March 8th, 2013

The fight over the history of Vietnam

I haven’t yet read the book Triumph Forsaken, but it sounds like a fascinating so-called “revisionist” history of the Vietnam War.

And this comment at the Amazon link treads familiar ground, does it not?:

A key contributor to the downfall of the regime was anti-Diem press coverage, the type written by Stanley Karnow, David Halberstam, and Neil Sheehan, among others. One might think that reporters who spent their time covering a country from the inside might be counted on to offer significant insights, but a congressional fact-finding mission in 1963 found the in-country American reporters to be “arrogant, emotional, unobjective, and ill-informed.” Karnow, Halberstam, and Sheehan all relied a great deal on a Vietnamese journalist named Pham Xuan An, a stringer for Reuters. He helped the journalists interpret political events, always in a light unfavorable to Diem. The Americans did not know that Pham was a Communist agent who had been instructed by the party to become a journalist in order to influence Western media views of Vietnam.

Here’s a fine article by the book’s author, Mark Moyar (here’s his website).

And this seems of interest, although I haven’t read it, either.

I had never before heard of reporter Marguerite Higgins, who wrote a book on Vietnam. She was one of the first women allowed to report from war zones, a veteran of World War II journalism. This is from Halberstram’s Wiki entry:

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Korean War correspondent Marguerite Higgins was the staunchest pro-Diệm journalist in the Saigon press corps and she frequently clashed with her younger male colleagues such as Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett and Halberstam. She derided them as “typewriter strategists” who were “seldom at the scenes of battle”. She claimed they had ulterior motives, claiming “Reporters here would like to see us lose the war to prove they’re right.”

Mark Moyar, a historian, claimed that Halberstam, along with fellow Vietnam journalists Neil Sheehan and Stanley Karnow, helped to bring about the 1963 South Vietnamese coup against President Ngô Đình Diệm by sending negative information on Diệm to the U.S. government, in news articles and in private, because they decided Diệm was unhelpful in the war effort. Moyar claims that much of this information was false or misleading. Sheehan, Karnow, and Halberstam all won Pulitzer Prizes for their post-war works on the war.

Sometimes it seems as though these people can influence wars even more than presidents do. And it’s funny (and not funny haha) how the same names keep recurring over and over.

35 Responses to “The fight over the history of Vietnam”

  1. A.T. Says:

    Americans and South Vietnamese won most battles during the war, but lost the war thanks to such a bunch of useful idiots

  2. Ann Says:

    You know, even if the war had not been presented in a biased light, and even if Walter Cronkite had not done his thing, I don’t think support for it would have lasted.

    Why? Because of the nightly news, with footage directly from the battlefield, complete with horrid images of soldiers suffering and dying.

    There’s a reason that kind of coverage is no longer allowed by the military.

  3. southpaw Says:

    I’ve never imagined anything but that from the Vietnam press corps – hanging out with like minded people in cafes, getting second or third hand information, and generally avoiding getting their butts shot off.
    As A.T. says, we won most of the battles and lost the war. In some cases, we won the battles and still lost the battles – Tet offensive is a good illustration. In spite of being taken completely by surprise, the US inflicted heavy casulaties on on the Vietcong. It was a major victory for the US military and a humiliating defeat for the North. Unfortunately, it was presented to the US public as the opposite, and had a major negative impact on public opinion.

  4. artfldgr Says:

    Marguerite Higgins is not a real woman, as she is not a communist (And so not a feminist). same with emmy noether. last nights spisode of big bank theory was all obama administration women in stem… and the best sheldon could do was madame curie? yeah right. if he was what he was to be, his hero would have been emmy noether.

    but today is communist holiday, internatioal womens day
    cant you tell by google?

  5. artfldgr Says:

    oh, and as i said, and now you say, the same names keep coming up

    which is why i said, go ahead, challenge me, pick any thing and we can trace it back to the same people.

    it wasnt a joke or a craziness…
    its something you discover once you do the research

    then it takes years for you to wrap your head around it and think abut it without being paranoid…

    but dont worry… rand is now in with birthers, conspiracy theorists, and so on…

    oh, and the more you read real history, the more you find the crazies were not crazy, and the oppressive predictors were spot on…

    but, you have to have read a critical amount and have delved and tried to follow the threads. otherwise, the lack of EXPERIENCE has you not belive it.

    ie. superior knowing through ignorance…

    the you in this post was the ephemeral you, not the you as a person across from me. language sucks but like capitalism, no one has come up with something better.

