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Book Cover: Diplomats at War: Friendship and Betrayal on the Brink of the Vietnam Conflict by Charles Trueheart

Diplomats at War: Friendship and Betrayal on the Brink of the Vietnam Conflict (Part of the series of The Miller Center Studies on the Presidency)

by Charles Trueheart

University of Virginia Press, February 2024

368 pages

Reviewed by Bea Camp

Author Charles Trueheart describes his account of Vietnam in the early 1960s as “a work of memory hiding inside a work of history.”  While his father Bill Trueheart was Deputy Chief of Mission in Saigon 1961-1963, Charles was a 10-12 year-old boy, getting into the typical mischief of his age cohort as war and decisions that would entwine the U.S. into an ever-broader struggle roiled around him.

DCM Bill Trueheart was life-long friends with his boss, Ambassador Fritz Nolting, until the fallout of the Buddhist crisis in August 1963 put the two on different sides of the ongoing debate in Saigon and Washington. Should the U.S. continue to support Ngo Dinh Diem as president in the fight against the Viet Cong or was Diem an impediment that needed to be removed — with most understanding that “removed” meant a coup that would involve U.S. government acquiescence.

The book covers the dispute over U.S. involvement well, with the hindsight-aware reader constantly wanting to shout “Get out now! Walk away from Vietnam before it’s too late!” Alas, we only dug in deeper. Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed in the U.S.-sanctioned coup that began on November 1, a point-of-no-return for U.S. involvement in the country. Bill Trueheart and family left Saigon the following January for an assignment in Washington, where his Vietnam expertise was mostly sidelined. Although the book leaves behind the ongoing saga of Vietnam at this point, we all know how this tragedy ended over ten years later.

Charles Trueheart does a terrific job of focusing on this period from both the perspective of an adolescent and the insights of an accomplished journalist and scholar. The result is a kind of bi-focal view of events, in which we see both the near and the far. Trueheart makes good use of his father’s letters home to his mother as well as some of the letters written by Bill’s wife Phoebe. Even in the midst of following “a remarkable array of people” that included Robert McNamara, Maxwell Taylor, Averell Harriman, David Halberstam, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Colby, the added advantage of delving into the familial as well as the diplomatic aspects of the story stands out.

Bill Trueheart’s oral history about this period, recorded for the LBJ library in 1982 and available on the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) site, is the obvious source of many of the details in the book. But the son brings this account to vibrant life as he describes a kid roaming Saigon, buying switchblades at the Central Market, befriending the chauffeur, and happily playing with a friend while the city takes cover during the pivotal August 21 raid on Buddhist temples.  Layered in between, the adult Charles Trueheart provides a well-researched back and forth of these events. I found myself turning frequently to the footnotes to find the source of quotes — whether from Bill Trueheart’s oral history, Phoebe Trueheart’s letters to her mother-in-law, David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest”, or several volumes of the State Department’s “Foreign Relations of the United States.”

U.S. Foreign Service Officers today will find many of the diplomatic experiences familiar, including contradictory instructions from Washington, political-military disagreements, rifts in the embassy, rocky relations with the press, and the danger of talking only to the upper echelon in the country. Historians, students, as well as readers with an interest in the U.S.-Vietnam War also will benefit from the uniquely personal perspective that the author brings to his subject.

And, inevitably, the story throws a light on some of our diplomatic dilemmas today: “The war itself is fifty years gone, but its lessons, especially the lessons of good intentions gone spectacularly awry, persist. When we hear about nation-building today, at least some of us of an age can’t not think about the consequences of our embrace of Ngo Dinh Diem. …When we consider what it takes to make another country do our bidding, we might look at what happened in Saigon in 1963.” End.

About The Author

Charles Trueheart is is a former foreign correspondent of the Washington Post, a former Associate Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, and a former Director of the American Library in Paris.

About The Reviewer

Beatrice Camp

Beatrice Camp is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer whose career included assignments in Beijing, Bangkok, Stockholm, Budapest, Chiang Mai, Shanghai, and Washington, DC.



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