This book is a MEAL. Undertake it for purposes of research, or if, like me, you feel the need to own and read a set of government documents that the US government tried so hard to keep its citizens from seeing. The documents themselves are not written to entertain or to be readable; they were written candidly in most cases, under the assumption they would remain of limited availability.
Parts of these lengthy epistles have been edited down and quoted from by Neil Sheehan, the New York Times journalist who fought to get them and make them accessible to the public. I was just a kid myself when the earthshaking ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court came down saying that the documents should be printed and available, and I used my lunch money to hustle down to the local bookstore as soon as it was out in paperback. I have that copy still.
Some of the scariest moments come in memorandums discussing the possibility of using nuclear weapons on the Vietnamese. The dryly written notes about a policy toward “exfoliation” belies the human and environmental holocaust Washington brought down when it became clear that the Vietnamese people actually did NOT want a Western-style government, and that the only way to force it upon them was to destroy the jungles in which they hid.
One plan considered is to withdraw the bombing raids from Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor. Too many pilots are being killed, and it takes a long time to train a pilot. That’s the actual reason, along with a desire not to ramp up aggression toward the Chinese.
HOWEVER, the plan is to tell the American people (“the public”) that the bombings have been moved from north to south because all the targets that were bombed in the north were destroyed. There is discussion about the fact that this is untrue, but would look better in the press.
Small wonder the US government fought so hard to suppress these damning documents! The loss of credibility and innocent trust toward government in the USA did not start with the Watergate break in; it started during the US war against Vietnam.
There is a point at which it is acknowledged (in a document, not by paraphrasing), that the only reason the US government remains in Vietnam is to prevent US “humiliation”, even though the KIA (“Killed In Action”) figures are projected to be 1,000 US lives lost (and of course innumerable Vietnamese, 80% of whom will be civilians) per month. Even General Westmoreland, the most tireless advocate for more troops, calling up the reserves if necessary, cannot project a date the U.S. can declare a victory, or even gracefully withdraw without a clear and obvious loss of this war.
The risk of staying in: possible war with China, also “world-wide revulsion against us” (Memorandum #96, prepared by John McNaughton for Sec. of Defense McNamara, who would become disillusioned with the whole mess and advocate for withdrawal).
The guerilla fighters in the mountains are at one point compared (Memorandum #101, p.447) to the Irish freedom fighters who were defeated after WWI.
This tome is a treasure trove of primary documents, and the NY Times narrative is carefully written to honor the original meanings of quotations that have been pieced together and make it possible to publish the events and documents in a single volume. Don’t bother with it unless you have a serious interest in the US war against the people of Vietnam, and the deceit regarding same of the American people whose tax money paid for it.
I have seldom stayed with a book so difficult for so long when there was no academic requirement involved. I began this book for the second time (didn’t finish it the first time, when I bought it) in Oct. 2012. Because it was so dense and important, and because I didn’t want my mind to wander, I only read a few pages daily till I hit page 500. At that point I picked up a pen and could not put it down. I have no idea why this is so, but I just HAD to finish it. I did that in May 2013, and am glad I followed through.