Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 By Max Hastings, HarperCollins, 2018

When it comes to war histories, the Vietnam War and World War I are in a class by themselves. More sheer nonsense has been written about these two conflicts than just about any other war in history. Both wars shook to their very foundations two of the world’s greatest powers of the time, Britain in the Great War and the United States in Vietnam. Thus, in a very real sense, both wars are still being fought and re-fought in history books, novels and movies, which partisans of all ideological stripes use to advance their social and historical agendas. There are, of course, many excellent histories too. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975, by the highly regarded British historian Max Hastings, is the latest excellent general history of the war in Southeast Asia. It is also one of the most balanced and objective books about Vietnam you will ever read.

Until recently, most books about Vietnam have been written by French or American authors. They tend to focus on the war as a tragedy for, or an atrocity by, their own particular nations. Not having a national position to defend or condemn himself, Hastings focuses on the war as first and foremost a tragedy for the Vietnamese. But he does not fall into the trap of wallowing in sentimentality for the communist side, as did Frances FitzGerald in her 1972 book, The Fire in the Lake.

Hastings makes it clear that the Vietnamese people, both north and south, were victims of their own governments. The government of South Vietnam was incompetent, hopelessly corrupt, and cared little for the common people. The government of North Vietnam may have been better organized, disciplined and ideologically focused, but the core of its system was an imposed and rigid conformity, enforced with brutal Stalinist suppression. As Hastings points out, “The Hanoi Politburo and National Liberation Front caused the South Vietnamese people merely to exchange oppression by warlords and landlords in favor of even harsher subjection to the disciples of Stalin.”

Hastings offers hard, but objective and fair, analyses of the two major outside actors in Vietnam’s 1945-75 war, France during the first phase and the United States during the second. France’s mistake was its desperate attempt to hold onto a colonial empire. America’s error was a blind commitment to support any anti-communist regime, regardless of how far removed that regime might be from the nation’s own values and principles. Americans naively believed that they could remake South Vietnam in their own image. If recent history is any indicator, that is a lesson the United States seems yet to have learned.

All sides—France, the United States, South and North Vietnam—were guilty of their share of brutalities and atrocities. But every American misstep was widely reported by the world’s free press, while the Stalinist regime in the north allowed no such unrestricted reporting of its actions. As Hastings notes: “Relative American openness, contrasted with the Communist commitment to secrecy, in my view, constitutes a claim upon a fragment of the moral high ground.”

All sides also obfuscated and attempted to spin the facts to their own advantage. Hanoi, for example, has yet to acknowledge the slaughter by its troops of thousands of civilians at Hue in February 1968 during the  communists’ Tet Offensive. On the other hand, the American government’s attempt to cover up the March 1968 My Lai Massacre by U.S. troops ultimately failed, and the ugly truth came out. And as Hastings notes: “The egregious error committed by U.S. statesmen and commanders was not that of lying to the world, but rather that of lying to themselves.”