Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. Harcourt, 1999.
Of all American wars, only the cause of the Civil War approaches the radically divergent interpretations of America’s loss in Vietnam. Almost as soon as the conflict ended in 1975 two schools of historical thought developed. The “orthodox” school argued that the war was not winnable from the outset due to American misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict, and unjust in its prosecution and goals. In contrast, the “revisionist” school contends that the war was “noble, but improperly executed” (Moyar, xi). The conflict between these two competing interpretations of the Vietnam War extends beyond interpretation of the facts into arguments over which facts are valid and the political ideology of the adherents. Mark Moyar and Lewis Sorley join the debate on the side of the revisionists. Their works, Triumph Forsaken and A Better War examine different stages of the war, overlapping only when addressing President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1965 decision to introduce ground troops in South Vietnam.
Even the labels of the competing schools are open to debate. Historian John Prados argues that the revisionists should be called “neo-orthodox” because they argue that the United States threw away victory in Vietnam, focusing on issues of pacification and Vietnamization while ignoring Saigon political intrigues. Both Moyar and Sorley fall into this category of revisionist, with Sorley the more prominent of the two due to his position on recommended reading lists for Army and Marine Corps officers. General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of American forces in Afghanistan regularly refered to Sorley’s analysis of Creighton Abrams’ strategy and tactics in post-Tet Vietnam, and the text also appears in the Army’s Field Manual describing counterinsurgency operations.
Taken together these two books illustrate key revisionist arguments that span the length of the war. Focusing on the period 1954-1965, Moyar contends that despite the negative portrayal of American journalists Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was a legitimate anticommunist leader. Criticism of Diem came from Saigon’s intellectuals and political elites, French colonialists who preferred the leadership of Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, and John Paul Vann, the prominent American counterinsurgency expert. Until deposed, Moyar argues, Diem successfully fought the nascent insurgency in South Vietnam. Diem’s first anticommunist effort was as much political and propagandistic as military. Moving into Viet Minh strongholds on Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh, and Camau Peninsula with government troops, Diem made personal visits by Jeep, provided medical supplies, had roads and bridges constructed, and eventually opened rural facilities to train soldiers and administrators. Moyar argues that Diem expanded these measures to an internal security regime that destroyed Communist organizations at the village and hamlet level, securing the most troublesome areas of South Vietnam.
Through 1960, Moyar believes, Diem continued to strengthen South Vietnam’s government and his military forces while taking the battle to the North. By the end of 1956, Diem began sending saboteurs through Laos into North Vietnam to instigate revolts. However, South Vietnamese efforts to create an anticommunist insurgency in the North failed in both 1957 and 1959. Diem’s guerrillas were unsuccessful, but along with a Hoa Hao campaign in 1956, forced the Communist government to divert resources from the South. These efforts coincided with Diem’s work to strengthen the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Along, with American Lt. General Samuel Williams, Diem worked to not only increase the number of regular troops available, but to make it into a legitimate fighting force. Williams argued that ARVN needed to have light gear that enabled it to fight against guerrillas, but also to train to fight conventional forces in the same manner as the U.S. Army. Militia, he contended should bear the primary responsibility for counterinsurgency work. By 1959, Moyar argues, Diem eliminated the worst generals and officers, expanded, and improved the regular army. Despite the presence of incompetent mid-grade officers remaining due to political ties, the force seemed ready to fight. The same was not true of the militia expected to perform real counterinsurgency work – they were under trained, undermanned, and under equipped.
Diem’s campaign to strengthen his government’s hold on the South included economic development and a propaganda campaign. Starting in 1956, the “Denounce the Communists” campaign mobilized civilians and soldiers to repair roads and bridges. Suspected communists were arrested and subjected to reeducation in the same manner that Communist cadres in the North used on non-Communists. In addition to this campaign, Diem used American foreign aid to bolster South Vietnam’s economy. Most of this money went into efforts to improve security, such as creating new settlements in the Central Highlands to act as a bulwark against Communist advances and building roads to facilitate the movement of troops. Diem also embraced land reform, but in a more measured form than in the North. Although his attempts to save the rural middle class reduced the number of landless peasants that gained new lands, it still left a plurality as renters, leaving them vulnerable to Communist propaganda. Moyar asserts that the Diem government was able to significantly weaken the North’s cadres in the South using these techniques, leading to a Communist attempt to assassinate him. Diem was unsuccessful in securing South Vietnam only because he lost the confidence of his American benefactors and due to the efforts of corrupt ARVN officers. The corrupt and incompetent governments that followed Diem wasted ARVN’s strength by adopting ineffective tactics for fighting the Communists, forcing Lyndon Johnson to commit American troops to defend South Vietnam.
