because that was the thing for horse cavalrymen in the days leading up to World War II. Harkins was on maneuvers in Louisiana when he received a phone call from Colonel Gay, who served with Patton, to ask if he wanted to go. When Harkins said, "Where are we going?" Gay replied, "I can't tell you." So, Harkins said, "Sure."
So, he went as deputy chief of staff for the Western Task Force in Operation Torch, the Allied landing in North Africa in October 1942. After conquering North Africa, the Americans invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943.
Harkins, as Deputy Chief of Staff for Operation Husky, wrote the invasion plan. General Patton, his deputy General Gay, General Geoffrey Keyes, and Harkins all bet on how long it would take to do Sicily. Patton said ninety days, General Keyes said eighty-five, General Gay said ninety-five, and Harkins said forty-five. They did it in thirty-eight, so Harkins won thirty dollars.
From Sicily, they went to Europe and, as the Third Army under General Patton, raced across France all the way to Czechoslovakia, earning fame during the Battle of the Bulge over Christmas 1944 by helping to rescue the besieged American troops in Bastogne. As Deputy Chief of Staff under Generals Gay and Patton, Harkins earned the nickname "Ramrod" for his determination to keep the Third Army always moving.
After Europe, Harkins came back to West Point. He was assistant commandant for two years and commandant for three. The commandant of West Point is the Dean of Students. The Superintendent runs the post, including academics. In 1951, during his time as Commandant of Cadets, Harkins had to adjudicate an academic cheating scandal focused on members of the prized Black Knights Army football team.
The Honor Code of West Point states: "A cadet does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do." Ninety cadets were dismissed, including the son of Earl "Red" Blaik, head coach of the football team. Blaik's son was one of the cadets who knew about the cheating but had not acted. Coach Blaik felt that Harkins was "a black and white man with no shades of gray." Harkins would have agreed with that assessment. In his Senior Officer's Debriefing, a conversation with Major Jacob B. Couch, Jr. Harkins says, "When I was a Cadet, I was on the honor committee. There were no grey areas, you were either right, or you were wrong...I think that sort of helped in my philosophy of going through the military." (p.10)
Cheating or lying is especially detrimental in military organizations. Candor in a military command decision-making structure is essential in combat situations. To save their reputations, subordinates can't lie to their superiors about whether the perimeter has been penetrated by the enemy or not. That's basic. As the United States was then fighting in Korea, where fifteen of the 670 members of the previous year's Class of 1950 had already been killed in action, Harkins felt compelled to put the integrity of the fighting force ahead of football.
Also while at West Point, Harkins wrote: The Army Officer's Guide with his brother Philip, the 545-page textbook used at the academy for training cadets, mentioned above. Harkins took his soldiering seriously.
After the cheating scandal, Harkins was posted to the Pentagon with General Maxwell Taylor, who wrote the Foreward to The Army Officer's Guide and had become Harkins' mentor after Patton died. Taylor was the G-3 (Operations) officer of the Army, and Harkins was made Chief of Plans.
When General Taylor became Commander in Korea, Harkins was his Chief of Staff in the Eighth Army. Harkins then commanded the Forty-fifth Division Infantry and the Twenty-Fourth Division.
After the Korean armistice, Harkins returned to the Pentagon and served in the International Branch, which ran the Military Assistance Advisory Groups (MAAGS). There were MAAGS in forty-two countries, so Harkins got to see the world. He also commanded the Greek and Turkish armies in the NATO chain.
In 1962, during the crisis over Laos, General Harkins was on stand-by in the Philippines. He was going to command an invasion of Laos with a marine brigade, an air wing, and five thousand men. An international conference on Laos in Geneva reached a neutralization agreement, and Harkins' secret mission was scrapped.
Harkins was then appointed to be head of the Military Assistance Advisory Group - Vietnam (MAAG-V) for two and a half years. Harkins was in Vietnam during the planning for and the coup against South Vietnamese President Diem, which he, along with almost everyone in the military, vigorously opposed.
So, while there are clear reasons of state to explain why Kennedy's support for Diem's overthrow might require his removal from office, there might have been some personal animus between him and Harkins.
The West Point Cheating Scandal
Paul Harkins was commandant at West Point during a massive cheating scandal in 1951. It is important to understand the politics of the Army and the times he was there. There is an excellent book, On Brave Old Army Team: The Cheating Scandal that Rocked the Nation: West Point, 1951 by James Blackwell.
Before World War II, most cadets at West Point had to be nominated by congressmen. Keeping military power in the hands of the elite is certainly key to the survival of any regime. Harkins, as noted above, joined the Army so he could ride horses and play polo.
The need for officers during World War II forced major changes at West Point. The number of cadets doubled, and that changed the kinds of people accepted.
In 1951, there was no National Football League. College football was all the rage, and West Point was sometimes a nationally ranked team. It had a rivalry with the Navy and Notre Dame. West Point played at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in New York before crowds of tens of thousands of fans.
As was true at many colleges, academic accommodations were made for the football players. West Point's motto is "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do." The privileges of football team fostered resentment in the other cadets. It was difficult maintaining academic standing in a rigorous program like West Point's while being a member of a ranked football team with legendary coaches Red Blaik and Vince Lombardi whose motto was, "Winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing." Inevitably, there was academic cheating, and given the importance attached to winning on the gridiron, allowing football players to cheat on tests became institutionalized.
Like all big disasters, circumstances play a role. The Korean War broke out in 1950, and when former cadets and football players started dying in combat, toleration for violations of the honor code declined.
Paul Harkins, as commandant, was a stickler for protocol even before the Korean War, as demonstrated in his authorship of The Army Officer's Guide. Two paragraphs from On Brave Old Army Team will suffice.
ACE COLLINS'S MISSION
"Colonel Arthur Collins had noticed all during the spring parade season in April and May that the commandant had been carrying a brown envelope under his arm as he stopped to observe the afternoon drill and ceremony on his way home from his office. It was curiously out of character for Harkins to have anything in his hands in the presence of so many cadets and subordinate officers. For one thing, it made it awkward for the commandant to return the salutes of just about anyone else on the post who passed him by; military courtesy demanded that the salute hand be kept free for that purpose. Furthermore, in the army of the 1950s, officers by custom simply did not take work home. They stayed at the office until the day's work was complete and did not leave until it was done. When an officer went home, he did not bring the office with him. Harkins, having written several (sic) books on military customs and courtesies, and a stickler himself to the finest details of proper service tradition, would violate one of his own precepts only for the most extenuating of circumstances. On Monday, 28 May, Collins was to find out what had so captivated his commander's attention." (p. 311-312)
In the envelope were orders directing Collins to conduct his own investigation of the cheating allegations and "let the chips fall where they may." In the end, 83 cadets were permitted to resign from the academy in a kind of stampede without due process. One of the cadets caught was football coach Red Blaik's son, who hadn't cheated himself but knew of the cheating. That prompted the coach to say that Harkins, "was a black and white man with no shades of gray."
