The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era (Rev. Ed.). David Halberstam; edited with an introduction by Daniel J. Singal. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 978-0742560086 and 0742560082. Also available by other publishers, in hardback (Rowman & Littlefield; ISBN 978-0742560079 and 0742560074), paperback (Knopf; ISBN 978-0394368603 and 0394368606), and mass market paperback (Ballantine; ISBN 978-0345357779 and 0345357779). Unedited versions are also available.
David Halberstam was a young reporter covering the Vietnam conflict during the Diem regime before American involvement tremendously escalated. This heavily edited book is Halberstam’s personal account of that period of American involvement in Vietnam.
As the title states, he found the whole affair to be a quagmire with little positive to show for American money and, ultimately, even less to show for all the American lives lost. He lays the blame largely on two things: the Diem regime and the inability of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to engage the enemy when the opportunity presented. Another problem was corruption.
Per Halberstam, in addition to the 2 main issues just noted, a large number of problems led to the failure of American policy, not the least of which was the false reporting of the war’s progress. Diem and the Ngos didn’t want to hear negative information and didn’t want to have people die so essentially ordered the military not to engage, lest soldiers die and Diem, et al., be upset. They also lied to the American people, military, diplomatic, and newsmen, about what was happening. It was a real poor regime causing immeasurable harm to its own people and to American interests. Supposedly, however, it was the best America could do.
Halberstam worked alongside other notable journalists such as Neil Sheehan (A Bright Shining Lie) and Peter Arnett. All these men followed in the footsteps of wartime journalists who went with the troops into the field in wars before Vietnam and since, like Ernie Pyle and others. Halberstam found the soldiers honorable and forthright, and not entirely on board with the official word coming from HQ and/or Washington. Halberstam’s portrayal is that of frustrated warriors trying to do the right thing by both the populace who weren’t entirely enthusiastic about either the United States military’s reporting or handling of the war or the ARVN as well as the ARVN’s leaders. The soldiers simply were not happy with the course of the war, how it was being fought nor how the war was being portrayed back home.
As is the case with many of Halberstam’s works, Quagmire is rich with detail, informative, and well-written. The reader will be transported to another time and feel as though he/she knows at least something about the major players and issues in the early part of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. But as is also typical of Halberstam works, there’s something self-congratulatory in the writing, almost a smugness in his commentaries and reporting. If you’re not aware of that aspect of his writing going in, you might find the work off-putting. Forewarned is forearmed.
At one time, I numbered Vietnam vets among my friends; I have long since lost contact with them. All I read here rings true, based on what little I heard from my friends about their experiences. It’s also why that on reading and reflecting on this work and also the Vietnam War, something George Santayana wrote early in the last century comes to mind: “only the dead have seen the end of war.”
This book is recommended reading for those interested in American history, 1960s history, military history, and the Vietnam War. If you can get past Halberstam’s self-congratulatory tone, you will be richly rewarded for the effort.