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.1 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.”2 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.3

Such ignorance about Vietnam (or nowadays about Iraq) could easily lead to a belief in the “quagmire” thesis, the subject of David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire. The quagmire thesis suggests that from the late Forties, when Harry Truman decided to help the French in Indochina, to the American defeat under the Nixon administration, America floundered ever further into a morass which, had its leaders known better, they would have avoided. But the Vietnamese disaster did not arise from lack of expertise. As the Pentagon Papers show, plenty of that was available from the late Forties. It was domestic politics, as Ellsberg has always argued, that made every president from Truman to Nixon determine not to withdraw from Vietnam.

David Elliott, professor of government and international relations at Pomona College, acquired his knowledge of Vietnam when he served in the army there from 1963 to 1965 and later, when he worked for the Rand Cor-poration, which was heavily involved in strategic intelligence–gathering and analysis. Recalling those years, Elliott writes that

interviewing these “simple peasants” was a transforming experience. I was astounded by the political sophistication and analytic skills…as well as the truly remarkable ability to relate their experiences with concision and introspection.

In the more than 1,500 pages of his book, Elliott offers few moral judgments. He exhibits occasional anger at the destructiveness of the American army, which altered Vietnam’s landscape and society forever, and killed a million people or more, most of them civilians. The main sources for his study of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement between 1930 and 1975 are four hundred interviews with prisoners and defectors from the Communist side, almost twelve thousand pages of transcript, which were conducted by the Rand Corporation between 1965 and 1971. Of those interviewed, 29 were women, 154 were Party members. Elliott writes movingly of the Vietnamese interviewers, some of them South Vietnamese army officers who, after the Communist victory, were sent to camps. He also examined a vast quantity of documents—letters, diaries, reports, orders, and analyses—that were captured during the war.


At the center of Elliott’s study is the province of My Tho and a few of its surrounding provinces. My Tho lies forty miles from Saigon and across a main road that connects the city with the Mekong Delta, with its large population and ample supplies of food. Anti-French revolutionaries were active in the province in the early twentieth century, and Saigon took the province seriously enough to send some of its most able administrators to serve there.

Of the many lessons in Elliott’s book perhaps the most important is that the long revolutionary struggle was homegrown and not initiated as part of Soviet or Chinese global strategy. Indeed, American policymakers’ eventual understanding that Vietnam had little to do with the cold war made them increasingly willing to abandon their long campaign, although only very slowly and very destructively. Elliott makes clear that the historic roots of this struggle were long and deep. That is why he starts his study in 1930.

Here lies the book’s chief weakness. A reader new to Vietnam’s history would not know that the Vietnamese had fought the Chinese for over 1,500 years and that the war against the French began in the mid-nineteenth century. Knowledge of this immensely long history makes the word “nationalism” in Vietnam significant enough to be a matter of scholarly debate in Vietnam and in the West. I remember visiting a small town in the delta in 1965 with the legendary American official John Paul Vann (in my opinion wrongly admired by Daniel Ellsberg), who had had considerable experience in the army and in civilian work fighting the Vietcong. We were watching a puppet show in which Vietnamese puppets were bashing the Chinese while the rural audience was loudly applauding. “That’s us they’re really smashing,” Vann remarked.4

Elliott’s second major point is that “while the revolution was often down, it was never out.” He does not agree, for instance, with those who say that had the Americans entered the war earlier and more forcefully they would have won. He insists that each new tactic of the French or the Americans (the latter often using the very tac-tics that had failed for the French) provoked a corresponding increase in the power and aggressiveness of the revolutionaries.

The battle of Ap Bac in 1963, where John Paul Vann was the then-senior American army officer, is an exam-ple. When the Americans began using helicopters in Vietnam the terrified Vietcong would try to flee, often in the open, and would then be shot down. One of the veteran fighters interviewed by Rand recounted how the Vietcong changed their tactics at Ap Bac. Instead of running away they stood their ground and shot at the paratroopers and helicopters while they were still in the air. “Many of those who landed safely were pinned down by our fire,” one participant in the battle recalled. “That’s why the GVN [Government of Vietnam] suffered heavy casualties that day.”5

One of the main American justifications for the war was that North Vietnam was attempting to conquer the South. It is commonly accepted now that the US and its client regime in Saigon decided to ignore the 1954 agreement at Geneva, which stipulated that the separation of Vietnam was to last only two years before elections were held leading to reunification of the country. The Saigon regime argued accurately that the Communist Party would control any elections in the North; but it was understood by the participants at Geneva that this would be the case. Critics of the Saigon government argued just as plausibly that it would try to control any elections in the South. There is no doubt, in any event, that the leaders in Hanoi aspired to control the entire country and were willing to fight the French and then the Americans to accomplish this. They made this clear to postwar visitors such as ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Many southern fighters against the French had gone north after the Geneva agreement, leaving My Tho province stripped of its most capable guerrilla fighters. Those remaining had very few weapons to defend themselves once the Saigon regime began hunting them down. Elliott describes how one of the southern leaders who had gone north to Hanoi, Tran Van Tra (with whom Elliott posed years after the war in one of the many pictures in his book), asked Le Duan, the acting Party secretary general, to allow one hundred southern fighters against the French to return to the South. They haggled about the number. Le Duan finally agreed: “All right, let’s settle for twenty-five.” Elliott writes, “This was the beginning of the return of the Southern forces that had gone North in 1954 and ultimately of the direct military assistance of the North to the South.”