According to West Point tradition, cheaters were supposed to be silenced for life by other cadets. Harkins, an alumnus himself, knew the consequences of being caught cheating.
After the names of the cheating cadets at West Point became public, Congressman John F. Kennedy used the opportunity to get a long article about himself in The New York Times Magazine where he explained his procedure for appointing cadets to the military academies. It entailed standardized testing with an interview, which might have been construed as a backhanded criticism of West Point's current system for accepting cadets, especially football players. To someone like Harkins, this might have felt like kicking someone when they were down.
While, other colleges scrambled for some of the expelled football players, an anonymous donor offered to pay the tuition for all of the other dismissed cadets to go to Notre Dame. Fifteen years after the affair, it was revealed that the anonymous donor was none other than Joseph P. Kennedy, JFK's father. It is likely that Kennedy's identity was not a secret from the Army brass. This act of generosity also could easily be viewed as undermining the Army discipline.
So, by the time Harkins ended up as Commander in Vietnam, being cut out of the cable traffic between Lodge and the president, perhaps even having been lied to enable the coup against Diem to succeed, and certainly humiliated by having his professional military judgement second guessed by Lodge and newspaper reporters being accepted by the president, Harkins might have been angry enough to commit murder.
Anyway, the fact that such an important figure in the most pivotal moment of the Vietnam War has remained silent when everyone else has seemed compelled to spill their guts in print seems odd, to say the least.
In January 1964, General William Westmoreland was posted to Vietnam as Harkins deputy and succeeded him as Commander of the renamed Military Assistance Command - Vietnam (MACV) in June. General Harkins then retired from the Army on August 1, 1964. The Gulf of Tonkin attacks, both real and imagined, took place on August 2 and 4, 1964. On August 5, Johnson ordered retaliatory airstrikes. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which the Johnson administration interpreted as congressional authorization for the Vietnam War, was introduced and passed on August 10, 1964.
In 1969, in retirement, Harkins authored When the Third Cracked Europe: The Story of Patton's Incredible Army. Harkins' father was a novelist and editor. His co-author brother, Philip, was also a novelist. Philip's book Blackburn's Headhunters was made into the movie Surrender - Hell!
There are more than 30,000 books in print about the Vietnam War. Everyone from cotton pickers to presidents of the United States has chimed in by writing memoirs. Paul Harkins was the commanding general in Vietnam during the seminal event of the war, the overthrow and murder of South Vietnam's president Nho Din Diem, one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in American history. Yet, except for a 40-page interview for The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, and another oral history given April 28, 1974 to the Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Harkins has said and written nothing about his time in Vietnam. Harkins' April 28, 1974 Senior Officers Debriefing conversation with Major James B. Couch was still, as of March 18, 2021, restricted distribution limited to people with clearance.
In the military tradition from which Harkins emerged, many officers did not vote. Politics was anathema. Someone charged with sending their own and other people to their deaths don't have the luxury of asking themselves whether the orders should be obeyed or not. To make following orders easier, they pay no attention to the legitimacy of the orders they are given. Many professional soldiers abhor not only politics but other officers who are considered political.
Nothing could be more despicable to the professional soldier than a war fought for domestic political purposes. In effect, it would be sacrificing American lives merely to secure someone's election. Essentially, that is what the Vietnam War was. Kennedy's fear of being branded as having "lost" Vietnam during his 1964 re-election campaign as Truman had been branded as having lost China prompted him, in his depression over the death of his son, with committing one of the stupidest acts in the history of American foreign policy.
So, maybe Harkins didn't write a book because he could not tell the truth about his role in the coup against Diem and the assassination in Dallas. Unlike W. Mark Felt, who could wait thirty years and then confess to leaking information to the press that removed a president from office, admitting to conspiracy to commit murder, even if justified, even if the victim was part of the plot, is a far, far different kettle of fish. It could destroy the United States Army, and the Vietnam War very nearly did anyway.
McGeorge Bundy also, as an academic and professor, wrote eight books” Zero Hour; a summons to the free (1940), On Active Service in Peace and War (1948), Pattern of Responsibility (1952), Dimensions of Diplomacy (1964), Strength of Government (1968), Presidential Promises and Performance (1980), Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988) and Reducing Nuclear Danger: The Road Away from the Brink (1993). Yet, Bundy also declined to fill history in on his role in the deliberations that led to the overthrow of Diem and the American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Kennedy’s Conundrum and the Internal Debate Over Diem
In the fall of 1963, Kennedy faced a serious political problem. The first Catholic ever to be elected president, the United States was fighting an anti-communist war in Vietnam where Nho Dinh Diem, the President, was a Catholic in a majority Buddhist and Anamist country. In May, religious riots had broken out with Buddhist priests burning themselves to death in protest. When Kennedy was president, the Vietnam War was basically between the Catholic capitalists and the communist Confucian/Buddhists, with a northerner – southerner split to stir the brew. When the French conquered Indochina, the Catholic Church seized 20% of the arable land in Vietnam, so Buddhist resentment was understandable. France’s civilizing mission had an economic component.
Vietnam needs to be seen in the context of Kennedy’s foreign policy. Starting with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, inherited from the Eisenhower administration, JFK met with Khrushchev in Vienna in June. Handicappers generally gave Khrushchev a “win” because he bullied Kennedy, correctly reading the new president as someone unwilling to defend the unity of West Berlin, as Ike might have. The Berlin Wall was the result. Reaching an accommodation on Laos in 1962, Then, in 1963, he negotiated the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Kennedy’s foreign policy lurched toward nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, generally considered the high point of his foreign policy achievements. [Once Johnson became president, he embarked on an orgy of anti-communist interventions: supporting a coup in Brazil; financing the right in Chilean elections, and sending troops to the Dominican Republic. The relative ease and short duration of these hemispheric interventions may have lulled Johnson into the false idea that the United States could intervene massively in South Vietnam, win a quick victory, and get out.]
