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Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 Paperback – October 15, 2019
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An absorbing and definitive modern history of the Vietnam War from the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of The Secret War.
Vietnam became the Western world’s most divisive modern conflict, precipitating a battlefield humiliation for France in 1954, then a vastly greater one for the United States in 1975. Max Hastings has spent the past three years interviewing scores of participants on both sides, as well as researching a multitude of American and Vietnamese documents and memoirs, to create an epic narrative of an epic struggle. He portrays the set pieces of Dienbienphu, the 1968 Tet offensive, the air blitz of North Vietnam, and also much less familiar miniatures such as the bloodbath at Daido, where a US Marine battalion was almost wiped out, together with extraordinary recollections of Ho Chi Minh’s warriors. Here are the vivid realities of strife amid jungle and paddies that killed two million people.
Many writers treat the war as a US tragedy, yet Hastings sees it as overwhelmingly that of the Vietnamese people, of whom forty died for every American. US blunders and atrocities were matched by those committed by their enemies. While all the world has seen the image of a screaming, naked girl seared by napalm, it forgets countless eviscerations, beheadings, and murders carried out by the communists. The people of both former Vietnams paid a bitter price for the Northerners’ victory in privation and oppression. Here is testimony from Vietcong guerrillas, Southern paratroopers, Saigon bargirls, and Hanoi students alongside that of infantrymen from South Dakota, Marines from North Carolina, and Huey pilots from Arkansas.
No past volume has blended a political and military narrative of the entire conflict with heart-stopping personal experiences, in the fashion that Max Hastings’ readers know so well. The author suggests that neither side deserved to win this struggle with so many lessons for the twenty-first century about the misuse of military might to confront intractable political and cultural challenges. He marshals testimony from warlords and peasants, statesmen and soldiers, to create an extraordinary record.
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“This is a comprehensive, spellbinding, surprisingly intimate, and altogether magnificent historical narrative.” -- Tim O’Brien, author of Pulitzer Prize finalist The Things They Carried
“This balanced and insightful book is a pleasure to read. It destroys the fantasy that one side or the other held the moral high ground or a monopoly on devastating folly.” -- Karl Marlantes, author of What It Is Like to Go to War and Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
“A gripping, well-researched look at a divisive American war.” -- New York Post
“A comprehensive and compelling narrative that illuminates political and military tactics and strategies — and the daily realities of a war that killed 2 million people.” -- Pittsburgh Post Gazette
From the Back Cover
Vietnam became the Western world’s most divisive modern conflict, precipitating a battlefield humiliation for France in 1954, then a vastly greater one for the United States in 1975. Max Hastings has spent the past three years interviewing scores of participants on both sides, as well as researching a multitude of American and Vietnamese documents and memoirs, to create an epic narrative of an epic struggle. He portrays the set pieces of Dienbienphu, the 1968 Tet offensive, the air blitz of North Vietnam, and much less familiar miniatures such as the bloodbath at Daido—where a US Marine battalion was almost wiped out—together with extraordinary recollections of Ho Chi Minh’s warriors. Here are the vivid realities of strife amid jungle and paddies that killed two million people.
Many writers treat the war as a US tragedy, yet Hastings sees it overwhelmingly as one for the Vietnamese people, of whom forty died for every American. US blunders and atrocities were matched by those committed by their enemies. While all the world has seen the image of a screaming, naked girl seared by napalm, it forgets countless eviscerations, beheadings, and murders carried out by the communists. The people of both former Vietnams paid a bitter price for the Northerners’ victory in privation and oppression. Here we are given testimony from Vietcong guerrillas, Southern paratroopers, Saigon bar girls, and Hanoi students alongside that of infantrymen from South Dakota, Marines from North Carolina, and Huey pilots from Arkansas.
No past volume has blended a political and military narrative of the entire conflict with heart-stopping personal experiences in the fashion that Hastings’s readers know so well. The author suggests that neither side deserved to win this struggle, and presents many lessons for the twenty-first century about the misuse of military might to confront intractable political and cultural challenges. In Vietnam, Hastings marshals testimony from warlords and peasants, statesmen and soldiers, to create an extraordinary record.
