An Epic Narrative of an Epic Struggle

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975
Max Hastings
Harper, 857 pages, $37.50

In early 1971, General Creighton Abrams, the head of MACV (U.S. military command in South Vietnam), ordered the interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of roads and warehouses that ran through Laos and Cambodia practically to within an artillery shot of Saigon. The trail was used by the North Vietnamese to supply their armies and the Viet Cong (southern Communist led guerrillas). The latter were much reduced in numbers and effectiveness after frustrating years of efforts by the U.S. and South Vietnamese leaderships to devise a winning strategy.

Indeed, Abrams was following up on incursions into Cambodia the previous spring that aimed to disrupt the sanctuaries the communist forces used in that country while waging a war of conquest against the South. American and ARVN (South Vietnamese) forces operated under evolving rules of engagement that restricted what they could do and where they could do it. Their civilian masters were determined to wage a “limited war,” though the definition of limited was subject to change and with it the war’s objective.

Of all the many contradictions that characterized the Vietnam War, the inability of our side to define its purpose and design a strategy to attain it, in contrast with the enemy’s relentless and ruthless goal of conquest, sticks in memory. The pain of American and Vietnamese lives lost endures; small consolation is found in the reasonable but unproven position that they halted a communist assault all across Asia. And it is not even clear we have learned true lessons from the tragedy.

This hubristic theme was spotted by many observers even before the war ended. Max Hastings’ masterful use of it is judicious inasmuch as it gives the story a classical inexorability. It does not feel contrived, because throughout he intertwines the voices and viewpoints of the actors on the ground with those of the decision makers far away, maintaining coherence with his own understated narration.

Hastings views the war from its end, giving it a certain inexorability. He therefore slips at times into perhaps an excess of disparagement of the anti-communists who were brushed aside when we decided to take over the brunt of the fighting. Ngo Dihn Diem and his supporters, including such American heroes as Dr. Tom Dooley and the romantic Edward Lansdale, are, those who knew them will argue, given insufficient credit for their efforts to keep the war primarily Vietnamese and political. This was the position too of Sir Robert Thompson, who had defeated a communist insurrection in Malaysia and who counseled, to largely deaf ears, a low-level, largely policing effort in the villages of the beleaguered South.

However, while it is overdrawn to cast Diem and his successors as radically corrupt and out of touch with their people, as Hastings tends to do, it is historical fact that after the U.S.-condoned if not organized overthrow and murder of Diem, the fate of Vietnam was in our hands — and on our consciences. The refusal of our civilian leadership to give Creighton Abrams, a fighting general in the mold of the Korean War’s Mathew Ridgway, the means he requested was irresponsible, verging on criminal.

Despite his own retrospective judgments, Hastings is above all an accurate writer and historian, and his dislike of Diem does not blind him to the situation we created. He never forgets who the aggressor was, and like everyone else who has looked at the tragedy of Vietnam, he can only record with bitterness what happened, letting the reader deduce what might have.

“[Seventh Air Force commander Gen. Lucius] Clay’s staff identified four choke points” late in 1970 to Abrams for the early 1971 campaign in Cambodia, “… designated to receive daily for sixty days at least 27 sorties by B-52s and 127 by tactical air units. […Y]et somehow the NVA in the South continued to receive just enough supplies and munitions to keep fighting.”

“Meanwhile,” Hastings continues, “Congressional willingness to fund Vietnamization [the gradual replacement of U.S. combat troops by South Vietnamese] was wearing thin, and USAF sorties [which continued while the fledging South Vietnamese air force was supplied and trained] were ever more restricted. The fourteen thousand a month now authorized represented less than half the 1969 quota. Late in 1970, [President Richard] Nixon and [Defense Secretary Melvin] Laird faced the prospect of financing the war through the following year with only $11 billion, as compared to $30 billion in 1969.”

The strategic situation as Nixon began his third year in the White House is thus described neatly. The enormous power of the United States was never quite enough to win such a vitally important objective as closing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Put another way, our commanders were forced to pull their punches enough to give the communist side reason not to give up its single and single-minded goal of conquering South Vietnam. The doctrine variously called “limited war” or “graduated escalation” was designed to achieve a negotiated peace. It was what lawyers call an out-of-court settlement.

President Nixon could not fix this; the “anti-war” defeatism that had taken hold by1968, at least among the policy making and opinion forming classes, was fast becoming the conventional view of the war. In this sense Ken Burns’ cinematographic history shown on public television last year represents the revised, or one can say the established, standard version.

Nixon’s war aim was to give the South Vietnamese the space and the time to fight off communist aggression largely on their own, assisted by American supplies and air power. And in fact, it almost worked: with a demonstration of courage, devotion to duty, and ingenuity, American soldiers and their ARVN (South Vietnam army) really did push the aggressors back; by 1972, the heavily populated areas of South Vietnam were about as secure and productive as they ever had been in living memory.

It was not enough. The fighting troops pushed the communists out of South Vietnam, but they could not strike at the enemy’s jugular. He could therefore keep on pushing back to break the door down again and again, particularly since his leadership — incarnated by the legendary Ho Chi Minh and effectively personified by Le Duan, utterly without concern for the human toll of his party’s ambition — had no public opinion or political opposition to contend with.

