October 1, 2008
Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam. By Kathryn Slater. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2007, 392 pages, $45. The War Managers. By Douglas Kinnard. (First published in 1977) Annapolis, Md: Re-published by the Naval Institute Press, 2007, 228 pages, $19.95.
Reviewed by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein, USN
The Vietnam conflict is one that cannot be avoided when studying American military history, strategy, and national policy. There are two books worth reading that enable a deeper reflection on how the United States makes decisions and prioritize threats to its national security. The first book is Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam by Kathryn Slater, an associate professor at the University of San Diego. She takes a closer look at the French, American and South Vietnamese policies that led the United States to inherit the Vietnam War from the French. The focus is the decade of the 1950s to 1963. French officials exhausted by World War II and wanting to maintain its colonies in Algeria and Indochina sought American military equipment. To that end, Paris redefined the argument not in terms of preserving its colony, but as a bulwark to stem the growing tide of communist encroachment in Vietnam. The arguments made include that France's commitments to her overseas possessions prevented her from contributing fully to NATO. External events like the start of the Korean War and domestic politics like the communist scare driven by Senator Joseph McCarthy would also shape Vietnam policy, with the United States sending the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) in September 1950. MAAG would be a permanent fixture throughout America's involvement in Vietnam and would, from its inception, take over the training of Vietnamese military officers and pilots. Readers will learn that Vietnam, a war associated with the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, was actually fiercely debated as early as during the presidency of Harry Truman. The book ends in 1963, with the transition of South Vietnam's social, economic and military programs from the reluctant French to the United States. According to the author, South Vietnamese President Diem, a Catholic, manipulated not only the French and American governments but utilized senior Catholic officials to influence policy. It is an excellent read as to the forces that drove the United States towards a course of action.
The Naval Institute Press has re-issued in soft cover a classic on America's involvement in Vietnam. General Douglas Kinnard first published The War Managers in 1977, and it reports on the views of over 60 percent of U.S. commanders in Vietnam from 1965 until the start of America's departure in 1973. This is a difficult read, but vital if we are to understand new ways to measure success in America's future conflicts. Some themes that come out of Kinnard's work included a disconnect between tactical successes against North Vietnam and the politico-military strategy of the war. Measures of success from the American perspective was gains on a map, and then body counts; this meant nothing for a protracted quasi-guerilla war of national liberation. Other criticism include shaping the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) into an American fighting force instead of capitalizing on the thousands of years of Vietnamese fighting methods. The book raises questions on how the military should interact with civilian leaders, and that the Huntingtonian model of a clear separation between military and civilian affairs is not realistic. The book also discusses many little known facts of the Vietnam War, such as secretary of Defense Melvin Laird's creation of a special office for Vietnamization, which the book considers to be a good idea that seemed to inject civilian control of policy options for the war, but ended up being a coordinating office. Kinnard sent 173 questionnaires to flag officers serving in Vietnam, and got over a 60-percent response. Their taking the time to answer this survey provides future American military leaders insight into how better to serve the United States and the senior leaders of its Executive Branch.
Copyright Infantry Magazine Sep/Oct 2008
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