Monday, October 29, 2018

Something New


We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“VIETNAM – AN EPIC TRAGEDY 1945-1975” by Max Hastings (Harper Collins, $NZ39:95)

In one of the photographic sections of Max Hastings’ Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy 1945-75, there is a page labelled “Three images that crippled the US cause in Vietnam”. The images appear in nearly every documentary film or book about the Vietnam War and they have burnt their way into the memories of the couple of generations.

A Buddhist monk immolates himself in protest at both the war and the lack of Buddhist voices in the South Vietnamese government. 

A South Vietnamese police chief summarily shoots a Vietcong after the Tet Offensive. 

A naked little girl and other children run down a road, crying after being hit by napalm. 

All three images were so powerful and so horrible that they intensified protest against the American prosecution of the war and they still dominate the way the war is popularly interpreted. This, our guts tell us, was a brutal and pointless war which achieved nothing.

It is quite possible that this judgment is valid, but three images alone, no matter how powerful, cannot possibly tell the whole truth about a war – and especially the whole truth about a war that was fought, on and off, over thirty years from the first French attempt to re-assert colonial rule in 1945 to the final collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.

A massive piece of work (nearly 700 pages before endnotes, index and very long bibliography) Max Hastings’ Vietnam, An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 has the virtues of both good history and the best journalism. Hastings gives in detail the major military campaigns of this thirty-year conflict, showing more consideration for tactics, strategy and material facts than many slimmer accounts have done. But he is also aware of the political manoeuvring, the changes in alliances, and the social cost as well as the huge body count. (70,000 French died in their Vietnamese war; the total of American dead in their long engagement was 58,000; and in the whole thirty years of conflict, between 2 million and 4 million Vietnamese died.) As well as consulting all the material in his formidable bibliography, the journalist side of Hastings allows him to draw on many years of interviews with North and South Vietnamese soldiers and politicians, former NLF people (National Liberation Front = “Vietcong”), French colonials, American policy-makers and spooks, and other journalists. While the superstructure is solid history, the book is also heavy with vivid anecdotes and reminiscences.

In broadest outline, the story Hastings tells is a familiar one. From the mid-nineteenth century, French colonial rule of Indochina was generally abysmal. After the Second World War, the French tried for ten years to rebuild their old colonial empire. From 1945 to 1954, during the High Cold War, this doomed enterprise was largely paid for by American money. Finally came the debacle of Dienbienphu in 1954, then partition, to which the North Vietnamese communist government agreed, thinking that it would be a temporary arrangement until the French left. There was relative peace in the late 1950s, as the North Vietnamese had not yet embraced a “forward” policy; but by the early 1960s, conflict intensified. 16,000 American “advisers” were in Vietnam when JFK died. Within a couple of years, the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” gave President Johnson, seeking to show that he was “tough on communism”, the excuse to escalate the war and put boots on the ground . American marines landed at Danang in 1965 and the war intensified as thousands of Americans were now rotated through the country.

The general drift of Hastings’ narrative is that once the US committed infantry, they came to seem an army of occupation by many Vietnamese who would otherwise have been anti-communist. “Many harsh things may justly be said about what communist fighters did in Vietnam,” writes Hastings, “ but their footprint on the ground was light as a feather by comparison with that made by the boots of the American military. The very presence of affluent Westerners, armed or unarmed, uniformed or otherwise, could not fail to exercise a polluting influence on a predominantly rural and impoverished Asian society.” (p.118)

 American attempts to build up a credible South Vietnamese army (ARVN) had very mixed results. Too many ARVN personnel were not really interested in fighting and (justifiably or otherwise) they were often viewed with contempt by American servicemen – exacerbating existing racial tensions. American support for a succession of compliant South Vietnamese leaders led to great moral corruption. Despite the many atrocities carried out by the insurgent Vietcong in the south, largely uncommitted peasantry became alienated from successive leaders in Saigon. Says Hastings:

