Latest Read: Viet Nam A History from Earliest Times to the Present

Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present by Ben Kiernan is a refreshing historical view void of French or American influence. Kiernan is a professor of History, International, and Area Studies at Yale University.
Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the PresentMy interest, of course,  French and American wars focused on Part Five: Colonies: Chapter 9 Writing and Revolution from Colonialism to Independence, 1920-54.

Kiernan delivers an amazing deep look at the American nightmare in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century. We have few if any books that look at Vietnam’s history from Kiernan’s perspective.

Still seeking to learn new insights into French rule across Indochina this was a deep, intense review of the shifting powers between Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai. Kiernan should be credited with documenting the impact of a great famine over the previous sixty years.

This produced a very odd relationship. Bao Dai was the final emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling family of Vietnam. Until the end of the Second World War, Bao Dai was appointed emperor of Annam under French rule. His role remained after March 1945 when Japanese troops ousted French military rule throughout Indochina. He abdicated upon the Japanese surrendered.

Yet during the previous two generations, thousands of Vietnamese starved to death. Kiernan reveals in elaborate research the role of journalism spreading in the early 1900s throughout Indochina. The most immediate impact was upon Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism throughout Vietnam. This also launched the first public political parties in 1919.

Bao Dai ruled the State of Vietnam from 1949 to 1955 under French influence during the first Indochina war. Yet he ruled from Hong Kong and China. After the French installed Dai to govern the country, Ho persuaded Dai to abdicate in August 1945. His departure handed power to the Viet Minh. Yet Dai was appointed Supreme Advisor to Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
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Latest read: None So Blind

Regarded as one of the CIA’s premiere Vietnam intelligence experts George W. Allen wrote a 2001 memoir None So Blind: A personal account of the intelligence failure in Vietnam that remains an alarming insight of intelligence failures that forecasted both France and America’s defeat in Vietnam. Allen’s contributions set the stage regrettably for the Pentagon and White House to also follow France’s misplaced goals for the next twenty-five years.
None So Blind: A personal account of the intelligence failure in VietnamMy interest in Allen’s memoir developed from reading a series of confidential reports by the US military and CIA from the 1950s.

Declassified in the late 1990s the documents address the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

Many of those documents point to Allen’s intelligence reports and analysis. Naturally this peaked my wish to better understand the American intelligence analysis of the French defeat.

Allen holds a unique, deep understanding of the Indochina Wars (France 1945-1950) and the coming failure of America’s intervention on behalf of South Vietnam 1960-1974. The lessons in his book leave deep, haunting impressions today on the White House and Pentagon leaders who ignored our intelligence community.
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Latest read: The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow is another stunning book regarding the French defeat in Indochina. He follows the same historical accuracy as Archimedes Patti’s Why Vietnam? Prelude to America’s Albatross and Bernard Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu.

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam

Windrow has written an amazing history of France’s approach to defeat the Viet Minh. His work complements a select number of authors who have brought to life an important battle long overlooked in the late 1950s by America that contributed heavily to our entry into Vietnam.

Similar to my review of Ted Morgan’s book Valley of Death The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War the siege is a stunning look by Windrow at a morally bankrupt 4th republic attempting to re-colonize Indochina beginning in 1946. World War II in Europe was over with rebuilding was underway. France attempted along with Britain to reclaim colonial territories after the surrender of Japan.

In great detail the opening chapters document French losses from 1948 to 1952. His attention to detail is amazing. These repeated failures as Windrow noted began to show weak points within the French Union. Clearly they had no ability to defeat the Viet Minh at the Laotian border.
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Latest read: Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War

The Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan is a simply stunning read. This book proves to be a perfect follow up to the CIA’s Archimedes Patti revealing Why Vietnam? Prelude to America’s Albatross and Bernard Fall’s excellent Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu.

This review below includes a series of powerful quotes from the 700+ pages that should turn your stomach as French leaders permitted men to die just to save face for their failing empire. It is truly stunning across this book to see a morally bankrupt France fight to re-colonize Indochina.

Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam WarMorgan set the post-World War II stage inside Indochina for any reader to learn how France was able to maintain a rule over Indochina during the occupation by the Japanese Imperial coup in Vietnam. Valley of Death reveals how the CIA approached Ho Chi Minh before D-Day to rescue downed US Air Force pilots from Japanese troops throughout Indochina. Ho urgently cooperated and was rewarded with munitions and a US Army Deer Team sent by the CIA to Ho Chi Minh. Their mission? To train and lead Viet Minh troops against the Japanese. This includes raids on Japanese positions in northern Vietnam after both atomic bombs were dropped.

