Mark Moyar: Q & A with the author of a revisionist history of the Vietnam War

Historians in the News

The following are a series of questions and answers with Mark Moyar that will provide further understanding of his revolutionary argument in Triumph Forsaken:

Q: You argue in Triumph Forsaken that much of what is traditionally believed about the Vietnam War is not true. Let’s start with your views on South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. The traditional thinking is that he was unpopular among the South Vietnamese people and that, after his crackdown on the Buddhist monks, the United States administration was happy to see him go and gave Diem’s generals their blessing for the coup against him in 1963. You believe that this school of thought is misguided. What do you think is the more accurate assessment of Diem and why?

A: Diem enjoyed the respect of many Vietnamese because of his asceticism, personality, and dedication to the welfare of his country. He governed in an authoritarian way because he considered Western-style democracy inappropriate for a country that was fractious and dominated by an authoritarian culture. The accuracy of this belief would be borne out by the events that followed his assassination, events that heretofore have not been covered adequately. Diem was not as heavy-handed as the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, and Diem’s traditional, but not reactionary, ideology had more appeal among the Vietnamese people than Ho Chi Minh’s radical ideology. Diem did not kill tens of thousands in the process of redistributing land or stifle religion as Ho Chi Minh did. For most of Diem’s tenure, the South Vietnamese government outfought the Vietnamese Communists. In the late 1950s, Diem succeeded in eliminating most of the Communist agents who had remained in the South after the partition of Vietnam in July 1954. During 1960 and 1961, however, the Viet Cong made considerable headway in launching a large-scale insurgency. The war took another dramatic turn in 1962, with the Diem government regaining the upper hand. Relying on young leaders whom Diem had begun cultivating in the 1950s, the South Vietnamese government fortified its local militia forces and its mobile units during 1962 and 1963. It inflicted numerous defeats on the Viet Cong’s armed forces and re-established control over most of the territory where the Viet Cong had made inroads in 1960 and 1961.

Diem’s critics believed that the Buddhist protest movement of 1963 stemmed from popular dissatisfaction with a government guilty of religious intolerance. The Buddhist protesters were, in reality, a small, politically-minded group that made false charges in an effort to unseat the government. The leaders had close ties to the Communists or were themselves Communists, and Communist secret agents participated extensively in their protest activities. In Vietnam, where a government lost face if it condoned strident public protest, Diem ultimately had to suppress the Buddhist movement in order to preserve his government. He suppressed it very effectively on August 21, 1963, by arresting its leaders and clearing the pagodas where it was headquartered. This maneuver was actually proposed and executed by Diem’s generals, a critical fact lost on those Americans who sought to remove Diem for suppressing the protesters. Most remarkably, the anti-Diem Americans decided that Diem should be replaced with these very generals. While Diem’s generals thought that he remained the best man for the Presidency, the ensuing renunciations of Diem by the U.S government and press ultimately caused some of them to remove him from power. President Kennedy did not personally consent to the coup that ousted Ngo Dinh Diem; U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge instigated the coup without notifying Kennedy and in direct violation of Presidential orders. A few days before the coup was to commence, according to previously untapped documents and presidential audio recordings, Kennedy learned that Lodge was encouraging the conspirators behind his back and he sent messages of protestation to Lodge but did not take decisive action to reign him in, primarily because Lodge was a leading candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination in the 1964 election. Lodge’s incitement of the coup that overthrew Diem in November 1963 was by far the worst American mistake of the Vietnam War. As the title of the book indicates, the coup negated the great military and political gains that the Diem government had made in 1962 and 1963. Contrary to later assertions by the coup’s advocates, the South Vietnamese war effort had not entered into a period of decline during the last months of Diem’s rule, as is proven by previously unexamined North Vietnamese sources. The deterioration did not begin until the period immediately following Diem’s overthrow, when the new leaders failed to lead, feuded with each other, and arrested untold numbers of former Diem supporters.

Q: You come down harshly on President Lyndon Johnson and his administration for not taking a stronger stance against the North Vietnamese more quickly. Can you discuss this a bit more?

