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Melvin Laird and Nguyen Van Thieu: Partners in De-Americanization
After assuming office in January 1969, Nixon and his closest foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, came up with a plan of sorts: escalating the war on the ground and in the air, and later expanding it into Cambodia. As the historian Lien-Hang Nguyen put it, “Elected on the promise of extricating the United States from Vietnam, Nixon spent his first term waging war on all fronts in order to prolong the conflict… in hopes of winning the ultimate victory.”
Ten months into his term, in November 1969, Nixon finally disclosed his war-ending strategy, what became known as Vietnamization. Defeating the communists in Vietnam would be had, Nixon said, by gradually withdrawing American troops and turning the bulk of the fighting over to the South Vietnamese military — all while maintaining significant American financial backing.
When American historians look at Vietnamization, their focus almost always is on the Big Players in the U.S.—Nixon and Kissinger, with Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird getting decidedly third billing. In his new and insightful look at Vietnamization, Unwilling to Quit: The Long Unwinding of American Involvement in Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 292 pp. $35, hardcover; $26.49, Kindle), the historian David Prentice adds another important player to the roster: South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu.
Using newly declassified documents, Prentice reveals that Thieu, strongly backed by Laird, enthusiastically supported Vietnamization —contrary to previous reports. Thieu “championed U.S. withdrawals to buy his regime more time and money,” Prentice writes. He “hoped to gain the time, autonomy, foreign assistance, and stability necessary to make the strategy work.”
However, Vietnamization ultimately failed. As Prentice puts it, the Nixon strategy “created lots of chances in 1969–1971 for Thieu and the [South Vietnamese military] to get it right.” Although things went reasonably well in the first few years of American troop withdrawals, “Thieu’s personal, political, and strategic failures undermined the regime’s survival.”
Yet the blame isn’t solely Thieu’s. Prentice also notes that Nixon and Kissinger consistently misjudged their adversaries’ tolerance for resistance and overestimated their own capacity to use coercive diplomacy and America’s immense military strength to force North Vietnam to surrender. Additionally, as Prentice points out, nothing Nixon or Thieu could have done would have dissuaded Le Duan, the hardline North Vietnamese leader, from pursuing his goal of a Vietnam united under communism.
Before the history of my family is also the history of multiple wars, of colonization, of imperialism, of loss and diaspora,” Beth Nguyen writes in her introspective memoir, Owner of a Lonely Heart (Scribner, 256 pp. $27). “So it is with every Vietnamese family that has found its way to the United States.” Being a refugee, she says, “becomes a legacy and unasked-for identity.”
And that is what this sharply written, often intense, and sometimes melancholy book-length essay is about: the ongoing psychic impact of escaping from Vietnam just before the 1975 communist takeover and finding refuge in the United States. Beth Nguyen was just eight months old when father and uncles — all of whom had served in the South Vietnamese Army — escaped their homeland with her, her sister, and their grandmother. Nguyen’s mother was left behind.
Trying to find out why her mother did not escape with the family in 1975 — and other Big Questions about her parents’ lives — are at the center of the book. As are Nguyen’s thoughts about what she calls “refugeetude,” the attitude of being aware of the myriad forces faced after being uprooted from one’s homeland and figuring out how to deal with them. That includes the racism Nguyen faced growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and throughout her life; her father’s not-mild case of PTSD; and her tense relationship with her mother, who later emigrated to the U.S.
Beth Nguyen (born Bich Minh Nguyen) has a prosperous and rewarding life on the surface. An academic overachiever, she teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the mother of two, and has written two novels and an award-winning, growing up memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.
However, in Lonely Heart, Nguyen all but sloughs off her many accomplishments to lay bare her burdens, nearly all of which stem from the consequences of what the Vietnamese call the “American War” and her family’s escape to the U.S. “I’m an American who is here because of war,” she writes, “yet I retain no actual memory of war or becoming a refugee. It’s in me through proximity, through absorption, through inheritance. It is the self that’s taken my whole life to get nearer to in order to perceive: once a refugee, always a refugee, no matter how well hidden it is.”
Refugees, as she shows starkly in this book, too often “don’t fit the romantic narrative that’s so dominant in America.”
Did you take part in the Battle of Hue or the Siege of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War? If so, you participated in one of the 100 “greatest” battles of all time—at least, according to the British military historian and author Angus Konstam in the aptly titled 100 Greatest Battles (Osprey Publishing, 224 pp. $20, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).
As Konstam admits, putting together such as list — which starts with the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC and ends with the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 — is a subjective matter. That said, Konstam’s criteria are well thought out and his choices generally jibe with similar lists put together by military historians over the years. His main “arbiter,” Konstam says, is that a battle had to be “significant enough to change the course of a war or campaign” and that its outcome “had a profound effect on what followed, or at least marked a major turning point in a conflict.”
The fighting at Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive and the seven-month Siege of Khe Sanh that same year both meet those criteria, as Konstam notes in his short summaries of those engagements. Agreeing with most historians, Konstam writes that the six-week battle of Hue was “hugely costly” and “an enormous setback” for the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. At the same time, though, the political fallout convinced the American people “that the war was unwinnable.”
A third battle that took place in Vietnam that makes Konstam’s list is a no-brainer, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. That shocking outcome marked the beginning of the end of French colonial rule of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Equally portent, it signaled the start of the American commitment to fighting communism in Southeast Asia.
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