THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah

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(Kachemak Bay, Alaska)

The year is 1974 and the United States is in turmoil.  The Watergate investigation rages on, there are bombings by the Weatherman, planes are being hijacked, Patty Hearst has been kidnapped and robs a bank, and the truth about the Vietnam War keeps emerging.  It is in this background that Ernt Allbright returns to his family, having spent six years in a POW camp after being shot down over North Vietnam and forced to watch the death of his fellow soldier and good friend Bo Harlan.  Allbright shows all the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder with repeated nightmares, temper tantrums, and the inability to concentrate.  The family made up of Cora, his wife, and Eleni his fourteen year old daughter must endure his unpredictable moods and behavior that can be violent and can be affected by the time of year and weather.  The family is extremely dysfunctional as they pick up and constantly move based on Ernst’s needs.  The Allbright family forms the core of Kristin Hannah’s new novel, THE GREAT ALONE, a story that on one level is quite disturbing, and at another, very heartwarming.

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After repeated failures Ernt picks up his family and moves to the Kachemak Bay area of Alaska, across the water from Homer.  The title of the book describes the wilderness region they have settled in as Bo had willed Ernt a small homestead.  Ernt believes that this is the opportunity of a life time to finally quell his daemons and move away from what he perceives to be the ills of the larger society.  It is here that Hannah introduces a number of fascinating characters.  Mad Earl the head of the Harlan family, Large Marge Birdsall, a former Washington, DC prosecutor, Tom Walker, whose father helped settle the town of Kaneq, and his son Matthew, in addition to others.

There are a number of themes that permeate the novel.  First, is the Allbright family itself as Leni realizes the that her parents’ marriage is not normal as her mother continuously enables her father’s dream that over the next horizon he will be able to provide for his family and be happy.  The problem is that Ernt cannot seem to control himself as his wife and daughter become victims of his past, and have to constantly walk on egg shells around him.  Second, the stunning beauty of Alaska, but with that beauty comes a darkness that only the wilderness offers.  Despite being seen as a panacea for so many, escaping to Alaska becomes a parable of survival.  Third, the bonding of people who share the same battles with nature each day.  Even though people are drawn together they carry significant world views that are affected by the life they lived before, and now the life they live in Alaska.  Fourth, the issue that is splitting the community – whether to allow development or remain as a sanctuary for people who are escaping the larger society.  Lastly and most important, the haunting nature of people’s past and the unknown future that can unfold.

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By 1978 the community is split between Tom Wallace, who wants to attract visitors as Alaska becomes more and more a tourist destination, and Ernt Allbright, who wants to retain his escapist reality.  There are number of other issues that separate these men and the attempted resolution of their disagreements dominates a significant segment of the novel.  Another important relationship that develops is between Matthew and Eleni, who seem to mature together and develop a platonic relationship that evolves into something more.  No matter what twists and turns the story takes, Alaska with all its beauty and wickedness dominates.

For Hannah, the novel draws on her own families experience living in the Alaskan frontier as in the 1980s, her parents co-founded what is now the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge which still is operating in Sterling, Alaska.  Hannah has written 20 novels, but it took THE NIGHTINGALE, a story of two sisters caught up in the French Resistance during World War II, published in 2015 to put her on the map.  Obviously, THE GREAT ALONE bears no resemblance to her previous effort, but it appears to be just as popular.  The book is written in a style geared toward young adults with Eleni as the narrator, and suffers from a sort of “bumper sticker” phrasing in some of the dialogue.  But, in the end it is fast paced, concisely written in a dramatic style, and keeps the reader hoping that it will end happily, but with a constant feeling of dread.

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(Dawn over Kachemak Bay, Alaska)

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VIETNAM WAR READING LIST

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VIETNAM WAR BIBLIOGRAPHY         S.Z. Freiberger, Ph.D

Please keep in mind this is not a complete list.  It is for a course I am teaching comparing the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Acacia, John. Clark Clifford: The Wise Man of Washington

Appy, Christian G. American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

______________. Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from all Sides

Bartholomew-Feis, Dixee. The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War Against Japan

Baskir, Lawrence and William Strauss. Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation

Berman, Larry. The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Times Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent

Bernstein, Irving. Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson

Boot, Max. The Road Not Taken: Edward Landsdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

Bowden, Mark. Hue 1968

Bilton, Michael and Kevin Sim. Four Hours in My Lai

Caputo, Philip. A Rumor of War

Caro, Robert. The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Vol 4. The Passage of Power

Chapman, Jessica M. Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the 1950s Southern Vietnam

Clifford, Clark with Richard Holbrooke. Counsel to the President: A Memoir

Colby William, with James McGrager. Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam

Cooper, Chester. The Lost Crusade in Vietnam

Curry, Cecil B. Edward Landsdale: The Unquiet American

Daddis, Gregory A. Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam

Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973

Duiker, William, J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam

______________. Ho Chi Minh.

Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

Engelman, Larry. Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam

Fall, Bernard. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu

__________. Street Without Joy

__________. The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis

Fall, Dorothy. Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar

Farrell, John A. Richard Nixon: A Life

Ferguson, Nial. Henry Kissinger, Vol. 1, 1923-1968

Fitzgerald, Francis. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

Gardner, Lloyd C. Approaching Vietnam: From World War II through Dienbienphu

_____________. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam

Gardner, Lloyd and Gittinger, Ted, eds. International Perspectives on Vietnam

_______________________________. The Search for Peace in Vietnam, 1964-1968

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hoppe, Days of Rage

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Greene, Graham. The Quiet American

Greiner, Bernd. War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam

Halberstram, David. The Best and the Brightest

________________. Ho

Hammer, Ellen. A Death in November: America in Vietnam 1963

Hanhimaki, Jussi. The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy

Hendrickson, Paul. The Living Dead: Robert McNamara and the Five Lives of a Lost War

Herken, Greg. The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in the Cold War

Herr, Michael. Dispatches

Hersh, Seymour. The Dark Side of Camelot

_____________. My Lai

Hiam, C. Michael. Who the Hell are We Fighting: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars

Higgins, Marguerite. Our Vietnam Nightmare

Jacobs, Seth. Cold War Mandarin: Dgo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963

Johnson, Denis. Tree of Smoke

Jones, Howard. Death of a Generation: How the Assassination of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War

____________. My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness

Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History

Kendrick, Alexander. The Wound Within: America in the Vietnam Years, 1945-1974

Ketwig, John. And a Hard Rain Fell: A GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam

Kimball, Jeffrey. Nixon’s Vietnam War

Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience

Kissinger, Henry. The White House Years

Lagguth, A.J. Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975

Landsdale, Edward G. In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia

Laurence, John. The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story

Lederer, William J., and Eugene Burdick. The Ugly American

Lewy, Guenter. America in Vietnam

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam

_____________. Embers of War: The Fall of An Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

MacDonald, Peter. Giap

Mangold, Tom, Penycate. The Tunnels of Chu Chi: The Untold Story of Vietnam

Marlantes, Karl. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

Maraniss, David. The Things They Carried: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October, 1967

Mason, Robert. Chickenhawk

McMaster, H.R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam

McNamara, Robert. In Retrospect: The Tragedies and Lessons of Vietnam

_______________. Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy

________________. The Fog of War

Miller, Edward. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of Vietnam

Milne, David. America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War

Morgan, Ted. Valley of Death: The Tragedy of Dien Bien Phu that Led America into the Vietnam War

