At around 270,000 words, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam – A History is something of a monster, as is its subject. Even those who did not live through the era when reports of the conflict dominated most international news, the title itself is still probably recognised as something iconic, something that sums up the third quarter of the twentieth century. The word iconic would be inaccurate, however. Icons are small images that suggest something bigger. Vietnam, as a subject, as a reality, was always a big issue. It was fought over for thirty years, toppled US Presidents, claimed untold thousands of lives and effectively involved the whole world. This was superpower conflict by proxy.
Stanley Karnow’s book is replete with detail, analysis, fact, some fiction and much posturing. It benefits from being written largely from experience. The author was a respected journalist who covered the war at its height and his encounters with political elites, combatants and victims bring the story of death and destruction to life, if that phrase is not in bad taste.
This was no minor skirmish, confined to a far corner of the North American world view. World War Two devastated Europe and significant other parts of the world. And yet a greater tonnage of explosives was dropped in the Vietnam War than in all the Second World War’s theatres of conflict combined. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that. In addition, chemical weapons, defoliants and napalm were sprayed around with apparent abandon before the United States, defeated, left for their territorially unaffected, unattacked home.
There are those who thought the war was counter-productive. There were those who still think that the war was fought by a USA that had one hand tied behind its back. An all-out onslaught would have brought decisive victory. But, given the above, what would that victory have looked like? Just how close did the world come to a second nuclear war?
Stanley Karnow reminds us how truth becomes a casualty. He describes how US officials, civilian and military alike dared not communicate negative messages or attitudes about the war. To do so was seen as defeatism and there were no promotions for defeatists, no opportunities for pessimists, their positions being interpreted as merely unpatriotic. In contrast, positive reports were rewarded, even if they bore little resemblance to reality. And the author’s portrait of Walt Rostow, a prominent member of LBJ’s team, casts him squarely in the role of anti-communist hawk, a guise in which we should view him when today we approach his still respected work on economic change and development.
But what is perhaps most troubling was the ease with which those in power used the mechanisms of their state to hound dissenters, to tap their phones, block their careers. And, it has to be remembered, this culture did lead – though perhaps indirectly – to the near impeachment and actual removal from office of an elected US President.
Stanley Karnow’s book captures the conflict ideologically, historically and politically. Alongside Gabriel Kolko’s book on the same subject, it ought to be required reading for anyone left in the world who thinks that war can solve conflict.