The Vietnam War was the greatest disaster in the history of American foreign policy. The conflict altered the direction of post-World War II American society and politics in profoundly significant ways. It shook the nation to its foundations, exacerbating already deep cleavages in American society between liberals and conservatives, young and old, black and white. It left the country baffled and ambivalent about its role in the world as defender of democratic institutions and ideas, and widened the credibility gap between the government and the people.
Twenty years ago journalist Arnold Isaacs wrote that our misguided adventure in Southeast Asia “lingers in the national memory, brooding over our politics, our culture, and our long, unfinished debate over who we are and what we believe.” The war still looms large in the national consciousness, which explains in part why the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on the war, first aired in the fall of 2017, re-ignited the on-going national conversation about the conflict, and Mark Bowden’s long-awaited history of the Battle of Hue, a brutal slugging match that serves as an apt metaphor for the entire war, made the bestseller lists.
The publication of Max Hastings’ Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 is an important event for serious students of the war and concerned citizens alike. Hastings, a British journalist who also happens to be a leading historian of modern warfare, has produced a superbly crafted account of conflict in Vietnam from the initial assent to power of Ho Chi Minh’s communist revolutionaries right after World War II, up through April 30, 1975, when the last helicopters lifted off the roof of the American Embassy Saigon, drawing to a successful conclusion the communists’ 30-year quest to unite the country under the mantle of their leadership.
And what a heartbreaking and harrowing story he tells! A story, for the Americans at least, of good intentions gone grotesquely awry in so many different ways that it could make one weep. Even as U.S. forces inflict massive casualties on the communists in the big battles of the Ia Drang, Tet, Khe Sanh, and the Easter Offensive of 1972, a miasma of doom and futility seems to pervade every aspect of the American war effort. In the process of unraveling what went wrong—and writing with the lapidary prose of a first-rate novelist—Hastings captures the bewildering sights and sounds of disaster in the making. This is a wrenching and powerful book.
The author evokes the bizarre atmospherics of the war better than any other narrative history of the subject that I know, surpassing even Stanley Karnow’s 1983 classic, Vietnam: A History:
Everything about the war was hard—vehicles, guns, shells, planes, body armor, bullets, c-ration cans, Conexes, the will of the enemy—everything except human flesh and most of the ground underfoot. Soldiers and civilians were carpeting the country with a network of bases, runways, all-weather roads, and PXes—Post Exchange stores. For every American serviceman, a hundred pounds of supplies and equipment was delivered daily, straining to the breaking point the port and airfield facilities of a relatively primitive Asian land. Theft on an industrial scale became endemic. Trucks bouncing breakneck along potholed roads brushed aside peasants and their lumbering water buffalo, while low-flying Hueys blew dust clouds over countless washing lines. . . . .
Many Americans found it impossible to regard thatch-and-bamboo huts, their dim interiors boasting only a few pots and beds of woven straw, as the homes of people deserving of respect. Vietnamese watched with apparent indifference as soldiers or Marines probed their walls and straw piles with bayonets. [Marine Lt.] Phil Caputo wrote, “I smiled stupidly and made a great show of tidying up the mess. See lady, we’re not like the French. We’re All-American good-guy GI Joes. You should learn to like us.” Caputo was dismayed to discover that not all his Marines… had a store of humanity as impressive as their combat skills… His sergeant observed that “before you leave here, sir, you’re going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen-year-old American boy.”
Sir Max has mastered the voluminous scholarship on the war of the last twenty years, and put his learning to good use here. The new scholarship has radically altered and deepened our understanding of the motivations and objectives of all the major participants—Vietnamese, French, American, Russian, and Chinese. He has integrated the findings of the professors with his own penetrating, original insights and offers them up in a wry, ironic tone that seems entirely appropriate to his vast and complicated subject.
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975, goes a long way toward putting to rest a number of common myths and misconceptions in the process, especially the old saw that the United States could have won the war if the media had been “on the team,” and the American military had been given a free hand to fight the war without the strictures placed on it by civilian policymakers who’d never seen a shot fired in anger. This, Hastings makes clear, is the sort of wishful thinking that proved lethal to the American cause while the battles were still raging.
