Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy

Captured French soldiers from Dien Bien Phu, escorted by Vietnamese troops, walk to a prisoner-of-war camp

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy

Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, William Collins, London, 2018,  xix-xxx + pp. 1-652, Illustrations, Maps, Glossary, Bibliography and Index, ISBN 978-0-00-813298-9, reviewed by Frank Ellis

This thirty-year story of slaughter and misery begins with the French attempt to reimpose colonial rule after World War II. To this end, the French devoted much blood and treasure, theirs to begin with, and then American, losing some 93,000 soldiers. French resources would have been much better spent on rebuilding France, above all psychologically, after the war, rather than aspiring to play the role of some great imperial power, and trying to atone for the collapse of 1940. A point not picked up by Hastings is that the reasserted French claim to its colonies was a flagrant violation of the Atlantic Charter (1941) which guaranteed nations the right to choose their own government. Why should the Vietnamese, liberated from Japanese occupation, have to submit to the re-imposition of French colonial rule?

By arming the Vietnamese in the belief that they would fight the Japanese, the British and Americans also helped to instil the idea of national independence and armed struggle to achieve it. It did not occur to them, however, that these weapons would be used to fight the French. Such unintended consequences were repeated in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The CIA ensured that a liberal supply of weapons, including highly effective anti-aircraft missiles, was delivered to the mujahedeen, with disastrous consequences after the Soviet withdrawal. One lesson here is that when the interests that brought the supplier and recipient of weapons together in a common cause start to diverge, you cannot recall the weapons. Today’s ally in a common cause is potentially tomorrow’s enemy.

Not only was the French claim to Vietnam after 1945 of no real substance, but its military aspects were characterized by incompetence on too many levels. For example, Hastings reports that many of the 650 French airmen who perished in the war died from human error and mechanical failures, and that when the French withdrew they abandoned some of their special forces troops to their fate in remote districts. Rightly or wrongly, the French campaign will always be associated with Dienbienphu. This disaster highlights not just the elements specific to the campaign, above all the utter ruthlessness of the communists, their disregard of losses, and their telluric-inspired determination to win at all costs, but also the role of intelligence that we see in other wars, most famously in Stalin’s failure to heed warnings of German hostile intent in 1941. The French had ample intelligence data to show that that they were heading for a disaster at Dienbienphu, but the curse of Stalin struck again. To quote Hastings: ‘Yet they persevered because a lethal cocktail of pride, fatalism, stupidity and moral weakness prevented them from acknowledging their blunder’ (p.45). Giap’s ordering his men to drag heavy guns over many miles of  appalling terrain gave the attackers the fire power they needed successfully to invest and overwhelm the French positions. One wonders whether, if Giap had been to some staff college, he would have given such an order. It strikes me as inconceivable that any Western army would have even considered such a move. Giap did the thoroughly unexpected and it paid off.

The Americans also had their own intelligence failures. Examining the various sets of intelligence data available to him, Joseph Hovey, the CIA analyst, concluded that the general uprising, which became known as the Tet offensive (1968), was imminent.  However, according to Hastings, US commanders ‘discounted the interpretation of Le Duan’s intentions made by Joseph Hovey and his kin, because it failed to conform to MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] logic’ (p.383).

Saigon, Tet Offensive, 1968

Western media coverage of the American presence in Vietnam had no interest in atrocities perpetrated by the communists or in the totalitarian nature of the North. Three images in particular exercised a dramatic effect on global opinion: that of a Buddhist priest’s self-immolation (1965); the execution of a Vietcong prisoner by Brigadier Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the South Vietnamese police chief during the Tet offensive (1968); and the faces of utterly terrified children caught up in a US napalm attack (1972). The priest is entitled to take his own life and there is plausible evidence that the executed prisoner, Nguyen Van Lem had personally cut the throats of a South Vietnamese officer, lieutenant-colonel Nguyen Tuan, his wife, six children and eighty-year old mother. The image of the terrified children not only states the truth about war – that children will be killed in all kinds of dreadful ways – but branded the Americans as child killers. Given that there are no images of communists carrying out atrocities, the Americans and their allies were portrayed as uniquely evil, the war as a rotten cause, the communists as noble freedom fighters.

