Friday, 01 December 2006
Understanding Restored, a Review of Triumph Forsaken
Contributed by George Mellinger

If Santayana is right that "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it", it is even more true for those who remember the past wrongly. And this goes far to explain both why we have gotten ourselves in so much trouble in Iraq, and also why so many veterans of the Iraqi war are so dismissive of attempts to compare or even equate Iraq and Vietnam. The comparisons are often flawed because they are based on a completely erroneous legend of what actually happened in Vietnam.

Now Mark Moyar, a professor of History specializing in the Viet Nam War has come to the rescue with Triumph Forsaken; The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Cambridge University Press, 2006). This book is the first of two volumes intended to provide a revised account of the Vietnam War till 1975, based on not only American sources but Vietnamese, Chinese, and other foreign sources as well. It is intended to be the first of two volumes, and ends with the introduction of US troops into ground combat. The second volume will complete the story, though if Dr. Moyar’s analysis and documentation are as thorough as in this first volume, I suspect the sequel will have to be split into two volumes. I certainly hope so.

Though I served in Vietnam in later years, Triumph Forsaken seems far more believable than the standard "Anti-Imperialism For Dummies" version I have heard for so many years. It demolishes many mendacious myths and corrects many errors, some the results of subsequent propaganda. but others the result of information restricted at the time. Nor will this revision be to the comfort of only one political faction. I have had to revise personal opinions of some of the American actors.

The Dr. Moyar’s hero clearly is Ngo Dinh Diem, who led Vietnam until his assassination in 1963. Certainly he was no democrat in the Western sense, but he had the confidence of the great majority of his people, who were accustomed to rule by a strong and wise leader. His alleged favoritism toward his family anc close associates was not only a cultural tradition, but also a reasonable measure in a society riven by factionalism and subversion. It was Diem who held the Vietnamese government together, and was gradually making it perform, and appeared to be gradually defeating the communist insurrection. The chapters dealing with Vietnam after his overthrow in November 1963 establish that everything was worse after he was gone.

There are plenty of villains and inept buffoons. The first troublemaker was Elbridge Durbrow, the US Ambassador under Eisenhower. It was he who began poisoning relations, denouncing Diem for his failure to act like an American politician. He seems to have been the first of a string of unhelpful State Department officials, none of whom ever seem to have had a beneficial influence. perhaps the worst was Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge, what we would now call a "liberal Republican" was the presumptive Republican challenger to Jack Kennedy in 1964, and Kennedy appointed him ambassador to Vietnam in order to preempt Lodge from attacking his policies. But once Kennedy found that Lodge was creating new problems, and even defying direct instructions, he still felt politically unable to dismiss him. And so American foreign policy was shaped for domestic political advantage. And it was Lodge, not Kennedy who was responsible for the Diem coup, which made it impossible to stabilize the situation without introducing American troops.

Sharing responsibility were many of the American reporters in Saigon. Some of the older hands reported a more objective story during the 1950s and early 1960s, but several young Turks, particularly David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, made it their personal crusade to destroy the Diem government, all in the name of democratization. And they did so by habitually biased reporting. As is now known, some of their favorite "independent" sources, were secret Viet Cong agents.

There were a number of other heroes at this early stage, particularly including the senior American advisors who tried to compensate for State Department disruption, and tried to give good military advice to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. General Westmoreland has risen in my estimation, and even Robert McNamara seems to have given good and honest counsel at this early period. To me it sounds like a too familiar tale, the good work of the military being undone by the bungling of ideologically blinkered State Department officials and ignorant crusading press novices out to make a name for themselves regardless of the cost to their country or its allies.

On the other side, Dr. Moyar examines the reality of North Vietnam, including the blood purges which accompanied and followed their independence, and their early campaign against the South. It turns out that the North Vietnamese army was infiltrating troops into the South from mid-1959, and dispatched its first divisional sized unit well before American ground forces entered combat. He also reminds us of the numerous atrocities and crimes committed in the south by the Communists. One of my few criticisms is that he could have better explained how the systematic murder of competent local officials was a major factor in the ineptitude of the southern government.