- Publisher : Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (October 15, 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 896 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062405675
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062405678
- Item Weight : 2.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 1.79 x 6 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #254,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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The Communists buried people alive who resisted them to save bullets. They hacked people to death. Summary executions of "enemies of the revolution" were done in order to create a Stalinist society. Westerners sometimes of a romantic view of the Davidian "freedom fighters" throwing off the Goliaths of the west, and label Ho Chi Minh as a Nationalist rather than a Communist. But the North Vietnamese policies were Stalinist policies, and no one but the most ardent Communists today would call Stalin anything other than a ruthless butcher. Hastings did well in discussing Ho's commitment to the Comintern even before WWII, and his purges of the Vietnamese peoples of the various nationalist groups who also fought the French. There were dozens of Nationalists striving for an independent Vietnam. The Viet Minh butchered them all. Americans who remember Afghanistan in the 80s will remember that we did not aid the Taliban, but rather a fractured network of Mudjahideen fighting against Soviet troops. However, the Taliban won the scramble for power in the post-war period and destroyed all other opposition groups. The Viet Minh had done the same thing 30 years earlier.
I believe Hastings put it best when he said something along the lines of "Those who feel like America was wrong had a tendency to take the extra step, and assume that their enemies were right" and that South Vietnam and North Vietnam embarked a bloody conflict that neither "deserved" to win.
Hastings frames it as a tragedy, so the language and prose he uses stir the heart and the stories he collected are truly heartbreaking. As a journalist, he knows how to write in a manner that a more perhaps "dry" history does not fully capture. Since he is a Brit, I felt that Hastings approached this story with less bias that Vietnamese or American historians tend to. American historians understandably tend to frame it as an American history. Hastings takes a more Vietnamese-centric angle with this work. We also see perspectives from the British officials throughout the work. I simply could not put this book down, because it is so well written.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone who liked Ken Burns' documentary and would like to flesh out their understanding of the conflict.
Hastings faces head on the lingering questions about the war, gives the reader the facts as he found them and then his conclusions based on those facts. He finds few generals worthy of the name on either side. On the other hand he also recites in detail the actions of these generals that led to those conclusions. You can chose a differing opinion if you want.
The Vietnam War for Hastings was a 30 year tragedy, interspersed with courage, stupidity alternating with brilliance, and some humor as well. Thirty years is a lot to cover even in 752 pages. The beauty of the book is that Hastings succeeds in telling the larger story of the war along with many of the smaller ones as well. Like Cornelius Ryan, in his books, “The Longest Day” and a “Bridge Too Far”, Hastings is a former newspaper reporter, actually a war reporter that reported on the Vietnam War. What that means for the reader is mostly short well thought out sentences that tell an understandable story about a complex subject. The fact that the war itself changed every year and that a soldier’s experience depended a great deal on the unit he was with and the Area of Operations that the unit was responsible for is well told, well explained. Even more important Hastings finally gets the battles of Tet ’68 right. It was a massive victory completely misreported at home.
You can read my book, “Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive 1968” to find out what being an elite paratrooper was like in the late 1960's, when the country had a draft and well over five hundred thousand Americans were serving one year tours in Vietnam, or Frank Boccia’s book “Crouching Beast” to learn what happened at the battle of Hamburger Hill, but if you want to know what happened during the entire Vietnam War including more than a bit about the French debacle and lead in to America’s involvement, then read “Vietnam, an Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975”, by Max Hastings.
I should disclose that I was one of those interviewed by the author and I am quoted a couple of times in the book but that was the only time I ever met him.
Top reviews from other countries
Max Hastings is indeed an excellent journalist and I always read and enjoy his columns.
