Professional Reader

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The Vietnam Victory Option by  Norborne Robinson  (Middleberg, VA: The Gram Press, 1993), 248 pages, $35.00.

Imagine your country embroiled in a conflict that many analysts said would drag on for years, was being fought half way around the world, wasn’t all that popular at home, and you probably couldn’t win. Suppose too that you had a sure-fire plan that would quietly end the war, with your side winning. Naturally such a plan might save millions of lives and countless millions of dollars. Imagine also being in a position to present that plan to three different US presidents. Now imagine your plan being rejected by all three. Such was the fate of Mr. Norborne Robinson, his Vietnam Victory Option, and the outcome of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Robinson, as an advisor to the decision makers of the time, provides a first hand account of, and insight into, the politics leading-up-to and throughout the Vietnam War and the concerns of the US Presidents making the momentous choices of those times.

In Part One of his book, The Prologue, Mr. Robinson sketches earlier events that both set the stage for the war and heavily influenced the way it was fought. Prior experiences and different (frequently conflicting) conclusions drawn from them were important considerations in the Washington decision-making arena.

Part Two, Combat, details the policies of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and the controversial military strategies subordinate to them. Outlined in Part Two is the proposed victory option combat scenario, which was basically as follows: The food production for the bulk of the population of North Vietnam depended on a series of flood control and crop water earthen dikes on the Red River. The author proposed that by bombing the agricultural dike system, the US could effectively destroy North Vietnam’s food production thus destroying confidence in the Government of North Vietnam. To feed a starving population, the failed Hanoi Government would have to sue for peace. To avoid the horror of famine, the Republic of South Vietnam could then provide food which the US would deliver.

The military mind must raise the question Why didn’t the US exercise such an option in Vietnam? The answer was simple. The US, facing three Communist sectors in the far East, Korea, Indochina, and Formosa, did not want a confrontation with China and feared it’s intervention, thus a number of Vietnam "victory" options were never exercised. Among them was the bombing of the Red River dikes.

Mr. Robinson provides a superb short-course in the post-WW II and Vietnam era political climate and three excellent additional thoughts for the reader to keep in mind. First, he reminds us that Communist world-wide expansion was very real. Second, Communism was halted in Korea and delayed for at least ten years in Indochina (he postulates that resolve on the part of the US, and the delay in Indochina, were enough to cause Communism to loose momentum, and eventually fail elsewhere.) Third, the military is simply the strong right arm of the body politick. It does not have the ability to determine when, where, how, or to what extent it may or may not be used Neither is there an obligation for explanation and this last item will ever be a bitter pill for the military professional, particularly when there are option(s) for victory which go unused.

This text provides insight into the political dynamics that led to the US intervention in Vietnam and should be studied by politicians, historians and military professionals both for historical clarity and for applicable lessons for the future.

We are fortunate for Mr. Robinson’s personal perspective.

CW5 Richard E. Cameron (USA, Retired)

Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Semper-Fi: Vietnam From DaNang To The DMZ -- Marine Corps Campaigns, 1965-1975 by Edward F. Murphy (Novato, CA: Precision Press, 1997), 56 pages, $24.95.

The author takes the reader very skillfully through the hard fought combat campaigns of the U.S. Marine Corps in the northern regions of South Vietnam. The text has been engineered to keep the interest of the reader, unlike other so called historical accounts of modern combat.

The author has obviously, as indicated by the bibliography, made extensive research into the operational activities of USMC. This is reflected in the almost day to day story of the brutal, and sometimes heroic path that the Corps took as it struck blow after blow on the forces of the Viet Cong and the NVA. It becomes clear that the USMC inflicted extremely heavy casualties on the communist elements, that is, if the "body count" can be relied upon.

The heroic actions of many of the combatants is related in some detail, which lends authenticity to the unfolding story. Real names and activities which resulted in the awarding of the Navy Cross, and even the Congressional Medal of Honor give glimpses of the human side of war.

The book does an excellent job in relaying to the reader the tension that existed between the Marine Corps combat leaders and the Army (MACV) General staff. The political aspects of the war overshadow much of what was accomplished by the hardnosed Marines. The constant relinquishing of seized territory back to the invading NVA, especially in the Que Son Valley is indicative of the situation encountered by the Marines who had to feel frustrated each time they had to retake the same property.

