Saturday, November 18, 2006


By Mark Moyar

Cambridge University Press, $32, 502 pages, illus.


Of all America’s conflicts, only the Civil War has stimulated as much controversy as our ill-starred effort to preserve a non-Communist government in South Vietnam. And questions remain: Was Ho Chi Minh in fact a nationalist or was he a dedicated communist? Was the Vietnam venture hopeless from the start, or were the people of South Vietnam victims of bungling in Saigon and Washington?

The 18-year war is now the subject of a projected two-volume study by Cambridge University historian Mark Moyar, the first of which is “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965.” Extensively researched from communist as well as Western sources, “Triumph Forsaken” challenges much of the conventional wisdom regarding the Vietnam conflict.

Central to the book is Ngo Dinh Diem, who emerged as the most prominent South Vietnamese politician after Vietnam was divided in 1954. An ascetic Catholic heavily influenced by Confucianism, Diem tended to distrust anyone outside his family and was reluctant to delegate authority. Personally honest, he rarely demanded honesty from others in his bloated bureaucracy. By the end of 1955, however, Diem had defeated several dissident sects and established his government on what appeared to be a firm footing.

Whereas Diem was charisma-free, his communist counterpart, Ho Chi Minh, was one of the heroes of Vietnam’s successful war against France. Power came to him easily in North Vietnam, and when opposition appeared it was ruthlessly suppressed. For several years Ho made no move to foment revolution in the south, but by 1960 the Communist-backed National Liberation Front was engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Diem government.

In 1961 the incoming Kennedy administration was concerned about Vietnam, for to some degree the new team was influenced by the “domino theory” — that the fall of Vietnam to the communists would ultimately bring about the collapse of Laos, Thailand and even Malaya. A mission led by presidential adviser Gen. Maxwell Taylor concluded that the Diem government required time “to mobilize and organize its real assets,” and recommended that the United States send an 8,000-man task force to assist in the immediate emergency.

The next year, the author relates, was one of progress for Diem’s forces. The government enacted a number of American-backed reforms, including a purge of corrupt officers and an increase in army pay.

But Saigon remained a center of antigovernment intrigue, and this soon became a rich lode for journalists assigned to Vietnam. Most reporters were welcomed by anti-Diem elements in the capital, and soon joined the critics. In Mr. Moyar’s words, David Halberstam of the New York Times “was twenty-eight when he came to Vietnam. Before he left, fifteen months later, he would do more harm to the interests of the United States than any other journalist in American history.”

The turbulent year of 1963 began with a series of antigovernment protests mounted by militant Buddhist sects led by the enigmatic monk Tri Quang. The American press corps seized on the protests as evidence that the Catholic-dominated Diem regime was hopelessly repressive and lacking in popular support. American correspondents, frustrated in their contacts with the Diem government and with official U.S. spokesmen, eagerly accepted reports of dissatisfaction with the Diem regime and rumors of plots against it.

Official Washington was also of two minds with respect to Diem. The Pentagon found grounds for optimism in the improving military situation, while dissident elements in the State Department and CIA insisted that the war could not be won so long as Diem and his courtiers remained in power.

And what of the countryside? In Mr. Moyar’s words, “The basic outlook of the peasant had changed little since the early centuries of Vietnamese history … The peasant’s first loyalty was to his family. He venerated the bones of his ancestors … His second loyalty was to his village … To be held in high esteem by one’s fellow villagers was the highest honor.”

In August 1963 tensions in Washington boiled over. A controversial cable to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., issued without the knowledge of key Kennedy advisers, authorized Lodge to encourage a coup against Diem. Weeks passed while dissident generals — prodded by their CIA contacts — screwed up their courage.

In November, however, an attack on the presidential palace forced Diem and his brother to flee to a nearby church. After promising the two fugitives safe conduct to the airport, coup leaders murdered both Diems by the side of a road. In Mr. Moyar’s judgment, “ultimate responsibility for [Diem’s] fate belonged to Henry Cabot Lodge, to the President who appointed and refused to fire Lodge, and to the individuals who were giving Lodge information and advice on the political situation — a few State Department officials in Saigon and Washington and a handful of resident journalists.”

Developments in Vietnam were soon overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy. In Saigon, rule by successive juntas brought chronic instability and damaged the military effort against the Viet Cong.

Arms and men continued to pour into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson reported to President Johnson in March 1965 that the much-weakened South Vietnamese army was incapable of handling the Viet Cong, and that the United States needed to introduce its own troops.

In the end, Mr. Moyar writes, “What drove Lyndon Johnson to put American ground forces into the Vietnam War was a conviction that a chain of disastrous events would unfold if he did not.” Over the next eight years, disastrous events would unfold despite a growing U.S. presence, but for this we must await Mr. Moyar’s second volume. May it prove as gripping as the first.

John M. Taylor is the author of numerous books in history and biography including “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor.”

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