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Who the Hell Are We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars

by C. Michael Hiam. Steerforth Press, Hanover, N.H., 2006, hardcover $25.95.

Sam Adams must have been a likeable guy. His godson, C. Michael Hiam, the son of a boyhood friend, wrote this uncritical biography, which relies heavily on interviews with other friends and acquaintances. Friends of Adams have written reviews and blurbs praising the work and its subject. An attentive reader will want to like Sam Adams, too, but may come away wondering, “Was this really worth a book?”

Adams, a CIA analyst, played a key role in a critical episode of the American involvement in Vietnam, the dispute over estimates of Viet Cong strength (the enemy “order of battle”) in the 18 months preceding the 1968 Tet Offensive. Feeling intense pressure to show progress, General William Westmoreland and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) restricted their estimate to main force units, arriving at a total of less than 300,000. Adams and other intelligence analysts included irregular forces in their estimates and came up with a figure twice as large. Some years later, in 1984, Adams was a defendant in Westmoreland’s libel suit against the CBS network over the MACV intelligence reports.

While there was a certain logic to the MACV estimate—after all, Westmoreland’s strategy focused on finding and destroying main force units in the jungle, and largely ignored guerrillas’ small-scale disruptions in population centers—it was undeniably wrong. Adams deserved, and received, a great deal of credit for attacking the MACV error. Hiam does not acknowledge, however, that Adams lost touch with reality in his obsessive insistence that his own estimate was accurate, and that using the correct estimate would have made a significant difference in the U.S. prosecution of the war.

While MACV had little evidence to support its estimate, Adams didn’t have much more. At a MACV-CIA conference in Saigon in September 1967, Adams was forced to confess that he had only two documents to support his estimate of enemy strength; a few moments later, the MACV representative revealed they had but one. The real disagreement was over whether to include irregular forces, and in 1967 that was a matter of opinion, not fact. Before the Tet Offensive, one could argue that the non–main force enemy was not effective and thus not worth counting. Furthermore, estimating the number of such forces (self-defense units and infrastructure cadre) would be exceedingly difficult. The MACV estimate was wrong, but what number was right? One has to wonder whether the Vietnamese Communists themselves had an accurate count of their own irregulars.

Ultimately, we must ask: Would the war have proceeded differently if MACV had used a much higher estimate? Would MACV have gotten more troops sooner? Would the U.S. public have been quicker to withdraw support for the war? Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was probably right on this point: the debate over enemy strength was all irrelevant. The intelligence was used and misused to support policy, not make it.

Quirky and likeable if you agreed with him, Adams must have been an annoying employee. In 1968 he filed a formal complaint against his boss, CIA Director Richard Helms, asking that Helms be removed from office for, among other things, a “want of courage.” In 1972 he tried to get then-retired Westmoreland court-martialed for dereliction of duty. When writing complaint memos to his superiors, he would regularly include demands for response by a given date.

Hiam’s portrait of Adams serves well as a fond tribute to his godfather. But by accepting, unquestioningly, its subject’s view of the world, the 300-page book may become tedious for anyone outside the extended circle of Adams’ family, friends and coworkers.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here