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American nightmare

Books | November Issue

Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 by Max Hastings, reviewed by Philip Delves Broughton

The cover of Max Hastings's grand history of the fighting in Vietnam from the end of the Second World War until the communist capture of Saigon in 1975 has a photograph of a soldier throwing his hands and face towards the air.

Beside him, another wounded soldier is being helped along through a landscape described by a North Vietnamese officer as ‘mud, mud and more mud’.

It is an image of Vietnam as near-religious Passion, girding you for the misery to come.

Hastings travelled to Vietnam several times during the final years of the war as a reporter for the BBC. He scrambled out of Saigon on a US helicopter shortly before the city fell, having witnessed the savage futility of the war first-hand. He heard the lies told in the White House and saw their hideous impact on the ground. While this book is history, it often emits the warmth of memoir as Hastings draws on first-person accounts from men on every side of the conflict.

The book starts with the dismal efforts of the French, these ‘clever, conceited, morbidly insecure people’, who ‘chose to immerse themselves in a brutal colonial war 8,000 miles from home, which eventually costs their own side more than 90,0000 dead, and the Vietnamese people far more.’ The French turned out to be no match for the austere and ideologically committed communist fighters.

In the midst of it were the ordinary Vietnamese. A peasant farmer in the Mekong Delta described a brief ceasefire between the French and the Viet Minh: ‘The people were very happy… I myself said many times, “I hope that just one side will control us – no matter which one. Living under the control of both is too much.” ’ The poor man had another two decades to wait.

The war then seemed to drift into the hands of the Americans, so flush in the 1950s that they could spend a billion dollars a year supporting the French effort and barely anyone noticed. When the departing Eisenhower briefed the incoming Kennedy, he warned that the communist threat in south-east Asia was real, but the country to be most worried about was Laos; in Eisenhower’s phrase, ‘a nation of homosexuals’.

And so it went, with the Americans lurching into a fight for which they had neither much desire nor skill. Everyone seemed baffled, from the navigator aboard a B-52 bomber who said his job felt like nothing more than putting ‘holes in the jungle floor’, to the men of the US 1st Cavalry, who camped out in air-conditioned splendour and maintained a ‘neighbourhood R&R centre… where a man could “get two half-gallons of Gilbey’s gin for $1.65 each, and for five or ten dollars a girl who had been checked by medical staff” ’.

Hastings gives us a White House adviser’s description of Nguyen Cao Ky, premier of South Vietnam’s military junta from 1965 to 1967, arriving at a US embassy dinner in Saigon: ‘He walked in breezily, wearing a tight, white dinner jacket, tapered formal trousers, pointed patent leather shoes and brilliant red socks. A Hollywood central casting bureau would have grabbed him for a role as a sax player in a second-rate Manila nightclub.’

Meanwhile in Washington, we see Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defence, sobbing uncontrollably as he discusses the war’s ammunition needs.

In 1972, we find Nixon scheming to convince American voters of the lie that peace is imminent, in order to ensure his re-election. To celebrate a particular moment of successful treachery, Nixon shares a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild at lunch with his aides. ‘Here was munificence,’ notes Hastings. ‘It was his usual practice to confine the White House’s finest vintages to his own glass, while subordinates were given Californian red.’

He also gives us the nefarious Henry Kissinger, promising the South Vietnamese leaders to their faces that the ‘US will never sacrifice a trusted friend’; then, two days later, back in Washington, telling a colleague, ‘I have only one desire – to turn the Vietnamese loose on each other in the hope the maximum will kill each other off.’

Meanwhile, on the ground, for all the savagery, the soldiers on each side came to appreciate the moments of humanity. As the Vietnamese released American prisoners of war in 1973, a North Vietnamese colonel asks to see the cockpit of the American helicopter that has come to pick them up. One day, he tells the departing Americans, he hopes his son can study in the United States.

Another guard finds out that one of his children had been killed in one of the last American bombing raids of the war. He still shakes the prisoners’ hands and shares his tobacco ration. One of the Americans notes, ‘Most Americans, under such circumstances, would have had to be restrained from grabbing an AK-47 and carrying out a My Lai-style massacre of the PoW contingent.’

Hastings ends his story with a note on America’s invasion of Iraq. Vietnam, he observes, should have taught the Americans that you can’t win a war simply by winning firefights. Military action has to have something ‘to join up to’; civilians who actually want you there. That one lesson might have offered some small measure of redemption for the losses in Vietnam. But it remains yet to be learned.

This story was from November Issue issue. Subscribe Now