Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On Halberstam – I non-concur

I have not come to praise Halberstam. Plenty of that here.

Though it is sad when one dies unexpectedly – and you have to feel for those he left behind – when someone dies that does not mean you have to decouple your brain from your heart. If you want to join in the love fest over the death of Halberstam, feel free, but you won’t hear it here.

I have a history of not buying Halberstam’s hype, and I won’t do it now. To me, he represents a group of over-rewarded literary elite who have never been held to account for the significant damage they did to their country, and the blood of millions they have on their hands.

Yes, it is back to Vietnam.

For review, early on in the war, Halberstam had a critical role (remember he was just a writer – a writer who decided to push an agenda – and therefore set a template that we are dealing with to this day), in President Kennedy not taking the sound advice of Lieutenant General Krulak (yes, his father) and instead to buy in the addled and ill-informed opinions of Lodge.
In the late summer of 1963, President John Kennedy dispatched two observers to South Vietnam. Their mission was to provide the president an assessment of the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the Republic of Vietnam. The first, Major General Victor Krulak, USMC, the special assistant for counterinsurgency for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited some ten locations in all four Corps areas of Vietnam. Based on extensive interviews with U.S. advisers to the South Vietnamese army, Krulak concluded that the war was going well.

The second observer was Joseph Mendenhall of the State Department, who had been recommended to the president by Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman. Mendenhall, like Harriman and Hilsman a longtime advocate of replacing Diem, visited three South Vietnamese cities where he spoke primarily to opponents of the South Vietnamese president. Unsurprisingly, he concluded in his report that if Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu remained in power, the Diem government was certain to fall to the Viet Cong, or the country would descend into religious civil war.

Both Krulak and Mendenhall briefed Kennedy on September 10. So diametrically opposed were their conclusions that the president quipped, "The two of you did visit the same country, didn't you?"

After reading Mark Moyar's remarkable new book, Triumph Forsaken, readers accustomed to the "orthodox" view of the Vietnam war--entrenched in the academy and the press for decades--will no doubt have the same sort of "Kennedy moment." Could Moyar possibly be writing about the same war that is described (in the orthodox view) as, at best, a strategic error and, at worst, a brutal imperialist war of aggression--in any case, a tragic mistake?

...many American reporters relied on a Vietnamese journalist named Pham Xuan An, a Reuters stringer later revealed to be a Communist agent whose very mission was to influence the American press. As journalists such as Stanley Karnow later admitted, Pham was very good at his job.

Sheehan and Halberstam, in turn, greatly influenced the new U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, against Diem.
If there is a villain in Moyar's account, it is Lodge. Influenced by American journalists, he saw Diem as an intransigent opponent of reform. But it was Lodge who proved to be heavy-handed and closed-minded, vices that led him to support the ouster of Diem as part of a personal vendetta. Moyar describes Lodge's duplicity: He told the president that he was unable stop the anti-Diem coup, but it was Lodge who instigated it in the first place, in defiance of Kennedy's wishes. In that sense, Kennedy was hoist on his own petard: He had sought to neutralize Lodge, a likely 1964 Republican presidential candidate, by sending him to Saigon; but when evidence of Lodge's dupli city became clear, Kennedy did not replace him for fear that Lodge would turn his ouster into a campaign issue.

It is generally accepted, even by orthodox chroniclers, that the coup and the subsequent assassination of Diem and Nhu were mistakes of the greatest magnitude. Ho Chi Minh understood the coup's import immediately: "I can scarcely believe that the Americans could be so stupid," he remarked. The Hanoi Politburo recognized the opportunity that the coup had provided the Communists: "Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communists. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diem. Diem was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists." And indeed, the coup provided the incentive for the Communists to push for a quick victory against the weak South Vietnamese government before the United States intervened.
In spite of this early useful idiot tour for the Communits, Halberstam had it right early on. In early 1965,
The basic alternatives for Vietnam are the same now as they were in 1961: they are no different, no more palatable, no less of a nightmare.

First, there is a great deal of talk about the possibility of a neutral Vietnam. But under present conditions this is out of the question . . . The first step toward a neutral Vietnam would undoubtedly be the withdrawal of all U.S. forces in the country and a cutback in American military aid; this would create a vacuum so that the Communists, the only truly organized force in the South, could subvert the country at their leisure . . . There would simply be no force to resist them, and if Hanoi offered us and the South Vietnamese a neutral solution, it would only mean a way of saving face for the United States.

What about withdrawal? Few Americans who have served in Vietnam can stomach this idea. It means that those who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most under a Communist government, while we lucky few with blue passports retire unharmed; it means a drab, lifeless and controlled society for a people who deserve better. Withdrawal also means that the United States’ prestige will be lowered throughout the world, and it means that the pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. Lastly, withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam.
When that no longer became socially popular, he changed his tune.

Just when the war turned our way, the defeat of the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive, he helped yank defeat from the jaws of victory in the company of defeatists the likes of Walter Cronkite with The Making of a Quagmire.

So, excuse me if I don’t join in the love fest. He spent his final years being praised and loved for malpractice of the greatest degree – and besides by ankle biters like me – was never made to answer for it.

Rest in peace.

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