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Historian Max Hastings on the untold story of the Vietnam War

The lost war: US troop carriers near Saigon, mid-1960s. Photo/Getty Images

British historian Sir Max Hastings reasoned that there was room for another book about the war in Vietnam because he wanted to bring the Vietnamese “back to the centre of the story”. 

In late 1966, North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong was interviewed by New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury. “How long do you Americans want to fight, Mr Salisbury?” the urbane Dong asked. “One year? Two years? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? We shall be glad to accommodate you.”

Dong’s taunt underscores one of the themes running through British historian Sir Max Hastings’ Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975. The North Vietnamese emerged the victors against the United States not just because they had a stronger will to win but also, crucially, because communist North Vietnam was a totalitarian state: its leaders weren’t democratically accountable and could press on with the war regardless of the massive cost in lives.

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Unlike the US Government, which had to deal with public unease at military setbacks, atrocities and casualties that were laid bare on the television news and in print, the North Vietnamese regime wasn’t inconvenienced by domestic media coverage, because there was none. Neither did it have elections to worry about.

“If you don’t have to win elections all the time and you don’t have to explain yourself to an electorate,” says Hastings, speaking from his home in the rural English town of Hungerford, “you can get away with murder, quite literally.”

In contrast, the disaster that was Vietnam destroyed one American president (Lyndon Johnson) and contributed to the downfall of another (Richard Nixon).

Max Hastings. Photo/Getty Images

Hastings portrays the North Vietnamese army and its South Vietnamese allies, the Viet Cong, as dogged, patient, resourceful and extraordinarily tolerant of hardship and deprivation – qualities they first demonstrated in a battle against an incompetent and complacent French colonial garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. They were also masters of camouflage and fieldcraft.

Yet he’s not convinced that North Vietnam won the war (which the Vietnamese know as the American War) because its soldiers were superior; the crucial difference, he says, is that they were Vietnamese, fighting on their own soil and determined to oust a foreign occupier.

“A South Vietnamese man I interviewed said they were constantly reminded by the communists how humiliating it was to be occupied by the United States. Everyone knew the government and the generals in Saigon couldn’t get up in the morning without asking the Americans which side of the bed to get out of.

“If you do this, whether it’s in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, you’re always going to lose.”

Military genes

An affable and orotund raconteur with a “ho ho ho” that would do credit to Father Christmas, Hastings is a former editor (of London’s conservative Daily Telegraph, and the Evening Standard) and has written 26 books, mostly military histories. It’s in his genes: his father was a World War II correspondent for Picture Post, and his cousin Sir Stephen Hastings, to whom he was close, was a decorated soldier, a spy for MI6 and later a Tory MP.

Hastings’ own experience of war isn’t wholly vicarious. As a reporter he covered 11 conflicts, including Vietnam for the BBC, and earned a place in journalistic history by boldly walking into Port Stanley ahead of the victorious British troops in the 1982 Falklands War and interviewing the Argentinian officer in charge.

In 1975, he was among the last Westerners to be evacuated as Saigon chaotically fell to the North Vietnamese army. He confesses in his book that he intended to stay and witness the communist takeover, but lost his nerve and “forced a path through the mob of terrified Vietnamese around the US embassy”. (One correspondent who did stay was Tom Aspell, from Wellington, who went on to a distinguished career in US television news.)

My Lai, 1968. Photo/Getty Images

Report on experience

Hastings’ exhaustively researched 722-page book isn’t a personal memoir, but his writing was partly informed by his time in the country. He says Vietnam was a seminal experience for him, as it was for a rat pack of young correspondents who made their names covering the conflict: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, the New Zealanders Peter Arnett and Nick Turner, and Hollywood star Errol Flynn’s flamboyant, risk-taking photojournalist son Sean Flynn, who was captured by communist guerrillas in Cambodia in 1970 and never heard of again.

Yet for a long time, Hastings put the war behind him. It was only in recent years that he decided there was scope for a fresh perspective, “chiefly because most of the books written about it were written either by French or American writers who were mostly writing about French or American people”.

“This was, above all, a Vietnamese tragedy. Forty Vietnamese, at least, died for every American who died, and I thought it was time to put the Vietnamese back in the centre of the story. And so when I started to research it three years ago, the first thing I wanted to do was talk to the people who were the war’s principal victims.”

In that respect, his book has a lot in common with the scrupulously even-handed epic Ken Burns-Lynn Novick TV documentary series The Vietnam War, available on both Netflix and TVNZ OnDemand, which unflinchingly confronts the atrocities perpetrated by both the Americans and the Vietnamese.

Hastings writes that the visual contrast between the war-making technology of the US, as symbolised by B-52 bombers, and an army of peasants clad in coolie hats and sandals, conferred a “towering propaganda advantage” on the communists.

