- - Tuesday, January 26, 2016


By Geoffrey Shaw

Ignatius Press, $24.95, 314 pages

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Camelot was with us for only a bit more than three years, before it went shimmering off into legend. But during its brief existence, the Kennedy administration managed to do disproportionate damage to our foreign policy and reputation in the world.

There was the Bay of Pigs fiasco, characterized by historian Theodore Draper as “one of those rare events in history — a perfect failure.”

And according to Geoffrey Shaw, our role in Vietnam represented another near-perfect failure with much broader consequences. Among the missteps: sharp military escalation and the deepening involvement in the country’s government, in the process overturning the carefully balanced Indo-China policy established by the Eisenhower administration, and ultimately leading to the sanctioned assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of the Republic of South Vietnam.

It’s the thesis of Mr. Shaw, a respected authority on U.S. diplomatic and military history in Southeast Asia, that President Diem, possessing the Confucian “Mandate of Heaven,” a moral and political authority that was widely recognized and accepted by the Vietnamese, was a man of great personal integrity who was successfully defending his country from Communism while fighting off Western attempts to usurp his governing authority.

On Nov. 1, 1963, Gen. Duong Van (‘Big”) Minh, with Washington’s tacit approval, led an attack on the presidential palace. Diem surrendered a day later, and on Nov. 3, he and his brother were murdered in the back of an American personnel carrier.

A dozen new governments would follow the assassination, with our involvement increasing incrementally, until we lost our grip, our handpicked leaders lost all credibility, and South Vietnam ceased to exist. And in the process, we lost 50,000 American lives.

Not every member of the Kennedy administration approved of the president’s decision to let the coup take place, and many of those who did, including the president, hadn’t anticipated the assassination of Diem and his brother. The plan, apparently, had been to send them into exile.

But the damage had been done, and America’s reputation suffered, as did the consciences of many involved. According to Mr. Shaw, Lyndon Johnson, in later years, had this to say in a recorded phone conversation with Sen. Eugene McCarthy: “We killed [Diem]. We all got together and got a [expletive] bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him. Now, we’ve really had no stability since then.”

LBJ would have further thoughts on the assassination. According to Robert Caro, author of the massive and ongoing LBJ biography, Johnson also expressed the opinion that the assassination of JFK could have been payback for the Diem assassination. Nor was that just one man’s idea. In 1974, the master suspense novelist Charles McCarry published a best-selling novel, “The Tears of Autumn,” built on that premise.

Mr. Shaw doesn’t mention the McCarry novel. But he does have his own literary point of reference. “Did I find a veritable Conradian ‘Heart of Darkness’? Yes, I did, but it was not in the quarter to which all popular American sources were pointing not in Saigon, but, paradoxically, within the Department of State and within President Kennedy’s closest White House advisory circle.”

“The actions of these men [chief among them Averell Harriman, one of JFK’s ‘Wise Men’] led to Diem’s murder. And with his death, nine and a half years of careful work and partnership between the United States and South Vietnam was undone.”

In this meticulously researched and crisply written book, Mr. Shaw brings a rapidly fading but historically significant era back to life, complete with lessons in foreign policy we seem fated to have to relearn with each new administration — and are in fact, given the misadventures of this administration in the Middle East, in the process of relearning today.

In an interview, Mr. Shaw put it this way: “In the final analysis viewing the world through gauzy rose-colored liberal democratic lenses, and not wanting to see it for what it is, is the wrench that keeps sticking into the spokes of American foreign policy. With Diem America had a truly decent man and a great leader as their faithful ally in South Vietnam.”

Many particulars of Mr. Shaw’s arguments will undoubtedly be disputed. But the assessment of experts like Adm. John M. Poindexter, national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, will also carry weight: “A remarkable book that finally sets the record straight with copious documentation on the assassination of Diem, which was ultimately responsible for our loss of the war. A must read.”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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