Hordes of American leftists and well known fellow-travellers assiduously aided Hanoi in fostering the impression of unique American evil. Paul Hollander (see his Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, 1928-1978) points out that Jane Fonda – about whom Hastings, curiously, says very little – agreed to speak to American troops on Radio Hanoi. It would be interesting to know what Hanoi really thought about the likes of Fonda. The chances are that it will not be an improvement on Hanoi’s assessment of her husband, Tom Hayden. Doug Ramsey, captured by the Vietnamese, asked his interrogator what he thought about Hayden: ‘We admire his ideology, but despise him as a person. How can you respect a man who betrays his own country?’ (p.330). Courtesy of Paul Hollander, here is another example of the grotesque left-wing extremist propaganda symptomatic of the time (and which has since sunk to new depths of freakish depravity), as in the title of a contemporary play: A Discourse  on the Early History and the Course of the Long Lasting War of Liberation in Vietnam as an Example of the Necessity for the Armed Struggle of the Oppressed Against Their Oppressors as Also on the Attempts of the United States of America To Destroy the Foundations of the Revolution. In the same period, a high school in New York offered its students a course on guerrilla war tactics.

Having noted the utter ruthlessness of Ho Chi Minh, Hastings himself confuses the matter of behaviour somewhat by stating that: ‘It seems a fair test of any political movement to enquire not whether it is capitalist, communist or fascist, but whether it is fundamentally humane’ (p.11). Well, the evidence shows that communism and socialism are fundamentally inhumane and lead to genocide and terror, and Hastings provides plenty of evidence that renders his musings superfluous. Thus, he informs the reader that ‘Vietminh death squads favoured burying victims alive or eviscerating them in front of assembled neighbours’ (p.33). He cites the party catchphrase ‘“Better that a possible innocent dies than that a guilty man escapes” ’ (p.33), much favoured by Stalin’s killers and torturers, and his repulsively servile propagandists, such as Bertolt Brecht and Ilya Ehrenberg.

Hastings sees a ‘curiosity’ in the fact that, ‘while North Vietnam was a cruelly disciplined totalitarian society, it was governed by civilians’ (p.494). This would only seem a curiosity if one was ignorant of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology and its imitators, and assumed that soldiers were predisposed towards cruel discipline and constructing totalitarian societies. The military mind, however, is predisposed towards order and structure but has no interest in building brave new worlds and nations. Civilians, monsters such as Lenin, Trotskii, Stalin and Mao, unconstrained by military discipline and training, who, succumbing to criminal utopian delusions, have tried to implement them with all the savagery that we have witnessed in the twentieth century. And let us not forget the misery inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan by dangerously incompetent and ignorant meddlers such as Blair.

A system that apportions guilt based on class is inherently inhumane. It would be unthinkable for a communist system to adhere to a presumption of innocence, since class determines all. What the communist regime called ‘land reform’ – Soviet-style collectivization – was carried out with savagery and cruelty and the full story has yet to be told. So, once again, we see the critical link between Soviet-style censorship and state terror. If, as Hastings correctly notes, the leaders of North Vietnam determined that truth was whatever the politburo declared it to be, then terror, liquidating class enemies, deportation and slave labour are just measures needed to build the socialist utopia inspired by Our Dear Leader, Father Ho.

When the South finally fell in 1975, Hastings writes that ‘flights were organised by crassly sentimental foreign philanthropists to evacuate Saigon’s orphanages’ (p.614). Fears for the well-being of these children were, Hastings insists, totally unfounded: ‘No sane person could suppose that the victorious communists would murder pretty children’ (p.614).  Given the well documented acts of communist savagery in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Soviet Union (Stalin) and in China (Mao) why would any sane person give communists the benefit of the doubt? Such fears were, in fact, well founded, as Hastings demonstrates:

Savagery remained the communists’ principal weapon. The Vietcong once entered a village in Lai Cay, denounced twenty inhabitants of both sexes as government spies, beheaded them and threw the bodies in the street, each with a scrap of paper attached, describing their alleged crimes. Elsewhere a hamlet chief was tied to a stake and disembowelled in front of the assembled villagers; his pregnant wife was eviscerated, their children beheaded. Such atrocities were artistically crafted to persuade peasants that the price of resistance to the revolution was much worse than mere death  (p.131).

