Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975
Williams Collins Publishing
‘…the American commitment was fatally flawed by its foundation not upon the interests of the Vietnamese people, but instead on the perceived requirements of US domestic and foreign policy, containment of China foremost among them. The decisions for escalation by successive administrations command the bewilderment of posterity, because key players recognised the inadequacy of the Saigon regime upon which they depended to provide an indigenous façade for an American edifice.’
As always when reading a book on this scale, I am blown away by the scale of research and the sheer weight of the project. How does a person find time in their life to put together something of such breadth? Needless to say, Max Hastings has done so, alongside being a journalist and editor of two major newspapers. I can never imagine myself becoming such an authority on a subject that I could write a 700-word-plus book on that subject. Nor is the book dense or monotonous. It takes us from the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954 through to the fall of Saigon in 1975, brilliantly weaving together political and military narrative with the personal triumphs and tragedies of American soldiers, the Vietcong, and North Vietnamese peasants.
Building on the expanse of literature already available on the Vietnam war, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of stereotyping the North Vietnamese as noble savages fighting against a bloated and arrogant occupying American force. Hastings just about avoids this by explaining the vice-like grip on information and news that the North Vietnamese held. This was in contrast to the Americans, who were followed around by an enthusiastic and critical press, and whose every atrocity and blunder was broadcast around the world, quickly losing them the war for hearts and minds. Hastings fleshes out the semi-mythical NVA jungle fighters. He reveals them to be riven with ideological doubt, just like their American counterparts. Promised vast tracts of land should they win the war, the NVA wept, mourned, and defected. Their superiors were just vastly better at preserving a party line than were the U.S.
Along with giving voice to countless personal insights into the war, perhaps the task that Hastings achieves most comprehensively is the exploration of the mindset which prompted the deaths of over 58,000 Americans. With the self-satisfied luxury of hindsight, every decision to increase U.S. troop commitment and to get more involved in a war on foreign soil seems like absolutely folly. However, given the intersectionality provided by the Cold War, the domestic politics of Kennedy and Nixon, and the cultural complexity of Vietnam itself, one can perhaps understand if not condone the reasoning behind the American’s unwillingness to admit defeat. It is in his charting of the inevitable death spiral of defeat that Hasting’s writing is at its most emotive as below:
‘On that final day of the evacuation, shamefaced CIA staff listened to the bleats and whistles of unanswered radios in the operations room, static-crackling pleas for help on every channel, coming from all over Vietnam: ‘I’m Mr Han, the translator…’ Frank Snepp called these ‘soundmares’. It was never plausible that the Americans could conduct an ordered extraction of all those Vietnamese linked to the US, even had the ambassador displayed greater foresight. Instead, vast numbers of panic-stricken people embarked on escapes in ships and small craft of every shape and size that dotted the seas off South Vietnam through the weeks that followed; a few fortunate folk flew away.’
If I were to find a fault with the book, it would be that the latter stages seem to peter out without a satisfying conclusion for the reader. However, on reflection I am not sure how one would bring such a confused enterprise to a contained and meaningful end. It is to Hasting’s credit that the reader feels like such a gripping narrative deserves a clear winner and loser, something that is usually lacking in war. Perhaps it is fitting that the book ends with the rushed, frantic evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the personal narratives that gave it colour.
*Thanks for reading, folks. Image courtesy of http://www.pbs.org. Find my other reviews below…*
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order