Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 552 pp. Moyar endorses Ngo Dinh Diem's leadership, and the American decision to go to war in Vietnam. He criticizes the Americans who turned against Diem, and/or turned against the war. I have looked at only a few pages of this book. While Moyar should be commended for his use of Vietnamese sources, in other respects his research seems to have been careless.
One problem is factual errors. I noticed these especially in the section dealing with the Tonkin Gulf incidents of 1964. Almost everyone who writes about Tonkin Gulf makes some errors--I have done so myself--but the number of problems in these pages seems excessive:
p. 310, lines 7-8, refer to "six South Vietnamese commando boats that were speeding southward" on the morning of July 31, 1964. There were only four commando boats, not six.
p. 311, lines 15-16, describing the attack of U.S. aircraft against North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 2, 1964, says "The aircraft hit two of the boats with nine-foot long Zuni rockets and 20mm gunfire,..." It is very unlikely that even one boat was hit by a Zuni rocket; certainly not two. The pilots firing the Zuni rockets did not believe they had scored any hits with them.
p. 311, lower down, describes how on the evening of August 4, "the Maddox decrypted enemy messages suggesting that unspecified North Vietnamese vessels would soon attack it and the Turner Joy, and one hour later, radar operators on board the Maddox spotted what appeared to be surface vessels advancing toward the two destroyers at speeds of 35 to 40 knots. . . . When the fast-moving radar blips had closed within 7,000 yards of the Turner Joy and the Maddox, both destroyers began firing salvos. Their fire control radar indicated that they were hitting the targets.... Over the next four hours, radar contacts kept appearing and disappearing on the Turner Joy's radar, and as the ship's guns fired, the radar indicated that hits were being scored and vessels sunk." Difficulties with this include:
pp. 312-313: the American retaliatory airstrikes on August 5 did not hit "the North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases." There was only one North Vietnamese torpedo boat base, Van Hoa, and the American airstrikes did not go anywhere near it.
Moyar eventually acknowledges that in hindsight, it appears there was not actually an attack on the two American destroyers on the night of August 4. But he gives an impression that this is only hindsight, and that the evidence available at the time strongly supported the reality of the attack. I am a bit annoyed by Moyar's "cherry-picking" of the evidence, selecting only facts that support this impression. This is conspicuous in note 9 on pp. 477-78, discussing what appeared on the radar of the destroyer Turner Joy during the imaginary battle on the night of August 4, when the Maddox and the Turner Joy believed they were under a PT boat attack. It begins: "The radar operators on the Turner Joy were firmly convinced that their ship had engaged and destroyed enemy sea craft. The contacts had not behaved like phantom contacts would, they observed, a conclusion supported by a subsequent investigation. Moïse, Tonkin Gulf, 125, 135, 137, 203-4;..." While it is true that those pages of my book Tonkin Gulf do quote men who said or wrote, after the incident, that the radar contacts had been continuous and consistent, looking like real vessels, my book pointed out that the detailed records they had kept during the incident, of what was appearing on their screens, very strongly contradicted these later statements. The records written during the incident are of numerous objects appearing on the radar screens and then disappearing very quickly, like phantom contacts. The "later investigation" to which Moyar refers had taken some of these brief contacts, and linked them together to create a spurious picture of prolonged ones.
Another problem with this book is some rather strange logic in Moyar's argument that the United States did not really have cause to fear that China would intervene in the war if the United States went too far against North Vietnam. He takes what looks to me like evidence China was willing to fight the United States, and interprets it as evidence China was not willing to fight.
First example: In late 1964, after the Tonkin Gulf incidents, the Chinese began a very expensive programs to move industries away from the coast, to make them less vulnerable to American attack in the event of war between the United States and China. I have always regarded this as very strong evidence that the Chinese leaders who were talking about defending North Vietnam against American attack were serious about this. They didn't just think it was possible that Chinese military actions to defend North Vietnam against American attack would trigger a war between China and the United States that spread beyond Vietnam, they thought it was likely enough so it was worth spending big money preparing to cope with such an event. China didn't actually put substantial numbers of military personnel into North Vietnam until American escalation made the need for them acute, toward the middle of 1965. But I take the Chinese preparations for war, which began in 1964, as evidence that the Chinese had decided by that time that they would fight to defend North Vietnam if necessary.
Moyar treats the Chineses preparations against the possibility of war as evidence that the Chinese were so afraid of the United States that they were unwilling to take any action in Vietnam that might carry the risk of triggering a conflict with the United States.
Second example: The May 1965 issue of the Chinese Communist Party theoretical journal Hongqi (Red Flag) published an article by Lo Jui-ch'ing (Luo Ruiqing), Chief of Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), stating:
This looks to me like a statement of Chinese willingness to fight the Americans in Vietnam, and within weeks after it was published, PLA troops were pouring over the border from China into North Vietnam. But Moyar's summary of Lo's statment reads simply, "In the middle of May, the Chinese said that they would not fight the Americans unless unless they attacked China. New York Times, May 11, 1965; Peking Review, May 14, 1975." He treats Lo's statement as a signal the the United States could invade North Vietnam without fear of triggering a conflict with China (Moyar, p. 500n54). Moyar seems to be interpreting Lo's statement "We will not attack unless we are attacked" as meaning that Chinese troops in North Vietnam would not fight if the Americans invaded North Vietnam, but would flee into China and fight only if the Americans followed them across the border. The rest of Lo's statement makes this interpretation dubious.
Opinions expressed in this page are my own. They could not very well be the opinions of Clemson University, since Clemson University does not have opinions on this subject.Edwin E. Moïse
Revised October 3, 2013.