Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Vietnam: A History

Vietnam by Stanley Karnow
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it was amazing

Stanley Karnow's 1983 Vietnam: A History is a solid 4.5- to 5-star history of a nation most known in the United States as being the place where America lost its first war. Although the cover splash of my copy reads "The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War," the book goes past U.S. involvement and even, say, the French war from 1946 through 1954, back to the first European visits to the region in the fourteenth century and then the 1600s, and even to the "begin[nings]" of Vietnamese "recorded history, as registered in Chinese annals" in 208 B.C. (1983 paperback, page 99).

Karnow's sweep across this expanse of time and space--from the ancient kingdoms of two millennia ago, through the jungles and cities of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Indochina and the halls of power of once-mighty France, to Washington and Beijing and Moscow and the final wide-ranging interviews of the author's 1981 return to Vietnam--is impressive. This contextualizing is especially needed, too, when it otherwise is so easy, at least for Americans, to focus solely on the ten years following the arrival of the first U.S. Marines at Da Nang in 1965. Karnow was a journalist assigned to the region from the 1950s onward, so his own observations of the events at the time are detailed and probing, and his historical research of especially the 1800s onward provides crucial background.

Vietnam: A History is balanced and informative. At the same time that Karnow notes the self-serving hypocrisies of France and, later, the United States, he reminds us as well that the Communists were no angels. Yes, the Viet Minh truly believed in their cause, believing they were freeing their southern brethren from Western overlords, but they were just as prone to outrages and massacres of civilian dissidents as any other party in the war, and of course they were fiercely opposed to freedom of religion, expression, and property. Karnow points out numerous instances throughout the recent quarter-century conflict when various sorts of settlement perhaps might have been reached if only both sides had understood the other better, and been willing to flex their positions just a little more. It was a time, however, when both sides felt their cause justified and inevitable, and compromise simply was not possible.

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Reading Progress

December 27, 2020 – Started Reading
January 27, 2021 – Finished Reading
February 14, 2021 – Shelved

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