A New History of America's Descent into Vietnam
Email this review


When good people make bad decisions, millions die.

VanDeMark (History/U.S. Naval Academy; American Sheikhs: Two Families, Four Generations, and the Story of America's Influence in the Middle East, 2012, etc.), who co-authored Robert S. McNamara’s memoir In Retrospect, takes a hard look at the flawed decision-making that figured in America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Usefully, he forges strong connections between Vietnam policy and efforts to contain communist expansion elsewhere in the world, particularly Cuba. The U.S. defense strategy that informed responses to the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs was much in evidence on the other side of the world. That military doctrine, writes the author, was too often based on imperfect information, to say nothing of a certainty of American right; the decision-makers, too, “had not gotten to where they were by being iconoclasts or troublemakers” but instead supported each other in error. It came as a surprise to all those company men that when, in 1966, America stepped up its bombing campaign, communist infiltration actually increased. VanDeMark turns in some surprising observations that indicate that some of those involved were uneasy about their assumptions and the consequences of them. For instance, Lyndon Johnson admitted after the fact that he should have brought in his own advisers to replace John F. Kennedy’s and to rethink the situation, while McNamara retreated from his technocratic approach to the conduct of the war and came to see it as a mistake. “Ironically,” writes the author, “the man who had sought a precise metric for each situation could only measure his legacy by that most plaintive and nebulous claim that it ‘could have been worse.’" Recognizing the limitations and human failings of strategists in Vietnam, VanDeMark closes by offering pointed lessons for modern war planners on such matters as “harnessing cognitive diversity” and favoring long-term thinking over short-term expedients.

A fresh but sobering approach to the disastrous war in Vietnam, of considerable interest to all students of military history and policy.

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-06-244974-0
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Custom House/Morrow
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2018


NonfictionTHE NEW RULES OF WAR by Sean McFate
by Sean McFate
NonfictionTHE COLD WAR'S KILLING FIELDS by Paul Thomas Chamberlin
by Paul Thomas Chamberlin
NonfictionHUE 1968 by Mark Bowden
by Mark Bowden