Max Hastings' Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 is his best book yet
21 September 2018
The fall of Saigon to the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in 1975 marked the end of a brutal 30-year conflict in which both French and US forces had been humiliated, as some people saw it, by peasant revolutionaries. It produced in America a long period of soul-searching that found expression in some impressive anti-war literature and a host of brilliant films, such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July.
Then came two events that altered the mood: the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and the successful US military ventures in Kuwait and Iraq. Suddenly, there were no more mea culpa books and films. America and capitalism could feel good about themselves again.
The post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq changed all that, and the time is now right for a proper historical overview of the most significant conflict since World War II and Max Hastings' epic new history will surely set the benchmark for years to come.
One of the overarching themes of Hastings' book is that neither side emerges from the story with much credit. Many in the West - particularly Left-wing intellectuals - were quick to assume that if their own country " had embraced a bad cause, the other side's must be a good one". Yet, as Hastings points out, the North's victory in 1975 "caused the South Vietnamese people merely to exchange oppression by warlords and landlords in favour of even harsher subjection to disciples of Stalin".
By taking a long view of the conflict, Hastings demonstrates that nothing in history is inevitable. Vietnam's subjection to communism, for example, might have been averted if France, its original colonial overlord, had announced its intention to quit the country in 1945, while at the same time embarking upon "a crash transition process to identify credible indigenous leaders and prepare them to govern, as did the British before quitting Malaya".
Instead, still smarting from the humiliation of the Nazi wartime occupation, the French tried to regain control of Vietnam by defeating the communist Viet Minh insurgents, thus inaugurating a decade-long "dirty war" that cost 90,000 French lives and ended in humiliating defeat.
Not that Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, had it all his own way. If he had been a Western general, writes Hastings, his succession of crippling defeats in 1951 would have cost him his job. But, crucially, he retained the confidence of his political chief, Ho Chi Minh.
Moreover, the significance of Giap's greatest victory - at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 - was the beginning of the end for the French, who had launched it with the "explicit purpose of bringing the Viet Minh to battle", and then lost by "epic bungling". Within a year, the French had withdrawn from Vietnam and the country was partitioned near the 17th Parallel between the communist North and the pro-West South.
The French experience in Vietnam should have served as a warning. It was ignored because, for the US, much bigger Cold War issues were at play. As early as 1947, Harry S Truman had told Congress that it must ever be US policy "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure". This so-called Truman doctrine was chiefly directed against international communism, particularly in Vietnam where, from 1950, the US was paying for France's war.
As France faced defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Dwight Eisenhower coined the term "domino theory" to explain that if Vietnam was lost to the communists, the rest of south-east Asia would "go over very quickly". He even appealed to British PM Churchill to support the intervention by evoking their countries' shared endeavours in World War II. But Churchill would not bite. Having failed to save India for herself, he said, Britain was not about to save Indo-China for France.
Instead, successive US governments took a unilateral decision to support South Vietnam, first with money, then with troops, to prevent a communist takeover. One of the great counterfactuals of the war is: would the US have sent combat troops to Vietnam if John F Kennedy had not been assassinated in November 1963?
The answer, says Hastings, is yes. There is, he writes, "overwhelming" evidence "that the president's thinking was dominated by the requirements of his forthcoming re-election campaign", and that, as Kennedy put it to a friend: "I can't let Vietnam go to the Communists and then go and ask [American voters] to re-elect me."
Kennedy had already authorised the dispatch of 16,000 US "advisors", and it was their presence in Vietnam, says Hastings, that tied the hands of his successor, Lyndon B Johnson.
Hastings is excellent on the motivations of politicians and generals on both sides. But he also charts the grim experience of war through the eyes of Viet Cong guerrillas, NVA soldiers, American grunts and Vietnamese civilians. I haven't read a better description of the challenges GIs faced in trying to stay alive in an unfamiliar environment than the 12 pages that Hastings devotes to the subject: "It was tough for junior leaders to exercise control in thick bush, where hand signals could not be seen and shouts were inaudible above a cacophony of exploding grenades, automatic fire, screams of pain and fear."
He reminds us that American troops won victories and inflicted heavy casualties on their opponents - particularly during the communist Tet Offensive of 1968. Yet this success was pyrrhic because it convinced many Americans, appalled by the carnage, that the war had to end. That it took another five years, and cost a further 22,000 American lives, before the last US soldier was withdrawn from Vietnam was because Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, did not think it was politically viable to abandon the South Vietnamese until he had agreed some form of political settlement with the communists. That the deal was unenforceable - and ultimately doomed South Vietnam - was not Nixon's concern.
Was the whole war pointless, as many believe? Not quite, says Hastings, as it may have saved Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and even Australia from communist domination.
"Yet in Vietnam, the American commitment was fatally flawed", writes Hastings, because it was founded "not upon the interests of the Vietnamese people, but instead on the perceived requirements of US domestic and foreign policy".
