Victor Davis Hanson
Military historian and Hillsdale College professor Mark Moyar has just published Triumph Regained: The Vietnam War, 1965-1968, which is the second in what will become a massive three-volume revision of the entire Vietnam War. It is a book that should be widely read, much discussed, and reviewed in depth regardless of one’s view of that sad chapter in American diplomacy and conflict in Vietnam.
The first book, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 appeared in 2006. It gained considerable attention for its heterodox analysis of the postwar origins of communist aggression against the South, beginning with the disastrous French colonial experience and its transference to the Americans. Moyar described the Byzantine intrigue through which the Kennedy Administration inserted American ground troops into Vietnam, and why and how his successor Lyndon B. Johnson rapidly escalated the American presence.
Moyar’s controversial argument in volume one centered on the disastrous decisions of these two administrations that ensured Americans would be sent into an uninviting distant theater of operations in the dangerous neighborhood of both communist China and Russia. Worse, they would be asked to fight under self-imposed limitations of the nuclear age in which their leaders could not achieve victory or perhaps even define it.
Still, Moyar argued that there was nevertheless a chance to achieve a South-Korean-like solution at much less cost, one that was thrown away through a series of American blunders. Most grievous was the American support for the 1963 coup that removed South-Vietnamese strongman president Ngo Dinh Diem and led to his almost immediate assassination‚ even as he was evolving into a viable wartime leader.
Moyar additionally deplored the biased and lockstep reporting of anti-war media, including its icons David “The Best and the Brightest” Halberstam and Neil “A Bright, Shining Lie” Sheehan, who operated on ideological premises far different from reportage in World War II and Korea. Both characteristically exaggerated American shortcomings consistent with their theme that Vietnam was an anti-colonialist war of liberation rather than a Cold War proxy fight over unilateral communist aggression.
Moyar’s Ho Chi Minh was not so much a romanticized “Uncle Ho” national liberationist of the anti-war movement, as a hard-core Stalinist whose agenda at any cost was always the absorption of all of Vietnam into a Soviet-satellite communist dictatorship.
This new second book of the saga follows and expands these themes, with the same scholarly rigor and comprehensive documentation that includes translated North Vietnamese archives as well as a number of memoirs of key American figures that have appeared in the 17 years since the appearance of the first volume. Most importantly, Triumph Regained is the first comprehensive combat history of the war that documents all the major battles of these four years, which saw U.S. troop levels in Vietnam peak in 1968 at well more than a half-million soldiers.
There appears a tragic monotony to these accounts of near weekly battles: initial communist probing attacks are designed to prompt an American response. The subsequent ambush of U.S. troops follows as they are air dropped into these remote jungle and mountainous theaters. Then like clockwork a quick recovery ensues as Americans size up the enemy landscape, call in murderous artillery and napalm attacks, and inflict terrible casualties. Then a few hours or days later, Americans fly out of the now abandoned combat zone. They usually suffered “moderate” numbers of killed in action, characteristically a tenth to even a hundredth of the losses inflicted on the North Vietnamese—but all to be reported from the front as a futile wastage of American lives.
Still, Moyar shows that too often the United States lacked a comprehensive strategy of victory and was shackled by unworkable rules of engagement—a now familiar dilemma in the half-century that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most grievously, the military was too often blocked from fully interdicting supplies and manpower of the communists at their sources in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Yet the more enemy men and materiel entered the theater unimpeded, a frustrated administration sought to compensate by single-mindedly increasing the numbers of American soldiers, purportedly in the fashion that had finally brought a stalemated “victory” in Korea.
Moyar’s President Johnson at times seems a tragic Hamlet-like figure. LBJ always claimed that he did not wish initially to send troops to Vietnam. But he was purportedly persuaded to do so by his hawkish Kennedy-leftover advisors—only eventually to be lectured to exit ignominiously by the very former zealots who advised him to escalate in the first place. Moyar’s late-phase Johnson remains a complex character, subject to constant bouts of self-doubt, self-pity, and lethal indecision. Nevertheless he harbored a natural—and correct—suspicion of his condescending and politically fickle old-time liberal Cold Warriors, especially the fixer Clark Clifford, the former whiz kid Robert McNamara, and the Brahmins Averell Harriman and the Bundy brothers. Yet when it most counted, LBJ ultimately yielded to their flawed, politically motivated reversals, and rejected the sounder realist assessments of his inner circle of Ellsworth Bunker, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and Maxwell Taylor.
