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

February 2002/March 2002

Books in Review

Reviews by Marc Leepson


In Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 (1997), the accomplished presidential historian Michael Beschloss offered a ringside seat on President Lyndon Johnson's first year in office. That book provided the first public transcriptions of the secret tapes LBJ made inside the White House, along with Beschloss's insightful and instructive footnotes and comments.
     In the book's stunning sequel, Reaching For Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 (Simon & Schuster, 475 pp., $30), Beschloss uses the same MO to cover the crucial years in which Johnson and his advisers set the policies that led to the massive military escalation that brought this country unequivocally into the fighting in Vietnam. It's not a pretty picture.
     The behind-the-scenes portrait of LBJ that emerges in Reaching For Glory--which begins in September 1964 and ends in August 1965--is radically different than Johnson's public image during that fateful period. Publicly, Johnson was confident and optimistic about launching the war in earnest with the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign and the infusion of large numbers of American combat troops. Inside the White House in private conversations with his advisers, on the other hand, he gloomily predicted that the war effort was doomed from the start.
     On February 26, 1965, the day he gave the go-ahead to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to launch Rolling Thunder, Johnson all but conceded the effort's futility. "Now we're off to bombing these people," LBJ said. "I don't think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don't see any way of winning." A week later, on March 6, after he made the decision to send in the Marines, LBJ tells Sen. Richard Russell: "A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain't no daylight in Vietnam. There's not a bit."
     "It's going to be difficult for us to very long prosecute effectively a war that far away from home with the divisions we have here," Johnson told McNamara on June 21. "I'm very depressed about it. Because I see no program from either Defense or State that gives me much hope of doing anything, except just praying and gasping to hold on during monsoon and hope they'll quit. I don't believe they're ever going to quit."
     The book contains much more, including Johnson's conversations about the '64 presidential campaign and his domestic programs, including civil rights. But the Vietnam War is at the heart of nearly everything that took place during this period. This historic book sheds enormous and revealing light on how Johnson and his aides made many of the war's fateful policy decisions.


Anthony Grooms' ambitious novel, Bombingham (Free Press, 304 pp., $24), begins with main character Walter Burke hip deep in the morass of the Vietnam War. As his world begins shattering in Vietnam, Burke flashes back to his childhood in the early sixties in Birmingham, Alabama. Most of the novel consists of Burke's first-person narration of growing up amid the physical dangers and emotional upheaval of the Civil Rights movement set against the background of his family's equally taxing travails.
     Grooms, a poet who is a creative writing professor at Kennesaw State University, was too young to have fought in the Vietnam War. But his evocations of the physical and emotional climate of the war at its worst ring true. So, too, do the scenes set in Birmingham--given its nickname by African Americans because of violent segregationists' penchant for blowing up black churches, homes, and businesses. Many awful things take place in the novel--both in Vietnam and in Birmingham. This is not a tale of contentment and optimism. However, it is a well-rendered and ties together the civil-rights struggle at home and the war in Vietnam.


Frederick Su's An American Sin (bytewrite LLC, 337 pp., $15, paper) hones in on the post-Vietnam War story of David Wong, a Chinese-American Marine who had a hellish time of it in the war and had a difficult time adjusting to life back home. The book is a fast-moving, dialogue-heavy tale that doesn't flinch at depicting the worst the war had to offer. Su is a former Vietnam-era Marine.

Alan Hodgkinson's After Incoming (Highbridge Press, 265 pp., paper) takes a penetrating look at the pained postwar life of a veteran who is suffering physically and emotionally after his Vietnam War tour. Hodgkinson was drafted into the Army and served as a 9th Infantry Division rifleman in Vietnam in 1968-69. He is a former photojournalist and Peace Corps volunteer and the author of a group of Vietnam War short stories.

In Looking for Canterbury (Xlibris, 203 pp., paper), former Baruch College English and journalism professor Jason Marks looks at veterans' postwar emotional problems. He tells the story of a group of emotionally troubled Vietnam veterans and how they work to heal themselves by enacting Chaucerian roles in New York City's Central Park. The veterans, including main character Harry Baylor, are deeply disturbed by their war experiences; they have varying degrees of success using their unique self-designed therapy.

The Vietnam War is one theme of Sarah Bird's The Yokota Officers Club (Knopf, 368 pp., $23), which is set in the late sixties in Okinawa and Japan. In this teen-aged-girl-coming-of-age-story, Bird focuses on an 18-year-old military brat and her dysfunctional family. There are plenty of laughs in this tale in which the Vietnam War is in the background but the cultural mores of the sixties, complete with the good old Generation Gap, are front and center.

Barry S. Willdorf's Bring the War Home! (A Gauche Press, 277 pp. $14.95, paper) is an autobiographical tale set in the early 1970s that deals with the GIs who took part in the antiwar movement while still wearing the uniform. The main character is a lawyer who represents antiestablishment Marines at Camp Pendleton. In real life, Willdorf, a lawyer, represented active-duty antiwar Marines at Camp Pendleton.

Nguyen Khai's Past Continuous (Curbstone, 160 pp., $15.95, paper), first published in Vietnam in the early 1980s, is the story of three people who fought against the Americans and South Vietnamese and their postwar reunion. The book is filled with real and imagined characters and is, as co-translator Wayne Karlin notes in his excellent afterward, "for the most part a deeply orthodox and at the same time deeply sincere view of the war, communism, and the vision for which so many thousands of Vietnamese sacrificed themselves." This short, readable story was ably translated by Karlin, the noted novelist who specializes in writing and teaching about the war, and Phan Thanh Hao, a Hanoi-based poet, editor, and translator.

