Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965
Mark Moyar. Cambridge University Press, 2006, 542 pp., $32.00.
Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken is testimony to the continuing tumultuousness of the Vietnam War’s historiography. The nature of the war, the causes of America’s defeat—even that we were defeated—remain hotly disputed. The war itself may have ended in 1975, but it continues to be waged among American historians and political commentators. Indeed, much of what has been written about the war is ideologically adulterated. Leftist orthodoxy, still the dominant school of thought, holds that the war was both immoral and strategically mistaken, whereas an emerging neoconservative revisionist school sees the war as a noble and strategically imperative, albeit poorly executed, undertaking.
Moyar—who received his doctorate from Cambridge, now teaches at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, and considers himself a victim of liberal academic bigotry—stands firmly on the revisionist Right. Indeed, Moyar’s book is the Vietnam War book for those who still believe that the United States had vital interests in South Vietnam’s survival; that US abandonment of South Vietnam in 1965 would have triggered the communization of the rest of Southeast Asia; that Vietnamese nationalism was a minor force on the Communist side of the war and had little to do with the war’s outcome; that Ho Chi Minh was simply a stalking horse for Chinese imperialism; that South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was a wise and effective leader who had the Communists on the run until the United States stupidly incited a coup against him; and that journalists David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan were unwitting accomplices of Hanoi.
It is no wonder that Triumph Forsaken has received loud applause from neoconservative organs—e.g., the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, National Review, Washington Times, New York Sun—which continue to preach that America’s defeat in Vietnam was self-inflicted by presidential meddling in military operations, a hostile media, and a near-treasonous antiwar movement. Moyar makes no bones about his determination to challenge what he terms “the reigning ideological orthodoxy” on the war, which is centered among liberal American university professors guilty of “haughty derision and ostracism” of those who, like Moyar, take a contrary view. Indeed, Moyar once told a colleague of mine at the Air University that, as an undergraduate, he determined the liberal orthodoxy in the war to be so wrong that he decided to go to graduate school in part to obtain the academic credentials necessary to credibly challenge that orthodoxy.
There is no question that the liberal orthodoxy on the war is well-entrenched among university social science departments across the country and that the very nature of orthodoxy, liberal or otherwise, makes it intolerant of those who question fundamental assumptions. There is also no question that Triumph Forsaken, which covers American policy and events in Indochina from 1954 to the commitment of US ground combat forces in 1965 (a second volume covering the remainder of the war is in the works), is the most detailed revisionist work published to date. Thoroughly researched, well written, and focused as much on the Communist side of the war as on the American side, Triumph Forsaken builds on previous revisionist works, notably Michael Lind’s Vietnam: The Necessary War (2002) and C. Dale Walton’s The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam (2002), by offering (in Moyar’s own words) “many new interpretations” and by “challeng[ing] many orthodox interpretations that have hitherto gone unchallenged.”
Yet, in attempting to refute virtually every tenet of the liberal orthodoxy— and some, especially of the Marxist variety, are untenable—Moyar establishes a counterorthodoxy of his own, replete with evidence-challenged assertions and counterfactual hindsights. (Hindsight is never 20/20 vision; it is, rather, a refraction through the lens of subsequent events. The Munich Conference of 1938 is notorious only because it was followed by World War II and the Holocaust; we would have long since forgotten it had Hitler dropped dead after his last meeting with Neville Chamberlain.)
Moyar announces that “the domino theory was valid,” that Vietnam was “a wise war fought under foolish constraints,” and that the United States could have won the war early on had it stuck with Diem and invaded Laos and North Vietnam—bold moves that would have provoked “a Chinese abstention from the fighting.” He further announces that the stakes were enormous. A US decision to relinquish South Vietnam in 1965 would have triggered “the crumbling of American power in Asia,” including the “defection of Japan” and the loss of “access to vital Indonesian sea lanes.” (The United States would then “have [had] to invade Indonesia” to restore that access.) Worse still, “forfeiture of South Vietnam” would
decrease America’s national strength and undermine confidence in the United States across the world, thereby reducing America’s long-term ability to resist Communism on the remaining Cold War fronts in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, which then might lead to the termination of key alliances and to major alterations in the trajectory of . . . the Cold War.
Sound familiar? It should. It is the same kind of apocalyptic rhetoric the Johnson administration used to mobilize public support for intervention in a war that was just as unnecessary as the neoconservatives’ strategic fantasy-driven American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Triumph Forsaken is as ideologically contaminated as the liberal orthodoxy it seeks to refute. As such, it contributes little to a better understanding of an exceptionally complex war that continues to arouse American political passions.
Jeffrey Record, PhD
Air War College