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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2188

“He personified the strongest endeavor and, as it was to prove, the tragic limits, of his country’s experience in Asia.” The parallels between Joseph Stilwell (of whom Barbara Tuchman wrote these words) and John Paul Vann are haunting. Both were military men sent to Asia as advisers to help achieve...

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“He personified the strongest endeavor and, as it was to prove, the tragic limits, of his country’s experience in Asia.” The parallels between Joseph Stilwell (of whom Barbara Tuchman wrote these words) and John Paul Vann are haunting. Both were military men sent to Asia as advisers to help achieve global objectives—in one case, defeating the Japanese in World War II; in the other, stopping the spread of communism. Runty in appearance, yet possessing tremendous stamina and undaunting courage, both believed that the United States could be a worldwide force for positive social change. Their power and influence over events were momentous, yet, in the end, ephemeral. They failed in their respective missions because of the unmalleable bonds of the indigenous societies to which they were sent. There could be no American solution to the revolutionary whirlwind of twentieth century Asia.

Neil Sheehan covered the Vietnam War as a journalist and later obtained the so-called Pentagon Papers for The New York Times from former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg. In one sense, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the National Book Award for nonfiction, is a very personal saga of the author’s loss of illusions regarding the justness of America’s containment policy in Asia. Sixteen years in the making, the book is carefully factual, but its tone is one of muted anger at the needless destruction that resulted from flawed policies. As the title indicates, there was a dark underside to postwar American foreign policy, just as there was an element of duplicity to the character of John Paul Vann.

When Vann first arrived in Vietnam in March of 1962, the war seemed an adventure, a chance for old veterans to get back in action and young officers to prove their mettle: “The frequent presence of danger and the occasional shooting created the tension and zest of war without the unpleasantness of dying.” Like most American advisers, Vann knew little about Vietnamese history or culture. If the peasants sympathized with the enemy, Vann attributed it to their political naïveté or to pragmatic necessity. He confidently expected that they could be won over through a combination of paternalism and military aggressiveness.

By the time of Vann’s second tour of duty in 1965, the conflict had become a war of attrition. Vann had become a caustic critic of American military strategy but accepted almost as an article of faith the goal of preventing a Communist regime from coming to power in South Vietnam. He “could not abide defeat,” writes Sheehan, and remained unshaken in his vision and faith “in an ever-innocent America.”

Book 1 opens with Lieutenant Colonel Vann reporting for duty at the Saigon headquarters of MACV, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam. In an effort to shore up the autocratic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, President John F. Kennedy had ordered a buildup of military advisers that reached 11,300 by Christmas of 1962 and 16,000 a year later. The hope was that they would train, lead, and inspire the army of South Vietnam (ARVN) into becoming an efficient fighting machine. Sent to the Mekong Delta, Vann became adviser to Colonel Huynh Van Cao, commander of the Seventh Division. A Catholic from Diem’s home town of Hue, Cao had sided with the French during the first war of liberation and was more interested in remaining in readiness to support the Saigon regime against a possible coup than in searching out and killing the Viet Cong. Cao’s troops often alienated the local populace by acts of thievery and brutality. Vann complained, but to no avail.

Vann tried to use flattery to goad Cao into being more aggressive. When he did risk troops in combat, however, Cao got into trouble with Diem. As Sheehan concludes, Ngo Dinh Diem and his family “never learned anything, they never forgot anything, and they fervently believed that whatever they desired was innately correct and virtuous.”

In book 2, Sheehan concludes that America’s postwar containment policy was a blend of national self-interest, idealistic rhetoric, and subconscious condescension toward Asians. With the United States’ reimposition of French colonial rule, an opportunity was lost for creating a united Vietnam that could have been a check against Chinese expansion. That, after all, had been the original rationale for the quixotic experiment in nation-building that followed the fall of Dien Bien Phu and the (supposedly temporary) partition of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference of 1954.

Viewing themselves as liberators rather than counterrevolutionaries, American policymakers hoped that South Vietnam would go the way of the Philippines, where a Communist insurgency had been defeated. Even had the South Vietnamese been inclined to resist amalgamation, however, Diem’s oppressive policies made the South, in Sheehan’s words, “ripe for revolution.” Diem balked at meaningful land reform and instituted a Denunciation of Communists campaign which victimized tens of thousands of innocent people. His Strategic Hamlets program and assaults on the Buddhist majority were the culmination, not the cause, of his downfall.

The Battle of Ap Bac, a turning point of the Vietnam War, is the central focus of book 3. Prior to Ap Bac, the Viet Cong were viewed with contempt by most of Vann’s superiors. The conventional wisdom was that they could be annihilated if lured into a fight. At Ap Bac some 350 guerrillas defeated a well-armed unit four times their size, killing eighty ARVN soldiers and three American advisers and downing five helicopters.

This battle put Vietnam on the front pages of newspapers and on the evening television news. In its aftermath, Diem and General Paul Harkins worried more about the loss of face than coming to grips with the ramifications of the debacle. Vann took to leaking stories to the press contingent and became especially close to David Halberstam of The New York Times. Outlining his pessimistic conclusions in a written memorandum, Vann vainly sought to educate a succession of touring dignitaries, including Pentagon emissary Victor “Brute” Krulak and White House adviser Maxwell Taylor. When an alarmed Harkins asked his intelligence chief to gather rebuttal evidence, the officer was forced to admit that “the only thing wrong with what he wrote is that all of it is true.”

