Reviewed 5/28/2011

The Betrayal, by William Corson
Cover image is of the original Norton edition, scanned,
cropped and rescaled as appropriate — marks and all.
Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
William R. Corson
New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1968




ISBN-13 978-0-393-?
ISBN-10 0-393-? 317pp. HC $5.95

In the annals of America's Vietnam War period, Lieutenant Colonel William R. Corson, USMC should be recorded as a hero dedicated to achieving America's stated objectives of driving out the Communists and freeing that Asian country. Whether he is so recorded is another matter. He was, in the all-purpose in-group condemnation, "not a team player" — meaning that he saw America failing to achieve those objectives, understood the causes of her failure, and described those causes bluntly and publicly.

This book, The Betrayal, is a remarkable testament to the pervasiveness of the causes of America's failure in Viet Nam. It analyzes those causes in detail, with an insider's ability to give names and dates and a participant's ability to quote news accounts and official documents. It is not a balanced account. Lt. Col. Corson clearly feels outrage for the needless deaths of men under his command, frustration for the waste of effort and materiel, sympathy for the long-suffering peasants of Viet Nam and contempt for the various agencies and officials complicit in the war's failures. This comes through most clearly in Chapter 3, "Machiavellis in Khaki," and Chapter 11, "Birdwatching in Vietnam." But it is never far from the surface throughout the book. It is the contempt an honest man feels for those who are acting without honor.

The book spares no official. President Johnson, General Westmoreland, Secretary of State Allen Dulles, Ambassadors Henry Cabot Lodge and Ellsworth Bunker, the heads of the USAID, the various junketing Congressmen and other visitors1 all come in for their share of criticism. So too do the Vietnamese, from leaders like Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Kao Ky through district chiefs (all GVN officers) such as Major Hao (pp 172-5.) It documents the corruption of the GVN, in which almost everyone is on the take (and what they take is usually American dollars, construction materials, and food and medicine.) He tells how assiduously the ARVN soldiers avoid combat with the Vietcong, often taking "French leave" as they learn of an impending firefight without telling the American military troops with whom they are supposedly allied.2 He describes how American officials on the scene typically stand by and do nothing. And he makes clear how all this is whitewashed for the American public.

Lt. Col. William R. Corson, USMC (1925-2000)

Who was this Marine officer, this dutiful yet uncharacteristically blunt soldier?

Born in Chicago on 25 September 1925, Corson spent his childhood with his grandparents after his parents divorced. As a teenager, he showed little love for schooling. But Frank Knox, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News, gave him a job on the paper. Knox, who sat on the board of the University of Chicago, later got Corson a scholarship to that school.

Then came World War II. Corson left the University of Chicago in 1943 and enlisted in the Marines. He fought on Guam and Bougainville, rising to the rank of sergeant. Afterward he returned to the University of Chicago and earned a degree in mathematics, then got a Master's in economics at the University of Miami. He rejoined the Marines in 1949 as an officer, fighting in the Korean War in 1952. Then he was assigned to the Naval Intelligence School in Washington, DC, where he studied Chinese language and culture. From 1964 to 1966, he taught a course on communism and revolutionary war at the U.S. Naval Academy. During this time he also studied Viet Nam and learned its language. He was transferred to Viet Nam in 1966 and given the command of a tank battalion, but was soon put in charge of the Combined Action Program which, by all accounts, was highly successful in winning the trust of ordinary Vietnamese. As such, it was bitterly opposed by everyone in authority in Viet Nam except the Marine Corps.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"It is too trite to blame all the failures in the Other War on the bureaucratic ineptness of the GVN while the U.S. government civilian agencies are presenting the spectacle of a group of brawling schoolboys."

– Pages 199-200

The pacification program was America's official effort to garner popular support for the government of South Vietnam; to win "hearts and minds." It failed, because the GVN wasn't interested in the population's hearts and minds, only in their money. Corson calls this program the Other War; he and his Combined Action Platoons were the only ones to wage it successfully. The American public was assured that it was all going well, but two statistics debunk that fiction completely. They are the percentages of of hamlets with functioning councils, and of hamlet chiefs who spend the night in their supposedly secure beds, in hamlets where a CAP team operated or otherwise.3

Item Without CAP With CAP
Functioning hamlet council? 29% 93%
Hamlet chief sleeps at home? <20% >80%

And if statistics will not get the message across, there is no lack of anecdotes. Take the case of Phuoc Tu, who lost two of his three sons to Vietcong bullets. By law his third son was exempt from service; despite that, his third son was drafted. The result was that both Phuoc Tu and his son defected to the Vietcong.