Another myth badly in need of refuting is the claim that Ho Chi Minh was mainly a simple nationalist. Nobody who reads this book will ever buy that nonsense again. Ho throughout his life was a dedicated Communist internationalist. If anything, he was drawn even more to the Chinese than to the Soviets. So much for "traditional Sino-Vietnamese hatred"; one more myth down the toilet. Ho switched his preferences to the Soviets only after finding that the Chinese not willing to back up their bellicose promises with actions. Yet another myth debunked - the threat of Chinese intervention.

Indeed, for me, one of the most interesting and impressive parts of this book was the first chapters giving the background of early Vietnamese history, laying the background of their own history of internal strife. It is also in this first chapter that I found my main problems, a couple of jarring anacronicities. There is a reference to threatening in 1954, to use "plaster China with nuclear bombs and missiles" - some years before we had such missiles. And there is another spot where he refers to Madame Nhu as a feminist; years before the term was even used in the west. Madame Nhu was certainly emancipated by traditional Vietnamese standards, was outspoken, and given to making impolitic comments. Btu she certainly was not a real feminist, as evidenced by many of her pro-morality, pro-family stances; some of us actually liked her. Dr. Moyar makes an interesting point, but he could have explained it better. Still, these are minor nits to pick with what is certainly one of the most important books of the last several years. This book is a must for anyone interested in either the Vietnam War, or in American security policy in general.



Bill Faith adds: I've posted information about this book here, here, and here but still learned from George's review. I'm still in the process of digesting the book in manageable pieces as my health permits. (My lower back likes sitting in front of a PC much better than sitting in a chair with a book.) If George has succeeded where I failed in persuading  you to buy a copy both my first two posts contain links to the appropriate page.

Contributed by George Mellinger on December 1, 2006 at 10:32 PM in Books, George Mellinger, Viet Nam | Permalink


Posted by: ponsdorf

Interesting subject, interesting review.


Posted by: ponsdorf | Dec 1, 2006 11:01:32 PM

Posted by: Bill Faith

Excellent, George. I'll excerpt and link and include a link to the appropriate Amazon page in my post. I just emailed Del and Antimedia to make sure they see your review, as well as the publisher's rep who arranged for our review copies; maybe he'll have more goodies for us after he sees what it got him.

Posted by: Bill Faith | Dec 1, 2006 11:02:12 PM

Posted by: Ken Larson

You make many good points in your article. I would like to supplement them with some information:

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armements”

The Pentagon is a giant,incredibly complex establishment,budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Adminisitrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the Sec. Def. to be - Mr. Gates- understand such complexity, particulary if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

Answer- he can’t. Therefor he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

This situation is unfortunate but it is ablsolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen unitil it hits a brick wall at high speed.

We will then have to run a Volkswagon instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.

Posted by: Ken Larson | Dec 2, 2006 10:49:43 AM

Posted by: 1st Cav

Bill, I had seen your earlier post and planned on reading the book. Having not checked in for a day while conducting research, I return to find George has written an excellent review. What a coincidence, my research led me tonight to the very same author in a presentation at Texas Tech University. There was a conference with presentaions given in late October of this year at the TTU Vietnam Center titled, 'Intelligence In The Vietnam War.' Included are online video presentations by Dr. Mark Moyar. The main page for the conference is here:

I highly recommend anyone interested in the real Vietnam story to take the time to watch each and everyone of these videos. Having cable or DSL is almost necessary because of the large files. However there are separate links for dial-up modems. Also, there are Powerpoint presentations availabe for download if you right click and "save target as" into your folder.

These revelations I've been waiting for many years to hear or read.
Highly recommended.

Posted by: 1st Cav | Dec 3, 2006 2:03:57 AM