  6. Harry the Extremist Says:

    But Diem WAS a despot. He earned that reputation. He his brother and Madame Nhu. Yes the press was hostile but it doesnt mean it was without cause. There were warning way back to the Truman administration not to get involved in Vietnam and if we had heeded them back then we would have been far better off.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Harry the Extremist: my point is not that Diem was a great guy. It’s that the journalists were being fed information by a stringer who was a Communist agent. And that I think Higgins was correct, especially later on—that some journalists didn’t want the US to succeed there because it would prove they had been wrong. My post is really about journalism, not Diem.

    But I will also point out that it was naive to believe that Diem would be replaced by someone better. It was also naive to believe he would not be murdered, as JFK and his advisors appeared to have believed.

  8. Charles Says:

    “typewriter strategists”

    Wow, that term is so spot on. Although, it might need to be updated with something a little more 21st century other than typewriter.

  9. Minta Marie Morze Says:

    Excellent books about the Viet Nam War have been written by Bruce Herschensohn, too.

    Two of my brothers were in Viet Nam (USMC) during the Tet Offensive, and in their letters home they said the news was filled with lies. The press betrayed America then just as it is doing now. (And they KNOW what they are doing, because they know what stories to ignore and how to slant the stories they DO report.)

  10. rickl Says:

    This is off-topic, but Ace had a terrific post today about Iraq, Afghanistan, and similar wars. The comments are excellent, too.

    http://minx.cc/?post=338189

  11. Jim Miller Says:

    neo – If you are interested in these questions, you might want to look for Peter Braestrup’s “The Big Story”. Both the original and the abridged paperback version are out of print, but you can find used copies, or have a library get it for you.

    (There are reviews over at Amazon.)

  12. rickl Says:

    Jim Miller:
    This is also probably off-topic, but I’ve had excellent results buying used, out-of-print books online via AbeBooks and Alibris. In some cases, I’ve been able to buy used hardcovers in excellent condition for much less than the cost of new paperbacks.

  13. DaveindeSwamp Says:

    I have the book and it will be worth your while . JFK and the new Frontiersmen screwed the pooch with their covert approval to murder the Dienm brothers .

    There’s another called “This time we win ” about Tet. That too makes a compelling argument that our victories were trashed by the same scum. They did it again during the Easter Offensive in 1972. Truth be told we and the ARVNs kicked the hell out of the NVA. Too bad the traitors at home tossed that one away too.

    By the way, read the Westmoreland book Sorley wrote. C’mon , depending on Robert Strange McNamera as an unbiased and reliable source ? Sorley should have simply written “I hate Westy” for each chapter start and end. It would have saved me the time to wade through some dubious observations .

    Ah what would I know? I was only a Sp4 then

  14. Richard Aubrey Says:

    And you were a neo-nazi mccarthyite to suggest Harry Dexter White was a communist agent. Yawn. What does it matter at this point?
    The American military can defeat any opponent on the planet except the democrat party and both sides know it.
    Things are getting dangerous when people are getting attaboys and medals for heroic retreats and last stands and rescues (mightily deserved), instead of winning, and when the military is the most respected institution in the nation.

  15. neo-neocon Says:

    Jim Miller: Here is a post where I’ve written at some length about Braestrup’s book. I wrote a great deal about it as well in this post.

  16. Bob From Virginia Says:

    An excellent book on Viet Nam is Colonel Harry Summers book On Strategy. In it he uses the principles of war (mass, offensive, objective, security, simplicity, unity of command, economy of force, surprise) to critique the US performance in the war. I can add that to suggest that the defeat was due to anything other than American incompetence does not give credit to where it should lie. I was around 14 where we started intervening and I was picking out strategic mistakes (not starting by invading Laos and cutting the Ho Chi Minh trail, not carrying the war to North Viet Nam on day one, the absence of strategic offensive, etc). The conduct of the war was asinine, period.

