Insight among mayhem
he 50th anniversary of the Vietnam war has produced an outpouring of books, along with Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour television spectacular, which sparked in the US yet another round of heated debate on the war. Max Hastings’s fast-paced and often compelling narrative will rank as one of the best works of this half-century reappraisal.
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy is a monumental undertaking. Many books about the war analyse key policy decisions. Others discuss military operations; still others recount personal experiences. Hastings does all three in a single volume, although he gives greatest attention to the on-the-ground activities of North and South Vietnamese, NLF and NVA, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders.
Americans usually date their Vietnam war from 1961, when John F. Kennedy drastically escalated the US commitment, or from Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 decisions to bomb North Vietnam and send combat troops to the South. Hastings treats the first and second Indo-China wars as a single entity. The conflict begins with Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence from France in September 1945 and ends with the fall of Saigon in April 1975.
Controversy raged during the war itself, continued long after it ended, and persists a halfcentury later. Hastings tackles the key issues head on. Why did the US spend 58,000 lives and an estimated $US150 billion on an area so remote and seemingly insignificant?
He stresses Cold War exigencies and above all US domestic politics. There is no Ronald Reagan-like ‘‘noble cause” here, no Burns’s good intentions gone awry. From Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, US leaders escalated the commitment rather than be ‘‘seen to quit, fail, or lose … to the communists”, while ignoring the needs and interests of the Vietnamese people.
Hastings is right in emphasising domestic politics. What he does not always provide is the unique context that helps explain each of the major decisions.
There is no mention, for example, of the in- Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 tense pressure on Washington from Paris and London in 1948 and 1949 to help stave off a French defeat in Vietnam, the last time Britain would urge US escalation.
He is unsparing in assessing the reasons for American failure in Vietnam. Americans fought the way they knew how to fight in an area and type of war singularly inappropriate for it. They relied on air power, artillery and chemicals laden with dioxin, all of which wreaked massive destruction on the country they were trying to save and alienated the people whose hearts and minds they sought to win.
They thrust aside the Saigon government, for which many Americans had contempt, and its army, in which they had no confidence. They inundated South Vietnam with money, materiel and men, undermining an already fragile social and political fabric.
The book also poses a question Americans seldom ask: how did a backward, postcolonial nation such as North Vietnam ultimately prevail in a war with the world’s greatest power? Hastings singles out the iron will of Hanoi’s leaders, especially Le Duan, who wrested leadership from Ho Chi Minh as early as 1960.
Even after the massive end-the-war offensives of 1964, 1968 and 1972 failed miserably,
Max Hastings’s book provides a great amount of detail into the on-the-ground combat