Moyar offers a number of reassessments that may surprise both diehard critics of the war and those who felt victory was “forsaken” by Congress and our so-called wise men. Gen. William Westmoreland, for example, is usually written off now as the father of futile “search and destroy missions” that defined progress only by inflating enemy “body counts” and sent American soldiers into remote jungles where they were easily ambushed. Not quite true, Moyar shows.
Westmoreland’s forward deployments prevented the North Vietnamese from massing troops for major attacks, and kept them away from South Vietnamese population centers. That buffer was one reason why ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) forces steadily grew and by 1968 numbered over 1 million troops, and often were achieving parity against the North Vietnamese. Moyar believes that the pacification strategies—championed by the media hero John Paul Vann—were demonstrably flawed in comparison.
There was no real “Viet Cong,” a construct that Moyar shows was not much other than a few thousand communist agents in the South who posed as a large popular resistance movement. In truth, most hostiles in the South of any size were always North Vietnamese infiltrating communist troops and they had almost no popular support among the South Vietnamese.
The media continued to peddle fake news. Despite the claims of journalists and antiwar activists (often the same players), American public opinion supported the war for years. The people did not begin to turn against Vietnam until they tired of futile policies that either could not or would unleash the military to win the war. Moyar suggests Americans were willing to assume enormous costs in the Cold War, but not in ossified theaters where their sons’ sacrifices were not in the service of victory.
It is also not accurate that Johnson’s “Rolling Thunder” air campaigns were nonsensical indiscriminate area bombings that slaughtered civilians without achieving much utility, in supposed contrast to the deadly Linebacker I and II precision and smart-bombing campaigns that followed in the Nixon Administration. In fact, North Vietnamese archives reveal that even Rolling Thunder terrified the enemy, especially during the abject obliteration of Tet forces surrounding Khe Sanh. Most of the communists’ later diplomacy was designed not to achieve a two-nation settlement but to stop at any cost the devastating bombing. The costly American missions had finally been honed to cripple severely communist supplies that were not declared politically out of reach. They killed thousands of enemy troops in the field, and helped to force the Vietnamese to the Paris Peace conference.
Far from the Tet Offensive being a pivotal communist victory as reported by the media, the 1968 North Vietnamese holiday surprise attacks proved a veritable bloodbath for the North. After their unsustainable losses, the North Vietnamese essentially gave up major conventional offensive operations and in fear of American firepower withdrew a credible presence in the South—even as Walter Cronkite and the network news declared enemy corpses on the Saigon embassy lawn were veritable proof of a fatal U.S. defeat warranting withdrawal.
General Creighton Abrams, the successor to Westmoreland as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, was indeed an inspired supreme commander. But he was not necessarily always the corrective to a supposedly incompetent Westmoreland. Moyer controversially argues that Abrams wisely continued Westmoreland’s search and destroy missions for a time. He eventually stopped them not because they had failed, but rather because they had successfully eroded communist concentrations to such a degree that they could be slowly discontinued.
The disconnect between the American media and the realities of the war, evidenced in the North Vietnamese official archives remains striking. Moyar juxtaposes a media assuming the inevitable victory of the North Vietnamese with the communists despairing they were losing the war to the Americans. Each evening at home, as the American public was told we were being systematically killed and crippled by far more adept “jungle fighters,” the communists were mired in depression as they saw their mounting losses as unsustainable and found no other alternative than to go to Paris to negotiate a reprieve. The American military leadership that the media mocked as inept, and the soldiers who were caricatured as drug-ridden, crazed, disobedient, and near insurrectionary were never seen as such by “Charlie” who had to fight them. No wonder then, by late 1968, the Soviets were finally preferring an end to the war, while their Chinese rivals eventually gave up on their North Vietnamese clients. Both feared the growing likelihood of an independent and pro-Western Vietnam in Southeast Asia.
