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May/June 2024  -   -  

A Unique Look at the History of the Early Days of the Vietnam War

The portentous American-supported military coup against the authoritarian South Vietnamese President Ngô Đěnh Diem in November 1963 had many fathers. Frederick “Fritz” Nolting, the career U.S. Foreign Service diplomat who became the American Ambassador to South Vietnam on May 10, 1961, was not one of them. Nor was his number two at the Saigon embassy, William (Bill) Trueheart, Nolting’s close friend who followed him from Paris to Saigon to serve as the deputy chief of the U.S. mission.

Bill Trueheart supported the regime, albeit reluctantly, until the summer of 1963, when he came to believe that Diem had to go. In doing so, he fell in line with the official policy approved by President Kennedy and put in place by Henry Cabot Lodge, Nolting’s successor as ambassador. Lodge arrived to Saigon that summer to aid and abet the military coup that would oust Diem and his brother, the ruthless Ngô Đěnh Nhu, who commanded the South Vietnamese secret police.

The Kennedy Administration’s best and brightest believed that getting rid of the widely unpopular Di?m and his out-of-control brother would be the best way for South Vietnam to get enough public support to defeat the growing Viet Cong insurgency. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The U.S.-backed anti-Diem coup, which ended in the assassination of the Ngô brothers, all but “sealed America’s commitment to a decade of war,” that did not exactly end well for South Vietnam or the U.S., writes Charles Trueheart (Bill’s son) in his brilliant new history/memoir, Diplomats at War: Friendship and Betrayal on the Brink of the Vietnam Conflict (University of Virginia Press, 368 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $26.49, Kindle).

Trueheart, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent, notes that the coup also had “sadly private” consequences, “abruptly end[ing] the friendship between” his father and Fritz Nolting. “A matter of state had broken personal bonds,” he writes. “The two men never spoke to one another again.” After the coup, Bill Trueheart’s Foreign Service career suffered, and Fritz Nolting remained bitter about it to his dying day.

Nolting and Trueheart’s 180-degree disagreement is at the core of Charlie Trueheart’s new book, in which he deftly blends solid historical research and analysis of the political events of 1961-63 in South Vietnam and the U.S. with an intriguing and consequential family story. He handles both aspects well, making excellent use of official State Department and other government documents, as well as other primary source materials, including oral histories and interviews.

Aside from the first-rate history and the compelling family stories, Charlie Trueheart offers up revealing portraits of the main American and Vietnamese players in the Ngô drama, including the war correspondent David Halberstam who was on the ground reporting the war and who later detailed the Trueheart-Nolting clash over Diem in The Best and the Brightest, his acclaimed indictment of Kennedy and Johnson Vietnam War policymaking. And also the great Vietnam War correspondent Neil Sheehan, an Army veteran who came to Vietnam supporting the budding war, but soon turned against it—and later wrote the acclaimed, award-winning, A Bright Shining Lie, a biography of Army Col. John Paul Vann and a history of the American war in Vietnam.

Trueheart also gives us memorable looks at the clueless U.S. Gen. Paul Harkins, the first MACV commander; the controversial and powerful Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuân); legendary CIA operatives Ed Lansdale, one of Diem’s staunchest supporters, and Lucien “Luigi” Conein, who worked directly with the coup plotters; as well as CIA Station Chief William Colby and Washington insider Averell Harriman, a prominent coup backer who was Kennedy’s Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs.

Diplomats at War, in short, is an important and unique contribution to the crucial early history of the Vietnam War.

The Mud & The Blood  

Many books about the Vietnam War and its veterans have made it onto the bestseller lists over the decades. But precious few have hit No. 1 on virtually every list. Hue 1968, Mark (Black Hawk Down) Bowden’s outstanding evocation of the fighting in the old Imperial City during the Tet Offensive, which came out in 2017, is the last one to top the charts.

Now comes The Women (St. Martin’s Press, 480 pp., $30), Kristin Hannah’s sprawling, compelling new novel centering on Vietnam War nurses, which shot to the top of all the bestseller lists when it came out February 6 and has hovered at or near the top ever since. The book’s enormous popularity is no surprise. Hannah has written 19 best-selling novels, most of them historical romances, that have been translated into 43 languages.

