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

July 2003
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

The Kissinger Version: How He and Nixon Ended the War

BY MARC LEEPSON

Henry Kissinger's newest book, Ending the Vietnam War (Simon & Schuster, 635 pp., $18, paper), isn't new. It's an amalgamation of portions of four previous books. Kissinger, the main architect of Vietnam War policy during the Nixon administration, has changed some of the words, but his message remains the same: Henry Kissinger did everything he could to end the Vietnam War but was thwarted by enemies, both foreign and domestic.

A lot of what Kissinger repeats in the new book is unassailable. He notes, for example, that the Vietnam War quagmire was shaped by Nixon's Democratic presidential predecessors - plus Eisenhower. But Kissinger's opinions and assertions are selective, at best, and self-serving at their core. They add up to little more than spin control, all of it aimed at polishing his image and tarnishing those who opposed him.

President Nixon, Kissinger informs us, ``concluded an agreement to end the war when it was possible to do so without abandoning the allies that America had sustained.'' But nearly everyone, especially our South Vietnamese allies, agrees that Nixon and Kissinger did all but abandon them with the implementation of the Paris Peace Accords. Worse, Kissinger treats his perceived enemies - primarily but not exclusively the American media, Democratic members of Congress, and the antiwar movement - with scorn and mean spiritedness.

For example, Kissinger accuses those who spoke out against the war of being stimulated ``by a sense of guilt and encouraged by modern psychiatry and the radical chic rhetoric of upper middle-class suburbia.'' Meanwhile, Kissinger toots his own horn, spinning events to claim that what he did in Vietnam was honorable. If you believe that, I have the deed to a large bridge to Brooklyn that I'd like to sell you.


FAR LEFT FIELD

Jonathan Neale's A People's History of the Vietnam War (New Press, 320 pp., $24.95) is not a people's history. It is a socialist ideologue's interpretation of the Vietnam War. Neale, an American expatriate writer in England, filters life through the tenets of the far-left International Socialist Organization. He sees the war as a black-and-white class struggle between the rich, powerful ruling elites who made policy and the exploited working classes who were forced to carry out the dirty work.

Neale has little good to say about any Americans, elite or working class. Plus, he rhapsodizes about the Viet Cong. Neale portrays the 2.8 million Americans who served in Vietnam as dupes who ``were part of an integrated policy of terror.'' He absurdly contends that the VC were kinder and gentler warriors who ``tried to be different from the American army.'' Those and other similar generalizations are načve and woefully uniformed at best.


JFK

Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 (Little Brown, 838 pp., $30) made big headlines in May. The front-page newspaper articles zeroed in on Dallek's new information on JFK's many physical ailments and his sexual escapades. What didn't make the news was Dallek's single-minded effort to make the case that JFK, had he lived, would not have escalated the war the way President Johnson did.

``Throughout his tenure in the White House, Kennedy consistently resisted proposals to have U.S. forces take over the war,'' Dallek says. But Dallek's argument is flawed. While he has dug up some new material to support his supposition, he ignores or makes light of other evidence that clearly shows that JFK had more hawkish ideas. The bottom line: When John Kennedy came to office in January 1961, there were just under a thousand American military personnel in Vietnam. When he died in November 1963, there were more than 16,000.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

When Tom Reilly found out that his only sibling, his older brother Ron, died in Vietnam in 1970, 19-year-old Tom was devastated. Tom had been raised by Ron, a career soldier, and the news of his death was compounded by the fact that the Army did not specify how he died, only that it was not by enemy fire. Tom Reilly decided to take matters into his own hands. He flew off to Vietnam, found out what killed his brother, and walked in his footsteps at the 25th Infantry Division HQ at Cu Chi. Tom Reilly tells this unique, compelling story in Next of Kin: A Brother's Journey to Wartime Vietnam (Brassey's, 271 pp., $24.95), a well-crafted bittersweet memoir.

Hollywood's White House: The American Presidency in Film and History (University Press of Kentucky, 464 pp., $32) contains 23 essays by historians looking at TV and film depictions of American presidents. The book, edited by John E. O'Connor and Peter Rollins, the Oklahoma State University English professor who served as a Marine in Vietnam, includes essays on Oliver Stone's Nixon and JFK.

Richard Helms, who died in October 2002, was CIA director from 1966-72. It's no surprise, then, that his long, detailed memoir, A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency (Random House, 478 pp., $35), written with William Hood, is suffused with inside stories on the making of Vietnam War policy. Among other things, Helms ran the secret ground war in Laos and oversaw Operation CHAOS, trying to find foreign links to the antiwar movement at home. Helms was a ``hearts and minds'' advocate on the strategic level, consistently arguing against military escalation.

Gerald Cannon Hickey spent nearly 17 years (1956-73) as a RAND Corporation anthropologist in the Central Highlands. His latest book, Window on a War: An Anthropologist in the Vietnam Conflict (Texas Tech University, 392 pp., $37.95), is an examination of his tenure in Vietnam and an argument that the Americans went about fighting communism the wrong way.

Hickey, who initially supported the war, later concluded that it could be won politically but not militarily. He makes a strong case that nearly all American policy-makers suffered from ``vincible ignorance about Vietnamese nationalism because it was something they did not care about'' and that they ``ethnocentrically projected their own values when judging'' South Vietnam's leaders.

