Tanya's Reviews > Vietnam: A History

Vietnam by Stanley Karnow
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May 30, 12

bookshelves: history, i-own-it
Read from May 23 to 30, 2012 — I own a copy

I've had this book on my shelf for years, and every time I would hear a newsman or politician draw parallels between the Vietnam War and our latest international entanglements I would think, "I really need to read that book..." It is clear that this conflict of 40 years ago has a great impact on foreign policy decisions of today, and I've always felt that my understanding of current affairs was compromised by my foggy notions about the Vietnam War.

Having spent a week studying this 700-page "monumental narrative" (per back of book), I can't say that the fog in my mind is completely cleared. Our involvement in Southeast Asia in the decades following World War II was nothing if not murky, and even within the counsel rooms at the White House there was never consensus on what we were doing there, if we should be there, and how on earth we were going to get out of there.

But out of the morass of information in Karnow's book, I'll give an extremely watered-down version of what I learned. We put troops in Vietnam because when the neocolonial French departed, they left a power vacuum into which the North Vietnamese Communist Party (among others) stepped. In the 1960's America was obsessed with limiting the spread of Communism (a little like we're afraid today of the spread of fundamental Islam), and we viewed ourselves as the world policeman that needed to step in and fix things. The biggest mistake we made once we were there was completely misunderstanding the mindset of the North Vietnamese and the Southern Vietcong. We expected that they would think like Americans - that if we could flex our technological and military muscles enough they would decide a fight with us was simply not worth it. Instead, they were prepared to be annihilated rather than give up. As Ho Chi Minh said, "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win." We also chose not to recognize the ineptitude of the South Vietnamese government that we were propping up, and didn't want to see the damage our presence was doing to the society. As for our exit from Vietnam, what a mess... And I thought it was hard to pull troops out of Iraq! Johnson chose to not run for re-election rather than deal with the problem, and Nixon pulled every unethical trick he could come up with to enforce support for his policies.

Perhaps surprisingly, I came out feeling more positive about politics after reading this book. I tend to be disgusted by things that are going on in Washington, and assume that it just keeps getting worse. But now I think maybe our leaders have learned a few things from past mistakes, and ARE trying to do things better, even though they make plenty of new mistakes. The world is a complicated place with so many conflicting interests, but I like to at least feel like I understand as much as possible.
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