American foreign policy was premised on anti-communism, not allowing the communists to capture even one square foot of land anywhere. After the French were defeated in Vietnam in 1954, according to newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann, the doctrine of “massive retaliation” was propounded, not to save money or get a bigger bang for the buck, but to protect the freedom of South Vietnam WITHOUT the use of American troops. By threatening to attack China and/or Russia with nuclear weapons, the Eisenhower Administration protected the independence of South Vietnam. Consequently, the North Vietnamese and their Chinese benefactors settled on a strategy of guerilla war instead of a big unit conventional war. This was necessary because the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, the Russians could not yet deliver any with missiles or bombers. By the time Kennedy became president, the balance of power had shifted. Russians not only had the bomb, they had the missiles and planes to deliver them. Therefore, the only way the United States could defend South Vietnam was not by nuclear blackmail, but by introducing combat troops. [After Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964, the Soviets supplied modern weaponry to the North Vietnamese, and the war, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968 wiped out the “Viet Cong,” became a predominantly conventional conflict.]
Kennedy was caught between a rock and a hard place. He could not abandon South Vietnam or Barry Goldwater, the prospective Republican candidate would brand him soft on communism, just as Harry Truman had been accused of having “lost” China. Kennedy had always campaigned as a staunch anti-communist. On the other hand, fighting a war in support of what was essentially a Catholic dictatorship in South Vietnam was jeopardizing his support among progressives.
Consequently, the wheels were set into motion late in the summer, when Kennedy was at Hyannisport, and everyone was on vacation, to help dissident officers overthrow President Diem. Also, it is important to remember that the decisions that Kennedy made that led to the coup were made right after his newborn son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, died at the age of two days. Kennedy was depressed, naturally, and probably was not thinking too clearly. Evelyn Lincoln, his longtime secretary, said that the only time she ever saw JFK cry was after the death of Patrick. In Mimi Alford’s memoir of her affair with Kennedy Once Upon a Secret, she describes them both sobbing while sitting in the White House going through the stacks of condolence letters. [Jackie was still recuperating.] Kennedy should have taken a vacation on Cape Cod and gone sailing, not try to deal with his most difficult political and foreign policy question all by himself. "I always come back to the Cape and walk on the beach when I have a tough decision to make," JFK once said. "The Cape is the one place I can think, and be alone." Wars frequently have accidental causes, usually unanticipated consequences flowing from deliberate acts.
An essential book to read for an insight into the personal life of the Kennedys, as a kind of split-screen apposition to Mimi Alford’s memoir, is Mrs. Kennedy and Me by Clint Hill, who was the special Secret Service Agent who spent virtually every waking moment with Jackie for the four years from Kennedy’s election in 1960 until a year after his death. Hill was five feet from the president when he was shot and was the person who was with Jackie when both John, Jr., and Patrick were born. Alford’s and Hill’s memoirs show the real state of the first couple's emotions in the wake of Patrick’s death. Jack was with Mimi, and Jackie was with Clint.
The administration was sharply divided over abandoning Diem, with the military, especially, opposed. Diem had been our ally, and overthrowing a head of state is an act of war. Overthrowing a friend, furthermore, would make other nations far more reluctant to accept American help if it ever became known that the United States was involved. In the immediate aftermath of the ouster of Diem, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia said he did not want any more American foreign aid. This is why Kennedy had to be removed from office after Diem’s overthrow. Declining to run for re-election as President Johnson did four years later was unthinkable in the heady days of Camelot. Kennedy could not resign like Nixon did, because that would have been an admission of American involvement in Diem’s overthrow. Nguyen Cao Ky, former vice-president of South Vietnam, in his memoir Twenty Years and Twenty Days wrote: "So the American ambassador [Lodge] authorized the CIA to help the generals with ‘tactical planning.’ Colonel Lucien Conein, a CIA agent, met quickly with Big Minh, and before long the CIA was providing Big Minh with details of armaments kept at Camp Longthanh, a secret base of Special Forces loyal to Nhu.” (p. 36). It became important to reassure American allies that overthrowing our friends was not the policy of the United States, it was the policy only of the Kennedy Administration, and if anyone ever tries to do something like that again, he or she will meet a fate similar to Kennedy’s.
It is important to remember that in those days, coups could be gentlemanly affairs. When the CIA overthrew the legally elected government of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, Mossadegh retired to his house in Iran. King Farouk fled Egypt for the French Riviera when Nasser took power. Kennedy may have been under the impression that Diem would just be removed from office and retire to the Riviera, or the monastery in Lakewood, New Jersey where he had already lived for several years. When Kennedy heard that Diem and Nhu had been murdered, he blanched and left the room.
Preposterous as it seems, Kennedy may even have understood the impossible situation the coup put him in better than anyone. He was the one who insisted that the bubble top be removed in Dallas, over the objections of the Secret Service. The putative reason, according to Hill’s memoir, was that Kennedy did not want the appearance of being separated from the people as the campaign moved into re-election mode. Hill says that Kennedy shot him dirty looks whenever he climbed onto the back bumper of the limousine. Still, his brief was protecting Jackie, not the president, so he did his job according to his understanding of the First Lady’s needs. Kennedy may even have been part of the plot. He may have been one of the first friendly fire or fragging casualties of the Vietnam War, preposterous as that may seem. When Jackie climbed onto the trunk of the limousine to retrieve part of Jack’s head, it was Clint Hill who pushed her back into the seat.
Lodge’s Memoir, The Storm Has Many Eyes
In Kennedy’s Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge’s book, he freely admits having secret communications with Kennedy, leaving Harkins out of the loop. Lodge never says what the communications were, but stoutly defends Kennedy’s right, as commander-in-chief, to leave Harkins in the dark. According to Zalin Grant’s book: FACING THE PHOENIX The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam, during the early part of the coup, Diem negotiated with the coup plotters for terms of leaving office. Unbeknownst to the coup plotters, Diem had fled the palace in anticipation of such a coup attempt, and was hiding in a friend’s house where he had previously installed a telephone that ran through the palace switchboard. Around 7:00 a.m. Diem called Ambassador Lodge probably to ask to surrender to the Americans and for safe conduct out of the country. Instead of saving Diem’s life, Lodge probably told Colonel Lucian Conein, who was with the plotters, the real location of Diem. In other words, Henry Cabot Lodge made the crucial betrayal of an ally to allow the coup to succeed.
