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How Vietnam was America’s avoidable war

We call the Vietnam War a tragedy. But it wasn’t a matter of fate: it was a choice.

In 1962, an idealistic young American named Frank Scotton joined the US Information Agency in the hope of being posted to South Vietnam. At that moment, the country was undergoing a fraught transition, with a communist-nationalist insurgency gaining strength and the US redoubling its efforts to help keep it at bay. Before flying to Saigon, Scotton met with three lieutenants from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). When they asked him if he knew any Vietnamese, he replied that he did not, but could speak French. One of the ARVN officers broke the awkward silence by observing, “That is the colonial language.”

In 1964, a young diplomat named Howard Simpson, normally stationed at the US embassy in Saigon, found himself attending a high-level meeting in Honolulu where the key decision-makers were debating how to proceed in Vietnam. In the two years since Scotton had prepared for his posting, the situation in South Vietnam had deteriorated alarmingly: political instability was rife and the insurgency was growing. Yet to Simpson, the potential solutions bandied about in Honolulu seemed divorced from the reality on the ground. “I soon learned that the lessons of recent history were not on the agenda,” he recalled. “I could have shut my eyes and imagined myself sitting through a briefing at the French high command in 1953.”

Scotton and Simpson were all too aware of how bad it looked when they and their fellow Americans knew virtually nothing of the country they were committed to saving. But at least they recognised their ignorance. The larger misfortune was that many, probably most, other Americans didn’t care. As a US Special Forces colonel told a reporter: “You don’t need to know the gook’s language ’cos he’s gonna be dead. We’re going to kill the bastards.”

US soldiers used to wonder why they were hated when all they wanted to do was help Vietnam, while the Vietnamese wondered why Americans committed so much blood and treasure to a country they knew so little about. Paradoxes such as this abound in the history of the Vietnam War, which is one reason it continues to attract historical interest 50 years later.

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Two new overviews of the war, Max Hastings’s Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy and Geoffrey C Ward’s The Vietnam War, join the constantly growing list of titles on the conflict. Both are huge, door-stopping books covering the full arc of American involvement, from its very initial stages during the Second World War to the ignominious evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. Both cover most of the highlights that will be familiar to many readers, but also unearth new people and perspectives.

Both also have the ironic virtue of paying more attention than previous histories to the Vietnamese experience of the Vietnam War. Americans dominated earlier accounts for reasons good and bad, but recent years have seen greater effort paid to highlighting the Vietnamese who fought on all sides. Hastings and Ward move back and forth from the perspective of an American marine to that of a Vietcong guerrilla to that of an ARVN soldier, often in relating the same battle. The result is a much fuller and richer picture than we’ve had before.

In particular, both authors prominently feature the role of the Communist Party politician Le Duan as the real driving force behind North Vietnam’s bid for national reunification. The party leader Ho Chi Minh may have been the face of revolution, but around a decade ago historians, such as Columbia University’s Lien-Hang Nguyen, realised Le Duan had called the shots. Hastings rightly portrays him as a ruthless butcher.

Ward’s book is a tie-in to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s critically acclaimed ten-part television documentary, which aired last year on PBS and the BBC. It feels the part, less a book than a script. Ward serves up an endless string of vignettes of what happened, usually relayed through extensive quotation of people involved, but he offers virtually no insight into why things happened the way they did. This approach was effective in the riveting Burns-Novick documentary, which grounded itself in the emotion of personal reminiscence and deployed evocative music and photos from the period, but what works on screen falls flat on the page. For those who know nothing about the war, Ward’s book will be a useful introduction. But for those who have some familiarity, The Vietnam War’s 764 pages of text will feel as the jungles and rice paddies did to US soldiers 50 years ago: a total slog.

The book’s real insight comes in five short, intriguing essays written by other historians; the contributions by Edward Miller and Fredrik Logevall are particularly good. But even they can’t compensate for the rest of the book’s lack of analytical bite.

Hastings’s Vietnam is altogether different. It has the same encyclopaedic comprehensiveness as Ward’s book, but it is engaging, provocative, and insightful too. Hastings expertly probes well-known figures but also uncovers lost individuals such as Scotton and Simpson. Neophytes and experts alike will find Hastings’s book stimulating, informative – and above all, riveting.