Doug Ramsey, who was a prisoner of Hanoi, told Hastings that he was ‘revolted by communist savagery – the latter’s atrocities took place daily: ‘“shooting into school yards in the hope of getting three ARVN soldiers amidst fifty children…” ’ (p.161). Here is another example of communist savagery against children, cited by Hastings:

Soldiers’ and militiamen’s families suffered: the VC kidnapped the wife and child of a notably energetic Regional Forces sergeant. When he rejected their proposal that he should change sides guerrillas cut the child’s throat (p.206)

In fact, as Hastings notes: ‘Vietcong terror was relentless’ (p.256). The communists smashed the head of a beautiful young woman Miss Anh because she worked as a typist for the Americans and refused to help the communists. They also stabbed her brother to death. Another American adviser found the castrated body of a boy, alongside his disembowelled father and murdered mother. Nor did the Viet Cong shrink from mining buses with children on board. Note, too, the admission of a US adviser cited by Hastings:

We usually kill the seriously wounded Viet Cong for two reasons. One is that the hospitals are so full of our own soldiers and civilians that there is no room for the enemy. The second is that when you’ve seen five-year-old girls, with their eyes blindfolded, their arms tied behind their backs, and bullets in their brains, you look for revenge. I saw two little girls that dead (sic) yesterday. One hour ago I shot a Viet Cong (p.404)

In the course of the Tet offensive, the National Liberation Front (NLF) briefly occupied Hue. During this period, the NLF murdered all government officials they could find, together with their families, designating them “enemies of the people”. Children were victims of these atrocities, buried alive with their parents. One communist referred to the victims as ‘poisonous snakes’, so emulating the process of dehumanization which characterized Soviet and Maoist genocide: demonize, dehumanize, exterminate. 2,810 bodies were found in mass graves but this may well be the low figure.

One of the more dubious claims advanced by Hastings concerns the American decision to escalate the war. Thus: ‘Quite unlike – for instance – the 2002 decision to invade Iraq, in 1965 every hazard was anticipated’ (p.225). Hastings then states that Lyndon Johnson failed ‘to define objectives’. Given that likely hazards will arise from the objectives defined, the failure to define objectives means that every hazard cannot have been anticipated. It is also a fundamental principle of war, first enunciated by Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke, that no plan survives contact with the enemy. The enemy will react in ways that can be predicted but also in ways that cannot be foreseen. The test for commanders on both sides is how they respond to the unexpected behaviour of their opponents, since the enemy will not always be so obliging as to behave as you would hope or like.

Clearly related to setting objectives and planning are counter-factuals, yet Hastings informs us that ‘Counter-factuals are seldom profitable either to historians or readers, but two seem to merit notice’ (p.647). Counter-factuals are an important part of military planning. When past operations are reviewed in order to determine the causes of success or failure, commanders must consider whether, if they had done things differently, they would have been successful. They can never know for certain since the battle cannot be rerun but posing such questions is essential. This is the purpose of post-operational reports. Likewise, when planning an operation, likely enemy responses must be considered. Again, one can never know for certain how the enemy will react but one must consider plausible enemy reactions based on his past behaviour and doctrine. All armies conduct war games which involve examining various scenarios.

Having told us that counter-factuals are seldom profitable, he then proceeds to examine two that he considers merit notice (though there are more than two examples). The two counter-factuals that Hastings examines are what might have happened had the communists carried out terrorist attacks in America (good point). Hastings also notes that ‘It is interesting to speculate upon the consequences, had the North Vietnamese refrained from sponsoring armed struggle in the South’ (p.647). One can identify further violations of his own belief that counter-factuals are seldom of interest. On the matter of Dienbienphu, he states: ‘If the garrison of Dienbienphu had been evacuated, nobody outside Vietnam would ever have heard of the place’ (p.45). Good point. He examines what might have happened had President Ngo Dinh Diem not been murdered in a coup (1963): ‘It is sometimes argued that Diem’s regime could have reformed and survived’ (p.153).  Here is another counter-factual: ‘If the rubble on the streets of Saigon, the tears of peasants in the paddies of the Mekong delta, had lain instead on Pennsylvania Avenue or fallen on North Carolina’s tobacco fields, Americans might already have been demonstrating as vigorously as were Vietnam’s Buddhists’ (p.198).