Moyar, Mark. Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: The CIA’s Secret Campaign to Destroy the Viet Cong

__________. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965

Nguyen, Lien-Hang T. Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam

Newman, John. JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power

Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried

O’Neill, William. Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s

Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975

__________. The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War

Prados, John and Margaret Pratt Porter, eds.  Inside the Pentagon Papers

Preston, Andrew. The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam

Prochnau, William. Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles

Prouty, L. Fletcher. JFK, the CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy

Reedy, George. Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir

Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profile of Power

Rostow, Walt. The Diffusion of Power: An Essay in Recent History

Rudenstine, David. The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case

Santoli, Al. Everything We Had

Schell, Jonathan. The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War

Schlesinger, Arthur. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House

Schmitz, David F. Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War

Schultz, Richard H. The Secret War Against Hanoi: Kennedy’s and Johnson’s Use of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam

Schultzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975

Shapley, Deborah. Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara

Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

Snepp, Frank. Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam

Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam

Taylor, Maxwell D. Swords and Plowshares

Terry, Wallace. Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans

Thomas, Evan. Being Nixon: A Man Divided

___________. Robert F. Kennedy: His Life

Truong Nhu Tang with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai. A Viet Cong Memoir

Viorst, Milton. Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s

Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes: The Histyory of the CIA

White, Mark J. against the President: Dissent, Decision-Making in the White House; a Historical Perspective

Woods, Randall. Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA

Woodward, Bob. The Last of the President’s Men

Wright, Stephen. Meditations in Green: A Novel of Vietnam

Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam War

Zaffiri, Samuel: Westmoreland: A Biography of General William C. Westmoreland

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THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: EDWARD LANSDALE AND THE TRAGEDY OF VIETNAM by Max Boot

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(Edward Lansdale)

The popularity of the new film, “The Post” has refocused the attention of many people on the PENTAGON PAPERS and the Vietnam War.  Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the history of the war commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to the New York Times created a crisis atmosphere that was settled by the Supreme Court.  In his latest book, THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: EDWARD LANSDALE AND THE TRAGEDY OF VIETNAM, Max Boot, a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, revisits the war and the life of one of the most interesting figures associated with it.  Lansdale was a former advertising executive who strongly believed in capitalism and American democracy.  He would join the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, become an advisor and intelligence officer in the Philippines and South Vietnam, and possessed a vision of how to deal with communist advances during the Cold War.  His realpolitik rested on winning the loyalty of indigenous people through honesty, respect, and a willingness to work with and treat people with humanity.  Boot has written a superb biography of Lansdale who hoped to win the “hearts and minds” of people as opposed to acting as a typical colonial oppressor.

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(Lansdale with Ngo Dinh Diem)

Lansdale first made his reputation in the Philippines as he advised the Philippine army in defeating the Hukbalahap (Huk) Rebellion against then President Elpidio Quirino.  Lansdale’s work in the Philippines was a petri dish for his strategies, reputation, concept of nation-building, and counter-insurgency.  Working with the Secretary of National Defense, Ramon Magsaysay he was able to achieve one of the few American successes in nation-building after World War II as he orchestrated his rise to the presidency in 1953.  The problem for Lansdale was that he was unable to transfer the strategy and techniques that worked in the Philippines to Vietnam.

Boot begins his narrative with a discussion of Lansdale’s life and career before he was dispatched to the Philippines.  After spending roughly a quarter of the monograph on Lansdale’s counter-insurgency education in the Philippines, Boot moves on to his initial exposure to Vietnam and his early relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem.  As Boot proceeds he provides a detailed discussion of French colonialism until their disaster at Dienbienphu, and a short biography of Ho Chi Minh and his rise to leadership in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

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Boot’s overriding theme is that had American policy makers, including presidents, cabinet members, bureaucrats, and other policy makers listened to Lansdale’s advice the course of the Vietnam War might have been different.  He does not say that North Vietnam would have been defeated, however the way the United States conducted the war would have been different and at least civilian deaths and American casualties would have been lessened a great deal, and perhaps the United States’ ignominious departure would not have taken place as it did.  For Boot the key was the removal and assassination of Diem from power in 1963 as there was no one who could take his place and what resulted was a series of coups by generals who had no political support outside of the military.  Diem may not have been the best of leaders, but at least he kept the Saigon government somewhat unified for almost a decade.  Boot’s thesis is sound and it is well supported through analysis and his access to materials that previous biographers did not have available.

Lansdale’s view of nation-building can best be summed up in the advice he offered Diem in June, 1954 when he stressed the need to bring the nationalist political parties in an anti-communist coalition, create public forums around the countryside where government representatives could hear from people, and immediately adopt a Philippine style constitution among many suggestions.  For Lansdale psy-ops, methods of mental and emotional manipulation and soft propaganda were the key to success, not bombing people back to the Stone Age.  Lansdale would take the time to learn about the countries he was assigned to and prepare in depth original analysis that were incomparable.  He argued that insurgencies arose from chaotic, impoverished conditions, and any success would only result from meeting the needs of the people by creating functioning state institutions.  Washington’s decision to withdraw Lansdale from Saigon in late 1956 and failing to replace him with someone who could have at least a benign influence on Diem was a major error.

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(Philippine President, Ramon Magsaysay)

Lansdale was a complex individual who may have been the model for characters in two Graham Greene novels, THE UGLY AMERICAN and THE QUIET AMERICAN.  Boot examines Lansdale’s character and private life in detail as he had access to recently opened government files, letters, and diaries from Lansdale’s children, in addition to the correspondence with Patrocinio Yapeinco Kelly (Pat Kelly), who was his mistress in the Philippines, and years later became his second wife.  Boot describes his relationship with many of the important historical figures of the period.  An important aspect is how Lansdale’s personality was an asset to his work throughout the 1950s, but once the Kennedy administration came to power his influence waned, especially since he and Robert McNamara did not see eye to eye.  Lansdale may have had the ability to get foreign leaders on his side, but he was not very effective in dealing with the bureaucracies in Washington who ignored his advice and pursued their own agendas.  It seems that only Lansdale had the skill and relationship with Diem to get him to reform.  Instead of appointing Lansdale as ambassador to South Vietnam, President Kennedy made him assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

Boot carries his analysis further as he explains how Lansdale’s second tour in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 did not go as well as he had hoped.  During the Johnson administration he would once again be marginalized and would leave Saigon as a “beaten man.”  Once again resentment from his many critics and his inability to work with people outside of his circle did him in.

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(Daniel Ellsberg)

Boot does an effective job introducing the major characters Lansdale had to deal with.  Each character from Alan Dulles, Ngueyen Cao Key, Ramon Magsaysay, Robert McNamara, Daniel Ellsberg, Ngo Dinh Nhu, to numerous others is presented through a short biography that is integrated into the narrative for the reader.  Boot is an excellent writer and has uncovered a great deal of new information.  Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in the book entitled “Waiting for the Second Coming,” explores Lansdale’s second tour in South Vietnam and how Lansdale became irrelevant.  It is a shame because by 1966 “Lansdale was generally far more realistic in his assessment of the situation than Westmoreland, Lodge, and other senior officials. And less prone to trumpeting illusionary progress.” (500)  There are many other important chapters in the book including one dealing with Operation Mongoose, headed by Lansdale designed to eliminate Fidel Castro once he came to power in Cuba; material that highlighted Lansdale’s testimony in the Senate hearings into the CIA in the mid-1970s; in addition to a discussion of Lansdale’s relationship with Daniel Ellsberg.

