Triumph Forsaken Book Review
Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. Mark Moyar. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-521-86911-9. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp. ix, 503. $50.00.
Review by George J. Veith
Over a thousand books have chronicled the Vietnam War, yet historians continue to uncover and analyze a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new documents. The many personal accounts, unit histories, and lately, extensive records from Communist sources, provide a rich and diverse source of fresh material from which previous assumptions are confirmed, or new interpretations derived.
Few of those books, however, are sweeping enough in scope, or sufficiently researched, to have a significant impact upon the historiography. Triumph Forsaken is one such tome. Probably the most important volume since Michael Lind’s The Necessary War, Mark Moyar provides extensive evidence that culminates in a stunning disavowal of long-accepted canons on the war. Moyar’s over-arching theme proposes that South Vietnam, unlike its portrayal in many accounts, was a functioning state superbly led by its first President, Ngo Dinh Diem. He shows that Diem’s autocratic methods were widely accepted by the Vietnamese peasantry, but that a significant portion of the State Department bureaucracy did not understand Diem’s rationale. They believed Diem should support political pluralism in the midst of a conflict, a difficult proposition in a country with no history of democratic institutions. Moreover, the war, as reported by American military advisers, was actually going well against the Communist insurgency despite blatantly distorted press reporting,
Moyar’s strength lies in his exhaustive research. Not only does he sustain his arguments by thoroughly mining newly released U.S. archival material, his underlying theses are largely supported by recently translated Communist sources. These same sources provide devastating blows to what Moyar’s identifies as a long-established orthodox school of thought on the war. This school, mainly resident in academia, regards America’s involvement in Vietnam as morally unjust (American military attacks devastating a small country), unwinnable (due to the Saigon government’s inherent weaknesses and unpopularity), and unwise (not part of America’s strategic imperative). Moyar declares membership in a contrarian, revisionist view of the war, in which U.S. goals were noble, just badly executed. Further, he proclaims the orthodox viewpoint as not only wrong, but unsupported by the primary sources.
Specifically, Moyar satisfyingly skewers those who have long-derided the “domino theory.” Some have claimed that without U.S. involvement in Vietnam, many of the countries in southern Asia, particularly Indonesia, with its important natural resources and vital geo-strategic position astride one of the world’s largest shipping lanes, would have quickly succumbed to Communist Chinese influence if the United States had not acted vigorously against North Vietnamese aggression. Using the recorded statements of many senior policy officials from the countries involved on precisely this subject, Moyar’s ably illustrates that American forcefulness in Vietnam not only provided a shield behind which these feeble states were able to remain relatively free, but gave the governments of those countries the confidence to resist Communist subversion.
Triumph Forsaken will no doubt spark controversy, particularly over Moyar’s glowing portrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem and his policies, notably the much panned Strategic Hamlet program, and his critiques of the reporting of two influential journalists, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Moyar brings into sharper focus a recent trend of revising the assessment of Diem from a harsh dictator to one of an able leader who understood that Western-style democracy, at least in this stage of its development, was inappropriate to the political culture of his country. Many South Vietnamese whom Moyar has spoken to agree with this judgment, regarding Diem as an outstanding counterweight to Ho Chi Minh’s supposed broader nationalist appeal. He also portrays Diem’s brother, Ngo Diem Nhu, the president’s strong-man who ruthlessly suppressed internal dissent, and Nhu’s wife, appropriately nicknamed the “Dragon Lady” for her fierce opinions, as both pillars of and yet detrimental to his regime. While many in the West condemned Diem for his repressive qualities, for the Vietnamese, authoritarianism had a different meaning than to a westerner—it was more important to them to be on the side of the powerful than on the side of a pluralist.
Moyar shows Diem as a leader who was supremely confident in his own judgment regarding what was best for his country. Diem often rejected American political and military advice he felt was foolish, and in doing so, he defeated numerous criminal and subversive factions to unify the county. Diem’s main internal opponents then became the Communists, and the more westernized yet factionalized Vietnamese intelligentsia (and only discovered after the war, Communist agents) sitting in Saigon cafes feeding distorted information to gullible reporters Halberstam and Sheehan. Their slanted reporting, in turn, formed the basis for much of the American dismay with Diem. The pair, who found a ready ear in Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, are shown repeating grossly inaccurate accounts of the pivotal battle of Ap Bac in January 1963, a South Vietnamese military defeat, and more importantly, the Buddhist protest movement, which fed a perception among an influential segment of American officials that the war was being lost. Thus, the only way to save the country was to eliminate Diem. Moyar then confronts another hoary myth of the Left; that President John F. Kennedy, had he lived, would not have broadened American involvement in Vietnam. Instead, Moyar’s clearly lays out that Kennedy would not have abandoned South Vietnam, and was extremely reluctant to overthrow Diem. Ultimately, the coup against Diem critically wounded South Vietnam’s government, leading to the necessity to introduce U.S. military forces to save the country.
Triumph Forsaken is a tremendous addition to the literature of the Vietnam War, a conflict that continues to influence American political life today. This work is so broad and extensively researched that it should ignite deep debate among scholars of the war, and those who wish to draw important lessons from America’s involvement in it.