This history of the Vietnam war from the first advisors in 1965 to the evacuation of the key political holdings im Danang and Saigon in 1975 was easy to read, for the author has a literary gift which allows him to impart all the cold hard facts in a manner which draws the reader into the action.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in military history. It would make an excellent reference for persons doing research into the real guts of the war. I congratulate the author on an excellent job.

William F. Ivory

Fort Huachuca, Arizona

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The Undetected Enemy by John R. Nordell (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), $39.50.

John Nordell's recent book on Dien Bien Phu breaks new ground on why the French risked so much at Dien Bien Phu. With thorough research, Nordell brings out fresh ideas on why the French choose such a remote and inaccessible region for a major operation. Nordell s book is extremely well documented. He uses hundreds of primary sources, including recently declassified documents, press releases, and war memoirs to back up his points. Unlike Dien Bien Phu's other well-established histories, Bernard Fall's Hell is a very Small Place and Jules Roy's Dien Bien Phu, Nordell does not focus on how the battled unfolded and subsequent outcome. Rather he focuses on why it was fought.

Nordell dispels two primary areas of conventional wisdom. First, that French wanted Dien Bien Phu to be a fixed battle site like the entrenched camp at Na San. In The Undetected Enemy, Nordell also demonstrates a significant intelligence failure. Senior French commanders seriously underestimated the size of enemy forces committed against Dien Bien Phu. These two errors are directly attributable to the French defeat.

Instead of a fixed defensive battle, Nordell illustrates how the French selected Dien Bien Phu as a launch site for mobile, offensive operations. The post was "directed to use half its force" for offensive operations. The French choice for the Dien Bien Phu s commander confirms the mobile nature envisioned for Dien Bien Phu. GEN Cogny, commander of ground forces in North Vietnam, stated I m thinking of (COL) Castries. A cavalryman would be ideal at Dien Bien Phu, where the situation will be mobile. Later when trying to persuade Col Castries to accept the job, Cogny again stated Dien Bien Phu must be an offensive base.

However, even a quick terrain analysis shows Dien Bien Phu situated in an extremely mountainous region. The proposed battlefield was crossed only by a handful of trails, a mule path and one paved road, route 41, that was held by the Vietminh along its entire span. However, French planners did not consider this, rather they planned for seizing the initiative and not remaining in defensive positions. The blunder in terrain selection was further compounded by the underestimation of enemy strength.

Nordell also contends the popular belief that French intelligence assets accurately identified Viet Minh strength and intentions. He describes the concern among both French and American officials on the inability of French intelligence to produce accurate intelligence on the size of the Vietminh troop movement. This point is most clearly portrayed with the French dereliction in identifing the magnitude of the threat.

The initial intelligence estimate had one to one and half divisions committed against Dien Bien Phu, not the corps sized unit, of 5-6 divisions that eventually assaulted the base. The French decision to occupy and then stay at Dien Bien Phu was based off this faulty intelligence. Since reinforcements were not available, the commitment of a relatively small force deep inside enemy held territory proved disastrous.

Even when it became apparent that the enemy would attack in much larger force, Gen Navarre, French Indochina CINC was reluctant to revise his initial estimate and merely conceded that Dien Bien Phu could be attacked by more important forces than those initially envisaged. This refusal to accept the seriousness of the threat contributed directly to the French loss.

Nordell, through careful research, documents these premises. The reference list is exhaustive and complete. However, I found myself constantly flipping from the text to the reference to get the full picture. Nordell s book is informative, easy to read and provides new aspects to controversial battle. His emphasis on intelligence and the role it played in the outcome makes this an ideal book for students of intelligence art and how it influences war.

Captain Bruce Niedrauer

Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania

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Secret Army, Secret War: Washington's Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam by Sedgwick Tourison (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1995), 389 pages, $31.95 hardcover. ISBN:1-55750-818-6

The author is a veteran of U.S. Army intelligence in Southeast Asia. His service took him to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. He later worked for the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), focusing on prisoner of war (POW) and missing in action affairs. It is probably in this assignment and his Southeast Asian experiences that his interest developed on the many incursions into North Vietnam and the consequences for the personnel captured in these operations.

