30 August 2010

Vietnam: A Narrative History

A.J. Langguth, Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, 766 pages.

As a journalist in Vietnam from 1964 to 1970, A.J. Langguth was one of the architects of the way the Vietnam War was perceived in America. The news he produced for the New York Times, first as a reporter and then as the Saigon bureau chief, was a fundamental building block of what eventually became the common American understanding of the war. In Our Vietnam, A.J. Langguth goes one step further, attempting to capture the entirety of that common understanding in one text. The book, which begins with the closing days of the Eisenhower administration and ends with the unceremonious closure of the American embassy in Saigon, is only about America’s experience in Vietnam. The book dedicates less than ten pages to the thousand year history of Vietnamese resistance before or the painful years of communist totalitarianism after the American War in Vietnam.

Langguth’s Vietnam War was a tragedy caused by “America’s leaders, [who] for thirty years, had failed the people of the North, the people of the South, and the people of the United States” (p. 668). Truman and Eisenhower saw Vietnam as a way to keep France, a Cold War ally, strong. Their successors--Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon--saw South Vietnam as a bulwark against the expansion of communism into Southeast Asia. Moreover, Langguth writes, “One reason for [these] three American presidents to wage war in Vietnam had been to ensure a second term, a term that none of the three was destined to complete” (p. 637). At the Pentagon, the “Never Again Club” (p. 124) demanded ever more forceful measures to fight the war, while successive presidents tried to placate the public and prevent the entry of the Chinese into the conflict by limiting the war’s scale. All of them, Langguth argues in Our Vietnam, missed the true nature of the war, a nationalist struggle to unify Vietnam and sweep away a puppet regime. Langguth concludes, “North Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to win. South Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to lose” (p. 668).

Our Vietnam is light on history and heavy on opinion. As an eye-witness to the American escalation and withdrawal from Vietnam, Langguth can certainly be forgiven having an opinion. But A.J. Langguth frequently substitutes direct observation or commonly held belief for historical proof. In that respect, Our Vietnam is more a collection of commonly held beliefs about the Vietnam War than a history. Furthermore, with the exception of a few anecdotes from North Vietnamese leaders and gut-wrenching stories of the suffering of the Vietnamese on both sides, there is little analysis of the Vietnamese perspective on the conflict. Our Vietnam is a great introduction to the war for those with no background in the conflict, but refuses to question any of the popular assumptions that have become the national narrative about America’s Vietnam War.

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