In this account, American misperceptions, arrogance, and grotesque misjudgment, coupled with the fecklessness and lassitude of our allies in Saigon, all but doomed the “Free World” allies to failure from the get go. But it must be said: Hastings recognizes the victorious North Vietnamese regime for what it was—a deeply repressive, “inhumane” society with no respect for human rights whatsoever. He’s appalled by Hanoi’s willingness to sacrifice millions of their own countrymen to achieve their ends. Yet he can’t help but admire the Revolutionary forces’ level of commitment, and their extraordinary skills in waging a unique and highly effective blend of political and military warfare against two great Western powers.
For better or worse, by the time the United States entered the conflict as a major player in 1965, it was the communists who best spoke to the aspirations of the ordinary Vietnamese people, and harnessed their energy. Their voice was the voice was of Vietnamese patriotism, and Ho Chi Minh was its embodiment.
Moreover, the communists understood far better than the Americans the strengths and weaknesses of all the players. They grasped that the political struggle over the "hearts and minds" of the people of South Vietnam, as well as the battle to shape the views of American and world public opinion about the conflict, were ultimately more important than military operations in determining the outcome of the war. On the battlefield, at the conference table, in the crucial battle to shape world opinion, they were extraordinarily tough, flexible, and resilient. They had to be.
This is popular history at its best, as the author seamlessly shifts from judicious, well-paced discussions of the politics of decision-making in Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi, to harrowing accounts of battles, small and large, leavened with scores of sharply drawn biographical sketches and anecdotes from participants that speak to many of the smaller, haunting truths of war.
“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make,” writes the great philosopher of war, Carl Von Clausewitz, “is to establish… the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” Hastings makes a persuasive case that, in late 1964 and early 1965, Lyndon Johnson and his advisers gravely misjudged “the kind of war on which they were embarking.” When all is said and done, it seems official Washington was unable to grasp that the crisis in Vietnam was not fundamentally a part of an international communist conspiracy against the West orchestrated by Moscow and Beijing. Rather, it was a complicated civil conflict between Vietnamese, in which communist-led revolutionaries with impeccable nationalist credentials were locked in conflict with a Saigon regime with weak credentials, made weaker still by the infusion of U.S. military forces and the inevitable takeover of management of the war by Washington.
The perception of Vietnam in Washington was bizarrely unreal, and would stay that way, with tragic results for all parties. The Johnson administration consistently viewed the conflict through the distorting lens of Cold War politics. In the collective understanding of official Washington, Vietnam was not really a place with its own history, culture, and unique national characteristics. Rather, it was a remote part of the developing world, whose importance rested entirely on the fact that monolithic world communism was on the march there.
The Johnson administration, in short, was blind to the political and social dynamics of the struggle. In fact, writes Hastings, American policy from the beginning to the end “was rooted in the demands of U.S. domestic politics rather than a realistic assessment of the interests or the wishes of the Vietnamese people.”
Little wonder things came to grief.
Many historians of the war have argued that the “cold war consensus” in domestic politics pushed Johnson and his advisers inexorably toward major war, leaving them, in effect, no other viable choice. According to their argument, the United States had accepted responsibility for challenging the expansion of Communism in Europe by 1947. By the mid ’60s, China had replaced the Soviet Union as the engine of communist revolution, and Vietnam had become the crucial battleground. If the Johnson administration failed to meet the challenge in Indochina, it would face even more difficult challenges elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The balance of forces between the free world and the communists would shift markedly in the wrong direction. Therefore, the United States had no other option but to stand firm in Southeast Asia.
Drawing on the path-breaking work of historian Fredrik Logevall among others, Hastings demolishes this line of argument. Too many influential people and institutions—including George Kennan, the father of the containment doctrine, Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, the British counterinsurgency guru Robert Thompson, The Washington Post and The New York Times editorial writers—had put forward compelling arguments for moving along a political track toward disengagement for the Johnson administration to have been “locked in” to pressing ahead with war.
