This is a comprehensive history of Vietnam by Stanley Karnow, a historian (died 2013) who is viewed as somewhat to the left of others such as Michael Lind (my reviews passim). This means fairly simply that he is not very pro-US, whatever the US might do.Although the book takes us through Vietnam’s history from prehistoric times (the heroic Trung sisters, anyone?)
|the Trung sisters, heroines of the Vietnamese revolution c 940 AD. Note the elephant.|
Also, like many Americans of all political stances, Karnow did not view Great Britain as heroic in World War II, as I was brought up to believe we were, fighting on alone (but for the mighty USSR) after France collapsed and the smaller European nations either were overrun or changed sides. On LBJ’s formative experiences which led him to oppose withdrawal from Vietnam, Karnow cites “the Munich pact, Britain’s capitulation to the Nazis”. This is not how Munich was seen in Britain at the time, nor, mostly, since, including by its opponents. But it appears here to be an uncontroversial statement. Karnow does not say whether LBJ actually held or expressed that view. Perhaps though if he did it was utterly unremarkable.
Karnow does not take issue with the assessment by Michael Lind that the 1960s escalation of US involvement in Vietnam was about US prestige and position in the world. Not one bit. So right and left are united on this point.The advice given to LBJ in preparation for the debate on the South-East Asia Resolution, which, only arguably, rendered US actions in Vietnam constitutional, included this answer to a FAQ: “Does South-East Asia matter all that much? Yes – because of the rights of the people there…”. This would not be said now, and certainly not on the left. Brown-skin people in far-off countries are not judged as deserving of rights as white westerners, these days. Ernest Gruening of Alaska, a “veteran liberal” said in the debate “All Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy”. No change on the left there, then. Although, as indicated above, Karnow does not try to say the war was about anything other than American prestige, he does use emotive language on the subject: “dutifully recited the dogma of the domino theory”.
It’s interesting how utterly chaotic and corrupt the various governments installed in Saigon were, and not all of them were installed by the US. South Vietnam at this time was rapidly becoming a failed state, and while this wasn’t the fault of the US, they weren’t helping either.
Karnow is clear that “the Vietcong” (a South Vietnamese nickname intended to be derogatory) were not, as many in the West believed they were, an indigenous insurgent population. In fact they were a trained militia funded and directed from Hanoi, and via them from the USSR and China. But, Karnow notes, North Vietnam, after the start of the Rolling Thunder operation, did not have its cities carpet-bombed as Dresden and Tokyo were in World War II. You only have to visit Hanoi, as I did in April this year, to see that Hanoi still looks very much like the French colonial city it once was.
“And the marines, as one of their commanders put it, will henceforth ‘start killing the Vietcong instead of just sitting on their ditty box’”, quoted without comment. This remark by the marine commander is of course absolutely correct. If you are going to go there, go there and get the job properly done. Otherwise those who die there will have died senselessly and in vain.Karnow continues with the emotive language throughout: “the hopelessness of the American cause”. Well, we know how it turned out, of course. We also know, or think we do, that the domino theory was incorrect. Indonesia and Malaya did not go communist, despite various attempts and uprisings. And this was not just because the Chinese hordes did not pour across the border (figuratively speaking) – when they did pour across the actual border, in Korea in 1950, the end result was not a communist Korean peninsula, but a stalemate and an uneasy partition.
Karnow ends the book in a curiously sentimental fashion, with Bui Tin, former Vietnamese army colonel and the man who took the surrender of the last South Vietnamese leader, Duong Van Minh, in 1975. Tin has been a dissident since the mid-1980s, and is an old man now, latterly living in France. Karnow, who knew Tin quite well personally, has him flinging himself elatedly on to the ground and gazing into the sunlit sky as North Vietnamese forces take Saigon. But this, as the coda, is the only real moment of weakness in this magisterial work: Karnow was too rigorous a historian to allow whatever personal and emotional fealty he might have had to the North Vietnamese cause to subvert the history.