While the country retained peerless natural beauties, much of it was polluted by the war, in a fashion evidenced by its seventy-seven orphanages and two hundred thousand child delinquents. Some farmers, weary of seeing their paddy fields wrecked by the passage of military vehicles, abandoned growing rice, sustaining the drift to the cities. A permanent chemical pall hung over Saigon and its adjoining military suburbs… Almost every street was rutted and potholed by neglect, excesses of climate and traffic, the last increased from 1967 onwards by a tsunami of Honda mopeds. Piles of cement and rubbish were as ubiquitous as security chicanes, barbed wire and belching black truck diesel smoke.” (p.359) Hastings gives equally unflattering views on the moral corruption of the American forces, the huge use of drugs by servicemen, frequent “fragging” of officers by disgruntled grunts, prostitution on a massive scale in the cities, and other effects of the American presence.

Meanwhile antiwar movements grew in the West. The US leadership’s strategy was too often dominated by considerations of what the American electorate could bear, or what would win a president favour as the next election loomed. So the war stumbled on through Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon until American disengagement and the collapse of the South in the face of North Vietnam’s armies. Despite romanticised versions sometimes heard on the Left, it was not a guerrilla campaign that defeated the South, but a North Vietnamese army equipped with masses of materiel supplied by China and the Soviet Union.

That is the book if seen only as an historical chronicle, but Hastings has particular themes which I can only summarise thus:

First there is the contrast beween a cohesive North Vietnamese communist government, which had the clear, simple and comprehensible policy of uniting the country; and a wavering South Vietnamese government, which did not have the confidence of its people, never worked out any coherent social policies and rapidly came to be seen as a mere tool of the US. Hastings is fully aware of the brutality of the North (of which more later), but he makes painfully clear the “revolving door” aspect of leadership in the South, as Americans nudged a succession of unimpressive men though South Vietnam’s presidential palace. There was undeniable American collusion in the assassination, in 1963, of the South Vietnamese leader Diem and then the dreary succession of “Big” Mihn, then Nguyen Khahn, then Nguyen Cao Ky, and finally Nguyen Van Thieu, none of whom had a democratic mandate and none of whom made any policies that might gain them popular support. Only Thieu deserves some credit for his calm demeanour, although even that cracked as the war neared its end.

Next there is the matter of great deception as practised by American leadership. Nobody now can credibly doubt that the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, justifying American intervention, was largely a fiction used by Johnson to boost his popularity before an election. Hastings says his advisers (especially Robert McNamara) did not correct exaggerated misinformation about the incident and “allowed him to elevate into a major drama a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.” (pp.190-191) When the American government realised that the ground war was unwinnable, they stepped up a massive bombing campaign in the hope, not of gaining any military advantage, but of forcing North Vietnam to negotiate. By 1972, when Nixon and Kissinger bargained with North Vietnam over how American troops would be withdrawn, they were basically saving face, claiming to have left behind a South Vietnamese army capable of defending itself. They knew full well that they were deserting an ally, but hoped the North Vietnamese would agree to delay any major offensive for a suitable amount of time, so that the withdrawal could seem honourable.

So far, this account will have many readers nodding their heads and claiming that they already understood all this. But Hastings also emphasises other matters that will damage some people’s received image of the war. He notes the extent to which, from 1954 onwards, the war was a civil war, not just an affair of imperialists against national liberation. There really was strong anti-communist feeling among millions of Vietnamese. Apprehension about the type of state a communist regime would impose was not confined only to Americans and a few privileged lackeys. One million Vietnamese fled from the north and Ho Chi Minh’s government after the Geneva agreement partitioned the country in 1954. In the American phase of the long conflict, over 100,000 defected to the South from the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong. The North at first expected a massive uprising in the South, led by the Vietcong, to overthrow the government of the South – but the attempt at such a concerted uprising (the Tet Offensive) failed, as the mass of peasants were as indifferent to the communist cause as they were to the Saigon government. As Hastings shows in his final chapters, despite their well-founded reputation for often lacking the will to fight, the ARVN, no longer supported by American troops, fought many battles as the NVA invaded in 1975, and was able to prevail in some. This suggests that many of those ARVN soldiers did not want a communist victory. Finally, despite what some mythology says, not all those who fled (or wanted to flee) in 1975 were bar girls and secret police. Thousands of Vietnamese knew exactly what a communist government would entail.

