The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

March/April 2003
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

New, Revealing Look At The CIA's Role
In The Diem Assassination

BY MARC LEEPSON

John Prados, the noted historian and author who specializes in the Vietnam War and whose work often appears in these pages, includes a good deal about America's longest war in his well-crafted, exhaustively researched Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby (Oxford University, 380 pp., $35).  

The Vietnam War played a central role in Colby's career. He first went there in 1956 as a young CIA agent. He was CIA station chief in Saigon from 1959-62, was deputy director of the CORDS program in 1968, and - most famously - headed the controversial Phoenix program in 1969. Colby headed the CIA's Far East Division until he was named CIA director in 1975. 

Prados covers Colby's Vietnam War experiences thoroughly and includes detailed and fascinating accounts on many of the war's most crucial events, from the 1963 Diem assassination through the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. In the former case, Prados clearly shows that Colby was a Diem friend and backer and believed that the controversial Premier's death was a big blunder, not  because of the political chaos that ensued in South Vietnam, but because Colby believed the notoriously corrupt Diem regime, given big American support, would have mended its ways and defeated the communists. "That is speculation," Prados says, "supported by not a shred of evidence."  

The latest book to claim that President Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam had he not been assassinated three weeks after Diem's death - Howard Jones's Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (Oxford University, 562 pp., $35) - condemns Kennedy for his role in the Diem coup. JFK, Jones says, "and his advisers [were] not only accomplices in a coup but accessories to murder." In this enormous work, University of Alabama history professor Jones offers an engagingly written, minutely detailed record of American policy-making in Vietnam from 1961-63. His section on the coup and the assassination is riveting and revealing. 

VICK'S FORAY INTO FICTION 

Ed Vick's riveting Slingshot (Bedford Press, 210 pp., $31.95, hardcover; $21.95, paper) is based on his experiences as a brown-water Navy LT commander who saw plenty of action with the River Patrol Flotilla 5 in the Mekong Delta and in the waters near Cambodia in 1968-69.

This very readable and evocative novel centers on a sea-borne rescue mission by a riverboat crew that ventures into dangerous VC-held territory in search of a downed American pilot. Vick took part in such a mission in 1969, and in this, his first novel, makes excellent use of detailed notes he took after he came home.  

Vick, who retired as the chairman of Young and Rubicam Worldwide in 2001, is donating half the book's profits to the Gamewardens of Vietnam Association, an nonprofit organization that benefits River Patrol veterans and their families. For more info about the book, go to www.bedfordpress.com

BURNAM'S BEST FRIENDS 

John C. Burnam's a mission is to garner recognition for the 4,000 dogs and their 10,000 or so handlers who served, as he did, in the Vietnam War. A Soldier's Best Friend: Scout Dogs and Their Handlers in the Vietnam War (Carroll & Graff, 384 pp., paper) is a combination war memoir, history of dog teams in the Vietnam War, and a plea for the construction of a National War Dog Memorial in Washington. 

Burnam served two tours in Vietnam. He was an infantryman with the First Cav's 1st of the Seventh and a scout dog handler with the 44th Scout Dog Platoon. He saw plenty of action during both tours. The most valuable part of the book is Burnam's description of his second tour when he bravely led dangerous infantry patrols with his two scout dogs, Timber and Clipper. Of the countless number of American Vietnam War memoirs, none has provided such an in-depth look at the training and operations of scout dogs and their handlers. 

RESCORLA REMEMBERED 

"The real heroes" in the Vietnam War, Rick Rescorla once said, "are dead." Rescorla acted heroically in Vietnam during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. And on September 11, 2001, he paid with his life as he directed thousands of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter employees to safety during the World Trade Center catastrophe. Rescorla, MSDW's director of security, led the rescue of some 2,700 people out of the burning building and was last seen climbing up the stairs on the 10th floor searching for stragglers. 

James B. Stewart, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author (Den of Thieves, et al.), tells Rescorla's life story and tells it very well in Heart of a Soldier: A Story of Love, Heroism, and September 11th (Simon & Schuster, 321 pp., $24). Stewart traces Rescorla's life from his birth in England, through his mercenary service in the former Northern Rhodesia, to his death on September 11. He includes a great deal about Rescorla's romance with his second wife, Susan Greer. His last words to her were in a frantic cell phone call: "Stop crying. I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I've never been happier. You made my life." 

NOT FOR DUMMIES 

I've never understood the reasoning behind the title of the For Dummies series of books. It seems to be based on the idea of selling books to people who think of themselves as dumb. That sounds counterintuitive to me, but what do I know? The For Dummies books keep on coming and keep on selling. Which brings us to The Vietnam War For Dummies (Wiley, 362 pp., $19.95, paper) by Ronald B. Frankum, Jr., and Stephen F. Maxner. 

Frankum and Maxner, a Vietnam veteran, are no dummies. The co-authors, who are affiliated with Texas Tech University's Vietnam Center and Archive, do a worthy job of piling on the statistics and providing interpretations of virtually every aspect of the war. They do it in the straightforward For Dummies style, and they get nearly everything right. That includes the political aspects of the war, the antiwar movement, and the story of Vietnam veterans' homecoming. There's also an excellent list of resources for readers who want more detailed information. Two nit-picks: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is misnamed "The Vietnam War Memorial," and VVA is not mentioned, even though there's a brief section on Vietnam veterans' associations. 

