The Tragedy of the Vietnam War: A South Vietnamese Officer’s Analysis
by Van Nguyen Duong, McFarland & Co., 2009
Of the tens of thousands of books written about the Vietnam War, less than half of one percent are personal narratives by Vietnamese. Although The Tragedy of the Vietnam War is promoted as a memoir, it is mostly a political history of the war. The author spent more than 20 years as an officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), but few pages of his book deal with his personal experiences.
Instead, author Nguyen Duong uniformly praises the ARVN on just about every score. He claims the ARVN could have defeated the Communists—if only the United States had continued its support. The ARVN did not surrender in 1975—instead they were forced to give up their arms. When the ARVN did well, it was due to their skill and professionalism. When they did poorly, as in Laos in 1971, it was because of bad U.S. policies.
Duong is uncritical in his support for the corrupt President Ngo Dinh Diem. The United States should have provided unlimited and unconditional aid to South Vietnam. United States military personnel, even advisers, were unnecessary and unwelcome. Duong believes Diem could have won the war without direct U.S. military involvement—even if only 10 percent of the South Vietnamese supported him. Duong blames President John F. Kennedy not only for the death of Diem but also of Diem’s two brothers, even though South Vietnamese killed them all. Duong reserves special venom for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom he refers to, seriously, as a “German-Jewish immigrant.” The U.S.-South Vietnamese relationship is portrayed as “stab-in-the-back” abandonment and betrayal.
Although the organization of the book is chronological, Duong skips around history enough to be confusing. He offers quotations with no indication of who is being quoted. His lack of footnotes is frustrating; it makes his claims impossible to verify. The book contains maps but no map index.
In both his selection of facts and analysis, Duong’s point of view is unusual: Vietnam was “the root cause” of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He describes Diem’s Agroville campaign as “successful, with remarkable results,” although the U.S. government considered it a failure. He claims opinion polls in 1967 revealed Americans supported Richard Nixon’s policy in Vietnam—two years before Nixon took office.
Duong relies on his sources so heavily that parts read as if written by others. He minimizes the use of Communist sources, stating they are exaggerations or lies. He is comfortable using Vietnamese diaspora publications, which are no more objective. Overall, his choice of sources is severely limited, and he is comfortable with exaggerations as long as they serve to make the Communist side look bad: He claims 120,000 died in North Vietnam’s 1950s land reform, while the best estimate is less than 8,000. According to Duong, 3 million boat people fled Vietnam and 1 million died. In fact, 1 million fled.
Nguyen Duong’s descriptions of the fall of Saigon and the end of South Vietnam, however, are absolutely heart-wrenching. The body of Vietnam War literature would benefit from more personal accounts by the Vietnamese. More descriptions of what Duong experienced firsthand, coupled with a more nuanced bashing of the North Vietnamese, would have improved this deeply flawed book.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.