Prelude to Tragedy: Vietnam, 1960-1965

Article excerpt

Edited by Harvey Neese and John O'Donnell. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001. 309 pages. $32.95.

This book is a collection of the experiences and opinions of five American and three Vietnamese leaders who were involved in nascent counterinsurgency programs of the US and South Vietnamese governments. One of the editors, Harvey Neese, served in Vietnam with the International Voluntary Services, managing agricultural projects; the second editor, John O'Donnell, served as a provincial representative of the Agency for International Development in Vietnam, working in agricultural and rural development. The other three Americans who provided essays, Bert Fraleigh, "Rufe" Phillips, and George Tanham, had broad and repetitive service in US economic aid programs in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. The three Vietnamese essayists, Hoang Lac, Lu Lan, and Tran Ngoc Chau, were senior officers of the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) who also had political responsibilities. Two of these officers began their military service with the Viet Minh forces of North Vietnam. Most of these contributors are known only to those interested in or affected by the war; however, the foreword is provided by Richard Holbrooke, who has become well known for his recent diplomatic endeavors as a roving ambassador of the United States.

The common theme of the individual stories, and the foreword, is of early success by US and Vietnamese officials in programs for improving the economy and security in rural areas. The authors agree that these programs were distorted and reduced in effectiveness by US authorities who refused to listen to those agents who were in the field and familiar with Asian cultures and the intricacies of counterinsurgency. The rapid and uncontrolled buildup of US assistance programs militarized and Americanized the struggle against the communists, according to the authors. The US military chain of command, from Saigon to Washington, is criticized for building ARVN as a conventional force, unsuited to the demands of counterinsurgency. The Vietnamese authors describe a fragile ARVN leadership, wracked by political favoritism and shifting cabals, and thus unable to act decisively.

US complicity in the coup that overthrew Vietnamese President Diem is highlighted as a major mistake. Bureaucratic infighting also diluted the focus and the effects of the US effort. "This is not a military but a political war," argued Rufe Phillips, "and it's being lost." Bert Fraleigh charged the loss of the war to American leaders, who "through ignorance and arrogance, denied counterinsurgency for South Vietnam."

These criticisms are made by many writers, and they are generally valid. With respect to military assistance, the United States engirded ARVN with vehicles and relatively heavy weapons, thus allowing their Vietnamese counterparts to emphasize fire support in lieu of maneuver and to become ever more bound to movement on roads and major trails. …