A: Previously unexamined North Vietnamese sources reveal that Lyndon Johnson’s lack of forcefulness in Vietnam in late 1964 and early 1965 squandered America’s deterrent power. Johnson’s generals favored striking North Vietnam quickly and powerfully, but he chose to follow the advice of his civilian advisers, who advocated an academic approach employing small doses of force to convey America’s resolve without provoking the enemy. Johnson made only a token attack on North Vietnam following the Tonkin Gulf incidents of 1964 and undertook no military action thereafter. Instead of inducing the North Vietnamese to reciprocate with self-limitations as advocates of the academic approach had predicted, however, the limited character of the American response convinced Hanoi that the Americans would not mount a major defense of Vietnam in the near future. This perception, in concert with the disintegration of the South Vietnamese government following Diem’s demise, led the North Vietnamese to invade South Vietnam with North Vietnamese Army units for the purpose of winning the war swiftly.

Q: One of the justifications for the US involvement in Vietnam was the so-called “domino theory,” the idea that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, then the rest of Asia would succumb as well, dangerously shifting the balance of power in the Cold War. While many claim that history has proven the domino theory to be false, you assert that it was indeed a legitimate theory. How so?

A: The U.S. government’s fear of falling dominoes in Asia was based on a sound understanding of the countries in Southeast Asia and the surrounding areas, not on simple-mindedness or paranoia as is usually alleged. For most of the region’s countries, the evidence available both then and since overwhelmingly indicated that South Vietnam’s defeat would have led to either a Communist takeover or the switching of allegiance to China. Some of these countries were strategically vital for the United States, most notably Indonesia and Japan. In 1965, China and North Vietnam were aggressively trying to topple many of the dominoes, and the dominoes were very vulnerable to toppling. Asia’s leaders believed that if the United States pulled out of Vietnam, then most of Asia would lose all confidence in the United States and would have to bow before China or face destruction. Every country in Southeast Asia and neighboring territory, aside from the few that were already allied with the North Vietnamese and Chinese Communists, advocated U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and most of them offered to assist the South Vietnamese war effort. American intervention in Vietnam would contribute to changes that would prevent the dominoes from falling when South Vietnam fell in 1975, including the widening of the China-Soviet split, the onset of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the civil war in Cambodia. Unbeknownst to previous historians, America’s willingness to hold firm in Vietnam played a critical role in convincing Indonesian generals to take power from the pro-Communist Sukarno and destroy the Indonesian Communist Party in late 1965 and early 1966, one of the most momentous events of the Cold War.

Q: You are critical of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations for not recognizing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos as vital for the maintenance of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supply lines into South Vietnam. Many historians let Kennedy and Johnson off the hook but you assert that disrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail early in the war was essential. Can you discuss this further?

A: The Joint Chiefs of Staff repeatedly recommended putting U.S. ground forces into Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but both presidents rejected the recommendations. While some historians have endorsed the view that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was not essential to the Communist war effort, new evidence on the trail and on specific battles disprove this contention. The Viet Cong insurgency always depended heavily on North Vietnamese infiltration of men and equipment, and it could not have brought the Saigon government close to collapse in 1965, or defeated it in 1975, without heavy infiltration of both. Other historians have argued that an American ground troop presence in Laos would not have stopped most of the infiltration, but much new evidence contradicts this assertion as well. American, North Vietnamese, and Soviet experts all have said that a few American divisions could have shut down the infiltration routes. In 1960, when the North Vietnamese infiltration had involved no motorized traffic, a South Vietnamese force
roughly the size of one division had severed the first Ho Chi Minh Trail—which lay within Vietnamese territory—by controlling the South Vietnamese section of Route 9, a stretch that comprised one-fourth of the entire route. In 1964, with the infiltration effort heavily reliant on trucks, the United States could have detected and stopped most infiltration of materiel much more easily because trucks could cross the Laotian segment of Route 9 at only a few intersections.

Q: Could the United States have won the war by invading North Vietnam?

