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The story of a book.

I stood on the bank of the Hoan Kien Lake in downtown Ha Noi in the gloaming of the day The park was still alive in early evening with people enjoying themselves. It is a very popular place in Ha Noi for people to gather, to relax, to eat picnics, to do group Tai Chi exercises, to walk, to meditate, to hold hands. I had come here, aged 80, in these last days of 2011 on a journey of reminiscence and goodbye to see this ancient city once more and for the last time to see a man I had come to know well, Senior General (Dai Tuong) Vo Nguyen Giap, now old and sick in his 101st year of life.

As I lingered near the water in the growing darkness, I recalled how the lake had gotten its name: the Lake of the Returned Sword. In the year 1418, a Vietnamese patriot, Le Loi (1384-1433), had grown increasingly angry at the Chinese Ming dynasty's control over the land and how its overlords badly treated his people. He wanted them gone! He wanted to fight them but had no weapons. Beside the waters of the lake in Ha Noi, he bowed in prayer to Buddha and asked for help.

Suddenly, up out of the water came a giant turtle (Kim Qui) known as the Golden Turtle God, carrying in its mouth a magic sword on whose blade was inscribed the legend "the will of heaven." It laid the sword at Le Loi's feet. Le Loi picked it up and now while holding the weapon having the strength of many men, he went in search of fellows, for there was no Vietnamese army to call upon. Gathering a force of common people, he went up against the Chinese and in a war of national liberation defeated the Mings and forced them from the land. Following his victory Le Loi went back to the lake and returned the sword to the Golden Turtle God which then submerged into the dark waters of the lake, never to be seen again. Thus the waters became known as the Lake of the Returned Sword. Le Loi went on to found the Le dynasty of Vietnamese emperors and is today recognized as one of the nation's greatest heroes. Hardly a town or village that does not have a Le Loi street.

The man I had come to see was, like Le Loi, a hero to his countrymen and, like him, the leader of a war of national liberation. This modern Le Loi also had no weapons when in 1940 he began his task of freeing Viet Nam from foreign occupation. France had controlled and occupied Viet Nam for one hundred years, siphoning its riches and viciously treating any who resisted its power. Uprisings had occurred, but had been quickly smashed. Now, in 1940 the Japanese had taken over from the French using Viet Nam as a staging area for an attack upon India. Giap had no military experience, once commenting that he had learned the art of war by fighting. "My only academy was the bush." In the northern hills, this former history teacher in Ha Noi, under supervision of Ho Chi Minh, established a "beach head." Working with tribes there, he put together a small fighting force, unifying their hatred of the French. By war's end they had freed many of the northern provinces from foreign influence.

As the French came back in the first years of peace that followed the conflict, Giap and his growing force fought them, culminating in 1954 with the absolute defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. But the French still controlled the southern half of Viet Nam and so Giap and his growing army continued the fight. The French finally gave up and left, but the United States now entered the fray on behalf of the newly created southern government, the Republic of Viet Nam. Years passed. Fighting continued until 1976 when, ignominiously, the American forces returned home. Giap was triumphant!

Yet his work was not done. After 1976 neighboring Cambodia, now Kampuchea, under Pol Pot, had been making incursions on Vietnam's western borders. Finally in 1978, Giap moved his army against them and by 1979 had overthrown Pol Pot's army, forcing its remnants into the jungle. China had been an ally of Kampuchea, and angry that Viet Nam had invaded Kampuchea, attacked from the north. Once again, Giap was victorious, pushing the invaders back across the northern frontier into their own territory.

Giap had now defeated, in succession, Japan, France, the U.S., Kampuchea and China. In each conflict he had been victorious, making him one of history's most successful generals. Yet he was still and always had been a shadowy figure, not well known to any of his enemies. The ancient Chinese warrior, Sun Tsu, had once said that in battle it is always necessary "to know your enemy." Yet we had not known Vo Nguyen Giap. Part of the reason was that, like most Vietnamese, he was naturally reclusive, not willing to share information about self and family with others. Part had also been learned during the days of French occupation, for the less those colons known about one, the safer it was. And so even at the height of American involvement against him, no one was clear about this man, his origins, his training, his ability to fight outnumbered and ill equipped and still win. No biography of the man had been written in the West.

I determined to write that book. The road to completion was long and torturous, but in the end was accomplished. That effort proved worthwhile and brought unexpected results.

In 1996 at Hartford, Connecticut, at the annual meeting and banquet of the Association of Third World Studies (ATWS), I was selected to receive an award for publishing the best book length manuscript, by any member, on the Third World appearing that year. The book, published by Brassey's (not Potomac Books), then specializing in military history, was entitled Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's General Vo Nguyen Giap and it included an enthusiastic "Foreword" by the world famous military historian, John Keegan.

