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Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975

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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 sc 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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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 sc 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.

30 review for Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    “If a soldier wanted to stay safe, his best course was to remain absolutely still, preferably in a hole: every movement made him more vulnerable. Yet it was the duty of infantrymen to move. They spent much of their field time seeking out the enemy in platoon, company, or battalion strength. For fifty thousand Americans fulfilling that role at any one time, exotic Asian nature became the new normal: the brilliant green of rice paddies, darker green of palm groves, small boys leading out water buf “If a soldier wanted to stay safe, his best course was to remain absolutely still, preferably in a hole: every movement made him more vulnerable. Yet it was the duty of infantrymen to move. They spent much of their field time seeking out the enemy in platoon, company, or battalion strength. For fifty thousand Americans fulfilling that role at any one time, exotic Asian nature became the new normal: the brilliant green of rice paddies, darker green of palm groves, small boys leading out water buffalo, farmers plodding with the patience of centuries behind ox-drawn wooden plows. At dusk grunts watched the buffalo being driven back home, flanks caked with mud from their wallows, pretty much like themselves. And somewhere concealed within all this rustic charm, there was the enemy…” - Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75 This is a book I have been waiting for a long time. This is the Battle Cry of Freedom of the Vietnam War. A beautifully and pungently written single volume history that valiantly attempts the impossible task of capturing and clarifying this multilayered military, political, and human catastrophe. The Vietnam War (encompassing the First Indochina War, between the French and Vietminh, and the Second Indochina War, pitting the U.S. and South Vietnam against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong) is a historical subject I have mostly avoided. First, like World War I, it is an imposingly complex subject. Adding to the complexity is the westerner’s difficulty in pronouncing the proper nouns – both people and locations – that are required to understand the story. Finally, and most importantly, Vietnam does not feel like settled history. It is still firmly implanted in living memory. I was born after the wars of Vietnam had concluded, but I grew up surrounded by people who had experienced parts of it firsthand. We are still collectively sorting out what it all meant. The war is still controversial and still being refought. Max Hastings has convinced me that now is the time to start learning more about these tumultuous decades, which cost millions of lives and damaged many millions more; that dramatically reordered one society, and shattered another; that killed one president (Diem), destroyed another (Johnson), and tarnished a third (Nixon); that cost untold billions of dollars in military spending and economic aid; and that nearly squandered the trust that Americans have for government. In Inferno, Hastings showed a magical touch for boiling down a titanic struggle, delivering perhaps the best one-volume history of World War II. He exceeds that triumph with Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy. While smaller in terms of numbers involved and casualties incurred, the Vietnam War is far more fraught and tangled, a moral gray zone as vast as the jungles of Southeast Asia. Hastings starts with the briefest of overviews of the land over which so many people would come to grief: Vietnam comprises 126,000 square miles, a few more than Italy or metropolitan France, most of which are either mountains shrouded in exotic vegetation or flatlands of extraordinary seasonal wetness and fertility. Almost every visitor who escaped the penance of exertion in the clinging heat was awed by its beauty and penned lyrical descriptions, celebrating views of “paddy fields in which water buffalo grazed, almost every one with a white egret perched on its back picking at insects; of vegetation so bright and green that it hurt the eyes; of waits at ferries beside broad rivers the color of café crème; of gaudy pagodas and wooden homes on stilts, surrounded by dogs and ducks; of the steaming atmosphere, the ripe smells and water everywhere, giving a sense of fecundity, of nature spawning, ripening and on heat.” After that, he begins his story proper in 1945, with the French (who had been thrashed by the Germans, collaborated with the Germans, and who had fired on American troops in North Africa) being allowed to retain their colony in Indochina. (One of the terrible ifs of the Vietnam War is what might have happened if the anti-colonialist Roosevelt had not died). Vietnam ends in 1975, with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese. This thirty-year interval is crammed with a library’s worth of incidents. The Vietnam War defies an easy presentation. There is no linear progression of events to follow. This is not World War II, for instance, where it is easy to track the ebb and tide of fortune by tracing territory that is lost and recaptured, decisive battles that are lost or won. The Vietnam War was fluid and ever-changing, with no front lines, no clear demarcation between