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

July 2004
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

The Inside Story on the Pentagon Papers
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

In June of 2001 VVA sponsored a groundbreaking symposium in Washington marking the 30th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The one-day event brought together many of the main players involved in the earth-shattering events that made public the until-then secret 47-volume Defense Department study of American decision-making in Vietnam. The panelists included Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who copied the Papers and leaked them to The New York Times; former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, who read the Papers into the Congressional Record, and a group of high-powered journalists, editors, lawyers, and legal scholars who were involved in the landmark Supreme Court case that upheld publication of the Papers.

Now, VVA Communications and Publications Director Margaret Pratt Porter and the noted Vietnam War historian John Prados have put together a valuable, insightful book based on that conference, aptly titled Inside the Pentagon Papers (272 pp., University Press of Kansas, $29.95). The book for the first time takes a concise, fact-filled look at why the Papers were put together under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, at the importance of its publication, and at the legal issues the 1971 case raised. The latter comes in a well-written, well-reasoned chapter penned by VVA general counsel Michael Gaffney.

The book includes new information, much of it in the form of oral history from the presenters at the conference. It also contains previously unpublished transcripts of once-secret White House telephone tapes revealing the Nixon administration’s strategy to block the Papers’ publication, along with the government's formal charges against the newspapers presented by Solicitor General Erwin Griswold to the Supreme Court. Prados also presents a detailed analysis of the matter, in which he shows the many weaknesses of the government’s case, as well as how they reflected Nixon’s paranoia more than legitimate national security issues.

The 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers to the media was the catalyst behind the Nixon administration’s decision to set up the "Plumbers," which led to the Watergate burglary and, ultimately, the resignation of President Nixon. Inside the Pentagon Papers sheds informing light on all aspects of the Papers case and joins the list of must-read books on the Vietnam War. As Floyd Abrams, The New York Times’s co-counsel on the case, put it, the book is the "most complete, incisive, and persuasive study of those documents yet published."

BOOMER NATION: A HISTORY OF OUR GENERATION, INCLUDING VVA

In Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever, and How it Changes America (Free Press, 384 pp., $27.50), Steven M. Gillon focuses on six members representative of our generation: a health care advocate, a TV producer, an architect, an advertising executive, a Christian educator, and a Vietnam veterans’ advocate. The latter, Bobby Muller, is VVA’s founding president.

In sketching Muller’s life and times, Gillon--a University of Oklahoma history professor and the History Channel’s resident historian--provides a short but detailed history of VVA. His account of VVA’s early years, from 1978 to the granting of our congressional charter in 1986, is based primarily on interviews with Muller and other early VVA veterans, including Government Relations Director Rick Weidman and Ned Foote of New York. Gillon is up to the task here, telling the story accurately and readably.

His account of VVA in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the factionalism that ended when Muller and VVA parted ways is not as accurate, however. VVA, Gillon says, "fell on hard times after" Muller stepped down as president in 1987. "Broke and leaderless, the VVA floundered, not recovering a firm footing until the late 1990s." That statement is not true. While there was a period of tough fiscal times in 1991 and 1992, VVA was anything but "leaderless." Rather, National Presidents Mary Stout and George Duggins brought VVA into sound financial footing and all-time high membership numbers, which has continued under the leadership of Duggins’ successor, Tom Corey.

There’s no arguing with another of Gillon’s conclusions about VVA, however. The "most significant contribution Boomers have made to American politics," Gillon says, "has been their genius in developing sophisticated, well-organized interest groups," including Vietnam Veterans of America.

Wilbur J. Scott, the University of Oklahoma sociology professor who served as a 4th Infantry Division platoon leader in Vietnam in 1968-69, does a more complete, and arguably better, job sketching VVA’s history through the early ’90s in his excellent 1993 book, Vietnam Veterans Since the War: The Politics of PTSD, Agent Orange, and the National Memorial. Recently re-issued in paperback with a new afterward (University of Oklahoma Press, 320 pp., $21.95), it contains accurate information about VVA’s Veterans Initiative program, which Scott calls a "remarkable [effort] created by Vietnam veterans coming to terms with their war experience."

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

The Vietnam War is a main theme in veteran journalist Don Oberdofer’s top-rate biography, Senator Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat (Smithsonian Books, 593 pp., $32.95). Oberdorfer shows that Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana, a World War I veteran who became Senate majority leader, consistently warned against American military escalation from 1961 until the war’s end. On Dec. 7, 1964, for example, Sen. Mansfield sent a memo to President Johnson, saying: "We are close to the point of no return in Viet Nam. There ought to be less official talk of our responsibility in Viet Nam and more emphasis on the responsibilities of the Vietnamese themselves and a great deal of thought on the possibilities of a peaceful solution."

Gary A. Freitas, who served in the USAF in the early 1970s, knows his war movies. If you don’t believe me, check out his excellent War Movies: The Belle & Blade Guide to Classic War Videos (Reed, 414 pp., $14.95, paper). The heart of the book is an A-Z listing of 350 war films, including Vietnam War movies. Each one-page entry contains a concise summary and analysis of a war movie, along with a recap of the critics’ reactions. Freitas also includes short essays on the films of each war, including Vietnam, in this accessible, useful volume.

The epic battle of Dien Bien Phu ended a half century ago in May 1954. David Stone, a former British military officer, presents a readable, well-researched, detailed look at that battle in Dien Bien Phu (Brassey’s/Casemate,128 pp., $19.95, paper). In his analysis of that watershed event, Stone maintains that the determining factor in the Viet Minh victory was the dedication of their soldiers and leaders. The "bravery, discipline, robustness and determination of the Viet Minh were remarkable throughout the battle," he says, citing "poor motivation and moral of many French Union" soldiers.