Research had entailed a month long trip to Viet Nam, an interview with General Giap and others there who had known him, study at Douglas Pike's Indochina Archive, then housed at the University, of California in Berkeley (but after his death transferred to Texas Tech), and reading everything I could find that had been written about Giap. My initial publisher, Harper and Tow, gave me an advance of $38,000. After completing the manuscript it was reviewed by three men, including Pike, a former intelligence specialist, who had written analyses of Giap for CIA and the military during the Viet Nam conflict. He had been wrong on almost every count and consequently I had corrected him time and time again. He should have disqualified himself as a reviewer, but did not. Instead he vilified my work, angry at my corrections. His review indicated that my manuscript was not a publishable work, but if reduced to article length "might" be useful for high school students! How wrong he was. Faced with dismal and middling reviews, the publisher refused my manuscript without requiring return of the advance. It then lay fallow on my shelf for some three years, until the president of Brassey's, Franklin D. Margiotta, an ex-Air Force bomber pilot, later encountered it and enthusiastically contracted for its publication. He was a grand editor who solidly supported and helped shape the manuscript. I owe him a great debt.

As a result, at the ATWS meeting I received a beautiful plaque and a check for $500 from association funds. I immediately endorsed the check back to the association, suggesting that in the future it need not dip into general operating money for these awards but that a separate account be established with funds raised to support such $500 checks. I also gave $1,000 toward that end and, with the help of others, the amount grew, if memory serves, to about $7,000. The Board later renamed the prize "The Cecil B. Currey Book Award," and so it remains to this day.

Earlier publications had helped guide me to Vo Nguyen Giap. I was teaching early American history. Then my department added a course in military history but had no one available to teach it. Then the chairman thought about me and my avocation as an Army Reserve military officer chaplain. That had taught me much about the military and army life. Teaching that new course fell to me. A firm believer in publishing in fields I taught, I saw an advertisement by W.W. Norton. It wanted a book about the Army in Viet Nam. I drafted a letter and sent it to the editor-in-chief, Eric Swenson. He later told me he had received hundreds of letters but mine was the one that intrigued him and so he offered me a contract. As I wrote, I found myself focusing on the mistakes made there by U.S. Forces. I noted that other books had been written on that subject and in every case their findings were rejected and their authors criticized by Army spokesmen in ad hominem fashion. So to avoid the same reaction, and to let the words speak for themselves without attribution to any author, my completed work was published with a pen name for the author, a pseudonym for me, as "Cincinnatus."

The book exposed American choices of military tactics used in Viet Nam and it was entitled Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era. Top commanders there demonstrated both ignorance and ineptitude in fighting the Viet Cong/NVA and in "winning the hearts and minds" of southern peoples. Directives from high headquarters required units to justify, their performance by using" statistical indicators of success" (How many roads, villages, bridges. etc., were controlled this week as compared to last?) Body counts were made essential as a way to determine progress, yet they resulted in increased American casualties as junior officers demanded counts and sometimes fought each other to claim ownership of a dead VC/NCA soldier's body. Body counts were even forwarded to higher headquarters before engagements with the enemy! Troops came to rename Search and Destroy missions as "Search and Be Ambushed."

Morale soon diminished nearly to the vanishing point among both enlisted ranks and junior officers. Medals were issued so often they became worthless and know as "gongs." Generals were so deluded they had no idea what they were doing or how to evaluate success in prosecuting the 'other War" of winning hearts and minds. One general of a division was so pathetic that he proudly reported to Corps headquarters that he was achieving this goal by sending his unit's laundry to Vietnamese washerwomen to clean? Free Fire zones killed thousands of innocent civilians. Curfews were enforced upon rural populations that lived by sun time and had few if any watches. Saturation high level bombings destroyed animals, people and villages to no tactical or strategic advantage. The book made headlines here and abroad.

When my authorship was finally discovered, it brought me to the Army's attention. Soon the book was listed on officer professional reading lists, used as a text at the Military Academy, the Command and General Staff College, and the Army War College. I was often asked to speak, sometimes giving keynote addresses at Army-wide conferences on the subject of people's wars, guerrilla wars, and wars of national liberation, an interesting and highly unusual role for a commissioned chaplain.

