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BOOKS IN REVIEW:
Neither Hearts Nor Minds: The CIA’s Role in the Vietnam War

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON

Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, in retrospect, that the United States did not prevail in the Vietnam War because we underestimated the tenacity and will of the Vietnamese communists and we overestimated the American public’s willingness to put up with years and years of little progress on the ground. Thomas L. Ahern, a former CIA operative who put his time in the trenches in Vietnam, provides lots of evidence buttressing the former proposition in Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency (University Press of Kentucky, 460 pp., $40), a very detailed, on-the-ground look at CIA operations in Vietnam from the very beginning (1954) to the very end in 1975.

This “field perspective” recounting and analysis of the details of the various CIA machinations over this thirty-year period is almost textbook-like in its inclusion of names, dates, events, and places. Ahern provides minute details of CIA big operations such as the controversial Phoenix Program and the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) and Strategic Hamlet programs. He also deconstructs many little-known and almost forgotten counterinsurgency projects such as Operation Switchback, the Mountain Scouts, Force Populaire, Combat Youth, and Revolutionary Youth.

Some CIA efforts succeeded. But in the end—as was the case with the entire U.S. war effort—the intensive, extensive CIA mission in Vietnam failed to outmaneuver the communist Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies for the hearts and minds of the South Vietnam people. Why? Ahern offers some theories that are not new. They mainly boil down to American ignorance and arrogance, the military’s dismissal of “nation building” efforts, and the unstinting American support for 30 years of corrupt, authoritarian South Vietnamese governments beginning in 1954 with Ngo Dinh Diem.

NEIL SHEEHAN’S LATEST

Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times Vietnam War correspondent who in 1971 spearheaded The Times’s effort to publish The Pentagon Papers, made his mark on the literary scene in 1988 with A Bright, Shining Lie, a beautifully written, cogently analyzed, epic look at the Vietnam War through the lens of the life story of John Paul Vann. That book, sixteen years in the making, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and is out in a new hardcover Modern Library edition (861 pp., $35).

Sheehan, 73, spent more than a decade working on his newest book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon (Random House, 534 pp., $32), which came out to rave reviews late in September. Once again, Sheehan tells a wider story (nothing less than the history of the Cold War) through the life story of an individual. In this case, it’s the little-known Bernard Schriever, a German-born USAF officer who almost single-handedly overcame momentous obstacles to develop the military’s arsenal of ICBMs, which are credited with staving off nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Once again, Sheehan writes gracefully and forcefully, and uses a ton of research to tell a riveting and important story. During the last five years of Schriever’s career, the four-star general found himself “constantly harassed and overruled” by Robert S. McNamara and his “whiz kids” at the Pentagon.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

Susan A. Brewer’s well-written and well-argued Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (Oxford University Press, 342 pp., $29.95) contains a long, meaty chapter on the Vietnam War. In it, she looks at how our government leaders from Eisenhower to Nixon made their cases to the American public to support the war. Brewer is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Edwin A. Martini’s Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000 (University of Massachusetts, 280 pp., $80, hardcover; $24) looks at U.S.-Vietnam relations (and the lack thereof) after the communist takeover. Martini, a Western Michigan University history professor, includes a good deal on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on-line virtual Vietnam War memorials, and postwar films such as the execrable Rambo series.

Jill Hunting was fifteen years old in 1965 when her brother was killed in the Mekong Delta in a VC ambush. Pete Hunting was a civilian working for International Voluntary Services, an NGO doing grass-roots work with the Vietnamese. Jill Hunting tells her brother’s story in Finding Pete: Rediscovering the Brother I Lost in Vietnam (Wesleyan University Press, 292 pp., $24.95), an engaging first-person tale about Pete Hunting’s life and work and the author’s quest to come to terms with his death. Her web site is www.jillhunting.com

Rob Honzell, Sr.’s First Person: Combat PTSD (LuLu.com, 195 pp., $24.50, paper) is a memoir of the author’s life before, during, and after serving an action-heavy tour of duty in a Marine Recon unit in Vietnam. In Having Diabetes & Acting in an Honorable Way (Seminole Tribe of Florida, 140 pp.), Vietnam-era veteran Mitchell Cypress (the Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida) shares the lessons he’s learned battling the disease. For ordering info, go to www.mitchellcypress.com

VVA member Eileen Comerford Moore’s new book is Race Results: Hollywood vs. the Supreme Court: Ten Decades of Racial Decisions and Film (Cool Titles, 306 pp., $25.95). Moore, a nurse in the Vietnam War, today is a Justice on the California Courts of Appeals.

Patrick Hagopian’s The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing (University of Massachusetts, 560 pp., $49.95) is a wide-ranging examination of how America has commemorated the Vietnam War and its veterans and how commemorative memorials reflect political interpretations of the Vietnam War. Hagopian, who used VVA’s clearinghouse of state and local Vietnam veterans memorials in his research, is a lecturer in American studies at Lancaster University in the U.K.