James J. Finnegan's C.M.A.C.: The Saga of a Saigon Warrior (Writers Club Press, 309 pp., paper) is the fictional story of Lt. James A. Callaghan, an Army radio officer at the fictitious Capital Military Assistance Command in Vietnam in 1968. Finnegan himself served with the Army Signal Corps in Vietnam and his photographs enhance this off-beat tale of life in Saigon during the height of the war.

Russell Ward's Be-It Nam: A Story of World Peace (1st Books, 103 pp., paper) tells the fantastic story of four Vietnam veterans who go around the world building Vietnam War Memorial walls in an effort to end armed conflicts and bring about peace. Ward served in Vietnam, where he was wounded in the 1968 Tet Offensive.

R.E. Armstrong's No Rules: Offbeat Tales of Military Life (Writer's Showcase, 147 pp., $11.95, paper) is a collection of some four dozen very short stories. Many deal with the Vietnam War, in which Armstrong served with the Army's First Field Force in 1967-69.


Spencer C. Tucker's meaty, three-volume Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social and Military History, first published in 1998, is now available in a one-volume condensed paperback version (Oxford University Press, 608 pp., $22.50). Tucker, a former Army intelligence officer, teaches military history at Virginia Military Institute.
     The three-volume tome contained some 900 detailed, thorough, and objectively written entries by 135 contributors, mostly university historians who specialize in the Vietnam War. Those entries remain, in boiled-down fashion, in the new paperback version. The subjects include military ops, weapons, biographies of significant players (Americans, Vietnamese, and French), the antiwar movement, early Vietnamese history, post-1975 events in Vietnam, and Vietnam War-related literature and film.


Former Marine Johnnie M. Clark's 1984 Vietnam War memoir Guns Up!, first published in 1984, is now out in a revised edition with a new epilogue (Ballantine, 354 pp., $6.99, paper). Clark tells the action-heavy story of his tour, which began when he was an 18-year-old machine gunner with the 5th Marine Regiment at the Battle of Hue in 1968. The book, Clark says, "was born in anger; it was my way of fighting back against a steady stream of lies coming out of the media about our guys in Vietnam."

Joseph P. Dulany served two tours as an Army chaplain in the Vietnam War, in 1967-68 based in Qui Nhon, and in 1969-70 with the 1st Cav's 2nd Brigade out of LZ Uplift north of Phu Cat Air Base. Dulany, a VVA member, devotes two chapters of his well-written, fact-filled memoir, Once A Soldier: A Chaplain's Story (203 pp., paper) to his Vietnam War experiences. For information, write: Box 572, Bethany Beach, DE 19930.

J. Michael Orange's Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam (Writer's Club, 244 pp., $12.95, paper) is a cleanly written, evocative memoir of his 1969-70 tour with H&S Co., 1st Regiment, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division, in and around Danang. Orange also examines his rocky readjustment after coming home. He effectively uses much reconstructed dialogue in this instructive true tale.

Harold Hester's Heaven's Luck (CeShore, 220 pp., $12.95, paper) tells the true stories of a group of Army helicopter pilots and their adventures in the Vietnam War. At the core of this creatively related book is the author's cousin, Roger Whitley, who was a helicopter pilot with the 269th Combat Aviation Battalion.

Richard C. Kirkland relates the stories of two Vietnam War helicopter pilots, among others, in Tales of a Helicopter Pilot (Smithsonian Institution Press, 192 pp., $21.95). Kirkland, who flew P-38s in WWII and helicopters after the war, provides striking, action-filled accounts of the in-country exploits of former Army Warrant Officer Q. Kirk, who piloted a Huey gunship with the 336th Assault Helicopter Company, and former Marine CH-46 pilot John Harris.

VVA Member Ron Fitts tells his Vietnam War story and offers words of advice for those who are emotionally troubled by their war experience in his smoothly written memoir, Not a Hero (Brentwood Christian Press, 136 pp., paper). Fitts served as a Brown Water Navy LT in Vietnam in 1969-70 and saw his share of action. He wrote his book, he says, "to help people who are struggling with war stress syndrome." His desire, Fitts says, "is to help restore sanity and peace to thousands of troubled souls." You can contact him at ronfitts@notahero.com

Roger Hayes's On Point: A Rifleman's Year in the Boonies: Vietnam, 1967-1968, first published in 2000, is now out in paper (St. Martin's, 248 pp., $6.99). Hayes, an Army draftee, tells the combat-heavy story of his 1967-68 tour walking point with Charlie Company, 1st of the 5th (Mechanized) of the 25th Infantry Division.

Ronald Choquette put in a 1965-66 tour as an RTO and LRRP with the 173rd Airborne and as recon ranger with MACV/SOG. His memoir, My Survival in Vietnam (Trafford Publishing, 141 pp., paper), is a straight-ahead look at his eventful war experiences.

On the River (Truman, 207 pp., $19.95, paper) is an anonymous memoir that tells the Vietnam War story of the author--identified only as "The Judge, G.L.A."--who did a 1966-67 Vietnam War tour as a radio operator based in Can Duoc, south of Saigon, advising an ARVN ranger unit. The story is told straightforwardly and evocatively, giving the reader a clear look at the war through the eyes of a young American in the thick of the action. For info write: GLA, P.O. Box 90346, Staten Island, NY 10309■


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