Again Valley of Death clearly reveals US and Viet Minh relations were bonded against Japanese control of Indochina during World War II.
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Latest read: Hell In A Very Small Place The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu

Bernard Fall wrote a compelling yet sober book Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu. Fall was a respected journalist who predicted the failure of French efforts to re-colonize Indochina after World War II. He delivers a first hand account. He was on the ground with French troops beginning in 1953. He returned to Indochina multiple times before dying in a 1967 ambush with US troops in Operation Chinook II.

hell in a very small placeOn more than one occasion in the opening chapters the French considered permanently passing on Dien Bien Phu as a location to confront the Viet Minh to stop their push into Laos. Google Satellite Map of the valley Dien Bien Phu.

At first glance this is a Greek Tragedy. Yet Fall reveals, to simply save face on the global stage France continued to send men to their deaths over the 56 day siege. In Paris and Hanoi the commitment was NOT to win the war but rather simply hold the garrison as means to strengthen negotiations at the Geneva Accords.

At the earliest stages of the French occupation General Henri Navarre and Lt. General Rene Cogny would spare over the definition of the Dien Bien Phu defensive parameter with tragic consequences.

Cogny defined Dien Bien Phu as a guerilla camp or ‘mooring point’ defense, Navarre interpreted a ‘heghog’ or airhead defense be established which had proven successful for France against the Viet Minh at the Battle of Na San. Regardless the French defensive positions were never implemented to withstand the Viet Minh onslaught that came in waves and deadly accurate cannon fire.

Hell In A Very Small Place reveals during this early confusion French intelligence intercepted multiple radio messages revealing strong evidence of the enemy’s shift of two established divisions heading towards Dien Bien Phu. Yet this intelligence was only debated between Navarre and Cogny. They never acted on this intelligence. This led to increased disagreements between the two at the cost of their men.

No French military leader could forecast a cease fire in the Korean War. This permitted Communist China to shift much needed weapons from Soviet Russia and material into Dien Bien Phu in mid 1953.

It is discouraging to read Fall’s account of the Allied losses around Dien Bien Phu beginning in November 1953, three months before the Viet Minh would launch their initial attack at Dien Bien Phu. The cold war shifted tides from Korea to Indochina.

Fall’s other recognized book Street without Joy reveals how 400 French Union troops were confronted by nearly 1,000 Viet Minh in hand to hand combat. They “simply fixed bayonet and walked into death.” Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place extends this horrific sacrifice.
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Latest read: Street without Joy

Bernard Fall‘s excellent and respected Street Without Joy provides deep insights to the French catastrophe in Vietnam culminating at Dien Bien Phu. Fall is recognized as a respected journalist who understood the failure of France. He was on the ground with French troops.

Street without Joy

Fall’s experience sharing French losses are shocking even 50 years later. And yet in war there are a number of truly heroic acts by French and American soldiers fighting a determined Viet Minh enemy.

Declassified in 2005 American pilots James McGovern and Wallace Buford where killed flying over Dien Bien Phu, just 24 hours before the French surrender.

Fall illustrates a perfect example of the French effort: in 1953 the army spent $20 million dollars to build a runway. It buckled when the first airplane landed and was abandoned.

France was complete decimated by World War II. The country literally did not have an air force until 1950. French planes supporting IndoChina included just 60 Spitfires — made from wood and canvas. Most planes were German Junkers 52s. The true irony, the French had to actually locate parts in Germany to repair Junkers damaged fighting the Viet Minh. For French pilots the demands were worse:

Nothing has thus far been said about the incredible strain of that operation on the air and ground crews of the French Far Eastern Air Force and Naval Aviation. At the height of the battle, in April 1954, many crews logged 150 flying hours. Dozens of pilots collapsed from exhaustion, but simply were doped up and returned to combat, for experienced pilots rapidly became even scarcer than aircraft. When, in the face of possible diplomatic complications, the American civilian air crews and their C-119’s were pulled out on April 24 from the Dien Bien Phu run—they were allowed to return to the run on May 1 – there remained only fifty French planes capable of flying the long and exhausting mission.
–page262

Embers of War reminds us that Parisians concerned about the welfare of the garrison, a majority of soldiers were not French. The colonial French Union permitted France under their empire to place soldiers from Laos, Cambodia, Tunisia, French Guinea and Morocco at Dien Bien Phu. As the battle inched closer a stunning 3,000 to 4,000 Moroccan troops deserted their posts and escaped into the jungle. The empire was over.