    As for the Diem regime; Buddhist monks were burning themselves in protest against the regime, items like that were hard to avoid by either a friendly or antagonistic journalist.

  17. Harry the Extremist Says:

    neo: “my point is not that Diem was a great guy. It’s that the journalists were being fed information by a stringer who was a Communist agent.”

    Maybe your point was Neo, but the Triumph Forsaken quote seems to be pretty firm on the issue of who was to blame for Diem’s demise: “A key contributor to the downfall of the regime was anti-Diem press coverage, the type written by Stanley Karnow, David Halberstam, and Neil Sheehan, among others.”

    The key contributor to Diem’s demise was his corrupt ineptness. That gave everyone else the excuse to want Diem to fail. It was inevitable from the outset.

    As for the Tet offensive, yes, we really won that. yes, it broke the back of the VC and severely crippled the NVA. Was the press really responsible for the perception that we had lost that battle? All that prior year before that the Johnson administration had been playing up how the war, grindingly bitter as it was, was finally turning the corner. There was light at the end of the tunnel and then wham. Was the press coverage of Tet the instigator of public perception or merely a reflection of it?
    The legacy of Vietnam and the press is what was born of it. Its now a template of a narrative for an ideologically entrenched press. Ive read Halberstam, and Sheehan. I think they were trying to be honest about what was going on but our disgrace and folly in the whole 30 year involvement means the Peter Arnets and Eason Jordans dont have to be as careful.
    Anyway, thats my take on that.

  18. Harry the Extremist Says:

    “…All that prior year before”

    God, did I really write that?

  19. Richard Aubrey Says:

    After Dunkirk, Churchill warned that wars are not won by retreats–implying that the positive reviews of the thing didn’t mean it was a victory except in the sense it avoided a worse defeat and demonstrated British determination.
    And “win the war in 44″ was slugged in the guy by the Ardennes Offensive.
    The media and public perception of the latter could have been similar to that of Tet, had the media and the anti-war people not been determined to, at best misrepresent the situation or, more often, to use the misrepresentation to lose the war.
    It is interesting to see lefties being upset with dictators. Whether followed by communists or Islamists, the heroes of the left–see Iran–are always worse for the locals, but the Good Thing for the left is that they’re also anti US, which is the more important issue.

  20. M of Hollywood Says:

    artfldgr LOL: language sucks but like capitalism, no one has come up with something better.
    thx for *short* posts today! I could read them!

  21. G Joubert Says:

    It basically goes without saying that from the standpoint of politicians who ordered it and oversaw it (such as LBJ), the war in Vietnam was never fought with the idea of “winning” it. Political objectives and goals right from the outset and throughout the duration of the war were something other than military victory. It’s trite, but nevertheless true to say, US service members were just cannon fodder and pawns, cannon fodder and pawns in a different war- the cold war. And no matter how well they performed in battle –and they were magnificent– US forces were NEVER going to ultimately be victorious as we define victory, because victory that way was never what the politicians in charge contemplated or wanted. So it was all along and in the end a shameful, monumental, and reprehensible waste of American blood and lives. And it’s also why it still haunts us.

  22. neo-neocon Says:

    G Joubert, Harry the Extremist, and Bob from Virginia,

    I’ve written so many posts on Vietnam and my view of what happened that I can’t possibly rehash it here, but some I would especially recommend, and the ones that speak most to your points, would probably be this, this, and this. There were quite a few different segments of the Vietnam War and it’s important to distinguish among them.

    As far as Diem goes, I don’t think anyone is saying that journalists fomented trouble against a guy who otherwise would have been beloved. But there’s no question they helped bring him down, and that the US helped create the coup that led to his assassination. Would it have happened anyway without the journalists’ role in it, or would he have remained in power? I certainly don’t have the answer, but I know they were part of it, and I find it terrible that they were fed information by a North Vietnamese spy and did not know it. Again, that’s my point.

