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Old 04-27-2007   #21
SWJED
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Default Vietnam: How to Lose a War

Council member Merv Benson reviews Triumph Forsaken, The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 by Mark Moyer on his PrairiePundit blog - How to Lose a War.

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Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken, The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, gives the history of the conflict up to the day Johnson ordered US ground troops to Vietnam to prevent a communist victory in 1965. This is a book that should be required reading for all those who think they know what caused the war and how it was lost. If they follow the tale told by the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes, they will be very wrong...
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Old 04-27-2007   #22
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Default Moyar's Book

Merv deserves thanks for an absolutely top notch review of this important book.

Some others have supported the same thesis, but, as Merv has pointed out, notably not the well known journalist historians. Colby, for one, recorded his shock and dismay over Diem's death in his two autobiographical works. Others who come to mind are historian Ellen Hammer, and Dennis Duncanson, whose landmark history of VN by a long time COIN practitioner, Government and Revolution in Viet Nam, has unfortunately been out of print for some time, but is likewise an essential read. ("The highest ratio of talent to numbers seen in Viet Nam previously or since," from Colby's Honorable Men, My Life in the CIA, is Colby's asessment of Sir Robert Thompson and his cohorts in the British Advisory Mission to VN, Desmond Palmer and Dennis Duncanson.)

But as Merv points out, Moyar adds lots of new material. Of great interest is the fresh analysis of the much discussed Battle of Ap Bac.

By the way, I clicked on SWJED's link to Amazon and checked out the reviews of this book that Amazon has posted, and noted that one of those is by Council Member Meara.

Cheers,
Mike.

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Old 04-28-2007   #23
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Default I agree...

... Merv did a great job reviewing this book. I work (day job) in the same building as Dr. Moyer - plan on doing a drive-by next week to say hey and let him know about the review.
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Old 10-03-2007   #24
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Default Moyar, Sorley and Vietnam Revisionism

I'm not normally a fan of The Nation, but found it tough to disagree with this take on revisionist history of the Vietnam War:

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071015/perlstein

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And here's the remarkable thing: Out of his determination--or desperation--to stay on message, Owens overlooks fundamental contradictions between these two books. Moyar's hero is William Westmoreland. He is a hero because he rejected the idea of flexible, small, counterinsurgency patrols in favor of "using large conventional forces to search for and engage the Communists." Sorley despises Westmoreland. Indeed, A Better War was all but written to drive home this single idea: that using large conventional forces to search for and engage the Communists was what almost lost us the war. Sorley's heroes are heroes because they understand that a key to victory was to monitor and improve the political quality of the South Vietnamese government from top to bottom, the better to abet "their efforts to carry out--carry through--a social revolution." Moyar's Triumph Forsaken was all but written to excoriate such people, whose insistence on monitoring and improving the political quality of the South Vietnamese government almost lost us the war.
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Old 10-03-2007   #25
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It's a shame that the author seemed so bitter about a new wave of revisionism reacting against the "reliable" products that came out in the 1960s...

Seriously, I always find it interesting when one side of the political spectrum comes out guns-blazing against the opposite side when it comes to historical writing. One could almost smell the torches being kindled to burn two "witches" at the stake for going against conventional liberal wisdom regarding Vietnam. Not that I agree with Sorley and Moyar and their positions on Vietnam...I tend after many years of study to come closer to the view that all we were doing was postponing the inevitable...and the question was more a matter of how much time we were buying our client state in the process. Hard-core liberals have the same cut and paste function when it comes to history...witness the efforts on the part of some of them to claim that Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam...ignoring his own personal ties to Diem and general lack of foreign policy success. He was too afraid of "losing" Vietnam...a fear he passed on to Johnson who had even less foreign policy experience and knowledge.

Like most historical events, the "truth" of Vietnam lies somewhere in the middle. It's very much a mix of misperceptions, colored by Cold War thinking and worldviews that need to be considered when writing about the subject. We might have bought the South more breathing room had we gone with an Abrams strategy in the early 1960s as opposed to the big war/Korea theory, but at the end of the day it would have been just that...buying time.
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Old 10-03-2007   #26
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It's a shame that the author seemed so bitter about a new wave of revisionism reacting against the "reliable" products that came out in the 1960s...
Definitely agree, I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum politically from The Nation, but I take his larger point about a revisionist history of Vietnam being used as an important rhetorical point in the debate on Iraq. Like Malaya, which Steve Metz for one has noted as being so exceptional, how we see Vietnam has a lot of relevance to how we see the entire viability of counterinsurgency.
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Old 10-03-2007   #27
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Definitely agree, I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum politically from The Nation, but I take his larger point about a revisionist history of Vietnam being used as an important rhetorical point in the debate on Iraq. Like Malaya, which Steve Metz for one has noted as being so exceptional, how we see Vietnam has a lot of relevance to how we see the entire viability of counterinsurgency.
I agree to a degree, but also consider that political types will pull out anything they can find to make their "historical" points.