Abrams’s fighting troops were dwindling, due to the ever-impatient restrictions placed on the war effort by the doves in Washington. The effect of the lack of support from the home front was predictable: The American army in Vietnam contended with serious morale problems that came out in drug abuse and small-scale mutinies.

It did the job demanded nonetheless. Often outgunned, usually outnumbered, the dwindling U.S. and ARVN forces in the later years of the war held the line that was entrusted them, most spectacularly during the communists’ Easter 1972 offensive, when Le Duan threw everything he had into a conventional invasion across the demarcation line between the two Vietnams (the 17th parallel), capturing Quang Tri near Hue and overrunning parts of Kontum in the Central Highland. This gave his commanders a clear shot at Saigon, which they also threatened from the east, thanks to a Ho Chi Minh Trail that was up and running again since the U.S. Congress had passed a law prohibiting attacks on it.

After two months of desperate fighting during which many South Vietnamese — and even some Americans — broke and retreated, the allies regrouped and regained most of the lost ground. They were aided by some of the best and most fearlessly piloted fighter bombers and helicopter gunships in the history of aerial warfare.

The response in Washington was to place more restrictions on U.S. combat and advisory personnel and make further cuts in the economic and materiel aid our South Vietnamese allies desperately required.

Max Hastings is eminently qualified to put this impossible situation into a large historical perspective. Fluent in American politics, and specifically the politics of the Vietnam War years, expert in military operations and history for having reported on them during much of his career and written books on the last century’s major wars, he is also a newspaper editor with a sharp sense of what makes a story fair, accurate — and important.

And one should add, interesting. Hastings has sources on Vietnam’s bitter history from every sector, and he uses them to make his 30-year narrative come alive. This is not only a fair and authoritative review of the high commands, the complex politics, the battles on the ground and in the corridors of power and in public opinion. It is also a running documentary of the human toll of the Indochina wars, with vivid portraits of soldiers and civilians on both sides.

How did we get ourselves into a lose-even-if-you-win impasse? Vast question that; but at its core lay a simple strategic mistake and a complex human one. The strategic one was this: you cannot get into a land war in Asia, and certainly not if you do not cripple the enemy’s ability to keep fighting. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said something like this several times after the Korean War and was deeply skeptical, to put it mildly, of a large ground commitment of American troops in Vietnam. He said this to John Kennedy, who liked and admired him, but — well, read the book.

The human error was a deep failure to understand the Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict, notwithstanding the legions of alleged experts who were deployed and the real and true love and loyalty many Americans came to feel for the Vietnamese with whom they lived and fought and worked. This cut both ways, to be sure, and Hastings’s book is rich in examples of alternatively comic, tragic, and always exasperating failures of communication between Americans and Vietnamese.

Every president since Dwight Eisenhower at some time or other solemnly intoned some version of LBJ’s “American boys can’t win Vietnamese boys’ war for them,” and then went right ahead and tried to make American boys do just that. There was more than a touch of cynicism and political calculation in that, as Hastings repeatedly reminds his readers, as there was in the serial misstatements, not to say lies, about how the war was progressing.

But there was also at work a human, not peculiarly American, resistance to disagreeable facts. Which is why the U.S. found itself fighting a war against itself even as it helped its South Vietnamese ally defend itself against an aggressor. When that happened, our soldiers found themselves on a battlefield they were not permitted to isolate, as their training tells them they should, because it was defined for them by policymakers far away who were listening to their own abstract notions of what results their theoretical strategies were supposed to produce.

Hastings is clear, and in this sharply different from the Standard Version represented by Burns, that aggression is as aggression does: the communists started the war, or if you prefer continued it once the French were gone, and they showed what they wanted, and they would do to get it, from the beginning to the end. Massacres, purges, assassinations, terrorism: whatever worked, worked, as long as it advanced the revolutionary cause. When they reached Saigon, one of the first things they did was to continue: purging the Southern comrades and allocating to themselves and the party’s top leaders whatever spoils were available. Nor did they lift a finger, until long after it was too late, to stop their communist comrades in next door Cambodia from perpetrating one of the greatest mass murders in history.

Hastings keeps this fact — who the enemy was and what his purposes and methods were — in relief. It is depressing to remember how much reportorial ink was spilled telling us how corrupt and incompetent “our” Vietnamese were. Hastings shows that the corruption and incompetence was indeed pervasive, but the question should not have been, as the “anti-war” currents insisted, why we supported a corrupt and incompetent government but why we should allow a gang of Stalinist thugs to win a war of aggression. Maybe there was a good answer; maybe the line in the containment sand should never have been the 17th parallel. But the depressing fact is that a “movement” that in effect wanted America to lose a war gained enough influence on public opinion to intimidate a pusillanimous political class.

There is a voluminous literature on Vietnam, and a good thing this is. As we as a nation strive for an uneasy reconciliation with what happened there, even as we know we will never quite reach it, it is well to have this fair-minded a history. As a reference and a poignant reminder of what we did to ourselves and to foreigners who counted on us, it will last.

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Author: Roger Kaplan