Robert J. Topmiller presents more evidence of the force of Vietnamese nationalism in the well-researched, clearly written Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966 (University of Kentucky, 232 pp., $35). Topmiller, an Eastern Kentucky University history professor who served in Vietnam at Khe Sanh in 1968, argues ``the answer to the question'' of ``why America suffered defeat in Vietnam lies in the widespread opposition of Vietnamese citizens to the government of South Vietnam.''


Samuel W. Hopkins, Jr., who served as a chaplain in Vietnam from 1967-68 with the 4th Battalion, 60th Artillery, tells his war story well in words and pictures in A Chaplain Remembers Vietnam (Truman, 292 pp., $19.95, paper). Vietnam veteran Wayne Mutza's The A-1 Skyraider in Vietnam: The Spad's Last War (Schiffer, 216 pp., $49.95) is a well-written, complete history (with 300 photographs) of the propeller-driven aircraft flown extensively in the war by U.S. Navy, Air Force, and ARVN Air Force pilots.

A FREE MAN IN PARIS

Monique Truong's first novel, The Book of Salt (Houghton Mifflin, 261 pp., $24), aims high. Truong, who emigrated to this country from Saigon when she was six years old in 1968, sets her richly imagined story in Paris in the late twenties and early thirties. Narrator Binh is a young Vietnamese expatriate trying to make sense of his life and times. He was mistreated by his family in Vietnam and is not dealing well with being a strange man in Paris.

Binh, who is homosexual, takes a job as a cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and offers his often-dispirited views on his life. That includes flashbacks to his unhappy childhood and his portentous trip across the ocean on a merchant ship. Along the way, Binh runs into a young and dapper Ho Chi Minh, the playboy Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, and Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk in this sometimes lyrical, sometimes self-pitying tale.

FICTION IN BRIEF

Robert Crais has written eight detective procedurals featuring Elvis Cole, an LA PI and Vietnam veteran who's rough on the outside but marshmellowy inside. In his latest, The Last Detective (Doubleday, 302 pp., $24.95), Cole gets hip deep into misadventure after his girlfriend's young son is snatched from his house. The snatchers are three ultra-violent psychos, former mercenaries. They let on that the kidnaping is tied to something horrible Cole did in Vietnam. Crais tells his tale well, although the bad guys are too broadly sketched. The other characters, on the main, ring true in this fast-reading, above-average detective tale.

Jere Hoar's The Hit (Context, 292 pp., $24.95) is a Body Heat-like, James M. Cain-ish noire thriller replete with a dangerously beautiful young woman, her venal older hubby, and an easily manipulated boyfriend who turns into a violent, serial mortal sinner. The načve sap is, natch, a three-tour Vietnam veteran and social misfit who is prone to drinking, philandering, philosophizing, and committing bloody crimes. The tale takes place in Mississippi. To his credit, Hoar creates compelling characters and redolent settings in this over-the-top but entertaining tale.

Le Thi Diem Thuy's The Gangster We Are All Looking For (Knopf, 160 pp., $18) is a quiet, elliptical autobiographical coming-of-age novel by a woman who fled Vietnam with her father when she was a child. The author and her father escaped Vietnam in 1978 by boat, as did the main character and her father in this evocative, sad book. Father and daughter had severe problems adjusting to life in southern California, judging by the rocky path the author paves for the unidentified heroine and her angst-ridden pop.

Paul Clayton's well-crafted Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam (Booklocker.com, 196 pp., paper) follows the protagonist into the war and back home. It's filled with everything from sandbag-filling details to tension-filled patrols in the jungle. Clayton, the author of three previous novels, was drafted into the Army and served as an infantryman with the Fourth Infantry Division's B Co., 1/8th, in the Central Highlands in 1968-69.

William R. Cragg's Heroic Couplets (1stBooks, 199 pp., paper) contains a dozen evocative short stories, six of which are set in Vietnam in 1968-69. Cragg served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot with the 1st Infantry Division during that time. J.R. Gathings' Men Made For War (Adjutant Press, 226 pp., $12.75, paper) is a riveting in-country novel centered on a 173rd Airborne Division LRRP team. Gathings did a 1968-69 tour with the 173rd's 172nd MI Detachment.

Robert J. Bailey's Thunder Sled (we-publish.com,193 pp., paper) is a well-written novel that follows the adventures of an F-105 Thud pilot, including his journey on foot in Laos after he is shot down. Bailey, an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, died in 2002. Robert Kincaid's Marking Time (1stBooks, 300 pp., paper) is an in-country Vietnam War story that is a ``mixture of fact, fiction and reconstructed events,'' according to the author who served as a rifleman,
machine gunner, and S2 scout with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam.

Nine From the Ninth (iUniverse, 133 pp., $11.95, paper) is a group of uniformly evocative and well-rendered in-country Vietnam War short stories by three men who served as Rangers in the 9th Infantry Division's Co. E., 75th Infantry, in Vietnam: Paul A. Newman, Bob Wallace, and Jack Bick. Newman is a VVA life member.

Robert W. Wood's Goodbye Vietnam (Omonomany, 120 pp., $16) is a group of very short, tightly written short stories about a Marine involved in the thick of things in Vietnam. Wood, who served with the 3rd Marine Division, ends the book with a list of ``lies, misconceptions, and half-truths,'' including this: ``There has not been one credible study showing any link between [Agent Orange] and illnesses in Vietnam veterans, not one.''

CORRECTION

In my review of the excellent The Vietnam War For Dummies in the March-April issue, I misidentified one of the co-authors, Stephen Maxner, who is 37 years old. He, of course, was too young to have served in the Vietnam War. Maxner, however, did serve six years of active duty in the military.
 

   

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