by H.R. McMaster
New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Pp. 446.
. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $27.50. ISBN:0-06-018795-6
The Vietnam War was a traumatic experience for the United States. America lost 58,000 dead, hundreds of thousands wounded. Ultimately, the effort to keep South Vietnam from falling under Communist oppression failed. The question some ask is, “Where did it go wrong?”
H.R. McMaster, the hero of the Battle of 73 Easting in Iraq in 1991, provides a lengthy look into the American involvement in Vietnam. He describes how the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson made decisions to prosecute the war in the early stages. McMaster goes into incredible detail of how the men interacted.
In a sense, McMaster’s biggest villain is not Robert S. McNamara (who arguably deserves that role), it is the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With the exception of Curtis LeMay, who was retained for an additional year to keep him quiet during the 1964 presidential campaign, they are portrayed as taking the path of least resistance as opposed to standing up to a civilian leadership that was not willing to be honest with the American people about what was involved in Vietnam. In a sense, they were caught between a rock and a hard place. All of them, to one degree or another, felt that civilian control of the military was “essential to a Democracy” (McMaster’s quotation of LeMay). At the same time, there were deep concerns about the direction, and these men were being lied to and manipulated by President Johnson.
McMaster provides notes and a bibliography – one can easily make one’s own judgements about what he has written. His timeframe – from November, 1963 to July, 1965, is small enough that he is able to cover it well. The details are present in a huge quantity. When one wishes to study, and therefore learn from, the mistakes made in the lead-in to Vietnam, this book is an invaluable starting point. Herein lies its value, which is immense. It shows, in great detail, how not to lead a country into war.
By only focusing on this timeline, however, a lack of context results. It seems to be a bit presumptuous to focus on a period of 20 months, and proclaim that the sole cause of losing the Vietnam War is there. Particularly when there are comments from North Vietnamese leadership that point towards the anti-war movement (see Bui Tin’s August, 1995 interview with the Wall Street Journal and Vo Ngyuen Giap’s memoirs of 1976 for their thoughts). Certainly, the mistakes made in Washington improved the North Vietnamese strategy’s chances of success, but the anti-war movement cannot be given a pass for its part in ending a war that was being won on the battlefield in spite of the mistakes made in the timeframe McMaster has so brilliantly covered.
That said, this is a brilliant book that deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone who is studying the Vietnam War. It is immensely valuable in the area and timeframe that McMaster has focused on.