Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam ()

Pulitzer Prize (Nonfiction) (1989)

Neil Sheehan was one of a group of young war correspondents in Vietnam in the early 60s who were beguiled by Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann.  Vann, the epitome of a gung ho, idealistic, fighting man, manipulated reporters in order to bypass the bureaucracy and get his own views about the war out in public.  Vann perceived early on that the South Vietnamese Army, which he was there advising, was not developing into an effective fighting force.  He chafed at the timidity and widespread corruption among South Vietnamese leaders.  He saw how these factors were winning converts for the Vietcong guerillas.  As a true believer he found all of this enormously frustrating, especially as he understood the South to be losing the War.  Despite these frustrations, Vann had become so committed to the cause that after leaving the Army in 1963, he returned to Vietnam in 1965 as a civilian advisor with  the Agency for International Development.  In this role he became one of the architects of the pacification and Vietnamization programs.  This sort of selfless dedication made him even more of a hero to Sheehan and his press cronies.  So when Vann was killed in a 1972 helicopter crash, Sheehan saw his life as a prism through which to write about the bigger war--the hook being that such brave and dedicated men were wasting their gallantry on a corrupt endeavor.  However, once he began writing, he discovered that there was a dark secret behind Vann's straight shooting facade.  He had been forced to leave the Army because of a series of sexual misadventures, including statutory rape charges.  And so, the focus of the book changed and Vann became a metaphor for America--with both presenting a noble face which was little more than "a bright shining lie."

I have no quibble with his assessment of Vann; the man was pretty clearly a sexual predator, which makes him little better than pond scum in my book.  But his assessment of the War is almost wholly unconsidered Leftist pap.  If Vann, and the rest of us, believed that we were in Vietnam to try to protect them from the aggression of the North Vietnamese and their guerilla proxies, Sheehan believes instead that "the United States was a status quo power with a great capacity to rationalize arrangements that served its status quo interests."  In one of the interviews below, he was asked:

    Q: What are some of those lessons?

    A: There are a whole lot of them. First of all, that your leadership can be deluded, that your
    presidents and your generals can really not know what they're doing. Americans never believed that
    before. War, particularly in the American experience, was always a good experience. You went off
    to war, it was a morally unifying thing. You came home, you had done your duty, you'd defended
    your country, and your leaders knew what they were doing. That's one thing.

    The second thing was that you can fight a wrong war, in the wrong place for the wrong reasons --
    another thing I don't think we understood. Also, the nature of war itself, how cruel war can be, the
    cost of it to yourself, and the cost of it to other people. Americans, particularly after World War II,
    tended to romanticize war because in World War II our cause was the cause of humanity, and our
    soldiers brought home glory and victory, and thank God that they did. But it led us to romanticize it
    to some extent. And I hope we'll draw a lot of these things out of it.

Remarkably, almost every one of his lessons is either based on a faulty premise or flat wrong.  As to the matter of whether our leaders were deluded, here's something I found on the Internet:

    Excerpts from Rusk-McNamara Report to Kennedy, November 11, 1961.

      l. United States National Interests in South Viet-Nam.

      The deteriorating situation in South Viet-Nam requires attention to the nature and scope of United
    States national interests in that country. The loss of South Viet-Nam to Communism would involve
    the transfer of a nation of 20 million people from the free world to the Communism bloc. The loss
    of South Viet-Nam would make pointless any further discussion about the importance of Southeast
    Asia to the free world; we would have to face the near certainty that the remainder of Southeast
    Asia and Indonesia would move to a complete accommodation with Communism, if not formal
    incorporation with the Communist bloc. The United States, as a member of SEATO, has
    commitments with respect to South Viet-Nam under the Protocol to the SEATO Treaty.
    Additionally, in a formal statement at the conclusion session of the 1954 Geneva Conference, the
    United States representative stated that the United States "would view any renewal of the aggression
    . . . with grave concern and seriously threatening international peace and security."  The loss of
    South Viet-Nam to Communism would not only destroy SEATO but would undermine the
    credibility of American commitments elsewhere.  Further, loss of South Viet-Nam would stimulate
    bitter domestic controversies in the United States and would be seized upon by extreme elements to
    divide the country and harass the Administration...

      3. The United States' Objective in South Viet-Nam

      The United States should commit itself to the clear objective of preventing the fall of South
    Viet-Nam to Communist [sic]. The basic means for accomplishing this objective must be to put the
    Government of South Viet-Nam into a position to win its own war against the Guerillas. We must
    insist that that Government itself take the measures necessary for that purpose in exchange for
    large-scale United States assistance in the military, economic and political fields. At the same time
    we must recognize that it will probably not be possible for the GVN to win this war as long as the
    flow of men and supplies from North Viet-Nam continues unchecked and the guerrillas enjoy a safe
    sanctuary in neighboring territory.  We should be prepared to introduce United States combat forces
    if that should become necessary for success. Dependent upon the circumstances, it may also be
    necessary for United States forces to strike at the source of the aggression in North Viet-Nam.