friend and foe, with few large battles, and certainly no decisive ones. (An American advisor once compared the Vietnam War to an NFL game in which one team is dressed as the spectators and periodically hides the ball and runs up into the stands). With this level of narrative difficulty, Hastings’s major accomplishment is in his structure and framework, his ability to take this massive and multifaceted tale and pare it down to something that is not only comprehensible, but also a joy to read. Overall he employs a straightforward chronology, coverings events as they appear along the timeline. Though this is not a military history by any means, but he does provide set-piece reconstructions of some of the major engagements, including Dien Bien Phu, Hue, and Dai Do. Hastings also periodically employs a thematic method of approach. There is a chapter solely dedicated to Rolling Thunder, for instance, which allows him to focus on one facet of the war without distraction. Hastings also breaks his chapters down into smaller subsections, and he devotes many of those subsections to discussions on specific topics, such as the role of helicopters, the danger of booby traps, and a comparative analysis of the relative merits of the AK-47 versus the M-16. Through this all, he pays close attention to the relationship between parties. While covering the obvious strain between the U.S. and South Vietnam, he also recognizes the strife between the North Vietnamese and their guerilla allies in the south. He is also conscious that the terminology of the war can be unfamiliar and often shifts over time. Thus, when the Vietminh (devoted to throwing out the French) transformed into the Vietcong (dedicated to throwing out the Americans), Hastings is sure to let you know. Hastings is also incredibly successful in using individual stories as representative samples from which to extrapolate larger meaning. Throughout Vietnam, he continues to return to a discrete number of characters who we follow throughout the book. (A dramatis personae would have been helpful in this regard). This provides a lens that is at once wide-angled and intimate, that gives you the vast swath of experiences while also reminding you that history is not the recounting of dates and occurrences but a big story made up of countless smaller human dramas. To that end, Hastings utilizes a variety of voices: C.I.A. spooks and U.S. grunts; NVA infantrymen, VC guerillas, and communist cadres; and, of course, there are the peasants caught between impossible and opposing forces. You meet Dang Thuy Tram, a young revolutionary, the daughter of a Hanoi surgeon, whose diary was found when she was killed by an American patrol in 1970. You also meet Doug Ramsey, who spent seven years as a prisoner-of-war in unimaginable conditions. One of the things that sets Hastings apart from many other author/historians is that he writes with a distinctly sharp tone. He can be caustic, sardonic, and witty. When discussing French officers Michel Bigeard and Pierre Langlais at Dien Bien Phu he notes: “[They] were better suited to enduring crucifixion than inspiring a resurrection.” On the allocation of frontline troops as against support forces: “Maybe two-thirds of the men who came home calling themselves veterans – entitled to wear the medal and talk about their PTSD troubles – had been exposed to no greater risk than a man might incur from ill-judged sex or “bad shit” drugs.” On the circularity of the war: “This was a Groundhog Day conflict, in which contests for a portion of elephant grass, jungle, or rice paddy were repeated not merely month after month, but year upon year, with no Andie McDowell as prize in the last reel.” (I don’t know exactly why, but I am absolutely tickled at the idea of Max Hastings, the tough old foreign correspondent, sitting down to watch Groundhog Day). Vietnam was an incredibly divisive conflict, but Hastings does an admirable job maintaining his neutrality. To be sure, he often repeats conservative/hawkish complaints (that the brutality of North Vietnam’s Stalinist regime is ignored; that antiwar protestors were hopelessly naïve; that the American press didn't tell the full story), but his overall position is that of skeptic. He is constantly questioning everyone and everything. Indeed, he seems to model himself after The Quiet American’s cynical Fowler. His scathing tongue knows no political party, and he unleashes a variety of slashing attacks on Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that reminded me of the Velociraptors from Jurassic Park. And despite his handwringing about soldiers smoking marijuana and college students hanging North Vietnamese flags, his overall conclusion is that the American effort in Vietnam was doomed. In his view, no amount of military success could have changed the fact that South Vietnam was corrupt, tainted, and hopelessly disconnected from her citizens. The struggle over the meaning of Vietnam has only just begin. We are, after all, still grappling with the American Civil War, which ended over 150 years ago. To his credit, Hastings does not attempt to draw any pat lessons. He understands that the answer to Vietnam will not be found in John Wayne’s blatantly propagandistic The Green Berets, and it will not be found in Jane Fonda’s reprehensible decision to sit on an NVA antiaircraft gun. The answer is not even in the middle, equidistant between two poles. Instead of answers, Hastings provides experiences. He superbly traces the contours of this epochal disaster by charting the courses of the people who lived through it, and those who did not survive.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jonny Ruddock

