By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photos by Ollie Atkins(left)/
Nixon Project/ National Archives;
Amazon.com lists more than 4,000 books about Vietnam for sale — near the top of the list of the most popular is A.J. Langguth’s history of the war, Our Vietnam. (The Lonely Planet travel guide is up there too, which shows how things are changing in the Vietnam-book business.) What’s the justification for publishing this one — 734 pages long? Langguth doesn’t offer a new theory of the causes of the war, new insight into its meaning or a new explanation of why it ended; he doesn’t have much to say about the more controversial debates, such as whether Kennedy would have gotten us out of Vietnam if he hadn’t been assassinated. What he does provide is a thorough and vivid narrative history, employing a wide range of published sources and some new ones.
Langguth today teaches journalism at USC; this is his eighth book. He reported on Vietnam for The New York Timesin 1964-65, and he returned for two months in 1968 and again in 1970. His new sources include interviews with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong leaders and also with ordinary Vietnamese. The book focuses on the policymakers on both sides, and is organized around the American presidents and their Vietnamese adversaries: Kennedy vs. Ho Chi Minh, Johnson vs. Vo Nguyen Giap, Nixon vs. Le Duc Tho, Ford vs. Le Duan. Each of these four parts is divided into chapters focusing on second-string characters: Chapter three, for example, is titled “Bowles” (Chester, undersecretary of state in 1961), four is “Bigart” (Homer, a New York Timesreporter), five is “Lodge” (Henry Cabot, ambassador to Vietnam in 1963).
Langguth’s narrations of battles are dramatic and compelling, and his sketches of his principal characters are wonderfully vivid and revealing. When General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, discovered that Saigon’s soldiers wouldn’t fight, “One of his first requisitions for the South Vietnamese army had been bugles and whistles to improve training and morale.” Westmoreland loved war; he told a reporter, “Any true professional wants to march to the sound of gunfire.” Madame Nhu, the wife of the younger brother of Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt Saigon leader of the Kennedy years, was one of the most powerful people in Saigon in the mid-’60s; she banned “contraceptives, adultery, prostitution and divorce,” along with dancing, fortune telling, boxing matches and beauty contests. Ho Chi Minh “typed his own articles on an old typewriter. He drank only tea. At any gathering, he headed for the plainest chair.” (For a fuller picture of Ho, especially the first part of his life, readers should consult William J. Duiker’s masterful new biography.)
The real heroes of the book, not surprisingly, are the reporters who brought truthful images to Americans. CBS correspondent Morley Safer, for example, did a piece showing film of Marines setting fire to a village of straw huts, in which he declared that American firepower could win military victories, “but to a Vietnamese peasant whose house meant a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.” The morning after the story aired on Walter Cronkite’s show, Frank Stanton, the president of CBS News, was awakened by a phone call, and a voice that shouted, “Frank, are you trying to fuck me?” “Who is this?” Stanton asked. And Lyndon Johnson answered, “Frank, this is your president, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag.” It’s a story every investigative reporter would love to be the subject of.
Langguth’s focus is mostly on the great white men — David Halberstam called them The Best and the Brightest in his 1971 book — who made the decisions that led the United States to kill a couple of million Vietnamese. New sources appear virtually every year, and Langguth makes good use of a lot of the latest. For example, he highlights the tapes of LBJ’s phone calls, especially one in which he told special assistant for national security affairs McGeorge Bundy, “I just don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess.” Of course, LBJ went on to tell the American people he could see light at the end of the tunnel.
One of the key moments in the history of America’s war came at the end of the 1968 presidential race. Opposition to Johnson’s war policy had forced him out of his own re-election campaign, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey was running against Nixon. Langguth describes the situation: A week before election day, Johnson ordered the bombing halt that the North Vietnamese had said was a prerequisite to their entering into peace talks. Nixon had an eight-point lead, but two days after the bombing halt, one poll had Humphrey pulling ahead.
But the talks did not begin, because South Vietnamese President Thieu suddenly refused to participate. Observers at the time, and historians subsequently, speculated that Nixon sent private assurances of continued support to Thieu in those crucial two days, sabotaging the peace talks that might have ended the war at that point. Of course, Nixon denied it. Langguth relies on the case made by Clark Clifford, secretary of defense for LBJ at the time, in his 1991 memoirs, to suggest that Nixon’s intermediary was a woman named Anna Chennault, a Washington hostess well connected in both Washington and Saigon.