Vietnam: A History

By Thorpe, Tom | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Vietnam: A History


Thorpe, Tom, Air & Space Power Journal


Vietnam: A History, 2d ed., by Stanley Kamow. Penguin Books, ZOO Madison Avenue, New York City 10016,1997, 784 pages, $17.95.

Vietnam: A History is a well-written and very detailed accounting of events in Vietnam from 208 B.C. to 1976. Stanley Karnow takes an objective and refreshing view of events, trying to give both the American as well as the Vietnamese perspectives throughout the book. The result is an enjoyable account of Vietnamese history. Primarily a history book, Vietnam: A History provides many valuable lessons for intelligence analysts that should convince them of the necessities of objectivity as well as an understanding of the enemy.

The key to understanding why America became involved in Vietnam and why we failed is that we did not know the adversary. The critical need to understand the Vietnamese culture, or the culture of any adversary, is demonstrated throughout Karnow's writing. He describes how the Vietnamese developed their nationalist culture, refusing to be subjugated by foreign countries. China first invaded Vietnam in 208 B.C., but for sixteen hundred years could not "assimilate" the Vietnamese. The French continued to use the Vietnamese for economic gains with no regard for the people or the land. This attitude would bring about the final downfall of the French at Dien Bien Phu.

Similarly, American strategists would later misperceive Ho Chi Minh, though an avowed Communist, as simply a Soviet instrument. Such an error stemmed largely from an ignorance of Vietnam's history, a long and torturous series of conflicts and accommodations that gave the Vietnamese a profound sense of their own identity.

As Karnow repeatedly demonstrates, the military would continue to ask for more troops in order to win the war, and President Lyndon B. Johnson would okay the requests because losing was not a political or military option. The assumption was that we would eventually wear the North Vietnamese out. In the end, we realized that our perceptions were wrong, and American will ran out instead. Karnow illustrates that a major problem of the war effort was that our preconceptions of the enemy were wrong. Intelligence given to the president, instead of being objective, was consistently slanted toward those preconceptions. "Johnson demanded approval from everyone," and Karnow builds a case through numerous examples indicating that the president was misled by "upbeat accounts" of his advisors and "implausibly buoyant 'progress' report[s]," that played to the president's "desires.

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