Book Review by Kathryn C. Statler: Triumph Imagined

Moyar, Mark, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, xxiii+416 p.

Book Review by Kathryn C. Statler:

Triumph Imagined

In The Man in the High Castle, novelist Philip K. Dick presents an alternate outcome to World War II by envisioning a world in which the Axis powers won the war. Dick’s classic came to mind after reading Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, as both books offer lessons on history, truth, and interpretation. In the first of a two-volume project, Moyar attempts a new look at the evolution of American intervention in Vietnam from South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem’s 1954 assumption of power to Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 decision to send combat troops to South Vietnam. Opening with a brief sketch of Vietnamese history, Moyar then traces the development of South and North Vietnam as Saigon (with U.S. support) and Hanoi (backed by the USSR and China) attempted to outmaneuver one another politically and militarily. As his narrative unfolds, Moyar challenges scholars of the Vietnam War to question earlier assumptions and knowledge about North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist credentials, Diem’s ineptitude, the accuracy of prominent American journalists, the Buddhist protest movement, Johnson’s escalation of the conflict, and the domino theory’s viability. Moyar concludes that Saigon and Washington could have won the war if Diem had stayed in power or if the Johnson administration had provided a stronger military response. Although encouraging us to « think otherwise » through its well-written, researched, and forcefully argued interpretations, Triumph Forsaken is, in many respects, a counterfactual explanation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and fails to revise the historical record.

The book begins with Moyar’s designation of « orthodox » and « revisionist » camps. Early scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s (the orthodox school) criticized American actions in Vietnam and insisted that the war could not be won. Revisionists typically viewed the war effort as noble and winnable if the United States had either (1) made better use of its conventional military power or (2) adapted to guerilla warfare. Identifying himself as a revisionist, Moyar dismisses the vast majority of scholarship produced in the past two decades as continued orthodoxy, claiming that it is concentrated in a « relatively small number of areas, » concerned « primarily with American policymaking in Washington and Saigon, » and dominated by one school of thought that sees America’s involvement in the war as « wrongheaded and unjust » (p. xi). These statements are easily called into question by a perfunctory survey of the interdisciplinary, multi-archival, and international literature that has emerged. Equally perplexing is Moyar’s contention that his interpretation of « the facts » differentiates his volume « from all of the existing literature in its breadth of coverage both inside and outside the two Vietnams and in its use of a more comprehensive collection of source materials » (p. xiii). This is quite a claim-and one that fails to hold up under scrutiny. [1]To the extent that Moyar forces us to rethink orthodoxies, his work is commendable; but in the end, his revisionism is unpersuasive in large part because he simply does not marshal the evidence to support his version of events. In selectively quoting and caricaturing the arguments of others, he repeatedly fails to grapple with the avalanche of scholarship that contradicts his own. [2]

Before delving into some of the book’s key flaws, its strengths deserve mention. Moyar’s descriptions and analysis of military encounters and technologies are first rate. Moreover, his chapters on peaceful coexistence and insurgency are expansive in their coverage of the evolution of South and North Vietnamese thinking, particularly Diem’s attempts to govern and guarantee stability from the national down to the local level. Moyar also gives a clear analysis of the various crises of succession in South Vietnam following Diem’s assassination. Finally, Moyar offers much greater detail about American military leaders, who emerge as the heroes of the book, in contrast to the « brainy civilians, » who, in Moyar’s opinion, had no conception of Vietnamese political, military, and cultural realities (pp. 349, 416). [3] Moyar also reminds us that the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies often fought effectively and ethically.

