Revisionism with a Vengeance
A Review of Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965
Scholarship on the Vietnam War has long been afflicted by polarized thinking, and Mark Moyar’s new book is not going to change that. In the decades-old debate between “orthodox” and “revisionist” scholars, Moyar positions himself squarely in the latter camp. Indeed, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 is quite possibly the most ambitious work of Vietnam War revisionism ever published. From preface to conclusion, Moyar is both determined and pugnacious in challenging the claims put forward by his orthodox counterparts. This volume will provoke spirited responses from scholars on both sides for years to come.
The scope of Moyar’s interpretive ambition is reflected in his merging of two revisionist arguments that had previously been advanced separately. On the one hand, Moyar endorses the views of Gunter Lewy and Michael Lind, both of whom have stridently insisted that the domino theory was valid and that the United States could and should have held the line in South Vietnam. However, where Lewy and Lind located America’s fatal strategic mistakes mostly in the post-1965 era, Moyar dates the first major U.S. error to 1963, when the Kennedy administration backed the ouster of Ngo Dinh Diem, founding president of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Moyar is drawing on the brand of revisionism expressed in the writings of the CIA’s William Colby, Ellen Hammer and others; even the title of Triumph Forsaken seems a deliberate echo of Colby’s 1989 memoir Lost Victory.1 Moyar describes Diem as “a very wise and effective
Like many other historians who have written about Diem (including me), Moyar argues that the Vietnamese leader achieved a number of unexpected successes during the first years of his rule. However, Moyar disagrees with those scholars who argue that Diem’s tactics and strategies were counterproductive in the long run. For example, Moyar notes that RVN security forces came close to wiping out the Communist party’s organizational apparatus in South Vietnam during the late 1950s. Yet he rejects the view that the harshly repressive measures used by Diem’s police and military served to alienate the rural population from the Saigon government. Moyar acknowledges that the NLF insurgency turned the tables on Diem in 1960 and 1961 and scored impressive battlefield gains against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). However, this two-year period was the only time during Diem’s tenure that “he fared poorly in the struggle for the villages” (124). By 1962, Moyar asserts, Diem had righted the ship and reclaimed the initiative in the countryside, thanks in part to a massive new infusion of U.S. military aid.
Having portrayed Diem as hugely successful and wildly popular in South Vietnam, Moyar blames his downfall on ignorant U.S. journalists and officials who had mistakenly concluded that Diem was losing the war and on malevolent South Vietnamese leaders who saw Diem as a threat to their personal ambitions. Moyar is especially critical of the monks who led the 1963 anti-Diem Buddhist protest movement. He depicts the bonze Tri Quang and other “militant Buddhists” as cynical liars who manufactured specious claims of religious persecution and who were covertly working for the communists (212-218). Thus, in Moyar’s telling, Diem was undone not by his own shortcomings, but by the treason of his allies and subjects.
Moyar’s admiring depiction of Diem can be seen as a reaction against the simplistic caricatures that have long dominated historical writing about the RVN president. Orthodox historians have typically depicted Diem either as an American puppet or as a hopelessly backwards exponent of “tradition” who was predestined to fail.
Moyar is commendably skeptical of such interpretations. Unfortunately, however, he undermines his own attempt to provide a persuasive alternative view by frequently flying to the opposite interpretive extreme. This is especially apparent in his analysis of the military situation in South Vietnam, in his assessment of Diem’s popularity, and in his questionable use of certain historical sources. The lionized portrayal of Diem that emerges in Triumph Forsaken is just as distorted as the negative caricatures that the book aims to refute.
Moyar’s assessment of Diem’s military efforts against the communist-led insurgency illustrates his propensity for turning keen historical insights into exaggerated and unsustainable conclusions. While other historians may have been too quick to dismiss the gains made by the South Vietnamese army between 1962 and 1963, Moyar himself is far too eager to minimize or dismiss evidence of communist military progress in this period. His downplaying of communist gains is especially apparent in his treatment of data showing an increased number of insurgent attacks in the Mekong Delta during the summer of 1963. Moyar suggests that these attacks were strategically insignificant because they were concentrated in just four provinces (247). The geographically focused nature of these strikes is certainly an interesting finding.
However, since the four provinces in question had a combined population of over 2.2 million people—comprising 40 percent of the population of the delta and 18 percent of South Vietnam’s total population—the communist advances there were more significant than Moyar lets on.2 Moyar also neglects to mention that because of tactical withdrawals by government forces, communist forces in some provinces were able to increase the amount of territory under their control without mounting numerous attacks.3 Diem might not have been on the verge of losing the Vietnam War in 1963, but it does not follow from this that he was on the verge of winning.
In one case, Moyar’s desire to depict Diem as militarily dominant leads him to transform an ARVN defeat into a victory. In the famous battle of Ap Bac in January 1963, Viet Cong fighters inflicted heavy casualties on a much larger ARVN force and shot down five U.S. helicopters. Although historians have long debated the reasons for the U.S.−RVN defeat, none have questioned the fact of the defeat—none except Moyar, who describes the battle as “a defeat for the Viet Cong in a strategic sense.” This breathtaking claim is based on rather unconventional military logic:
Moyar also makes erroneous claims about Diem’s nation-building programs. For example, he incorrectly portrays Diem as conducting a sustained campaign of land reform, and he asserts that this campaign “seriously interfered” with the communists’ efforts to win peasant support (72-73). Moyar derives this claim from the translated version of a 1962 NLF document. But the relevant portion of the document actually refers to “the U.S.-Diem policy of land expropriation,” not to land redistribution.
