America was not the first world power to meet defeat in far-distant Vietnam. The reasons for that loss emerge from this welcome overview of that nation’s history.
Sometimes, as with Richard Grant’s book on the Mississippi Delta, Dispatches from Pluto (2015), it helps to have American events explained by a non-American. Here the explainer is Goscha (The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam, 2016, etc.), a historian at the Université du Québec, the thing being explained a decadelong war in a country whose history reaches back millennia. The author’s survey gathers force when he enters the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the establishment of French Indochina, which set up the events that would culminate in war. The French government in Indochina enjoyed a great deal of local autonomy, for good or ill. Among those ills, the author notes in a fascinating aside, was forcing a Romanized alphabet on the country in the place of the classical Chinese ideograms, which “distanced Vietnamese from the East Asian civilizations in which they had moved for centuries.” They may have been unmoored, but nationalists still arose to claim independence, led by the “educated young” who had been schooled on the French model. Enter the Americans, who aimed to suppress this movement after the French failed to do so. Goscha poses a number of counterfactual questions: what might have happened if the cease-fire of 1954 held? What would have ensued if the Americans had not made the French war their own—and, as he points out, had not shouldered 80 percent of the cost of the French war to begin with? The devastation visited on the country in the “hugely assymetrical” American war remains shocking to contemplate; one Viet Cong leader characterizes it as an “experience of undiluted psychological terror.” Goscha closes by noting recent trends that might fulfill the planks of the republican movement of a century ago—and threaten the communist government accordingly.
A vigorous, eye-opening account of a country of great importance to the world, past and future.