Self-immolation of Saigon Buddhist

At one stage President Johnson considered covering the cost of a dam in the Mekong (circa 1 billion dollars) but got no response from Hanoi. To quote Hastings: ‘It is interesting to speculate whether, if the billion-dollar carrot had been advanced with more diplomatic subtlety, it might have changed anything’ (p.219). All good points, but it has obviously not occurred to Hastings that his wording ‘It is interesting to speculate upon the consequences…’ is precisely what makes counter-factuals interesting and, contra Hastings, compellingly interesting for readers, and essential for military planners. The conditional sentence consisting of protatic and apodotic clauses is one of the great inventions of the human mind. It is a powerful intellectual tool, enabling humans to plan and consider what might happen were a course of action to be pursued but to learn from error by conceptualising that had a different course of action been taken from the one that was taken the outcome might have been more favourable.

The American prosecution of the war confirms the willingness of senior American officers to go along with their political masters when they should have raised objections:

The Army’s Gen. Harold Johnson recognised that the decision to escalate without a public acknowledgement  of its significance was extraordinary, and left him “tongue-tied”  Years later he said: “What should my role have been? I’m a dumb soldier under civilian control …I could resign and what am I? I’m a disgruntled general for 48 hours and then I’m out of sight. Right?”. This was, of course, a limp-wristed explanation of his pusillanimity (p.222).

In 2002, and throughout the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain also produced its fair share of limp-wristed generals and yes-men careerists. The problem of senior officers going along with their political masters is universal. After the Vietnam war, the American Admiral David McDonald speculated that the military men were too weak. They were, and there are good reasons for this failure to challenge their political masters. Having been promoted through the chain of command, many senior officers realize that raising awkward questions is often a bad career move. You get marked down as a troublemaker.  So they keep silent or they will actively dissemble. It was a one Major Colin Powell who wrote a whitewash report on the matter of the My Lai massacre. This is the same Colin Powell who went on to play a major theatrical role in selling the idea that Iraq possessed weapons of massed destruction (WMDs) in the period before the invasion of Iraq, brandishing a vial of fake anthrax at the UN. Walt Bloomer who commanded the Marine Expeditionary Force in 1991 said that the great lesson from Vietnam was “Tell the truth” (p. 645).  Well, with regard to the 2003 invasion of Iraq we were fed Lies and still more Lies before and after the invasion.

The other reason too many stay silent is because they like being close to the centre of power, and this applies to senior civilians as well. Hastings cites George Ball: ‘One of his favourite sayings was “Nothing pinks like propinquity”, by which he meant that there was no substitute for the elixir of intimacy with power’ (p.225). And does that not also apply to journalists or do they nobly rise above the temptations?

One would expect senior officers to be bound by some code of comradeship when attacked by politicians. Not always. When it became clear that US pilots under command of Lieutenant-General Lavelle had attacked North Vietnamese missile sites in breach of bizarre Rules of Engagement, he was summoned home, and abandoned by his superiors, Admiral Thomas Moorer and USAF chief General John Ryan. Lavelle became the public scapegoat, his career finished. Henry Kissinger’s assessment of the way senior military officers conducted themselves in this matter was brutal and true: ‘They all turn on each other like rats’ (p.515); and such behaviour is not confined to the US military.

