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Book Review—The Making of a Quagmire

When I was in college as in the early-1970s, the the heroes of the Journalism Department were Vietnam reporters Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Brown, Peter Arnett and David Halberstam. It was then I first read Halberstam’s book, “The Making of a Quagmire.” I thought it was a stunning achievement, and still do. Like all good reporters, Halberstam reported what he saw, and what he saw was (1) the U.S. government’s failure to come to grips with the reality that the Vietnam War was not winnable, and (2) the government was withholding evidence from the American public that it was losing the war, both militarily and politically. Mind you, he didn’t accept the assignment to dissent with his country or question its foreign policy, merely to report what he saw. Not all of the Saigon reporters agreed with what he was reporting. Some thought he was being disloyal to his country. Halberstam, on the other hand, strongly believed his job was to report the truth, as did Sheehan, Brown, Arnett and others, which is what they did. When Halberstam returned home, he wrote this book, which was published in 1965, and is the copy I still own, all 323 pages.“

In war, the first casualty is truth,” is an age-old axiom, first voiced by Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist (525 BC—456 BC). And what should Halberstam find when he arrived in Saigon, in the fall of 1962? Government lying: battles reported as victories by the U.S. military brass that at best were draws, and often defeats. The most telling was soon to come, the battle at Ap Bac, on January 2, 1963. Up to this point, the Vietcong had been playing a game of hit-and-run—making sudden unexpected attacks and disappearing before heavy reinforcements could arrive.

“If we could only make them stand and fight,” the U.S. military command kept saying. At Ap Bac that is exactly what happened. At Ap Bac, the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) had the Vietcong trapped. With no where to go, they would have to stand and fight. Thus, the standing battle the Americans wanted was about to take place. The battle was in fact a debacle. The ARVN had the advantage, was better equipped, in greater number, had superior fire-power, and had the support of U.S. helicopters and armored personnel carries. The failure to seize the moment—and this was the biggest problem throughout the war—was because the ARVN were poorly led, feared casualties, and had no heart for battle. At Ap Bac, with the enemy pinned down, ARVN attacks were uncoordinated, haphazard, and some never came, despited repeated orders. The Vietcong fought their way out and escaped once again.

Halberstam visited the battlefield afterwards. He writes: “Arnett and I went to Ap Bac in a helicopter . . . when (we) flew back to the CP we found a brass-plated, white-helmed honor guard paying tribute to General Cao, who had not bothered to visit the battlefield. General Harkins was also there, about to leave for Saigon, and we asked him what was happening. “We’ve got them in a trap,” he said, “and we’re going to spring it in half an hour.” We looked at him, completely bewildered. The enemy was long gone, the Government troops were so completely disorganized that they would not even carry out their own dead, a province chief was shelling his own men—and a trap was about to be sprung? As on so many occasions in Vietnam, we never knew whether Harkins believed what he was saying, or whether he felt that it should be said.”

The battle of Ap Bac was recorded as a victory by the U.S. high command. At the time, Haberstam wrote prophetically: “The failures at Ap Bac had been repeated on a smaller scale every day for the past year, and if not corrected, they boded even greater for the future.”

Halberstam’s reporting in the New York Times was not lost on Washington. A month before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy met with the newspaper’s publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. The President suggested that perhaps Halberstam was too close to the story, and “too involved.” Kennedy then suggested that perhaps it was time Halberstam was reassigned to another country. The result? Sulzberger respectfully declined, and extended Halberstam’s time in Vietnam.

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