What makes Boot’s contribution to the historiography of the Vietnam War important is his examination of events, personalities, and strategies through the world view of someone, who with hindsight, turned out to be quite accurate in his predictions.  Lansdale lived a fascinating life and his impact can still be seen in American counter-insurgency doctrine as applied in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Lansdale was a believer in “soft power,” not the “Westmoreland approach” as Philip Caputo puts in his memoir, A RUMOR OF WAR, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible.  Stack ‘em like cordwood.” (475)

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(Edward Lansdale)

MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968, AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS by Howard Jones

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From the outset of his new book MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968 AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS notable historian Howard Jones argues that the massacre that took place on March 16, 1968 killing 504 Vietnamese villagers “laid bare the war, revealing that it was unwinnable and that, in the process of fighting for democracy and a way of life; America had lost its moral compass.”  .  When it comes to examining American opinion on My Lai one finds that it is split.  On the one hand, during his four month trial Lt. William Calley argued that he was innocent and that he was just following orders.  However, at the time Americans were polarized and the massacre fed opposition to the war, which addition to the Tet Offensive, the invasion of Cambodia, and the Kent State shootings helped unite Americans against the carnage in Southeast Asia and for many it had turned our young men into “baby killers.”  On the other hand, many saw Calley as a scapegoat for a war gone wrong, with a flawed military approach that hindered the prosecution of the war correctly.  Calley’s conviction would harden support for the war and no matter what one’s point of view is the fissures in American society were exacerbated by events at My Lai.

Jones is to be commended for attempting to produce the most balanced and accurate account of the massacre and its aftermath as possible.  He employs all the tools of a good historian by exploring all documentation available, secondary sources on the topic, interviews, and film to present a fair representation as to what happened.  As historians we are aware that total objectivity in reporting and analyzing historical events is almost an impossible task, but Jones comes very close in achieving his goal.  What sets Jones’ effort apart is the availability of Vietnamese accounts which are skillfully integrated into the narrative that were not available for authors who have previously engaged this topic.

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(Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, President Richard Nixon, Lt. William Calley)

Jones does an excellent job in setting the scene of the area known as “Pinksville” where the My Lai villages were located.  It is clear that events leading up to March 16th were fraught with booby traps, land mines, snipers, and other obstacles that resulted in the death of many soldiers.  Jones captures the mindset of men who were ordered to take part in the sweep that targeted the 48th Viet Cong Battalion that dominated the area.  Men were told that Vietnamese civilians would be absent in large part as they usually walked to the market in Quang Nai City, and that the Vietcong force would be double the size of the American units.  The instructions given to American troops by Captain Ernest Medina, Lt. Calley, and other higher ups was poorly conceived and left a number of gaps for troops to deal with.  Jones stresses the relationship between Medina and Calley as a major issue as Medina held a very low opinion of his Platoon commander and often humiliated him in front of the troops.  Jones further stresses the weak intelligence that was provided and orders that zeroed in on a “search and destroy” mission that applied to anything that could possibly be used by the Viet Cong (anything, including civilians who supported the VC).

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(Capt. Ernest Medina)

Jones describes what feels like a minute by minute account of the slaughter that took place.  The actions of certain soldiers receives greater attention as they were actively involved in the killings.  Jones has mined trial transcripts, Army reports, and interviews and with a historians eye for detail and lays out that happened on March 16, 1968 in a cogent fashion.  He explores the command structure, personalities involved, as well village life for Vietnamese peasants.  Captain Medina is center stage whose orders were to kill any Vietnamese present, because if they were in the villages they must be Viet Cong.  For Medina “search and destroy” meant burning the villages and killing its inhabitants.  Since the troops were told no civilians would be present, for the soldiers once the killing started it could not be controlled.  For Platoon One under Calley another component was his need to prove himself to Medina.  For Calley the way to impress Medina was the body count.  Taken with racism and fear infused in the men, and Calley’s psychological needs it was a disaster waiting to happen.

At times the reader will become sickened by what Jones describes.  Wanton murder, gang rapes, sadism are all present as Jones relates the actions of deprived men like SP4 Gary Roschevitz, PFC Robert T’Souva, PFC Paul Meadlo and numerous others, a list that is too long to reproduce.  Calley as the officer in charge saw himself as judge, jury, and executioner.  Eventually a number of men refused to continue to take part or refused from the outset.  Men became concerned as Stars and Stripes reporter Jay Robert and photographer Ronald Haberle were present and creating a record of events.

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(Helicopter gunner Lawrence Colburn)

One of the most important characters that Jones introduces is Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who flew over the battlefield, landed and confronted the perpetrators, and even got into an argument with another officer that almost turned violent.  Once the massacre ended Thompson would report what he witnessed which takes the reader into the second part of the book entitled “Aftermath and Cover up” which is exactly what took place.  Jones does a good job following the trail of “investigations,” written reports, denials, and collusion that was designed to cover up the actions taken by those in charge.  Men like Colonel Frank Barker, Colonel Oran Henderson, and their commander Major General Samuel Koster are seen pursuing an investigation with blinders on.  First, trying to discredit Thompson; Second, obfuscating and fabricating as much as possible in the hopes that the evidence would not produce war crimes; lastly, arguing that 128 Viet Cong were killed, however it could never explain why only 3 weapons were captured, which made no sense and reflected their disparate reasoning.   Jones pinpoints the strategy used to white wash events and zeroes in on the lack of accountability taken by those in command from General William Westmoreland on down.

Perhaps the most important person in pursuing the truth was helicopter gunner Ronald Ridenhour who came in contact with PFC Charles “Butch” Gruver who was present at My Lai in April, 1968.  Gruver told Ridenhour what had happened which conformed to what he saw on the ground during a fly over of the region.  Ridenhour would continue to run into men who were at My Lai, but fearing retribution would wait a year before sending out a five page description of what really occurred to military, administrative, and congressional leaders.  This would finally lead to a series of contacts within the government, one of which was the Inspector General’s Office.  Colonel William Wilson was charged with investigating Ridenhour’s allegations.  Jones follows Wilson’s journey across the United States and as he interviewed a number of former soldiers who had been present on March 16, 1968.  Based on his information General Westmoreland directed Chief Warrant Officer Andre Feher of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division to conduct an inquiry as to what happened in My Lai.  Jones reproduces important aspects of his conversations with Calley, Thompson, Meadlo and others as well as the Army’s attempt to keep the charges against Calley out of the media.

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Throughout the narrative Jones’ presentation is impeccable and it continues as he presents and analyzes the results of the Peers Commission which found that American troops had massacred between 175 and more than 400 Vietnamese civilians.  The commission blamed Major-General Samuel Koster for suppressing information, falsely testifying, and initiating a conspiracy to withhold facts.  Further, it found evidence that Medina and Calley were guilty of war crimes.

The role of the Nixon administration fits the pattern of illegal actions they were engaged in at the time.  Nixon personally became involved as he tried to discredit witnesses to the massacre and believed that Calley was “getting a bum rap.”  Nixon set up “Task-Force My Lai” under H.R. Haldeman to undermine negative press reports.  Nixon’s strategy was to reduce opposition to the war as My Lai was causing the opposite.  He would pressure Senator Mendel Rivers, who headed the Senate Arms Services Committee investigation to discredit witnesses, and the Sub-Committee headed by Senator F. Edward Herbert which zeroed in on Thompson and Colburn.

