Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present by Ben Kiernan is a refreshing historical view void of French or American influence. Kiernan is a professor of History, International, and Area Studies at Yale University.
My interest, of course, French and American wars focused on Part Five: Colonies: Chapter 9 Writing and Revolution from Colonialism to Independence, 1920-54.
Kiernan delivers an amazing deep look at the American nightmare in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century. We have few if any books that look at Vietnam’s history from Kiernan’s perspective.
Still seeking to learn new insights into French rule across Indochina this was a deep, intense review of the shifting powers between Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai. Kiernan should be credited with documenting the impact of a great famine over the previous sixty years.
This produced a very odd relationship. Bao Dai was the final emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling family of Vietnam. Until the end of the Second World War, Bao Dai was appointed emperor of Annam under French rule. His role remained after March 1945 when Japanese troops ousted French military rule throughout Indochina. He abdicated upon the Japanese surrendered.
Yet during the previous two generations, thousands of Vietnamese starved to death. Kiernan reveals in elaborate research the role of journalism spreading in the early 1900s throughout Indochina. The most immediate impact was upon Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism throughout Vietnam. This also launched the first public political parties in 1919.
Bao Dai ruled the State of Vietnam from 1949 to 1955 under French influence during the first Indochina war. Yet he ruled from Hong Kong and China. After the French installed Dai to govern the country, Ho persuaded Dai to abdicate in August 1945. His departure handed power to the Viet Minh. Yet Dai was appointed Supreme Advisor to Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
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Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien is his third title regarding his Vietnam war experience. I have also recently read If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried. These are three of the best books of fiction and mixed non-fiction regarding the war.
As a soldier in Vietnam in October 1968, Paul Berlin discovers that Cacciato, a soldier in his unit has gone MIA. Cacciato previously informed Berlin that he was planning to walk from Vietnam to Paris.
The unit chases Cacciato as ordered by their unit commanding officer. The soldiers track him to a hill, but Cacciato sets off a smoke bomb and disappears.
O’Brien reveals how Berlin recalled his service beginning in June 1968 with the 198th Infantry Brigade. As their chase leads into November, the unit loses Harold Murphy who left on his own. Yet the unit permits three women to join their chase. Soon they fall into a hole and discover a deep underground network of tunnels. As they crawl through the tunnels they meet a Vietcong soldier. They are able to somehow escape the tunnel and land in Burma.
Berlin sees Cacciato dressed as a priest and tries to capture him but is overwhelmed by Cacciato’s new friends who are also dressed in priestly robes. One of the women still in their unit tells Berlin she saw Cacciato catching a train to Delhi. The unit is able to catch the next train and continue their chase.
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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a powerful story of fictional experiences. His storytelling is a mix of life as a child, before the war, serving in a platoon, and after the war back at home trying to recover from the war. It is also about returning to the battlefield.
It was enjoyable to see Tim O’Brien interviewed extensively in the new Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War. O’Brien’s opening chapter is quoted in the show.
The book also describes a girl from his childhood who died in grade school and he describes how she looked at the funeral home. This story seems to prep him up for serving in Vietnam.
He shares the struggles to decide whether to avoid military service by fleeing to Canada. His story about the duty to country, the hometown feeling that you are required to follow the family and friends who answered the call to fight in World War II.
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What really caused France’s humiliating loss to the Viet Minh in the French Indochina war? To understand we must focus on logistics. Charles Shrader’s A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945–1954 reveals the true staggering failures of the French were simply the result of poor logistics.
On the surface, it may not make sense. A western power falling to an agrarian band of guerrilla fighters? No author has precisely examined Viet Minh and French military logistics in great detail. This is an impressive view.
Shrader has taught at West Point, the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and at the Army War College. He is a former executive director of the Society for Military History. His metrics and well-written history document those French military pillars that collapsed triggering their retreat not only from Indochina but from the world stage.
Many respected books point to Dien Bien Phu as the surprising French loss and later defeat in the war. Shrader documents how this battle was the culmination of a series of shocking logistical failures that plagued their efforts against the Viet Minh.
The shift benefitting the Viet Minh developed after the Korean War. China began delivering overwhelming logistical resources to the Viet Minh. While French and CIA intelligence captured communications confirming numerous deliveries of infrastructure, France did not adjust to this threat.
In retrospect, the logistical failure to support the French effort should have sent strong signals to American military advisors that success against this communist enemy would be a long and difficult task.
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Operation Vulture by John Prados reveals President Eisenhower’s plans to use nuclear weapons at Dien Bien Phu to “rescue” the French garrison. An analyst of national security based in Washington DC, he is a Senior Fellow and Project Director with the National Security Archive at George Washington University where he leads the Archive’s documentation projects on Vietnam and CIA.
The US National Archive has released multiple classified documents since 2000. We now understand Eisenhower’s deep involvement. He ordered the US military into the First Indochina War in 1953. Prados reveals startling details of Eisenhower’s wish to use nuclear weapons and his order to the US Air Force and Navy bringing a nuclear weapons attack upon the valley as the French garrison was being quickly suffocated by the Viet Minh.
The details of those military actions moving men and arms throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia along with the international political maneuvering by Allen Dulles in the early 1950s dispels any myth that America simply went to war in Vietnam under President Kennedy.
Prados stitches an enormous amount of Eisenhower’s actions regarding Vietnam beginning in 1953. Eisenhower acted on his view of the world that required a strong American confrontation in Asia to offset China.
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