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A Death in November: AMERICA IN VIETNAM, 1963 by Ellen J. Hammer (Dutton: $22.50; 400 pp.)

March 08, 1987|Douglas Pike | Pike is director of Indochina studies at UC Berkeley and author of the forthcoming "Vietnam and the USSR: Anatomy of an Alliance" (Westview, May, 1987).

This is a deceptively intricate book with depths that can be missed on a casual reading and in which it is easy to mistake the author's intent.

It is not exactly a book about those events in Vietnam in 1963 that ended in the death of Ngo Dinh Diem, although this is the bulk of its content. Nor is it a political might-have-been (arguing Diem need not have been deposed and that it would have been better for all if he had not), although this is implied throughout. Neither was it written to fix historical blame for the Diem coup d'etat, although Ellen J. Hammer tends to assign such blame variously to the Americans, to Vietnamese generals, to Diem's brother Nhu and to Diem himself.

That death in November was a modern-day tragedy, a timeless, classic tragedy in which piddling politics and momentary state purposes fall away into irrelevance. Diem's life and death were profound, reminiscent of Sophocles' Antigone, victim of her own better instincts, or one of Shakespeare's kings whose mole of nature from the beginning sealed his ultimate fate.

All in all, this wholly admirable account captures fully the spirit of the Diem tragedy, but the author was able to produce it only at a price.

Hammer, with a doctorate from Columbia University, began her academic career in the early 1950s as a student of French colonial policy in Indochina. She wrote, "The Struggle for Indochina" in Paris in 1953, a monograph postscript "Struggle for Indochina Continues: Geneva to Bandung," numerous journal articles and a short high school text, "Vietnam: Yesterday and Today."

Then abruptly she ceased writing about Vietnam. As was not uncommon with the pioneer American scholars who went to Vietnam in the 1950s, she fell in love with the country and its peoples, then was traumatized as the war's devastation broadened and intensified. She became the Ambrose Bierce of Vietnam writing. (Bierce was the great 19th-Century American satirist who, at the height of his power, inexplicably moved to Mexico and vanished into limbo.)

Only after a long interregnum in Paris was Hammer able to return to New York and her original scholarly interest. This book was the eventual product and is thus a work by one of the Vietnam War's walking wounded.

Her "hard" account of that crucial year of 1963 in Vietnam is neither new nor novel. Almost everything written here was written by others earlier. There are no startling revelations, nor were they to be expected, since quite probably we know all the major facts about the Diem era and its end. What remains is interpretation.

The focus, of course, is on the rise and fall of Ngo Dinh Diem, and on the issues and questions this has raised, matters long debated and still with us.

Hammer's actual version, in my opinion, is less important than her emotive account of what Tolstoy called, "the how it wasness." She captures well the mood and ambience of that summer in South Vietnam (we were both there) and has skillfully filled out her interpretation by use of flashbacks.

The fact that I am in fundamental disagreement with her basic perception of Ngo Dinh Diem and the events of those last weeks does not detract from this judgment.

Ever since that morning in November, 1963, when Diem died with a bullet in his head, the issue has always been framed thus:

In the coup d'etat that overthrew the Diem government, where did the initiative lie? With the Vietnamese military or with the United States? And, if there was shared culpability (the case made by most historians), what was the division of culpability: Was it that the United States took the lead, that the United States reluctantly acquiesced, or that the United States went along with that over which it had no control in any case?

I have always held that this is the wrong framing of the question and the issue. Put in this manner, it is parochial, oversimplified and a gross exaggeration of the ability of individuals or governments to control the great flow of events we call history.

The perception of 1963 Saigon burned into my memory is of a society disintegrating beyond control. Diem, his family, his government, his governmental policies, were alienating one social group and one social institution after another: the Buddhists, the students, the military and the Americans. By the end of the summer, there were few left to alienate. Already Diem was in battle with the Viet Cong, guided by that organizational genius the world knew as Ho Chi Minh.

The plain fact was that Diem was unable to cope with these institutional challenges or control events. He could not cope with the Buddhists, the Viet Cong, his own army, or the students. He could not control the society, the corruption within it, not even his own sister-in-law.

Most of all, Diem was unequal to the Leninist challenge he faced. He did not understand Ho's strategy, and had no true strategy of his own.

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