Wartime Lies

The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930-1975

by David W.P. Elliott
M.E. Sharpe, 2 volumes, 1,547 pp., $140.00

David Elliott’s The Vietnamese War is, in my view, the most comprehensive and enlightening book on that war since June 1971, when The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. Of course the papers were not a book in the conventional sense but a collection of documents and analyses commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was beginning to doubt whether plunging deeper into the war that was destroying Vietnam was sound policy. If it wasn’t, had it ever been?

The Pentagon Papers made plain the nature of Vietnamese nationalism and, from the late 1940s, the small chance of an American victory. Nonetheless, the war became a tragedy and entailed a loss for the United States. Ever since, a succession of administrations has determined there must never be “another Vietnam.” (Something similar may be emerging in Iraq.)

Many books and articles have tried to show the American-backed Vietnamese as too cowardly to fight as well as too corrupt, while the enemy Vietnamese were puzzling, clever, implacable, and inured to hardship and punishment. So inured, in fact, that when we read in North Vietnamese novels about the war how terrified and discouraged their soldiers and civilians were, our puzzlement about their tenacity only deepens. Elliott’s greatest contribution is to explain this.

Concentrating on My Tho, a populous rural province near Saigon, Elliott takes us deep inside the world of the Vietnamese revolution over a period of forty-five years. He describes the ideologies of the revolutionaries and how they fought, as well as their policies on taxation, land redistribution, and recruitment. He gives a strong account of their internal disputes and rivalries, and their periods of despair and triumph. From it we sense what it was like to be the target of American military might.

Had American leaders known this history would they still have attempted to crush the revolution? Daniel Ellsberg, for years a high-ranking Defense and State Department official, wrote in 1972: “…There has never been an official of Deputy Assistant Secretary rank or higher (including myself) who could have passed in office a midterm freshman exam in modern Vietnamese history.” This claim is astonishing considering the materials on the subject that by 1972 were well known to millions of people in the antiwar movement. Even earlier, in 1968, James C. Thomson Jr., who had worked in the National Security Council from 1961 to 1967, wrote:

In the first place, the American government was sorely lacking in real Vietnam or Indochina expertise…. The more sensitive the issue, and the higher it rises in the bureaucracy, the more completely the experts are excluded while the harassed senior generalists take over (that is, the Secretaries, Undersecretaries, and Presidential Assistants). The frantic skimming of briefing papers in the back seats of limousines is no substitute for the presence of specialists; furthermore, in times of crisis such papers are deemed “too sensitive” even for review by the specialists.

Such ignorance about Vietnam (or nowadays about Iraq) could …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.