NONFICTION IN BRIEF 

In Song of Saigon: One Woman's Journey to Freedom (Warner Faith, 283 pp., $17.95), Anh Vu Sawyer, with Pam Proctor, tells her life story. Sawyer fled Vietnam in 1975 at the end of the war and settled in this country. Her journey was fraught with extreme hazards, but Sawyer overcame them by relying heavily on her Christian faith. This well-executed book ends with a moving description of Sawyer's first trip back to Vietnam 1998.  

William M. Leary's Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia (Smithsonian Institution, 281 pp., $24.95, paper) is a well-researched, well-written account of the secret CIA Air Force that operated first in China then throughout Asia (including in French Indochina) after WWII until 1954. It later was reborn as Air America.

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest's The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military (Norton, 429 pp., $26.95) focuses on four four-stars and how they're waging war and peace around the globe. That includes Gens. Wesley Clark and Anthony Zinni, both of whom had formative military experiences as company commanders in the Vietnam War.  

In Call Sign Rustic: The Secret Air War Over Cambodia, 1970-1973 (Smithsonian Institution, 186 pp., $24.95), Richard Wood details one aspect of the least secret "secret" war in history, the one waged by this country and South Vietnam in Cambodia. Wood, a retired USAF colonel, focuses on Task Force Rustic, which undertook countless bombing runs over Cambodia from June 20, 1970, to August 15, 1973. Wood was a Rustic FAC. 

Three of the generals profiled in Owen Connelly's valuable On War and Leadership: The Words of Combat Commanders from Frederick the Great to Norman Schwarzkopf (Princeton University, 347 pp., $29.95) have Vietnam War connections: Gens. Vo Nguyen Giap, Hal Moore, and Schwarzkopf. Connelly, a prolific author and Korean War Army Ranger, is a University of South Carolina history professor. 

Henry Mark Holzer and Erika Holzer's Aid and Comfort: Jane Fonda in North Vietnam (McFarland, 216 pp., $39.95) is a strident condemnation of the Hollywood actress for her anti-American, pro-Communist actions during the war. The authors, a retired law professor who served in the Korean War, and his wife, a lawyer and a novelist, say Fonda was guilty of treason and that her subsequent apologies are "hollow," "self-serving," and "insincere." 

Karen Mart-Taverna's A Time for Everything (204 pp., paper) is a tribute to her late husband, Larry Mart, a Vietnam veteran who died in 1997. It consists primarily of photocopied letters sent from the war zone. For information, e-mail VVA member Larry Dakken, sdakken@polarcomm.com

POETRY 

Jim Fairhall's excellent collection, At the Water Puppet Theater (Word Press, 110 pp., $16, paper), is made up of sharp, evocative poems, most of which deal with the author's experiences in the Vietnam War and his reflections on the war after returning to Vietnam as a tourist. Fairhall, an English professor at DePaul University, served as a 101st Airborne Division infantryman in Vietnam in 1970-71.  

Here's an excerpt from "The Jungle Pimp": "He held his rifle gingerly,/like an unasked-for loan,/with sliding loose-limbed ease,/like one of the smaller cats/or a lemur, perhaps/he had those large, dark, wistful eyes,/suggesting gentleness/that I, the college boy,/lacked in my soldier's dreams." 

Time to Tango (Vergin Press, 92 pp., $12.95) is a collaboration between Vietnam veteran Nichols Sands and writer Arden Tice. The book is made up of deeply felt poetry and essays, much of which is based on Sands's tour of duty as corpsman with the Marines in Vietnam in 1970-71 and his post-war PTSD. That includes the concluding lines from the poem, "Names." "Rusty's name is on the Wall./I can't find it./I can't find the name./I can't find the names."  

FICTION IN BRIEF

Dao Strom's first novel, Grass Roof, Tin Roof (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, 231 pp., $12, paper), deals with a woman and her two young daughters, Vietnamese immigrants, who find refuge after the war in northern California. This high-minded literary work looks at the family through the shifting perspectives of all of its members. Strom does well in shedding illuminating light on the emigre experience. 

Tony Anthony's first novel, Beneath Buddha's Eyes (Welcome Rain, 240 pp., $25), is an in-country and post-Vietnam War novel that focuses on the love affair between an Army correspondent and a female civilian reporter. Anthony, a former Army Stars & Stripes Vietnam War correspondent, offers up a readable, evocative tale.

Stephen (Flight of the Intruder) Coonts's latest swashbuckling Jake Grafton thriller, Liberty (St. Martin's, 420 pp., $25.95), has our hero slugging it out with nuke-wielding terrorists. 

Richard Wayne's massive The Mindworks Project (Evergreen House, 720 pp., $28.95) is a tale about a brainwashing scheme designed by the CIA and tested illegally on Americans in the Vietnam War. It has disastrous consequences, especially for one Vietnam veteran who unaccountably goes on a murder spree. Wayne, who served in a USAF special ops unit from 1967-73, is a New Jersey mortgage banker. 

Vietnam veteran Diego Rayle's The Trial of Billy Running Dog (1stBooks, 227 pp., $25.45, hardcover;  $14.50, paper) is a hard-hitting fictional examination of a Native American and former Vietnam War CIA op's psychic post-war problems. Rayle's Cast From Shackles (1st Books, 213 pp., $25.45, hardcover; $14.50, paper), which was inspired by actual events, follows a Latino American from war protester to Army infantryman in Vietnam, to a severe bout of PTSD after returning home. For more info, go to www.DiegoRayle.com

   

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