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november/december 2008

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Books in Review
Lessons Learned & Unlearned: Examining the War’s Origins
Reviews by Marc Leepson

Rufus Phillips was sent to South Vietnam in 1954 as a member of the first CIA team there, led by Col. Edward Lansdale. The young Virginian spent most of the next decade doing undercover and pacification work in Vietnam. Phillips played an important behind-the-scenes advisory role in the high-level power struggle that developed over how the United States would help South Vietnam defeat the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Phillips was a strong proponent of what came to be known as the “hearts and minds” approach: helping build a stable democratic government in the south, one that the people of South Vietnam would put their lives on the line to preserve. At the same time, he (like his mentor Lansdale) spoke out strongly and consistently against sending in American combat troops.

In Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned (Naval Institute, 384 pp., $38.95), a revealing inside-baseball memoir, Phillips provides a fascinating look at how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations never gave the pacification approach more than lip service.
Phillips offers intimate, revealing portraits of the legendary Lansdale himself, the colorful CIA operative Lucien Conein, South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, President John F. Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and a slew of other Kennedy and Johnson higher-ups. Phillips clearly shows that those best and brightest, especially McNamara, exhibited “poor judgment, bureaucratic prejudice, and personal hubris” as they steered Vietnam War policy in a disastrous course. Phillips adds a short chapter on lessons learned from the Vietnam War calamity. It should be mandatory reading in Washington, D.C.

McGeorge Bundy was the prototypical best-and-brightest Vietnam War policymaker in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. As JFK and LBJ’s national security adviser, Bundy was a key player in Vietnam War policymaking from 1961-66. The “administration’s pre-eminent intellectual,” as foreign policy scholar Gordon M. Goldstein calls Bundy in Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (Times Books, 288 pp., $25), Bundy was an out-and-out hawk. He “again and again demonstrated a willingness, if not an eagerness, to deploy military means” in Vietnam, as Goldstein notes in this warts-and-all examination and analysis of Bundy’s role in formulating American policy in the Vietnam War.

Goldstein worked with Bundy in the year before his death on his memoir and “retrospective analysis of America’s path to war.” After Bundy died in 1996, Goldstein completed a book based on his collaboration. That book has not been published. Lessons in Disaster is something different. It is based on the author’s experience with Bundy, but also contains Goldstein’s own conclusions.

Goldstein painstakingly recounts Bundy’s role as national security adviser, sprinkling in Bundy’s “retrospective views,” along with his own analyses. Among the surprising revelations: Bundy late in life came to regret his hawkish ways, although he maintained to the end that Kennedy and Johnson—not their advisers—were primarily responsible for the outcome of the war. Vietnam, Bundy said, was “overall, a war we should not have fought.” The doves, he said, “were right.”

Not one American prisoner of war was rescued by the U.S. military from North Vietnamese or Viet Cong POW camps during the Vietnam War. Not for want of trying, though. In Operation Thunderhead: The True Story of Vietnam’s Final POW Mission and the Last Navy SEAL Killed In Country (Berkley Caliber, 304 pp., $25.95), military historian and SEAL specialist Kevin Dockery writes about the little-known last Vietnam War POW rescue mission. The ill-fated attempt took place in June 1972 and resulted in the death of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Melvin Spence Dry, one of the special operations officers who undertook the dangerous mission.

Dockery writes about the mission, but only in the last four chapters of this book. The first 26 chapters are devoted mainly to the amazing story of U.S. Air Force Capt. John Dramesi, who was shot down April 2, 1967, and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. Dramesi escaped twice, once from the Hanoi Hilton, only to be recaptured and tortured mercilessly. He was a main player in the planning of the ill-fated Operation Thunderhead.

Shelby Stanton, the former Vietnam War Green Beret, has written a slew of military history books, including the classic Vietnam Order of Battle and, in 1990, Special Forces at War: An Illustrated History, Southeast Asia, 1957-1975, a coffee table book that contains scores of images and illuminating text. This fact-filled and valuable reference book has just been reprinted by Zenith Press (382 pp., $40).

Kenneth N. Jordan, Sr.’s Marines Under Fire: Alpha 1/1 in Vietnam: From
Con Thien to Hue and Khe Sanh
(Publish America, 514 pp., $28.50) is an in-depth look at the 1st Marine Division’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines from January 1967 to the Siege of Khe Sanh in the spring of 1968.

Jordan’s book “uses the words of the men who were there experiencing those tragic events that helped shape (or scar) their lives forever,” said VVA member Terry Strassburg, who served with Alpha 1/1 from June 1967 to August 1968.

The latest well-illustrated and excellent Vietnam War military hardware paperbacks from Osprey Publishing are both written by Gordon L. Rottman, who did a 1969-70 tour with the 5th Special Forces Group: The U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, 1965-73 (96 pp., $18.95) and U.S. Helicopter Pilot In Vietnam (64 pp., $18.95). VVA member Gary D. Jestes and Jay A. Graybeal’s Tours of Duty: Carroll County and the Vietnam War (Historical Society of Carroll County, 276 pp., $29, paper) is a lovingly produced tribute to the Vietnam veterans, both living and dead, from that Maryland county near Baltimore. To order, write: Historical Society of Carroll County, 210 E. Main St., Westminster, MD 21157.

Christopher J. Fettweis, who teaches security studies at Tulane, often refers to the Vietnam War in Losing Hurts: The Four States of Moving Beyond Iraq (Norton, 270 pp., $25.95), a sober look at what he believes will happen in this country after the end of the war in Iraq. Fettweis says that there are ways to avoid an “Iraq Syndrome,” and he sets them out in this interesting mixture of psychological and historical analysis.