A: After the overthrow of Diem, as the South Vietnamese war effort deteriorated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other U.S. military leaders repeatedly advocated an invasion of North Vietnam. Johnson and his civilian advisers, however, rejected this advice, in the belief that such an invasion could spark a war between the United States and China. Historians have generally concurred in the assessment that Chinese intervention was likely. The evidence, however, shows that until at least March 1965, the deployment of U.S. ground forces into North Vietnam would not have caused the Chinese to intercede. Having suffered huge losses in the Korean War, the Chinese had no more desire than the Americans for a war between their country and the United States. The North Vietnamese and Chinese agreed that in the event of an American invasion, North Vietnamese forces would retreat into the mountains rather than stand and fight, for they knew that superior U.S. firepower would annihilate North Vietnamese forces defending fixed positions. The United States would not have won the war quickly had it invaded the North, but it would have faced a far better strategic scenario than the one it ultimately accepted by not invading.

Q: You believe that many journalists at the time, including David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, were inaccurate in their assessment of the Diem regime in South Vietnam and that their reporting in major media outlets in the US did tremendous damage. Can you expand on this a bit more?

A: Halberstam and Sheehan repeatedly filed erroneous reports on military events, regularly overemphasizing the South Vietnamese government’s shortcomings. John Paul Vann, the central figure in Sheehan’s book A Bright Shining Lie and a leading critic of the Diem government, was more dishonest in dealing with the press than Sheehan ever acknowledged. Halberstam and Sheehan presented grossly inaccurate information on the Buddhist protest movement and on South Vietnamese politics, much of which they unwittingly received from Communist secret agents. Ignorant of cultural differences between the United States and Vietnam, they criticized the Diem government for refusing to act like an American government when, in fact, Diem’s political methods were far more effective than American methods in treating South Vietnam’s problems. The reporting of Halberstam and Sheehan did much to turn Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and other influential Americans against Diem. South Vietnam’s elites regularly read Vietnamese translations of American press articles and they viewed the New York Times and other U.S. newspapers as mouthpieces for the U.S. administration, so negative articles on the Diem government also undermined South Vietnamese confidence in Diem and encouraged rebellion. Although the American journalists hoped that their reporting would bring about the installation of a better South Vietnamese government, it actually led to the installation of a series of ineffective governments, inflicting enormous damage on South Vietnam and on American interests. Once the coup that they had promoted led to political and military disaster, exposing them to blame for the crippling of South Vietnam, Halberstam and Sheehan and Stanley Karnow falsely disparaged Diem so as to claim that South Vietnam was already weak beyond hope before the coup. Their writings popularized the negative images of Diem.

Q: Do you believe that the war could have ended without a major deployment of US military personnel if the United States had fully supported the Diem regime?

A: Yes. Because of Diem’s accomplishments in 1962 and 1963, the Viet Cong lacked the ability to defeat the government at the time of Diem’s death, and for a considerable period thereafter. Had Diem remained in power, the Viet Cong could have kept the war going as long as they continued to receive new manpower from North Vietnam and maintained sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, but it is highly doubtful that the war would have reached the point where the United States needed to introduce several hundred thousand of its own troops to avert defeat, as it did under Diem’s successors. South Vietnam might well have survived under Diem without the help of any U.S. ground forces. The men who led South Vietnam from November 1963 to the time of the American intervention prosecuted the war much less effectively than Diem had, and this weak performance helped overcome Hanoi’s great reluctance to send the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam. If the North Vietnamese Army had invaded the South at some later date with Diem still in power, South Vietnam might have withstood the onslaught with the help of U.S. air power but without U.S. ground troops, as it would in 1972.

Q: What does your book tell us that is relevant to the current conflict in Iraq?

A: I did not mention Iraq in the book because my objective was not to make points about Iraq but to render the history of the Vietnam War accurately. That being said, there are some important similarities, as well as some important differences, between what is described in the book and what is taking place today in Iraq. In 1954, the armed forces of South Vietnam faced some of the same challenges that the Iraqi security forces face now. South Vietnamese President Diem removed numerous officers from the South Vietnamese Army, though the armed forces were not dismantled completely as was the case with the Iraqi army after the defeat of Saddam Hussein. American advisers arrived early in the development of the South Vietnamese
Army and they did much to improve its proficiency. The most important factor in the effectiveness of a South Vietnamese Army unit, however, was always the quality of its leadership. In a culture with authoritarian traditions, such as Vietnam or Iraq, effective leadership is especially important. Advisers could impart knowledge and they could embolden through the display of courage, but they could not teach charisma, intelligence, and other key leadership attributes. Oftentimes the most important contribution of an American adviser was his assessment of South Vietnamese leaders, for it could help convince the South Vietnamese national leadership to replace ineffectual personnel. Because Diem inherited a weak corps of officers who had been trained by the French, he set out to develop his own leadership corps. He succeeded in creating a new generation of dedicated nationalist leaders, but it would take seven years before these individuals came into key positions and had a major impact. The South Vietnamese experience, therefore, suggests that strong Iraqi leadership can only be developed over a prolonged period of time. It is also not clear at this time that Iraq has a person or group that can effectively orchestrate the cultivation of new leaders as Diem did; Diem had greater freedom of action than Iraq’s leaders do today, for he was not confronted with democratic or legal constraints, or with rampant assassination of prospective leadership candidates.

