Monday, February 11, 2019

"Vietnam - an Epic Tragedy 1945-1975" - a review..

...ever found yourself part way into a book and thought - "Good God, what have I taken on!" .. in a good kind of way of course... 
So it was with this book - it is HUGE. The scope is enormous - from the end of the Second World War to the fall of Saigon, and the research is meticulous and the detail very, very, extensive..

I 'enjoyed' every minute as Hastings is one of my favourite historians, he has an easy to read style that keeps you engaged, but it is a big old book and kept me occupied for almost a month...

So what do you get?

An almost week by week history of the Vietnamese conflict from the French Colonial period to shprtly after the last American troops were withdrawn*

How the scene was set first by French colonial  occupiers who returned at the end of the war looking to pick up where they left off but finding an all too different environment dominated by the communist movement lead by Ho Chi Minh, that they were incapable of adapting to, or controlling..

The increasing numbers of 'atrocities' met by a greater and greater French military reaction lead by French Foreign Legion and other regular troops that culminated in the miraculous victory by Giap  (surely one of the great unknown military strategists) and the Viet Minh communist forces at Dien Bien Phu [clicky] which culminated in France giving up it's control, and the partition of Vietnam into the communist north (capital Hanoi) and non-communist south (capital Saigon) either side of a demilitarized zone..  horrifying times - they think almost a million people moved south out of the north region - mostly Catholics - and because of fear of punishment by the Viet Minh if they stayed..

..and it got worse...

Poor southern governments (utterly, and appallingly inept), communist incursions driven by Hanoi, civil unrest in the south driven by protest at the state of government, and subsequent crackdowns lead to a military coup and the first of a succession of generals in charge of south Vietnam and surely, but slowly at first, US involvement to support the generals began to grow from about 1964 (Hastings is good on the Tonkin incident, very even handed) plateauing at about half a million troops by 1965..

The American's poured billions into Vietnam, and thousands of their troops died, and for little or no benefit... there was a fundamental failing in that for all the war bodies, tanks, bombs, Huey's (and in one operation the Americans used 500 of them - what a sight that would have been!!), shells and ammunition, there was a disconnect between the American's and the south Vietnamese that never saw the south Vietnamese really engage with what they needed to do - it was almost like they (not all of them) sat back and let the American's get on with it..

It's all in here..  Khe Sanh, US issues with drugs, collapse of morale, collapse of discipline, "fragging" (I knew the phrase, but not what it actually was about), My Lai, the role of the Australian's (I had not realised how many troops they committed), the Ho Chi Minh trail, Arclight (the B52 bomber strategy).. hugely readable, and I was itching to start a collection until I looked over and saw the painting table already pre-loaded...

..and then there was Tet, and it all started to really unravel - the American's and their south Vietnamese allies may have won the tactical battle, but the strategic battle was won by the Viet Minh and from that point onwards the descent is rapid...

Withdrawal of American troops starts, driven by opinion in the US and the anti-war movement, and then aid starts to dry up, and then the Americans leave the south Vietnamese unsupported except for a whole load of empty promises no US politician was ever going to enact in the climate of opinion at the time...

Saigon eventually fell to the Viet Minh just 7 years after Tet..

Superb book - definitely a 10'er - but oh my, so depressing - the inevitability of the failure was clear, and the whole sorry history reminded me very much of the book I read on the Fall of France [clicky] - there is that same inevitability (the southern Vietnamese army even had their own "Dunkirk moment") and you just know that it is not going to end well...

Wholly recommended

*we don't count "advisors" as troops...


  1. Hi Steve,

    I got this for Christmas in hardback and as you rightly say, it is a really good one volume history but very bleak indeed! Mention of the Aussies reminds me of one of the best films I have ever seen on 'Nam - The Odd Angry Shot. If you get the chance to watch it then do so.

    I would like to tackle the war in some fashion and there are some great figures around. Life is too short though!

    All the best,


    1. DC - I went through a period about 20 or so years ago where I was reading quite a lot of Vietnam memoirs(Dispatches, Chickenhawk, etc) and I was within a gnats whisker of starting a project then... like you I'd still like to try a project in the period but I'm not sure it's something I could transfer to the table! Better just stick with the music... PS. I'll keep an eye open for the film..

  2. I will look out for this book. There is something horrendously interesting about this conflict. I am sure you might have seen/heard about the 10 part Vietnam series by Ken Burns which I think was on BBC4 and is now on Netflixs. Well worth seeing.


    1. Guy, very much recommended but not what you'd call a relaxing read...! I have that Ken Burns series on my want list - just waiting for it to come down in price a bit

  3. This is on my "To Buy at earliest chance" list. Thank you for the review!

    1. David - it is a truly massive book, but it is not matter of quantity over quality - quite the reverse - you won't be disappointed..