Unfortunately, the weaknesses of the book far outweigh its strengths. Moyar has a tendency to leave out pesky details that might derail his interpretations, committing a number of factual errors in the process. For example, he incorrectly claims Truong Chinh was a supporter of Soviet policy when in fact he had a pro-Chinese orientation, he fails to offer any evidence at all to explain how the French and Vietnamese forces were on « the verge of crushing » the Viet Minh in early 1954 (pp. 28, 297, 322), and he mistakenly concludes that congressional leaders gave united action-proposed multilateral intervention to lift the Viet Minh siege at Dien Bien Phu-their « consent » and were « willing » to send ground forces if other nations contributed large numbers of troops. Rather, Congress insisted on allied participation and immediate French independence for Indochina-neither of which was likely to materialize-before agreeing to united action. Nor did united action come down to « whether Britain would go along, » which was secondary to congressional obstructionism. Finally, the British declined united action not because the « potential danger to Malaya and other British interests was not sufficiently large to justify a possible war, » but because they wanted to give negotiations at the upcoming Geneva Conference a chance to succeed (p. 29). [4]

Readers will be forgiven for asking « what Geneva Conference? » as Moyar skims over one of the most important points in the decision-making process on Vietnam. According to Moyar, the Geneva agreements suffered from a « congenital defect » in that they lacked « the endorsement of the new South Vietnamese government and the U.S. government, » both of which were « certain » to be leading actors in the future (pp. 30-31). However, it was far from certain in July 1954 that Washington and Saigon would emerge as the decision makers. It became clear that the Geneva agreements would fail only after Diem began to consolidate his control; U.S. officials made the conscious decision to replace France in South Vietnam in the military, political, economic, and cultural realms; and London, Paris, Moscow, and Beijing made other concerns a priority over implementing the accords. Moyar’s painfully one-sided depiction of the French villainy in resisting Diem’s attempts to wipe out his enemies during this period results from his heavy reliance on anti-French American and South Vietnamese sources. Like the Americans, the French were divided on Diem’s prospects for success and were not engaged in round-the-clock « plotting » and « calumny » against him (pp. 41-53).

Moyar provides valuable analysis of Diem’s rise to power and the strengths of his 1954-1963 government, although he is not the first to do so, as his book suggests. A general trend in the scholarship during the past decade has rehabilitated Diem’s image to some degree. [5] Still, Diem’s many weaknesses are almost completely absent in the book. Moyar chooses instead to blame the Buddhists and David Halberstam’s and Neil Sheehan’s press coverage for rising American and South Vietnamese hostility to Diem. However, not all Buddhists were « fanatical » and « covert communists, » and many American officials shared the journalists’ concerns about Diem (pp. 217, 228, 317). Every American ambassador from Donald Heath to Frederick Nolting left South Vietnam far more pessimistic than when they arrived. And, although not apparent in Moyar’s account, a number of military officials also held deeply negative views of the Diem regime and its successors. [6] In the end, Moyar’s claim that if Diem had lived « it is highly doubtful that the war would have reached a point where the United States needed to introduce several hundred thousand of its own troops to avert defeat » and that it was « quite possible » that South Vietnam « could have survived under Diem without the help of any U.S. ground forces » is impossible to prove and unsupported by the evidence (p. 286).

Strangely, while casting a critical eye at official American statements and documents, Moyar gives far less scrutiny to the rhetoric of non-American actors and to American military leaders. For example, in his use of translated Vietnamese sources, both communist and non-Communist, Moyar accepts at face value claims of Ho Chi Minh’s deference to the international Communist movement, the North Vietnamese dismissal of the 1956 elections, and the strength of the South Vietnamese armed forces (pp. 4, 9, 58, 181-84). [7] Moreover, in pressing his point that an invasion of the North was the best option for the United States in 1964, Moyar argues that Johnson’s rejection of the military’s proposals for « hard action » in Laos and Vietnam and his choice of gradual escalation convinced Hanoi that the United States would not put up a fight for South Vietnam (pp. 348-49). If hard action had been pursued, according to Moyar, the North Vietnamese would have retreated into the mountains and China would have abstained from the fighting, but there is little evidence to indicate that Hanoi and Beijing would have followed this script. Even worse, Moyar engages in speculative pop psychology when he explains Johnson’s unwillingness to embrace hard action through a college incident in which Johnson « did not stand and trade punches, but instead hopped onto his bed, lay on his back, and kicked frantically with his long legs to keep the would-be adversary away » (pp. 288, 331).