    As an overview of the disaster that overtook Vietnam over the thirty year period after the end of the Second World War, Max Hastings has admirably succeeded in laying bare the reasons for failure, first of the French colonial forces and then of the U.S. backed South Vietnamese government. Writing with an impartial eye, and helped by the testimonies of hundreds of the participants, the wars and political manoeuvring are described in sufficient detail to give an overview of events and the experienc As an overview of the disaster that overtook Vietnam over the thirty year period after the end of the Second World War, Max Hastings has admirably succeeded in laying bare the reasons for failure, first of the French colonial forces and then of the U.S. backed South Vietnamese government. Writing with an impartial eye, and helped by the testimonies of hundreds of the participants, the wars and political manoeuvring are described in sufficient detail to give an overview of events and the experience of the French, American, ANZAC and Vietnamese (both North and South) participants while the elements in the escalation of the war and their effects are also covered. An extensive bibliography will allow for any holes in the specifics of the story to be filled. A well balanced account of one of the great tragedies of the later twentieth century. Well worth reading as a general overview, and recommended to anyone with an interest in the conflict or area, or looking for an impartial voice.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lark Benobi

    This is a beautifully written, riveting story, a book that enlightened me in so many ways. Max Hastings never forgets that history is about human happenings--not movements, not ideologies, not guns or germs or steel. I was fourteen when the Vietnam War ended. My childhood memories are punctuated by memories of this war, and of protests against this war. What a joy, a relief even, to fill in the blanks about events that shaped my world before I could really understand them. The aspect I appreciat This is a beautifully written, riveting story, a book that enlightened me in so many ways. Max Hastings never forgets that history is about human happenings--not movements, not ideologies, not guns or germs or steel. I was fourteen when the Vietnam War ended. My childhood memories are punctuated by memories of this war, and of protests against this war. What a joy, a relief even, to fill in the blanks about events that shaped my world before I could really understand them. The aspect I appreciate most about this book is the way it humanizes actors in the war who were just names to me before--in particular Ho Chi Minh. But even the smallest actors in this story are treated humanely by Hastings--for instance a story about two old women, selling peppers: American Howard Simpson watched exuberant parachutists tearing down a Saigon street in a jeep which crushed and scattered a row of bamboo panniers, filled with red peppers laid out to drain the sun. After the vehicle passed, two old women set to work painstakingly to collect the debris and salvage what they could of their ravaged wares. Here was a minuscule event amid a vast tragedy, yet Simpson asked himself, how could it fail to influence the hears and minds of its victims, those two elderly street sellers? An elegiac recreation of a time and a war that continues to echo on into the present.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Vinh-Thang

    At long last, we have a title for my favorite historian's next book, and it's about Vietnam :) . Looking forward to read this.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jack