Vietnam is a hard one to consider because in the pure Maoist sense there were two wars going on at the same time, IMO. You had the insurgency, which was a real threat in parts of the country and not so much in others, and the conventional force element that was being pumped into the South by the North. The Vietnamese genius here was the willingness (and ability) to shift back and forth between the two styles of war almost at will. Note that this was not without some internal problems (with Tet being the best example of this...although the VCI losses during Tet DID solve one major problem for the North: it removed any local leadership competition from the field), but at the end of the day they were willing to outlast us and the government of the South (which did more harm than good to its own cause).

For many years both the Right and Left held up Vietnam as an almost isolationist banner to keep the US from getting involved in anything beyond its borders, and for the same reason: both sides argued (from their own reasoning bases) that you couldn't defeat an insurgency. As always this ignored the complex nature of both our reasons for getting into Vietnam, the situation we encountered there, and the aftermath. So in a sense Vietnam for political individuals is more a symbol than a historical reality. I've argued before that the best comparison between Vietnam and Iraq can be found in the responses of our own military and governmental institutions to the situation...not on the battlefield.
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Old 10-03-2007   #28
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Default Revised revisionism is amended...

I find a lot in the Perlstein article with which to disagree. Aside from his pseudo sophisticated political diatribe, he elides fact.

Sheehan, Halbertsam et.al. were emphatically not on the side of the angels. Aside from the fact they didn't understand all they knew about what they saw, they let their personal biases enter the effort. Sheehan's later apologia to excuse the way they 'covered' the war, A Bright Shining Lie, was just that -- and he, IMO, did not cover himself with glory with that fairly worthless tome. The media did not 'lose' Viet Nam, the Army did -- but the media were certainly less than helpful. Their overall ignorance was -- and remains today -- generally appalling.

Perlstein also ignores the fact that Kennedy almost certainly approved the Diem assassination. While there is no question that the Diems (plural) were a piece of work , the message that assassination sent to the Viet Namese certainly was one that we were, um, expedient. They remembered that and used it to their advantage over the next 10 years.

I'll ignore Perlstein's mention that Jimmy Carter, of all Presidents, cited the current Bush administration as the worst in history

I'll also ignore that he cites the CIA as authority on virtually anything...

In short, he penned a political hit piece that is full of misinformation and succeeds in citing a few facts but only in the context of his politics. I have to agree with Steve Blair, burning witches doesn't fill the air with a pleasant smell.

I also agree with him that we were only postponing the inevitable. However, he and I may not agree on my opinion that it didn't have to be that way. There were literally dozens of alternative strategies that could have been pursued. No matter, they weren't so we ended up the way we did.

He's also correct, I think, that a more judicious blend of conventional and COIN tactics early on might have made a difference. Unfortunately, Harkins and Westmorealnd were Euro-war graduate mediocrities who didn't adapt at all well. If anyone wants the single most adverse impactor on Viet Nam, it was really quite simple -- the one year tour.

We, incidentally suffer from that same problem in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, I think Steve is also correct on this:

