Mark Moyar: H-Diplo hosts roundtable on his controversial history of Vietnam

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Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 offers the most sustained challenge to the general consensus among U.S. diplomatic historians concerning the Vietnam conflict. As the first of a projected two-volume study, the book focuses on the period through President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s decisions by July 1965 to bomb North Vietnam and commit American ground troops to combat against the North Vietnamese regular forces and the Viet Cong insurgents. Moyar’s ninety pages of notes attest to extensive research in U.S. published and unpublished records, the memoir and secondary literature, and translated documents and publications from the North Vietnamese perspective.

From the start in his brief introduction on the Vietnamese background and the Geneva Accords in 1954, Moyar offers a revisionist perspective with some issues receiving extensive development such as the nature of the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, its effectiveness in establishing control in South Vietnam and dealing with the insurgency after 1957, and the U.S.-backed coup to remove him in 1963. On these questions Moyar provides an extensive review of the different perspectives presented by U.S. journalists in South Vietnam, the American military advisers working with ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam), assessments by State Department officials and Central Intelligence evaluations, memoirs by South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese reports on the status of the conflict. Other issues such as the feasibility and wisdom of sending ARVN and U.S. forces into Laos and North Vietnam to disrupt Hanoi’s movement of troops and supplies to South Vietnam are developed in less depth. Some of the issues are “what if” questions such as the impact of an earlier, and more extensive American military escalation, or the possible effects of a U.S. decision to negotiate a withdrawal from Vietnam on Southeast Asia, and American relationships with major Asian allies and countries such as Indonesia and India.

The reviewers appreciate Moyar’s effort and his willingness to rethink and challenge the existing scholarship on many of the major issues. They do disagree with Moyar on a number of his most important issues. Moyar provides a detailed rebuttal to many of their reservations and disagreements that should provide an opportunity for further discussion and stimulate further research and revision. Some of the disputed issues are as follows:

  • 1.) The reviewers do not question Moyar’s depiction of the Vietnamese heritage of disunity and nearly a thousand years of Chinese hegemony, as well as Ho Chi Minh’s long-term relationship with the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong. Moyar, however, is challenged with respect to the assessments of Qiang Zhai, Chen Jian, and Ilya V. Gaiduk on Ho Chi Minh’s relationship with the major communist powers (9-11), and on his maneuvering with his communist allies before and during the Geneva Conference. Moyar suggests that President Dwight Eisenhower failed to realize that the French and their Vietnamese allies “were on the verge of crushing the Viet Minh in early 1954” and declined to support the French at Dien Bien Phu with U.S. airpower: “while bombing could not have wiped out all of the Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu, it almost certainly would have thwarted their attack—both by reducing their numbers and cutting their supply lines at key chokepoints—and it would have left them with a sharply reduced capacity for large-unit warfare throughout Indochina.” (28-29)

  • 2.) Moyar depicts Diem as an increasingly successful leader considering the situation when he took over in 1954 and faced immediate French hostility, the presence of Viet Minh who did not relocate to the North, the Catholic refugees migrating from the North, the problem of dealing with the religious sects, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hoa, and the Binh Xuyen in Saigon. As long as Washington resisted the desire to pressure Diem to manage his problems like an American democratic politician, Moyar’s Diem is an active leader, successful interacting with the people in the villages, carrying out land reform, and implementing successful anti-communist campaigns to dig out the Viet Minh cadre, and developing a conventional force in ARVN as well as village-based forces. Moyar does note that all of Diem’s programs were handicapped by his reliance on Vietnamese administrators from the French colonial period, and only gradually did Diem get newly trained officials to take over. (64-72) Recent assessments on Diem, however, disagree significantly with this overview.