What undermined the Johnson Administration’s war effort ultimately was its rank politicization of the conflict. LBJ became terrified that the left-wing anti-war movement would force him out of office in 1968 in favor of an anti-war candidate unless he capitulated and ordered a bombing cessation, froze troop increases or pulled soldiers out of Vietnam, and perhaps agreed to the unhinged calls for a “coalition” government in the South. Johnson’s despair, of course, was ironic since, for most of his tenure, the old politico enjoyed a Democratic supermajority in the Senate and a huge majority of over 150 seats in the House, ensuring the Democrats could do anything they liked in the war, which of course they had begun and owned.
To the degree Johnson gave in to the pacifists in his circle, the increasingly viable American effort stalled. After his refusal to seek reelection in early 1968, LBJ then found himself in a truly Orwellian situation. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, both to win the nomination and the 1968 general election, felt he would have to insidiously distance himself from his president and boss. By November, the politics became more surreal. LBJ had to endorse Humphrey even as he realized that Nixon would far more likely continue LBJ’s effort that by 1968 was finally winning the war—while his own party would end it and destroy all the hard-won progress of the last two years.
We talk today about “collusion” and “political interference” in our elections, without remembering that Johnson and his subordinates were past masters at it. Most White House discussions about the peace talks and their connection to bombing halts were predicated not just on military efficacy, but on what might play best to the Democratic anti-war base and could win back the American electorate in 1968.
Moyar relates that the communist world and Europe openly rooted for a Humphrey victory over Nixon and was willing to interfere in our elections. Indeed, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin secretly offered the likely nominee Humphrey and his campaign a sizable campaign donation among other aid (refused, but not disclosed by Humphrey) to defeat the globally detested Cold Warrior Nixon. In a familiar example of left-wing “projection,” LBJ and his advisors were convinced that some in the 1968 Nixon campaign were colluding with the Saigon leadership to halt any concessions at the Paris talks. No such proof was ever found. No matter: Johnson wiretapped U.S. citizens in a vain effort to prove the empty rumors. That smear was demonstrably false, but in truth Johnson himself halted the bombing, and his team grew lenient in Paris to aid the suddenly surging 1968 Humphrey campaign.
We talk of a “Vietnam War.” In fact, it was a Cold War communist proxy effort that saw over 100,000 Chinese auxiliaries engaged in supply and repairing Vietnamese infrastructure, while thousands of Soviet “advisors” manned tanks, flew planes, and organized and operated anti-aircraft systems. Vladimir Putin’s current objection to U.S. military aid to Ukraine is again ironic, given Russia was historically an active participant on the ground in Vietnam and both directly and indirectly killed Americans in efforts to defeat the United States.
Moyer ends volume two on a mixed note. An exhausted and beaten North was negotiating in fear that its massive losses of 1967-1968, if continued, would have threatened the Hanoi regime itself. An elected Republican hawk Richard Nixon, inheriting a war that already had cost 35,000 dead, was now opposed by the same Democrats who started it. A growing number of frustrated Americans wanted either to win the war or to get out. Nixon would soon take the gloves off, ensuring that a nearly defeated North would be subject to greater bombing pressures—even as the anti-war Left enjoyed complete control of a Congress that was suddenly liable to cut off aid to Saigon, could more easily mobilize against a now oppositional and conservative White House—and the ingredients of the Watergate debacle were on the distant horizon.
Moyar draws on a tradition of Vietnam War revisionism, especially Don Oberdorfer’s corrective on the Tet offensive, Lewis Sorley’s thesis of a radical American improvement under Creighton Abrams, and Michael Lind’s unorthodox but well-argued thesis that the “necessary” Vietnam War sought to ensure American Cold War credibility and diverted communist aggression from other more strategically important U.S. allies and vulnerable neutrals.
The role of Encounter Books should also be noted and congratulated for assuming publication of the series from Cambridge University Press, the original publisher of volume one that somehow did not follow up on its initial much-discussed and reviewed book.
Finally, Moyar does not answer in this second volume the existential question that has haunted America long after the war; namely, was the price tag of 58,000 dead Americans and trillions of dollars in treasure worth the cost and effort of 10 years of war to keep South Vietnam autonomous and to check Soviet expansionism? Or would a far better-managed effort leading to a free Vietnam at even far less cost even have been worth it?
