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Mark Moyar’s tendentious ‘Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-65’

I finally got around to reading Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken, an interesting revisionist take on the first 10 years of our involvement in the Vietnam War. (His response will follow tomorrow.) I think his book is more right than wrong. For example, my bet is that he is correct in concluding that the American reporters ...

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I finally got around to reading Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken, an interesting revisionist take on the first 10 years of our involvement in the Vietnam War. (His response will follow tomorrow.)

I think his book is more right than wrong. For example, my bet is that he is correct in concluding that the American reporters in Vietnam, especially early in the war, probably were off base, especially in their coverage of the Diem government. He also does a good job on the Ap Bac battle.

Scorecard report: His villains are John Paul Vann, American journalists, Henry Cabot Lodge, the State Department and, eventually, Lyndon Johnson.

Where he goes wrong, I think, generally is when he tends to rely more on documents stating what policies were intended to be rather than assessments from the field about how those policies were translated into reality. Overall, the book has a tendentious edge to it, making me worry that he is being selective in his representation of what happened.

There were passages where I suspected that he was searching for facts to support his theory, rather than finding all the facts and then developing a theory to explain them. For example, in one passage he discusses how the U.S. Navy interdicted enemy vessels bringing supplies into the South. After March 1965, he notes, “the North Vietnamese Navy would attempt only eighty voyages to the South, and of these only fourteen would reach their destination, resulting in total delivered cargo of less than 800 tons.” (p. 358) The implication of this in the author’s eyes seems to be that if only the U.S. had moved on the ground to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, then the Communist forces in the south would have withered and the war would have been over.

What that discussion begs is a reference to the supplies that continued to flow to the Communists through the Cambodian port of Shianoukville. This is hardly an obscure issue, because the question of the significance of that goods pipeline became a running battle for years between the CIA and the U.S. military in Saigon. As another revisionist, Lewis Sorley, wrote in A Better War:

“While the Ho Chi Minh Trail was under fierce and continuous air attack, access to the South Vietnamese coast from the sea had since mid-1966 been effectively sealed off through intensive patrolling by South Vietnamese and U.S. ships. But there was a flood of supplies coming into the Cambodian port of Shianoukville and then through Cambodia into III and IV Corps of south Vietnam and even up to the southern portions of II Corps. By January 1969 it was clear to MACV analysts that Shianoukville was ‘the primary point of entry for supplies, especially arms and ammunition, destined for enemy forces in southern South Vietnam.’ This traffic had been monitored since November 1966, and so far thirty-four ships suspected of unloading ordnance had docked at Shianoukville. Twelve that were well documented had delivered more than 14,000 tons of ordnance from November 1966 to October 1968.

(pp . 100-101)

Moyar offers a few slighting references to the flow of goods into Cambodia (pages 247, 300, 323) but never really digs into this, and does not, as far as I can tell, refer to the long-running dispute between MACV and the CIA over Shianoukville.

Another example that strikes me as credulous at best is his discussion of a suggestion in June 1965 made by a Soviet diplomat in London to an American that the United States send an additional five divisions to Vietnam and “seal off the 17th Parallel, cut off the Viet Cong from their northern logistics, then ignore the North and wait for the Viet Cong to come to terms.” (p. 360) Moyar expresses regret that, “The Johnson administration…failed to heed this precious counsel.”

Oh yeah, just “precious.” Can you imagine being the American official who ventures into the Oval Office in about 1965 and says, “Mr. President, in my opinion we should send most of our remaining ground forces from around the world into Vietnam to try to cut off them Viet Cong.”

Interesting idea, responds LBJ, but it leaves us mighty exposed in Europe, if the Warsaw Pact gets frisky, but anyway where did you get the notion?   

Oh, over a drink with a Soviet official, you tell the president.

Yup. How much longer do you think you keep your job?  

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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