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America's Longest War

OUR VIETNAM The War 1954-1975 By A.J. Langguth; Simon & Schuster: 734 pp.,

November 26, 2000|GEORGE C. HERRING

The Vietnam War was a journalists' war. It produced much excellent reporting, and from the time of David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan in the early 1960s, correspondents became participants. The role of journalism and especially television in the outcome has been one of the most contentious issues from a war filled with controversy, and lessons drawn from Vietnam have significantly influenced the United States government's muzzling of the media in subsequent wars and military interventions.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that journalists have also written many of the best books about the war. Even before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Halberstam's "Best and the Brightest" and Frances FitzGerald's "Fire in the Lake" set the standard for the first generation of Vietnam histories. Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History" and Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" were among the finest accounts produced in the 1980s.

A.J. Langguth's "Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975" should take its place with these classics. Now a professor of journalism at USC, Langguth did three tours in Vietnam as a New York Times correspondent. He has been collecting materials for this book for years and has written a magisterial narrative history. The book does not develop new arguments or explicitly address the many war issues that still divide Americans. Its strengths, rather, are in its skillful retelling of a well-known story, and in the way it captures the many dimensions of the war and re-creates the emotions and ambience of a turbulent era.

The research is impressive. Langguth has thoroughly mined the voluminous published materials on the war, coming up with interesting and important new information, telling quotes and revealing anecdotes. He has talked with numerous participants, and his interviews with North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front leaders as well as ordinary Vietnamese are especially valuable in filling in that essential, but for Americans, often-neglected side of the war. He also uses important scholarly work based on newly opened Chinese and Soviet archives to show in all its complexity the intricate and constantly shifting relationship between Hanoi, Moscow and Beijing during 25 years of war.

Langguth's organization is ingenious. This is a book above all about people. Its four parts are titled with the names of North Vietnamese and U.S. leaders: John F. Kennedy and Ho Chi Minh (1960-1963); Vo Nguyen Giap and Lyndon Johnson (1964-1968); Richard M. Nixon and Le Duc Tho (1969-1974); Le Duan and Gerald Ford (1975). Chapters are named for participants, major officials like South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, and lesser figures like American journalists Homer Bigart and Harrison Salisbury and Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Within the chapters, Langguth skillfully blends mini-biographies of the numerous characters with the events in which they are involved. The result is a very human and eminently readable narrative in which people are brought to life and shown influencing and responding to developments in Vietnam and the United States.

The technique is least effective in the beginning of the book. In places, Langguth skips back and forth from one person to another so rapidly that the narrative flow is disrupted. He does not explain how and especially why the United States got involved in Vietnam in the first place. The word "containment" is scarcely mentioned, and the dramatic confluence of events that produced, in early 1950, the Truman administration's fateful decision to assist the French in their war against the Communist-led Vietminh is not sketched in. Nor is he especially good on the climactic year 1954 and the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu, the inconclusive Geneva Conference that ended the First Indochina War and laid the basis for the second or the crucial U.S. commitment to assist South Vietnamese Premier Diem.

George C. Herring is a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and is the author of "America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975."

Once into the heart of the subject, the narrative gains force and moves smoothly and compellingly toward its epic conclusion. Langguth nicely juxtaposes decision-making in Washington, Hanoi, Beijing and Moscow to put the war in a broad international context. He skillfully integrates key decisions with military and political developments in South Vietnam. The focus is on high-level decision-making, but attention is also given to lesser but still important players. Americans, not surprisingly, get the most attention, but Vietnamese, northern and southern, are given extensive coverage and humanized. The narrative brilliantly recaptures the hopes, illusions, fears, suspicions, frustrations and disappointments of these tumultuous years.

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