I don't mean to give the impression that Corson gives a distorted account. He may not have included every relevant fact, but I'm certain that what he does include is accurate. As an able and intelligent soldier, he would not have risked tarnishing his career record in so foolish a way as to lie. Nor can he be viewed as "soft" on the North Vietnamese Communists; he labels the governments of both North and South Vietnam as despotic, and condemns the terrorism practiced by the Vietcong.

In addition to its admirable bluntness, Corson's book is remarkable for its scholarship. In addition to knowing a great deal about Asian history and culture, and being able to speak Chinese as well as the three dialects of Vietnamese fluently,4 the man was very well read on history in general.

If his account has any defect, it is that it is too detailed, too filled with embarrassing incidents and incriminating statistics. But that is also its strength: the strength of the man who tells the unvarnished truth no matter who it might offend. And, in 1968, there were plenty of people who would have been mightily offended by the truths Lt. Col. Corson revealed. (Would have, and should have.)5 But not mightily enough to turn the situation around, as our eventual expulsion from South Viet Nam in 1975 proves.

There are other defects, relatively minor ones. Corson sometimes uses obscure phrases or references (e.g. "Navarre plan" and "'toothpaste' percentages", page 29) without explaining or defining them. Also there are occasional errors of grammar, probably the fault of the book's editor. And the book lacks an index; this would have been very helpful. But, like William Lederer's Our Own Worst Enemy, Corson's book provides important documents in Appendices. Since it lacks an index, I cannot rate it a keeper, except for Vietnam War history buffs. But this was an important book in its time, and its message remains important because we are making similar mistakes in other places.

In the last chapter of the book Corson offers a set of proposals. They cover both alternatives — staying in or getting out. These are his six proposals for the former case:

  1. Stop the air war in the North. It is counterproductive.
  2. End all illegal land rents and agricultural taxes in Vietnam.
  3. Build schools, train teachers and promote universal education.
  4. Take care of civilian refugees and casualties.
  5. Take direct control of humanitarian aid (Cut out the GVN).
  6. Cut our ground forces back to 250,000 troops and restructure our forces.6

These are not pie-in-the-sky stuff, but solid recommendations, drawn from his extensive experience. If followed, they might well have given us a different outcome in Viet Nam. Sadly, they were not heeded. I'll quote from the Introduction, by William Lederer, as to his view of the prospects back then.

"If the proposals Colonel Corson puts forth at the end of his book were to be accepted by the United States, we could win the Other War. The people of Vietnam would also win. And then the shooting war would no longer be necessary."

In short, Corson shows us how we have lost, he shows us the reasons why, and he describes how to be successful in the future. He has given us a key to peace in Asia.

– Wm. J. Lederer, Peacham, VT, 18 Apr 1968; page 12

And not only in Asia, but in today's Middle East, where, in essence, they still are not being heeded. This book, therefore, is a must read. But it's only a keeper for history buffs.

1 Corson calls the visiting officials "birds." (See Chapter 11.) He describes various species in highly unflattering terms — except for "peacocks." This is his term for USO entertainers, for whom he has great praise. His star in such troupes has to be Martha Raye: She instantly agreed to go up-country and do a show for an embattled CAP hamlet, then flew out serving as flight nurse to a wounded Marine. (Ms. Raye was a reserve Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Nurse Corps.) After that she worked around the clock for five days straight at the hospital (page 260).
2 "Every general officer in the ARVN either served on the side of the French in the Vietminh war or sat out the war at a French university." (page 278)
3 Lt. Col. Corson's Combined Action Program had the support of Marine Corps generals Victor Krulak and Lewis Walt, but they were not the ultimate authority. Thus the total American headcount devoted to CAP was under 2,000 and they supported fewer than 49 hamlets. They achieved success in spite of U.S. policy, not because of it.
4 Corson could play cò túong ("elephant chess") at championship level. He used this ability as a wedge to insert himself and his CAP teams into local hamlets. He soft-pedals this story here, but it alone makes the book worth reading. (See also Our Own Worst Enemy by William J. Lederer.)
5 Make that "Would have, should have, and were." The Marine Corps reaction was typical: When, just prior to retirement, Corson submitted the manuscript of his book as regulations demanded, they moved to court-martial him. The furore that resulted changed their minds. See a mirror of his New York Times obituary.
6 Corson provides details of this restructuring, proving once again that he knows his military ops.
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