The prolific, prizewinning military historian turns his attention to the Vietnam War.
Having defeated the French after a bitter war, Vietnamese forces under Ho Chi Minh expected to govern Vietnam, but in 1954, the Geneva Conference awarded them only the northern half. Ironically, Ho’s frustration was engineered by the Soviet Union and China, whose priority was to avoid intervention from the United States. Of course, the U.S. eventually intervened. Hastings (The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, 2016, etc.) lets no one off the hook. “In the years that followed the Geneva Accords,” he writes, “it was the misfortune of both Vietnams to fall into the hands of cruel and incompetent governments….The war that now gained momentum was one that neither side deserved to win.” The author brings his usual brilliant descriptive skills to the action, mixing individual anecdotes with big-picture considerations. Stupidity was rampant on both sides, and the North Vietnamese generalship was not immune; all combatants committed terrible atrocities. Hastings does not conceal his contempt for America’s anti-war movement. He makes a good case that fear of the draft stimulated many participants, and readers will squirm as he quotes many of its leaders’ praise of Ho and his freedom fighters. He also offers a virtuoso account of the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was a disaster for the North but convinced many hawks that the war was unwinnable. Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 showed that most Americans opposed a quick withdrawal, but his cynical goal (revealed by his own tapes) was to avoid blame for the inevitable communist victory, and he achieved it. No domino fell after 1975, as a united Vietnam faded into impoverished Stalinist isolation. The sole satisfying outcome of two recent American interventions in poor nations with incompetent governments is likely to be more superb histories by Hastings.
A definitive history, gripping from start to finish but relentlessly disturbing.