While researching Self-Destruction I encountered traces of a shadowy military man named Edward Lansdale, whom William Colby, for a time head of CIA, once described as one of the ten best spies in history. Yet little was know about him, so I determined to seek him out and tell his story in a follow-up book. It was published by Houghton-Mifflin in 1988 as Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American and was also widely hailed both in America and overseas. Dozens of meetings with Lansdale informed me of much he had done and advocated. He had been instrumental in subduing an uprising in the Philippines and helping there to elect the only honest president that nation has ever had, Ramon Magsaysay. Lansdale advocated that its army befriend the people of the land rather than abusing, raping, and stealing from them. He showed the way to giving insurgents land and a vote and thus giving them opportunity to become productive citizens.

Then he was assigned to Viet Nam in the early years of the southern republic and quickly became a confidant of President Ngo Dinh Diem. He advocated a low key approach to the southern insurgency, once claiming that "the best way to kill a guerrilla is with a knife, the worst way is with a bomb. The second best way is with a rifle, the second worst is with artillery." Unfortunately, in Viet Nam, the military relied primarily on bombing and artillery.

As I studied Lansdale's life and ideas, I encountered information about the man from the north who led its military forces, Vo Nguyen Giap. Here might be another book and I determined to learn more about this man. In a trip to Ha Noi, I met with him. He told me I was the first man from the West with whom he was willing to talk about his life, because he wanted any result to be the work of an honest historian. He spoke of his birth village, An Xa, his parents' names and their lives, his early years as a child, his education, his prison sentence, his newspaper work, his early politics, his drift into anti-French attitudes, his years of teaching in Ha Noi, his first marriage to the beautiful Quang Thai, his decision to join the communist party, his determination to destroy French control, his work establishing the Viet Minh resistance forces, his fights with the French military, etc. (Pike had written of some of these matters and had been wrong about all of them.) He answered questions prepared for him in a response that filled 45 legal-sized, single spaced pages. His second wife, Dang Bich Ha, and his daughter Hong Anh by his first wife (whom Pike had decreed to have died as a infant in French prison in 1940, but who was still alive and one of Viet Nam's noted specialists in atomic physics) also answered questions and supplied me with many family photographs for use as illustrations in the book. And so the book was published and I received the award from ATWS.

The publication soon took on a life of its won. It had been simultaneously released in Britain by Aurum Press and the London Times reviewed it as one of the two best biographies published in England that year. It was nominated for, but did not receive, a Pulitzer prize. Nationwide news organs, print and television, reviewed and praised the book. Overseas reviews were as positive as those that had appeared in America. A Chinese firm optioned the right to translate it into Chinese. Some publishers in Viet Nam translated one of its chapters into that language. Although I had long had recognition overseas for many of my writings, I had never before had books translated into other languages.

There was more to come. The firm of Phebus in Paris issued it in the French language as Vo Nguyen Giap: La Victoire a tout priz, and included a "Preface" by Gerard Chaliand. Several months passed and then a firm in Rio de Janeiro, Biblioteca do Exercita Editora, brought out Vo Nguyen Giap: Victoria A Qualquer Custo, in Portugese with a "Foreword" by Pretonio R. G. Muniz. This edition had been arranged by the Brazilian Ministry of Defense) Ministerio da Defesa Exercito Brasileiro) to procure 3,000 copies to give to serving high ranking officers and sergeants in its military.

Some years passed, until 2009, when a firm in New Delhi, India named Pentagon Press brought out the book for sale in that country. Its web site offered copies for "only" $64.00 USD! But even this was not the end. Brassey's, now Potomac Publishers, licensed Barnes & Noble and Amazon to release Victory at Any Cost as an e-book, an offer quickly rescinded when my literary agents at Jabberwocky, Incorporated notified the company that contractually it had no right to make such arrangements. My agents will make their own approach to Barnes & Noble and Amazon, so the book again will soon be available as an e-book. Giap's life was no longer shadowy. Published now on four of the six livable continents, the book has allowed hundreds of thousands of readers, civilian and military around the world, to learn about the reclusive General Vo Nguyen Giap.

There was one major and personal side effect for having written this book. Its subject, the great Senior General (Dai Yuong) Vo Nguyen Giap, has just celebrated his 100th birthday and thus is now in his 101st year. He is not in good health, having long suffered from maladies picked up by decades of living primitively during his fighting years and, more recently, from ravages of pneumonia. His government, long concerned about his popularity, particularly among those who served with and under him in the several conflicts, and fearing he might lead a military coup d'etat, stripped him of his political and military roles and even made it difficult for him to receive visitors. For several years he has been basically under "house arrest" at his villa and even now, as he lies in Military Hospital 108, visitors are restricted to family.

