The 50th anniversary of the Vietnam war has produced an outpouring of books, along with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour television spectacular, which sparked in the United States yet another round of heated debate on the war. The journalist and military historian Max Hastings’s fast-paced and often compelling narrative will surely rank as one of the best products of this half-century reappraisal.
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy is a monumental undertaking. Many books analyse major Vietnam war policy decisions. Others discuss military operations; still others recount personal experiences. Hastings does all three in a single volume, although he gives greatest attention to the on-the-ground activities of North and South Vietnamese, NLF and NVA, Americans, Australians and even New Zealanders.
Americans usually date their Vietnam war from 1961, when John F. Kennedy drastically escalated the US commitment, or from Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 decisions to bomb North Vietnam and send combat troops to the South. Hastings treats the first and second Indochina wars as a single entity. The conflict begins with Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence from France in September 1945 and ends with the fall of Saigon in April 1975.
Controversy raged worldwide during the war itself, continued long after it ended, and persists a half century later. Hastings tackles the key issues head on. Why did the United States spend 58,000 lives and an estimated $150 billion on an area so remote and seemingly insignificant? He stresses Cold War exigencies and above all US domestic politics. There is no Reagan-like ‘noble cause’ here, no Ken Burns’s good intentions gone awry. From Truman to Nixon, US leaders escalated the commitment rather than be ‘seen to quit, fail, or lose… to the communists’, while ignoring the needs and interests of the Vietnamese people.
Hastings is surely right in emphasising domestic politics.