“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...
(The entire section is 2188 words.)