Over the past six months, I’ve been on a furious non-fiction reading binge, focused roughly on the period of American history from 1944-1975. The wake I’ve left in my rear-view includes the 1,000 page Harry Truman biography, a 700-page retrospective about the life of Dwight Eisenhower, a quick read on Joseph McCarthy and most recently, a comprehensive tome on the history of Vietnam, starting in the 1500’s, but largely focused on the U.S. involvement in that country.
The Truman book was probably most compelling for a few reasons – its author (David McCollough) spins one hell of a yarn and it was fascinating for its human element, along with the political one. Truman’s administration was a controversial one and a busy one, but when one looks back on what he accomplished it reads almost superhuman. The story is like an epic miniseries and it was impossible to put down.
The Eisenhower book was less interesting to me, mostly because it felt like a fluff piece – something I’m not used to from Stephen Ambrose. The author’s abject failure to truly explore and yes, criticize, the weaknesses of that administration (and every administration has weakness) made it all feel a little dishonest to me. I don’t read books so authors can worship the subject. I mean, it is disgusting how Eisenhower turned the other way on the issue of race and that fact, for as much strife as it caused in the 1950’s, gets roughly two paragraphs of attention here. Geezus. The book also gave me a real sense of frustration about the military in general and the nitpicky power struggles within. Still, the book held my rapt attention.
The Vietnam book – now that one was so good that it pissed me off. There’s too much to go into here, but suffice it to say, this one pulled at me more on a personal level because my dad was there. He was there because of the Truman administration’s off-hand financial and military support as a throw-in to the Potsdam agreements in 1950, when my dad was four. He was there because the Eisenhower administration supported the sectioning of North and South while my dad was skipping rocks as an eight-year old in 1954. He was there because the U.S. invented the Gulf of Tonkin incidents and he was there because for whatever reason, we needed to do some chest thumping for little apparent reason. Yes, he enlisted and yes, he made it through of course (I mean, I’m here), but 56,000+ others didn’t get through and when I finished this book, I still hadn’t figured out why those 56,000+ aren’t with us anymore. Very difficult.
That being said, I’m doing my best to understand why we were there, which is why I’ve just started the Robert McNamara book. I didn’t really want to read it. I had sort of vowed to take a break from non-fiction for a book or two, in fact. And I did succeed, as you’ll see later in the week on these pages. But the Vietnam book snared me. I now need to know more about why we felt the need to be there and I’m hoping beyond hope that there’s something I can latch onto to justify the danger they put my father and so many other people’s fathers in.
McNamara, the Secretary of Defense starting in 1960 as part of the Kennedy administration, was initially very gung-ho about U.S. initiatives in Vietnam and obviously played a key role in our escalation and involvement there. He is arguably a war criminal (my father-in-law, in fact, refuses to the read the book on those grounds alone).
McNamara then realized – six years later – what a mistake it all was. He remained completely silent on this issue until 1995, when he wrote the book I am reading now and a few years later agreed to appear in a fascinating movie called “The Fog of War” that deserves multiple viewings. This is clearly a man who needed to push out 30+ years of horrible guilt that only a very small amount of people can truly imagine. I just started the book, so…….we’ll see.
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