Another passage in the document makes it clear that South Vietnamese officials were undertaking this expropriation not to establish more equitable patterns of land ownership, but to increase their own wealth and power at the expense of the insurgents.4
Moyar’s assertions notwithstanding, Diem never made more than desultory attempts to carry out land reform in South Vietnam.5 Diem was not indifferent to the plight of poor peasants; however, he preferred to pursue rural reconstruction by redistributing people rather than by redistributing land. Strangely, Moyar makes no reference to Diem’s program of “Land Development” (Dinh Dien), which relocated nearly a quarter of a million poor peasants from crowded lowland areas to new settlements in the central highlands and elsewhere. Like the later Strategic Hamlet Program, the Land Development Program also reflected Diem’s communitarian convictions and the abstruse “Personalist” philosophy of development espoused by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. If Moyar wanted to make the case for the effectiveness of Diem’s nation-building programs, he ought to have focused on the most important of those programs, not on land reform.
Moyar’s already shaky analysis of the situation in the South Vietnamese countryside is further weakened by his invocation of an outdated and condescending understanding of the peasants who lived there. Moyar depicts Vietnamese farmers as caught in a sort of time warp: “The basic outlook of the peasant had changed little since the early centuries of Vietnamese history. . . . He venerated the bones of his ancestors, served his parents dutifully, and hoped that his children would remain to till his land after he was gone.” Such peasants, Moyar asserts, “looked at the power of the opposing forces when deciding which side held the mandate of heaven, and they almost invariably threw their support to the strongest” (92-93). It is only by falling back on this Orientalist notion of “power-minded villagers” (153) that Moyar is able to explain his otherwise contradictory claim that peasant support for Diem rose at the same time that his rule became more authoritarian and the behavior of RVN officials became more arbitrary and onerous. Moyar thus ironically affirms one of the claims made by anti-Diem authors about his “traditional” qualities: “Diem governed in an authoritarian way because he considered Western style democracy inappropriate for a country that was fractious and dominated by an authoritarian culture” (xiv).
Moyar’s superficial understanding of Vietnamese political history and political culture is also revealed in his explanation of the origins of the 1963 Buddhist protest movement. Moyar believes that Vietnam was “a nation where Buddhist monks rarely engaged in political activities.” He therefore concludes that the 1963 movement was an aberration, and that Tri Quang and the other leaders of the movement must have been communist operatives (217-218). In fact, Moyar is mistaken: Vietnamese Buddhist monks have frequently engaged in political activities, and the 1963 movement is best understood as part of the long-running “revival” of Vietnamese Buddhism that began during the 1920s. This revival eventually became linked to a distinctive form of Buddhist nationalism and to the promotion of Buddhism as the key to Vietnam’s national destiny.6 Moyar does not cite any reliable evidence showing that Tri Quang or any other leader of the 1963 movement was a communist, because no such evidence exists. There is, however, extensive evidence that these monks had embraced the Buddhist revival and the nationalism associated with it. There is also substantial evidence that suggests that the brand of Buddhist nationalism they endorsed was incompatible with communism.
For example, a 1951 Viet Minh secret intelligence report specifically identified Tri Quang and other reform-minded monks as “reactionaries” whose goals were antithetical to those of the party.7 It seems that communist leaders were cognizant of the ideological differences that separated them from the Buddhist leadership, even if Moyar is not.
As the above examples suggest, there are many points in Triumph Forsaken at which Moyar’s interpretation of particular documents is open to criticism. Yet these interpretive problems are not the most troubling aspect of Moyar’s use of sources. In a few cases, Moyar does not merely misinterpret sources; he actually misrepresents their textual content. On pages 165-166, Moyar writes about a July 1962 meeting between Diem and General Paul Harkins, the top U.S. military adviser in South Vietnam. For Moyar, Harkins is an admirable figure because he was one of Diem’s staunchest American supporters and because he advised Diem “with enough tact and confidence to keep Diem’s ear and respect.” However, in his zeal to show the warm rapport that he says existed between the two men, Moyar exercises what might be generously described as poetic license. He relates what purports to be a verbatim account of the dialog between Harkins and Diem, as indicated in his use of quotation marks to indicate what each said to the other. But the sole document that Moyar cites for this exchange is an American memorandum of conversation which does not contain anything that can be construed as a verbatim record of the meeting. Instead, the memcon is a detailed paraphrasing of the key points made by the participants. The resulting differences between Moyar’s rendering and his source are striking. For example, Moyar relates part of the meeting as follows:
The relevant portion of the memorandum reads as follows:
General Harkins suggested that there might be an examination given and that those who failed to qualify would be eliminated. President Diem commented that one of the difficulties in identifying incompetent officers lies in the fact that his Generals do not want to recommend separation ofofficers who are old friends.8
Moyar might argue that the text of the memorandum still supports his interpretive claim about Harkins’s ability to “coach” and advise Diem. But such an argument does not excuse the fact that Moyar has reconstructed a historical event in a way that dramatically embellishes the available record of that event. That Moyar repeats this practice elsewhere in the book—for example, in his account of a 1963 meeting between Diem and Robert McNamara on page 254—raises worrisome questions about whether and how frequently he plays fast and loose with his sources.
Triumph Forsaken is a bold and ambitious book that reflects the author’s determination to challenge some long-held beliefs about the Vietnam War. Especially in the case of Ngo Dinh Diem, such an overhaul of the conventional wisdom is long overdue. Unfortunately, however, Moyar drains the persuasive power out of many of his arguments by making key interpretive and factual mistakes. As a result, the representation of Diem that he offers is as simplistic and caricatured as the ones he proposes to replace. This book ensures that the orthodox-revisionist debate will continue, but it does much less than it might have to change the terms of that debate.
1 William Colby, Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam