The War Didn't Have to be a Tragedy

Most books on the Vietnam War focus on the period 1965-1975, covering the massive U.S. buildup, the Tet Offensive, the growing loss of support for the war on the home front, Vietnamization and the accompanying withdrawal, the North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam in May of 1975 and the resulting fall of Saigon.

Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken covers an earlier — though no less important — period, following the French defeat by the Viet Minh and the partitioning of Vietnam. (A second volume covering the period 1965 to the fall of South Vietnam is in the works.)

The author is an immensely talented academic and writer who holds a doctorate from Cambridge University and now is a professor at the Marine Corps University at Quantico.

Battling the ‘Orthodox’ View

Moyar has done an impressive amount of research for this book and has amassed a huge amount of new information about the Vietnam War, including some important new data from Communist sources in Hanoi, Moscow and Beijing.

Moyar marshals the fruits of his research into a devastating attack on the conventional wisdom about the Vietnam War that is gospel on the left and believed even by many conservatives.

What he calls the “orthodox” position holds that Vietnam was not essential to U.S. interests, that the “domino theory” was bunk, that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and that the South Vietnamese government was unpopular and largely corrupt, a corruption exemplified by its sinister president, Ngo D. Diem.

Moyar totally rejects this view. He contends that South Vietnam was a vital interest of the United States at that point in the Cold War. He argues convincingly that the fall of South Vietnam early in the war would have lead inexorably to the fall of Cambodia and Laos (as, in fact, did happen) but also to the fall of Thailand, Malaysia and other neighboring countries, most importantly, Indonesia.

The loss of Indonesia to the Communists, he contends, was prevented only by a military coup in 1965 that would never have taken place if American forces had abandoned the region to Moscow and Beijing.

Loss Not Inevitable

Moyar also argues persuasively that the loss of Vietnam was not inevitable and that the U.S. lost the war because of a series of policy, strategic and tactical blunders.

Of these, the most calamitous, Moyar contends, was the U.S.-instigated military coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Diem and the resulting assassination of the deposed president.

The portrait the author draws of Diem will surprise many readers who accept the standard view that Diem was a hopelessly corrupt politician who ruthlessly repressed the majority Buddhist population (Diem was a Catholic) and who was deeply unpopular with his countrymen.

This view is pretty much the exact opposite of the truth, the author concludes.

Far from being corrupt, Moyar writes, Diem was a deeply patriotic and religious man. He was celibate and ascetic, eschewed luxury, owned only two suits, and chose to sleep on a simple army cot.

A true patriot, Diem was not a democrat, but nonetheless was an effective leader who sought to govern in the best interests of his people, and largely succeeded. Under his regime, the organized-crime syndicates that had plagued South Vietnam were eliminated and an effective civil service and military were established.

Truth About the Buddhists

Moyar argues that Diem’s main problem was not with the population (among whom he enjoyed widespread support) but with U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who turned on Diem because of the noisy opposition of the militant Buddhists.

But as the author demonstrates, most of the leading Buddhists were either Communists or allied to the Communists.

For instance, the most prominent of these leaders, Thich Tri Quang, was the brother of the North Vietnamese government official responsible for Communist infiltration of South Vietnam.

Lodge was heavily influenced by leftist journalists Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, rabid Diem haters who relied on the assessments of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, an eccentric U.S. Army advisor to South Vietnam with an anti-Diem bias and on the work of Reuters reporter Pham Xuan An, who was later identified as a Communist agent whose assignment was to systematically mislead the American press.

As the militant Buddhist protests continued, Lodge pressed Diem ever harder to refrain from cracking down on them and to make “reforms” that Diem correctly perceived to be seen as signs of weakness on his part.

As the struggle between Lodge and Diem grew more bitter, the ambassador began to plot with South Vietnamese generals to depose Diem, against the express wishes of President Kennedy. Kennedy saw Lodge as a possible presidential rival in 1964 and had sent him to Saigon as a way of neutralizing him.

When the coup came, Lodge told Kennedy he was powerless to stop it — a manifest lie, since it was Lodge who had set the whole process in motion. Even when Kennedy discovered Lodge’s deceit, he declined to take action, fearing the political consequences.
The ouster and assassination of Diem, in Moyar’s words, “forfeited the tremendous gains of the preceding nine years and plunged the country into an extended period of instability and weakness.” The North Vietnamese leaders were themselves shocked by the removal of Diem. Moyar quotes Ho Chi Minh’s saying, “I can scarcely believe that the Americans could be so stupid.

Another Politburo member said, “Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communists. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diem, who was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists.”

Following Diem’s assassination, growing chaos enveloped South Vietnam, a situation the North Vietnamese Communists understandably decided to exploit with a major escalation of military action in the South. Faced with the impending loss of South Vietnam to the Communists, Lyndon Johnson felt compelled to dramatically expand American involvement in that country.

South Sacrificed

As Moyar contends convincingly, even as late as 1965, South Vietnam could have been saved — and saved by a much more modest military force than ended up being deployed. He argues that relatively small forces could have been inserted into Southern North Vietnam and Laos across the Ho Chi Minh Trail to block the infiltration of troops and supplies into South Vietnam. This, coupled with the mining of Haiphong harbor and the aggressive bombing of North Vietnamese cities, Moyar believes, would have forced Hanoi to sue for peace and end the war.

Johnson was fearful of an intervention by Communist China, however, and opted for a purely limited, defensive ground strategy within South Vietnam and highly restricted—and largely ineffective — bombing of the North.

The leadership in Hanoi, which had feared a ruinous bombing and blockade effort, quickly understood the limited parameters of Johnson’s strategy and concluded that they could easily withstand the damage inflicted by the Americans. Infiltration of the South was expanded enormously.

That Moyar is right about what could have been was shown in the “American Christmas” offensive of 1972, when the blockade of Haiphong harbor and a relentless round-the-clock bombing of North Vietnam rapidly proved devastating to that country and quickly brought the North Vietnamese Communists to the peace table.

As we know, however, the story ended in tragedy, as Congress cut off aid to Saigon in the aftermath of Watergate, and both Cambodia and South Vietnam fell to the Communists, resulting in the loss of millions of lives.

More than 30 years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War remains an open sore still infecting the American body politic. As Mark Moyar demonstrates, the tragedy of that war is compounded by the fact that it didn’t have to be.