In The Women, Hannah, a gifted storyteller, tells the tale of Frankie McGrath, an idealistic, naive young woman from an affluent Southern California family. She joins the Army Nurse Corps at 20, soon learns that her beloved brother has died in Vietnam, and then determinedly completes her training vowing to do her part in the war.

As soon as Frankie arrives at the 36th Evac in Vung Tŕu, she finds herself hip deep in the war’s mud and blood during a chaotic day of treating mass casualties. Frankie quickly realizes when hit with the real thing that her training had been grossly inadequate. But with the help of two fellow nurses who become close friends, she finds the resolve to grow into her job and eventually thrive at it. What follows are more heavy emotional bumps, though, including matters of the heart, which lead to Frankie volunteering for a second tour.

She survives her two years in the medical trenches intact, but is an emotional wreck after coming home. Who wouldn’t be, facing the decided non-welcome-home that virtually every female Vietnam War veteran received from family, friends, the old-line VSOs, and the VA? Just as Hannah doesn’t make it easy for Frankie in-country, the author throws her subject into a years-long emotional wringer trying to deal with the trauma she experienced in Vietnam and the underwhelming reception all of us who served in that war faced after coming home.

It’s a very well-told story, helped immeasurably by Hannah having wisely sought out several former Vietnam War nurses—including Diane Carlson Evans, Winnie Smith, and Dr. Beth Parks—to get the details right. And 99 percent of them are. In showing the public reaction to returning veterans, though, Hannah has hippies spitting on Frankie more than once. That simply didn’t happen. But having Frankie put up with it does make the metaphorical point that for too many Vietnam War veterans their war-time trauma did not end when they came home. And that it was particularly difficult for The Women.


In the Shadows of Vietnam 
by Julien Ayotte and Paul Caranci

In the Shadows of Vietnam: The Gallant Life of Fr. Philip Salois (208 pp., $20, paper) is a short biography, about a third of which is comprised of a twelve-part appendix. The book chronicles the life of Father Philip Salois who, as a 21-year-old Army infantryman in the Vietnam War, performed an act of heroism in combat for which he received a Silver Star. During that battle, he vowed to God that if he survived, he would do anything God wanted. However, unlike many who have made similar vows, Father Phil fulfilled his.

He became a priest and has spent his life ministering to the spiritual needs of veterans, particularly those who have PTSD like he does. In focusing on what he calls “post-traumatic spiritual disorder,” Father Phil became involved with the National Conference of Viet Nam Veteran Ministers, the International Conference of War Veteran Ministers, and the World Veterans Federation.

As most VVA members know, he has been the organization’s longtime National Chaplain. Father Phil’s main vocation is as Chief of Chaplains at the Greater Boston VA.

His Silver Star, CIB, and his own PTSD gave Father Phil instant credibility in ministering to veterans with war-related emotional problems. Julien Ayotte and Paul F. Caranci, the book’s co-authors, are seemingly in awe of their subject. Father Phil’s beginnings until his heroic moment in the field are unpromising at best. He dropped out of community college after a year due to poor grades and flunked his PT test after Basic Training and was recycled.

Yet, he was raised as a devout Catholic and his life-changing event in the boonies during his 1969-70 tour of duty in Xuan Loc with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade led to a life of meritorious service, worthy of more than just another Bronze Star. He clearly had the right stuff.

There is a wonderful piece of writing in one of the appendices. An Army nurse describes “the limitless hazard of the life of a Grunt who struggles daily just to survive the Vietnam War” in such realistic terms that it betrays her comment that she could “never truly appreciate it.” Nor would a grunt appreciate the “limitless hazard” of a combat nurse.

That essay is one of the 25 short ones in the appendix written by individuals who were influenced by Father Phil. One should never skip the appendix of a book, lest some treasures are missed.

What did the young Phil Salois, VVA’s National Chaplain, do that resulted in receiving a Silver Star? I assume he would be somewhat reluctant to tell you, so you’ll have to read this book.




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