Still the Vietnamese government felt constrained to celebrate his century long life and so for a few weeks it established a series of exhibits commemorating his long career around the banks of The Lake of the Returned Sword. I was astonished when a friend who had just visited Ha Noi telephoned me that I was included in one of those exhibits. One such station portrayed those who had come to Viet Nam to meet with Giap. It showed prime ministers, presidents, envoys, military people and me in a photograph taken from the book. The caption for this section of the exhibits was entitled "Distinguished Foreign Visitors Who Have Met With Dai Tuong Giap," and there was a picture (right below one showing Robert McNamara and Giap) of me and Giap sitting side by side and the caption "Famous Historian Cecil B. Currey, Author of Victory At Any Cost. Conferring With General Giap During a 1989 Visit to Ha Noi." I was impressed.

That got me to thinking. My health has been poor these past decades which is why I have not attended ATWS annual meetings for some time. My carotid had to be reamed out to remove plaque. I underwent a heart triple-bypass operation and repair of a triple inguinal hernia. I have contracted Diabetes II and suffer from macular degeneration. Yet I thought how nice it would be to see the general one more time before it is too late. So I contacted his son, Vo Hong Nam, and made arrangements to visit Ha Noi one more time. The embassy in Washington returned my application for a visa in three days, a record time, One for my first visit in 1988 took five years (1983-1988). I left for the long flight on 19 December and returned on 27 December. The trip over took twenty-four hours and the trip back required 40 long hours. I took my son, Samuel, with me to help strengthen my unsteady gait. At the airport a car awaited us to take us to our hotel. Ga Lam airport is no longer used as a civilian hub but only for air force activities, and the new one is quite nice. We stayed at the Marigold Hotel, arranged for us by Vo Hong Nam, a small one, near his home. Hanh Chu, the sales manager, and Nguyen Thi Phuong, the beautiful 23 year old desk clerk who always wore traditional ao dai clothing, did their best to help us and make us feel welcome. Because it was cold in Ha Noi, Phuong even bought me a nice vest sweater to keep me warm.

Ha Noi had changed since my last visit in the 1980s. Where once bicycles plied the streets, now they were filled with a veritable river of motor scooters, an occasional bus and truck, a few taxis. From five in the morning to midnight, traffic poured past the hotel. On the sidewalks were parked thousands of motor scooters and families squatted around cooking fires with low stools arranged around them, selling beef or chicken pho to passersby, and women walked along with balance poles on their shoulders carrying hanging baskets of goods to sell.

On our first evening Sam and I walked across the street to the Lenin Park and sat on a low retaining wall to watch life around us. In moments a hooker about 35 dropped down in front of us and began propositioning and groping us. I firmly told her 'khong, khong' ("no, no") so she started groping Sam. She was very persistent until the night manager of the hotel and the front doorman ran across the street to chase her away.

Vo Hong Nam came to the hotel the next day to greet me. A dapper man in his 50s, wearing an expensive western suit, he had a friendly demeanor and we visited for some time in the lobby. He is wealthy CEO of an important electronics firm with world-wide interests. I told him of my desire to visit Vo Nguyen Giap, but he firmly responded that it would not be possible. However he invited us to his home for the next afternoon for a visit and a fish dinner.

A BMW picked us up the next day and took us there. Hong Nam now lives in Giap's home with his wife and his mother, Dang Bich Ha. Upon our arrival at his home we saw it was a palatial French villa-given as a reward to Giap by the Politburo in 1954 after his victory at Dien Bien Phu. Just outside in the garden was a large pond of colorful koi fish that we admired before Hong Nam took us inside. We settled in a room that could have served as a museum to the life of Giap: awards and photos hung on the walls, huge mosaic pictures of the general flanked two walls, a larger than life bronze bust sat on a ledge. We sat around a table and were served tea as Hong Nam brought his mother into the room. She is now elderly, late 70s or early 80s and we visited for a time in French. Hong Nam gave me a gift--a government produced commemorative picture book of Giap's life, from the days of his birth until recently. Among the myriad of pictures was one of me and Giap, taken on a 1989 visit to Ha Not and earlier displayed on the banks of the Lake of the Returned Sword at the time of his 100th birthday. I also gave them gifts. For Hong Nam a handmade desk name plate from Florida, for Ha several vials of American perfumes.

I was so impressed with Hong Nam's home that I asked him who had owned it previously during the French colonial days. He shrugged and replied "Some Frenchman." And so those days disappear into the past.

I reiterated my surprise that no publisher had produced Victory at Any Cost in Vietnamese and said once again that I was very anxious to see Giap, even for a few minutes. I understood the necessity of preserving the privacy of a sick old man, but I was no "Joe Journalist" or some other foreign riff-raff. I had met him twenty years earlier. We had bonded. He willingly helped me write his biography. I and Giap had a history, and a good one at that. He would shortly go on his final journey. Time was short. All I asked was one or two minutes with him, a thank you from me to him, a little bow, a touch of the hands, and a goodbye. That was all.

