Hindsight makes us brilliant. David Halberstam brought his experiences writing in Saigon for the New York Times in late 1962 into this book “The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era” in which he won a pulitzer prize for international reporting from Vietnam in 1964. In many ways its a perfect prequel to his wonderful book The Best and the Brightest.
There are terrible lessons from the long US involvement in Vietnam that echo today. Its fair to say we Americans like to repeat history. This book written almost thirty years ago yet tells much about our approach in Afghanistan and Iraq. The quick lesson is that America regardless of party backed Ngo Dinh Diem from 1955 until plotting his assassination in 1963. Diem was actually living in a catholic monastery in New Jersey for three years before returning to Vietnam to become South Vietnam’s first President.
Halberstam makes it clear early in the book that the war in Vietnam was lost during the Eisenhower Administration. The war against the North continued to fail throughout the coutnryside of South Vietnam during Kennedy’s short Presidency.
Halberstam shows how the war was not lost in Saigon or the Central Highlands. It was lost in the Mekong Delta between 1956-1959. But the US back Diem insisting on saving Vietnam from communism, tolerated a corrupt Diem family and fought a war for another 20 years before finally giving up. Halberstam does not spare America its sinking America’s loss as a world power. Again I find his writing to be powerful lessons for today.
Clearly Halberstam skillfully expressed how the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy found, installed, and backed the wrong man in South Vietnam. Maybe the bigger lesson is the foolish decisions to continue defending Diem and his corrupt family while American and South Vietnamese troops were fighting and dying.
Maybe more importantly Halberstam is able to share his own stories of walking the jungles of Vietnam and understanding firsthand how terrible the war was begin fought by the South Vietnamese troops, the lack of leadership in the army and the cultural differences that American military advisors never could quite understand.
His highly critical articles written in his New York Times columns regarding US Miliatry advisors and White House policy makers have been verified by the release of the Pentagon Papers. Many policy and military advisors to Eisenhower Kennedy and Johnson acknowledge that the South Vietnamese would never win against the Vietcong due to Diem’s totalitarian rule. Diem as a Catholic, ruling in a Buddhist nation would finally prove to be his downfall during the 1963 Buddhist crisis. The positions taken by Diem, his younger brother Ngu who was in charge of ARVN Special Forces and the secret police, proved how backward they were in running a country on the verge of total collapse. And we backed them anyway.
If there was ever a book written to show the total ineptitude of a ruler like Diem it would be hard to find one that surpasses The Making of a Quagmire.