“The machinations led Lodge himself to deceive General Paul Harkins, who had been a family friend since they served together at Fort Bliss in the nineteen twenties. He cut Harkins out of the cable traffic about the coup and began sending his own military assessments to Washington without showing them to the general. The State Department finally told Lodge to share the message traffic with Harkins, and when the general learned what was going on, he filed a strong protest against the coup.” ( Grant, p.204)
“Subsequently, court-martial charges were brought against Lieutenant Colonel Mike Dunn, Lodge’s military aide detailed to him from the office of the Army Chief Staff, by Generals Harkins and Westmoreland, on grounds that Dunn made false statements, particularly in regards (sic) to what Harkins had been trying to tell Lodge, though not necessarily only during the coup period.” (p.213)
In Mecklin’s book, he quotes Diem as saying, “I know a coup is coming, I just can’t figure out from where.” Perhaps Kennedy used Harkins to deceive Diem to enable the coup to succeed. If that was the case, Harkins would have been humiliated and his effectiveness as an officer ended. Also, the heads of the three primary departments of the government: the executive in Kennedy, the military in Harkins and Dunn, and the State Department (diplomatic) in Lodge, all came from Massachusetts, which means that politics had its fingerprints all over Vietnam, the number one foreign policy problem at that time. Kennedy wanted people in Vietnam from his home state of Massachusetts who he thought he could control politically. It was a fatal error.
Furthermore, Harkins was a recess appointment, skirting the normal checks and balances of the constitution. The recess appointment obviated the necessity of Senate confirmation where questions might have been raised as to the propriety of appointing a general with tank command experience to a guerilla war where the enemy had no tanks at that point in the war.
This back channel theory is given indirect confirmation by the actions of Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger during the waning days of the Nixon Administration over Watergate. He said he sent out a message to all commanders telling them not to accept orders “outside of the normal chain of command.” The purported fear was that Nixon might use the military in some way to stay in power. Nevertheless, the mere mention of this possibility is indirect proof that presidents in the past might have issued direct orders to commanders outside the normal military chain of command. Kennedy was famous for reaching down in government departments and seeking the opinions of subordinates without the knowledge of their superiors. Also, the Commander of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam was nominally subordinate to the Ambassador. Technically, the United States was never at war in Vietnam. It was merely assisting the South Vietnamese government in resisting aggression.
Harkins, a firm backer of Diem, probably also clearly saw the consequences of the coup, that he personally would never be trusted and that the political and diplomatic arms of the American government could and would act secretly in opposition to its own military, even in a war zone.
The overthrow of Diem was among the worst own goals in the history of American foreign policy. The United States had spent a decade and billions of dollars training the South Vietnamese army in America's image to fight against the North Vietnamese but not engage in politics. Once the United States gave the green light to the South Vietnamese generals that it was alright to overthrow the civilian leadership, the South Vietnamese army stopped fighting the communists and became full-time political operatives, tasked with running the state and staying in power. That is the reason the United States had to intervene militarily with ground troops. Kennedy violated in Vietnam a basic tenet of democratic governance that the military should be subordinate to the civilian leadership.
The Timing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Lyndon Johnson carried the Gulf of Tonkin resolutions around in his pocket for months before finally submitting them to Congress. He did so in August 1964, days before he was nominated for president for his own term. The Gulf of Tonkin attacks are universally recognized as a causus belli, an excuse for the Vietnam War, just as the allegation of the weapons of mass destruction turned out to be the excuse, not the reason for the invasion of Iraq. If the attacks occurred at all, they were minor responses to clear American provocations.
Lyndon Johnson passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolutions when he did clearly to put the responsibility for the Vietnam War in Kennedy’s lap, during the time he considered himself the caretaker president. [See The Passage of Power by Robert Caro.] If he hadn’t felt that way, he never would have stepped down in 1968. Who ever heard of a Commander-in-Chief quitting in the middle of a war that he started? No, Lyndon Johnson thought the Vietnam War was started by Kennedy. With the rabid anti-communism of the Republicans partially responsible for the mind set that made Vietnam possible, there is symmetry and poetic justice in communist baiter Nixon’s accession to the presidency at the height of the Vietnam War. His victory, over Humphrey, is a kind of admission that the voters erred in electing Kennedy in 1960.
Lee Harvey Oswald and Paul D. Harkins
The Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of President Kennedy is believable, but makes no sense given the inconsistencies and omissions in the investigation and its aftermath; the idea that General Paul D. Harkins was instrumental in the assassination is unbelievable, but makes sense given the revelations of the past half century about the Vietnam War and its origins.
An indirect confirmation of this theory can be found in H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. McMaster, a 1984 graduate of West Point, holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As an Army officer, he had access to the files of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and wrote this book about its role in the decision to fight in Vietnam. McMaster clearly documents the horrifying fact that Kennedy’s appointees in the Johnson Administration (McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy) the major players in foreign policy decision-making, knew that the United States would not be able to win in Vietnam, but judged that it would be better to lose after committing troops and making a fight than just pulling out in 1965. Why? Because the United States felt it had to honor the commitments made by Kennedy to the anti-Diem coup plotters. Similarly, assassinating Kennedy communicated to our allies that the United States does not condone turning its back on its friends. This is the use of force for political, not military, purposes.
McNamara, Rusk and Bundy saw the use of military force as a means of communicating our resolve to North Vietnam and that the United States was “true to its word.” The American Vietnam War aims were bizarre and even insane from a traditional war fighting perspective. But if the involvement in Vietnam was to show the anti-Diem coup plotters that America was sticking to its commitments, no matter how futile, even while demonstrating to the rest of the United States’ allies that abandoning a friendly head of state is not United States policy, then the policy makes perfect sense. If Johnson, McNamara, Rusk and Bundy knew the war was lost before it began, then the restrictions on the military to make sure it did not escalate into a nuclear World War III with China and/or Russia were eminently reasonable, even noble.
The epigraph in Closely Watched Trains, one of the first films to emerge from the Prague Spring in 1967 is: “A Hero is Someone Who Dies for No Reason, While Most People Live for No Reason.” America flushed its soldiers and Vietnamese lives down the toilet to make political statements. Unfortunately, accidents can usually be found at the beginning of armed conflict, which is why they are so difficult to prevent or understand. Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister of Israel, once said, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist.” That’s just another way of saying that accidents do happen and I guess that’s where the tragic quality of life comes from.
