A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

April 2001/May 2001

Books In Review

A Revealing Look at The Vietnam War Origins of The Green Berets

Reviews by Marc Leepson

Did you know that Green Berets conducted civilian-clothes, clandestine operations in 1956 in Thailand, in 1957 in Taiwan and South Vietnam, and in 1959 and 1961 in Laos? Chalmers Archer, Jr., lets the world in on those early and pivotal missions in Green Berets in the Vanguard: Inside Special Forces, 1953-1963 (Naval Institute Press, 139 pp., $28.95), a well-written and instructive memoir.

Archer earned the nickname "Sergeant Special Forces" because he was there at the birth of the Green Berets and took part in the hazardous missions he describes in his short, evocative book. Archer's 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment, the first American combat unit deployed to Vietnam, trained ARVN troops in special forces warfare and sought out and engaged the VC. Archer and his fellow Green Berets were highly motivated and extremely well trained. They acted courageously and selflessly in their early Southeast Asian missions.

They adhered to "hearts and minds" tactics centering on working with and respecting the people and eschewing large-scale, conventional warfare. Archer and his fellow Green Berets tried to get that message through to official Washington, to no avail. "I sincerely believe that, if allowed to proceed as planned, our operations would have succeeded" in Vietnam, Archer says. He makes a convincing case.

Similar arguments are made by eight individuals who worked on pacification efforts in Vietnam in the early 1960s in Prelude to Tragedy: Vietnam, 1960-1965 (Naval Institute, 309 pp., $32.95), edited by Harvey Neese and John O'Donnell. That group includes former ARVN Gens. Hoang Lac and Lu Lan, O'Donnell and Rufus Phillips of AID, and George Tanham of the RAND Corp. If America's leaders had ``understood and followed [counterinsurgency] strategy, the editors say, ``rather than conventionally militarize and Americanize the struggle as they did, the events that followed might have been very different.


The subject of Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War (Norton, 480 pp., $26.95) is Col. Floyd James Thompson. The former Green Beret was captured by the VC in March 1964 and held longer than any other POW in American history. Thompson suffered greatly during his nine years of captivity, physically and emotionally.

While he was held by the Viet Cong, Thompson's wife moved with their four young children into the home of an Army sergeant. The Thompsons reunited after his release, but their marriage soon dissolved. Thompson later suffered a stroke that diminished his mental capabilities. In Glory Denied, newspaper columnist Tom Philpott tells Jim Thompson's story mainly through the verbatim testimony of his family, friends, and colleagues. Much of Thompson's own contributions come from interviews he gave for another book prior to his stroke.


Robert Mann's massive A Grand Illusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam (Basic, 821 pp., $35) is an in-depth political history of the Vietnam War that concentrates on American policy makers' "delusions." One big delusion, Mann contends, was the American misperception of  "the nature of the threat to freedom in Indochina."  Mann argues that French colonialism--not communism--was the main impediment. He also says that Americans were wrong in believing that South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem "was a reformer dedicated to democratic ideals."  Mann condemns the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations for deluding themselves that the war could be won militarily, arguing that what was needed was a "program to help the South Vietnamese regime win the 'hearts and minds' of its people."

Mark Philip Bradley takes an in-depth and revealing look at pre-Vietnam War 20th century Vietnamese-American relations in Imagining Vietnam & America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1951 (University of North Carolina Press, 304 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper). Bradley, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor, makes extensive use of a great deal of Vietnamese material in this well-written narrative and analysis, which looks at cultural as well as political interactions.

British historian Kevin Ruane's The Vietnam Wars (Manchester University/St. Martin's, 189 pp., $74.95, hardcover; $29.95, paper) is a short look at the conflicts in Indochina from 1930-75. In it Ruane, of Christ Church College, Canterbury, stitches together primary source material, his own narrative, and historians' and journalists' analyses of the pivotal events.

John Grider Miller, a retired Marine colonel who served two tours in Vietnam, examines one aspect of his war service in The Co-Vans: U.S. Marine Advisors in Vietnam (Naval Institute Press, 195 pp., $24.95). Miller, whose books include The Bridge at Dong Ha, commanded a company with the First Battalion, First Marines in Vietnam in 1965-66, and became an adviser to the South Vietnamese Marines (a Co-Van) in 1970. During that tour, which he evocatively describes in the book, Miller took part in the Cambodian incursion and in Operation Lam Son 719 in Laos, the largest South Vietnamese-run offensive of the war.

Wayne Thompson's To Hanoi and Back: The U.S. Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (Smithsonian Institution, 416 pp., $27.95), is, as its title implies, a detailed recounting and analysis of USAF operations over North Vietnam. Thompson, the chief of analysis at the AF History Support Office and a Vietnam-era Army veteran, tells his story thoroughly, providing a wide array of detail, ranging from accounts of the aircrews at work to the highest policy-making decisions in Washington.

