A Review of “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975” by Max Hastings

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A detailed look at the Vietnam tragedy by author Max Hastings. Hastings effort is not simply a rehash of the American war effort but an attempt to look at all of the forces that converged, like a perfect storm, on Vietnam, causing death and misery, for the Vietnamese people. He begins with Ho Chi Minh, and takes us through the post World War II French reassertion of colonial rights in Vietnam. The French colonial regime was a precursor to the American effort many years later, suffering the same hubris, arrogance and stupidity that led to the failure of both. Hastings determination to show how this situation evolved, and how American administrations dating back to Harry Truman simply made error after error, is necessary to a full understanding of how the United States ended up with the disaster that was the war in Vietnam.

Hastings applies criticism across the board, not simply upon the U.S. He is harshly critical of the communist North, and takes a very different view of Ho Chi Minh than many. His criticism extends to the American left, who he accuses of taking a rose colored view of Ho and the communist North. There can be no doubt that the North engaged in brutal wartime tactics, and that the anti-war narrative largely omitted such acts. The miscalculations by the North were in fact numerous, and although Hastings is also very critical of the U.S. effort I think his strong anti-communist bent influences some of the writing. In spite of this Hastings is fair and evenhanded in his account and includes so much that readers can make up their own minds. as he begins, before the French get back after WWII, he relates this:

“The suddenness with which the war ended in August 1945 enabled Ho to seize the initiative, to fill a power vacuum that yawned widest in the north. His emissaries persuaded Bao Dai, Vietnam’s whimsical and indolent young puppet emperor, to write to the Paris government, asserting that the only way to safeguard France’s position was “ by frank and open recognition of the independence of Vietnam.” Gen. Charles de Gaulle, interim master in Paris, declined to respond to this missive but was obliged grudgingly to notice that, before abdicating on August 25, Bao Dai had invited Ho to form a government. The Vietminh leader marched his followers into Hanoi, Tonkin’s capital, and on September 2, 1945, proclaimed before a vast and ecstatic crowd in the city’s Ba Dinh Square the establishment of a Vietnamese state. He declared: “ The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated, our people have broken the fetters which for over a century have tied us down.”
The news was broadcast throughout the country, and a schoolboy who lived south of Hue later recalled, “ Our teachers were so happy. They told us we must go out and celebrate independence. They said that when we are old men .  .  . we must remember this as a day of celebration.” Ho in his speech quoted from the US Declaration of Independence and secured a propaganda coup when the OSS group allowed itself to be photographed saluting the Vietminh flag-raising ceremony. By chance, at that moment a flight of USAAF P-38 fighters roared overhead: in the eyes of thousands of beholders, the US thus laid its blessing upon the new government.
In truth, of course, a cluster of idealistic young State Department and OSS men merely exploited Washington’s lack of a policy to make their own weather. Patti, upon whose considerable vanity Ho played like a lutenist, described the Vietminh leader as “a gentle soul,” and another American said, ‘We felt that he was first a nationalist, second a communist.” The major admitted long afterward, “ I perhaps was somewhat naïve with respect to the intent and purpose in using the words [of the 1776 Declaration].  .  .  . But I felt very strongly that the Vietnamese had a legitimate gripe or claim, to really govern themselves. After all what was [the Second World] War all about?’”

“It seems narrowly possible that Vietnam’s subjection to communism could have been averted if France in 1945 had announced its intention to quit the country and embarked upon a crash transition process, to identify credible indigenous leaders and prepare them to govern, as did the British before quitting Malaya. Instead, however, the French chose to draft a long suicide note, declaring their ironclad opposition to independence. The colonialists’ intransigence conceded to Ho Chi Minh the moral high ground in the struggle that now began to unfold.”

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings

Despite Hastings aversion to the eventual communist victory he freely points out that a multitude of errors by French, and then American, governments brought that result home. It was not clear to me that Hastings ever conceded the point that the Vietnamese people had the right to choose their own government, and leadership of that government, even if the choice was Ho Chi Minh. If the Americans had simply supported that right, and allowed for an independent Vietnam in 1945, the horrors imposed on the country in the name of the French, the Americans, and the North, would have been averted.