Sorley picks up where Moyar left off. Briefly touching on the build-up of American forces after 1965, Sorley argues that when Creighton Abrams assumed command of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam in 1968 he achieved a military victory that Richard Nixon and his advisers squandered in order to appease the antiwar movement, the media, and diplomats with other foreign policy goals. Abrams won his war by abandoning William Westmoreland’s unworkable strategy of attrition and instead focusing on pacification of the South Vietnamese countryside, interdiction of troops and supplies from the North, and by ensuring that South Vietnamese troops had the training and equipment to defend their nation. He did this despite continuing troop withdrawals and reductions in the foreign aid Congress allocated to Southeast Asia. Sorley contends that South Vietnam lost the war solely because Nixon, Ford, and Congress abandoned South Vietnam to its fate despite assurances of support if invaded.
Westmoreland’s strategy from 1965-1968 focused on conventional large-unit tactics and search-and-destroy missions that futilely sought Viet Cong Guerillas and North Vietnamese troop concentrations. These missions, according to Sorley, conducted at the battalion level, were costly in money, equipment, and personnel, but gained little. As soon as Americans left an area, their Communist foes returned. Westmoreland’s boredom with pacification operations led him to neglect the very activities that might have won the war during his tenure in Vietnam. Spreading dissent about the war and the apparent lack of progress illustrated by the Tet Offensive of 1968 led Lyndon Johnson to replace Westmoreland with Abrams, who implemented new strategies and tactics in an attempt to salvage the situation.
In contrast to Westmoreland’s focus on large operations and attrition of enemy numbers, Abrams used small units to secure South Vietnamese population and land. Rather than sweeping through an area in an attempt to locate and kill the enemy, Abrams’ vision was for forces to enter a region, clear it, and then stay to provide security. Part of the new strategy was to destroy the North Vietnamese support infrastructure in the South and to increase support for the Saigon government. Key to this was the understanding of the North Vietnamese method of moving supplies and personnel into position before launching an operation. By focusing American artillery and air assets on closing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Abrams disrupted North Vietnam’s ability to conduct the war in South Vietnam.
Sorley believes that Abrams had won the war in 1972 by securing South Vietnam, repelling invasions, and destroying Communist safe havens in Cambodia and Laos. South Vietnam eventually lost the war not because it was untenable or poorly led, but because the Nixon administration negotiated away all of the gains at the Paris Peace Conference. By allowing large numbers of North Vietnamese Army troops to remain in place in South Vietnam when the United States withdrew, the United States gave an unearned advantage to the Communists. This problem was exacerbated when the United States failed to assist South Vietnam when the North went on the offensive once more. American withdrawal so demoralized South Vietnamese troops and leaders that they could not stand on their own against the onslaught.
Sorley’s work is a response to earlier works, which he contends focus almost exclusively on the early parts of the war. Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History virtually ignores Abrams, and allocates only fifteen percent of its space to cover the last five years of the conflict. Sorley contends that other academic works also ignore the main characters of A Better War; George Sorley’s work is a response to earlier works, which he contends focus almost exclusively on the early parts of the war. Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History virtually ignores Abrams, and allocates only fifteen percent of its space to cover the last five years of the conflict. Sorley contends that other academic works also ignore the main characters of A Better War; George Herring’s America’s Longest War and William Duiker’s Historical Dictionary of Vietnam also focus on the early stages of the war, giving short shrift to Creighton Abrams, Ellsworth Bunker, and William Colby. The worst offender in Sorley’s estimation is Neil Sheehan’s A Bright and Shining Lie, which follows the career of John Paul Vann. Only sixty-eight of volumes’ seven hundred twenty-five pages cover the post-1968 period, despite Vann’s continued work in Vietnam until his death in 1972 (Sorley, xiv).
Where Sorley contends that he is merely adding to our knowledge of the second part of the war, Moyar sets himself firmly into the debate over the history of the war. Self-consciously in what he calls the “revisionist” camp, Moyar excoriates orthodox histories of the war for being both ideologically driven and unwilling to engage with facts that do not fit into their analysis. His ire here may be fueled in part by his inability to gain employment in a traditional academic setting, as illustrated by his 2007 lawsuit against Texas Tech, in which he claimed discrimination based on his conservative political beliefs.
