By Mark Moyar, Cambridge University Press, England, 2006, hardcover $32
Mark Moyar sets out to debunk what he believes are some central tenets of the “orthodox” school of interpretation of the Vietnam War in Triumph Forsaken. The most prominent theme in the book is that Ngo Dinh Diem was wise and effective, and not as repressive as portrayed by historians in the past. The author argues that the South Vietnamese peasantry in the 1950s and 1960s was too traditionalist in its values for liberal democracy to be relevant, so Diem’s authoritarianism was just what was needed in the South.
That viewpoint is fair enough. But Moyar’s attempt to show that Diem’s regime was relatively nonviolent stumbles over the fact that the big land-owning class in South Vietnam, which reconsolidated its power over the villages in the latter half of the 1950s, had to use force against a peasantry that had asserted its rights against the landowners during the Viet Minh war against the French.
To his credit, Moyar does not try to deny that the Communist figure of nearly 5,000 former Viet Minh killed by Diem’s security forces is credible. Nevertheless, he fails to grasp the fact that Diem repressed anyone who was agitating for peasant rights, since he regarded the landowners as his only political allies in most of the countryside in the South. That included even cadres of the certifiably non-Communist tenants union who were arrested and murdered by the hundreds because, as the head of Diem’s political police Tran Kim Tuyen told me in a 1971 interview, they had “created conflicts between tenants and landowners.”
Moyar makes a good case that the United States weakened the anti-Communist war immeasurably by encouraging the overthrow of Diem in 1963. However, his insistence that the Buddhist movement in South Vietnam was simply a covert arm of the Communist Party, relying heavily on CIA reports reflecting deep suspicions of the Buddhist struggle as dovetailing with Communist interests, is tendentious.
The other major aim of the book is to show that the domino theory was correct. Moyar portrays a Southeast Asia in 1961 that was ripe for Communist insurgency. He claims that Thai Communists had already begun a guerrilla war with assistance from the Chinese and Vietnamese parties. But he cites no source for this far-reaching claim, which is refuted by many sources, including U.S. intelligence, which indicated that there was no Communist guerrilla warfare in Thailand until 1966.
Moyar asserts that the Singaporean Communist party was supporting a “guerrilla campaign” against the government in 1961, again without a source. In fact the Singaporean Communists were committed to an electoral strategy, and even went on to win 25 percent of the parliamentary seats in 1963.
Moyar claims the Malay Communist insurgency “never really stopped,” which is contradicted flatly by the very source he cites—the memoirs of the MCP chief Chin Peng. Then Moyar uses a quotes from Chin Peng to suggest that he was counting on a Communist seizure of power in Thailand. But in fact Chin Peng explicitly states that his doubts that it would ever happen were part of the reason the MCP had “decided on the abandonment of armed struggle.”
This is a long and heavily footnoted work, but its attempt to show that Southeast Asia was endangered by Communists violates the basic norms of scholarship. Perhaps that is why, as Moyar observes, there are few adherents to what has come to be called the “revisionist” school on the Vietnam War in the academic world.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.