    And Harry the Extremist, that’s how I interpreted that quote I offered at the beginning of my post, the one that says Moyar presents the press as “a key contributor” to Diem’s downfall. That quote, by the way, is from a reader’s comment at Amazon (as I indicated), not from Moyar himself.

  23. G Joubert Says:

    Yeah, but with the 20-20 hindsight of history, wasn’t Diem-no Diem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, really rendering it moot now? Sheehan’s extremely hard left views are well-known, and alleged complicity with the North fits his style. But he was a young buck then. Where does that leave us? And I don’t ask this cynically; what difference does it make now?

  24. JJ formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    G Joubert asks, “Where does that leave us? And I don’t ask this cynically; what difference does it make now?”

    As a Vietnam vet, I can tell you it matters to me.

    I lost six good friends there. We thought we were fighting to win or at least to give South Vietnam the same chance at freedom as South Korea got.

    When Congress voted to abandon the South Vietnamese, it struck me and many other vets that all our sacrifices had been in vain. It was a war that we won militarily but didn’t have the political will to actually win. We did not do what we set out to do. (Does that sound like what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan?) Much of that lack of will can be laid directly at the feet of the press and the communist agitators on our college campuses. That set a tone for our approach to prosecuting war that extends up to this day. We left and millions died. The press did not care. Whenever we have tried to use military power since then there has always been a dedicated opposition whose roots can be traced to Vietnam.

    If we understand the facts, it may allow us to break the circle of our failure of the will to win.

  25. ziontruth Says:

    “Sometimes it seems as though these people can influence wars even more than presidents do.”

    Yet they keep enjoying the immunity of non-political actors. They’re able eat the cake (treason) and have it (freedom of speech) at the same time. This imbalance has yet to be addressed in any country.

  26. Don Carlos Says:

    People believe what they want to believe, and facts and reason matter not to them. They are sitting ducks for hucksters of all stripes, who sit around, figuring what the lamebrains want to hear.

    My family, all naturalized citizens, from post-WWII Europe, were all in anti-war demos, all Better-Red-Than-Dead. I was the only contrarian in the group, a pattern that persists to this day. They fled the Commies and then wanted to cave to them. “Give Peace a Chance”. Ugh. Faah. Puke.

  27. DaveindeSwamp Says:

    JFK and his wizards of smart decided to not do anything except agree with the Communists that Laos would be neutral… right, neutral like Wiener – Neustadt in 1943-45.

    Yes, there was incompetence at the top, bet on it, like every other war. The problem was that these incompetents believed their own golden boy BS ,therefore not open for argument or suggestion.
    H.R.McMaster’s “Dereliction of Duty” puts a bright Xenon spotlight on that quite nicely.

    By the way, every timeI am asked how it felt to be in a losing war, I always reply that we were winning when I left.

    WETSU

  28. G Joubert Says:

    jj formerly jimmy,

    There are over 2.5 million of us.

    Anyone who was there knows it was a clusterf**k from a to z. Micromanagement of strategy and even tactics by political sharpies in Washington made it surreal and untenable. US forces were constantly sent on nonsensical missions with no clear objective (take this hill, then abandon it to take a different hill, then abandon it too, to be then ordered to retake the first hill, etc).

    South Vietnam was politically unstable, whether led by Diem or Thieu. The events in 1963 may have altered the course of things, but it’s very difficult to say things would’ve turned out any better if Diem hadn’t been deposed. The ARVNs were pathetic.

    Bottom line: we shouldn’t have been there, certainly not under the terms that were imposed. A complete waste of American blood and treasure. As painful as it is to face it, there it is.

  29. neo-neocon Says:

    G. Joubert: have you read Sorley’s A Better War? It rather convincingly purports to show that the war was doing well in its second act (after the US had withdrawn its fighting forces) and that if we had continued the rather modest economic and other support we were giving the South it would have been worth it.

  30. G Joubert Says:

    Neo, no, but I’ll put it on my list.

