The Lost Crusade

Title:                      The Lost Crusade

Author:                  Chester L. Cooper

Cooper, Chester L. (1970). The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam, with a Foreword By W. Averell Harriman. New York: Dodd, Mead

LCCN:    79135539

DS557.A63 C66


Date Posted:      March 1, 2017

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[1]

Written by a CIA -intelligence analyst and member of the White House staff in the Johnson administration. This is one of the best-informed and most authoritative, comprehensive accounts of the American activities in Vietnam and Southeast Asia from the beginning through the Cambodian border crossing in the spring of 1970. A dispassionate account of policy making which touches indirectly on covert operations in such key cases as the Tonkin Gulf incidents and other stages in the escalation of the conflict.

From The New York Times[2]

There are some subjects about which it is hard to assume an air of enlightened detachment. One is, or at least used to be, religion. Another is sex. And one is surely the Vietnam war. Over the past 20 years (yes, 20, for it was in May, 1950, that Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that the United States would aid France in its struggle to subdue the Communist‐led Vietminh) there have been passionate denunciations of America’s role in Indochina and (although with increasing rarity) fervent justifications.

The hawks told us we were defending the Free World, holding the line against aggression, protecting a brave people, making the, world safe for democracy—you name it. The doves were aghast at our support of self‐seeking autocrats and incompetent generals, or our systematic devastation of Vietnam, or the toll wrought on our own society—name it again. The issue long ago became a moral one. The lines have become so tightly drawn and the arguments so familiar that even to launch discussion of the subject seems redundant. OPERATION TOTAL VICTORY has now given way to Operation Face‐Saving. Nixon’s so‐called Vietnamization plan, for all its loopholes and booby‐traps, [was] designed to ease us out the back door of a war that cannot be won, that the American people are [fed up] with, and that no one is quite sure how we ever into.

We are now in the “I must have been really drunk last night to have done that” stage of the war, the morning‐after when it is hard to remember how we ended up where we did, or what possibly could have been on our minds along the way. It is a moment when we want to listen [to] someone who was there when it happened, but remained sober through it all. It is time to demystify the war, and perhaps no one is better equipped for the task than Chester Cooper, an old Asia hand whose service in government stretched from the 1954 Geneva conference on Indochina right through to the present impasse in Paris. Perched high in the upper strata of the foreign policy bureaucracy, he was there when the whole thing happened, and like a true professional he tells it the way he saw it, a foreign policy uncluttered by moral issues, a Vietnam without tears.

Some may find such [an] approach insensitive, but diplomats are not paid to be indignant. They are professionals whose job it is to carry out, or occasionally impede, policies made higher up. The policy‐makers, those who orchestrated our interventions in Vietnam and elsewhere, have not been consumed by indignation or carried away by paroxysms of moral fervor. They were sober men conducting a foreign policy which, however aberrant it may now seem, was based on very real principles: the division of the world between Communists‐and non‐Communists, and the determination to preserve existing ideological boundaries—by force of arms where need be. Vietnam was a logical result of that policy. It became important only because that was where the policy finally broke down.

Chester Cooper is an engaging and eloquent guide through the ruins of that failure. With skill, learning, wit and a felicitous literary style he traces our involvement in Vietnam through its various phases, from our aid to the Vietminh during the Japanese occupation, through the decision to aid the French and later prop up Ngo Dinh Diem, and finally down the slippery slope with L.B.J. to full‐scale war, ending with the interminable talkathon in Paris. His historical reconstruction of American involvement in Vietnam, replete with for gotten statements of various officials over the past 20 years, and rich in personal observation, is an impressive. achievement.

What makes The Lost Crusade so special, however, is that it shows us the war from inside the national‐security bureaucracy. Chester Cooper was there when most of it happened, and even though he pulls a few punches, he has given us the most revealing and the most important inside story of the war that we have yet had, or are likely to get for a long time.

The Lost Crusade is an exciting, absorbing, explosive account of a war conducted for objectives no one quite understood, by methods that were often self‐defeating, and by officials trapped in prisons of self justification. Like Townsend Hoopes’ earlier memoir on how L.B.J. was persuaded to stop the bombing, this is one of those few books that are in dispensable to an understanding of what happened in Vietnam and why it all went wrong.