Jones follows the legal trail that led to a series of trials, though fewer than recommended.  Since many witnesses were unavailable or refused to cooperate, in addition to the defense argument that you could not convict someone for obeying an illegal order held sway making it very difficult to obtain convictions.  The result was that the Army dropped the charges against numerous individuals.  The trials that receive the most attention are those of Calley, Henderson, and Medina.  Jones has carefully examined the trial transcripts and reconstructed the courtroom scenes of each, in addition to the public and military reactions to the verdicts.  In Calley’s case many saw him as a scapegoat for a war no one wanted to fight.  For President Nixon, the verdict was superfluous as he decided to “commute” the sentence before it was even imposed.

Much of what Jones has written reads like a “Grisham” type novel as rape, murder, deceit are all on full display inside and outside the courtroom.  My Lai was the worst massacre in American military history and it deeply affected American politics and society for the years that followed.  One must ask the question was My Lai an aberration or one of many atrocities American troops engaged in.  The answer based on available evidence is no, as there are numerous examples of this type of behavior, but were not on the level of My Lai because of the numbers involved – over 500 dead, a result of the actions of at least 40 American soldiers.  Jones brings his study to a conclusion by talking about the lives of many soldiers including Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn, and many others and how it affected their lives following military service.  The conclusion that can be drawn is we still do not know why allows why people that appear to be normal commit such acts of horror.  Jones has written the penultimate book on My Lai and its historical implications and it should be read by all considering a military career and those civilians who are in charge of the military and are involved in the conduct of foreign policy.

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PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Lawrence O’Donnell

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstration on the streets of Chicago)

The publication of MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS comes at a propitious moment in American political history.  According to O’Donnell 1968 is the watershed year that set our current politics in motion – a partisan conflict were by ideology and party affiliation has become more important than the needs of the American people.  O’Donnell argues that before 1968 the terms conservative democrat and liberal republican existed, today they are pretty much extinct.  By examining 1968 we can discern the origin of this political schism and conjecture on how it affects the United States domestically and in the realm of foreign policy.  The comparison between our current politics and 1968 is fascinating as Donald Trump seems to have adopted the populist message of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, be it state’s rights or white nationalism, and Bernie Sanders can be compared with Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and his liberal socialist agenda.  We must also mention the emergence of Roger Ailes and the role of Fox news in molding a certain part of the electorate, because in 1968 Ailes joined the Nixon campaign, which over decades led to the creation of his successful news outlet and helped formulate the term “fake news.”

 

The election of 1968 was about life and death as the war in Vietnam controlled people’s lives.  A person’s draft status dominated their waking hours be it soon to be high school graduates, college students, and recent college graduates.  The United States found itself in this situation due to the machinations of the Johnson administration in late July and early August, 1964 that resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which provided Lyndon Johnson with almost imperial powers to conduct a war.  According to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach appearing before Senator J. William Fulbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the president to use “the armed forces of the United States in any way that was necessary,” and argued further that the constitution did not require the Senate to play a role in foreign policy.  Johnson would take the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as almost carte blanche in getting the United States into a quagmire in Vietnam.  Keeping with the theme of comparing the past to the present, the Patriot Act passed by Congress and signed into law on October 26, 2001 in response to 9/11 has been used in a similar fashion by three presidents; Bush, Obama, and Trump to conduct war on their own terms in the Middle East, and currently it appears, in Africa.

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(President Lyndon Johnson agonizing over Vietnam)

For O’Donnell the key figure in 1968 is Senator Robert Kennedy who appeared as a political “rock star.”  People believed that he would never send America’s youth to fight in Vietnam a subject he rarely spoke about in his speeches.  People related to Kennedy because they recognized the pain he was in and believed his empathy for the electorate was real.  Many believed that it was only justice for Robert Kennedy to reclaim the presidency that was lost in Dallas when his brother was assassinated in November, 1963.  The 1960s was an era of change, and no one’s view of the world changed more than Robert Kennedy.  By 1968 the Senate began questioning Johnson’s “monarchial” approach to Vietnam and this would help foster the political upheaval we are still dealing with today.

O’Donnell does a wonderful job replaying the events leading up to 1968 and what took place that incredible year.  My main problem with O’Donnell’s approach is that it mostly based on his own experience and writing and a slew of secondary sources and in some cases not even the best ones.  A case in point is the Johnson-Kennedy rivalry and contempt for each other.  The best study of rivalry is Jeff Shesol’s MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY, AND THE AND A FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE an in depth nuanced look that O’Donnell might have consulted.  There are many other examples including his over-reliance on Evan Thomas’ biography of Kennedy, which reinforces my belief that O’Donnell needs to broaden his research, with the integration of more primary materials that would further his arguments as a significant part of the book reads like Theodore White’s THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968.

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(New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy)

To O’Donnell’s credit there are many fine chapters and insights interspersed throughout the narrative.  By delving into the different factions on the left and the right the reader is exposed to the ideological struggle that existed in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  The introduction of Allard Lowenstein, the role of Gene McCarthy’s candidacy, in addition to the rise of the radical left, we can see the beginning of the splintering of the Democratic Party.  The chapters dealing with the Kennedy-McCarthy competition for the Democratic nomination is well played out as is the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey after Robert Kennedy is assassinated.  Republicans also experienced many fissures in their quest for the presidency.  The discussion involving the reinvention of Richard Nixon, the liberal quest of Nelson Rockefeller, and the rise of Ronald Reagan on the right within the Republican Party are all artfully explained and we see the end result, and the type of campaign the “new Nixon” ran.

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Among O’Donnell’s most important points include the machinations within both major political parties, the role of the Tet Offensive in Johnson’s withdrawal from the race, Kennedy’s candidacy, and the politics of fear employed by George Wallace.  Perhaps O’Donnell’s most interesting comments encompass the rise of Ronald Reagan as a conservative spokesperson for General Electric allowing him to develop into a viable political candidate.  O’Donnell’s is right on when he argues that Reagan was GE’s tool in educating workers, and indirectly the public in the evils of unions, government interference in the economy, and the benefits of giving freer rein to corporate America embodied in General Electric.

In addition, O’Donnell is correct in pointing out that the militarization of America’s police forces that we experience today began in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  King’s death led to burning and rioting in 30 US cities that called for 18 Army Brigades, consisting of 50,000 troops to restore civilian control.  The result was 20,000 arrests and 39 dead.  Another example of how the past formed the present is the concept of “premeditated confrontation” that ABC introduced as a way to save money on their coverage of the Republican convention.  By pitting the well-known conservative intellectual William F. Buckley against Gore Vidal, novelist and liberal commentator the expected explosions took place.  When we watch PBS, the networks, and cable television today, we can easily discern where these types of panels originated.

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(Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago yelling anti-semetic comments toward  Senator Abraham Ribicoff at the Democratic Convention)

O’Donnell forces the reader to relive or learn for the first time the impact of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and to contemplate a counter factual approach to history by conjecturing what America might have experienced had he been elected to the presidency.  Vietnam, civil rights, and numerous other issues would probably have played out much differently than it did under the Nixon administration, an administration that came to power based on the treason Nixon committed by interfering with the Paris Peace talks at the end of October, 1968 thereby contributing to the ongoing war in Vietnam and perhaps lost the opportunity for peace that led to the death of over 20,000 more Americans.