  • 3.) Regarding the emergence of the Viet Cong insurgency in 1957, Moyar vigorously challenges the view presented by some American journalists in Vietnam led by David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, by military advisers such as John Paul Vann and other U.S. officials, as well as many scholars that the Viet Cong steadily made progress against Diem’s various forces from Civil Guard and Self Defense forces to ARVN. Moyar describes more of an ebb and flow in the conflict, with Diem adjusting to the Viet Cong attacks and almost driving them out of the villages at the end of 1959. (85-86) However, a Hanoi shift from large-scale attacks to a rural insurgency with infiltration of new, well-trained cadres from the north led to the undermining of GVN (the Government of the Republic of Vietnam) in the villages and the creation of a shadow Viet Cong government. With the arrival of increased U.S. aid under John F. Kennedy, advisers, helicopters, and M-113s, Moyar suggests that the initiative shifted back to Diem with the coming on line of a new generation of post-colonial Diem administrators and the strategic hamlet program. Moyar concludes that Diem halted the decline, and despite mounting criticism from some American journalists, continued to achieve gains in the counterinsurgency campaign right into November 1963. Moyar marshals substantial evidence to support this interpretation, however, he notes disagreement with this view from U.S. observers, officials, and most scholars.

  • 4.) None of the reviewers challenge Moyar’s critical assessment on the events leading up to the overthrow and assassination of Diem in November 1963. The Kennedy administration is depicted as divided on whether or not to approve a coup by ARVN leaders, and the new Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge emerges as the main manipulator in Saigon, acting at times without Washington’s knowledge or against Kennedy’s instructions. Nevertheless, the reviewers decline to defendWashington’s involvement, although some suggest that the key consideration for Washington was whether or not Diem was an effective leader with respect to the insurgency. They question Moyar’s emphasis on increasing American demands that Diem act like an American leader and negotiate compromises with the Buddhists and other dissident groups.

  • 5.) The main disagreement between Moyar and the reviewers on LBJ focuses on the wisdom of trying diplomacy to negotiate over Vietnam or on Moyar’s preference for escalating sooner, harder, and into Laos and North Vietnam. Several reviewers suggest negotiations would have been preferable to what ensued and that Richard Nixon’s turn to détente with the Soviet Union and China and negotiations on Vietnam suggest a possible alternative. Moyar rejects this alternative on the grounds that the most important consideration for LBJ and his advisers was to keep China and a communist Vietnam from spreading communism and their influence further in Southeast Asia and weakening the U.S. relationship with many of its major Asian allies. Thus, Moyar revives the domino theory and develops its potential impact in depth. (290-292), 375-391)

  • 6.) The reviewers are not persuaded by Moyar’s thesis that a firmer response by LBJ in 1964 might have prompted Hanoi to reconsider its decision to start sending regular North Vietnamese army units to the south (325-329); that firmness in the form of sustained bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trails in Laos as well as North Vietnam might have prompted China to back off on support to Hanoi (321); and that ultimately in 1965 Washington needed to hit North Vietnam hard with sustained bombing and interdict the supply lines in Laos as well as North Vietnam. (348, 360-361) Moyar’s recommendation probably require a separate “what if” study that discusses the availability of U.S. forces and logistics to carry out his suggestions as well as the likely impact elsewhere in Vietnam if U.S. forces are directed to these tasks. Finally, there is always a reaction in the Vietnam conflict from Hanoi and its allies, which would have to be considered.

  • 7.) Moyar’s suggestion that a window of opportunity existed to persuade China to let Hanoi fend for itself against U.S. escalation is also disputed. Moyar argues that China shifted from an August 1964 stance of declining a commitment to support North Vietnam against a direct American attack to increasing assistance by March 1965 including troops for road construction and increased arms. (360-363) Several of the reviewers conclude that Moyar has rejected assessments by China specialists such as Chen Jian, Quang Zhai and Xioming Zhang that Mao had laid down a line of defending North Vietnam against U.S. troops since 1962. The memory of what happened in Korea, as Moyar admits, made LBJ very cautious with respect to actions that might precipitate a Chinese intervention.

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