Why Nixon Was Forced from Office
Like the Monica Lewinsky scandal that almost toppled Bill Clinton’s presidency twenty-four years later, removing Nixon from office for the Watergate break-in seemed absurd. After all, Nixon had waged a secret and illegal war against Cambodia. Nixon had to be removed from office because, unlike the spineless Gerald Ford, Nixon would have fulfilled America’s obligations to the South Vietnamese under the Paris Peace Accords. In order to end the war in Vietnam, the United States had to reneg on its commitments to South Vietnam made in order to get it to sign the Paris Peace Accords. In the event, when Ford asked the Congress for the money to supply the South Vietnamese with the arms and munitions to continue fighting when the North violated the Paris Accords, Congress said no and Ford shrugged his shoulders.
Why the Bushes Became President
So, why are the Bushes the only family since the Adamses to have a father and son become President of the United States? Clearly, it is not because either the father or the son are outstanding in any way except that they are well-connected.
The reason the Bushes have had two presidents is luck. It was the only member of the permanent establishment that was out of office during the Kennedy Assassination. Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, President George H. W. Bush’s father and George W. Bush’s grandfather, served in the Senate from 1952 to January, 1963. George H. W. Bush did not get elected to the House of Representatives until 1966, after a failed attempt to win a Senate seat in 1964. This gave the Bushes a freedom to maneuver that no one who held federal office at that time could match, because every member of the House, Senate, Supreme Court and the Secret Services has been compromised by the dirty deal of the Kennedy assassination cover-up. Anyway, the Bush family has been working non-stop for the CIA since George H. W. Bush’s father, Prescott, served in the Senate. The Bush family oil business has been substantially a legitimate cover for CIA work.
General Paul D. Harkins, who was the American Commander in Vietnam during the overthrow of President Diem, was probably instrumental in the assassination of Kennedy. And this is why the Joint Chiefs under Johnson, as detailed in McMasters and many other books, had to swallow their professional military knowledge and allow the civilian leadership to run Vietnam as a political war. The Vietnam war was primarily a political war, with the military aspects secondary. That is why the soldiers who fought it referred to the dead as “wasted.”
The Real Lessons of Vietnam
The real lesson of Vietnam is never to fight a war for domestic political reasons. Kennedy overthrew Diem because he was depressed by the death of his son and because Diem’s continuing in office might cause him possibly fatal political problems in the 1964 election. Wars are never over. [William Faulker wrote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.] The damage of Vietnam continues today and will always be with the United States (not to mention Vietnam where unexploded munitions and the environmental destruction caused by Agent Orange continues four decades later). The sad truth is that too many politicians think it is acceptable to make soldiers of their own country lose their lives so that they do not have to lose power or an election. Also, it is always easier to start a war than to end one.
The real lesson is this: War is not a policy option, especially in the nuclear age.
Addendum: Domino Theory, Game Theory and Not Being Allowed to Win, Revisionist Kennedy History, and Nuclear War
The Domino Theory
Kennedy’s assassination is not the only misunderstood event of the Vietnam War. In retrospect, history comes to have an accepted narrative that is frequently false and lays the foundation for future disasters. [Max Beerbaum wrote: “History does not repeat itself, it is historians who repeat one another.”]The outcome of the Vietnam War is used to discredit the Domino Theory on which it was allegedly based. Unfortunately, there was, for the anti-communist ideologues, a grain of truth to the Domino Theory.
The United States fought in Vietnam because Vietnam itself was the first domino, not to protect Thailand or anywhere else. The communist insurgency in Vietnam was viewed as an outside aggression because victory for the communists would have been the first time a non-indigenous communist movement was victorious. This narrative is based on the fact that Ho Chi Minh was an exile from Vietnam for thirty years. He was a founding member of the French Communist Party, studied in Moscow, and lived in New York and Boston. As a member of the Comintern, Ho did try to lay the groundwork for communist insurgencies in Burma, the Philippines and Thailand. (Cambodia and Laos were considered part of French Indochina in the 1920’s. Creating an exclusively Vietnamese Communist Party was one of Ho’s signature accomplishments.) However, Ho was a nationalist first, and that was the incorrect position during the 1920’s. It was only the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s that altered the Comintern policy and prompted Stalin to urge support of “popular front governments” in alliance with bourgeois parties that restored Ho’s fortunes in the Communist movement. The first platoon of soldiers that General Giap brought into Vietnam had been trained in China. In contrast, the Soviet and Chinese communist revolutions had been home grown.
The anti-communists in the United States viewed Ho Chi Minh’s revolution as Soviet and Chinese backed foreign aggression. Also, the Catholic Church was a big cheerleader for the Vietnam War. But the same debate of whether Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist or a communist first that permeated discussions of the war in the United States was echoed in debates in Hanoi, Moscow and Peking. Many communists accused Ho of not being sufficiently dedicated to the cause of social transformation. Ho wanted independence for the Vietnamese above all else and every other consideration took a back seat. Communists were the only ones willing to support Vietnamese unity and independence. Ho reached out to the United States in 1945, hoping to garner its support for a negotiated path to independence; but political considerations in Europe trumped those in Southeast Asia, so the US supported the French return to Vietnam. There is no doubt that the Vietnamese would not have been able to defeat the French without help from China, and China had a strong interest in having a friendly neighbor on its southern border. That is why Vietnam was divided in 1954. (Ho Chi Minh’s biography by William J. Duiker is an important and essential book for anyone really interested in the Vietnam War. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but it is important to study the life of the leader who did defeat the United States in war. The Tet Offensive of 1968 and the Easter Offensive of 1972 were timed to try and influence the presidential elections in the United States.)
Game Theory and Not Being Allowed to Win
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was renowned for bringing modern management tools to the Pentagon and warfare, especially computers. Instead of listening to military advice, appointed undersecretary John McNaughton favored game theory analysis of the conflict. According to game theory, there was a crossover point where, if enough Vietnamese were killed, the Vietnamese would scream uncle. General Westmoreland repeatedly referred to a “crossover point” when the number of dead Vietcong and NVA soldiers would be impossible to replace. In fact, the communist ability to replace its casualties and increase its forces was never threatened. The American logic was that Germany was divided between a communist east and a capitalist west, Korea was divided between a communist north and a capitalist south, so why not a divided Vietnam? And this made sense, if one overlooked the fact that American troops remained in Germany half a century after the end of World War II, and American troops remained in Korea half a century after the Korean armistice. South Vietnam's President Thieu contemplated continuing American troop presence. It was domestic political pressure that forced Presidents Nixon and Ford to remove American troops completely from South Vietnam.