Veteran journalist Mike Sager’s Wounded Warriors: Those For Whom the War Never Ends (Da Capo, 260 pp., $16.95, paper) is a compilation of his articles that includes “Thailand’s Home for Wayward Vets,” which first appeared in Rolling Stone in 1983.

Billy Barnz’s Voices From Vietnam: The Stories of New Zealanders Who Served Their Country in Vietnam (Willson Scott, 339 pp., $49.99) tells the stories of 34 New Zealanders before, during, and following their tours of duty in the Vietnam War. For ordering info, go to Barnz, aka William Barnes, served with the RNZAF 161 Battery in Vietnam in 1970-71. Also from Willson Scott by Barnz: The Goat Hunter: Ho Chi Minh: A Kiwi Ruins His War (239 pp., $30), an irreverent war and postwar memoir.

If you’re interested in the 21st century socialist interpretation of the American war in Vietnam, go no further than Joe Allen’s Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost (Haymarket Books, 253 pp., $14, paper). One example: In his analysis of the aftermath of Tet ’68, Allen says that it was “only the opening shot of a year in which the U.S. ruling class faced its most severe challenges in a generation.”

If you’d like to know how a middle-class young woman from Connecticut wound up making explosives to protest the Vietnam War as a member of the Weather Underground (and nearly blew herself up on March 6, 1970, when her townhouse in Greenwich Village exploded), Cathy Wilkerson offers up Flying Close to the Sun (Seven Stories, 422 pp., $26.95). In it, Wilkerson explains what led her to the violent fringe of the antiwar movement and how her ideas about using violence to protest war changed after her brush with death and going underground.

Stephen R. Gray, who flew more than 250 A-4 Skyhawk combat missions in 1967 with the Navy’s Attack Squadron 212 in Vietnam, offers his account of that experience in Rampant Raider: An A-4 Skyhawk Pilot in Vietnam (Naval Institute, 284 pp., $32.50).

Jack Lyndon Thomas, who served as an officer and Mobile Advisory Team adviser to the RUFF/PUFFS in 1969-70 in Vietnam, tells his war and postwar stories, complete with his own poetry and color photos from back in the day, in Coyote Jack: Drawing Meaning from Life and Vietnam: A Memoir (Lyndonjacks, 313 pp., $28.95).

VVA Member Joe Teel, Jr.’s Welcome Home, Joe (Outskirts Press, 224 pp., $19.95, paper) recounts his tours of duty in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne’s First Brigade in 1967-68 and the 82nd Airborne in 1968-69, along with his rocky homecoming, which was ameliorated after he found peace through religion.

James and Kathleen Lada’s The Up Side of Being Down (, 177 pp., $18, paper) focuses on James Lada’s economic difficulties in recent times. He served a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour with the First Marine Air Wing in Danang as an aviation hydraulic mechanic.

J. Richard Watkins’s Vietnam: No Regrets: One Soldier’s Tour of Duty (Bay State Publishing, 244 pp., $17.95, paper) looks at the author’s 1969-70 tour of duty with the 25th Infantry Division’s A Co., 1/27th, the “Wolfhounds.” The author’s website is

Retired Army Maj. Bud Yost’s Hard Core (RoseDog Books, 114 pp., $53, paper) deals with his second of three Vietnam War tours with C Co., 2/502nd of the 101st Airborne’s 1st Brigade in 1967, including an incident with a stalking Bengal tiger near Song Mau.

Jerry S. Horton’s The Shake ’n’ Bake Sergeant: True Story of Infantry Sergeants in Vietnam (Trafford, 321 pp., $20, paper) is a memoir of his 1968-69 Vietnam tour as a newly minted Sgt. E-5 with A Co., 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, at the end of which he was severely wounded. His website is

Steve Wilken’s Why Didn’t You Have to Go to Vietnam Daddy? (Outskirts Press, 142 pp., $11.95, paper) is a memoir of his 1969-71 Army career, including 13 months at Central Finance in Long Binh.

In Hai Dang Nguyen’s Get Up One More Time (H&T Publishers, 275 pp., $18.95, paper) the author includes a history of the Vietnam wars, along with his personal story, which includes fleeing Northern Vietnam when the communists took over in 1954 and fleeing Saigon in April of 1975. Along the way, Hai Nguyen rose to the post of Assistant Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office of South Vietnam.

Retired Marine LTC William C. Howey served three tours in Vietnam in 1964-69 with counterintelligence units. Later he taught high school history for twelve years. Howey tells all in Hard Knocks and Straight Talk: From the Jungles of Vietnam to the American Classroom (Keller Publishing, 339 pp., $29.95).

John Jamison’s Answer to Hell (Xlibris, 146 pp., $31.72) is the sad story of Paul Sgroi, a Vietnam veteran suffering from severe postwar emotional problems who killed himself in 1988 at a campground outside Santa Barbara, California.

Donald J. Farinacci’s Last Full Measure of Devotion: A Tribute to America’s Heroes of the Vietnam War (Author House, 122 pp., $11.99, paper) contains profiles of a group of Vietnam veterans who acted heroically in the war. The list includes Rocky Versace, Gen. Hal Moore, Roy Benaidez, Bob Kerrey, and Louis Rocco.

Reclaiming God’s Peace Within (Wine Press Group, 68 pp., $31.99) is a collection of photographs by Mitzie Deike, who served as an Army nurse in the Vietnam War, and Susie Johnson, a professional counselor. The photos of serene outdoor scenes reflect Deike’s recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder



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