One of the most fascinating parts of Cooper’s book deals with the numerous ill‐fated peace initiatives, and particularly with the fiasco that occurred during Kosygin’s trip to London when Harold Wilson was prepared to serve as intermediary for a peace plan that the White House had no intention of carrying out. It was just one of many such failures. Cooper believes that while some of the Administration’s peace feelers may have been for real, others, like the bombing pause of January, 1966, “were primarily for the purpose of improving the American image.” He offers convincing evidence that the President and his chief advisers—Rostow, Rusk and Taylor—“seemed to have a bombing hang‐up,” and were continually scheduling raids on North Vietnam just as peace emissaries were arriving in Hanoi, or as intermediaries were tying up delicate negotiations. But probably these would have come to naught anyway, for Cooper admits there was no great mystery why . . . the North Vietnamese were wary and skeptical . . . [for] many of Washington’s plans for a ‘political solution’ involved, for all practical purposes, a negotiated surrender by the North Vietnamese.” That, in fact, is pretty much where we stand today.

One of Cooper’s great virtues, in addition to his literary gifts, is that he has no obvious axe to grind. Although sufficiently important to pass on the latest United States word to foreign leaders and to be summoned to midnight briefings, he was not a key policy maker. Vietnam was not his personal disaster. More than an eavesdropper in the corridors of power, he was rather a courier, serving first this Pres ident and then that one, carrying out policies that often made little sense in order to secure objectives that seemed dubiously desirable. An intelligent man who kept his ears open and, apparently, his private notebooks filled, Cooper had a distinguished diplomatic career that led to an important job in quasi‐governmental research for the Institute for Defense Analyses, and one of the few books on Vietnam that could truly be called engrossing.

It is not surprising that The Lost Crusade has already been haled by both renowned hawks and doves, for Cooper manages the rare feat of showing us why everything went wrong, without ever questioning the assumptions of those who were responsible for our Vietnam policy. While he criticizes some people for being overzealous, there are few harsh words and no villains. And no attempt to re‐examine first principles. At all times Cooper remains above the noise of battle, the supreme bureaucrat amusing himself with word games at the in terminable conferences he is obliged to attend, mildly frustrated by the higher‐ups who are so intent on picking bombing targets that they have no time to think about policy, and occasionally piqued by those members of the press who seemed “eager to criticize and slow to appreciate the efforts of hard‐ working, underpaid, sincere officials.” Sincere officials do not appreciate public interference in matters of policy.

Cooper reminds us that disasters like Vietnam are rarely one man’s fault, that “the Vietnam war was not Lyndon John son’s invention,” but can be traced back to Eisenhower and Kennedy. As early as 1956 John F. Kennedy declared that “Vietnam represents the corner stone of the free world in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike.” It was Kennedy who first sent troops to Vietnam, who was infatuated with counterinsurgency and wanted to prove that “wars of national liberation” could be defeated by his Green Berets, and who in July, 1963, declared, “We are not going to withdraw. . . for us to withdraw . . . would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam but Southeast Asia.”

Cooper is right in pointing out that Lyndon Johnson inherited “more than ‘the dirty little war’ in Vietnam. He inherited Kennedy’s principal advisers on foreign affairs—Rusk, McNamara, Bundy and Taylor; he found himself with a ‘commitment’ of uncertain specificity and duration.” The expansion of that commitment from a colonial operation involving 16,000 American troops to a major war with half a million men was, of course, his own responsibility.

But it is idle to assume that Kennedy, confronted as Johnson was with the imminent collapse of the Saigon regime, would have behaved differently. They were both soldiers in what Cooper calls the “American crusade to save the world from Communism,” and they both believed that American power had to be used to pre vent the postwar ideological boundaries from shifting—even in areas where no threat to American security could be discerned. They were guardians of an informal empire of dependencies and client states.

The war rages on, but the illusions that nurtured it have been shattered. Cooper argues that for our own political tranquility we have to get out of Vietnam “with some semblance of grace”—his formula being an election which the Communists may win, but which will at least give the American people the cold comfort that the war was fought for “free choice.” Of such camouflages are armistices declared and treaties solemnly signed.

It is possible that the Vietnam war may finally come to a halt through just such a ruse, although it is not easy to see why Hanoi, the Vietcong, or the generals in Saigon should be so obliging. They have concerns more pressing than the sensitivities of the American electorate. But it is the diplomat’s job to search for the cool way out, and if Cooper has no answers, he has done a brilliant and important job of showing us what the Vietnam war was like from the highest levels of a bureaucracy that never thought to question the logic of intervention until it failed.

[1] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p.

[2] Ronald Steel, “Why Vietnam went wrong—a version without villains,” The New York Times (November 8, 1970). A version of this archives appears in print on November 8, 1970, on Page 291 of the New York edition with the headline: “Why Vietnam went wrong—a version without villains”.  Downloaded March 1, 2017

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