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previously unpublished transcripts of once-secret White House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
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
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
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