Moyar only specifically mentions one of the so-called “orthodox” histories of the war that he finds so problematic directly – Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, which he argues overemphasizes the Saigon government’s problems, and illustrates David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan’s inaccurate reporting of military affairs. Moyar contends that John Paul Vann used Sheehan and other reporters to promote his inaccurate and self-serving account of the Battle of Ap Bac that depicted South Vietnamese troops as cowardly and incompetent. Moyar also argued A Bright Shining Lie demonstrated Sheehan’s ignorance of Vietnamese customs, overly relying on Buddhists and North Vietnamese agents for information. That Buddhists comprised approximately 90% of Vietnam’s population seems to have escaped Moyar’s notice.
Moyar treats his fellow revisionists more carefully, placing Triumph Forsaken in context with other works covering the same period. He argues that H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty provides important insights into the policy process of the Johnson administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff during 1964 and 1965, and that C. Dalton Walton’s work challenges the orthodox view of American strategy during the early stages of the war. It is informative that Moyar does not engage Sorley, who many identify as a revisionist, but who appears to accept the orthodox view of the Westmoreland-era in Vietnam – that the strategy of attrition was both ineffective and morally bankrupt.
Despite engaging writing styles and provocative arguments, both books suffer from significant problems in evidence and analysis. Both works focus on atrocities committed by Communists while minimizing those committed by the Saigon government (Moyar) or American troops (Sorley). Moyar and Sorley both gloss over the Johnson administration’s lack of clear goals or strategy in Vietnam, which represent a major portion of H.R. McMaster’s argument in his 1997 work Dereliction of Duty.
These problems represent only the tip of the iceberg. Nick Turse writing in The Nation contends that while focusing on Creighton Abrams’ efforts at reducing civilian casualties by reducing indirect artillery fire, Sorley ignores Gen. Julian Ewell’s use of heavy artillery and air strikes in Operation Speedy Express (Dece.ber 1968 – May 1969), which may have killed five thousand civilians. The continued use of indirect artillery on unobserved targets as reported by Newsweek’s Kevin Buckley in 1970, continued during Abrams’ tenure as commander of MACV with disastrous results. By ignoring Operation Speedy Express, Sorley weakens his argument. Its inclusion would allow him to present it as an example of the challenge of changing the Army’s tactics in Vietnam after Westmoreland’s tenure ended in June 1968.
Moyar’s work also suffers because it ignores of minimizes evidence that argues against his interpretation. In Moyar’s opinion, Diem was a strong leader in the Vietnamese style, one unfamiliar and unpalatable to many Americans. For this reason, Diem could not abide protests against his policies or regime. Sweeping aside Buddhist complaints that Diem installed Catholics in the government and bulldozed pagodas in order to replace them with churches, Moyar places South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority into the same category with Communist subversives - enemies of the regime. Anyone that protested Diem policies was cynical and the Saigon government was right in sweeping them and their concerns brusquely aside. Moyar ignores evidence that these actions turned Buddhists against Diem and had a role in the development of the coup against him.
Pre-war Vietnamese history also gets a revision in Triumph Forsaken. Not only does Moyar contend that internal conflict characterized Vietnam’s past, not a long tradition of resistance to outside domination by China and France, but he rejects the notion of any historical enmity between China and Vietnam. This is a key component for his argument that American leaders not only believed in the domino theory’s threat of systematic Communist take-over in Asia, but that due to Soviet, Chinese, and Vietnamese cooperation was a legitimate concern. Moyar also contends that Ho Chi Minh was a Communist first, and a nationalist second – ignoring William Duiker’s 2000 biography of Ho.
Ho Chi Minh’s status is another of the divisions between the orthodox and revisionist schools. While many orthodox historians accept Duiker’s assertion that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist who turned to Communists because even French Socialists were uninterested in the colonial question, revisionists of Moyar’s ilk assert that since the Viet Minh drove out noncommunist nationalists after 1945 that Ho Chi Minh must have been solely a Communist. Moyar deploys Ho Chi Minh’s change of pseudonym from Nguyen Ai Quoc (“Nguyen the Patriot”) to Ho Chi Minh (“He Who Enlightens”) to show that Ho was trying to hide his Communist past from Americans. However, Duiker’s massive biography demonstrates that Ho adopted his final pseudonym while traveling through China to avoid the Guomingdang as he tried to reach Vietnam to fight the Japanese occupation. Duiker further traces Ho’s name changes over time, as he adopted various pseudonyms to hide his identity from French authorities, as was common for Vietnamese revolutionaries.
Flaws of evidence and argument notwithstanding, these works provide thought-provoking discussions of the conduct of both halves of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Of the two, Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken is perhaps the more controversial due its tone and contention that Diem had successfully managed to stabilize South Vietnam, and that only the turmoil following his assassination doomed the country. Sorley and Moyar provide useful works to sustain a more nuanced conversation about the nature of the war and its course.