Forming a government that can develop a leadership corps and adopt the necessary security measures will also require that Iraqis overcome intense internecine strife, something that South Vietnam faced on several occasions. In an effort to surmount such strife, the United States pressed for political liberalization in South Vietnam as it has in Iraq, though it was much less aggressive in pushing for complete democratization than in Iraq. In both the South Vietnamese and Iraqi cases, many Americans were too hasty to assume that liberal government could easily be transplanted into places with no liberal democratic traditions. Americans tended to project their own worldview onto others, and they paid too much heed to local elites who advocated liberalization but were out of touch with the masses in their own country. Enacting liberalization in South Vietnam would have prevented the Diem government from undertaking the stern measures needed to suppress subversives and gain the respect of the masses. When Diem first assumed power in 1954, he faced several large groups that possessed their own armed forces and did not want to submit to the authority of the central government. The U.S. embassy urged Diem to reach a compromise, not understanding that by trying to compromise and by tolerating open defiance from these groups, Diem would lose face with the masses. Ignoring American advice, Diem used force to compel these groups to submit to his authority. Rather than leading to alienation or civil war, as the Americans had predicted, he strengthened his power and won the respect of the masses. He then proceeded to build strong national armed forces. This particular episode suggests that the central government should control all armed forces during a period of civil strife, in order to ensure their loyalty to the central government and increase the government’s prestige. Such centralization, however, may no longer be possible in Iraq, or at least in
northern Iraq, where the Kurds enjoy autonomy and possess very formidable armed forces of their own.

In the period after Diem’s assassination, an array of South Vietnamese factions struggled with each other for influence. American prodding induced the South Vietnamese government to permit freedom of speech and freedom of protest, which facilitated subversion by the South Vietnamese government’s mortal enemies, and the same problem is now recurring, to some degree, in Iraq. The United States pressured South Vietnam’s rulers to make their government more “inclusive” by bringing in individuals from all groups in society. When the South Vietnamese did so, however, the results were discouraging, for the new individuals often were unqualified for their jobs and were more concerned with serving their own group’s interests than with operating an effective national government. Nor did inclusiveness or the promise of elections do much to reduce the hostility among the different groups. In terms of governmental effectiveness, a dedicated minority may be best suited to national leadership, in Iraq as well as in South Vietnam; Saddam Hussein’s government, like Diem’s government, was more effective in maintaining internal security and administering the country than its successors. Of course, the United States has already done a great deal to eliminate the power of the Sunnis and others who held power under Saddam Hussein and it is not clear that another dedicated elite is prepared to step in. Although the United States is inherently reluctant to support something short of democracy in a country for which it bears responsibility, many Americans at this point would be content with non-democratic rule in Iraq if it meant that the Iraqi government would be strong enough to enable the United States to withdraw its troops. By the middle of 1965, the United States had become so frustrated with governmental instability and ineffectiveness in Vietnam that it consented to a military dictatorship, which restored political stability and led to gradual rehabilitation of the government’s capabilities. In South Vietnam, and in many other countries with no democratic traditions, authoritarian rule was more effective than liberal rule in quelling internal subversion. The difficult process of liberalization generally succeeds only once the subversives have been suppressed, and it usually requires a gradual transition, not an abrupt change.