For those answers, we await Moyar’s third and final volume of this landmark work. These first two books have been well argued, meticulously researched, engaging to read—and are anathemas to the all too often orthodox view of an imperialistic American meeting its destined comeuppance through the folly of trying to save Vietnam.
Triumph Retaken shows that America’s war in Vietnam could have been won earlier at far less blood and treasure, and in fact, almost was, even belatedly so by 1968.
Volume three no doubt will assess whether the war should have been fought.
37 thoughts on “Refighting the Vietnam War”
[Check for February 28th]
Today’s Document from the National Archives
Dated February 28th, 1946, this telegram was sent from Ho Chi Minh to President Harry S. Truman,
requesting the assistance of the United States government in the negotiations with France.
[Wonder if book mentions Truman ?]
Vol 1 does…..
Remember learning that in school. Nice to see the actual document! Btw. That a picture of you next to your name? I used to fill a bikini pretty well in my day, but I save the pics for OnlyFans. 😉
At the risk of being a craven cynic, there are groups in America where war is about making money.
These group have been in the ascendancy since 1945, and they don’t give a rats ass!!
Their PR is unassailable and they play the country for fools.
Now they are an abomination.
Yes, it’s called the Military Industrial Complex and none other than former five-star general and Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and the 34th President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, warned about it specifically in his farewell speech when he left office. He was right to be concerned as it has churned on for these many years and presently, in Ukraine. It has corrupted the American political landscape like nothing else before or since. We can see it plainly in the words and actions of both Democrats and Republicans, aka the “Uniparty”, who shamelessly protect their own interests and those who also profit from “war without end”.
If their hold were that complete or tenacious, we would have even bigger and longer lasting wars. Also, is it just possible that after everything they’ve suffered under 2 Russian empires, the Ukrainians would rather fight to the death than be swept into a 3rd no matter what our MIC might think?
It’s not just the military, though. If we step back for a broader view, we see that that is just one combination of the State with business to collude. It’s what we get with a huge federal government and the taxes it takes in. It’s natural for businesses and organizations to try the best they can to get the State to do what they want, to secure their positions, to secure markets, to crush competition.
There’s a name for it.
And Fascism causes intense competition between the various organizations joined to the government fueling cronyism and incompetence.
Thank you for this review. It sheds some light on what my feelings were about what was happening in Viet Nam and what was being reported. Also how that led to the Boat People that happened later. I have listened several times your talks on WWI and WWII. Thank you for your expertise and sharing.
“The people did not begin to turn against Vietnam until they tired of futile policies that either could not or would unleash the military to win the war.”
Should it have been “would not…”?
I would be really interested to hear a podcast or see an article drawing parallels between the Vietnam war and the war in the Ukraine, and how the 20 and 30 somethings were so against the war in the early 70’s and the SAME people, now the Gerontocracy, 50 years later are so for the same sort of war????
Neither they, nor their children are being sent to fight in Ukraine. They also don’t see Ukraine as a US colony but rather as a former Russian colony refusing to be re-colonized. Finally, there are no commies in Russia to sympathize with anymore.
Really enjoyed reading this. I am teaching a class on The History of the Vietnam Wars and The Military History of the United States.
With media coverage today, the only way the US can enter a war is upon complete agreement by the US public, as in being attacked after 9/11, followed by a Schwarzhopf type decisive US dominance resulting in a quick ending. Anything exceeding a year, probably much less nowadays, will have the media broadcasting weekly bodybag counts as the people demand withdrawal.
Under the current administration that is an impossible task and may be for any future administration as the military going ‘woke’ requires too much caution for such a strike.
I’m afraid the only future battle that this nation will endure for any sustainable period is one that occurs inside US boundries. May devine providence once again provide a path to victory if that should happen!
Yup. Guess the MIC’s power is limited and checked by the voters.
That’s tragic: Vietnam didn’t have to be a quagmire.
As a young man in my early twenties I lived this history. I served in Viet Nam most of sixty nine and part of seventy as part of a Forward Air Controlling team using two Cessna 150’s putting in air strikes. I remember coming home and changing out of uniform at the airport to ovoid civilian scrutiny. I’m seventy six and have a 100% disability from the VA due to ongoing health problems and a below the knee amputation due to complications from agent orange exposure. It has been a frustration to me over the years that written history has done a poor job exposing what our politicians were really up to.
