In choosing what book to read next, I decided to go back to my book reading roots: the Vietnam War. Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken turns all of my previous thoughts and opinions on the Vietnam War on their head. I would highly recommend this book.
The book generally covers the division of Vietnam in 1954, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s reign from 1954 to 1963, and President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to introduce significant numbers of U.S. ground troops in 1965.
Some of the first books I read on Vietnam (mainly Neil Sheehan’s Bright and Shining Lie and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest) convinced me that it was a huge mistake to ever get involved in South Vietnam – that the war was unwinnable. The facts seemed to be accurate and straightforward.
However, Moyar calls into doubt most of my fundamental beliefs on the war. Moyar essentially argues that the war was winnable and that American policymakers dropped the ball on several occasions.
First, I used to regard the domino theory in Southeast Asia as a useless theory because it never came to fruition with the downfall of South Vietnam. However, Moyar argues that the theory had a lot of merit. First, at the time, policymakers legitimately feared what would happen if one country was allowed to succumb to Communism. Moyar argues that if South Vietnam was allowed to fall that the rest of Southeast Asia would either be directly or indirectly under Communist control. It may not have been significant to the U.S. if a country like Cambodia fell, but it would have been extremely significant if Indonesia would have fallen with its rich natural resources and its straddling the shipping lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Another point Moyar makes to defend the domino theory is that although the Asia dominoes did not fall in 1975 that does not mean they would not have fallen in 1965. There were many changes in Asia in that ten-year period. As Moyar points out, Sukarno fell in Indonesia, the Sino-Soviet rift widened, the Chinese Cultural Revolution occurred, and there were wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Before these changes, the situation in Asia was a lot more volatile and the Communists were on the rise in many of these countries, especially Indonesia.
Second, I thought that South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was incompetent and corrupt. However, Moyar provides an alternative view. He contends that Diem was the best leader that South Vietnam had and that with his elimination the success of the war against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong was severely hampered – possibly fatally. According to Moyar, the assassination of Diem was instigated by American diplomats – primarily U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Lodge – and the negative reports of American reporters (their stories convinced American policymakers and South Vietnamese military leaders and civilians to overthrow Diem). Diem may have been a dictator of sorts, but he was the type of leader that South Vietnam needed to win the war.
I think that the best part of the book is when Moyar slams the American reporters who provided so much negative press on Diem – especially Sheehan and Halberstam. Moyar proves beyond a shadow of doubt that these men played a critical role in changing the American and South Vietnamese policy maker’s opinions of Diem. They were unprofessional (they took some of Diem’s actions against the press personally) and at times were downright deceitful by reporting rumors and lies as facts.
Another area that Moyar touches on, one that has been hotly debated by historians and participants, is whether President Johnson’s war strategy was the most effective. Johnson could have declared a total war on North Vietnam (meaning bombing all installations and invading North Vietnam) rather than choosing the “limited war” approach where bombing was slowly increased and restricted and the North Vietnamese were assured in speeches that they would not be invaded.
I think Moyar makes a strong argument that Johnson messed up by not prosecuting a total war or at least threatening a total war. However, I do wonder if our country would have had the backbone to send a massive amount of troops to a relatively backwater country for an extended period of time (similar to Iraq where people are complaining about the length of time and the casualties).
I wonder if our country has the backbone today to win a long war.