Authors have written thousands of books about the wars for Vietnam that raged between 1945 and 1975. They have argued for and against Western intervention in Vietnam, scrutinised scores of diplomatic efforts to end the fighting and dissected battles in the minutest detail. The conflict pitting the Americans against the Vietnamese led by Ho Chi Minh has received the most attention. Scholars, journalists, veterans, former officials and documentary-makers have produced books, memoirs and films in an effort to explain America’s failed intervention in Vietnam. From Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake (1972) to Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War (2012) by way of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie (1988), Pulitzer Prize-winning works have made the case in one way or another that there was no victory against a nation-in-arms. America’s war, like the French one before it, was doomed to failure. Ho, we are told, may have been a communist, but for him communism was a means to an end – national independence and territorial unification. The ‘domino theory’ driving American containment policy during the Cold War was flawed from the start. Ho was no Soviet or Chinese puppet. He was a nationalist first and foremost. Had the Americans just realised this, had Presidents Wilson, Truman and Johnson just answered Ho’s letters, things could have been different. The war could have been avoided. Lives, American and Vietnamese ones, could have been saved. Instead the Americans repeated French hubris and relied on Vietnamese allies with little national legitimacy, the ‘Saigon regime’. Tragedy necessarily followed.
According to Max Hastings, it was ‘an epic tragedy’ for those who lived through it. From start to finish, the wars for Vietnam sowed death and destruction across the land. Starting with the outbreak of the French war with Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh in 1945 and ending with the inglorious American evacuation from Saigon in 1975, Hastings focuses on how combatants and civilians experienced war. He draws upon an impressive range of sources to take the reader into the line of fire. Through vivid descriptions and moving prose, he shows us the suffering, trauma and death that the French and especially American campaigns inflicted upon the civilians and soldiers on all sides who found themselves caught up in what turned into a conflagration of mind-boggling violence.
High politics is also here. To his credit, Hastings weaves into his narrative a more critical account of the communist regime than many authors have been willing to do. Relying on translations from Vietnamese and new research coming from younger scholars, he writes of the ‘totalitarian’ nature of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam and its misguided land reform and collectivisation, among other things. He rightly discusses the importance within the Vietnamese Communist Party of Le Duan and Le Duc Tho and their sidelining of Vo Nguyen Giap, who opposed their decision to go to war against the Americans. However, Hastings still tells us more about the inner circles of power in Washington than in Vietnam, more about Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, Nixon’s and Kissinger’s wars than about Hanoi’s or Saigon’s. The same goes for his discussion of the press corps, intelligence ‘gurus’ and the antiwar movement. The Vietnam War, in Hastings’s hands, remains a rather American one, a reflection of the existing literature on a conflict that tore the United States apart. In comparison, the French war receives much less attention. The big events are there, and Hastings treats them well – the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which led to the French withdrawal, and the Geneva Conference that followed in particular. But those interested in the tragedy involving the French and the Vietnamese before the Americans took over will wish for more on the pre-1954 period, especially given that this author is at ease in French.
Where Hastings shines is in his ability to let those who experienced the war tell their stories. Like Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in their recent PBS television documentary The Vietnam War (2017), Hastings eschews big historical explanations in order to let those who lived through the conflict explain what they saw and how they feel. And they deserve to be heard. The pages of Hastings’s narrative are filled with the voices of more American veterans of the Vietnam War, civilians and combatants alike, than any previous work. And thanks to the generous translations provided by Merle Pribbenow, he brings more Vietnamese into the picture. All of this makes for a fast-paced, poignant and often eye-opening read, which reminded me of some of the sequences in Burns and Novick’s series.
But without a big argument to hang it all on, one wonders, towards the end of this tome, what this epic tragedy was all about. Mindless destruction and death have only so much explanatory power. How could the Vietnamese communists have held on against such vast American power and won? Hastings apparently realised this too, since he decided to add an afterword. In it, he lists for the reader the rather familiar explanations for American failure in Vietnam: the ‘fatally flawed’ US commitment and containment policies; the nature of American domestic politics, which made the execution of such a war difficult; the deluded use of ‘military force’; the ‘inadequacy of the Saigon regime’. Hastings criticises the Left’s naivety for adulating ‘a fundamentally inhumane totalitarian regime’, but he never really explains the inner workings of the Vietnamese communist war machine, especially its mass mobilisation techniques, and why it prevailed against the French and the Americans in the same way that Mao Zedong’s model apparently worked against the Chinese Nationalists and, before that, the Soviet one succeeded during the Russian Civil War and the Second World War. Echoing Frances FitzGerald’s influential ‘mandate of heaven’ argument in Fire in the Lake, Hastings apparently believes that the communists persevered against all the odds because they possessed a ‘mandate’ – ‘a monopoly of patriotism’, as one of his Vietnamese voices puts it. They won because they embodied deep-seated Vietnamese patriotism.
Ultimately, the ‘epic tragedy’ trope allows Hastings to remind the reader that the Americans have not learned the lessons of Vietnam. Their wars in the Middle East and Central Asia today prove it. To make his point, he gives the last word in his book to Walt Boomer, an American veteran and former general in the Marine Corps. ‘What was it all about?’ muses Boomer. ‘It bothers me that we didn’t learn a lot. If we had, we would not have invaded Iraq.’ As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become the USA’s longest ones, Max Hasting’s Vietnam offers a lesson about the use and misuse of American power.