March 9th 2019


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COVER STORY Commissioner Hayne offers banking stimulus

EDITORIAL Beijing's warning shot hits our soft economic underbelly

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coal ban just one front in Beijing's war on everyone

RURAL AFFAIRS Activist groups harass farmers while claiming tax-exempt status

BANKING ROYAL COMMISSION Dealing with disaster back into the too-hard basket

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Why Hungary and Poland rile the EU

RELIGION AND POLITICS Christians resolve to raise their voices in the public square

GENDER POLITICS Another freedom bites the dust under Daniel Andrews

FAMILY AND SOCIETY The end of 'Liberalism'

CHINA Thank you for your service, soft power; sharp power will take it from here

SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY Fermi's Paradox: Is Big Alien watching you?

MUSIC Perpetual vibe: From medium to media

CINEMA At Eternity's Gate: Impressions of Vincent

BOOK REVIEW Balanced account after the hysteria

BOOK REVIEW Golden Age for workers and its end

LETTERS

POETRY

SPECIAL EDITORIAL Has Cardinal George Pell been wrongly convicted?

THE CARDINAL PELL CASE: Triumphalism over Pell verdict shows civilisation just a veneer

THE CARDINAL PELL FILE

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BOOK REVIEW
Balanced account after the hysteria




News Weekly, March 9, 2019

VIETNAM: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–75

by Max Hastings

HarperCollins, London
Paperback: 752 pages
Price: AUD$34.99

Reviewed by Bill James

Back in the late 1960s, I demonstrated against the Vietnam War as part of the “Neither Washington nor Hanoi” contingent.

While realising that such an ideal outcome was unlikely, I had decided that the tragic imposition of neo-Stalinism on the Vietnamese people was a lesser evil than the continuation of hostilities, with its consequent possible destruction of the country of Vietnam.

After all, the conflict cost somewhere between 2 and 3 million lives, with 40 Vietnamese dying for each American.

I am still not sure whether I was right or wrong.

The Korean people also suffered greatly in the period 1950–53, but in the end communist aggression was contained, and a democratic and prosperous South Korea eventually emerged as a shining contrast to the murderous and poverty-stricken theocracy under which its fellow-Koreans exist in the North.

Perhaps something similar could have eventuated in Vietnam.

Perhaps.

Idealistic illusions v venality

Other Western protestors, for whom the Viet Cong were so many Che Guevaras (Hastings: “Ho Chi Minh’s ‘freedom fighters’ became imbued with a romantic glow”), actually supported the communists, on the racist grounds that, while they themselves would not want to live under left-wing totalitarianism, it was probably a good system for mere Asians.

One of the many strengths of Hastings’ book, is that he is every bit as clear-eyed about the cruelty, cunning, callousness and control-freakery of the communists, as he is about the hamfistedness and downright corruption of French colonialism, the rulers of South Vietnam, and the U.S.-led military alliance.

France, after 1945, was determined to compensate for the humiliations of World War II by restoring its empire in Indochina. It did not, and could not, realise that this was impracticable, given the postwar independence zeitgeist, until forced to face reality by defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Saigon’s successive administrations under Diem, Minh, Thieu, Ky, and other lesser-known politicians, were venal and incompetent, and never inspired deep loyalty and commitment in the South Vietnamese people or the South Vietnamese armed forces.

Hastings: “Hanoi told many lies about many things, but it spoke truth when it asserted that the leaders of the Saigon regime were puppets.”

America’s military involvement at its peak involved 500,000 personnel, though “there never were and never could have been enough American troops to seek out the enemy while simultaneously protecting South Vietnam’s populated areas”.

Then there were the buildings, bases, trucks, tanks, artillery, ships, carriers, planes, helicopters and consumer goods (from air-conditioners to ice-cream) on an inexhaustible scale.

Stomping such a massive footprint on a small, poor country – an impact exacerbated by a tactical dependence on indiscriminate and overwhelming firepower – meant that all the American goodwill in the world could not mitigate the impression that Vietnam had been occupied by an invader resembling “some sci-fi movie giant, lumbering across the landscape, expunging tranquility, smashing fragile structures in its path”, as Hastings puts it.

The communists, on the other hand, even if millions of their compatriots shuddered at the thought of living under their dictatorship, were at least Vietnamese themselves, and their victory would, if nothing else, put an end to the disruption and destruction caused by the fighting.

It was a sad case of “better the devil you know”.

In the South, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese forces followed a strategy reminiscent of the Mafia’s. Using their knowledge of the language, the culture and the social networks, they were able to infiltrate communities at the grassroots level.

They then professed a fellow-victimhood with ordinary Vietnamese; brainwashed idealistic young people; made popular but false promises (for example, land redistribution, which turned out to be collectivisation); and responded to any hint of non-compliance with punishments that extended to public beheadings, eviscerations, castrations and “tortures of medieval ingenuity”.