The cold war consensus was already in the process of breaking up as the Johnson administration slowly came to grips with the crisis in Vietnam. Thus, during the crucial decision-making period in 1964 and early 1965, Johnson had two viable options: take over the war, or disengage. He chose the former, when each and every day, the argument for choosing the latter became stronger.
Saigon’s failure to pull together and mount effective resistance against the insurgency after 10 years of advice and support gave the United States a superb rationale for extricating itself from Vietnam, to say the least. “There was more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions” than by hanging on to a lost cause, Kennan said at this crucial time. Saigon’s ability to carry on the fight with energy and determination had always been a prerequisite of American support. By late 1964, South Vietnam was not only losing the war; it lacked a functioning government. Vietnam, many wise men said, was already a lost cause, and had never been of more than marginal relevance to American security interests.
Cutting American losses made sense, for reasons aptly summarized by a senior communist cadre quoted in the book: “South Vietnam was a society without leadership and without direction—and these essentials the Americans could not provide. They could not impose order on chaos. And without a government that could claim at least some tatters of legitimacy and effectiveness, how could the U.S dare to commit its troops and its all-important prestige?”
The short answer to that pointed question: because of unmitigated arrogance and a mistaken belief that America could do whatever it set its mind to doing out there among the “little people.” On a more personal level, American forces in great numbers descended on Vietnam because Lyndon Baines Johnson lacked the moral courage to overcome his abiding fear that any sort of negotiated withdrawal would lead to his own political demise.
Misconceived wars lead to misconceived strategies. Almost nothing the Americans did worked, as many participants knew but few had the courage to admit at the time. Here is Hastings’ brilliant assessment of Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign meant to force Hanoi to the bargaining table:
By one of the larger in the war’s feast of ironies, Rolling Thunder did incomparably more harm to the government of Lyndon Johnson than to that of Le Duan. International and some U.S. domestic opinion recoiled from the mere fact of the bombing and was unimpressed by its moderation. Contrarily, Johnson faced fierce criticism from congressional hawks who wanted him to hit the enemy harder—to go for the jugular. When he sought credit for his humanity by staging a seasonal bombing pause between December 24, 1965 and January 31, 1966, this was greeted by familiar silence from Hanoi, scorn from the airmen, and worldwide indifference. The graduated escalation of air attacks provided communists with a gentle learning curve, which enabled them progressively to improve their air defenses and to develop countermeasures amid an ongoing drizzle of explosives rather than the monsoon that USAF and USN wished to unleash.
As for the standard American practice of laying on “harassment and interdiction” artillery fire on vast swaths of the landscape, Hastings observes, “Civilians suffered far more grievously from careless shelling than did the Vietcong fighters, who were surprised by how few casualties they received, if dug in.” The indiscriminate bombardments almost certainly made thousands of fence sitters among the peasantry into committed communist revolutionaries.
The “search and destroy” operations that were the centerpiece of America’s ground war created a massive refugee problem for Saigon, and did next to nothing to root out the communists’ shadow infrastructure in the villages.
Hastings presents the Saigon government’s leaders as woefully out of touch with the needs and desires of its own people, drenched in corruption and intrigue, and far more concerned with preserving their own power base in Saigon than fighting the Vietcong. There’s nothing new in this view, but the author’s well-chosen anecdotes drive home with some force how utterly dysfunctional and unresponsive the regime remained to its own people throughout the war.
Hastings is particularly adept at conveying the peculiar pathology of the U.S.-South Vietnamese relationship. “An extraordinary aspect of the decision making in Washington… was that the Vietnamese were seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon it. Successive administrations ignored any claims by the people who inhabited the battlefields to a voice in determining their own fate: business was done in a cocoon of Americanness.”
The concluding chapter, which contains some wise and considered reflections on the fate of the participants after the war, and the meaning of it all in the broad sweep of modern history, is a real gem. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy is without question the best narrative history of the war we have to date. It deserves a wide readership, and I’ve little doubt it will find one.