VIETNAM: A History

Books on Agent Orange Dioxin and the Vietnam War

Vietnam: A History

By:  Stanley Karnow Revised Edition (1991-11-12)

Publisher: The Viking Press Viking Adult (1818)

Pages: 784 pages

Publication: Paperback / June 1st 1997

Edition: (first published January 1st 1983)


ISBN: 0140265473 | 9780140265477

The very outline of the book sets the tone. Stanley Karnow begins Vietnam: A History in Vietnam and slowly moves to the present day.

He paints a vivid picture of the tortures of French colonialism, the effects it has on the peasants and the very make-up of their society, essentially laying open for readers a subtle trap into which we fall.

He makes us look at the war from a different angle. Understanding the history of Vietnam, the one problem the U.S. fatally never overcame in the mind of Karnow, adds a new dimension.

This is important.

It allows one to see the elements of liberation and revolution. One can almost sympathize and cheer in the face of yet another extrapolated struggle against what Rudyard Kipling eulogized as the white man’s burden.

As Ho Chi Minh stood on a crude wooden platform on 2 September 1946 to pronounce the free and autonomous Vietnam, the reader is left to wonder why–why did the United States not support him and his nation’s fight for freedom? Karnow proposes an answer, but what we will see is that it merely leads to many more complicated questions.

First, however, it is important to understand his portrayal of all the involved factions: the Vietnamese–both north and south–the French, and the U.S.. This is crucial, because none are portrayed in a good light, as waging a just fight, or as being free of guilt in the grand scheme of war.

Through his depictions of involved nations, the reader finds the blaring proof that yes, even the U.S. was brutal. You will further find, that yes, the French were colonialists at a time when that was not allowed on the world scene. And, probably most importantly, you as a reader will find that yes, the communists who fought for their country killed mercilessly their countrymen in the process. You will find that they were just as brutal, if not more so, than their western foes.

In a sense, to a certain extent the book vindicates the American conscience to read how the communist insurgents raped and murdered thousands of French. On the other hand, when we read of the bombing raids, the uncalled for attack on Cambodia, the numerous other atrocities such as the Phoenix Project, we can not rest assured that Karnow is pro-interventionist either.

The book shows Diem, the great Vietnamese nationalist American-backed Mandarin, massacring hundreds on trumped up charges–or no charges at all. Contrastingly, we see Ho Chi Minh ordering the liquidation of thousands of his political rivals and ideological enemies–two of whom were relatives of Diem–in order to pave the way for his ascension to power.

In the same breath, however, American leaders are shown to be arrogant anti-communists uneducated in the ways of Vietnamese culture and social history which saw their enemies as bandits without any sentiment of patriotism. Always tacitly implicating that Americans could have understood Vietnamese positions, repeatedly Karnow draws the conclusion that the U.S. officials by choice refused to understand the enemy.

While somewhat frightening a conclusion, it gets across the authors ultimate point: War is not a pure business, and the proponents and actors are, in a given theater, not above resorting to dire measures to try to insure victory.

Very early, you realize that Nixon’s desire for peace with honor was impossible in the context of Vietnam. The snowball effect of Cold War containment coupled with the Domino Theory led to a volley of errors.

This is covered in depth as the path to civil war which the Vietnamese, in the words of their canonized General Giap, could Never! Never! Never! loose crosses the pseudo-ideologically predestined path of western containment.

The reactive Vietnamese nationalism met the arrogant Americanism and created Vietnam. Answers as to why are few and far between, but Karnow offers one. Misjudgments and over-zealous egos fueled by Cold War rhetoric, antagonized by ignorance to historical fact, set in motion policies which could not be stopped. Karnow addresses the biggest questions of why and how.

In so doing he leaves a glaring hole. Attempting to create an aggregate of involvement in the Vietnam War, one particularly important aspect is left out–the social movement in the U.S..

While the social life of the Vietnamese is discussed in depth in the beginning and middle chapters in conjunction with the rise and–especially–the fall of Diem, and the ascension of Ho Chi Minh in conjunction with nationalistic fervor, noticeably absent is any discussion of American anti-war sentiment.

If the theory that subscribers to such sentiments–the hippies, the moonies, the flower children and mongrels of Woodstock–are the ones to blame bares weight on the issue of why America lost, it should be duly dealt with. Not until the last chapters is it at all mentioned, and then only in passing.

By now, Karnow writes speaking of the later months of 1969–a full FOUR YEARS before our troops our pulled out of Vietnam–the American public was being exposed to disclosures that raised uncomfortable moral questions about the war. Uncomfortable moral questions like, what? Why? Passing notice is given to veteran marches on Washington and Mylai, yet nothing is said of Kent State or the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.

Their absence leaves a large logistical gap for those who wish to gain a full picture of the war. A full understanding of the present-day preoccupation with the war, the 1981 march of veterans in commemoration of the opening of the Vietnam Memorial, The Wall itself, and sensationalized movies demands this hole be filled. By Karnow it is not; and that is a shame.

Many questions go unanswered. Did American politicos want war? How devoutly nationalist was Ho Chi Minh when he could–and did–assassinate and murder his own people for political control? Does nationalism equate to communism? Can the two be separated in this case?

Did America ever have a chance at winning? Or was it a loosing endeavor from Acheson to Kissinger? Was it truly the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place? Was it a war of liberation and revolution? Or a war of ideological ferment based on zero-sum political wagers?

Will the wounds ever heal? Will the American ever be immoral and wrong and hypocritical? Once again, Karnow offers little distinct guidance. Ultimately, then, it is this last reason, the very vague treatment of some of the later issues–the very fact that questions raised are not always questions answered–which turns me to this book.

As a potential teacher of the Vietnam War, it is these questions, and the nature of their answers, which will guide me and students to our knowledge and justification of what we profess to believe. It is what will lead the nation to finally heal. It is what makes this book so poweful. It makes us think.

If you are one to think that the Vietnam War in all of its infamy has left the conscience of America, read the 29 September 1996 edition of the Oregonian. It is a Sunday; and it reviews yet another critical look into the shaded war-past of a member of the brain trust–Robert McNammara.

From there, go to the speeches and declarations of war, and those declarations which come up short of explicitly stating such, voiced by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton and you will find the same rhetoric: This action will not be another Vietnam.

The past haunts us. It weighs on us. It tugs at our collective national pride. We want it to go away, but yet, even twenty years after the end of our involvement we still cannot remove the images of unjust warfare. We still feel guilty, beaten, betrayed. We still look for an answer.

And while doing so we sometimes forget that maybe it was a war that we needed to loose because the Vietnamese needed to win. Possibly. The question, however, which must be asked is: does this realization in any way affect the ideological reasoning which landed U.S. troops on Danang in 1965? Does it ipso facto mean that we were wrong? Once again, I can only say possibly.

There is a different question which can be asked, however: on what–or how much–knowledge do we base the answer which we profess? How much do we really know about the Vietnamese perspective? The GI perspective? The student-protester perspective? How much fact backs up our emotion? These questions get to the heart of the present-day conflict.

As a nation we are scared to face the grim realities that maybe, just maybe, we were wrong when being wrong was an inherent paradigmatic quality. As a nation we refuse to acknowledge the perspective of Simmone Beauvierre’s other and remain objective. Pushing illogical and often betraying emotion aside and creating room for objectivity, a look at Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History may open your eyes. It opened mine.

Notes From the Text
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. p.110.


Richard Nixon as quoted by Stanley Karnow: Ibid. p. 638.

Vo Nguyen Giap as quoted by Stanley Karnow: Ibid p. 153.

Ibid. p. 615.


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