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‘If any war in modern history demonstrates the need to study history,’ says Spencer Tucker, ‘it is the Vietnam conflict.’

By Malcolm Muir

At first glance, one wonders why the world needs another single-volume study of the Vietnam War. Appearances, though, are deceiving. In Vietnam (The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1999, $19 paperback, $58.50 hardcover), Spencer C. Tucker attempts, in the short compass of 204 pages of text, to give an overview of all Vietnamese history, from the ancient beginnings to the 1990s. In this seemingly impossible task, Tucker, the editor of the recent definitive three-volume encyclopedia on Vietnam published by ABC-CLIO (see “Reviews,” October 2000), succeeds surprisingly well.

As the author states in his preface, “If any war in modern history demonstrates the need to study history, it is the Vietnam conflict.” Certainly the Vietnamese have officially viewed their past as a long continuum of struggles against outsiders. Their fight to preserve their independence from China lasted for more than a millennium (from 111 bc to ad 938). Over the next 1,000 years they resisted, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, inroads or outright domination by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and Americans.

Over the long term, the Vietnamese have been adept at thwarting the designs of major powers. In 1288, they turned back the Mongol drive into Southeast Asia. In 1843 the French entered Vietnam to gain access to Chinese markets by way of the Mekong and Red rivers. Over the next century, French policy in the region vacillated between assimilation and association.

Putting the French Indochina War of 1946-1954 into the larger international perspective, Tucker argues persuasively that the French cause was doomed when Mao Tse-tung triumphed in China in 1949. On June 27, 1950, America began helping the French, two days after North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel. By 1954 the United States was financing 80 percent of the French effort. These Western powers saw the two conflicts as interdependent and agreed that neither would negotiate a separate peace without the approval of the other.

Ironies and lessons abound. The first Tet offensive came in 1951, when Vo Nguyen Giap tried to capture Hanoi, but his Viet Minh suffered serious losses to French firepower. The French then initiated a strategy of meat-grinder operations (concurrent with similar U.N. operations in Korea), but found that attrition cut two ways. Presaging the Nixon policy of Vietnamization, the French tried to build up indigenous allies. Some French were contemptuous of “their” Vietnamese, with one French commander, Marcel Carpentier, telling U.S. Maj. Gen. Grave Erskine that the Vietnamese made bad soldiers. Erskine retorted, “General Carpentier, who in hell are you fighting but Vietnamese?”

The cease-fire ending the Korean War in 1953 left the French charging the United States with breach of faith. Worse, that armistice allowed Communist China to channel large quantities of supplies to Giap’s soldiery. The fall of Dien Bien Phu came quickly.

Tucker points out how the increasing American presence was based on faulty political calculations and on a misunderstanding of the enemy. Initially, many U.S. advisers regarded the VC with contempt, an attitude that was severely shaken by the miserable performance of the ARVN at Ap Bac on January 2, 1963. Pacification, which Tucker sees as having had a chance of succeeding, received much American lip service but little real support–especially with the chaos in the South Vietnamese government that followed Ngo Dinh Diem’s overthrow in November 1963. By June 1965, nine regimes had governed in Saigon. One U.S. observer suggested a turnstile for the coat of arms of South Vietnam’s government.

Tucker treats the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia judiciously. He says there is no evidence to support the claim that President Lyndon Johnson deliberately deceived the American people during the 1964 campaign when he pledged not to send “American boys to do the fighting that Asian boys should be doing.” Nonetheless, by 1965, Americans were doing most of the dying. LBJ’s misjudgment of the enemy was profound. On April 7, 1965, he called on Hanoi for talks and promised an economic development program. To an aide, Johnson confided, “Old Ho can’t turn that down.”

Tucker covers the controversy over key bombing campaigns, such as Barrel Roll, Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I and II, illuminating little-known aspects of this effort. Between 1964 and 1973, for example, Laos became the most heavily bombed country in the world. The 3 million tons dropped on that country was more than three times that expended on North Vietnam.

Tucker offers a wealth of insights. For example, Marine commanders like Generals Victor Krulak and Lewis Walt hoped for an emphasis on pacification, arguing that search-and-destroy missions stole manpower from the more important undertaking of protecting the population. The strategy of attrition warfare, implemented by General William Westmoreland, never came close to inflicting prohibitive losses on the enemy.

Missteps occurred on the other side of the hill as well. In late 1967 Giap unsuccessfully opposed the party theoreticians who wanted a large-scale offensive in the South to bring about a popular uprising against the Americans and Saigon. Giap’s attempts to draw U.S. strength away from the population centers by offensives at Dak To and Khe Sanh were successful, yet Tet was a grievous disappointment to its Communist planners, bringing neither an uprising nor wholesale defections from the ARVN.

Tet was nonetheless a watershed. Tucker points out that the Johnson administration began Vietnamization, a strategy associated in the popular view with Richard Nixon. That effort was fatally flawed by the fact that, in the words of Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, “The South Vietnamese did not want the war to end–not while they were protected by over 500,000 American troops and a ‘golden flow of money.'”

The Nixon administration shared misconceptions with its predecessors. Tucker quotes Henry Kissinger’s refusal “to believe that a fourth-rate power like Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” Nixon attempted to emulate Dwight Eisenhower’s strategy for ending the Korean War. Threatening to push the nuclear button, Nixon predicted that “Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” But Ho remained unimpressed. Instead, Nixon doubled the pace of the air war. On the ground, more Americans died during the five years of the Paris peace talks than had in the first half of the war.

Tucker treats acidly the denouement of U.S. involvement. So much American military equipment fell into enemy hands in 1975 that for the Hanoi regime it was a major source of hard currency for years. In Laos, thousands of Hmong who had been loyal to their CIA case officers were simply abandoned to their fate. In Cambodia, U.S. intervention pushed that country into the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and after 1975 U.S. aid went to that ghastly regime in its struggle against its Vietnamese neighbor.

Like American involvement in the war, some of this book is hard going. However, while it is not an easy read, it is a rewarding one. Tucker’s style is clear, neatly interweaving diplomatic, political and military developments. Although his conclusions might be fuller, his work is thoroughly documented and he includes a useful bibliography. This study is strongly recommended for any library with serious holdings on Vietnam.