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America and Vietnam, 1954 to 1963: The Road to War
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
America and Vietnam, 1954 to 1963: The Road to War
by Michael M. Walker, Col., USMC (RET.)
(McFarland & Company, Inc., 2022)
America and Vietnam is a curious book. It isn't a thick book, but it seems heavy for its size. The only introduction to the author is found on the rear cover, where it states that Colonel Walker, (Retired), "served in the Marine Corps for 26 years as an infantry and intelligence officer to include three tours in the Pacific —East Asian region, one in Europe, and two in Southwest Asia. He lives in Meridian, Idaho."
The advertising copy on the back cover, intended to lure the reader, states that in this book, "Established narratives of key events are given critical reappraisal and new light is shed on neglected factors." Well, yes, and no. The history of Vietnam's government and leadership during the targeted years seems to be offered in this book, with a wide and varied assortment of Vietnamese names, and even more abundant presentation of acronyms. However, established narratives of key events have previously been well documented, notably in Why Vietnam? Prelude to America's Albatross (University of California Press, 1980) by Archimedes L.A. Patti, an American who negotiated directly with Ho Chi Minh at the end of World War II.
Reading Colonel Walker's book, the reader is never able to forget that the author was a career Marine officer, and, although it is never stated in his book, probably a Vietnam War veteran. There are two pages of acronyms, and I would advise a reader to attach a sticky note so it protrudes from this collection, as you will want to refer to it often. I understand that the use of acronyms is considered a trait of America's military. Either Colonel Walker fails to understand that we civilians are not nearly so adept at this form of communication, or he has written his book for an audience of military "lifers," and is somewhat contemptuous of anyone else. If that's the case, I wonder why he submitted his book to this newspaper hoping for a review.
The story is told in a rather unusual fashion. Part I describes the path to war, and Part II, the combatants. Two consecutive chapters offer "Who Were the Viet Cong," parts I and II. Part III is "What About Laos," and it was here that I began to have real trouble with the Colonel's telling of the story. Part IV is "How the War Went and the Fall of Diem (1959–1963).
By coincidence, the day before I sat down to write this piece, the Postal Service delivered a book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, by Joshua Kurlantzick (Simon & Schuster, 2016). I opened it to a few key points and found it very accessible. It pretty much goes along with the stories told in The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade by Albert W. McCoy and Cathleen B. Read (Harper & Row, 1972), and Looking for Trouble by Leslie Cockburn, (Doubleday, 1998).
Unfortunately, Colonel Walker's book barely mentions the drug trade in the "Golden Triangle" of Laos, Thailand, and Burma. On page 30 he introduces the reader to the Binh Xuyen, a "state-sanctioned organized crime cartel" and political organization that kept control over the "normal criminal activities" in 1954 Saigon, including opium, and on page 217, he describes the troubling relationship between the CIA and the Laotian indigenous people, the Hmong. "The Hmong's main source of cash came from opium," which was "scandalous to the prim Americans, cultivating, possessing, selling, and using opium was legal in the Kingdom" (Laos). "What would the Americans have done had they known of the Indochinese-Corsican Mafia Opium-Heroin network?" the Colonel asks. "Bonds between the Hmong and Americans formed in the mid-1950s" the Colonel tells us, but he only tells us about military operations and cooperations, completely ignoring the vast and well-documented history of the Americans' participation in the hugely profitable drug trade flowing through Laos throughout the war years. He mentions Hmong leader Vang Pao only once, on page 222, while McCoy mentions him on 25 pages, and makes it clear that Vang Pao was partnered with the CIA in expanding the opium/heroin trade to the worldwide marketplace, with emphasis upon distribution to the US, and to US soldiers in Vietnam. Pardon me, but I have read a great deal about this element of the Vietnam story, and I believe one large factor that led to carrying on America's Vietnam involvement for seven years after the Tet offensive was the totally bogus insistence from the CIA in Southeast Asia that the war was going well, while those very same agents were making big, big money from the drug trade and didn't want to give it up. The Corsican Mafia had a close relationship with the CIA, and probably still does. The CIA maintained a factory in the Laotian village of Long Thien that processed raw opium from Burma, northern Thailand, and Laos, and made it ready for shipment and sale to world-wide markets. In 1967 and 1968, the five dirt runways at the CIA base in Long Thien were the busiest airport in the world! Flights from Long Thien were welcomed at Tan Son Nhut, where they were not inspected by Vietnamese customs, supposedly so long as Nguyen Cao Ky got a percentage of the profits. When President Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, high-ranking CIA official Richard Bissell politely informed the new President that "the CIA was a secret state of its own," and the Agency has grown and prospered as a completely independent fourth branch of government, subject to only the most minimal of checks and balances to this day. Kennedy struggled to control and even phase out the Agency until his death in 1963. Colonel Walker's book fails to mention all of this well-documented history, and so his story can only be viewed as deeply flawed.
On the next to last page of text, Colonel Walker states that after the assassination of South Vietnam's President Diem and his brother early in November of 1963, "It all ended terribly. The Harriman team ran the American policy on Vietnam almost in its entirety and mucked it up." In Vietnam, after the coup, the new government was supposedly headed by former Vice-President Nguyen Ngoc Tho, but the real leader was General Duong Van Minh, known as "Big Minh." The next few months were chaotic. A number of setbacks in early 1964 were blamed upon General Minh's fledgling government, and he was overthrown by General Nguyen Khanh, who was himself overthrown a week later. Khanh regained power within days, but seven more coups in the next twelve months allowed the CIA and military to control the war. Of course, this political turmoil was not in the best interests of the Vietnamese people, but the US took full advantage of the chaotic environment to expand its presence, and to introduce combat troops and intensify the air war. (Diem was assassinated on November 4th, 1963, and JFK on the 22nd.)
Pardon me, but I found that the entire tone of Colonel Walker's book felt like a history drawn from official military textbooks and interviews with top US officials, with perhaps some noteworthy inputs from the South Vietnamese personalities involved. There is virtually no input from the North Vietnamese, nor ranking Viet Cong. All of Colonel Walker's years in the Marine Corps with its "Semper Fi!" attitude appear to have left the good Colonel with a tunnel vision view of a war that cost somewhere between 3½ and 5 million dead, and hundreds of thousands if not additional millions maimed, scarred, poisoned, and suffering for the rest of their lives. Colonel Walker seems to imply that, ooops! A few little mistakes cost the US the victory. Our military leadership is not to be blamed. I highly recommend the Vietnam histories by Stanley Karnow, John Prados, Michael Maclear, Frances Fitzgerald, Marilyn Young, or Neil Sheehan. Colonel Walker's book is a lame attempt at revisionist history by a career military officer who can't see past the tip of his swagger stick. He deserves to be called "lifer."
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two critically acclaimed books about Vietnam, ?and a hard rain fell and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.