"It will not be possible," Hong Nam said. And with that the promise of a fish dinner disappeared, we were shuttled back to the hotel. I saw him only once more when he came to the hotel on our last day to say goodbye. I was, of course, bitterly disappointed. But I had met him for the first time, seen Giap's home, and met his wife.

On 2 December, Ha Noi was emblazoned with street banners proclaiming the anniversary of the founding by Giap, in 1944, of the "Armed Propaganda and Liberation Brigade," the forerunner of the Viet Minh armies that ended the Japanese occupation, threw out the French at Dien Bien Phu, and later forced the Americans to withdraw. No one on the streets seemed to be much interested in those banners. They went about their business of working, of buying and selling, of living their lives.

But Ha Noi is full of rumors. One we heard was that Giap is catatonic, sitting in a chair with his head back, eyes staring at the ceiling, mouth hanging open, unresponsive. Another rumor told us that be is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's, not knowing anyone or remembering anything. The desire for privacy is so urgent, we were told, that at his earlier birthday celebration, only three men attended: Tuong Tan Sang, the nation's president, Nguyen Tan Dung, the prime minister, and General Phung Quang Thanh, minister of defense. Not much of a party. All three rumors could be true or false. They are, after all, rumors. But if true, it would explain the insistence of the Politburo that he be isolated.

He is a national treasure. He is the last of the founders of the nation as it exists today. All the others are now long gone. It was he who brought freedom from foreign control and union to a divided Viet Nam. The desire for him to be remembered as a strong, vital man is understandable, a fiction to be maintained as long as possible.

So it was that our days in Ha Noi came to an end. Had the long trip been a failure? Yes and no. I did not get to pay my respects to General Giap. But only days after I told Hong Nam of my disappointment that no publisher had translated the book into Vietnamese, my agents received a query from a Ha Noi printing house inquiring abut the possibility of receiving permission to do so. Coincidence? I think not. Hong Nam had passed my feelings on to those in charge.

So the book goes on. And I continue to be grateful to the Association of Third World Studies for its recognition of its worth.


Victory At Any Cost has now been published in America, Canada, and England, in China and one chapter and a photostated pirated edition in Viet Nam, in France, Brazil, and India, and as an e-book. That is an accomplishment, but not an impossible one. In the process I have learned much that might be useful to members of ATWS.

I believe that many of our members have often gone from completing a manuscript to publication through their own efforts, without help. That is a mistake. One must get an agent to get the most mileage from one's work. Such a person will do much for you that is difficult and sometimes impossible to do for yourself. Agents have the knowledge, the contacts in the publishing industry, and the duty to protect your interests and your literary rights. They will even make you money as a reward for your efforts. How to find an agent? Barnes & Noble bookstores carry a work entitled How to Find a Literary Agent. Inside one can find information on hundreds of agencies that represent authors in almost every field of writing. Chose two or three. Write letters of inquiry. Settle on one who seems promising. Then be patient and wait for results.

Learn to write your manuscript without jargon, without stilted sentences, without grammatical errors. Make your words flow in lively, entertaining fashion all the while remaining true to your subject. This can be done no matter what your topic may be. James Michener, that great author of dozens of massive novels, once said he could write about a rocking chair in such a way that it would hold readers' interest. Emulate his approach.

Avoid peddling your product to insignificant presses. For a first book endeavor to locate an interested university press. After that, focus on commercial presses. The great medieval historian, Norman Cantor, who died in 2004, once reminded historians that even university presses held only limited appeal. They had evolved as outlets for historical writing to enable scholars to publish when no other option was available. They offer no advances, few royalities, and limited editions to be read only by a few. Commercial houses can advertise, can appeal to large audiences, pay advances and royalities. It is advice worth remembering.

For your research, choose when possible to study a topic that will appeal to a wide audience. For too long historians have been content to settle for insignificance, publishing with a small print house on topics so limited that in reality there is no market for them. Some of us have even often used self-publishing techniques which takes money out of our small salaries and provides little or no return. An agent will survey major presses that might be interested in your topic. I, for example, have met success with such major print houses as Doubleday, Prentice Hall, Stein & Day, Houghton Mifflin and Brassey's, and save for Doubleday they all came to me via an agent. And the money earned has bee significant. Perhaps these thoughts will be of help to you.

By Cecil B. Currey, Professor of Military History Emeritus, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33620. Professor Currey is author of the award winning book, Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's General Vo Nguyen Giap.
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Title Annotation:OTHER PAPERS
Author:Currey, Cecil B.
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9VIET
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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