Books in Review
HISTORIAN REVEALS LBJ'S SECRETLY TAPED VIETNAM WAR
In Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964
(1997), the accomplished presidential historian Michael Beschloss
offered a ringside seat on President Lyndon Johnson's first year
in office. That book provided the first public transcriptions of
the secret tapes LBJ made inside the White House, along with
Beschloss's insightful and instructive footnotes and comments.
In the book's stunning sequel, Reaching For Glory: Lyndon
Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 (Simon &
Schuster, 475 pp., $30), Beschloss uses the same MO to cover the
crucial years in which Johnson and his advisers set the policies
that led to the massive military escalation that brought this
country unequivocally into the fighting in Vietnam. It's not a
The behind-the-scenes portrait of LBJ that emerges in Reaching
For Glory--which begins in September 1964 and ends in August
1965--is radically different than Johnson's public image during
that fateful period. Publicly, Johnson was confident and
optimistic about launching the war in earnest with the Rolling
Thunder bombing campaign and the infusion of large numbers of
American combat troops. Inside the White House in private
conversations with his advisers, on the other hand, he gloomily
predicted that the war effort was doomed from the start.
On February 26, 1965, the day he gave the go-ahead to Secretary of
Defense Robert McNamara to launch Rolling Thunder, Johnson all but
conceded the effort's futility. "Now we're off to bombing these
people," LBJ said. "I don't think anything is going to be as bad
as losing, and I don't see any way of winning." A week later, on
March 6, after he made the decision to send in the Marines, LBJ
tells Sen. Richard Russell: "A man can fight if he can see
daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain't no daylight in
Vietnam. There's not a bit."
"It's going to be difficult for us to very long prosecute
effectively a war that far away from home with the divisions we
have here," Johnson told McNamara on June 21. "I'm very depressed
about it. Because I see no program from either Defense or State
that gives me much hope of doing anything, except just praying and
gasping to hold on during monsoon and hope they'll
quit. I don't believe they're ever going to quit."
The book contains much more, including Johnson's conversations
about the '64 presidential campaign and his domestic programs,
including civil rights. But the Vietnam War is at the heart of
nearly everything that took place during this period. This
historic book sheds enormous and revealing light on how Johnson
and his aides made many of the war's fateful policy decisions.
Anthony Grooms' ambitious novel, Bombingham (Free Press, 304
pp., $24), begins with main character Walter Burke hip deep in the
morass of the Vietnam War. As his world begins shattering in
Vietnam, Burke flashes back to his childhood in the early sixties
in Birmingham, Alabama. Most of the novel consists of Burke's
first-person narration of growing up amid the physical dangers and
emotional upheaval of the Civil Rights movement set against the
background of his family's equally taxing travails.
Grooms, a poet who is a creative writing professor at Kennesaw
State University, was too young to have fought in the Vietnam War.
But his evocations of the physical and emotional climate of the
war at its worst ring true. So, too, do the scenes set in
Birmingham--given its nickname by African Americans because of
violent segregationists' penchant for blowing up black churches,
homes, and businesses. Many awful things take place in the
novel--both in Vietnam and in Birmingham. This is not a tale of
contentment and optimism. However, it is a well-rendered and ties
together the civil-rights struggle at home and the war in Vietnam.
FICTION IN BRIEF
Frederick Su's An American Sin (bytewrite LLC, 337 pp., $15,
paper) hones in on the post-Vietnam War story of David Wong, a
Chinese-American Marine who had a hellish time of it in the war
and had a difficult time adjusting to life back home. The book is
a fast-moving, dialogue-heavy tale that doesn't flinch at
depicting the worst the war had to offer. Su is a former Vietnam-era Marine.
Alan Hodgkinson's After Incoming (Highbridge Press, 265 pp.,
paper) takes a penetrating look at the pained postwar life of a
veteran who is suffering physically and emotionally after his
Vietnam War tour. Hodgkinson was drafted into the Army and served
as a 9th Infantry Division rifleman in Vietnam in 1968-69. He is a
former photojournalist and Peace Corps volunteer and the author of
a group of Vietnam War short stories.
In Looking for Canterbury (Xlibris, 203 pp., paper), former
Baruch College English and journalism professor Jason Marks looks
at veterans' postwar emotional problems. He tells the story of a
group of emotionally troubled Vietnam veterans and how they work
to heal themselves by enacting Chaucerian roles in New York City's
Central Park. The veterans, including main character Harry Baylor,
are deeply disturbed by their war experiences; they have varying
degrees of success using their unique self-designed therapy.
The Vietnam War is one theme of Sarah Bird's
Officers Club (Knopf, 368 pp., $23), which is set in the late
sixties in Okinawa and Japan. In this
teen-aged-girl-coming-of-age-story, Bird focuses on an
18-year-old military brat and her dysfunctional family. There are
plenty of laughs in this tale in which the Vietnam War is in the
background but the cultural mores of the sixties, complete with
the good old Generation Gap, are front and center.
Barry S. Willdorf's Bring the War Home! (A Gauche Press, 277
pp. $14.95, paper) is an autobiographical tale set in the early
1970s that deals with the GIs who took part in the antiwar
movement while still wearing the uniform. The main character is a
lawyer who represents antiestablishment Marines at Camp Pendleton.
In real life, Willdorf, a lawyer, represented active-duty antiwar Marines at Camp Pendleton.