Hastings was one of the last war correspondents to be helicoptered out of Saigon as the city was about to fall. This personal experience lends colour to his account, but never compromises its objectivity. He has written many excellent histories, but this may be his best.
Exhaustively researched and superbly written, it is both a balanced and authoritative account of how and why the war unfolded as it did, and a gripping narrative on what it was like to take part. No villain - and there were many - escapes Hastings' censure; no political viewpoint emerges unscathed. This is history as it should be: objective, immersive and compelling.
'Vietnam' by Max Hastings is masterful account of the war
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings – review
Max Hastings has been going to the wars for close on half a century. Fascinated since he was a boy by all things military, he has reported with distinction on many conflicts as well as writing as a historian about those that occurred before his time. It has been an obsession, but one that he has nurtured into a major talent. He has long since shed the romantic view of combat evident in his early book on Yoni Netanyahu, the hero of Entebbe, to arrive at a more complex understanding of war, the nature of soldiering and the limits of military force.
Now he has turned his formidable guns on the Vietnam war, which so profoundly shaped the post-second world war era, gravely damaging a US that had previously had some claim to both moral and political world leadership. America’s fundamental mistake, as Hastings emphasises, was to think that military strength, however great, could make up for political failure. The anti-communist leanings of a substantial portion of the south’s population were not enough, in the absence of a worthwhile state, to ensure the survival of South Vietnam. The lessons of the war, needless to say, have been only half learned, not only by America but by a Russia that, in Afghanistan, repeated some of America’s Indochina mistakes, by a China even now holding down minorities by brute force and by a Vietnam still unable to fully relax its harsh grip on society.
Hastings himself says that “the literature of the Vietnam war is immense”. Why, then, add to it? It is a good question, but one to which his book provides a resounding answer. This is a work of considerable quality, marked by a possibly unique combination of military expertise, historical grasp and journalistic skill in unearthing hitherto undiscovered human stories of the war, as well as judiciously selecting from among others already known. It helps, too, not to be an American, because that lends a certain useful distance. There are some omissions: little, for example, on Truong Chinh’s malign influence on North Vietnam in the early years, and no mention of Bui Tin, the Northern soldier and author who has cast so much light on Hanoi’s policy choices. Such cavils aside, Hastings presents a vast panorama, admirably balanced and well managed, which does not neglect the geopolitical or the strategic but vividly brings home the reality of the war as experienced by individuals.
Those who figure include American officers and officials interviewed by Hastings, but also Russian air defence advisers, Chinese railway supervisors, British spies and Hollywood stars. Hastings expands the war’s cast to bring in some whose testimony has not previously been fully explored as well as some until now unrecorded. Many stories are of death, maiming, rape and destruction; others scalp-prickling tales of courage or cowardice under fire; others still of moments of decency and empathy. There are also stories that are funny, as in the case of the South Vietnamese general who forgot to arrive in time for a planned coup, or that of the gourmet North Vietnamese colonel, sick of the privations of the Ho Chi Minh trail, who wrote more in his journal about rare good meals than he did about the hard fighting he endured.
Alongside these vignettes are accounts of battles, not only of the best-known encounters, but of engagements now barely remembered, which Hastings covers partly for that reason but also because they were symptomatic of what was wrong with the American way of war. At times, commanders exhibited, he writes, “folly of Crimean proportions”. His judgment here is typical of the severity with which he deals with the stupidities, lies and crimes of everybody from the level of the White House and the Dragon Court, the north’s military headquarters, on down to US army lieutenants who wouldn’t come out of their bunkers or the Vietcong guerrilla who slit the throats of a family of nine, including six children.
It is a severity tempered with understanding, but Hastings makes even a reader familiar with these events grasp anew that it is entirely justified. This was a truly terrible war, marked from the outset by gross deceptions as well as daily cruelties. It was never more terrible and more shaming than in its last phase, when the Americans fought on, then encouraged their South Vietnamese allies to fight on, well knowing that the war was lost.
The obduracy of Le Duan, the dominant figure in the North Vietnamese leadership, clinging to the fantasy of a “general uprising” in the south and heedless of casualties as he ordered repeated general offensives, deserves condemnation. Yet the callousness of Nixon and Kissinger, presiding, as Hastings writes, over “gratuitous years of carnage, merely to conceal from the electorate, for their own partisan purpose, the inevitability of humiliation in Indochina”, seems worse. Le Duan had an attainable objective, the independence of a united Vietnam. But the Americans had by that stage no purpose other than to distract attention from defeat at whatever cost in blood. It was a disgraceful end to an intervention conceived in ignorance, based on false premises and conducted with increasing disregard for reality on the ground. It is a very sad story and one that Hastings tells very well.
Martin Woollacott is a former foreign correspondent for the Guardian.
•Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings is published by William Collins (£30). To order a copy for £25.80 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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