Succinct history of a frustrating war that raised several painful issues America’s leaders are now encountering for a second time.
Lawrence (History/Univ. of Texas; Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam, 2005) enjoyed access to Soviet archives and North Vietnamese participants, so he presents more information than was available 30 years ago—but it’s still largely an American show. After a bloody victory over the French in 1954, charismatic Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh vehemently opposed the treaty that divided Vietnam in half, on the grounds that he had won the whole. It was Russia and China, preoccupied with their own problems and unwilling to provoke the United States, who twisted Ho’s arm, the author reveals. Ironically, American leaders also opposed the treaty because it involved a compromise with communism, something they vowed never to do. Keeping South Vietnam independent, U.S. authorities agreed, required a capable South Vietnamese army led by a competent government that enjoyed popular support. In less than 200 pages, Lawrence records America’s 20-year failure to accomplish this. The author spends little time on the actual fighting but makes clear the immense destruction U.S. firepower inflicted on insurgent forces, North Vietnamese troops and North Vietnam itself, as well as the civilian population on both sides. He excels in describing Lyndon Johnson and then Nixon and Kissinger desperately struggling to find an acceptable excuse to withdraw. In a justification that contemporary readers will find familiar, all three repeatedly asserted that retreating without victory would shame us before the world and embolden our enemies. The author points out that the opposite happened. America’s popularity plunged the longer we fought and recovered afterward. Neither North Vietnam nor communism prospered following our withdrawal.
A pithy and compelling account of an intensely relevant topic.