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(President Richard Nixon)

What is clear from O’Donnell’s narrative is that Donald Trump copied the 1968 Richard Nixon playbook in his presidential run.  First, the slogan “America First” began with Nixon as did the concept of the “silent majority” that Trump also followed.  Second, Nixon’s approach was one of anti-tax, anti-government, anti-abortion, pro-law-and-order, just as was Trump’s.  It is also clear that 1968 was a dividing line in the evolution of partisan politics and a realignment of the American electorate, it is just a question of how long the American people will suffer because of these changes.  For O’Donnell, Eugene McCarthy is his hero because he was the first one to take the risk and try and end the war.  Bobby Kennedy, is also his hero, but he was not the first to challenge an incumbent president as McCarthy had.  In conclusion, I would recommend that O’Donnell include more of his comments that have been on display recently on various programs on MSNBC, because they strengthen his overall narrative argument.

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations on the streets of Chicago)

FILM AND GENOCIDE: READINGS

FILM AND GENOCIDE:

Armenian Genocide:

Akcam, Tanker  A SHAMEFUL ACT: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND THE QUESTION
OF TURKISH RESPONSIBILITY.

Balakian, Gregoris  ARMENIAN GOLOTHA: A MEMOIR OF THE ARENIAN GENOCIDE,

1915-1918

Balakian, Peter  THE BURNING TIGRIS: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND AMERICA’S
RESPONSE.

Bloxham, Donald  THE GREAT GAME OF GENOCIDE

de Bellaigue, Christopher  REBEL LAND: UNRAVELING THE RIDDLE OF HISTORY IN A
TURKISH TOWN.

Kiernan, Ben  BLOOD AND SOIL: A WORLD HISTORY OF GENOCIDE AND EXTERMINATION
FROM SPARTA TO DARFUR.

Lowy, Guenther  THE ARMENIAN MASSACRE IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE:  A DISPUTED
GENOCIDE.

Molson, Robert F.  REVOLUTION AND GENOCIDE: ON THE ORIGINS OF THE ARMENIAN
GEOCIDE AND THE HOLOAUST.

Power, Samantha  A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA IN THE AGE OF GENOCIDE.

The Holocaust:

Anderson, Alan, Ed. THE DIARY OF DAWID SIERAKOWIAK: FIVE NOTEBOOKS FROM THE
LODZ GHETTO.

…………………………….  LODZ GHETTO: INSIDE A COMMUNITY UNDER SIEGE.

Burleigh, Michael THE THIRD REICH: A NEW HISTORY.

Cesarean, David  FINAL SOLUTION: THE FATE OF THE JEWS 1933-1949.

Crowe, David M. OSKAR SCHINDLER

Dawidowicz, Lucy  THE WAR AGAINST THE JEWS: 1933-1945.

Dobroszycki, Lucian  THE CHRONICLE OF THE LOD GHETTO 1941-1944.

Evans, Richard  THE THIRD REICH AT WAR

Friedlander, Saul  NAZI GERMANY AND THE JEWS 1939-1945, THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION.

Hackett, David A.  THE BUCHENWALD REPORT.

Hilberg, Raul, Ed. THE DIARY OF ADAM CERNIAKOW: PRELUDE TO DOOM.

Ihrig, Stefan  ATATURK IN THE NAZI IAGINATION.

Kath, Abraham Ed. THE WARSAW DIARY OF CHAIM A. KAPLAN.

Kielar, Westlaw  ANUS MUNDI 1500 DAYS IN AUSCHWITZ AND BIRKENAU.

Lanzmann, Claude  SHOAH: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST.

Mark, Ben  UPRISING IN THE WARSAW GHETTO.

Rotem, Simha  MEMOIRS OF A WARSAW GHETTO FIGHTER.

Sloan, Jacob Ed.  NOTES FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO: THE JOURNAL OF EMANUEL
RINGELBLUM.

Tory, Avraham  SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST: THE KOVNO GHETTO DIARY.

Wachsmann, Nicokolaus  KL: A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRTION CAMPS.

Wentz, Eric D.  A CENTURY OF GENOCIDE: UTOPIAS OF RACE AND NATION.

The Killing Fields:

Brinkley, Joel  CAMBODIA’S CURSE: THE HISTORY OF A TROUBLED LAND.

Karnow, Stanley  VIETNAM: A HISTORY.

Kiernan, Ben  THE POL POT REGIME: RACE, POWER AND GENOCIDE IN CAMBODIA UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE, 1975-1979

Logevall, Fredrik  EMBERS OF WAR: THE FALL OF AN EMPIRE AND THE MAKINGS OF
AMERICA’S VIETNAM.

Ngor, Haing  SURVIVAL IN THE KILLING FIELDS.

Pran, Dith  CHILDREN OF CAMBODIA’S KILLING FIELDS.

Schanberg, Sydney H. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF DITH PRAN.

Shawcross, William  SIDESHOW: KISSINGER, NIXON, AND THE DESTRUCTION OF
CAMBODIA.

Short, Philip  POL POT: ANATOMY OF A NIGHTMARE.

Ung, Loung  FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: A DAUGHTER OF CAMBODIA REMEMBERS.

Rwanda:

Dallaire, Romeo  SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: THE FAILURE OF HUMANITY IN RWANDA.

Editor, Gail THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE.

Gourevitch, Philip  WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES: STORIES FROM RWANDA.

Hatzfeld, Joseph  MACHETE SEASON: THE KILLERS IN RWANDA SPEAK.

Kinzer, Stephen  A THOUSAND HILLS: RWANDA’S REBIRTH AND THE MAN WHO DREAMED IT.

Prunier, Gerard  AFRICA’S WORLD WAR: THE CONGO, THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE AND THE MAKING OF A CONTINENTAL CATASTROPHE.

HUE` 1968: A TURNING POINT IN THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM by Mark Bowden

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(The evacuation of the wounded from the Battle of Hue` in February, 1968)

For those who enjoyed Mark Bowden’s works such as BLACK HAWK DOWN, GUESTS OF THE AYYATOLLAH, and KILLING PABLO, his new book HUE`, 1968 should be prove to be just as satisfying, if not more.  Bowden relies on the same assiduous research, exemplified by his interviews with all sides of the conflict; American Marines and decision makers, North Vietnamese soldiers and commanders, in addition to civilians caught in the conflict.  Bowden’s fluid writing style along with his in depth knowledge of what transpired in Hue` has created the preeminent account of the 1968 Tet offensive, concentrating on the seizure of the ancient city of Hue`, and the American/ARVN (South Vietnamese) retaking of the city that came at an extremely high cost in terms of casualties and treasure.

Bowden zeroes in on the major players in the war as well as the ground troops who were the main combatants and the civilians who were caught in the crosshairs of the battle.  Bowden correctly excoriates General William Westmoreland, the American commander in charge of the war.  Westmoreland became obsessed with kill ratios and/or body counts to measure American progress.  By the end of 1967 he grew very encouraged that the war was close to an end and instead of taking into account the facts on the ground and cracks in American intelligence he continued to see battles in terms of numbers rather than the ability to maintain control of territory, and who the Vietnamese civilians actually supported.  Westmoreland was convinced that an attack was in the offering, but that it would come at Khe Sanh, and was caught completely by surprise at the strength of the offensive and the fact that Hue` had fallen to the enemy.  At the outset he had shifted US forces around depleting certain areas, thus facilitating the success of Tet.  Westmoreland suffered from the same tunnel vision that most American commanders and politicians, in that they equated indigenous nationalism with communism throughout the Cold War, resulting in the war in Southeast Asia.