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"For many years both the Right and Left held up Vietnam as an almost isolationist banner to keep the US from getting involved in anything beyond its borders, and for the same reason: both sides argued (from their own reasoning bases) that you couldn't defeat an insurgency. As always this ignored the complex nature of both our reasons for getting into Vietnam, the situation we encountered there, and the aftermath. So in a sense Vietnam for political individuals is more a symbol than a historical reality. I've argued before that the best comparison between Vietnam and Iraq can be found in the responses of our own military and governmental institutions to the situation...not on the battlefield."
The failure in Viet Nam, as Steve says, is principally the fault of Kennedy and Johnson both of whom were excessively long on idealism and excessively short on smarts. I'd add poor choices by the Army were almost as significant. The coup de grace was of course a pusillanimous Congress. C'est la guerre, C'est la vie... Xin Loi...
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Old 10-03-2007   #29
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I also agree with him that we were only postponing the inevitable. However, he and I may not agree on my opinion that it didn't have to be that way. There were literally dozens of alternative strategies that could have been pursued. No matter, they weren't so we ended up the way we did.
We actually do agree here, although I think many of the strategies that might have worked were beyond our political grasp at the time. Given the mindset of the times, especially on the part of Democratic advisors (and some Republicans) regarding the "loss" of China I'm not sure if they could have considered strategies that did not center around resisting that monolithic Commie conspiracy. While the loss was certainly not inevitable, the shackles we hung around ourselves at the time certainly went a long way toward making it so.
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Old 10-03-2007   #30
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Cool We can totally agree on all that.

I'm afraid that most strategies have long been beyond our political grasp. I wouldn't change our system of governance for anything but it does tend to almost force shortsighted strategy in the geopolitical arena. Fascinating thing is that Hamilton and Madison both foresaw that and kept it away from Congress. Unfortunately, they did not foresee the total lack of common sense and patience that would accrue to us as a nation in the late 20th Century.

That'll probably get worse before something forces it to get better...
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Old 10-03-2007   #31
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The media did not 'lose' Viet Nam, the Army did -- but the media were certainly less than helpful. Their overall ignorance was -- and remains today -- generally appalling.
For all the inaccuracies of the review, I think that he is correct on this most important point - one that does need to be driven home before a new Myth is created about Iraq.

There does still appear to be a widespread myth that the media, or the opposition more generally, is solely responsible for losing the war. I've noticed that believers in this myth tend to have little to no interest in, or knowledge of, the actual details regarding Vietnam and how the war was fought because they don't believe those things mattered. Instead, they seem to believe that as long as we had the necessary "will" we would have won using just about any approach.

I think this myth had a direct effect on mishandling of the Iraq war, specifically on the decision by the Administration to spend years playing down the insurgency as the "last throes of dead enders". I believe that decision, among others, reflected the belief that "as long as we keep the anti-war movement in check, we will win no matter how badly we screw up in Iraq itself". If our actions in Iraq don't have anything to do with winning the war, then why not take the opportunity to put 21-year old college republicans in charge of key areas of reconstruction?

In the end I believe this myth contributes to hubris and a lack of respect for our actual and potential enemies that will hurt us until we lose the myth and embrace reality.
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Old 10-03-2007   #32
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I just started reading it. This jumped out at me, regarding Dien Bien Phu:

"Most have discerned in France's humiliating defeat a classic example of a hubristic colonial power foolishly underestimating a nonwhite enemy."

Gee. Here all along I've thought it was a classic example of what happens when you combine almost non existent intelligence with a tactically inferior position.

I also would like him to point out when French hubris has not resulted in "foolishly underestimating" any enemy.
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Old 10-03-2007   #33
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I just started reading it. This jumped out at me, regarding Dien Bien Phu:

"Most have discerned in France's humiliating defeat a classic example of a hubristic colonial power foolishly underestimating a nonwhite enemy."

Gee. Here all along I've thought it was a classic example of what happens when you combine almost non existent intelligence with a tactically inferior position.

I don't see the contradiction. The reason they thought they could win a battle under those conditions is because they underestimated their enemy.

I'm not sure it can be chalked up to simple racism but I feel confident in saying that they never would have tried such a thing against the Germans - they would have chosen an entirely different way of losing.
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Old 10-03-2007   #34
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Default I'm not totally clear on what you're trying to say

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For all the inaccuracies of the review, I think that he is correct on this most important point - one that does need to be driven home before a new Myth is created about Iraq.

There does still appear to be a widespread myth that the media, or the opposition more generally, is solely responsible for losing the war. I've noticed that believers in this myth tend to have little to no interest in, or knowledge of, the actual details regarding Vietnam and how the war was fought because they don't believe those things mattered. Instead, they seem to believe that as long as we had the necessary "will" we would have won using just about any approach.

I think this myth had a direct effect on mishandling of the Iraq war, specifically on the decision by the Administration to spend years playing down the insurgency as the "last throes of dead enders". I believe that decision, among others, reflected the belief that "as long as we keep the anti-war movement in check, we will win no matter how badly we screw up in Iraq itself". If our actions in Iraq don't have anything to do with winning the war, then why not take the opportunity to put 21-year old college republicans in charge of key areas of reconstruction?