If you want to read 700 pages of detailed accounts of close combat fighting, then this is the book for you. But don't look for analysis of, for example, the root causes of the conflicts, military or political strategy or of the long-term consequences of the conflicts. everything gets swamped by the endless accounts of battles and skirmishes.
The book is far too long and poorly edited as it doesn't seem to flow coherently.
It's a great pity. This could have been a significant contribution to to the history of Vietnam.
I had some difficulty with the author's vocabulary. I susect that this is due to the book's having beem written with an American readership in mind.
The earliest date that registered with me then was the fall of Dienbienphu in 1954. I was astonished to see where this so-called fortress was located. It is 200-300 miles west-nor’-west of Hanoi, near the border with Laos and consequently far from most of the subsequent action. Nor is it really a ‘fortress’ either. It is a collection of hamlets over a flattish region, with several hills that the colonial French had fortified – without, apparently, noticing that the insurgents had occupied a neighbouring hill nearly 3 times as high. You might have thought that someone would have noticed, but this was only the first such piece of ineptitude. Far worse than any pitched battle, as I read Hastings here, was the unintelligible strategy that made a pivotal event out of it. It could perfectly well have been treated as a minor skirmish even if the rebels had won. Now see what happened and had us all dashing for our nuclear bunkers: France appealed to America, America wanted a British ‘figleaf’ as an international operation, and Eisenhower consequently appealed to Churchill. Churchill (bless him) replied that if he could not hold India for Britain he could not hold Indo-china for France, so ‘that fortress may have to fall.’
Fall it did. Now enter Kennedy who perceived an issue of American prestige. K did not last long, and his successor, the formidable LBJ, was really set on his Great Society programme but on the one hand could not brook opposition and on the other was overawed by the supposedly best and brightest that K had brought into government. Robert McNamara was seduced by the domino theory, and the less imposing Dean Rusk compared anti-war protesters to nazis – for nuanced thinking Milwaukee longshoremen could beat that. It seems, according to Hastings, that actually terminal windbag Hubert Humphrey produced a ‘brilliant’ suggested solution, but by now LBJ had stopped listening. From one POTUS to the next, Hastings notes acutely, the American point of view was preoccupied with domestic American interests – Vietnamese were dying in their thousands and hundred of thousands according to the Washington calculus, because the governing consideration was the next American election. Insofar as American involvement was supposed to deliver something to the Vietnamese, all anyone had to do was say it was all something to do with freedom. And so it went on.
The battles and engagements are reported in enormous detail, and I was fascinated by the amount of North Vietnamese input there has been to this ghastly story. At the time, the communist forces seemed unbeatable, but if one has enough detail one can see their strategies and tactics, like those of the South, as being brilliant indeed, but also fallible. And of course the post-Ho leadership of Le Duan was ruthless beyond comprehension – he monopolised the patriotic spirit to the extent that any sacrifice was worth it for some Marxist theory. What’s good about anyone’s theories, after all? Do they deliver prosperity? Do they deliver peace or freedom of expression? No, but they get rid of ‘oppressors’; and beyond that what’s good about Marxist theories is that they are Marxist theories.
The analysis that Hastings provides is thorough and deeply thought-out. I need hardly say that his writing is literate and enjoyable to read, however dark the subject-matter. In his summing-up I might have expected more focus on the trading relations between Vietnam and America, particularly under this administration which, say what you will, is by no means belligerently anti-communist. I also mean, for instance, that the communists may have won the guns n’ bombs bits, but are their people now scraping together a living by knocking out cheap clothing for the USA? Le Duan is dead, and maybe, despite him, it’s still a matter of ‘the economy stoopid’. I might also have been pleased to see more reference to a long interview with Robert McNamara that recounted a recent visit that he made to his former victims. He admits that he earlier fell for the domino theory, as so many did, and thought that Vietnam was a mere puppet of China, and maybe Russia too. His bemused hosts, who had to deal with China more than any domino theorists have ever had to, asked ‘Mr McNamara, have you never read a history book?’ Anyhow, here is a history book for any and all of us.