      4. The Use of United States Forces in South Viet-Nam.

      The commitment of United States forces to South Viet-Nam involves two different categories: (A)
    Units of modest size required for the direct support of South Viet-Namese military effort, such as
    communications, helicopter and other forms of airlift, reconnaissance aircraft, naval patrols,
    intelligence units, etc., and  (B) larger organized units with actual or potential direct military
    mission. Category (A) should be introduced speedily as possible. Category (B) units pose a more
    serious problem in that they are much more significant from the point of view of domestic and
    international political factors and greatly increase the probabilities of Communist block escalation.
    Further, the employment of United States combat forces (in the absence of Communist bloc
    escalation) involves a certain dilemma: if there is a strong South-Vietnamese effort, they may not
    be needed; if there is not such an effort, United States forces could not accomplish their mission in
    the midst of an apathetic or hostile population. Under present circumstances, therefore, the question
    of injecting United States and SEATO combat forces should in large part be considered as a
    contribution to the morale of the South Vietnamese in their own effort to do the principal job

            -Viet Nam War Documents (Vassar College)

This strikes me as an incredibly clear sighted assessment of the War and it's likely course, written as early as 1961.  It correctly identifies the danger--that the North would defeat the South and the consequences--a destabilized Southeast Asia and shaken confidence in American commitments elsewhere.  It advocates that the South be assisted in defending itself, but cautions that American intervention may be necessary.  And it predicts that introduction of US troops will have political consequences at home.  I'm missing the delusion here.   Now, I think you can make an excellent argument that we should not have troubled ourselves about "the transfer of a nation of 20 million people from the free world to the Communism bloc."  But I don't see how you can say that preventing this was not our prime motive for getting involved in the War.

He really lets his ideological slip show in passages where he says things like: "In this war without heroes, this man [Vann] had been the one compelling figure."  Now even if we were to concede that the war was completely illegitimate and senseless, it still would have heroes.  Even bad causes have their heroes, witness James Longstreet and Erwin Rommel.  Then there's the section where Sheehan states that by 1962 the United States had the largest Empire in human history.  He arrives at this remarkable conclusion by lumping in things like Subic Bay in the Phillipines and listening posts in Iran to make it seem like we were some kind of modern colonial power.  What Imperialist motives can he imagine we had--there are no economic benefits likelt to accrue to the rulers of Vietnam, was it mere desire to lord it over Asiatics?  Such assertions only serve to make the reader, at least this one, dubious about his ability to present impartial history on other issues.

Sheehan gets back on firmer footing when he shows how Vann--who was initially skeptical of the huge bureaucratic War Machine approach to the war and thought that the best hope for winning was reforming the South Vietnamese command structure and armed forces--eventually reached a point here he too was willing to ignore corruption and brutality and to depend on US bombers.  Sheehan makes an entirely plausible case that the clear sighted analysis of the ideologue can eventually yield to institutional imperatives, even for someone as focussed and determined as Vann.  But here Sheehan is demonstrating America's tactical errors in the War, not that the Strategic vision was itself somehow tainted.  The failure to turn the South Vietnamese Army into an adequate defensive force was clearly a major shortcoming of our war effort, but it does not delegitimize the war itself.  And on issues like South Vietnamese corruption and the harsh measures with which both they and we prosecuted the war, Sheehan seems to find such things unique, but was the South Vietnamese government worse then the Soviet government that we propped up in WWII?  Was napalming jungle worse than firebombing Tokyo & Dresden?   These are the types of fundamentally inconsequential but uneasy-making issues that the ideological opponents of a given conflict always raise in an effort to besmirch the War itself.  The tactic is no different than Lindbergh saying we should stay out of WWII because only bankers, Bolsheviks and Brits wanted us in.  Sheehan and Lindbergh may both have a point, but it fails to address the question of whether we had legitimate reasons for intervening in the respective conflicts.

This then is a pretty good biography and a decent history of the War, marred by a political thesis and a philosophical prejudice which obscure more than they reveals.  In an odd way, the book is less interesting for what it tells us about the war specifically, than for what it tells us about the era of Big Government generally.  It can come as no surprise that the gigantic sclerotic Military-Industrial complex was just as unsuccessful in the war in Vietnam as the Great Society bureaucracy was in the War on Poverty.   The most charitable reading of these two epic failures of American government in the 1960's seems to me to be that despite noble aspirations, the sheer size and inflexibility of the Welfare State made it unlikely that the government would be able to successfully tackle these problems.  The "Bright Shining Lie" lay not in the stated aspirations of Cold Warriors or Flak-Catchers but in the ideology that advocated construction of such bloated government in the first place.  One assumes that it is Sheehan's political leanings which prevent him from discerning this fairly fundamental point.


Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOKNOTES: Title: A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam  Author: Neil Sheehan (CSPAN)
    -INTERVIEW: (Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley)
    -ESSAY: WHEN WILL THE BOOK BE DONE? (Susan Sheehan, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT: Vietnam War Encyclopaedia: Pentagon Papers and Trial  (1971)
    -ESSAY: Give Vietnam a Chance: the War We could have won (Matthew Deabord, Feed)
    -ESSAY: Lies, Deceit and Hypocrisy: A study of the journalism in the early part of the Vietnam War, 1962-63. The Saigon correspondents reported that the South Vietnamese and their American advisers were losing the war against the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies. The reports the correspondents sent home were not very popular in the Pentagon and the Saigon establishment, but it was a job that had to be done to serve the truth. Includes notes and bibliography.  (Kristian Kahrs may 1997)
    -HBO adapts Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: A Question of Faithfulness (Film & History)
    -REVIEW: of A BRIGHT SHINING LIE John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. By Neil Sheehan (Ronald Steel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Bright Shining Lie John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam By Neil Sheehan (David K. Shipler, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Murray Kempton: Heart of Darkness
           A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan
    -REVIEWS: Home > Media > Books > A Bright Shining Lie : John Paul Vann & America in Vietnam (Epinions)
    -ARTICLE: Books Focusing on 60's Among Pulitzer Winners (MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER Hanoi and Saigon. By Neil Sheehan (Kevin Cooney, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of After the War Was Over Hanoi and Saigon By Neil Sheehan (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -BOOK LISTS: ICI 50 Worst of the Century: The Pentagon Papers as Published by the New York Times, Based on Investigative Reporting by Neil Sheehan (1971)

    -John Paul Vann     Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army (Arlington National Cemetery Website)
    -THE UNITED STATES ADVISORY EXPERIENCE:  EARLY COMMITMENTS, 1954-1965  Study Module for Online Course, Fall 1999
    -ESSAY: Hau Nghia  By Marc Jason Gilbert and James Wells

    -Studying the Vietnam War Online
    -Vietnam War Internet Project
    -RETROSPECTIVE: Vietnam Today: A Different War (New York Times)
    -RETROSPECTIVE: Vietnam 25 Years Later (Salon)
    -RETROSPECTIVE: Recalling the Vietnam War (Globetrotter Research Galleries: Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley)
    -RETROSPECTIVE: The Fall of Saigon 25 Years Later (AP)
    -RETROSPECTIVE: No Hard Feelings? (The Atlantic)
    -Virtual Wall (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)
    -Viet Nam War Documents (Vassar College)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Were the Hawks Right About Vietnam (John Lewis Gaddis, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Was it Worth It?  A new book shatters many myths about Vietnam, but misses the larger point (Gregg Easterbrook, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: An unnecessary crock:  Michael Lind's "Vietnam: The Necessary War" For some thinkers, that ol' international communist conspiracy will never die. (Judith Coburn, Salon)
    -ETEXT: AFTER VIETNAM: Legacies of a Lost War  Charles E. Neu
    -ESSAY: Henry G. Gole, "Don't Kill the Messenger: Vietnam War Reporting in Context." (US Army War College Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: CJR - A War of Their Own, reviews by Raymond A. Schroth
    -REVIEW:  Jonathan Mirsky: The Never-Ending War
       Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy by Robert S. McNamara, James G. Blight, Robert K. Brigham, Thomas J. Biersteker, and Herbert Y. Schandler
       Reporting Vietnam, Part One: American Journalism 1959-1969; Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975 two volumes
       American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War by David Kaiser
       Guerrilla Diplomacy: The NLF's Foreign Relations and the Viet Nam War by Robert K. Brigham
       Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall
       Dragon Ascending: Vietnam and the Vietnamese by Henry Kamm
       The Secret War Against Hanoi: Kennedy's and Johnson's Use of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam by
       Richard H. Shultz, Jr.
       In the Jaws of History by Bui Diem and with David Chanoff
       A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam by Lewis Sorley
       Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict by Michael Lind
       America's War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History by Larry H. Addington
       Memories of a Pure Spring by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Nina McPherson, and Phan Huy Duong
    -REVIEW: Jonathan Mirsky: Reconsidering Vietnam
       Vietnam: Citizens Detained for Peaceful Expression
       A Vietnam Reader by Walter Capps
       The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province by Eric M. Bergerud
       Strange Ground: An Oral History of Americans in Vietnam, 1945-1975 by Harry Maurer
       The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990 by Marilyn B. Young
       War by Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Viet-Nam 1954-60 by Carlyle A. Thayer
       Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975 by Phillip B. Davidson
       Romancing Vietnam: Inside the Boat Country by Justin Wintle
       Remembering Heaven's Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam by John Balaban
    -ESSAY: How Vietnam Could Happen: by James C. Thomson, Jr., The Atlantic 1968)
    -ESSAY: The Fight for the President's Mind--and the Men Who Won It: Who got us into Vietnam? There is no way to say  fairly now, for the responsibility is shared. (Townsend Hoopes, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Three New Revelations about LBJ: The author of an about-to-be-published biography of Lyndon Johnson shares some of what he has learned (Robert Dallek, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Anti-communist Credentials: Ostensibly in response to a North Vietnamese Navy attack, the Tonkin Gulf  Resolution was really about American domestic politics. (Blaine Taylor, History Net)


I see you can not think outside of a box either!

- nick werle

- Oct-13-2002, 00:07