Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 is the first installment of a projected two-volume history of the Vietnam War. In it he explores the origins of American intervention in Vietnam, tracing U.S. policy in Indochina from 1954 until the introduction of combat forces in the summer of 1965. This is a highly ambitious study, heavily researched and closely argued. It is also a revisionist history, challenging much of the conventional wisdom that has grown up about the Vietnam War. Until recently, the most influential accounts of the American experience in Vietnam were written by historians who had lived through the war themselves, as soldiers, protestors, and journalists. Moyar belongs to a younger generation of scholars, unscarred by direct experience of the bitter controversy that raged about Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s, who are bringing a fresh perspective to what seems a familiar story. Moyar also benefits from the recent declassification of American government records and the growing availability of documents from both sides of the Vietnamese civil war.
The tale that Moyar tells is in its essentials familiar, with all the expected landmarks, from the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu to the Tonkin Gulf incident, conspicuously visible. It is in his emphases and interpretations that Moyar confounds the usual assumptions. For some Moyar’s book will be a revelation. For others it will be infuriating. This is because Moyar refuses to accept that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake. He argues that the South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem deserved American support, that Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese were intent on spreading communism throughout Southeast Asia, and that there was a real danger of other states, including Indochina, Malaysia, and Indonesia, falling like dominoes before this aggression in the 1950’s and 1960’s had the United States abandoned its allies in Saigon. For Moyar, the tragedy of the Vietnam War lies in the way American leaders snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. He believes that the United States could have triumphed without a full-scale military intervention. The Vietnam War as we knew it need not have been. Disastrous miscalculations by American policymakers compelled a wider war; further miscalculations forced the United States military to fight while burdened with unnecessary restraints.
To the extent that Moyar’s book has a hero, it is the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. A product of Vietnam’s traditional Mandarin ruling class, Diem early on achieved recognition for his great abilities. Personally incorruptible, he never married, devoting himself completely to the service of his people. Diem refused to become the puppet of the French colonial authorities and was forced into exile in the United States. He was not implicated in France’s struggle to retain its hold on Indochina. Diem’s unimpeachable nationalism and reputation for integrity led to his recall to head the government in South Vietnam as the French prepared to leave. Most observers expected him to be an ineffectual transitional figure, caretaking the government until national elections in 1956 brought to power the charismatic communist Ho Chi Minh, who was headquartered at Hanoi in the north. However, Diem proved to be a redoubtable leader. He crushed attempts to oust him and shattered the private armies and gangs that challenged the government. With American support, Diem refused to hold the national election that, with rigged voting in North Vietnam, would inevitably have united the country under communist rule. Diem’s success and staunch anticommunism brought him acclaim in the United States. He was seen as a model Third World statesman. President Dwight Eisenhower regarded Diem as a crucial ally and gave his regime generous assistance.
Still the lionization of Diem in the 1950’s laid the foundation for a misunderstanding that would prove deadly later. Americans were woefully ignorant of Vietnamese history and culture. They tended to look at the nation-building going on in South Vietnam through the prism of the American experience. They expected Diem to behave like an American politician in promoting civil liberties and a free press, but he remained stubbornly Vietnamese. He had lived in the United States and respected its freedoms. He did not think that American ways could be imposed on a very different society, especially when his country was emerging from colonialism and was combating a growing communist insurgency. Therefore, Diem ruled in a traditionally authoritarian fashion. With his brother and security chief Ngo Dinh Nhu, he created a state-sponsored party and various other political organizations to promote his policies and institutionalize his authority. No effective political opposition was permitted. When the communists put the South...
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