You are not alone, sir. A best friend, in the second group of Navy Seals assigned there. His team went behind enemy lines one night, through the jungle, finally coming upon a long runway in the middle of the jungle. The 707 was nearly loaded with drugs. He asked the flight engineer about their destination and was told Arkansas. Returning the next day to their base, he went to the commander to report what they had found. He was shocked when that commander told him in no uncertain terms, paraphrasing, ‘if you speak even one word of this to a.n.y.o.n.e., anyone, you will spend the rest of your damned life in the brig. The best friend told us that right then and there he lost faith in the government and could not wait to be discharged. It was not until the last year of his life that he shared his story with a couple of us. What i personally recall was the apparent arrogance of McNamara and the shallowness of LBJ. Johnson did not run again only because he saw the writing on the wall with the massive public demonstrations. Cronkite certainly did a number on the American citizen.
As a conscripted army intelligence analyst in theater in 1967 – 1968, I’m still ambivalent about Vietnam. Firstly, does anyone believe that we were drafted and sent to this war (at least most of us went as called); and saw it as “our turn” to fight as our fathers and uncles fought in WWII. Our perspective was absolute trust in Washington and its leaders. We knew we’d be there for a year and go home. We believed the “domino theory” and genuinely trusted our military superiors in country. Secondly, during this time, we believed we were winning during the Tet offensive and various operations. We all witnessed the horrors war brings in death and destruction. Naturally, we were far removed from our country’s political intrigue and certainly unappreciative of the anti war movement. I did have the opportunity to interview a north Vietnamese officer who defected to the South mostly for family reasons, but he confirmed the poor morale and despair of the North’s population. He feared their defeat and was convinced the US and South Vietnamese would prevail. So I this regard, perhaps Mark Moyar’ thesis is correct.
I just purchased the book on Kindle for $9.99. Would have purchased the first one as well but it is priced at $29.99. Wonder why?
Go to abebook.com and search for a used copy. Best source of older books.
As a Veteran of two one year tours (1965-1966 & 1968-1969) my experience solidly reveals the American Troops overwhelmingly did their job only to have politicians and the American left wing media screw it up! My blood and my many friends blood was shed in vain! Charles Edwards
As a young citizen, my memories of Nam were simple: the nightly scoreboard of war dead on the 7 o’clock News showed we were winning. Until we weren’t.
Why were we on that continent? West-(wanted)-More-Land led us.
First, a loosely related fact. Lies in the 60’s were ubiquitous tools of government. Victor can you do a piece on JFK assassination, 1963? It’s really needed, you have credibility. For 60 yrs now, the CIA and FBI have lied, re-lied, and bequeathed lies to new agents, like a sacred oath. Reluctantly I admit, they did it with great success. Can you connect the dopes, dots? Personally I know the CIA and Mafia did the deed, FBI covered it up, still refusing citizens truth for 60 yrs. Yet I remember Walter Cronkite saying, just hours after shots fired; eye-witnesses report “shots came from grassy knoll”. I never forgot. Millions still believe poor patsy Oswald did it.
Nice job with the book review, Victor, as if you were a student of history of wars yourself. the year 1968 comes up often. It is the year of Boomers, born in 1946 graduated from college age 22. The draft was front and center with the war overhead. No lottery, 100% eligible. Recall that 3 presidents were born in summer of ’46 . Clinton, GW Bush, Trump, sidestepped Vietnam. George W joined the Reserves, as I (1946er)did, to avoid a hated war, honorably. All that is 50yrs past but the memory is preserved. Now I understand clearly why we lost the war. I did not think Walter Cronkite could lie, ever. Now I know the main stream is incapable of truth, ever.
I appreciate your detailed article describing the Mark Moyar books. I intend on getting these to learn more about the Vietnam War. I was born during this time in history and have little to no knowledge of the events that took place. What transpired during this war is so eerily similar to what is going on in our current world.
Graduated high school in 1968. We had a record of 500,000+ American combatants that year.
Many of the boys in my class who did not go to college were drafted or joined up. Of the many who went to Vietnam, several were never the same upon return. Luckily, our class did not lose anybody.