It would not be fair to say Fall ignored the horrors of war in this book. The tremendous loss of life, even French officers who lost sons fighting the Viet Minh. While tragically sobering it was not enough to change America’s focus off long term goals in Europe that played out in IndoChina ten years later.

Most strikingly President Eisenhower established Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) IndoChina in 1950. US Army Lt. General John O’Daniel was appointed Chief of MAAG Indo-China. O’Daniel actually toured Dien Bien Phu less than 90 days before the siege. He reported the garrison to be in a sound position.

Latest read: Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America’s Albatross

It took me four years to locate Why Viet Nam?: Prelude to America’s Albatross by Archimedes Patti. US Army Lieutenant Colonel Patti joined the OSS (CIA) and was assigned to Indo-China in January 1944 six months before D-Day. This is one of those rare books that layout the foundation of America’s role in Vietnam before the end of World War II.

Why Viet Nam?The strong Vietnamese opposition to French and British efforts to re-colonize IndoChina after World War II for natural resources. Sound familiar? Patti provides surprising details regarding the CIA’s established relationship with Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh.

This is simply a must read to understand how the CIA, US Army and US State Department established a foundation for IndoChina during World War II.

Yet for all of Ho’s efforts Patti reveals from D-Day to the dropping of the atomic bomb that old white European leaders alone determined the future of IndoChina with a second run of colonial exploitation of Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian peoples.

Patti was able to document the original developing political structures in Asia by the middle of World War II. Patti began meeting with Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. He writes how both developed an independant and nationalist view of Vietnam’s future vs continued European and Chinese colonialism.

Make no mistake Dean Acheson established the “creation of an American world order” while Patti was the CIA officer on the ground. The CIA and State Department’s initial records on Ho Chi Minh were established in a cable written on December 31 1942 as the CIA was seeking French relations with Texaco in IndoChina.

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Latest read: Embers of War

Fredrick Logevall won the 2013 Pulitzer for Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. Today America continues to hold a quiet, deep divide when looking inward to find the truth regarding our long nightmare in Vietnam.

Logevall traces America’s involvement to Paris at the end of World War I. A young Nguyen Ai Quoc sought support at the June 1919 Paris Peace Conference from US President Wilson. Quoc carried a declaration addressing a free Vietnam. He never met with Wilson. At the conclusion of the conference Nguyen Ai Quoc, translated to mean “He Who Loves his Country” changed his name to Ho Chi Minh.

Embers of War

Astounding that in 1919 a young revolutionary could patiently wait 50 years for his opportunity to bring independence to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh would become (much to our regret) one of the most famous revolutionaries in history.

He led his country to defeat two western powers in a devastating war that lasted over 30 years. His cause was a war of independence against the French and then the Americans.

Interesting to learn how well Ho Chi Minh understood America. He lived in Boston and New York City. He worked as a cook, a baker and later a production line manager for General Motors before returning to Europe.

Embers of War beautifully illustrates how the US State Department shifted policy from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Harry S. Truman. It was only strengthened under Eisenhower. It is still difficult to imagine the level of initial support in men, money and weapons we gave to support Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh against French colonial rule after World War II. It is a stark wake up to read how CIA advisors met with Ho Chi Minh and our US Army units training his troops.

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Surprising Roosevelt letter to Hirohito on December 6th

The Pentagon Papers (Volume V-B1 The Roosevelt Administration 1940-1945) reveals a surprising Roosevelt letter to Emperor Hirohito on December 6th just one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed our interests in Vietnam began even before World War II.
The Pentagon PapersThis memorandum really makes you consider a deeper look at diplomatic communications leading up to the surprise attack.

The U.S. supported French colonial rule in Indochina and moved against Japanese invasion and subsequent surrender of French forces after Japan’s Imperial army marched on Saigon.

Based upon early recollections of history it can be surprising to discover President Roosevelt’s letter to Emperor Hirohito on December 6th. FDR loosely suggested U.S. soldiers could be deployed to Vietnam and confront Japanese forces. By December 6th the Japanese army and navy had successfully confronted French colonial troops on Vietnam’s coastline and were in control of Saigon.