Finally, Moyar’s claim that American leaders and their allies believed that if South Vietnam had fallen in the 1960s, a « high probability » existed that many dominoes would have been knocked over in Southeast Asia must be addressed. In his scenario, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, and Indonesia would have toppled, with potential fallout in the Philippines, Taiwan, Burma, and Japan. Moyar also asserts that much of the international community, including SEATO and NATO members, publicly and privately supported the United States in Vietnam. There is little, however, aside from a few selected quotations from worried American officials and international leaders trying to acquire more American aid, to substantiate these arguments (pp. 138-42, 377-91). If other leaders were so concerned with the domino effect, then perhaps they would have done more than offer token troops, rhetoric, and humanitarian aid. SEATO never took an official stand asking members to assist South Vietnam, NATO countries sought ways to disengage the United States from Vietnam, and, in the end, only the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea sent troops to Vietnam, and of those, the Philippines, Thailand, and South Korea leveraged their aid for important U.S. economic and military concessions as well as a complete U.S. subsidy of their forces in Vietnam.

Moyar excels at creating an alternate history to American intervention in Vietnam, an exercise that undoubtedly has its uses in stimulating thinking and challenging traditional viewpoints. The problem, of course, is that we will never know the course of events if Diem had lived, or if the United States had invaded North Vietnam, or if South Vietnam had fallen in the 1960s instead of 1975. Ultimately, Moyar offers no compelling evidence that triumph was forsaken, but, by imagining that it was, his book makes for an interesting read.

 


 

[1] I refer readers to Edwin Moïse’s excellent bibliography on the Vietnam Wars, available from http://www.clemson.edu/caah/history/FacultyPages/EdMoise/bibliography.html.

[2] See, for example, Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley, CA, 1999), xiii and David Anderson, « One Vietnam War Should Be Enough, » Diplomatic History 30, no. 1 (January 2006): 2-8 for the full context of their quoted comments in Triumph Forsaken (p. xii).

[3] See, for example, Moyar’s one-sided criticism of Ambassadors Elbridge Durbrow and Henry Cabot Lodge (pp. 68, 99, 115, 236-74).

[4] See Joint Resolution Draft, 2 April 1954, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library (EL), Dulles Papers, Subject series, box 8; Draft of the Congressional Resolution, 17 May 1954, Dulles Papers, Dulles-Herter Correspondence, 1953-1961, microfilm, reel 5; William Knowland oral history, EL, OH-233 (2 of 3), 1967; top-secret report, 23 April 1954, Archives Nationales, Paris, 74AP/38; 7 April 1954, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Asie 1944-55, Indochine, vol. 290; top-secret memo of Dulles-Eisenhower conversation, 19 May 1954, Dulles-Herter, reel 5.

[5] For a sampling of this literature, see Philip Catton, Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence, KS, 2003); Edward Miller, « Grand Designs: Vision, Power and Nation Building in America’s Alliance with Ngo Dinh Diem, 1954-1960 (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2004); and Kathryn Statler, Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam (Lexington, KY, 2007), chaps. 4, 5, 8.

[6] See Robert Topmiller, The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966 (Lexington, KY, 2002) for a counterargument to Moyar’s claims about the Buddhist movement. See Robert Buzzanco, Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (New York, 1996) for American military concerns about South Vietnam’s prospects for success.

[7] For works that address Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist credentials and Hanoi’s belief that the 1956 elections would be held, see Robert Scigliano, South Vietnam: Nation under Stress (Boston, 1964); Carl Thayer, War by Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Vietnam (Sydney, 1989); Robert Brigham, Guerrilla Diplomacy: The NLF’s Foreign Relations and the Vietnam War (Ithaca, NY, 1999); and William Duiker, Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam (Boston, 1995).

Review of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 by Mark Moyar, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006. Pages: xxiii+416. $32.00.

Reviewed by Kathryn C. Statler, in Political ReviewNet – Diplomatic History, Volume 32, Issue 01, pp. 153-157.
Online date : 10/04/2008

Pour en savoir plus :

Autres avis de lecture sur le site officiel de Mark Moyar.

Voir le débat suscité par cet ouvrage sur l’historiographie américaine de la guerre, en 2007 – en ligne sur pdf : H-Diplo