I had a 2-S student deferment. That status ended in 1972 when I left college. Unfortunately, I had a low lottery number. As the war was rapidly ending (Nixon’s mandate and promise) I had thoughts of being the last draftee to die in Vietnam. It was a photo finish, but the draft eventually ended around this time. I did not serve.
I watched the political views of my parents transform over the years 1966-1972. My father, a strong conservative, was initially a hawk. But slowly, with Cronkite telling the same anti-war story every night (only after LBJ was out), he switched to favoring an end to the war. He also became frustrated that the US seemed incapable of winning, mainly because we put ridiculous constraints on how we conducted the war. In retrospect, were these self-imposed guard rails a result of the influence that the military-industrial complex had on our fighting strategy? The war machine needs a sustained and expensive effort to be super profitable. Quickly “winning” may not be their favored outcome.
Do I need to mention Ukraine here? “As long as it takes.”
Is the left’s intense and illogical hatred for Russia just a setup for a sustained proxy war effort in Ukraine?
The US overestimated Soviet and PRC strength during the Cold War. The guard rails were an attempt to avoid another and worse Korea in the mistaken belief that the PLA could flood the field again if provoked. For an interesting take on how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not particularly like any 20th century war see Johns-Hopkins’ Eliot Cohen’s Atlantic piece: Military History Doesn’t Say What Ukraine’s Critics Think.
What an excellent review. It is forcing me to read the books & wait for their third. It seems as if Vietnam has consumed my life. I graduated in 1970 & joined the Marine Corps at 17 because I believed in our mission. The day I was to fly to Da Nang, I was blue tagged & sent to Separate Guard, PI. I served with so many combat veterans & severely disabled from the war. I saw lives ruined because of drug abuse. I saw all of us treated terribly when we came home, no matter where we served. And I always felt we could have won & liberated the people we ultimately abandoned. All of that to say I quit trusting our government years ago, even more now. I told my wife the other day that I want to join the protests against our involvement in Ukraine. No more shed blood, no more wounded warriors, no more damaged families. For what? A highly decorated Marine General, Smedley Butler, wrote “War is a Racket” years before President Eisenhower’s warning about the Industrial Military Complex. When will we say “ enough “ to our political “hucksters?”
Ukraine : (
An additional perspective on the Vietnam war was from author/columnist Jerry Pournelle [deceased]: The war was a “success” in that it drained the resources of the Soviet Union and contributed to its fall.
I, too, served in the army from ’72-’75. I’d gotten my draft notice and decided to enlist to be able to choose my MOS [hah!]. Through good fortune I was not sent to a combat zone, though I did a tour in northern Thailand, about 20 klicks south of Laos.
Not sure I can buy Jerrys synopsis re;conclusion.
That argument could go against us as well, in that we were simultaneously paying for the new ‘Great Society’, building a moonshot program from the ground up and supporting at its height 560,000 men in Vietnam……Why did Nixon take us off the Gold standard and when?
And…and…and…, the correct policy to have followed was… [fill in the blanks]?
To have supplied air support to the ARVNs when the North invaded, same as Afghanistan.
Excellent news, I’ve been waiting and have read Marks vol1 twice in anticipation of volume 2…
Highlight vol. 1 inho, allowing Diem to be assassinated was a disaster for S. Vietnam and the future of our involvement there.
Thanks for this article about Moyar’s books! I look forward to reading them.
I found General Abrams’ own book about his time as commander, “A Better War”, to be very interesting, too. Refreshing compared to the “common knowledge” history of the war.
After all the death, destruction, personal and national anguish that continues today, John Kerry, who threw his symbolic military ribbons over the White House fence in protest, is still strutting around saving the world from the his same phantoms that “caused” the Vietnam War. Individual and political Insanity.
This is another tremendous article and book review from VDH. Since Tom Sowell’s retirement, you are America’s foremost conservative intellectual. I’m looking forward to reading Mark’s second volume of the Vietnam War. “Triumph Forsaken” was absolutely brilliant. I have one question about a statement in the book review. At the end of paragraph 10, you mentioned that LBJ rejected ” sounder realistic assessments of an inner circle of…and Maxwell Taylor”. Not having read “Triumph Regained” yet, I’m curious as to why Taylor earns this plaudit . This is the same general who Tom Ricks describes in his book “The Generals” as “the most destructive general in American History”.