Napalm attack, 1972. Photo/Getty Images

Although the world has known for decades about the My Lai massacre, carpet-bombing and napalm strikes, Hastings reminds us that the communists, too, did terrible things. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong took Stalinist totalitarianism as their model and were capable of shocking ruthlessness and cruelty. Civilians branded as class enemies or traitors were buried alive, hacked to death or disembowelled.

“I think a lot of Americans these days adopt an almost masochistic view of the war. There’s a lot of breast-beating and people saying, ‘Oh God, how could we have done all this?’ But I’ve said in my book that this is a war that I felt neither side deserved to win. Ho Chi Minh [the nominal leader of North Vietnam] and his acolytes in the communist regime imposed ghastly suffering on their people.

“Everyone has seen the pictures of the South Vietnamese monk burning himself in the street; everyone’s seen the picture of the South Vietnamese police chief shooting dead a Viet Cong prisoner; everyone’s seen the picture of the naked girl running for safety after being caught in a napalm strike. But no one sees pictures of all the ghastly things that the communists did to their own people, because the pictures don’t exist.

“We don’t know exactly how many, but at least 15,000, perhaps more, class enemies were murdered in cold blood in the first years after the communists took power in the north.”

Communist atrocities continued throughout the war. In one incident in Hastings’ book, a landlord in the Mekong Delta was being buried alive by the Viet Cong in front of his fellow villagers and pleaded to be shot. He was told the Viet Cong kept their precious bullets for the imperialist enemy. “This sort of stuff went on all the time,” says Hastings.

Street execution, Saigon, 1968. Photo/Alamy

Carte blanche

Hastings doesn’t defend what the Americans did in Vietnam, still less the actions of their “incredibly corrupt and incompetent” client governments in Saigon. “The lesson I’ve learnt from all the books I’ve written is that there are very few historical events in which you can say that one side or the other has a monopoly on virtue or wickedness.”

But he does give the Americans credit for allowing journalists carte blanche to report the reality of the war. When he first went to Saigon, he was warned that the US military command habitually told brazen lies about the progress of the war, and so it turned out.

“But what was really weird, and I believe entitles the US to a fragment of the moral high ground, is that they never stopped journalists from going out to see for themselves what was going on. They would offer TV crews and newspaper journalists, even those bitterly hostile to the war, free passage on helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in a way that has never been done before or since.

“Contrast this with the communists, who would never let anybody into their country, never mind near the war, who was not a paid-up communist sympathiser. I do think the Americans deserve credit for that.”

Hastings says the intense media coverage of Vietnam – it was dubbed the living-room war because it beamed into US homes every evening – contributed to the widely held notion that the war was uniquely horrific, which he rejects.

“In the old days – in World War II, for example – all the really dirty bits never got into the public domain. Suddenly in the 1960s, people got to see what war was really like.

“I have spent my entire working life as a writer discovering that all wars are pretty bloody. What was uniquely horrible for Americans about Vietnam was that they lost it, and nobody likes to fight in a losing war.”

New Zealand and Australian forces were on the losing side, too. Hastings writes admiringly about the Anzacs’ reputation in Vietnam but notes that Australian soldiers returning from the war were shocked at the vehemence of anti-war feeling at home.

The same was true in New Zealand. Retired Air Vice-Marshal Robin Klitscher, who served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, recalled several years ago that returning servicemen landed at Whenuapai in the middle of the night and were told to put on civilian clothes, go home and not tell anyone where they had been.

Many Vietnam veterans felt treated like pariahs and bitterly resented the Government for allowing them to take the blame for what had become an unpopular war. It wasn’t until 2008 that Prime Minister Helen Clark, ironically a former anti-Vietnam protester, acknowledged they had been treated unfairly and issued a formal apology.

North Vietnamese troops enter Saigon, April 30, 1975. Photo/Getty

Winning the peace

The great irony of Vietnam, in Hastings’ view, is that after all the death and destruction, not to mention the humiliation of the mightiest military power in history, US-style capitalism was the ultimate winner.

“There is no doubt that the Americans lost the war militarily in the 1970s, but what’s fascinating is that we’ve learnt that economics are at least as important as anything military in deciding how things turn out in the long haul.”

Never mind the helicopter gunships and the B-52s, Hastings says: “Today the Vietnamese want to be Americans. They’ve got a totalitarian government but they’re all into YouTube and Johnny Depp.

“Things don’t turn out the way you think they’re going to. When you look at Saigon now, with all its glittering skyscrapers and shops full of designer clothes and jewellery and all the rest of it, I would say it looks pretty much the way the Americans dreamt. Ho ho ho.”

VIETNAM: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, by Max Hastings (William Collins, $39.99).

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.