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(Don McCullin, a shell shocked Marine at the Battle of Hue`

Personal stories abound be it Che The Mung; an eighteen year old girl whose sister was killed and father imprisoned by the ARVN who became a member of the Viet Cong at age twelve.  Her role was to help prepare for a general uprising in Hue once the offensive began and lead soldiers into the city which she knew like the back of her hand.  We become familiar with a number of American commanders and lesser officers in addition to the “grunts.”  Their personal stories are told and many stick out like Lt. Andrew Westin who enlisted after being married eleven months and found that his efforts to avoid Vietnam were dashed when he was ordered to join the 7th Cavalry.  Bowden makes good use of the daily letters he sent to his wife Mimi back in Ypsilanti, MI and they afford the reader a clear vision of what it was like for American troops.  Richard “Lefty” Leflar, an eighteen year old who grew up outside Philadelphia who had difficulties staying out of the courts, joined the Marines and was dropped into the battle to retake Hue` in mid-February 1968.  We witness the carnage and the brutality of the battle to retake Hue` through Leflar’s perspective and it is not pretty.  Commanders like Colonel Dick Sweet and Lt. Col. “Big” Ernie Cheatham who helped command “on the ground” the US effort to retake Hue will find their stories told in depth, as are reporters like New York Times Saigon bureau chief Gene Roberts whose writings were the first to educate the American people with what was actually happening in Hue.  CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite visits the battlefield during the Tet Offensive and after learning the truth of what was occurring on the ground changes his view of the war – with the most trusted man in America reporting events President Johnson was shaken.

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(Hue` from the air)

Bowden has done a masterful job in recreating the North Vietnamese preparation and assault on Hue`.  The reader is provided an excellent assortment of maps to follow and understand troop movements.  His narrative is enhanced as he tells the story, in part, through the eyes of Nguyen Van Quang Ha and his team who lived in a hole with a thatched cover that made them invisible to US air assets.  As Hue` became the one place in South Vietnam that most directly contradicted Westmoreland’s assurances, President Lyndon B. Johnson began to question his commander’s conclusions.  Clark Clifford’s description in his memoir COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT aptly describes Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 more troops in February 1968 and Johnson’s reaction that led to his withdrawal from his presidential reelection campaign at the end of March.  As a result Westmoreland would finally be fired by the president.

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(General William Westmoreland)

Bowden recreates American preparations to retake Hue` very carefully.  His analysis is based on interviews with the participants from both sides.  The difficulty in retaking the city was captured by the phrase, “learning by trial and tragically bloody error…..[as] they all grew accustomed to the smell of death,” civilians, enemy soldiers, and fellow Marines alike.  After reading Bowden’s account of the urban warfare in Hue one wonders about events in Mosul, Iraq today as American forces were not well trained or equipped for street to street warfare.  American Marines had not confronted this type of “room to room, hand to hand” combat since Seoul in 1950.  In fact Bowden is quite correct in stating that the American command was caught completely flatfooted as they believed that such “ a swift and cunning coup was unimaginable.” When confronted with the enormity of Tet, and how severely they underestimated what they were up against as they tried to retake the city with many Marines being sacrificed.  Bowden stresses the ignorance of American commanders who gave many orders without any real knowledge of the actual situation in Hue`  No matter the carnage to US troops many commanders, especially Westmoreland “seemed almost oblivious to the largest single battle of the Tet Offensive, if not of the entire war, underway in Hue`.”

What the Tet Offensive showed was the ability of the enemy to prepare a clandestine attack that was a remarkable feat of planning and coordination, and that the enemy could reach any part of the country it wished, but in the end the invaders made no lasting gains.  What they accomplished was providing fodder for the anti-war movement in the United States, creation of doubt in many Americans and their politicians as they achieved a psychological victory, not a military one as the expected “rise of South Vietnamese civilians” against the Diem regime never occurred.

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Bowden also explores the uglier aspects of war.  American atrocities are described as is the racism that existed by both sides.  Substance abuse is also discussed as for many soldiers it would have been difficult to survive without using drugs.  One of the most haunting aspects that Bowden addresses is the issue of grief, something that there was not time for in Hue.  Death hovered over each combatant and was a daily occurrence, and when one soldier went down, their compatriots did not have the time to deal with it properly – a price that would be paid on the battlefield, and if they were lucky enough to survive, when they returned home.

If there is one major criticism of Bowden’s work it is that the author is determined to include almost every experience the combatants were involved in.  The result is that at times the flow of the narrative becomes somewhat disjointed.  However, this should not detract from the overall quality of his work as he has produced a prodigious account of what occurred in Hue`, particularly in the context of the overall war itself.  Bowden has produced the most complete account of Tet and the Battle for Hue` that has been written and his approach should satisfy historians and the general reader alike.

 

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(The most iconic picture of the evacuation of US Marines from Hue` on February 17, 1968)

A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese.  Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians.  However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the American role in that conflict that witnessed 15-20 air sorties a day against that small Southeast Asian country between 1960 and 1968, that was raised to 300 sorties a day once Richard Nixon took office, resulting in the death of over 200,000 Laotians and 700 Americans.

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By January 1961 Laos appeared to be on the precipice of falling to communism.  Bill Lair, a ten year CIA operative flew up to the central highlands to inaugurate a bold plan labeled, Operation Momentum.  The plan called for the operation and training of Hmong tribesmen, led by Vang Pao, an anti-communist officer in the Laotian army who would lead these men against the Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam.  The civil war in Laos had been raging on and off since the French were vanquished by North Vietnam in 1954, and Laos was declared a neutral country by the Geneva Convention of that year.  Even though Laos was a small country the Eisenhower administration, firm believers in the domino theory, and that a pro-western state in Laos could serve as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, an American ally.  Further, Laos would make it easier for the US to assist South Vietnamese forces that could help bleed Hanoi’s troops as they continued to fight the Vientiane government, and lastly it would block any communist threat to India and Southwest Asia.  Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA chronicles Operation Momentum and its impact on the region and the implications for American strategy to deal with communism for decades.  In addition, it raises the specter of a CIA run war through para military operators, something that continues today.

Operation Momentum was the first secret covert run war by the CIA in American history.   Laos provided the CIA with the opportunity to increase the agency’s powers.   According to Kurlantzick, it saw the Laotian situation as an inexpensive war in terms of money and lives to create a template for proxy wars around the world as presidents looked for ways to continue the Cold War without going to Congress for funding or involving American troops.  For the CIA, after Laos, paramilitary operations would become an essential part of the agency’s mission.

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(North Vietnamese troops fighting South Vietnamese troops on Laotian territory)

Kurlantzick presents a balanced and interesting narrative as he provides the background history that led to the Laotian civil war involving the Royal Laotian Army, smaller armies of different Laotian tribes, Vang Pao’s 30,000 strong Hmong army, North Vietnamese troops, and American bombing and supplying and training of anti-communist forces.  As the narrative is developed the reader is introduced to a number of important characters.  First of which is Bill Lair, a career CIA operative who believed the key to helping the fight for democracy in Indochina was to allow the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese to do their own fighting.  The US could assist them with equipment and training, but should not be out front and appear to replace the French as a colonial power.  Lair and his CIA cohorts were thrilled with the success of Vang Pao’s army in that they finally found an indigenous force that would take it to the communists.  Pao was a loose cannon, but Lair knew how to control him.  This relationship was successful until Washington decided to expand its operations in Laos and Vietnam under leadership of Ted Shackley who arrived as CIA Laos Station Chief in July 1966.  Lair was against an increased ground war with massive bombing as he correctly believed that it would be unsuccessful in interdicting North Vietnam’s supply efforts to South Vietnam through Laos.  The author’s presentation of Lair’s story is invaluable in understanding what transpires in Laos until he resigns from the CIA in August 1968.  Once Lair resigns no one can control Vang Pao, and his forces who pursue a reckless strategy that has grave consequences.