In the end I believe this myth contributes to hubris and a lack of respect for our actual and potential enemies that will hurt us until we lose the myth and embrace reality.
but I think I partly agree with what it appears to be.

We can agree there are a lot of know-nothings out there on both sides of the political divide. For everyone who thinks the press did the dirty deed, there's one who believes the press is blameless. The truth, as always, is in between..

I agree there are a few inclined to blame the media for what didn't happen in Viet Nam. There are also those who blame the protestors, the politicians, the Army -- and some who go for most or all of the above and some who probably would ascribe other things. The obvious truth is that all those were factors and people will weight the factors according to their own predilection and political views. I'm an all of the above with very, very strong emphasis on the Army, personally. YMMV.

You may or may not be correct on that myth having a direct effect on the handling of the Iraq war. I think there's little doubt that some sort of myth did have that adverse impact. I also think there's little doubt that the Army leadership did not do its job as fully as we might all have hoped in apprising the Civilian leadership of the potential problems and pitfalls and that earlier Army leadership contributed to that by diligently ignoring nation building and counterinsurgency, thus the then current leadership had no doctrinal footing on which to stand or base a reclama and the political bosses took that opening...

The BCTP is a great program today. It was pretty good before 2001. However, then it lacked two things; non-traditional combat (even though it was very obvious that was a strong potential) and, even more importantly, what happened in the conventional battle after the good guys won. The practice was to 'win,' then turn off the computers and the lights and leave the room. Fortunately, they've fixed that.

In any event, the Armed Forces at least are now very much in tune with reality. Good news is it took only 18 months in this war versus the seven long years it took during Viet Nam. Pity about todays politicians and news media; but then, both crowds always have been a little slow...

Some of your other comments are perhaps more appropriate for one of the many political blogs out there.


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Last edited by Ken White; 10-03-2007 at 09:24 PM. Reason: Typo
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Old 10-03-2007   #35
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For all the inaccuracies of the review, I think that he is correct on this most important point - one that does need to be driven home before a new Myth is created about Iraq.

There does still appear to be a widespread myth that the media, or the opposition more generally, is solely responsible for losing the war. I've noticed that believers in this myth tend to have little to no interest in, or knowledge of, the actual details regarding Vietnam and how the war was fought because they don't believe those things mattered. Instead, they seem to believe that as long as we had the necessary "will" we would have won using just about any approach.

I think this myth had a direct effect on mishandling of the Iraq war, specifically on the decision by the Administration to spend years playing down the insurgency as the "last throes of dead enders". I believe that decision, among others, reflected the belief that "as long as we keep the anti-war movement in check, we will win no matter how badly we screw up in Iraq itself". If our actions in Iraq don't have anything to do with winning the war, then why not take the opportunity to put 21-year old college republicans in charge of key areas of reconstruction?

In the end I believe this myth contributes to hubris and a lack of respect for our actual and potential enemies that will hurt us until we lose the myth and embrace reality.
You have to remember that this myth is also a two-way street. Members of the media and the anti-war movement also want people to believe that their impact was much more profound than it actually was. I believe that the MSM has grown quite accustomed to, and proud of, what it feels its "role" was in Vietnam and will defend it to the last roll of audio tape or DVD/RW in the supply locker. The myth was also aided by the fact that many Americans were accustomed to (as in World War II accustomed) to a media that echoed the government line in a conflict. The difference they saw in Vietnam shocked them, and aided in the creation of the myth.

The lack of respect for potential enemies has been around for some time (remember how the Japanese were shown as ratty little men with glasses who couldn't fly prior to World War II?), and will remain a fixture for some time. Either that, or the ten-foot tall foe. Why? It's easier to paint in sound-bite terms if you stick with simple stereotypes. Nations have done this for ages, and will most likely continue to do so.
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Old 10-03-2007   #36
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In any event, the Armed Forces at least are now very much in tune with reality Good news it took only 18 months in this war versus the seven long years it took during Viet Nam. Pity about todays politicians and news media; but then, both crowds always have been a little slow....
Agreed! This is one thing I'm glad to say has not been a parallel of Vietnam in terms of institution response time (and response in general). The Army and Marines have learned MUCH faster than they did in Vietnam, and are taking steps to make sure that the lessons aren't lost in the shuffle away from this and into the next "good war."