“More puzzling than France’s rashness and inhumanity was US willingness to support them. Without military aid, Paris’s colonial policy would have collapsed overnight. Fredrik Logevall observes that there would have been no contradiction about an American decision to assist France’s domestic revival while withholding backing for its imperial follies. Washington’s contrary call was made partly because, even before the Cold War became icy, policy makers recoiled from acquiescence in communist acquisition of new territorial booty. While American liberal intellectuals detested colonialism, in an era when much of their own country was still racially segregated, the spectacle of white men lording it over “lesser races” did not seem as odious as it would soon become. In the late 1940s, French policy was less closely linked to US anticommunism than it later became, but the interests of the Vietnamese people—or for that matter of their Malagasy, Algerian, and suchlike brethren—ranked low in the priorities of President Harry Truman.”

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings

The errors started there, and Hastings does not shy from that fact. The book does go way beyond the political, bringing us real life accounts from all sides on the ground. The true misery of this war, and the enormous toll it took on the Vietnamese people, and the boots on the ground from the North and the South, as well as the U.S., are related in chilling detail. It is one of the truly outstanding pieces of this book. We are moved from the high political offices to the fighting soldiers on both sides, with incidents that reveal how the foot soldiers suffered with out of touch leaders on all sides of the conflict.

The American story is one that has been told in several books. I think Hastings does bring some new perspective. (I found the relating of the Tonkin incident(s) illuminating.) The mistakes, the lies, the pure cynicism of the American war effort brought disaster to the people of Vietnam, and to the American military, and Hastings holds back nothing.

In line with what I think are his “predispositions” on the subject Hastings essentially glosses over the international Geneva conference of 1954, which paved the way for the French exit after the military victory of the Viet Minh over the French at Dienbienphu. Another instance where a “temporary” settlement was achieved, with the prospect of self determination for and by the people of Vietnam. What happened at the Geneva conference?

“On July 20, a partition was agreed between the French and the Vietminh close to the 17th parallel, which gave the new South Vietnam a short, defensible border with the North. This partition “would be provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” All Vietnamese were granted a three-hundred-day grace period in which to decide under which regime they would henceforth live, with guaranteed freedom of movement northward or southward. General elections would be held within two years. Both Vietnams would join Laos and Cambodia as avowed neutral states. The French would go home.”

The entity known as South Vietnam was carved out of this agreement, despite the clear terms that the partition was temporary, and did not constitute a “political or territorial boundary.” What about the elections? The U.S., and the “government” of South Vietnam balked at holding them, and giving the Vietnamese people a chance to unify under a government of their choice. Why? Everyone knew, and accepted, that Ho Chi Minh would be the election winner. With the U.S. confident of a Ho victory they simply refused to hold the election. Geneva has never been covered extensively, as far as I can tell, in the U.S., and you can see why. We intended to fight for democracy by thwarting democracy? Hastings glides by this by stating the U.S. position that there was no obligation to uphold any Geneva provisions since the U.S. had not been a signatory. (Another legacy of failure by John Foster Dulles) Nixon’s role here, as Eisenhower’s Vice President, a full fourteen years before he became President, is not explored.

“The Geneva Accords, as they became known, merely settled terms of truce between the departing French colonialists and the communists, who were to assume governance of the North. Therein lay the basis for the later insistence of both Washington and Saigon that refusal to conduct national elections within the specified two years was no breach of anything to which either had consented.”

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings

As we can see the mistakes started with Truman, but certainly did not stop there. The Eisenhower/Nixon Administration made, in my opinion, a major mistake by ignoring Geneva. The only outcome that mattered to them was stopping communist expansion, notwithstanding the legitimate aspirations of the Vietnamese people. Hastings, correctly in my view, bears down on the “who lost China” political backlash as being a major reason for the American attitude. Republicans stoked those political flames with Joe McCarthy and yes, Richard Nixon. The mistakes in Vietnam did not start with John Kennedy. The fear of Democratic Presidents to be tarred with the soft on communism tag, or being the President that allowed the dominoes to begin to fall in Southeast Asia, in my opinion, dominated the thinking of Lyndon Johnson, and brought him to disaster.

I was lucky enough to get this book free through my subscription to the Wall Street Journal, but it is worth paying for. Despite some disagreements that I have I count it as an outstanding effort, a book that will help those interested to a fuller understanding of the conflict in Vietnam.

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