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(North Vietnamese troops moving supplies through Laos to South Vietnam)

Other important figures that Kurlantzick introduces are Tony Poe, a career soldier who trained and recruited Hmong tribesmen going back to 1961.  After Lair resigned he developed his own 10,000 man force made up of an amalgam of tribes who he could not hold together because tribal ethnic conflict and as a result were not an effective fighting force.  Perhaps the most important character in this drama was Ambassador William Sullivan, an American Foreign Service career officer who was Ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969.  Sullivan was sent to Laos to organize the war against the Pathet Lao and became the first American ambassador to run a war from his office.  Sullivan reigned in the CIA and made all operatives report to him what their plan of action was.  He would approve, and even choose targets for the war, something no ambassador had ever done before.  If someone did not comply, because of his relationships in Washington, they would be transferred out.  Once Shackley came aboard, Sullivan supported an expansion of the war and a massive increase in bombing which was further expanded once Richard Nixon entered the White House, as Nixon had his own realpolitik for Indochina involving Communist China, and the Soviet Union in achieving the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

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(William Lair, CIA operative in Laos after he retired)

Kurlantzick tells a fascinating story that at times reads like fiction.  There is some repetition of information, and a few factual errors, i.e.; the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, and according to historian Fredrik Logevall, he misstates the number of American military advisors in Vietnam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he offers no evidence that Kennedy “repeatedly told aides he would not tolerate the loss of South Vietnam during his presidency. (Fredrik Logevall, “Laos: America’s Lesser Known Human Political Disaster in Southeast Asia,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017)

The most disturbing aspect of the war that Kurlantzick brings out has to do with the surreptitious American bombing of Laos.  According to the author by 1969 the United States had dropped more bombs on Laos than it had on Japan during World War II.  Further, by “1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched 580,000 bombing runs in Laos.  A high percentage of these bombs were antipersonnel or fragmentation bombs—which exploded into hundreds of small, deadly metal pellets on impact—antipersonnel mines, and bombs that caused widespread fires.” (177)  Kurlantzick uses the massive bombing of the Plan of Jars during the summer of 1969 to highlight the devastation that resulted in the deaths and maiming of Laotian civilians.  The overall bombing campaign killed civilians in disproportionate numbers and what is even more damning was the American policy of dropping excess ordinance over Laos when they could not find targets in North Vietnam and did not want to return to Thai bases with undropped bombs.  In addition, Kurlantzick describes how Laos was used as a training site for bomber targeting and the indiscriminate dropping of bombs to be rid of them.  America’s disdain for the Laotians can also be seen in the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam as Henry Kissinger and company sacrificed its Laotian allies in order to achieve a semblance of peace with Hanoi.  By the time the Americans left Saigon, a similar withdrawal occurred in Vientiane, as by 1973 Washington had washed its hands of its former ally with devastating consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees and the poor people left behind.

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(William Sullivan, American Ambassador to Laos, and later to Iran)

Despite the fact that it appears that Operation Momentum was a failure when the Pathet Lao was victorious, the CIA saw it as an unqualified success.  The CIA argued that the operation occupied over 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans.  Further, it allowed the CIA to develop its war fighting skills to the point where paramilitary operations equaled intelligence gathering as its joint mission.  The paramilitary component could be seen during the Reagan years in arming the mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and arming and training of the Contras to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  After 9/11 paramilitary operations seem to have become the center of CIA activities.  Today these operations are involved in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Pakistan.  Whether through drone attacks under the aegis of the war on terror or training and supplying weapons, Operation Momentum created the CIA template for its paramilitary wars in the 21st century.

Kurlantzick offers a well-researched narrative that helps fill the vacuum of historical monographs pertaining to the war in Laos.  Recently, we were reminded of the cost of that war when Barak Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and announced an increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance that is still plaguing the Laotian countryside.  Kurlantzick has written an important book that fills in a number of gaps when one thinks back to the events in Southeast Asia between 1960 and 1975 which sadly younger generations seem to be ignorant of.

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE by Howard Means

(Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970-the most iconic photo of the tragedy)

On May 4th, 1970, 28 people died in actions related to the war in Vietnam; 24 on the actual battlefield, and 4 on the campus of Kent State University.  My memories of that day are quite clear as I was a student at Pace University in New York City.  A day or two later I joined a demonstration against the war as Mayor John Lindsay ordered the flag at City Hall Park to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the 4 student who died at Kent State.  Almost immediately construction workers who were working on the World Trade Center site marched up Broadway beating anyone who seemed to be against the war, while New York City’s finest did nothing to stop them.  The next day my US Army Reserve unit was activated on the St. John’s University campus in Queens to deal with demonstrations.  My experience reflects the split in American society at the time and the total deterioration that existed between generations, and the attitude of many toward the Nixon administration.  Howard Means’ new book 67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE captures that time period as he reevaluates events leading up to the shootings, the actual shootings themselves, and how people reacted and moved forward following the resulting casualties.

(National Guard use of tear gas on May 4, 1970 at Kent State)

The climate at Kent State was heated long before President Richard Nixon went on television on April 30, 1970 to announce the American “incursion” into Cambodia to root out North Vietnamese sanctuaries that were used to attack American troops.  This announcement exacerbated tensions between the administration and the anti-war movement that was labeled as “bums” by Nixon and his Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.  Means was able to reconstruct events at Kent State through numerous interviews of many of the actual participants as well as conducting research at Kent State’s archive.  This allowed Means to weave his narrative encompassing the actions of students and members of the National Guard and try and determine whether the Guardsmen were under enough of a threat to open fire on the students, or did the climate that existed on campus from May 1-4 make the tragedy inevitable.

Tension on campus was brought to a head when students burned down the ROTC building on May 2nd, and later that day the National Guard was summoned by Governor James Rhodes and deployed on campus.  One of the most important questions that Means explores was why was the Guard was called upon when it lacked the training in crowd control, and the use of M1 rifles, when the Ohio Highway Patrol was trained and ready to intervene.  Means places a great deal of the blame for events on Governor James Rhodes who was running for the US Senate against Congressman Robert Taft, Jr. and wanted to strike a tough persona to enhance his election bid as he stated on the morning of 5/3 when things seemed to be calming down, that he “would eradicate the disease of student unrest, not merely treat the symptoms.”

(National Guard shoot a Kent State student, May 4, 1970)

The inevitability of a crisis at Kent State resulted from disparate forces-the high spirits of the student body (about 4,000 of 21,000 students who participated in the demonstrations), the spring like weather, the war in Vietnam, Nixon’s Cambodia speech, campus radicalism (about 300 students), the exhortations of Jerry Rubin, local anxiety, the generational divide, and growing tensions between the town and the university.  Means argues effectively that outside agitators were not responsible for May 4th, as events were fostered by Kent State’s student body.  Supporters of the National Guard argue that SDS was responsible for organizing students which was not true.  Means presents a frame by frame picture of May 4th and concludes that the shootings did not have to take place.  The National Guard spokespersons argued that there was a snipper who threatened the soldiers, but there was no evidence that one existed.  Further, the students did not rush the soldiers who claimed their lives were in danger.  The problem throughout the crisis was the lack of communication and coordination between the National Guard, the university, and town officials.  Means based his conclusions on evaluating the statements of the main participants and the interviews he conducted over many years.  For Means it is clear that the National Guard was not protecting itself from “imminent danger, instead, there seems to have been a strange mix of intentionality, horrific judgement, terrible luck, preventability and inevitability.”  The generation gap, the Age of Aquarius, all came together on May 4, 1970.

