Shadows, reflections of ‘intimate’ Vietnam

A North Vietnamese motor gunboat burns in the Raonay River, 12 miles north of Dong Hoi, after being attacked by USS Midway aircraft, Apr. 28, 1965. Note shadow of RF-8A plane.
File photo by Naval History and Heritage Command

Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns present a comprehensive and compassionate work in their massive “The Vietnam War: An Intimate History” (Knopf, 2017). It’s a must-read for Vietnam veterans and anyone who wants to understand or learn the lessons of Vietnam.

Of course, this book is also a detailed compendium to the documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

According to the authors, “America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended, 30 years later, in failure, witnessed by the entire world. It has begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and cold war miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than to admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties.”

The Vietnam War grew out of World War II as a national liberation war to prevent total-itarianism. “Ambitious dictatorships needed to be halted in their tracks before they constituted a serious danger to the peace of the world.”

Ward and Burns show how American leaders willingly inherited from the French a role in Vietnam’s civil war, from Truman and Eisenhower through John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) and, finally to President Richard Nixon, who, in President LBJ’s words, committed “treason” by preventing an early peace with North Vietnam in order to win election in 1968.

Ward and Burns show how the Gulf of Tonkin incident escalated our involvement in Vietnam, from a questionable encounter at sea involving U.S. Navy destroyers USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy turned into “one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history” and leading immediately to air attacks and soon a commitment to a land war.

In an essay titled Ghosts, the authors conclude that divisions created by the war remain, but study of the war on all sides has brought about greater understanding. “The Vietnam war was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable,” they write. “But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”

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