An unsparing look at the Vietnam War's mountain of lies
Etched on panel 67 west at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial wall are just some of the 89 soldiers who died on the same day, May 25, 1968. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post) Columnist October 17 at 5:51 PM
Early in his Marine Corps career, which he concluded as a four-star general, Walter Boomer was decorated for valor in Vietnam. He distilled into three words the lesson of that debacle: âTell the truth.â Max Hastings, an eminent British journalist and historian, has done that in a book that is a painful but perhaps inoculating re-imm ersion in what Americans would prefer to forget.
âVietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975â is a product of Hastingsâs prodigious research and his aptitude for pungent judgments. It is an unsparing look, by a warm friend of America, at the mountain of mendacities, political and military, that accumulated as the nation learned the truth of the philosopher Michael Oakeshottâs axiom: âTo try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise.â
Vietnam remains an American sorrow of squandered valor, but it was vastly more a tragedy for the Vietnamese, 2 million to 3 million of whom died during the 30 yearsâ war â" about 40 for every American who died during the 10 years of intense U.S. futility. U.S. statesmen and commanders, Hastings writes, lied too much to the nation and the world but most calamitously to themselves.
In 1955, Hastings writes, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sent a cable to Saigon authorizing the remov al of South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, âmuch as he might have ordered the sacking of an unsatisfactory parlor maid.â Six hours later, Dulles changed his mind, so Diem lived until he was murdered in the 1963 coup authorized by President John F. Kennedy. Hastingsâs tangy writing tells us that as the coup approached, a U.S. operative arrived at the South Vietnamese armyâs headquarters âcarrying a .357 revolver and $40,000 in cash, which he deemed the appropriate fashion accessories for an afternoonâs work overthrowing a government.â
âOld Ho [Chi Minh] canât turn that down,â said President Lyndon B. Johnson of his offer to buy North Vietnam out of the war with $1 billion for a Mekong River dam. Americaâs president fit part of Graham Greeneâs description of the title character in his novel set in Saigon, âThe Quiet Americanâ: âI never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he causedâ and who was âimpregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.â Except Johnsonâs intentions were often self-serving.
In 1964, he unnecessarily sacrificed truth and, as an eventual result, young men to achieve a 44-state landslide, which was won three months after confusions compounded by lies produced the Tonkin Gulf Resolutionâs limitless authorization for warmaking. Eight years later, President Richard M. Nixon twisted military strategy, diplomacy and the truth for domestic political advantage â" while cruising to a 49-state romp.
Soldiers and Marines died because their M16 rifles were given to malfunctioning in combat. The manufacturerâs response was what Hastings calls âa barrage of lies,â with which the Army was complicit.
Almost every Hastings page contains riveting facts, such as these about the French, whose Indochina miseries preceded Americaâs: âWhile they abolished the old custom of condemning adulteresses to be trampled to death by elephants .â.â. opiu m consumption soared after the colonial power opened a Saigon refinery.â
Eddie Adamsâs Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Saigonâs police chief shooting a Viet Cong in the head during the 1968 Tet Offensive seemed to validate some Americansâ sympathies for the enemy. Hastings casts a cold eye, noting that the Viet Cong was in civilian clothes and had just cut the throats of a South Vietnamese officer, his wife, their six children and the officerâs 80-year-old mother.
Hastingsâs detailed reports of battles â" a few famous ones; others unremembered except by participants on both sides, some of whom Hastings tracked down â" are as successful as printed words can be in achieving his aim of answering the question âWhat was the war like ?â âThis,â says Hastings, âwas a âGroundhog Dayâ conflict, in which contests for a portion of elephant grass, jungle, or rice paddy were repeated not merely month after month, but year upon year.â Americaâs i nevitable failure there might, however, with Hastingsâs help, prevent America from having a âGroundhog Dayâ foreign policy.
A history book can be a historic act if, by modifying a nationâs understanding of its past, it alters future behavior. Obviously Vietnam itself was insufficiently instructive. On Page 752, the bookâs concluding words are Boomerâs: âIt bothers me that we didnât learn a lot. If we had, we would not have invaded Iraq.â Sometimes, contrary to Marx, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then not as farce but as tragedy again.
Read more from George F. Willâs archive or follow him on Facebook.
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