Hastings is prone to engage in bouts of anti-racist virtue signalling, taking it as given that what the left likes to call “racism” is somehow a unique American failing. Consider, for example, the American use of “gook”. A Korean gave me the following explanation. When the first American soldiers turned up in Korea during the war Korean farmers, the story goes, pointed at Americans and said, in Korean, migug salam, which is Korean for American. The Americans, hearing the first part migug, took it to mean that the Koreans were telling the American that they, the Koreans, were called gooks (me gook). So US soldiers started to call Koreans gooks. On the origin of the word “dink” which US soldiers also used to refer to the Vietnamese, the word means “crazy” and is a shortened form of “dinky dau”. The Australian use of “nogs” to refer to the Vietnamese may be well be derived from the very common consonantal/vowel cluster of “Nga” and “Ngo” with which many Vietnamese names begin. For reasons of euphony clusters such as “Nga” and “Ngo” could easily become corrupted by vowel insertion (o), so giving rise to “nog/nogs” (cf. the tendency in English to insert a vowel between the “g” and “n” as in the word “gnu”). For their part, the Vietnamese referred to the Americans, among other things, as ‘long noses’, ‘round eyes’ and ‘white fangs’ (because their teeth were not blackened). It is not clear why gook is self-evidently racist, whereas long nose, round eye and white fang are nothing to worry about. Hastings also tells us that Vietnamese children visiting Saigon zoo ‘likened the apes to Americans, because both had such long, hairy arms. Some older Vietnamese were uncomfortable with black soldiers, who awakened memories of France’s exceptionally brutal colonial units’ (p.118). I take it for granted that among Vietnamese there would be any number of words expressing disgust and racial contempt for blacks, but Hastings cites none.

Black American soldiers were also not averse to referring to the Vietnamese enemy as gooks. Hastings recalls that a wounded black soldier with the name of Davis taunted another wounded soldier, Taylor, to return fire ‘and take some of these gooks with us’ (p.341). Davis then told Taylor that he was crying ‘cause you a big faggot’ (p.342). The fact that so many Americans were bewitched by the beauty of Vietnamese women is also not entirely consistent with the Hastings claim that ‘Vietnamese were too often considered subhuman’ by Americans (p.259). It does not strike me as plausible that white Americans chasing after beautiful Vietnamese women would regard the women as ‘sub-human’.

Again, the My Lai massacre (1968) certainly reflected ‘a culture of casual murder’, as Hastings asserts, but his claim that it is also reflected a culture of ‘racial contempt for Vietnamese’ is far from clear cut (p.450). It does not at all follow that when US units made up of black and white soldiers massacred Vietnamese that the motive was always racial.  Soldiers who have seen comrades maimed on booby traps want revenge and for those purposes locals deemed to be supporting the enemy will do. Hastings acknowledges that when Americans were killed and injured on booby traps ‘there was a yearning to identify gooks – signifying any accessible Vietnamese – upon whom to wreak vengeance’ (p.262).

Hastings also seems unwilling, possibly even afraid, to consider that in wars and conflicts involving different racial groups, racially-motivated killing is inevitable, maybe the norm, since racial differences accentuate the division between “us” and “them”. Racially motivated killing may even be enjoyable: Hutus enjoyed hacking the Tutsis to death in Rwanda, since the taller and leaner Tutsis with their ‘pretty little noses’ (← Hutu Radio) aroused envy. In South Africa, Julius Malema and his gang relish the prospect of being able to torture and to exterminate whites in all kinds of dreadful ways. According to Hastings the huge Western and American presence in Vietnam was ‘a polluting influence’ (p.118). I wonder whether the influx of millions of unwanted “others” into Europe and into Texas and Arizona can also be regarded as ‘a polluting influence.’ Or is the pollution effect something that is exclusively and uniquely exercised by white Americans and Europeans?  When millions of aliens flood into the US and Europe are they “polluted” by going there? If yes, why do they stay? Instead of being unduly sensitive to the use of words such as ‘gook’ and ‘dink’, Hastings might like to consider some of his own language solecisms, viz: ‘from whence’ (p.332 & p.481) and‘ The language used to denounce the bombing was hyperbolic’… (p.572).

In infantry operations and air strikes the Americans deployed staggering amounts of fire power, delivered from infantry weapons, artillery, mortars, helicopter gunships, ground attack jets and B 52 bombers. When the Americans first entered Vietnam the standard US rifle was the semi-automatic M-14. In fire fights, American soldiers were perceived to be at a disadvantage with communists armed with the fully automatic AK-47 so were equipped with the M-16. The rifle was issued before all the main development problems were resolved and was notorious for jamming. When one marine unit changed from M-14s to M-16s there was a 75% increase in weapon failures. On the origins of the AK-47 Hastings is obviously unaware that the first assault rifle was designed by the Germans in World War II. The Sturmgewehr 1944 anticipates all the classic features of the later Soviet Kalashnikov: banana-shaped magazine and single-shot and fully automatic mode. The German original was designed to be able to engage targets at up to 500 metres (single shot) as well as providing fully automatic fire in the close-quarter encounter. It could also be fitted with a telescopic sight and used as a sniper rifle. It was a superior weapon to the AK-47.