“County fair” operations in Vietnamese villages offered medical care and entertainment that promoted US values and habits

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Vietnam held no interest to the United States before the Second World War, but thereafter the tiny country assumed an importance out of all proportion to its size. In 1940, Japan took advantage of France’s fall to Nazi Germany and began encroaching on French Indochina. The next summer, the Japanese military moved into northern Vietnam, triggering a US embargo of strategic exports to Japan. The Japanese needed to fuel their stalling war machine in China, and so had to find an alternative supply of resources. They turned to south-east Asia, occupying the region in December 1941. But in order to pre-empt an inevitable American response, the Japanese first had to knock out the US navy’s Pacific fleet at the Hawaiian base of Pearl Harbor.

After the war, France tried to re-establish its colonial authority in Indochina. American officials were torn: they disliked French colonialism, which they saw as retrograde, but Washington needed French co-operation against the Soviets in Europe. The lesser of two evils won out, and the US sent assistance to France during the First Indochina War, which began in 1946. When that war ended, with the French defeat at the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the US forced the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with the communists shut out of what was now being called South Vietnam. Through the rest of the 1950s, Washington spent billions on a new type of endeavour: “nation-building”. Vietnam became another of the Cold War’s divided countries, alongside Germany, Korea and China/Taiwan.

However, what worked elsewhere failed miserably in South Vietnam. Where stalwart US allies in other divided nations demonstrated the superiority of capitalism and, in West Germany, liberal democracy, South Vietnam seemed to be artificially superimposed on an alien landscape. It was Ho Chi Minh in communist North Vietnam who instead held the allegiance of the Vietnamese people. Americans were seen as neocolonial puppet-masters, not unlike the French before them. The US stood for democracy and self-determination, but in Vietnam it appeared to be on the wrong side of history.

Hastings captures this essence of the American experience in Vietnam, foremost the original sin of hubris that convinced them they could succeed where previous empires – Chinese, Japanese and French – had failed. One of the running themes in both Hastings and Ward’s accounts is the Achilles heel of South Vietnam, especially its rampant corruption. Both authors are careful to emphasise that the war involved struggle and sacrifice by millions of ordinary South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers who genuinely didn’t want to live under communist rule. For good reason, the conflict should be understood first and foremost as a civil war among Vietnamese, with outside intervention layered on top of everything. Had the United States never entered the fray, there would still have been a violent struggle for the future of Vietnam.

Hastings is also entirely correct to argue that the communist Vietcong and their sponsors in Hanoi were every bit as bloody as the South Vietnamese and their sponsors in Washington – we shouldn’t romanticise the communists simply because their cause might appear more worthy. Yet no matter how brutally the Vietcong and Hanoi behaved, their claims to political legitimacy, combined with South Vietnam’s inability to assert those same claims successfully, was crucial in determining the war’s outcome.

John F Kennedy quickly discovered this fatal paradox when he became president in January 1961. Though he promised to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”, JFK’s rhetoric soared well beyond his actual policies. He was instead cautious and pragmatic by temperament, and even if he ran unnecessary risks, especially in Cuba, he also hesitated over Vietnam.

When JFK was assassinated in November 1963, he still didn’t know how to handle the crisis in Vietnam. South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, may have been America’s ally, but he was increasingly un-co-operative – “a puppet who pulled his own strings” in the famous characterisation of a frustrated US official at the time. In the spring of 1963, Diem’s regime cracked down on a group of dissident Buddhists in the old imperial capital of Hue, triggering a wave of political unrest across South Vietnam that included Buddhist monks calmly burning themselves alive in protest.

This, historians agree, was the most critical moment for American involvement. The US probably could have walked away from the mess without incurring too much reputational damage – it had tried to save South Vietnam but the country was simply too far gone. Instead, it plunged deeper into the morass of someone else’s civil war.

Diem’s fate was sealed when US officials, learning that his government was sending secret peace feelers to the Vietcong, sponsored a coup on 1 November by a junta of ARVN generals. Yet while the generals were practiced at war, they were clueless at governing. Taking advantage of the chaos, the Vietcong stepped up the pace of its insurgency. Three weeks after the coup, Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK in Dallas. Kennedy’s successor, the indomitable Lyndon B Johnson, immediately vowed not to be the first president to lose a war. Nearly 60,000 US troops and approximately two million Vietnamese, in both the North and the South, would forfeit their lives to this promise.