Hastings does not short-change in relating American atrocities – the burning of hamlets to no purpose; the killing, on mere suspicion, of thousands who were non-combatants; and scandals like the My Lai massacre of 1969. Where he differs from other chroniclers, however, is his readiness to point out the equal, and probably much greater, ruthlessness of both the North Vietnamese leadership and the Vietcong .

The merits of rival causes are never absolutes,” he tells us on the very first page of his introduction,  “… Only simpletons of the political right and left dare to suggest that in Vietnam either side possessed a monopoly of virtue.” (pp.xix – xx)

In the late 1950s, after the French had been ousted, North Vietnam’s communist government did not have a “forward” policy towards the South. It was partly exhausted by the war with the French, and partly still expecting an uprising in the South. In this time, despite all the deficiencies of the rule of Diem, the South prospered and was able to feed itself, while collectivisation in the North caused mass famines. Says Hastings:

While today the failure of collectivisation is apparent in every society where it has been tried, in the twentieth century it was probably historically inescapable that impoverished rural societies, China and Vietnam notable among them, should attempt inplementation of the theories of Marx and Lenin, in order to discover for themselves their unworkability. The human cost was appalling – but so was that of the American attempt to prevent such an experiment by force of arms.” (p.229)

The benign image of “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh belied the reality of a single-minded Stalinist who believed in mass “re-education” for those who did not comply with his state, mass imprisonment for dissenters and total state-controlled censorhip. Yet he did realise that his country was in no condition to pursue all-out war. For most of the war with the Americans, Ho was sidelined by the more bellicose Le Duan and Le Duc Tho and he became little more than a propaganda figurehead. Says Hastings:

Le Duan was the principal personality driving renewal of the unification struggle: it is hard to exaggerate his personal role in what followed. As for his politburo comrades, it seems legitimate to speculate that some favoured war in the South as a means of escaping acknowledgement of the failure of their policies at home; of instilling a new sense of purpose in Ho Chi Minh’s threadbare people. It was their good fortune that the ‘imperialist’ foe, indispensible to such a regime as their own, had harnessed its fortunes to Ngo Dihn Diem, a dead donkey if ever there was one. The war that now gained momentum was such as neither side deserved to win.” (p.108)

All of which brings me to the last major issue with which Hastings deals. This is the major matter of perception. A totalitarian regime, such as Ho Chi Minh’s, has strict and unquestioned control of all mass media, and certainly does not allow news photographers and cameramen to rove relatively freely, reporting what they will. In this respect, as Hastings notes a number of times, we of the television age have a completely unblanced view of where much of the war’s brutality lay. Further, he remarks: “Relative American openness contrasted with the communist commitment to secrecy, in my view constitutes a claim upon a fragment of moral high ground. The egregious error committed by US statesmen and commanders are not that of lying to the world, but rather of lying to themselves.” (p.xxiii) In the terrorisation of peasants, summary executions of those who did not support them, and lack of scruples about forcible mass “re-education”, the communist forces probably exceeded the Americans and ARVNs in brutality. But no cameras were watching them. And what (Western) cameras did see of them was often misleading. By all military measures, the great Tet Offensive was a disaster for the communists, basically destroying the Vietcong and showing the there was no possibility of a mass communist uprising in the South. Hastings notes:

In the aftermath of Tet, morale slumped among the NVA and Vietcong, who acknowledged a military defeat that had cost them twenty thousand dead. Hanoi’s official history concedes ‘the battlefield had temporarily turned in favour of the enemy… Our posture and strength were seriously weakened.’ By the communists’ own estimates, exposure to US firepower had cost some guerrilla units 60-70 per cent of their strength.” (p.413)

And yet television news showed the West images of Saigon under attack, Vietcong breaking into the grounds of the US embassy, and firefights going on across the city. The impression was created that the South had suffered a dreadful reverse and was already defeated. It was at this time that terrible images showed a police chief summarily executing a Vietcong by a pistol shot to the head. As Hastings explains (p.403), the Vietcong in question had personally killed an ARVN officer, his wife, his six children and his 80-year-old mother – but there was no camera around to see these acts.

