Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Opportunity Lost : Seizing Defeat From the Jaws of Victory 

Note: This book was originally published on Amazon:
Reviewed in the United States on October 19, 2002

This was, in many ways, a painful book to read. I was in elementary school at a school for missionary children in northern Japan when I read in my Weekly Reader that Nguyen Cao Ky had become the new prime minister of South Vietnam. I remember the news gave me a sense of hopefulness about the war, which we were kept informed of by the Far East Network (armed forces radio) and the Voice of America. I can also remember my feeling of confusion when I read that Theiu had replaced Ky as Vietnam's leader.

Without belaboring the point, I have long been frustrated by the American handling of the war, which, I believe developed out of our abdication in Korea. I don't want to spend time talking about that, because it is a tired and painful subject. Suffice it to say that this book confirmed my feelings, but added some new insight.

For example, this book adds some insight into the resentment that many Vietnamese nationals felt toward the French, whose colonialism was largely exploitive, and financed by the Americans in amounts that Everett Dirksen would call "Real Money." In addition to that, I did not know, until I read this book, that Westmoreland was fully informed of the North Vietnamese intention to stage a major invasion during Tet, but decided to keep this from the South Vietnamese army! This appalling mismanagement of the crisis produced a disastrous and completely unnecessary problem for Cao Ky, but it was a challenge that the South Vietnamese met and overcame. While Tet had a demoralizing effect on the American public, it was actually a victory for South Vietnam, and a major defeat for the North Vietnamese.

The book also addresses some more familiar themes, such as the legendary ineptitude of McNamara, but the most poignant event in this book is Nguyen Cao Ky's impulsive decision to abdicate leadership in favor of Thieu. Nobody (including Nguyen Cao Ky himself) knows why he did this. Perhaps it really was a selfless act of a patriot who had no interest in promoting himself, and was just trying to do what was best for his country. Or, perhaps, he had become bored with the monotony of leadership, and decided to abandon his responsibility, just as he discarded his wives, one after another, when he got tired of them. To his credit, Nguyen Cao Ky takes full responsibility for his fateful decision. And it would not be fair to say that he abandoned his country completely, because he was always ready to serve, and to lead when the chips were down. In that sense, we must give credit where credit is due, and call him a patriot. But this is small comfort for the painful realization that the war effort was doomed by his decision, although I am still not sure if I believe that it was more significant than the moral exhaustion of the American culture, which rendered the Americans all but impotent to save Vietnam.

Read this book. Nguyen Cao Ky is a very good storyteller, and a man of adventure who liked to live on the edge. You will almost certainly come away better informed about the first war the Americans lost. It is a sad story, but one which can have a certain measure of redeeming value if we are able to learn from our mistakes, and adapt to the very different place that east Asia has become.


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