HISTORICAL ATLAS OF THE VIETNAM WAR
For most participants, Vietnam was a one-year snapshot of war. Added together, these snapshots represent a thousanddifferent perspectives of what the war was like. For some, it was lonely drudgery at a supply point, or driving a truck with theconstant threat of death or maiming from an ambush, mine or mortar attack. For others, it was months of unbelievable physicalhardship and the instant terror of close combat in triple-canopied jungle, on wooded hillsides, or in urban settings. And for stillothers, it was an air war in the midst of the heaviest air defenses in the history of warfare, or months of 12-hour watches onpatrol in tropical seas. It also was an adviser’s war, with the frustration of trying to persuade and coerce a sometimes reluctantally to be more aggressive. But whatever the experience, Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr.’s Historical Atlas of the VietnamWar (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1995, $39.95) is the essential reference for understanding how, where and when thatindividual experience fits into the overall history of the United States’ longest and perhaps most controversial war.
The Atlas starts with maps and summaries of Vietnam’s warfare against Chinese invaders from 500 bc and then covers theperiod of French colonialism, from the mid-19th century through the start of World War II and the battle for independencefrom the French in the First Indochina War of 1945?1954. Included is information on famous and infamous battles, locationsand events during this latter period–Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, and the ambush and destruction of French GroupMobile 100, which included the highly decorated unit that had so bravely fought beside the United States in the Korean War.
But the Atlas is much more than a collection of reference maps. The narrative is an excellent historical summary andchronology of significant events of the Vietnam War and the antecedents necessary to put these events into historicalperspective.
It is the extensive section on U.S. involvement, starting with the American advisory effort in the late 1950s, that is the mostvaluable contribution of Summers’ work. One can now clearly see the major air, land and sea operations, battles and incidentsthat collectively make up America’s Vietnam War.
The advisory phase is highlighted with coverage of the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963. Although debatably a draw in a relativelyminor battle between Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) regulars and Viet Cong main force units, it was the firstindication that the South Vietnamese army might be unable to defeat the Viet Cong in spite of massive U.S. military aide andadvice. It was also the public debut of John Paul Vann, the relatively unknown adviser who criticized the ARVN’s perform-ance in the battle. Later, Vann was the senior civilian in command of the U.S. effort in the ARVN II Corps. He is credited bymany as being the major force behind the ARVN and United States’ ability to stop the North Vietnamese April 1972Eastertide offensive against Kontum and Pleiku.
The maps and summaries cover hard-fought U.S. campaigns and battles such as Rolling Thunder, Linebacker, Market Time,Junction City, Cedar Falls, Bolo, Attlebora, Masher/ White Wing, Khe Sanh, Tet 1968 and many others that could beconsidered victories or at least clear demonstrations of American military prowess and the courage of our fighting men. Areview of these campaigns, battles and events puts to rest the misinformation of the revisionist historians who claim the VietnamWar was merely a civil war, or those who espouse the myth of a battlefield defeat of the U.S. military. In summarizing theresults of these events, however, Colonel Summers is faced with the same dilemma as the senior commanders and politicianswho were pressed to provide a measure of success of the military effort in Vietnam. Since seizing and holding terrain generallywas not an objective, the body count became the accepted measure of success. The results of each battle are shown in termsof the number of Viet Cong, North Vietnamese Army, ARVN and U.S. forces killed, wounded or captured. As we nowknow, attrition was not an effective strategy and was responsible for much of the misguided efforts in the war.
The Atlas is not just about victories. The defeats, near defeats and dark days of America’s history in Vietnam are covered, as well. American complicity in the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 and the disaster at LandingZone Albany immediately following the victory of the 1st Cavalry Division at Landing Zone X-ray are important parts of theAmerican experience and are also included. The Atlas even contains maps and an analysis of the murder of several hundredVietnamese civilians at My Lai, one of the most disgraceful moments in the history of the U.S. military.
The value of this work goes beyond its worth as a one-of-a-kind reference to use when reading other books and articles aboutthe war. It is a book that I would select to pass on to my grandchildren so that they could understand the true nature of thewar. Colonel Donald E. Lunday, U.S. Army (ret.)