BOOKS IN REVIEW
The Kissinger Version:
How He and Nixon Ended the War
BY MARC LEEPSON
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.''
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.