Sgt. Major Billy Waugh, who retired in 1973, was one of the Army’s original Green Berets. He served in high-level Special Forces operations all over the globe, including a seven-year stint in Vietnam. Waugh, with writer Tim Keown, tells his war stories--which stretch from 1954-2002--in the readable, action-packed Hunting the Jackal: A Special Forces and CIA Ground Soldier’s Fifty-Year Career Hunting America’s Enemies (Morrow, 256 pp., $23.95).

Waugh gets two brief mentions in John L. Plaster’s Secret Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines with the Elite Warriors of SOG (Simon & Schuster, 366, pp., $26), a first-person account of the work of the then-secret Studies and Observation Group in the Vietnam War. Plaster, the author of two other nonfiction accounts about his former unit, served three SOG tours in Vietnam.

Richard Taylor served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam as an adviser to the ARVN’s 7th Infantry Division in the Delta in 1967-68 and as a company commander with the 1st Cav’s 1st of the 7th in 1970-71. Taylor describes those tours in his well-written, thoughtful memoir Prodigals: A Vietnam Story (Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95). Taylor says that an emotional burden lifted when he attended his first VVA chapter meeting a few years ago. "When an overweight and aging vet with a ponytail shook my hand and said, `Welcome home, brother,’ " he said, "I knew for the first time I was really, finally home."

Charles M. Kinney’s Borrowed Time: A Medic’s View of the Vietnam War (Trafford, 152 pp., $14.50) is a well-written memoir, edited by Pamela Gillis Watson, that covers "Doc" Kinney’s two tours, first as a medic with the 1st Cav’s 2nd of the 7th in 1965-66, during which he served after the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, and in 1970 at the 3rd Surgical Hospital in Vinh Long Province. Thomas A. Swann’s The Tom Swann Story: For a Greater Good (Pygmalion, 218 pp., $20, paper) is the author’s account of his gay activism as a civilian Navy employee beginning in the late 1980s. Swann served as a U.S. Marine from 1976-80.

If a Marine wore it on his uniform or helmet in country, you can bet there’s a picture and description of it in E. Richard Wilson III’s U.S. Marine Corps Unit Insignia in Vietnam, 1961-1975 (Schiffer, 176 pp., $29.95). Wilson, who served with the 3rd Marines in Vietnam, documents an extensive collection of uniform paraphernalia down to the battalion and squadron level in this reader-friendly volume. Rod Smith’s Laughter… Near the Edge of Insanity (Bookman, 82 pp., paper, $6.95) is a collection of offbeat war stories by Vietnam veterans. Smith served a 1968-69 Vietnam tour with the 1st Cav.

New in paper: Richard Pyle and Horst Faas’s Lost Over Laos: A True Story of Tragedy, Mystery, and Friendship (Da Capo, 276 pp., $17.95), where former AP Vietnam correspondents Faas and Pyle tell the tale of the 1971 deaths of four war photographers: Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter, and Keisaburo Shimamoto; and Malcolm McConnell’s Into the Mouth of the Cat: The Story of Lance Sijan, Hero of Vietnam (Norton, 256 pp., $13.95), the inspiring story of the USAF pilot who evaded capture for six weeks after being shot down in Laos, only to die in captivity in Hanoi. Sijan was the first Air Force Academy graduate to be awarded the Medal of Honor.


FICTION IN BRIEF

Don J. Snyder’s first novel, Veterans Park (1987) was set during the Vietnam War summer of 1969, with the war casting a menacing shadow over the worthy book’s characters. About two-thirds of Snyder’s eighth and latest novel, Winter Dreams (Doubleday, 243 pp., $23.95) takes place in 1969 and 1970 on and around the campus of the University of Massachusetts. This time, though, the Vietnam War plays only a small supporting role in this story of a 28-year-old English professor’s rite of passage into adulthood.

The protagonist is a shy rookie professor who falls in love with an impetuous, vivacious undergrad. Problematically, the young woman is engaged to a boy who is about to ship out to you-know-what war. Winter Dreams is a fast read; it is also a novel of ideas and emotions that is flat in places and engagingly written in others.

Michael Connelly, the man GQ Magazine calls "the world’s best cop novelist," is in top form in The Narrows (Little Brown, 404 pp., $25.95), the tenth in his Harry Bosch series. Haunted by a difficult childhood and a hazardous tour of duty as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War, Bosch unleashes his personal demons on serial killers and other bad guys in this series of readable, entertaining novels. The Narrows involves the return of The Poet, an ex-FBI agent turned sociopath who was thought to have perished. Connelly, as he does in the other Bosch novels, brings in his Vietnam War background several times, including a flashback to a medevac helicopter ride after Bosch was wounded chasing a VC underground.

Rick Smith’s REMF (1st Books, 96 pp., $10.95, paper) is a collection of short stories based on his experiences as a draftee Army journalist who served a 1970-71 tour at Army headquarters in Long Binh. Told in the first person, these 14 short tales are well written and shed informing light on what life was like in REMF-land in the war’s later stages. Tim Curran’s hard-hitting in-country Vietnam War novella, Headhunter, is available in a paperback chapbook from Dark Animus (80 pp., $10, paper).

Former Marine Robert J. Sutter’s Odd Man Out (1st Books, 435 pp., $23.50, hardcover; $15.50, paper) is a clever, well-told, sprawling story involving the fate of triplets who serve in Vietnam, where one is killed. Sutter, whose brother, Cpl. Richard F. Sutter, was killed in action near Khe Sanh in 1967, served in the post-Vietnam War Marines.

The latest from best-selling technothriller maven Stephen Coonts (Flight of the Intruder, et al.) is Liars & Thieves (St. Martin’s, 383 pp., $25.95), an action-heavy tale involving a KGB defector. Coonts flew A-6 Intruder missions during the Vietnam War.  

 

 

   

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