I have greatly enjoyed many military history books written by Max Hastings (including an excellent book on the Churchill war years that I haven’t reviewed yet but you should definitely check out).
Today, though, I would like to tell you about a magnum opus from Hastings on the Vietnam war (I do mean magnum, as it clocks in at 896 pages!) called Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75. It was published in 2018.
When many Americans think of the tragedy of the Vietnam war, they mostly think of it beginning as US involvement ramped up in this Southeast Asian country, committing more and more troops to try and prop up the South Vietnamese government and “fight the Communists” from the North.
Hastings begins this book at the very beginning, giving a brief overview of French colonization of the country before really digging deep into the post-World War II quagmire that the French found themselves in. Humiliated by their defeat in the previous war, they were not going to let their colony be wrested away from them despite the desire for freedom that the Vietnamese people had shown.
Hastings does a good job of explaining how these events happened leading up to the final French humiliation at Dienbienphu when the French forces were finally defeated.
Once that is over, there is the late 1950s semi-lull as the two Vietnams (the country was divided into South and North Vietnam, with the Communists taking hold of the north) try to establish themselves and tensions rise between the two. Families were divided, and many in the North (especially Communist establishment men such as Ho Chi Minh) dreamed of Vietnam being once again united, but under Communist rule.
The rest of the book details the rising US involvement, more troops, collapsing morale, and insurgency as both sides fight for diminishing returns until the US finally pulls out.
I really loved this book. It’s extremely dense and took me three weeks to read, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
What I especially liked is how fair-minded Hastings is in his presentation of this war-divided country. Many historians either present gung-ho pro-US narratives or completely anti-US ones that don’t really show the whole story. Maybe this is because Hastings is British and thus is able to remove himself from the immediacy (though he did spend some time there as a journalist during the war).
Hastings doesn’t excuse or cover up the horrible things that some US soldiers did there, or the terrible carpet bombing of Northern cities as time went on. However, he puts it best when he says “Those who feel like America was wrong had a tendency to take the extra step, and assume that their enemies were right.” He falls down on the side that neither North nor South really “deserved” to win. He comments on Northern atrocities just as much, including talking about how some of them were ignored.
He doesn’t shy away from talking about how there were many Vietnamese nationalists in the North as the country was divided. These were people who just wanted a united country. And the Ho Chi Minh regime eliminated them. Purges were plentiful as time went on. They committed their own massacres as well.
The book provides first-hand accounts from people on all sides of the conflict, from former ARVN soldiers and officials, US soldiers and government people, and even accounts and interviews with those who fought from the North or as part of the Vietminh insurgency.
Thus, readers get a complete view of the conflict, including how many times the North and the Vietminh were very close to defeat, with morale plummeting and succumbing to despair. However, also as Hasting says, the North didn’t have a media that looked to highlight every mistake their soldiers made.
Hastings doesn’t go so far as to say that the media cost the South and the US the war, of course. The extremely unstable and corrupt government of South Vietnam in no way deserved to win as it couldn’t gain the love of its people. As US involvement escalated, many wondered why they were working so hard to prop up a government that nobody liked.
The specter of Communism and the fear that if Vietnam fell, which Southeast Asian country would be next, forced a lot of bad decisions that inevitably led to even more tragedy.
Many innocent Vietnamese people were caught between two horrible governments, only wanting the violence to end so they could get on with their meager lives.
While the book is told in roughly chronological order, it is also divided into sections by subject. There is an entire chapter on the anti-war movement in the US, for example, which allows him to just touch on how it was affecting the war later on in the book.
The major events are covered, such as the Tet offensive (a major loss for the North if you look at it from a purely military standpoint as they lost many irreplaceable soldiers needlessly and it was horribly implemented), My Lai, and Dienbienphu (as noted earlier) and others like that.
But Hastings takes a look at other lesser-known events as well, including the almost total destruction of an American battalion during one operation deep in the jungle.
Ultimately, the book ends with the very sad yet inevitable downfall of the South Vietnamese government after the US had pulled out in 1973. He highlights moments of bravery from ARVN soldiers who know they are in a losing fight yet continue to fight on. Even as their own officers are running away. The Northern onslaught is unstoppable, and it’s only a matter of time until everything falls.
When thinking about what happened, it’s an almost depressing book.
Yet it is also fascinating.
If you want a comprehensive look at the entire Vietnam conflict from start to finish, Vietnam: an Epic Tragedy, 1945-75 is the book for you.
I don’t think I could give this book enough stars.