Richard A. Hunt - Prelude to Tragedy: Vietnam 1960-1965 (review) - Journal of Military History 67:1 The Journal of Military History 67.1 (2003) 301-303

Prelude to Tragedy: Vietnam 1960-1965. Edited by Harvey Neese and John O'Donnell. Foreword by Richard Holbrooke. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001. ISBN 1-55750-491-1. Map. Photographs. Notes. Selected bibliography. Index. Pp. xviii, 309. $32.95.

This is an excellent collection of essays by American civilians and Vietnamese officials who sought to build support for the South Vietnamese government and improve rural living conditions in the period before the U.S. deployed conventional military units to Vietnam. Co-editors Harvey Neese, an American agricultural specialist, and John O'Donnell, a former province representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), pulled together insightful articles that give the reader a notion of the scope [End Page 301] and character of American involvement in the countryside and the nature of the war before 1965. Prelude to Tragedy is a refreshing addition to the burgeoning literature on the Vietnam War, much of which is obsessed with high level policy or strategy. There was a struggle in the villages and this book addresses it. The writers describe issues perhaps little known to those acquainted only with the war the American military fought after 1965. Encompassing a common period of service, these chapters share certain perceptions about South Vietnam's struggle against the insurgency. Without exception, the authors view the introduction of U.S. combat forces and the subsequent "Americanization" of the conflict as tragic and wrong, and decry Diem's overthrow as a monumental mistake and a major turning point in South Vietnam's battle to remain noncommunist and independent.

A number of the authors worked for, or were affiliated with, AID and its Saigon headquarters, the United States Operations Mission (USOM), as it was then known. What is striking in these accounts is the unanimous loathing for the ham-handed and ill-informed intervention in rural programs by USOM bureaucrats, who were trying to manage a variety of programs throughout South Vietnam. Some of USOM's leadership, the authors note, exhibited as much fear of the countryside as they did ignorance about the peasantry. From the perspective of these former advisers, USOM tried to rein in U.S. advisers at the local level who were working to encourage local Vietnamese initiative and leadership. Many of these writers reserve their greatest scorn for James Killen, the new USOM director, who arrived in the middle of 1964 as the Diem regime continued to unravel in the countryside. Although their comments may seem a bit like the griping of the jilted, the authors present abundant and persuasive evidence of Killen's oppressive tactics and his ignorance of counterinsurgency and the interests of the peasantry. They are probably correct that his policies helped undermine USOM's efforts. If Killen is set up as the heavy, Rufus Phillips, who worked in Vietnam for the renowned Edward Lansdale, the Army, and the CIA at various times, emerges as the hero. Phillips comes across as energetic, knowledgeable, and imaginative, but ultimately frustrated by higher ups in Washington and Saigon, deteriorating conditions in the countryside, and the changing nature of the war after 1965.

As welcome and informative as these accounts are, however, one can hardly avoid questioning the notion that the political and rural development they espoused could have kept South Vietnam independent in the face of Hanoi's sustained, unyielding effort to unify all of Vietnam under its flag. The counterinsurgency efforts of 1960-65 were relatively small in scale and characterized by a number of promising pilot programs at the village, district, or province level that were not successfully expanded nationally because of the absence of sound national institutions and a solid political base. Granted that Diem's assassination was a mistake, few would argue today that he had the requisite skill to forge a viable nation or that he could have held out in the long run against a strengthening insurgency. Over time, the corruption of his regime and the clumsiness of his counterinsurgency efforts would have [End Page 302] likely proved no match for his tightly organized and single-minded opponents, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Had Diem not been overthrown, it is doubtful that he could have remained in power for long against such a determined foe without direct American military intervention. Later efforts at building political support for the Saigon government and dismantling guerrilla forces and their supporting infrastructure under Robert Komer and William Colby, enjoyed greater funding, more advisers and military support, and better coordination between civilian agencies and the military. But, to simplify a complicated story, these efforts came up short, partly because of the lack of strong political roots in the countryside and because the communists were willing to employ whatever means it took, insurgency or all out invasion, to bring down the Saigon regime.


Richard A. Hunt
Alexandria, Virginia

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.