Once LBJ “Americanised” the war in 1965, and the US military assumed control from the ARVN, South Vietnamese sovereignty was effectively over. No longer could Saigon claim the noble objective of national self-determination. North Vietnam subsequently suffered from a US campaign of sustained bombing known by its code name “Rolling Thunder”, but this merely reinforced its own claim to be the standard-bearer of one Vietnamese nation against foreign powers.

Partly for these reasons, the war that followed, from 1965 to the withdrawal of American forces in 1973 and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975, was an uphill struggle for the mighty US military. America’s advantages in technology and firepower were ill-fitted to the Vietnamese terrain and political context, whereas the communists’ supposed disadvantages – their basic military hardware and lack of an industrial base – actually gave them a cutting edge.

As one would expect, Hastings is especially good on the military history of the war. If famous episodes such as the My Lai massacre get short shrift, Hastings makes up for it by introducing readers to other important but little-known battles, such as Daido; unfamiliar people, such as the sinister, Strangelovian military analyst and “bombing guru” Leon Gouré; and underappreciated problems, such as the teething troubles of the M16 rifle. The anti-war movement, though, is mostly absent.

In Hastings’s hands the tactical and strategic dimensions of the war illuminate its political difficulties, rather than, as is more usual, the other way around. But he is equally adept at assessing the political and diplomatic deliberations that dragged the US into the mess in the first place. Hastings is absolutely correct to criticise General William Westmoreland’s strategic failings while excoriating even more harshly Johnson and his civilian advisers for pushing Westmoreland to do the impossible. Defence secretary Robert S McNamara comes in for particularly strong yet justified criticism for the duplicity with which he escalated the conflict.

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The first deployment of US troops waded ashore at Danang in March 1965. Ward recounts that as they marched past a nearby village, an old peasant shouted, “Vive les Français!” He wasn’t being sarcastic – he simply saw foreign troops and assumed that the French had returned. Almost exactly ten years after the arrival of those first marines, North Vietnamese soldiers overran the US embassy in Saigon. Amid the debris, they found on the floor a framed quotation by TE Lawrence: “Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way and your time is short.”

When Henry Kissinger became Richard Nixon’s key adviser on Vietnam, he memorably quipped, “We will not make the same old mistakes. We will make our own.” They made both, just as Kennedy and Johnson had before them, but no mistake was more damaging than appearing to be a colonial power waging a war in the name of freedom. No military strategy, no matter how ingenious, could overcome such a fatal contradiction in such an inherently political conflict.

Future presidents would continue to make these same old mistakes. One of Hastings’s only missteps in this masterful account comes when he makes the strange observation that “It is sometimes said that there are no parallels between Vietnam and the West’s 21st-century struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.” I can’t say I’ve heard it said. Quite the opposite, in fact, and there are many good books devoted to the topic of how America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan resemble the disaster in Vietnam. Even George W Bush himself – though more often his critics – compared the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Elegiacally, Hastings’s last sentence explicitly links Vietnam to Iraq. Both wars share many traits, but one above all others: they were totally avoidable. A US war in Vietnam wasn’t inevitable by 1964-65. There was no consensus for war in Washington, in the media, or among the public at large, and Johnson had other options open to him, as some of his advisers constantly pointed out.

For this reason, the subtitle of Hastings’s book, An Epic Tragedy, is somewhat misleading. Tragic tales centre on people who cannot escape their fate, try as they might. But America’s war in Vietnam wasn’t a matter of fate; it was entirely escapable, a matter of choice even more than circumstance. The real tragedy, as both of these books show, befell the Vietnamese people in a war they neither chose nor wanted. 

Andrew Preston is professor of American history at Clare College, Cambridge and is co-editing volume two of the “Cambridge History of the Vietnam War”

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975
Max Hastings
William Collins, 722pp, £30

The Vietnam War: An Intimate History
Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns
Ebury, 826pp, £25

This article appears in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war