    For someone who lived through this period, this book is incredibly illuminating. I went on to join the service after the war was over, I had been too young to go, and until I read this book still never understood the mystery of why we ever went to Vietnam. This book lays that out extremely well. It’s a detailed and well researched read. Interestingly, in the course of reading the book, you become familiar with the Vietnamese names used throughout, which are not necessarily memorable to a western For someone who lived through this period, this book is incredibly illuminating. I went on to join the service after the war was over, I had been too young to go, and until I read this book still never understood the mystery of why we ever went to Vietnam. This book lays that out extremely well. It’s a detailed and well researched read. Interestingly, in the course of reading the book, you become familiar with the Vietnamese names used throughout, which are not necessarily memorable to a western reader. I cannot say enough about this book. It is been a critical resource to me. I guess if I had any criticism at all, it would be that sometimes Mr. Hastings uses pronouns and it is unclear to whom they refer. But that is rare.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Brent

    This book by one of my favorite history writers, Max Hastings, is a brilliant achievement. It is a clearly and accessibly written account of the causes, build-up, major battles and political dynamics of the Vietnam war. All while giving very personal accounts and perspectives from real people involved in both sides of the conflict. It holds no punches in it's indictment of both sides of the war and the reasons why this was one of the darkest and most tragic conflicts in modern history. I have re This book by one of my favorite history writers, Max Hastings, is a brilliant achievement. It is a clearly and accessibly written account of the causes, build-up, major battles and political dynamics of the Vietnam war. All while giving very personal accounts and perspectives from real people involved in both sides of the conflict. It holds no punches in it's indictment of both sides of the war and the reasons why this was one of the darkest and most tragic conflicts in modern history. I have read several different books on Vietnam and loved the Ken Burns documentary on PBS, and feel that this book is currently the definitive history on the conflict. I could not recommend it higher.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Scott Sheriff

    If you're like me, you have enjoyed Hasting's previous histories and this one reflects his traditional strengths: even-handed analysis, concise overviews of the strategic & tactical realities, and plenty of personal anecdotes from all sides to give a flavor of what the conflict was really like. In 'Vietnam', I especially appreciated Hasting's clear-eyed assessment of the failure of leadership on all sides that led to such an epic tragedy. If I have to offer a criticism, I'd say that Hasting' If you're like me, you have enjoyed Hasting's previous histories and this one reflects his traditional strengths: even-handed analysis, concise overviews of the strategic & tactical realities, and plenty of personal anecdotes from all sides to give a flavor of what the conflict was really like. In 'Vietnam', I especially appreciated Hasting's clear-eyed assessment of the failure of leadership on all sides that led to such an epic tragedy. If I have to offer a criticism, I'd say that Hasting's account is relatively America-centric despite his best efforts. This is a common flaw of Vietnam histories and there is a good amount of focus on the realities for North & South Vietnamese people. In conclusion, this is another solid contribution from Hastings and I'm glad that I read it.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    Always enjoyed reading the military works of author and military historian Max Hastings. This latest one did not disappoint and hit the mark of my interest peak into the Vietnam War. I have read books on the Vietnam War. This one is very detailed and covers every aspect of the war-both political and military. For those who have a interest in reading on the Vietnam War, I highly recommend this book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nick Harriss

    A very comprehensive history of the conflicts in Vietnam, but I found it a bit long winded. It will appeal to to readers who prefer lots of personal anecdotes from people on the ground.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jai

    thorough and engaging. negative audiobook points for occasionally unclear quote attributions & a narrator who appears uncomfortable with Vietnamese pronunciations.

  11. 5 out of 5

    George Melhuish

    Now know considerably more about the Vietnam war than I did before (nothing)

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lawrence

  13. 5 out of 5

    John Cronin

  14. 5 out of 5

    Paul Carmichael

  15. 5 out of 5

    FD

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mike

  17. 5 out of 5

    Aunty Janet

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jonesy_laaa

  19. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dr J Peter Saunders

  21. 5 out of 5

    Phil

  22. 4 out of 5

    Edward

  23. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Ellison

  25. 4 out of 5

    Edward Munro

  26. 5 out of 5

    Matt Giddings

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tran

  28. 5 out of 5

    AnnaG

  29. 5 out of 5

    Thom

  30. 4 out of 5

    James

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