Saber-rattling? Perhaps. Clearly U.S. interests in Indochina came into greater focus after Roosevelt stopped petroleum sales to Japan following their invasions of China and Indochina. Japan acting to secure territory-rich petroleum to support their war efforts targeted the oil rich Dutch East Indies.

Roosevelt expressed that Japan’s invasion of Indochina was “unthinkable” and hinted at sending US troops to Vietnam unless Japan abandoned Indochina. Cannot help but read this saber-rattling with the existing strenuous relations between Japan and the United States:

President Roosevelt to Emperor Hirohito of Japan
Washington December 6, 1941

More than a year ago Your Majesty’s Government concluded an agreement with the Vichy Government by which five or six thousand Japanese troops were permitted to enter into Northern French Indo-China for the protection of Japanese troops which were operating against China further north. And this Spring and Summer the Vichy Government permitted further. Japanese military forces to enter into Southern French Indo-China for the common defense of French Indo-China. I think I am correct in saying that no attack has been made upon Indo-China, nor that any has been contemplated.

During the past few weeks it has become clear to the world that Japanese military, naval and air forces have been sent to Southern Indo-China in such large numbers as to create a reasonable doubt on the part of other nations that this continuing concentration in Indo-China is not defensive in its character.

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French request to US: Drop 3 atomic bombs at Dien Bien Phu

The Pentagon Papers revealed a startling event: France requested the US Air Force drop three atomic bombs at Dien Bien Phu. The French Union troops were being overrun by the Viet Minh and their well placed and deadly accurate cannon fire in the surrounding hills of the French garrison.
The Pentagon PapersFrench artillery commander Charles Piroth realizing his overconfident plan to easily silence their cannons committed suicide in his bunker after the opening days of the siege.

This loss was the tipping point for France’s failure as a post World War II colonial empire, their exit from Indochina and the world stage.

France initially declassified documents regarding Dien Bien Phu in 2005. They acknowledged a very active role of by the US Air Force during the siege. Two US Air Force pilots were killed over the battlefield. They were awarded France’s highest military honor by the French Ambassador to the United States.

The battle began on March 13, 1953 with their surrender on May 7th. The Americans were killed in the final three days of battle.

The Pentagon Papers confirm 38 US Air Force pilots flew at least 682 sorties over the course of the siege. The Pentagon Papers more importantly reveal French cables to Washington (just 10 days into the month-long siege) requesting US air support and eventually the Eisenhower White House considered atomic bombs to Viet Minh positions surrounding the garrison’s hills.

President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles actually kept this nuclear option on the table until the British ambassador in London notified Dulles that Britain would not support the French request.

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Latest read: They Marched into Sunlight

This book has been very difficult to finish. Not for the number of pages nor a wandering eye. They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 has change my understanding about the war in Vietnam in the same way Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War due to the release of the Pentagon Papers.  This book brings home the war to the campus of UW-Madison and the south side of Milwaukee.  Half the book is about the campus antiwar movement and the Dow Chemical riot on the same weekend two sons from Milwaukee Wisconsin died in an ambush at Ong Thanh.
Our country is approaching the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Enough time has passed to acknowledge tragic mistakes. What makes this very sensitive is the number of Americans who died in a war we know was ‘lost’ even before US soldiers first stepped foot at Da Nang in 1965.

The worst part is that we learned of tremendous loss of life due to poor intelligence and leadership.

Our country has never been able to wrap this around the bigger issue of our long standing efforts in Vietnam that began at the close of World War II.

Must admit I feel a bit numb after reading half of the Pentagon Papers.  Reading They Marched Into Sunlight is truly disheartening.  I am now more determined than ever to finish all 7,000+ pages of the Pentagon Papers before the end of the year.

The focus at UW-Madison as described in my earlier post showed our nation was in public turmoil well before the Tet Offensive. Can you imagine today a selected minority (of privileged students) who could avoid serving by going to college while those poor middle class sons went to fight and die in Vietnam?

The closing chapters of They Marched Into Sunlight leave me (again) frustrated by 40 years of reflection. Why on earth did the military approach the enemy around Lai Khe in the same way after three consecutive skirmishes? And why –– why after bombing the area the night before Alpha and Delta companies headed out, did the military refuse to provide mortar fire when requested?  The ambush was well underway. The Silver Star awarded to Major General John H. Hay, payment to the Michelin tire and rubber company for every tree damaged on their plantations and finally the burial of Danny Sikorski at St. Adelbert’s Cemetery in Milwaukee.

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