  31. JJ formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    G. Joubert said, “Anyone who was there knows it was a clusterf**k from a to z. Micromanagement of strategy and even tactics by political sharpies in Washington made it surreal and untenable. US forces were constantly sent on nonsensical missions with no clear objective (take this hill, then abandon it to take a different hill, then abandon it too, to be then ordered to retake the first hill, etc).”

    I agree that there were many, many mistakes made and the worst was the micro-management from Washington. Yet, I don’t agree that we shouldn’t have been there. The USSR and China’s policies were coordinated. Their goal was extending Communism everywhere they could by political processes or force. Do you remember the John Foster Dulles strategy of containment? To contain them within those countries that were already behind the Iron Curtain. That was why we went into Korea. (Although Dulles wasn’t SOS at the time. Part of the reason he declared it as our strategy was because we had succeeded in holding the Communists out of South Korea.) We succeeded in Korea because we were able to thwart them militarily in terrain that was more suitable for the use of air power and artillery than the jungles of Vietnam. South Korea in the beginning was not a model of democracy and good governance. But we stuck with them and slowly they turned things around. Too few people today remember that history and recognize South Korea as one of the major successes of our Cold War foreign policy.

    The first big error was Johnson’s opinion that he could apply just enough pressure to Uncle Ho to get him to accept a division of Vietnam, ala Korea. What he missed was that Uncle Ho was not going to be impressed by anything short of B-52s attacking Hanoi and other important targets relentlessly. By the time Nixon was elected on a platform of getting us out of Vietnam things were going quite well for us as noted in Sorley’s book. But few knew those facts. Nixon used the B-52s ( for only a few weeks) to force Ho to the negotiating table. Had he continued to use them for a few months, I’m convinced that the North would have been willing to negotiate a division of Vietnam. But I can’t prove that, so it’s conjecture.

    My opinion is that going into Vietnam was necessary if we took our policy of containment seriously. But the idea of fighting a kinder, gentler war (Like we are also trying to do now) was just stupid. Abandoning the South Vietnamese after the war was won, was immoral.

    Fortunately for us, both the USSR and China had such awful economic problems that they eventually collapsed. As a result we now have Communist China attempting to become the first Communist/capitalist economic miracle and Russia an oligarchy that struggles (in spite of their energy wealth) to stay afloat.

  32. neo-neocon Says:

    J.J. and G. Joubert:

    You might also want to look at Vietnam the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict.

  33. JJ formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, neo. I read the intro and many of the reviews on Amazon. I agree with his point that it was a necessary war. Why we lost – not so much. I’ll try to get a copy to read it all.

  34. Lee Says:

    Can’t say as I am surprised. I have a story I have been sharing many, many, many, times over the years about “journalists.”

    A million years ago (it’s over thirty now), I spent my junior year in Jerusalem. I found a nice little bar–it had a fine array of alchohol and beer, and served cheeseburgers, which were near impossible to find in Jerusalem back then. It was also very near an office building that housed oodles of foreign correspondents from the US and Europe. And these clowns, I mean journalists, were covering the ENTIRE Middle East. Few of them knew Hebrew. Almost NONE of them knew Arabic.

    Few ever left the nice comforts of Israel (Tel Aviv was preferable, but Jerusalem was acceptable) to actually visit anywhere else in the Middle East. And back then, if they had to go anywhere, they had to first fly to Cyprus or Egypt. And yet, as probelmatic as it was to travel to ANY other Middle Eastern country, they preferred to base themselves in Israel.

    For most of their coverage of Israel, they relied on local stringers. Mostly Arabs were hired. This was before the PLO realized that actively recruiting people for these jobs were to its advantage. But back then, Israelis did NOT want to work for these “journalists.” They were condescending, self-important, ill-informed, and the pay stunk. If an Israeli wanted to get experience as a journalist, they were going to get better experience working for an Israeli publication. It wasn’t long afterwards that the PLO realized that they needed to get their people hired as stringers for the journalists. So now, most stringers for foreign publications probably work for the PA or Hamas.

    I have been telling this story for, well, almost thirty years when I get the chance.

  35. Vietnam History Necro | Sake White Says:

    […] http://neoneocon.com/2013/03/08/the-fight-over-the-history-of-vietnam/ […]

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