Nguyen Khai's Past Continuous (Curbstone, 160 pp., $15.95,
paper), first published in Vietnam in the early 1980s, is the
story of three people who
fought against the Americans and South Vietnamese and their
postwar reunion. The book is filled with real and imagined
characters and is, as co-translator Wayne Karlin notes in his
excellent afterward, "for the most part a deeply orthodox and at
the same time deeply sincere view of the war, communism, and the
vision for which so many thousands of Vietnamese sacrificed
themselves." This short, readable story was ably translated by Karlin, the noted novelist who specializes in writing and teaching
about the war, and Phan Thanh Hao, a Hanoi-based poet, editor, and
James J. Finnegan's C.M.A.C.: The Saga of a Saigon Warrior
(Writers Club Press, 309 pp., paper) is the fictional story of Lt.
James A. Callaghan, an Army radio officer at the fictitious
Capital Military Assistance Command in Vietnam in 1968. Finnegan
himself served with the Army Signal Corps in Vietnam and his
photographs enhance this off-beat tale of life in Saigon during
the height of the war.
Russell Ward's Be-It Nam: A Story of World Peace (1st Books,
103 pp., paper) tells the fantastic story of four Vietnam
veterans who go around the world building Vietnam War Memorial
walls in an effort to end armed conflicts and bring about peace.
Ward served in Vietnam, where he was wounded in the 1968 Tet
R.E. Armstrong's No Rules: Offbeat Tales of Military
Life (Writer's Showcase, 147 pp., $11.95, paper) is a
collection of some four dozen very short stories. Many deal with
the Vietnam War, in which Armstrong served with the Army's First
Field Force in 1967-69.
Spencer C. Tucker's meaty, three-volume
Encyclopedia of the
Vietnam War: A Political, Social and Military History, first
published in 1998, is now available in a one-volume condensed
paperback version (Oxford University Press, 608 pp., $22.50).
Tucker, a former Army intelligence officer, teaches military
history at Virginia Military Institute.
The three-volume tome contained some 900 detailed, thorough, and
objectively written entries by 135 contributors, mostly university
historians who specialize in the Vietnam War. Those entries
remain, in boiled-down fashion, in the new paperback version. The
subjects include military ops, weapons, biographies of significant
players (Americans, Vietnamese, and French), the antiwar movement,
early Vietnamese history, post-1975 events in Vietnam, and Vietnam
War-related literature and film.
MEMOIRS IN BRIEF
Former Marine Johnnie M. Clark's 1984 Vietnam War memoir
Up!, first published in 1984, is now out in a revised edition
with a new epilogue (Ballantine, 354 pp., $6.99, paper). Clark
tells the action-heavy story of his tour, which began when he was
an 18-year-old machine gunner with the 5th Marine Regiment at the
Battle of Hue in 1968. The book, Clark says, "was born in anger;
it was my way of fighting back against a steady stream of lies
coming out of the media about our guys in Vietnam."
Joseph P. Dulany served two tours as an Army chaplain in the
Vietnam War, in 1967-68 based in Qui Nhon, and in 1969-70 with the
1st Cav's 2nd Brigade out of LZ Uplift north of Phu Cat Air Base.
Dulany, a VVA member, devotes two chapters of his well-written,
fact-filled memoir, Once A Soldier: A Chaplain's Story (203
pp., paper) to his Vietnam War experiences. For information,
write: Box 572, Bethany Beach, DE 19930.
J. Michael Orange's Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam
(Writer's Club, 244 pp., $12.95, paper) is a cleanly written,
evocative memoir of his 1969-70 tour with H&S Co., 1st Regiment,
1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division, in and around Danang. Orange
also examines his rocky readjustment after coming home. He
effectively uses much reconstructed dialogue in this instructive
Harold Hester's Heaven's Luck (CeShore, 220 pp., $12.95,
paper) tells the true stories of a group of Army helicopter pilots
and their adventures in the Vietnam War. At the core of this
creatively related book is the author's cousin, Roger Whitley, who
was a helicopter pilot with the 269th Combat Aviation Battalion.
Richard C. Kirkland relates the stories of two Vietnam War
helicopter pilots, among others, in Tales of a Helicopter
Pilot (Smithsonian Institution Press, 192 pp., $21.95).
Kirkland, who flew P-38s in WWII and helicopters after the war,
provides striking, action-filled accounts of the in-country
exploits of former Army Warrant Officer Q. Kirk, who piloted a
Huey gunship with the 336th Assault Helicopter Company, and former
Marine CH-46 pilot John Harris.
VVA Member Ron Fitts tells his Vietnam War story and offers words
of advice for those who are emotionally troubled by their war
experience in his smoothly written memoir, Not a Hero
(Brentwood Christian Press, 136 pp., paper). Fitts served as a
Brown Water Navy LT in Vietnam in 1969-70 and saw his share of
action. He wrote his book, he says, "to help people who are
struggling with war stress syndrome." His desire, Fitts says,
"is to help restore sanity and peace to thousands of troubled
souls." You can contact him at
Roger Hayes's On Point: A Rifleman's Year in the Boonies:
Vietnam, 1967-1968, first published in 2000, is now out in
paper (St. Martin's, 248 pp., $6.99). Hayes, an Army draftee,
tells the combat-heavy story of his 1967-68 tour walking point
with Charlie Company, 1st of the 5th (Mechanized) of the 25th
Ronald Choquette put in a 1965-66 tour as an
RTO and LRRP with the 173rd Airborne and as recon ranger with
MACV/SOG. His memoir, My Survival in Vietnam (Trafford
Publishing, 141 pp., paper), is a straight-ahead look at his
eventful war experiences.
On the River (Truman, 207 pp., $19.95, paper) is an
anonymous memoir that tells the Vietnam War story of the
author--identified only as "The Judge, G.L.A."--who did a
1966-67 Vietnam War tour as a radio operator based in Can Duoc,
south of Saigon, advising an ARVN ranger unit. The story is told
straightforwardly and evocatively, giving the reader a clear look
at the war through the eyes of a young American in the thick of
the action. For info write: GLA, P.O. Box 90346, Staten Island, NY