The differences of opinion between the U.S. civilian and military leadership over Vietnam resemble those of the past few years over Iraq. President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and other leading civilians disregarded advice from top military officers to strike North Vietnam harder and insert U.S. troops into Laos to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, either of which would have given the United States enormous strategic advantages. The civilians believed that their smarts and their youthful vigor trumped the experience and accumulated knowledge of the military officers. Under the administration of George W. Bush, leading civilians have shown similar disregard for the military’s views on Iraq, especially during the planning and initial execution of the occupation of Iraq, with similarly unfortunate results. While the judgments of military officers are not infallible, they deserve greater attention from civilian leaders, particularly those with visions of dramatic departures from past military practices.
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Edwin Moise - 10/8/2006

I have looked at only a few pages of this book, dealing with a subject that happened to be on my mind when I saw it, the Tonkin Gulf incidents of 1964. While Moyar should be commended for his use of Vietnamese sources, in other respects his research seems to have been hasty and careless. Problems I noted on pages 310-311:

p. 310, lines 7-8, refer to "six South Vietnamese commando boats that were speeding southward" on the morning of July 31, 1964. There were only four commando boats, not six.

p. 311, lines 15-16, describing the attack of U.S. aircraft against North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 2, 1964, says "The aircraft hit two of the boats with nine-foot long Zuni rockets and 20mm gunfire,..." It is very unlikely that even one boat was hit by a Zuni rocket; certainly not two. The pilots firing the Zuni rockets did not believe they had scored any hits with them.

p. 311, lower down, describes how on the evening of August 4, "the Maddox decrypted enemy messages suggesting that unspecified North Vietnamese vessels would soon attack it and the Turner Joy, and one hour later, radar operators on board the Maddox spotted what appeared to be surface vessels advancing toward the two destroyers at speeds of 35 to 40 knots. . . . When the fast-moving radar blips had closed within 7,000 yards of the Turner Joy and the Maddox, both destroyers began firing salvos." Difficulties with this include: a) The North Vietnamese vessels were not "unspecified" in the enemy messages; three vessels were clearly identified. b) There was very little suggestion in these messages that any attack on anything was contemplated. c) The enemy messages were not decrypted by the Maddox; they were decrypted by American listening posts at San Miguel (in the Philippines) and Phu Bai (in South Vietnam). It was not the actual decrypted text of the intercepted messages, but a misleading summary of one of them written at Phu Bai, that gave officers on the Maddox the impression they were likely to be attacked. d) The radar contacts detected shortly after the enemy messages were decrypted were not "advancing toward the destroyers." The record of their movements does not suggest they were trying to approach the destroyers, and they eventually disappeared from the radar without ever having gotten within twenty miles of the destroyers. The two contacts at which the Turner Joy and the Maddox eventually opened fire (one of which was tracked on the radar of the Turner Joy but was invisible to the radar of the Maddox, and the other of which was tracked on the radar of the Maddox but was invisible to the radar of the Turner Joy) had popped up on the radar suddenly at ranges of less than 5 miles, almost an hour after the original contacts had disappeared from the radar at very long range.

Moyar eventually acknowledges that in hindsight, it appears there was not actually an attack on the two American destroyers on the night of August 4. But he gives an impression that this is only hindsight, and that the evidence available at the time strongly supported the reality of the attack. I am a bit annoyed by the way Moyar carefuly selects from my own book only those facts that support this impression. Note 9 to p. 311 discusses what appeared on the radar of the destroyer Turner Joy during the imaginary battle on the night of August 4, when the Maddox and the Turner Joy believed they were being attacked by PT boats. It begins: "The radar operators on the Turner Joy were firmly convinced that their ship had engaged and destroyed enemy sea craft. The contacts had not behaved like phantom contacts would, they observed, a conclusion supported by a subsequent investigation. Moise, _Tonkin Gulf_, 125, 135, 137, 203-4;..." While it is true that those pages of my book _Tonkin Gulf_ do quote men who said or wrote, after the incident, that the radar contacts had been continuous and consistent, looking like real vessels, my book pointed out that the detailed records they had kept during the incident, of what was appearing on their screens, very strongly contradicted these later statements. The records written during the incident are of numerous objects appearing on the radar screens and then disappearing very quickly, like phantoms. The "later investigation" to which Moyar refers had taken some of these brief contacts, and linked them together to create a spurious picture of prolonged ones.