No More Vietnams
A Vietcong Memoir
The tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the ignominious departure of the Americans has brought forth an abundance of post-mortems and reinterpretations. The passions released by the war have made it impossible for many, even at this distance, to approach the subject with equanimity. The rhetoric is charged with too much history and too many allusions. Today in Central America many of the arguments heard in the mid-1960s are being repeated. The Vietnam War cannot be put to rest because the issues it raised—the containment of communism in the third world, the limits of American intervention, and the proper definition of the national interest—are still hotly contested.
These two books could hardly be more different. One is by a former president, the other by a revolutionary; one full of resentment and accusation, the other mournful and disillusioned. Yet both men have pursued lost causes to the point of no return. Because of who they were, their stories are important.
This is Richard Nixon’s fifth book since resigning the presidency in 1974 and his third on foreign policy. Though much of the material on the Vietnam negotiations is taken from his memoirs, it has the ring of this morning’s diatribe. But Nixon is an intelligent man and many things in his book are thoughtful and challenging. He is always interesting to listen to, particularly on foreign policy, a field in which he has concentrated so much of his energies. While his administration had many diplomatic successes, Vietnam was not one of them. It is not surprising that he should want to press his own view of the war, and that he believes he should not be held responsible for the failed peace. The tone is angry, the words accusatory.
Truong Nhu Tang commands our attention for very different reasons. For nearly two decades he fought against the Saigon government and the Americans. Not a Communist, he joined the underground opposition to Diem in the late Fifties while he was working as chief comptroller of a Saigon bank. He describes how he took part in organizing the NLF and was brutally tortured when he was arrested in 1967. After he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange, he became minister of justice in the provisional revolutionary government in 1969. He entered Saigon in triumph in April 1975 with the victorious Vietcong and North Vietnamese armies. Three-and-a-half years later, bitterly angry at Hanoi’s domination of the south, he left his country in an open boat—the highest Vietnamese official ever to defect. His story, sensitively and dramatically rendered by David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, is important as an account not only of the making and disillusionment of a revolutionary, but of how the war was seen and played from the other side. Our Vietnam literature has been almost entirely an argument by and among Americans. Tang offers a useful and disturbing corrective.
Nixon’s book is essentially an apology for his conduct of the …