In 1966 alone, the United States dropped 38,000 more tons of bombs (equivalent to two Hiroshima sized atomic bombs) on North Vietnam than had been used in the entire Pacific theater during all of World War II. That worked out to a ton of bombs for every 30 North Vietnamese, or almost 70 pounds of bombs per person. In the end, the war killed 1,100,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and wounded another 600,000 out of a population of only 17 million. That is 10% of the entire population as military casualties, more than double the French casualties in World War I. A comparable figure is the deaths and injury of all the men in the United States born between 1947 and 1957, a truly World War I scale casualty rate. According to the game theorists, there was a point where the Vietnamese would give up. That point never came. The Vietnamese were willing to endure horrendous losses to win the war. Ho said that eventually they (the US) would tire of killing us. War is not a game, and neither is life. American General William Westmoreland correctly stated that he would have been sacked for sustaining the scale of loses that the Vietnamese endured. One reason he was not sacked is because no one could foresee that the American loses would far exceed the 58,000 immediate dead. Many of the veterans would eventually commit suicide and many of the others would die from agent orange and other toxic tools of war, not to mention the children of the veterans who would be born with health problems due to their fathers’ service in Vietnam.
So, the idea that the war was lost because the military was not allowed to win is a total myth. The American military is so destructive that the wars never end. The veterans who fight them are destroyed. The environments in which they are fought are destroyed through chemicals, mines or depleted uranium munitions. The good news is that campus demonstrations during the Vietnam War against Dow Chemical Company because of its production and profiting from Agent Orange proves that, in a scientific age, the deleterious consequences are known in advance.
The destructiveness of modern war, especially nuclear war, presents the human race with a unique historical problem. Whereas in the past people had the luxury of learning from their mistakes, nuclear war has removed that option. As Ronald Reagan so eloquently said, “Nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” This means the human race must create societies and institutions for decision-making that do not ultimately make fatal mistakes. This is a tall order, especially given the ignorance, corruption and bias in humans and the political system.
[The grain of truth in the not allowed to win argument is the fact that American troops were prevented from invading North Vietnam. The reason for this is simple. Although the United States did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords that partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, it agreed not to take military action to disturb them. The American position was that North and South Vietnam were separate countries. The North’s position was that Vietnam was one country. If the United States had invaded North Vietnam, China would have been justified, given the Geneva Accords and the United States’s position that it was a sovereign nation, in sending troops to defend the North. Then, Vietnam would have become another Korea where the United States was fighting China. Once China was in the war, if the United States attacked China, then it would have been World War III. The best book for understanding how the United States got into Vietnam is Valley of Death: The Tragedy of Dien Bien Phu that led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan. Morgan is a Pulitzer Prize winning French-American writer who was born a member of the French nobility originally named Comte St. Charles Gabriel Armand Gabriel de Gramont. He wrote under the name of Sanche de Gramont and attended Yale. He served in the French army in Algeria from 1955 – 1957. He ultimately became an American citizen, renounced his nobility, and took the name Ted Morgan from an anagram of de Gramont. As a French-American and professional writer, Valley of Death is the definitive narrative of how and why the United States first supported, and then took over from the French in Vietnam. Also, Embers of War by Cornell Professor Fredrik Logevall is a new prequel, if you will, of his Choosing War.]
Thomas Ahern was a CIA agent in Vietnam who, after leaving the agency, returned as a contract historian to write the after action reports on the agency’s programs in Vietnam. John Prados forced their release under a Freedom of Information Act request. Although redacted, Vietnam DECLASSIFIED: The CIA and Counterinsurgency, says that the United States strategy was responsible for losing the war for two reasons: misunderstanding the nature of the insurgency and misunderstanding what was needed to make peasants loyal to the South Vietnamese government.
“Perhaps the most important assumption driving agency interpretations of the insurgency saw the Viet Cong as relying essentially on coercion – “terror” – to maintain their presence in the countryside. No matter how often defied by experience, this belief consistently dominated the rationale for the programs that CIA proposed or supported, just as it dominated all U.S. policy and program planning. The American abhorrence of communism made it easy to envision a helpless Vietnamese peasantry groaning under the heel of an ideologically alien invader and waiting to be rescued.” p. 359
“The programs [rural pacification] were economically and pragmatically run, and the assessments honestly if sometimes naively drawn. Both were flawed by misunderstanding the nature of the challenge and by the prevailing, if ultimately receding, confidence in the transformative power of American material resources and managerial techniques. It is clear now, although then obscured by American ideological preconceptions, transitory Government of Vietnam successes, and the communists’ own weaknesses, that the Viet Cong succeeded by exploiting the social and economic legacy of the colonial period. Only a collapse of communist will to win could have altered the outcome and that will never faltered. The NorthVietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon on 30 April 1975 sealed a victory that the Southern insurgents had won more than a decade before.” P. 374 - 5
Revisionist Kennedy History and the Importance of Timing
Kennedy’s apologists now maintain that it was Johnson who was responsible for the Vietnam War, not Kennedy. They maintain that Kennedy would have kept everything the same until after the 1964 election and, once re-elected, he would have withdrawn American troops. They point to the 1,000 man drawdown that he ordered at the end of 1963, as proof of his intent, although at the time the drawdown was said to be a threat to try and get Diem to reform his administration. When asked how the withdrawal of troops would be accomplished, Kennedy explained to his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, that the South Vietnamese government would just ask them to leave. After all, American troops were only present to assist the South Vietnamese government.
This explanation has only one flaw. It is because Nhu was opening secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese and was about to ask the American troops to depart that Kennedy colluded in the coup that removed Diem and Nhu from power. In short, while Kennedy was willing and even anxious to consider leaving Vietnam in 1965, he was not willing to do it in 1963. Why? Because the only thing that mattered to Kennedy was his own re-election and he did not want to leave himself open to the charge, like Truman was accused in 1952 of having lost China to the communists, that he had lost Vietnam to the communists.
