Thursday, January 14, 2010

'Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam'

This book review was originally published in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, January 17, 1990.

Colby Makes Late But Stylish Entrance With Vietnam History

Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam, by William Colby with James McCargar, Contemporary Books, $22.95, 448 pp.

In the nearly 15 years since the war in Vietnam ended with a communist victory, innumerable books have been written to describe the conflict, its origins, and its aftermath. These have ranged from the theoretical (On Strategy by Col. Harry Summers Jr.) to the epic (A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan) to the microcosmic (The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing, 1972 by Amb. Martin F. Herz).

Now we have the personal Vietnam memoir of William Colby, whose first official visit to the country was in 1959, under President Dwight Eisenhower, long before the first U.S. combat troops arrived. Colby’s service in Vietnam spanned the terms of five presidents; during that time he moved up the ranks to become President Ford’s director of Central Intelligence.

Such attention was not paid to these matters when the war had just ended. Colby notes that the reaction in April 1975 to Hanoi’s conquest of Saigon was one of relief that “avoided a repetition of the 1950s dispute over ‘Who lost China?’ Politically, the subject of Vietnam quickly dropped into oblivion,” he writes. Strangely, it was that same year the ‘the Vietnam Syndrome” affected American judgment so severely that the United States allowed the communists to take over Angola, even though pro-Western forces were within easy reach of victory, and communist governments also took over Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Benin — to look just at Africa.

Colby points out that there are lessons to be learned from the “lost victory” of Vietnam that are applicable today. He examines the two fatal errors of U.S. involvement in the conflict that in retrospect seem like bookends of a shelf-full of history books marked “Vietnam, Republic of — Lingering Death, 1963-75.”

The first was Washington’s willful participation in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s president, in 1963. The overthrow, argues Colby, “left a legacy of anarchy in South Vietnam to [President Lyndon] Johnson.” America’s role in the coup “clearly was crucial,” yet, Colby adds, “the basis for that role seems almost incomprehensible.”

Somehow, American policymakers believed that getting rid of the stable, if troubled, Diem, would lead to greater “democratization and effectiveness,” even though the new Vietnamese leadership would be assumed by “an unidentified general or generals.”

The second fatal error — not to say that there were not other errors along the way — was the abandonment of the Vietnamese people by the U.S. Congress in March and April 1975, when North Vietnam launched its final military assault against the South. When a similar North Vietnamese offensive had occurred in 1972, “the Americans provided massive logistical support” and U.S. forces deployed “American air power directly against North Vietnamese military targets in massive and effective doses.” Three years later, these elements were missing. “The difference,” Colby says, “was the major factor producing the collapse of morale and discipline that led to the end.”

Colby attributes this undermining of the free people of South Vietnam to Congress, although others have argued that the weakened presidency in the wake of Watergate was the major factor. “The cause [of the fall] is more clearly identifiable in the Congress’ refusal of the monetary and material components of American assistance, reflected in its sharp reductions in appropriations for the military aid South Vietnam needed and in the adoption of the 1973 War Powers Act limiting the authority of the president to employ American military force abroad.”

Colby argues that the lessons of Vietnam have been both absorbed and ignored. He says that for American diplomatic and military efforts in support of a beleaguered ally to succeed, the support of the American people is necessary. “To be willing to give their support,” he argues, “Americans must be confident that the results are commensurate with the involvement,” In other words, the government must make clear to the electorate what precisely is at stake, what will be the cost, and how long will the effort take (approximately).

In El Salvador, Colby asserts, the lessons of Vietnam are being heeded. “The American military presence has been limited to 55 advisors, quite unlike the 550,000 American soldiers who went to Vietnam. In an effort to win the hearts and minds of the people (as the infamous phrase goes), “assistance to the security forces has been matched by programs to strengthen economic development and social growth for the population.” President Bush’s recent firm support or the government of President Cristiani in the face of massive urban guerrilla assaults on the Salvadoran people should, in these terms, be commended.

In Nicaragua, however, Colby argues that the “lessons of Vietnam have been ignored or not learned.” He says the Reagan Administration “put the cart before the horse” by relying on the military force of the contras rather than engaging in fundamental political organizing to create internal, popular opposition to Sandinista tyranny. He believes that “impatience with this long and difficult process led the administration to seek the seemingly quicker solution of direct military action. In so doing, it condemned its efforts to futility and to the loss of the American people’s support.”

To an extent, Colby is correct. However, the constant pressure of the contras has forced the Sandinista junta to call for elections next February. Moral and financial assistance to the political opposition. led by Violeta Chamorro, is coming from the United States. If, as several observers on both right and left have said, the Nicaraguan elections are free and fair, there is a better than.average chance that Chamorro’s democratic opposition will win.

Colby recognizes this (although clearly this book was drafted before current events had run so far along their course) when he singles out for praise the National Endowment for Democracy, which he says is “able to focus on those political forces and institutions on whose success or failure rest the hopes of democratic rather than totalitarian solutions of the serious economic and social challenges so many nations face.”

As examples of success of this approach, he cites our assistance to Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, and our help in the plebiscite that led to the peaceful exit of Gen. Pinochet as head of Chile’s military regime.

We`will probably be debating the “lessons of Vietnam” in classrooms and the Capitol Chambers for generations to come. There will also be the ‘‘lessons of’’ Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iran, Angola, South Africa, Poland, Hungary… the list goes on.

Colby’s years of experience lend a special perspective on America’s wrenching national trauma in Vietnam. Lost Victory will take its place alongside many other worthy and not so worthy works that attempt to explore what happened and why — and if it will happen again,

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based policy analyst who writes frequently on African affairs.

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