Hastings is definitely NOT making the case, still heard from some American hawks, that “the media lost the war for us”. As a long-time journalist himself, he applauds the skill and often courage of journalists who penetrated official lies and brought the truth about the darkest elements of the war to public attention. But he is aware that only one side’s crimes were thus exposed, and that even Western journalists of high repute were prone to accepting uncritically official North Vietnamese propaganda. The wastefulness and inaccuracy of many US air strikes in North Vietnam are beyond dispute, but they had far greater effect than was admitted in the handouts from Hanoi that Harrison Salisbury quoted as objective fact in the New York Times. (p.323)

I spent three whole days reading Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy 1945-75 with the same sort of horrible fascination that I read Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy [his massive study of the whole course of the Russian Revolution - and the best single-volume account on the subject] or Laurence Rees’ The Holocaust – a New History. It is shocking, often depressing, and compulsive reading. It will, naturally, cause annoyance to those who wish to see the war in more simplistic terms, whether they are unreconstructed American “hawks” or romantic leftists with sanitised ideas of “Uncle Ho” and how the Vietcong went about its business. I have now looked on a number of websites and seen the diversity of reactions. On the Guardian website alone, you can find one review by Martin Wollacott that fully endorses this book’s panoramic view; and another very grumpy review by Jonathan Steele claiming (inaccurately, I believe) that the book’s main purpose is to “exonerate the US military.”

In other words, it’s a book nuanced enough to force readers to do some thinking.

Footnote: Unlike other (American or British) chroniclers of the Vietnam War, Hastings acknowledges that the US had a few (a very few) allies. He notes the presence of Australian troops and remarks: “They towed in their wake the New Zealand government, which was convinced that no good could come out of the war, but felt obliged to follow the lead of its much larger neighbour.”(p.239)  Later he gives ten pages to “Aussies and Kiwis” (pp.460-470) although all his informants and interviewees for this section appear to have been Australian. His comments on New Zealanders are only generic ones. Perhaps this is fair as, at any time, there were over 4,500 Aussies in Vietnam and only about 500 New Zealanders.

            This has a personal element for me. One of my elder brothers, Piers, a career army officer, (see my eulogy for him here Goodbye Soldier) fresh out of military college, served for a year-and-a-half in Vietnam, I believe mainly with a New Zealand artillery battery at Bien Hoa. It was interesting to me, as a youngster, to see how his attitudes to the war changed. When he first returned to New Zeland, he was still idealistic about the war, being convinced that a rigged “election” held by one of South Vietnam’s leaders was a real sign of democracy. He said “I saw farmers and peasants and middle-class people and prostitutes voting at the booths.” But only a few years later, now out of Vietnam and learning how the war was going, he was much more cynical and said “If the politicians want a bloody war, they can have one.” Still later, as a senior officer, he was, like many other former combatants, an honoured guest in unified Vietnam, and was shown respectfully around battlefields (including Dienbienphu, Keh Sahn and sites further south) by Vietnamese officers who were perfectly happy to discuss their own, and their emeny’s, strengths and weaknesses in tactics and strategy. Like communist China, communist Vietnam welcomes tourists and their Western currencies and has accepted much private enterpise, having ditched dogmatic collectivisation while remaining a one-party stat.

By the way, Max Hastings points out that most US infantry served at most six months with a company before being shifted to staff roles and then sent home. He comments caustically: “Maybe two thirds of the men who came home calling themselves veterans – entitled to wear the medal and talk about their PTSD troubles – had been exposed to no greater risk than a man might get from ill-judged sex or ‘bad shit’ drugs.” (p.249) This crack has caused great offence among some American reviewers, but it squares with my brother’s tales of Aussies and Kiwis doing 18-month stretches in the field while Americans were rotated through active service at a much faster rate.


  1. Ahhh balanced analysis coupled with old-fashioned facts, supported by extensive quotes from a source. I almost forgot how good it is to read something like this. Thank you, Dr Reid.

    Ryan Wood

  2. I have this on my nightstand now, steeling myself to tackle it. Thanks for the head start!