Hastings states that ‘Body counts were assuredly impressive, but not remotely matched by weapons captures, the most plausible indicator that the right people were dying’ (p.448).  Three points can be made here. First, the Vietcong made great efforts to recover weapons (corpses were of no use), and it does not follow that those killed without weapons were not enemies. Second, inhabitants of villages known to set booby traps would not necessarily be armed but they were still enemies. Third, corpses cannot work for the communists, constructing obstacles and digging ditches and tunnels.

The use of defoliants, so-called Agent Orange, which were intended to deny cover for the enemy, remains one of the more controversial aspects to the Vietnam war, though for some reason Hastings shows a marked reluctance to engage with the controversy. He tells us why: ‘A historian is not obliged to pass a verdict on Agent Orange in the face of rival masses of contradictory evidence’ (p.268). Why not?  I suggest that it is the task of the historian when confronted with contradictions to resolve them not to ignore them. Further, if the use of Agent Orange is a subject bedevilled by masses of contradictions and Hastings determines that for him it is off limits why has he bothered to write a book about Vietnam, a subject which is most certainly bedevilled by rival masses of contradictory evidence? Resolving contradictions is one of the historian’s main tasks, something to be embraced not eschewed.

Agent Orange, before and after spraying

Turning the pages of this book, one encounters a gallery of some extraordinary people.  In one US airborne division there was a sergeant, a one Manfred Fellman, who had won an Iron Cross defending Breslau from the Red Army in 1945. Those with an interest in sniping will be familiar with the name of Carlos Norman Hathcock, though Hastings makes no mention of the epic duel Hathcock had with a communist sniper (the gook/dink/nog lost). That Hastings ignores this duel suggests to me that he is not entirely convinced it took place. If so, this is the place to come out and say so (and why). Then one must mention the amazing escape story of Lieutenant Dieter Dengler. Dengler was shot down in Laos and captured by the Pathet Lao. Dengler and another pilot, Duane Martin, then escaped. Exhausted, by now alone – Martin was killed in  a village – and facing death, Dengler formed the SOS letters with some rocks. It was spotted by a US pilot and a chopper rescued him. The leadership and example of men like Bill Weise, Jim Livingston and Big John Malnar during the Daido battle defy description: truly awe inspiring and morally uplifting.

Sprinting from a chopper which had landed under fire, Lieutenant Joel Eisenstein recovered a wounded forward observation officer, Lieutenant Dave Bruggeman who died on the return flight. Captain John Ripley and Major Jim Smock both under fire from the enemy somehow managed to blow the Dong Ha bridge the destruction of which slowed the southward advance of the communists. Ripley was later awarded the Navy Cross. I was mightily impressed and much moved by the dedication and toughness of the American nurses. Soldiers who died while being looked after by the likes of Shirley Purcell and her colleagues were blessed. They ended their days in the presence of very special Women. Across the front line there was the equally remarkable paragon of decency and dedication, the Vietcong doctor, Dang Thuy Tram who was shot dead in an encounter with US infantry. During her short life she suffered, endured and did her best for the wounded. She deserves unstinting admiration. Amid the death, wounding and suffering the one image that caught me in an emotional ambush was the plight of a little boy and his sister waiting on some street for the return of their parents. This was in 1975 as the troops of the North were closing in.  Poor little ones, let us hope they were reunited with their parents and survived.

In the final phase of the war, the communists acted as a conventional army, but one that had been markedly influenced by Soviet doctrine. Tanks, instead of being deployed in concentrated form, were deployed piecemeal and lost to anti-tank fire. Communist conventional forces, especially armour, suffered heavy losses from air power. Like the Red Army, the North Vietnamese army allowed ideology to influence tactical decisions which resulted in very heavy casualties. For example, in the major battles between the North and South in 1972, the South won a series of tactical victories. The South’s casualties were in the region of 11,000 killed which with wounded, those posted as missing rises to circa 50,000. Northern losses were in the region of 100,000. In addition they lost over half of the armour deployed and most of their heavy artillery. Northern commanders, like their earlier Soviet counterparts, sacrificed men and equipment regardless of losses, in effect trying to achieve victory by mass.