FICTION IN BRIEF

Allan Cole and Chris Bunch’s A Reckoning for Kings was one of the better Vietnam War novels of the 1980s. Bunch, who served in Vietnam, and Cole went on to write a ton of science-fiction books together, as well as dozens of TV and film scripts. They wrote a post-Vietnam War novel in the early nineties that was all but forgotten and has just been resurrected. Freedom Bird (PublishAmerica, 468 pp., $29.95, paper) is a rollicking tale that follows the misadventures of three GIs in 1967 in San Francisco after they get home from the war.

P.T. Deutermann’s Nightwalkers (St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $24.95) is an old-fashioned detective thriller, one that features a hard-boiled ex-cop up to his neck in violence. He gets the help of a fetching woman to solve a mystery. The tale, it must be noted, contains a psycho ’Nam vet, whom our hero refers to as “another nutcase.” Cristine Cashay’s Round Eyes (PublishAmerica, 739 pp., $39.95) is a sprawling novel set mainly in Vietnam during the war, told from the perspective of civilian stewardesses who volunteered to fly the troops in and out of the war zone.

Former Navy A-6 flyer Stephen Coonts, of Flight of the Intruder fame, brings back Flight’s hero Jake Grafton (a man who is “smart and tough as shoe leather” and “a genuine nice guy”) in The Disciple (Thomas Dunne, 352 pp., $26.99). This present-day thriller involves Iran and nukes; Grafton’s now employed by the CIA. GL Wright’s short story, The Crossing at the River (PublishAmerica, 57 pp., $16.95, paper), is based on an in-country incident the author witnessed flying a helicopter gunship in Vietnam.

John Shors’s Dragon House (NAL, 354 pp., $15, paper), set in present-day Vietnam, tells the story a two young Americans, a man and woman, who operate a home for Vietnamese street children—a home that was started by the woman’s ailing father, a Vietnam veteran. The author is donating some of the funds generated from the book to the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, which works with disadvantaged children in Vietnam.

Deahn Berrini’s Milkweed (Somerset Hall Press, 220 pp., $17.95, paper) is set in 1971 and deals with the relationship between a young woman and her Vietnam veteran boyfriend as they cope with his readjustment problems. Rosalie Turner’s Sisters of Valor (Cyprus Creek Publishing, 253 pp., $17.75, paper) is the story of four women whose husbands are off fighting in the Vietnam War. The author’s husband served as a Marine in Vietnam. Her web site is www.sistersofvalor.com

Maxine Flam’s Unglorious War (Flamingo Publications, 329 pp., $16.95, paper) tells the first-person story of an Army nurse and her relationship with a former Vietnam War POW during the war. The author’s web site is www.maxineflam.com John Brackeen’s A Night Drive (PublishAmerica, 201 pp., $24.95, paper) is based on a 1967 operation in the Que Son Valley that the author took part in during one of his two USMC Vietnam War tours of duty.

The heart of William Slusher’s For Whom To Die: A Beautiful Story of a Terrible Time (CMPPG, 324 pp., $13.50, paper) is an in-country Vietnam War novel set in 1968-69. The Vietnam veteran-author’s website is www.forwhomtodie.blogspot.com

NEW IN PAPER

Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg’s Inside the VC and the NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam’s Armed Forces (Texas A&M University, 352 pp., $19.95), the classic 1992 analysis of the other side’s military; Kevin Dockery’s Operation Thunderhead: The True Story of Vietnam’s Final POW Mission, and the Last Navy SEAL Killed In Country (Berkley Caliber, 304 pp., $16), which reconstructs the ill-fated June 1972 POW rescue attempt; Beverly Gologorsky’s first novel, The Things We Do To Make It Home (Seven Stories, 217 pp., $142.95), which is peopled with a flock of stereotypically emotionally crippled Vietnam veterans.

Also: Thomas R. Hargrove’s unique and fascinating A Dragon Lives Forever: War and Rice in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta (Texas A&M, 480 pp., $23.99), a mostly nonfiction book, first published in 1994, that focuses on the author’s 1969-70 tour as an Army LT adviser deep in the Delta; and Bill White and Robert Gandt’s Intrepid: The Epic Story of America’s Most Legendary Warship (Broadway Books, 348 pp., $16), which details the famed aircraft carrier’s life and times, including her deployments on Yankee and Dixie Station in the Vietnam War.

And Richard H. Taylor’s Homeward Bound: American Veterans Return from War (Naval Institute, 192 pp., $19.95), a 2007 book that looks at how returning service personnel fared in every war from the Revolution onward; and Kit Lavell’s Flying Black Ponies: The Navy’s Close Air Support Squadron in Vietnam (Naval Institute, 328 pp., $19.95), a fact-filled recounting of the Navy’s Light Attack Squadron IV (VAL-4), which operated in the Mekong Delta using small, prop-driven OV-10 Broncos, first published in 2000.

 

 

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