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March 2006

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LESSONS FROM VIETNAM: DON'T CUT AND RUN!
Review by Amb. (ret.) Michael W. Cotter

Escape with Honor: My Last Hours in VietnamEscape With Honor: My Last Hours in Vietnam. By Ambassador (ret.) Francis Terry McNamara. (Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 1997. Pp. xii, 218. $16.95 paper.)

“Amb. McNamara's view of the Vietnam conflict from his perspective is not the conventional wisdom that U. S. invaders supporting corrupt regimes were defeated by a citizen army, but rather the view of most of us who served in Vietnam in the latter years of the war, i.e. e. , that we and the South Vietnamese had won on the ground, but were defeated by the unwillingness of the American people to continue the effort.”

Although Escape With Honor was first published eight years ago, it makes particularly timely reading now. In it one of the illustrious Foreign Service Officers of our generation, Amb. Terry McNamara, recounts the story of how he closed the U.S. Consulate in the Mekong Delta and led his staff and several hundred Vietnamese down that river to safety as the South Vietnamese government collapsed. The book is concise, the story riveting. It is a tale of disbelief on the part of our Embassy in Saigon that the war was truly over, a tale of disorganization as elements of the Mission tried to organize evacuations, and a tale of the triumph of human spirit in the face of daunting odds.

In addition to the basic facts of the flight down the Mekong, Amb. McNamara provides his insight, based on some four years of experience in Vietnam, on what went wrong with the U.S. effort there and how possible victory turned into defeat. He describes his earlier tours in Quang Tri, the northern-most province of South Vietnam, and in Can Tho, the main city of the Mekong Delta. Escape With Honor is replete with quotations, but Amb. McNamara does not provide a bibliography or clarify whether the quotations are based on extensive notes he took at the time or whether he simply used the device to give more life to the story. The preface leaves the impression that some time passed before he felt comfortable recounting these events leading one to assume the latter is the case. In any event, it is an effective technique.

Readers who don't like the CIA will find much in this book to confirm their beliefs. McNamara does not try to analyze the Agency's overall role in the conflict, although he, like many Foreign Service colleagues who served in rural Vietnam, strongly criticizes the value of the intelligence CIA people in the field were sending forward. His main criticism is with the unauthorized autonomy with which the CIA operated at a regional level, an autonomy, as he explains in chilling detail, that had a harmful effect on his evacuation and probably on the evacuation of Saigon as well.

Amb. McNamara's view of the Vietnam conflict from his perspective is not the conventional wisdom that U.S. invaders supporting corrupt regimes were defeated by a citizen army, but rather the view of most of us who served in Vietnam in the latter years of the war, i.e., that we and the South Vietnamese had won on the ground, but were defeated by the unwillingness of the American people to continue the effort.

Normally our book reviews in American Diplomacy are not written in the first person, but McNamara's story is too close to my heart for me to do so. I was not physically with him and his colleagues as they braved enemy fire on their voyage, but my heart was with them. I had served in the Mekong Delta in 1970 and again in 1973, the latter tour under the first U.S. Consul General in Can Tho, Wolfgang Lehmann, who appears in this book. Amb. McNamara's portrayal of the Delta brought back many memories of what life was like in that beautiful place so denigrated by Vietnamese from Saigon north. His description of his efforts to evacuate many of the Vietnamese who had worked with us, in contrast to other parts of the country where many such brave men and women were left to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese, reminded me of the helplessness I felt in 1975 when I, by then assigned elsewhere, was unable to help people with whom I had worked closely.

Why is this book timely reading now? Although Vietnam and Iraq are different wars, in different times and being fought for different reasons, there are parallels between them. Whatever one's views of how and why we fought and are fighting them, the manner of our departure from Vietnam and the scars it left both on Americans who served there and the Vietnamese should provide a stern warning as we try to disengage in Iraq. Whether the war in Iraq is "winnable," whatever that word means, the Vietnam experience should tell us that a precipitate withdrawal is almost certain to have very serious consequences. So it is that we find active duty military and Foreign Service professionals engaged in the Iraq effort, whatever their political persuasion, warning of the impact such a withdrawal would have. The words of philosopher George Santayana have been so overused as to become a cliché, but they bear repeating here: “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” Terry McNamara's book reminds us of the potential cost should we fail to learn the lessons from the fall of South Vietnam.

Escape With Honor is part of a series created by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) and the Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired (DACOR) to increase public knowledge and appreciation of the involvement of American diplomats in the events of world history. To quote the introduction to Escape with Honor, "The series seeks to demystify diplomacy by telling the story of those who have conducted our foreign relations, as they saw it and lived it." Escape With Honor is an excellent example of the value of this series.


Ambassador. (ret.) Michael W. Cotter is associate publisher and member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers. In addition to his tours in the Republic of South Vietnam, Ambassador Cotter was posted to Bolivia, Ecuador, Zaire, Turkey, Chile, and Turkmenistan, where he served as ambassador. Living in the Chapel Hill area, Amb. Cotter writes and lectures on international topics, as well as contributing to community volunteer activities.

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