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America’s Longest War

The Vietnam War was a journalists’ war. It produced much excellent reporting, and from the time of David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan in the early 1960s, correspondents became participants. The role of journalism and especially television in the outcome has been one of the most contentious issues from a war filled with controversy, and lessons drawn from Vietnam have significantly influenced the United States government’s muzzling of the media in subsequent wars and military interventions.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that journalists have also written many of the best books about the war. Even before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Halberstam’s “Best and the Brightest” and Frances FitzGerald’s “Fire in the Lake” set the standard for the first generation of Vietnam histories. Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam: A History” and Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie” were among the finest accounts produced in the 1980s.

A.J. Langguth’s “Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975" should take its place with these classics. Now a professor of journalism at USC, Langguth did three tours in Vietnam as a New York Times correspondent. He has been collecting materials for this book for years and has written a magisterial narrative history. The book does not develop new arguments or explicitly address the many war issues that still divide Americans. Its strengths, rather, are in its skillful retelling of a well-known story, and in the way it captures the many dimensions of the war and re-creates the emotions and ambience of a turbulent era.

The research is impressive. Langguth has thoroughly mined the voluminous published materials on the war, coming up with interesting and important new information, telling quotes and revealing anecdotes. He has talked with numerous participants, and his interviews with North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front leaders as well as ordinary Vietnamese are especially valuable in filling in that essential, but for Americans, often-neglected side of the war. He also uses important scholarly work based on newly opened Chinese and Soviet archives to show in all its complexity the intricate and constantly shifting relationship between Hanoi, Moscow and Beijing during 25 years of war.

Langguth’s organization is ingenious. This is a book above all about people. Its four parts are titled with the names of North Vietnamese and U.S. leaders: John F. Kennedy and Ho Chi Minh (1960-1963); Vo Nguyen Giap and Lyndon Johnson (1964-1968); Richard M. Nixon and Le Duc Tho (1969-1974); Le Duan and Gerald Ford (1975). Chapters are named for participants, major officials like South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, and lesser figures like American journalists Homer Bigart and Harrison Salisbury and Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Within the chapters, Langguth skillfully blends mini-biographies of the numerous characters with the events in which they are involved. The result is a very human and eminently readable narrative in which people are brought to life and shown influencing and responding to developments in Vietnam and the United States.

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The technique is least effective in the beginning of the book. In places, Langguth skips back and forth from one person to another so rapidly that the narrative flow is disrupted. He does not explain how and especially why the United States got involved in Vietnam in the first place. The word “containment” is scarcely mentioned, and the dramatic confluence of events that produced, in early 1950, the Truman administration’s fateful decision to assist the French in their war against the Communist-led Vietminh is not sketched in. Nor is he especially good on the climactic year 1954 and the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu, the inconclusive Geneva Conference that ended the First Indochina War and laid the basis for the second or the crucial U.S. commitment to assist South Vietnamese Premier Diem.

George C. Herring is a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and is the author of “America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975.”

Once into the heart of the subject, the narrative gains force and moves smoothly and compellingly toward its epic conclusion. Langguth nicely juxtaposes decision-making in Washington, Hanoi, Beijing and Moscow to put the war in a broad international context. He skillfully integrates key decisions with military and political developments in South Vietnam. The focus is on high-level decision-making, but attention is also given to lesser but still important players. Americans, not surprisingly, get the most attention, but Vietnamese, northern and southern, are given extensive coverage and humanized. The narrative brilliantly recaptures the hopes, illusions, fears, suspicions, frustrations and disappointments of these tumultuous years.

There are especially deft characterizations of key figures. Of CIA operative Edward Lansdale, Langguth writes: “Under a beaky nose, Lansdale’s black brush mustache waggled in a seemingly artless grin, and he charmed villagers by playing his harmonica.” And McNamara “slicked back his hair until, with his blunt features, he looked rather like a snub-nosed bullet, and his clear-rimmed glasses could seem more a shield against the world than an aid to understanding it.”

There are shrewd insights into the interrelationships that decisively affected policy decisions and events. Langguth vividly portrays the rampant disorder that characterized decision-making in the Kennedy White House. Johnson and his domesticated dissenter, Undersecretary of State George W. Ball, cut an unspoken deal ensuring that Ball “could always speak and could always be ignored.” The account of the maneuvering between LBJ and McNamara that led to the latter’s 1967 resignation is masterful.

Events are juxtaposed in ways that show how they influenced one another and how the war must have felt to participants. Looking at the summer and fall of 1965, for example, Langguth skillfully blends discussion of major decisions in Hanoi and Washington that led to full-scale war, the first frightful and enormously bloody encounter between U.S. Army combat forces and North Vietnamese regulars in the Ia Drang valley in November, the capture and torture by the North Vietnamese of American Air Force pilot Robinson Risner and the self-immolation of Quaker Norman Morrison outside McNamara’s Pentagon office, an event that the former secretary of defense has conceded devastated him.

The narrative proceeds seamlessly through the stalemated and bloody war of 1966-'67, the shock of the North Vietnamese-National Liberation Front Tet Offensive of 1968, Johnson’s dramatic withdrawal from the presidential race and the tumult at home and in Vietnam that stamped the Nixon era. It concludes with a dramatic account of the 1975 denouement, which was for the North Vietnamese and--momentarily--for the NLF a thrilling victory; for the South Vietnamese the tragic extinction of their country; and for the Americans a painful and traumatic defeat.

Langguth does not develop an explicit thesis, but on the big questions he leaves no doubt where he stands. The United States should not have fought the war in Vietnam and could not have won. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon each kept American GIs fighting and dying in Vietnam to gain for himself a second term. Despite the high price paid, none achieved his goal.

American policymakers are subjected to devastating critique. All but ignoring that much debated and ultimately unanswerable question of what Kennedy would have done had he lived, Langguth focuses on what JFK actually did about Vietnam while in office: He “delayed, vacillated, and clung to options” that would protect his career.

Despite consistently gloomy reports from Saigon, Johnson was hell-bent to win in Vietnam. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was stubborn and loyal to a fault, and at the end, by some reports, he was drinking heavily. McNamara was tormented by indecision about the war and played fast and loose with the truth. In the space of minutes in 1966, he could privately agree with Daniel Ellsberg’s pessimistic assessment of the situation in South Vietnam, then publicly inform reporters with his customary jaunty optimism: “I’m glad to be able to tell you that we’re showing great progress in every dimension of our effort.”

Like Kennedy and Johnson, Nixon understood that a second term required continuing the war. During the 1968 presidential campaign, Henry A. Kissinger maneuvered frantically and shamelessly to ingratiate himself with all major candidates to ensure appointment to a key position whoever won. As national security advisor, he persuaded Nixon to try to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, mainly to protect his reputation and prove his loyalty. He pushed Nixon to launch the so-called Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, although he recognized that it was not justified in terms of North Vietnamese actions. When it provoked outrage throughout the world, he tried to distance himself from the decision.

Langguth is more sympathetic with the purposes of the North Vietnamese, especially their long-standing goal of unifying their country, but he makes clear the brutal measures they were willing to use and the human cost they were prepared to accept, highlighting in the process the naivete of some American antiwar intellectuals.

His conclusion is abrupt, to the point and hard-hitting. On April 30, 1975, he observes, “one judgment was possible about the war just ended: North Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to win. South Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to lose. And America’s leaders, for thirty years, had failed the people of the North, the people of the South, and the people of the United States.”

“Our Vietnam” is not the place to look for searching analysis of broad historical forces or extended arguments on major historical issues. It should stand for some time, however, as the finest narrative history of America’s longest war.


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