Retired USAF Col. Robert L. Gleason offers a history of Air Force Vietnamese commando operations in Air Commando Chronicles: Untold Tales from Vietnam, Latin America, and Back Again (Sunflower University, 149 pp., $24.95, paper). Gleason did two Vietnam tours, with the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (known as Jungle Jim) in 1961-62, and later as deputy chief of MACVSOG. He recounts those and other cold-war Air Force commando efforts in this book.

Kit Lavell's Flying Black Ponies: The Navy's Close Air Support Squadron in Vietnam (Naval Institute, 328 pp., $32.95) is a sprightly written, fact-filled recounting of another unique air component of the U.S. effort in Vietnam: the Navy's Light Attack Squadron IV (VAL-4), which operated in the Mekong Delta from 1969-72 using small, prop-driven OV-10 Broncos. Lavell, who flew 243 Black Pony combat missions, uses the voices of many of the former pilots, along with those of former SEALs and riverine force members the pilots supported.

Lee Andresen, who teaches history at Lake Superior College in Minnesota, often regales his students with the music of the Vietnam War. In Battle Notes: Music of the Vietnam War (Savage, 212 pp., $14.95, paper), Andresen covers all types of music associated with the war: protest songs, pro-war patriotic tunes, African-American music, what he calls the "music of combat," and music about the war's aftermath.

Anthony James Joes, who directs the international relations program at St. Joseph's University, specializes in guerrilla warfare. His latest book, American and Guerrilla Warfare (University of Kentucky, 418 pp., $30), examines nine such conflicts the United States has been involved in. In eight of them, this country was successful. But that was not the case in the Vietnam War. Ironically, Joes contends, with American help South Vietnam contained the guerrilla portion of the war, but then fell to what Joes calls a "clear-cut conventional campaign of conquest by Hanoi" in 1975.

Stephen Tanner recounts the fall of South Vietnam in Epic Retreats: From 1776 to the Evacuation of Saigon (Sarpedon, 346 pp., $25), which also includes looks at Napoleon in Russia, The 8th Army in Korea, and the Allies at Dunkirk. Tanner, a military historian, adds background to his Vietnam War story and offers the theory that the idea that the Vietnam War was "a tragic waste" can be questioned because the United States "went on to win a spectacular victory in the Cold War, the greater conflict of which Vietnam was only a part."

In The Vietnam War on Campus: Other Voices, More Distant Drums (Praeger, 280 pp., $67.50) editor Marc Jason Gilbert presents thirteen essays on different aspects of the antiwar movement among students in the 1960s and 1970s. The essays cover topics that include the pro-war group Young Americans for Freedom, student-revolt movies, and protests at Iowa State and Ball State Universities. Gilbert, a history professor at North Georgia College and State University, offers an essay on how the war affected University High School in Los Angeles. For information, call 800-225-5800.


Norman Berg, who served as a Navy carrier pilot in WWII and Korea, is the father of George P. Berg, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot with Aviation Co. A of the 101st Aviation Battalion who was listed as MIA in Vietnam in February 1971. In Regret to Inform: Experiences of Families Who Lost a Family Member in Vietnam (Hellgate, 154 pp., $16.95, paper), Norman Berg tells the heart-wrenching story of his family's ordeal, along with those of seven others whose sons remain missing. This is a side of the MIA story that is not heard often enough. It makes for sad--but necessary--reading.

They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam (321 pp., $15.95, paper) is Vietnam veteran John Campbell's tribute to the 43 servicemen from Gloucester County, New Jersey, who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Campbell offers well-written, stirring profiles and photos of each of the men. For more information, write: P.O. Box 746 Glassboro, NJ 08028 or visit www.theywereours.com 

You can add Kien Nguyen's The Unwanted (Little, Brown, 343 pp., $24.95) to the list of first-rate memoirs by Vietnamese emigres. Kien Nguyen was born to a Vietnamese mother and an American businessman father. He grew up in affluence in South Vietnam, then was forced to struggle mightily after the fall of Saigon until 1984 when he left his homeland for the United States. Kien Nguyen offers a well-written, insightful look at his life before and after the tumultuous events of 1975. Today he is a dentist in New York City.

Retired U.S. Air Force Captain George A. Burk tells his inspiring story in The Bridge Never Crossed (Science and Humanities Press, 169 pp., $16.95, paper). The book centers on the May 4, 1970, crash of a military airplane in California. Burk was the only survivor. He spent 18 months in the Ft. Sam Houston Burn Unit. Burk, who served a 1967-68 USAF Vietnam tour, today teaches and lectures on many subjects, including the value of life and the importance of personal quality--two subjects he covers very well in his book.


We don't find out until near the end of the ultra-fast-paced novel Candyland (Simon & Schuster, 302 pp., $25) that the book's prime suspect and one of the NYPD detectives on his trail both served in the Vietnam War. Candyland is the work of the novelist Evan Hunter and the detective writer Ed McBain, his alter ego. Hunter offers a brilliant sketch of main character Ben Thorpe, a middle-aged California architect, as he faces down his sexual demons one night in New York City. McBain focuses on NYPD detective Emma Boyle and her quest to solve the brutal rape-murder of a prostitute that same night.


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