In politics, timing is everything. For example, Woodrow Wilson kept the United States, a republic and defender of democracy, out of World War I because he refused to be allied with a monarch, the Czar of Russia. But in February 1917, there was a revolution in Russia and Alexander Kerensky’s Social Democrats came to power. Consequently, there were no longer any monarchs on the Allied side, as opposed to the German Kaiser and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor on the Central Power side, so the United States joined the war in April. Then in October, the Bolsheviks came to power and pulled Russia, which had been losing 350,000 men a month, rising to 450,000 in August, out of the war. This betrayal is the reason the United States’s involvement in the war was crucial to the Allied victory and why the British, especially Winston Churchill, were forevermore fervent anti-communists.
A Final Footnote on Feminism and the Accidents of History
In Kennedy’s Camelot, women were relegated to their traditional roles as wives and mothers. There were no women in Kennedy’s cabinet. Instead, JFK’s wife Jackie was fed to the masses as the woman of the hour, pregnant with John, Jr. during the campaign and as the consummate homemaker and hostess as First Lady. After Kennedy was elected, but before he took office, Jackie created an inside the beltway dustup when she tried to lure away the chef of France’s ambassador to London. The Kennedys were known to like French cooking. The chef, a legend in the diplomatic world, was known for his sauces and superb duck. The chef was Bui Van Han, a fifty year old Vietnamese. How different the history of the sixties might have been had Mr. Han responded positively to Jackie’s inquiries.
The Real Causes of the Vietnam War
Obviously, the Vietnam War was not caused because Kennedy lost a child. The mind set that provided the context for the catastrophic policy was caused by two things primarily: anti-communism and television. The anti-communism of the Cold War was fueled by a totally omphalocentric view of World War II. According to the history of World War II as presented in high school texts and television documentaries, the Nazis were defeated by the brave American and allied armies after invading North Africa and France on D-Day. [D-Day was one of the great military disasters in American history. The allies sustained 10,000 casualties on D-Day, 60% of them on Utah beach.] This myth is perpetuated in the appellation of the “greatest generation.” Victory at Sea showed convoys heading to Murmansk, but Stalingrad and the fighting on the eastern front is almost completely absent from standard American histories of World War II. In fact, most of the members of the Vietnam generation would never have been born had it not been for the horrendous sacrifices of the Red Army on the eastern front. Plenty of Americans were sorry that the United States was allied with communists during World War II and secretly sympathized with the Germans against the Russians. Patton and many others favored a separate peace with Germany and an immediate alliance against the Soviet Union. Roosevelt’s demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender was directed at reassuring the Soviets and thwarting the separate peaceniks. Patton’s fabled Third Army only fought in Europe for 283 days, less than a normal year that the grunts fought in Vietnam, which probably made continuing the war seem relatively benign. Yet, World War II veterans acted like they fought in a real war, but the Vietnam vets had it easy.
Once World War II was over, in order to oppose the communists in Russia and China, it was necessary to kiss and make up with the Germans and Japanese. Here, television came to the rescue with shows like “Sergeant Bilko”, “Combat” and “Hogan’s Heros” that both sanitized the horror of war and the atrocities of former enemies. This is why the archetypical Vietnam War casualty was a 20 year old who did not go to college and was born in 1947. Too young to remember Korea, with a biased and romanticized history of World War II, no alternative source of information, and a complete faith in the United States, the gung-ho and the draftees bore the brunt of the casualties in Vietnam. The death of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was just the trigger that unleashed the pent up forces of hubris and anticommunism; combined with hypocrisy and ignorance, it became a lethal mix.
Television played another crucial role. In August 1963, when Kennedy made the decision to oust Diem, television was black and white and the CBS evening news was only fifteen minutes long. The following month, CBS lengthened the evening news to half an hour, and by the time Lyndon Johnson started sending troops to Vietnam color television was spreading through the country. So, while the war was planned in virtual secrecy in black and white, it was fought in plain view in color.
However, Vietnam was no accident. During the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, direct American intervention in the form of Operation Vulture was seriously discussed. The three reasons the United States did not directly intervene and try to save the French (some contract American civilian pilots and airplane maintenance crews did help the French during the siege and the United States supplied the French with 600 to 1,000 11,000 lb. cluster bombs) were: 1. The United States did not like to think of itself as a supporter of colonialism; 2. The insistence on not going in alone, the need for allies and united action; and 3. Some kind of congressional authorization for intervention. Solving these three problems would enable American intervention eleven years later. In fact, these three items were LBJ’s checklist for implementing American involvement in Vietnam. The aborted attempt at American intervention in 1954 is detailed in John Prados’s book The Sky Would Fall: Operation Vulture: The Secret U.S. Bombing Mission to Vietnam, 1954.
While Prados conclusively demonstrates that Vietnam was no accident, that the interagency processes worked perfectly and the intervention in Vietnam was intentional in every respect, Anne E. Blair’s book Lodge In Vietnam: A Patriot Abroad makes a more telling point. Blair is from Australia, a nation that contributed troops to the American effort in Vietnam and suffered significant casualties. A foreigner’s perspective is often instructive, especially when it also has skin in the game. “Here is the tragedy. Lodge in common with American planners, in a seemingly barely conscious shift, had made U.S. honor and the fate of the free world the stakes in Vietnam, without a commitment to total war, and in full knowledge of the weakness of both the South Vietnamese government and the American popular will to persist year after year.” In fact, these were the domestic political stakes in Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign, not the real national security stakes in foreign policy.
The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Crisis in South Vietnam 1964 – 1966 by Robert J. Topmiller
When the United States first sent combat troops to Vietnam in March 1965, everyone thought the war would be over quickly. In 1968, Robert J. Topmiller was a medic at Khe Sanh. After his tour, he returned to the United States, went to school, got a Masters and Phd in History and became a university professor. His book The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Crisis in South Vietnam 1964 – 1966 tells the story of why democracy in South Vietnam and continuing the war against the communists were incompatible. Any popularly elected government would have sued for peace, asked the Americans to leave, and negotiated an end to the war. The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Crisis in South Vietnam 1964 – 1966 is a three track political history of South Vietnam’s Buddhist movement, the relationship between the United States and the Government of Vietnam and the internal politics of the army – marine relationship in the United States military, that not only makes the war understandable, but actually seems to make it make sense. It is very well written and has the honesty and emotional intensity that can only come from someone who was actually there. Although this book is basically unknown, my guess is that in fifty years, this will be the definitive book on how, but not why, the United States became involved in Vietnam and why it ultimately lost the war. People talk about the debt owed to veterans. Robert J. Topmiller has given a gift that can never be repaid.
