Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965
How America lost the winnable war
By Steven Martinovich
It is taken as a biblical truth today that the Vietnam War was unwinnable for the United States. The experts lecture that the communists were well-equipped, fighting on home ground and motivated while the Americans were struggling for a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government who persecuted its own citizens and ultimately wasn't that interested in fighting the war.
Except that wasn't true during the early years of the war, at least according to a revisionist school of history who believe that the communists didn't win the Vietnam War such much as the United States worked hard to lose it. It is their unpopular contention that a confluence of factors weakened South Vietnam to the point that no American intervention short of a nuclear strike on the north would have won the war.
Mark Moyar is one of those revisionist historians and he makes that case in the impressive Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, the first of a two volume series and a searing indictment of American decision making at the White House, State Department and an American press which seemed determined to undermine their nation's efforts at preventing South Vietnam's collapse.
Moyar opens his account with a lengthy survey of Vietnam and its complicated history. He explodes the myth that many of Vietnam's battles were against foreign occupiers – often used by the war's critics as justification for the communist struggle – and shows that in reality, all but two of Vietnam's major wars in the past one thousand years were internal conflicts marked by class, disputed leadership or north-south in nature. The Vietnam War was not, he shows, the latest in a long series of a war against a foreign occupier.
Moving into modern times, South Vietnam's best hope for holding the line against the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia was, argues Moyar, Ngo Dinh Diem, a man admired by a succession of American presidents and occasionally the American public, but a bête noire for journalists and diplomats. Rare in South Vietnam at the time, Diem was highly capable of maintaining stability in a society which respected authoritarian rule but was beset by constant plotting.
Diem's greatest achievement perhaps wasn't stability but the fact that until his assassination in an U.S.-supported coup in 1963, the South Vietnamese were gradually winning the war against the communist insurgency. As Moyar illustrates using evidence from U.S., South and North Vietnamese sources, the constant pressure that the South Vietnamese Army exerted on communist operations was demolishing the Viet Cong in nearly every province. So much so, in fact, that the Chinese believed the war was lost, the Russians were afraid to openly support their ally and the North Vietnamese feared an invasion of the north.
But forces other than the communists were conspiring against Diem. A succession of American ambassadors to South Vietnam, namely Elbridge Durbrow and Henry Cabot Lodge, repeatedly denounced Diem for failing to institute American-style reforms – making it clear that they had no idea how Vietnamese society functioned – and demanding freedoms that the Americans had similarly denied themselves during two early wars.
Moyar also levels his fire at John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, each for failing to take strong action at the appropriate time which emboldened the north to escalate their war. Johnson comes in for much of the censure for dithering for months until after the 1964 election in whether to insert needed ground troops and speed up his bombing campaign of North Vietnamese targets, sending a clear message to the north and China that the U.S. wouldn't do what was necessary to win.
It is the American media, however, which receives Moyar's most ferocious attack. Young journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan made it their personal mission, writes Moyar, to take down the Diem regime. Utilizing sources who were often secret communist agents, they – along with other journalists – relentlessly attacked Diem for failing to govern South Vietnam as if it were the United States. He argues that they were knowingly biased in their coverage and often contradicted their own reporting – such as the notable differences in Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and his earlier work The Making of a Quagmire – if it served their agenda.
Moyar's critical eye is also cast on North Korea and its alliances with the Soviet Union and China. Ho Chi Minh, who is demonstrated was not a nationalist as often portrayed but an internationalist communist, was the first to introduce division-sized units into the south, not the Americans. Using North Vietnamese sources, Moyar shows that a strong American response even after Diem's ouster would have likely dissuaded the north from turning the insurgency into a war and a real American presence on the Ho Chi Minh Trail would have further crippled the communist movement in the south.
Every story needs a hero and with Triumph Forsaken we have a few, though obviously not as many as America needed at the time. Moyar chronicles how a few officials – not surprisingly they tended to be soldiers – understood why Diem was so necessary in prosecuting the war and actively defended him against the unfair attacks of the diplomats and journalists. Where most of the prognostications of Kennedy and Johnson's advisors proved to be wrong, it was the mid-level officials who were proven correct time and time again, particularly with their firm belief that South Vietnam without Diem would inevitably collapse.
The death of Diem didn't bring American-style democracy but rather the exact opposite and a war that was being won saw its fortunes turn mere weeks after his government was overthrown. The success of Moyar's arguments probably rests on the assumptions, both ideological and historical, the reader brings to Triumph Forsaken. The orthodox school, thanks to strong support by journalists and academics, claims the most adherents but the strong case Moyar builds is one that can't be dismissed very easily.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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