There is no doubting the courage and endurance displayed by the communist side. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese communists, whether forced or voluntary, and whether fighting, labouring, or lugging material down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, underwent privations – hunger, sickness, exposure, poverty, wounds, bombing – that few Westerners could have tolerated.

History, however, shows that outstanding bravery can co-exist with bestial evil, as witness the Japanese and Waffen-SS soldiers of World War II.

What Hastings terms Hanoi’s “iron control over information and access” meant that it always held a propaganda advantage over its opponents, whose free media devoted maximum coverage to the problems of the allies, while consistently ignoring communist atrocities.

For example, the American massacre of 500 civilians at My Lai of March, 1968, was rightly exposed and condemned by the Western press; but the officially administered National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) murder of between 3,000 and 6,000 civilians at Hue, a month earlier, received little interest or comment.

As Hastings puts it: “The communists murdered people even more barbarically, but had the prudence not to invite along the world’s TV cameras … Among images that inflicted special injury upon American purposes were that of Saigon’s police chief shooting a Viet Cong prisoner … and of a screaming child running naked … after falling victim to a 1972 napalm strike. Hanoi released no comparable snapshots of cadres executing indigenous opponents by burying them alive.”

Western journalists and, ultimately, therefore, an influential proportion of Western public opinion, also execrated American presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Both were guilty of stupidity and duplicity (such as the 1964 Tonkin Gulf imbroglio). Both made mistakes, including policy decisions such as the expansion of the bombing program, which caused a prolongation of Indochina’s suffering. But neither had ever been a gung-ho supporter of the war, and both wanted out.

Johnson escalated the involvement that he had inherited from John F. Kennedy, as a result of pressures to do with American politics rather than with a Cold War foreign policy, and was more interested in his domestic Great Society program.

Joseph Alsop, quoted by Hastings, wrote at the time: “There is a genuine element of pathos … in the spectacle of this extraordinary man in the White House wrestling with the Vietnamese problem, which is so distasteful to him, and all the while visibly longing to go back to the domestic miracle-working he so much enjoys.”

And neither was prepared to contemplate the only possibly viable – if tremendously risky! – ultimate solution: invading North Vietnam.

North Vietnam was certainly bombed, but “napalm, used promiscuously on Saigon’s territory, was never authorised on Hanoi’s”; and, in the sort of ploy emulated today by Israel’s rocket-firing enemies in the Middle East, the “North Vietnamese placed SAMs in Hanoi’s football stadium, knowing that no harm would befall them”.

A war fought on the ground, won in the media

Although the conflict dragged on for another seven years, it was generally understood, from the president down to the lowliest, disillusioned, pot-smoking grunt, that after the 1968 Tet Offensive (a military victory for the allies, but a media victory for the communists), the war was unwinnable.

Interestingly, despite their public revolutionary rhetoric, and their supply of military resources to Hanoi, “the Russians and Chinese were far less interested in the fate of Indochina, and explicitly of Vietnam, than Washington’s Cold Warriors supposed”.

Viewed in geopolitical terms, the war was a distraction, but a distraction with the potential to affect the two communist superpowers’ relations with the United States; “ABM and SALT treaties were of vastly more import than Indochina”.

The collapse came in 1975 with devastating suddenness.

Accounts of final heroic stands by the much-maligned Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN), such as the battle of Xuan Loc, bring tears to the eyes, but in the big picture it had come down to a contest of patience, discipline and determination, and in the end the communists had held out the longest.

For 200,000 South Vietnamese, the communist victory meant periods of up to 17 years in wretched “re-education” camps. At a conservative estimate, about 10,000 died in captivity.

Asylum or resignation to oppression

For thousands of others, it meant risking death at sea as asylum-seekers in small, leaky vessels as they struggled to reach freedom in Australia. There they suffered hate speech from the left, who smeared them as criminals. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam referred to them as “f---ing Vietnamese Balts”.

Those who remained in Vietnam reconciled themselves to a future without war, but also without democracy, without open and independent justice, and without freedoms such as those of speech, assembly or religion.

This repressive culture still stagnates 44 years later, under the secretive successors of éminence grise Le Duan, who took over as leader from the murderous “Uncle” Ho in 1969, and died in 1986.

“[The] Hanoi politburo and National Liberation Front caused the South Vietnamese people merely to exchange oppression by warlords and landlords in favour of even harsher subjection to disciples of Stalin.”

Max Hastings is a popular historian at the peak of his craft, and his 700-page paperback not only analyses the politics and higher military direction of the war, but quotes the personal experiences of South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, American, Australian and Russian participants in the conflict.

When it comes to books, this could well be the best value for money you will come across this year.


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