The Certainty of Victory
The overriding flaw in the United States mind set is that virtually no one thought, at the beginning in 1965, that the United States could lose the Vietnam War. People could not imagine that a nation with total air superiority, advanced heavy weaponry and air mobility could be defeated by an army of peasants. This is because the state religion in the United States is deductive thinking. Pick a goal and go for it. It makes it hard to conceive of or get to anyplace new.
The opponents of the war were inductive thinkers. They saw the war as wrong or, like the atomic scientists, ineffective. But no one thought the United States could lose. And that hubris was the ultimate cause of the loss, because it informed every other decision about fighting the war.
Pham Xuan An was a correspondent for Time magazine. He worked for Caltex before winning a scholarship to study in the United States. He was one of the few Vietnamese reporters with U. S. press credentials, but he was a Colonel in the Viet Cong, having worked for the liberation since 1945. Thirty years after the war, when asked by reporter David Lamb what was the biggest mistake the Americans made in Vietnam, An answered, “Some of the influential Americans I dealt with, like Colby, Lansdale, they were beautiful people. They were very smart. They weren’t ignorant about Vietnam. But being smart and making the right decisions are different things. The big mistake the Americans made was not understanding the Vietnamese’s history, culture, mentality. They were so sure military strength would win the war, they never bothered to learn who they were fighting.” [Vietnam, NOW A REPORTER RETURNS by David Lamb, p. 85].
Another, more important, reason the United States lost was that it chose the wrong strategy. In A Substitute for Victory by Rosemary Foot, a study of the armistice negotiations that ended the Korean War at Panmonjon, Foot explains how the United States deceived itself or misunderstood the real reasons for the end of that conflict. Partially to make political points at home, or to provide domestic backing for desired defense spending, Eisenhower and Dulles claimed that armistice was a result of successful military action. Consequently, General Westmoreland, in Vietnam, adopted the same strategy and tactics that had already failed in Korea. This was an easy call, given the Secretary of State Dean Rusk was a major player in the Korean conflict. A protégé of Dean Acheson, Rusk repeated all the errors of Truman’s State Department when dealing with Vietnam. Rusk actually thought Vietnam was Korea redux.
Not all Americans in the military were morons. The Marines understood that the only hope of winning was in the villages protecting the people from the Viet Cong. The Marines had Combined Action Platoons of a handful of soldiers who lived, and fought with small groups of indigenous forces in the villages. This program of Combined Action Platoons might have succeeded, except for the fact that the large unit actions of the Army and destructive bombing of the Air Force destroyed the country while killing and alienating the very people the United States purported to be protecting.
And David L. Anderson, who was a soldier in Vietnam during most of 1970 and then became a Professor of History at California State University, Monterey Bay, in his book Trapped By Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam 1953 – 1961, shows clearly that General J. Lawton Childs, Eisenhower’s “Special United States Representative” and Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson saw Diem’s weaknesses right from the start and predicted that the war could not be won with Diem in charge. At every point, it was the State Department and the civilian side that deepened the US commitment to Vietnam.
Allan E. Goodman, who wrote The Lost Peace - America’s Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War says that from the Pentagon’s perspective, the 1972 Christmas Bombings that were followed by the Paris Peace Agreement were the most successful of the war and that a consensus was growing that a military victory might be at hand in Vietnam.
In the eighteen months leading up to the Paris Peace Agreement all American equipment and bases were transferred to the title of the South Vietnamese government. In anticipation of the cease-fire in place, the United States gave South Vietnam the fourth biggest air force in the world. By the fall of 1974, estimates of total Communist troop strength in South Vietnam ranged from 285,000 to 387,000 compared to 1.1 million South Vietnamese forces, but…half to two-thirds of South Vietnam’s forces were engaged in static defense, while only 10% of the Communist forces were so engaged.
According to Goodman, he “underestimated the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s (Viet Cong’s) prediction that the ‘internal contradictions’ in the Government of Vietnam would cause it to collapse, eliminating the need for Saigon’s army to be defeated militarily. Such internal contradictions were abundant, even to the most casual observers: proclaiming an economic and social revolution, the Government of Vietnam depended on the very elites who stood to lose the most from change.”
A U.S. Embassy official put it in April 1975: “We should have asked ourselves long ago how an army can go on functioning when it is simply a business organization in which everything is for sale, from what you eat to a transfer or a promotion. We never encouraged the Vietnamese forces to fight aggressively, to take the offensive. We fought the war for them and made them over dependent on air support. We prepared them for conventional war when the Communists were fighting unconventionally, and then, when the Communists finally adopted conventional tactics, the South Vietnamese didn’t know what to do. The fact that they have no leadership is largely our fault; we made them followers, so successfully that even the soldiers who were willing to fight got killed or wounded as a result of incompetence, or lost by default…”
According to Goodman, the real reason for America’s defeat in Vietnam was that the United States was “fighting for the restoration of the status quo.”
This thesis that General Harkins was instrumental in Kennedy’s assassination makes sense from a macrocosmic political analysis perspective. It means that the Vietnam War cost Kennedy his life, Johnson his re-election, Nixon his presidency, and the American people its form of government by creating appointed presidents and handing unprecedented power to the unelected Supreme Court. Keeping the power to select the government and the president in the hands of the people is the paramount political challenge of our time. In politics there are no permanent victories.
1Ironically, the selection committee recommended Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law by Alpheus T. Mason, but was overruled by the Trustees of Columbia University, who actually award the Pulitzer, who were pressured by Kennedy family friend, New York Times columnist, Arthur Krock. Stone, the first Dean of Columbia Law School, became Attorney General in the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal and then was appointed associated Justice of the Supreme Court. In that role, he was the dissenter during the 1930’s when many of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were being ruled unconstitutional. As a result, when the composition of the court changed, it was Stone’s legal thinking that became law. Harlan Fiske Stone, an 835 page book with small print and many footnotes, needed to win the Pulitzer in order for it to be read, while Profiles in Courage is a short book with no footnotes about eight people, only one of whom had ever been elected. Anyone who reads Harlan Fiske Stone will understand why it was prima facie unethical for Earl Warren to serve on the Commission that bears his name and why the 2000 election was stolen by the Supreme Court for Bush.