Returning to Washington, D.C., in April of 1963, Vann hoped to brief the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the futility of the counterinsurgency effort, but his enemies caused the cancellation of his formal presentation at the last moment. Meanwhile, the Diem regime was unraveling. In fact, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge helped orchestrate the coup that toppled him. In one sense Vann was vindicated, but the succeeding regimes proved even less stable. In the wake of Diem’s ouster, the Viet Cong made gains in the Mekong Delta which erased whatever progress Vann had made there.

By the time Lyndon B. Johnson became commander-in-chief, Vann had retired from the army to work for a Denver-based aerospace company. Reporters saw his resignation as a protest, an act of moral herosim. The real reason Vann left, however, was a black mark on his record that made improbable his promotion to the rank of general. Years earlier, while stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Vann had seduced a fifteen-year-old family babysitter. Facing court-martial for statutory rape, Vann had managed to beat the charges but could not get them expunged from his file.

That incident is but one aspect of Vann’s secret life which Sheehan explores in book 5, “Antecedents to the Man.” Born to unwed parents in 1924, the offspring of a narcissistic, alcoholic mother, Vann grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. He was befriended by a Methodist minister who turned out to be a pedophile. The man helped get Vann into Ferrum Training School and Junior College. Four years later he enlisted in the army, hoping to become a pilot, but he missed combat in World War II. He was married in 1945 to a young woman from a respectable family in Rochester, New York. A compulsive womanizer and indifferent parent, he filled his daily routine with petty deceptions. He commanded a Ranger unit in Korea but later fabricated a story about personally fending off a Chinese human-wave attack.

Out of the service in 1964, Vann became despondent. By year’s end he was making inquiries into how he might get back to Vietnam. He finally obtained a position with the Agency for International Development as regional director of pacification in the Mekong Delta.

Book 6, “A Second Time Around,” highlights Vann’s pacification work against the backdrop of the escalating war. At the time of Vann’s return in March of 1965, Saigon was engulfed in rumors of yet another coup, and things were so unstable that the American embassy was bombed ten minutes after Vann left. Sent to Hau Nghia Province (Vann called it a Siberian assignment), Vann supervised the building of schools, the raising of hogs, the distribution of relief, and—unofficially—the gathering of intelligence.

Vann welcomed the American troop buildup but believed in a defensive posture except where there were large enemy forces and few civilians. Still the acerbic critic, he put together a position paper entitled “Harnessing the Revolution in South Vietnam” which recommended the virtual takeover of the war effort by Americans.

In October of 1965 Vann was sent to Camp Vung Tau where he trained Vietnamese pacification teams. The teams were used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to identify and eliminate Viet Cong agents. When Vann feuded with the CIA, he was “promoted” to pacification director of III Corps. In June of 1967 came another promotion to deputy director of pacification. His boss, Robert Komer, was using computer studies to extol the pacification effort. Vann, however, responded with gallows humor to Walt Rostow, who asked in December of 1967 whether the worst would be over in six months: “Oh hell no, Mr. Rostow. I’m a born optimist. I think we can hold out longer than that.”

In book 7, “John Vann Stays,” Sheehan traces the events leading up to the 1968 Tet Offensive and Vann’s subsequent role as a key implementer of Richard M. Nixon’s policies of Vietnamization. Even though Tet seemed to prove the validity of Vann’s warnings, Vann himself could not accept the handwriting on the wall. He liked being in Vietnam: the danger, the opportunities for sex (he had two Vietnamese wives and many casual liaisons), the status, the invitations to visit the White House on his yearly returns home. It was so intoxicating that, in Sheehan’s opinion, he “finally bent the truth about the war as he had bent other and lesser truths in the past.”

With the Viet Cong infrastructure having been devastated during Tet, Vann deluded himself into believing that pacification efforts would yield better results, especially if the debacle shocked the Thieu government into instituting long-needed reforms. Where once he had bemoaned excessive civilian casualties, he came to rely on B-52 bombing raids and helped set up the nefarious Phoenix program, which “neutralized” an estimated twenty thousand people. By 1972 he was in command of all United States forces, both civilian and military, operating in the strategically important Central Highlands and Central Coast.

Obtaining the general’s stars that had eluded him for so long (though technically a civilian), Vann played a crucial role in blunting the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 offensive. After Binh Dinh and Tan Canh were abandoned without even a fight, the roads were swollen with refugees and fleeing soldiers. The ARVN commander wanted to abandon Kontun, but Vann seized control and at great personal risk coordinated its defense. His feat only delayed the inevitable; after Vann died in a helicopter crash, President Nixon parlayed the victory of Kontun into a bargaining chip at the Paris peace talks.

It was only fitting, Sheehan concludes, that Vann did not live to see the end of the American phase of the war or the subsequent fall of Saigon. John Vann, Sheehan wrote, “was not meant to flee to a ship at sea, and he did not miss his exit. He died believing he had won his war.”

In the 1980’s it became fashionable in some revisionist circles to suggest that the United States could have won the Vietnam War if only the military had been given free rein. Sheehan shows how impossible was the task of pacifying the countryside or creating a viable non-Communist government in Saigon. In the absence of popular support, all military victories would have rested on quicksand.

A Bright Shining Lie shows not only that Vietnam was an impractical misadventure but also that what the United States did was shameful. In 1964, Vann had predicted that the United States could pour its entire armed forces into Vietnam and still not accomplish anything worthwhile. In his unwillingness to accept the logic of his own findings, Vann epitomized a nation blinded by hubris and incapable of thinking creatively or wisely. Therein lies the central thread uniting this biography of a flawed man and history of a quagmire war.


The New Republic. CXCIX, October 24, 1988, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, September 25, 1988, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXII, October 10, 1988, p. 72.

Time. CXXXII, October 17, 1988, p. 80.

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