Mark Moyar: The Vietnam history you haven't heard

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mark Moyar is the author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965."]

With ever-increasing frequency, Americans are told that Iraq is another Vietnam, usually by those accusing the Bush administration of miring the United States in a hopeless war. For most who make this comparison, the Vietnam War was an act of hubris, fought for no good reason and in alliance with cowards. But new historical research shows this conventional interpretation of Vietnam to be deeply flawed. The analogy, therefore, must be rethought.

Three journalists handed down the standard version of the Vietnam War in three bestselling tomes. The first two, David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" (1972) and Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History," (1983) each sold more than 1 million copies, while the third, Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" (1988), received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

These books have profoundly influenced almost everything else that has been written about the Vietnam War. Because of the iconic status of these journalists and the political inclinations of the intelligentsia, the three books received few serious challenges - prior to the publication last summer of my "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965."

Historians such as Guenter Lewy, Lewis Sorley, and Michael Lind have also effectively contested some of the journalists' basic interpretations, and antiwar historians have produced more modest modifications, but the Halberstam-Sheehan-Karnow rendition of the war has remained dominant.

One reason for the durability of their version is that the endless repetition by other commentators produced the impression that it had to be right. Earlier, when writing a book on counterinsurgency in the latter years of the war entitled "Phoenix and the Birds of Prey," I, too, presumed that the first half of the war had been covered exhaustively. Only after many subsequent forays into archives and Vietnamese-language sources did I discover that the standard narrative of the critical early years was terribly wrong.

The books of Messrs. Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow can be fully understood only in the light of the authors' actions in Vietnam during 1962 and 1963. Their writings were key elements in the drama, particularly in the summer and fall of 1963 when the US Embassy instigated a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Undermining South Vietnam's leaderDuring 1963, in contrast to later years, the American press corps largely favored American involvement in Vietnam. Many also believed, however, that the South Vietnamese president had to be replaced before the war could be won. Perhaps not fully aware of cultural differences, they faulted Mr. Diem for refusing to afford dissidents - and US reporters - the same freedoms they enjoyed in peacetime America.

Diem mishandled the Buddhist protests of mid-1963, they contended, by using a heavy hand instead of offering concessions. In truth, Diem did make concessions initially, but the Buddhists responded by accelerating their protests, enumerating more fictitious grievances, and demanding Diem's removal. Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow largely dismissed Diem's contention that the Buddhists were infiltrated with Communist agents, yet newly available Communist sources reveal that Diem was correct.

The Buddhists' unopposed insolence in the summer of 1963 undermined the Diem government's prestige, something no Vietnamese government could afford for long. Eventually, Diem's generals recommended that the government arrest the Buddhist movement's leaders and disperse the other protesters in order to restore its prestige. Diem consented and worked together with generals in executing the mission.

But then Halberstam and Sheehan published tendentious stories accusing Diem of acting without the knowledge of the military, citing "highly reliable" - but anonymous - sources. They also published stories stating that the officer corps was upset with Diem for his treatment of the Buddhists, based heavily on information from a Reuters stringer named Pham Xuan An who, unbeknownst to them, was actually a Communist agent. The stories were not true....
Read entire article at Christian Science Monitor

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Dalek S Wu - 9/13/2007

I think you are conflating the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) a unit of Army Special Forces soldiers and Navy SEALs who operated to reconnaissance and interdict NVA supply lines in Laos and Cambodia, with the Phoenix Program, which was a joint CIA-US Army Counterintelligence Corps operation aimed at neutralising Viet Cong infrastructure within the Republic of South Vietnam.

Both of them worked with local elements (SOG had many Hmong, Rhades and Yards in their RT's, Phoenix worked with SVN police and ARVN intel.)

As for the skull patch, that was an unofficial emblem worn when safely on their bases. Anyone with a minimum grasp of military affairs will tell you that something as bright and shiny as that violates light discipline--i.e., it attracts enemy attention when you are trying to infil, and enemy attention can very likely end up in you being killed or captured.

If you want to know more about SOG, read Major John L. Plaster's "SOG: The Secret War of America's Commandos in Vietnam." There is no internet substitute for that volume. If you want to read about Phoenix, in addition to Mr. Moyar's book, there is also Colonel Stu Herrington's (who some may recognise as a critic of Abu Ghraib from Thomas E. Rick's book "Fiasco) books "Silence Was a Weapon," (also released in the 1990's as "Stalking the Vietcong.")

Peter Cushing Rollins - 8/27/2007

The Tet offensive has new life in current political debate.

The hour-length documentary about the Tet offensive which I made
some twenty years ago is still relevant, today, and has been re-released
on DVD along with scholarly articles, reviews, and a 30-minute
commentary by me.

deals with the press misreporting of the Tet offensive of 1968
and interviews Peter Braestrup, Douglas Pike, General William
C. Westmoreland, and others about the tactical and strategic
events as well as the US news coverage of the events of
January-March, 1968.

The program speaks to the debate this month, as we approach
the Petraus Report deadline. That the "surge" is being successful
in a military way only increases the likelihood of a last-minute
dramatic event in Iraq and/or elsewhere.

For an article which provided the research base for the program,
see http://fp.okstate.edu/osuengl/Rollins/3240.htm

For purchase of the program, see


(It is selling for $17.00 and I make nothing from the sales.)

Teachers should take a special interest in this film because of the
current debates and the Fall semester discussions over Iraq policy
and historical analogies.

Peter C. Rollins
Ridgemont Media

DeWayne Edward Benson - 8/25/2007

Some would like to make dictator Diem of South Vietnam as a hero, fortunately statement's like former Gen. Eisenhower "had elections been held as scheduled in Vietnam in 1956, Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the vote."
Less known is the story behind emblem or patch that was worn by the developers of the Pheonix interrogation (torture) manuals during the Vietnam era. These Pentagon designed atrocity manuals were not to fight North Vietnamese (Viet Cong), these unGodly manuals were for the torture and murder of South Vietnamese. And deeply hidden in this atrocity was the CIA (Para-Military) within military ranks of OP's, Commands, and Forces involved in Deep-Black evil.
American servicemen arriving in S.Vietnam were quickly warned not to trust the locals, because many were servants during the daylight hours, turning into Viet Cong attackers at night. So many S. Vietnamese were found to be sympathetic with Ho Chi Minh, that our government under the covert arm of the CIA established the SOG operation under the guise of the Despotic S.Vietnam leader Ngo Dinh Deim. The man and his wife were so depraved in their actions, when he was assassinated by his own regime, the US government did nothing about it. This SOG-group was said ended after the Vietnam war, but the manual or essentially same manual was found in 1991 being used to train special cadre of South American military brought to the School of the Americas in Ft Benning, Georgia. When this manual and material was actually found and brought to the attention of the (Pentagon) Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, they called it their "Dirty Tricks" manual, saying it had been destroyed. For an idea of how people can be used, see the MACVSOG websight www.macvsog.org, it shows this same SOG (religious groups) skull emblem worn on their uniforms.