Secret Army, Secret War shows Tourison's interest in and in-depth knowledge of his past. The book is an examination of the formalization of these intelligence penetration operations and the personal outcomes for the operatives captured in North Vietnam and Laos. It centers on what is known overall as OP34A, although it encompasses other operations as well. Most historians refer to the entire penetration activity as OP34A.

The inception of intelligence missions into the North was fathered by the Central Intelligence Agency, primarily under William Colby when he was Station Chief in Saigon. The operation aimed at penetrating through two specific mediums the air and water. Conceived along the lines of the World War II's Office of Strategic Services (OSS) teams, groups operating behind the lines was an attractive idea. Past penetration operations in Europe, in Korea during the Korean War, and others into China had failed; however, the hopes here were that these would be successful. Small, well-trained groups or teams were either dropped into the North by air, sometimes using Taiwanese aircrews, or were delivered along the extensive North Vietnamese coastline. The purpose was to acquire information about the North's activities and to develop the network's capable of disrupting the North's covert operations and later main drives into the South.

The program was a massive failure. Station Chief Colby came to the conclusion that these groups were being quickly captured by the internal security forces in the North and the information that was coming through was "disinformation" originating from Communist sources who were now controlling the teams. There were suspicions of leaks and the growing belief in the quality of counterintelligence in the North as being supreme in the game to gather intelligence on the ground. When the OP34A was taken over by the Department of Defense (DOD), Station Chief Colby told Secretary Robert McNamara that the program was not working and the groups had been easily "rolled up" by the North. The information that was received was very questionable. Still, DOD continued until variations on OP34A showed the futility of it all. The prisons were becoming full of the operatives.

The North kept the fact that it was holding these POWs from the Americans, who never acknowledged the fact that operations in the North had been compromised. Even after the North's entry into Saigon, few knew of the continued imprisonment. Families, if told anything at all, were told their men had probably died. The American press has picked up this aspect of death notification and then highlighted the family discovering a loved one still alive. The press condemned DOD for the problem and spared the North any blame.

Tourison has done an excellent job. The book covers the high-level activity of conception and development, the insertion, the teams, and their fates. The style keeps one's attention and the story, while sad, is worth discovering.

Peter Charles Unsinger

San Jose State University, California

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Easy Target: The Long Strange Trip Of A Scout Pilot In Vietnam by Tom Smith (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996), 267 pages, $24.95.

The author has a very good approach in the telling of his personal experiences in a combat situation in Vietnam. The book cannot in any way be catagorized as a history of the war, but should be read by persons interested in the occurances of the times (1969-1970).

The book is an excellent portrayal of the tour of duty of a combat pilot. From the pre-Army days in a small town through his discharge and return to his home, the book describes the mind set of the average soldier in Vietnam. He tells of his fears, and how they are overcome. The personal experiences of this soldier who was anti-war, yet performed his duties admirably amid a variety of obstacles, is the story of most soldiers who have spent time in a combat zone.

The story brings to the reader the characters who are a very important part of the authors tour of duty. His description of the individuals who made up this military unit is something that other combat vets can identify with. This young pilot experiences flying in a dangerous aspect of combat, that of trying to draw out the enemy and having them engage him in a fire fight. His writing style is that of an experienced professional writer, which made the reading of book very easy.

I recommend this book for reading for any military person interested in seeing what a combat situation is like. Not just aviation types, but all persons who might share in such an experience.

William F. Ivory

Fort Huachuca, Arizona

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We welcome reviews of books related to intelligence professional development or military-related history.  Please feel free to send us your book reviews with your phone number and address.  Include the title, author, publisher's name and address, price, and the number of pages in the copy that you reviewed.  Mail the review to:  Commander, USAIC&FH, ATTN: ATZS-CLM, Fort Huachuca, AZ  85613-6000 or EMail to [email protected], or call (520) 538-1004/5 or DSN 879-1004/5.