Those in the South, such as the family of Kim Thanh who had personal experience of the communists, knew what to expect and hid when the communists arrived. Hastings takes up the story:

When the family finally emerged, they saw the first manifestations of Northern victory: bodies lying  in the street, victims of spontaneous executions. In justice to Hanoi, most of the unquantified number of killings that took place in the summer of 1975 – probably in the low thousands – were local initiatives by vengeful cadres and Vietcong, not mandated by the politburo (p.631).

This is far too generous an assessment of the communist invaders. Given what was known about communist atrocities – Hastings cites plenty of examples – these executions cannot just be dismissed as ‘spontaneous’, since it exculpates Hanoi of any wrongdoing. It can also be noted that this excuse is still used by Russian historians to play down the mass rape of German women at the end of World War II. In other words, Hanoi (and Hastings) would have us believe it was just a matter of a few rogue elements. In the case of Hanoi, and in justice to the victims of communist terror, Hanoi is emphatically not entitled to the benefit of doubt, and the reasonable assumption is that these executions were planned, firstly, out of vengeance and, secondly, to terrorize the population, a deliberate policy of red terror. Given that Hanoi still refuses to provide full access to all documents, the Hastings claim of ‘probably in the low thousands’, is completely unreliable. Again, and stemming from the censorship imposed by Hanoi, one has no way of knowing whether these executions were mandated by Hanoi, so there is no benefit of doubt to be accorded here either. Another consideration is that even if these executions were ‘spontaneous’ they were carried out by forces under command of, and loyal to, Hanoi, operating as a conventional army, and so subject to all international legal instruments providing for the conduct of war. Hanoi therefore bears full responsibility for these war crimes.

Hastings’ take on Hanoi-sponsored atrocities in 1975 is in marked contrast to what he argues should have happened in response to the My Lai massacre in 1968: the imposition of ‘exemplary custodial sentences on several senior officers named by the Peers inquiry, Koster foremost among them’ (p.450). Hastings gives the number of those massacred as 504 and it ‘is believed to have been the largest of the war’s many unprovoked killings’ (p.448). And what of the ideologically motivated, unprovoked killings carried out by the communists? As noted above, 2,810 bodies were found in mass graves after the brief occupation of Hue by the NLF. Who speaks for them?

After the war large numbers of Southerners were forced to undergo ‘re-education’. The deportation of Southerners to camps also led to large numbers of deaths. Hastings comes up with a conservative estimate of 5%, some 10,000, though bearing in mind the mortality rate from deportations in the Soviet Union, 5% seems far too low, and we can take it for granted that Hanoi will be in no hurry to provide data or documents, assuming they are available. Released prisoners had no rights and were sent to so-called New Economic Zones where they had to survive in conditions that were not much better than the camps.  This was exactly what happened in the Soviet Union.

Hastings has compiled a vast jigsaw from many sources, and as every jigsaw enthusiast knows, the more pieces you have the more the diminishing number of gaps stands out. So historians are closing in on the big picture. Unless some super-secret US archive is discovered – which seems unlikely – the remaining gaps can only be completed with material from Hanoi, former Soviet archives and those from China. The following areas will be of great interest to historians: the total number of communist losses (killed, wounded and missing); details of the red terror; collectivization and land reform; the number of people killed by communist torture squads; the number of defectors; full interrogation reports of US prisoners of war (conducted by Soviet and Chinese interrogators as well); and whether the Soviet Union and China ever considered deploying ground troops in any substantial number; and whether the Soviet Union considered nuclear retaliatory measures should the US have used such weapons first. Until such time as Hanoi and its former allies permit access to all available archive material, and allowing for some of the author’s analytical lacunae, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 will remain one of the best general accounts of the war.

Last Viet evacuees by boat from Saigon water front in Saigon as PRG troops closing in on April 30, 1975. (AP Photo/Matt Franjola)

© Frank Ellis, 2019

Dr Frank Ellis is a military historian

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