The MSM actually feels threatened, IMO, by its reputation from Vietnam in some quarters and (perhaps more importantly) the threat it sees from the Internet in terms of being the sole provider of what Americans see and hear about world events. That will always shape its response to events, coupled with the desire in some quarters to be the next Sheehan or Halberstam. As for politicians....they have a two-year attention span (at best) and are not likely to change.
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Old 10-03-2007   #37
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Thumbs up Execellent points, Steve

The Media hubris indicated by such comments as those of Evan Thomas that media support was worth 15 points to John Kerry. Does that mean that without their support, he'd only have gotten 34% of the vote?

Seriously, you're correct, they really do want to believe they have far more power than they've ever possessed. that's why there so non-plussed by this one, they absolutely cannot understand why it isn't 'over'...
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Old 10-04-2007   #38
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For all the inaccuracies of the review, I think that he is correct on this most important point - one that does need to be driven home before a new Myth is created about Iraq.
That was exactly my take on it. Despite the transparent politics of the piece, and its innacuracies, and general tone, I think he's on to something about revisionist histories of Vietnam. And about how you can't have it both ways on Moyar and Sorley, re: Westmoreland.
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Old 10-04-2007   #39
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That was exactly my take on it. Despite the transparent politics of the piece, and its innacuracies, and general tone, I think he's on to something about revisionist histories of Vietnam. And about how you can't have it both ways on Moyar and Sorley, re: Westmoreland.
The most striking thing about Pearlstein's piece is that it smacks of the same political agendizing (probably invented a word there) that he accuses Moyar of. For instance he accuses Moyar of pushing a conservative agenda with his book i.e. the same ol' republican vs. democrat format (which pearlstein has all too willinginly occupied the left side of), yet he ignores the fact that one of the principles which Moyar spends a great deal of effort vilifying is Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge--a republican.

Having read the 1954-1965 volume I am mystified as to how Pearlstien draws the conclusion that Moyar considers Westmoreland a hero in this book. Westmoreland is but a minor player in this volume only coming on the scene in the last year of the period covered and his influence in the book is quite minor. I must caveat this with the fact that Westmoreland will obviously play a strong part in Moyar's follow up volume, but not having read that book, I can't and won't make assumptions as to how Westmoreland will be treated. Perhaps Pearlstien has seen an advanced copy?

Another problem I have with Pearlstein's piece is his seeming dumbfoundedness at Moyar taking communist internal communications at face value, like all communitsts lie right? A more careful reading of Moyar reveals a much more studied treatment of communist propagandizing--for instance Pearlstiens quote of how Moyar treats the communist reaction to the deposment of Diem. Yes the communists were excited about this because they felt it would help thier effort in the long run, Moyar puts this in his book because the facts bear this out when looking back at history--in other words Moyar takes the communist reaction at face value because what they predict is actually what happened! Why would a professional historian ignore such an important piece of forbearance?

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Old 10-04-2007   #40
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Another problem I have with Pearlstein's piece is his seeming dumbfoundedness at Moyar taking communist internal communications at face value, like all communitsts lie right? A more careful reading of Moyar reveals a much more studied treatment of communist propagandizing--for instance Pearlstiens quote of how Moyar treats the communist reaction to the deposment of Diem. Yes the communists were excited about this because they felt it would help thier effort in the long run, Moyar puts this in his book because the facts bear this out when looking back at history--in other words Moyar takes the communist reaction at face value because what they predict is actually what happened! Why would a professional historian ignore such an important piece of forbearance?
Or perhaps the Communists were simply putting a good face on their reaction to events --- that Diem's death would automatically be good or bad for their cause was up in the air and, I would argue, still not definitively proven to be a positive good. I was not convinced by Moyar's thesis that Diem was popular amongst the South Vietnamese peasantry, that GVN was on its way to unstoppable victory against the VCI under Diem, that ARVN would have won the battle of Ap Bac if not for the bungling Americans, nor did I buy his spin on the joys of the Strategic Hamlet program. I did, however, like his passage on how Madam Nhu, that exemplar of moral probity, brought the whorehouses of Saigon to a stop, with American servicemen reduced to playing tic-tac-toe with virtuous barmaids, and how this was a reason why the Western press turned against Diem. With this sort of clear-eyed history, how could Moyar have failed to gain tenure?
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