(The 4 students killed at Kent State)

Means describes the moods of students and guardsmen and the shock and outrage that followed the shootings.  He points to the heroes, like Major Don Manley of the Ohio Highway Patrol who convinced the National Guard commander, General Robert Canterbury to allow faculty marshals additional time to convince students to disperse, before further damage could be done.  Other heroes include Geology professor Glenn Frank, a former marine who convinced students to leave when the National Guard reformed and were getting ready to fire again.  However, most townspeople and guardsmen felt that the students brought the shootings on themselves and they got what they deserved.  It is amazing that the actual firing took 13 seconds to unleash 67 bullets!

Means does an excellent job describing the actions and statements of the Nixon administration as well as taking the reader into the White House.  He argues that Nixon became unmoored by events at Kent State that led to his famous 2:00am visit to the Lincoln Memorial to engage young people.  Means also examines the culpability of all the major players in this drama; from university president, Robert White; Kent mayor, Leroy Satron; Governor James Rhodes, and National Guard Commander Robert Canterbury and his officers.  Means explores the legal actions that followed and the Scranton Commission that investigated the shootings.  What emerges is that the death of 4 students and 9 wounded should not have occurred.  It was due to poor training, a lack of communication, and a political climate that was on edge.  Means has written a well-documented account of events and for anyone interested in one of the most iconic tragedies of the Vietnam era, this book is well worth consulting.

(Mary Ann Vecchio leaning over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970)

THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON by Greg Herken

(Joseph and Stewart Alsop,  journalists who greatly impacted American foreign policy during the Cold War)

When one discusses the value of real estate one usually encounters the phrase “location, location, location.”  This could be the theme of Greg Herken’s THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON, a book centered on a Georgetown, Washington, D.C. neighborhood after World War II, whose residents included the Alsop brothers, Jack and Jaqueline Kennedy, Ben and Tony Bradlee, Allen and Clover Dulles, Dean and Alice Acheson, Philp and Katherine Graham, Averill and Marie Harriman, Frank and Polly Wisner among others.  Within the group you had a future president and Secretary of State, the head of the CIA and other operatives, two ambassadors to the Soviet Union, influential journalists, and the owner and editor of the Washington Post. The neighbors who were known as the “Georgetown Set,” were at the forefront of American policy as the Cold War began and evolved, as Dean Acheson entitled his memoirs, they were PRESENT AT CREATION, and a few of them lived to see the curtain fall on the conflict with the communist world.  These individuals were not only neighbors, for the most part, they were close friends.  They had attended the same boarding schools and universities and “believed that the United States had the power—and the moral obligation—to oppose tyranny and stand up of the world’s underdogs.”  They held a sense of duty and the belief in the “rightness of the country and its causes—which were, more often than not, their own.”

Unlike today, it was a time of consensus in foreign policy in dealing with the Soviet Union, partisanship was an afterthought.  The outset of the Cold War produced the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, Point Four, and NATO, but the mindset of these individuals would also lead to mistakes embodied in the disastrous coups of the Eisenhower era, the Bay of Pigs, and the Vietnam War.  Greg Herken tells the story of these influential people, how their ideas dominated American policy, and what the ramifications of that influence were.  The reader is exposed to intimate details and tremendous insights as these power brokers are examined, and it makes for a fascinating read.

(Katharine Graham, owner and editor of the Washington Post)

The narrative focuses on the most important foreign policy debates of the 20th century, where the residents of Georgetown aligned themselves, and how their views affected the success or failure of presidential decision making.  Once the Nazis and the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the foreign policy debate focused on the communist threat and the motives of the Soviet Union.  The debate was symbolized by George Kennan, who at one point was head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department as well as stints as ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; and Paul Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy, and author of NSC-68 which along with Kennan’s “X Article” formed the basis of American policy toward Russia for well into the 1980s.  The debate centered on “whether it was America’s moral example or material power that kept the Russians at bay” during the Cold War.   Many other individuals draw Herken’s discerning eye during the period, the most important of which were Joseph and Stewart Alsop, the journalism brothers who advised presidents, and helped articulate positions on Vietnam and Cuba that some would argue pushed our nation’s chief executives into making unwise policy choices.

At times the book reads like a biography of the Alsop brothers as Herken develops their careers as the centerpiece of the monograph.  Of the two, Joseph Alsop dominated their relationship and developed numerous sources within the national security apparatus in presidential administrations from Truman through Nixon.  Joseph Alsop had his own agenda and his columns created enough pressure on Lyndon Johnson that many believe forced him to consider Alsop’s readership when making decisions about Vietnam, a subject that Alsop seemed obsessed with and had difficulty accepting any information that contradicted what he believed.  The Alsops hosted numerous dinner parties that were used as conduits to different presidential administrations as conversations yielded information that turned up in their newspaper columns.  Herken almost makes the reader as if they are invited guests to the Sunday night gatherings among the “Georgetown Set” and at times the reader might feel like a “fly on the wall” as you witness history being made.  In addition to the Alsops, the inner sanctum of the Washington Post is laid bare as great events are reported.  We see the newspaper under the stewardship of Philip Graham at the outset of the Cold War until his suicide, when his wife Katharine takes the reigns of the paper and turns it into a strong competitor to the New York Times. Reporting on Watergate, My Lai and other issues reflected Katharine Graham’s growth as the head of a major newspaper and her dominant role in Washington politics.

(Frank Wisner II, the son of an OSS and CIA operative who developed and implemented numerous covert operations during the Cold War.  Wisner II developed his own diplomatic career and did not follow the career path of his father)

The book also centers on the evolution of the American intelligence community from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Herken focuses most of his attention on Allen W. Dulles, who worked under Wild Bill Donavan who headed the OSS, and would later head the CIA under President Eisenhower and for a short time under John F. Kennedy; and Frank Wisner, an OSS and CIA operative who was known for his outlandish covert plans, i.e.; trying to overthrow the government of Albania, dropping propaganda leaflets and intelligence operatives behind the “iron curtain” among many of his projects.  CIA involvement in Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, and Guatemala are dissected in detail and Herken correctly points to current issues that date back to Dulles, Wisner, and numerous other individuals in the intelligence community, and how they negatively affected American foreign policy for decades.

(President John F. Kenndy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were frequent visitors in the “salons” of Georgetown)

The books serves as an important window into the lives of people who dominated the American foreign policy establishment throughout the Cold War.  Herken seems to assess all of the major decisions that were made during the period, as well as evaluating each of the characters presented and how their lives affected the course of American history.  Many of the individuals that Herken discusses are well known, but others are brought out of the shadows.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book is when Herken muses about the lives of the children of the “Georgetown Set,” and how the generation gap that developed in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s affected the next “Georgetown” generation.

Herken writes with flair and has exceptional command of his material and sources and has offered a unique approach to the causes and results of the Cold War that should satisfy academics as well as the general reader.