Drawing from memoirs of cadres and provincial histories, Elliott describes how often Southerners and Northerners on the Communist side disagreed about tactics, strategy, and ideology. This was shown plainly after the 1968 Tet Offensive. Hanoi expected that widespread attacks would result in a “general uprising” against the government in Saigon. But despite the initial surprise, including the occupation of the American embassy compound, the offensive failed. The American and Saigon armies badly damaged the Vietcong forces that had carried out their orders from the North. Nonetheless, Elliott contends, “The southern revolutionaries in My Tho fully shared a commitment to a united Vietnam even though they wanted a much greater say in how it was to be led and were often frustrated by the dominance of a leadership based in the North.” In fact, at the end of the war, the Vietcong was disbanded and few of their leaders were given positions of authority.6

Elliott writes that the land redistribution from rich to poor carried out by the Vietminh, the Communist-led guerrillas fighting the French, caused social changes that were antithetical to the Party’s ideology. The rural poor became more interested in individual rather than communal economic progress. The Communists in the North, traditionally ideological, secretive, and tightly disciplined, were increasingly suspicious of the new interests of the peasants. As Elliott points out, it is remarkable that the ruthless and authoritarian northern leaders, with decades of sacrifices behind them, were able by the late 1980s to embrace a more open economy, although they hardly budged in their determination to suppress open political dissent. (Much the same thing happened in China, starting in the early 1980s.)

The destructiveness of the war, particularly by the Americans, also caused great social change, with large movements of population from country to town and city. The revolutionary leaders may have won the war but they were not able to carry out many of the aims of the revolution. “The unintended result of the war,” Elliott writes, was the emergence of a rural middle class in the Mekong Delta that “proved stubbornly resistant to collectivization.” Still, he writes, this must “not be taken as a vindication of the political and social policies of the opponents of revolution during the war.”


The Communist movement in My Tho was preceded by an informal alliance of various classes of rural and urban Vietnamese brought together by the misery of colonial life. Their anger was focused on Vietnamese and French landlords and administrators. The global depression of the 1930s led to even more extreme poverty in Vietnam. Commercial agriculture caused widespread peasant debt and tenancy and the concentration of land ownership in a few hands.

By 1931 there were Party organizations in one quarter of My Tho’s villages, under the umbrella of the Indochinese Communist Party, of which Ho Chi Minh was a founder. One of the early Party members, who became a Party leader, was Nguyen Thi Thap, a poor peasant whose father had been an active anticolonialist. She remembered her oath when she joined the Party: “I want to join the Party to fight the imperialists, to fight the feudal-ists [rich Vietnamese], and to kick the French out of the country.” She was entering a movement steeped in secrecy, authoritarian leadership, suspicion of outsiders, and approval of terrorism to enforce discipline. Throughout the long struggle, Elliott writes, the Party’s infrequent but murderous terrorist attacks were partly a response to repressive actions by the French, among them the arrest and execution of suspected radicals.

An insurrection against the French broke out in 1940; it was brutally suppressed, partly by French air strikes, which devastated the revolutionary organization. That year the main Party headquarters moved north, and Southerners were often angrily opposed to receiving instructions from far away in the North, including the disastrous orders for the 1968 Tet Offensive. Following the fall of France in 1940 and the subsequent Japanese occupation of Indochina, Ho Chi Minh returned from abroad to establish direct control over the revolutionary movement in northern Vietnam in 1941. Throughout the Japanese occupation, ties between the central Party leadership and the southern revolutionary movement were tenuous.

After World War II ended, many of the leaders of the Indochinese Communist Party, released from the prison island of Poulo Condore, based themselves in My Tho. They reasserted control—which they had never relinquished—over the southern revolutionary movement and reconstituted the regional revolutionary headquarters, later known as COSVN (Central Office for South Vietnam), which President Nixon tried vainly to find and destroy. In all of Vietnam there were only five thousand Party members. Some two hundred of them were in My Tho, which then had a population of 341,000. The revolutionary forces were armed with two rifles and a pistol captured from the French army. Drawing on the Rand Corporation interviews, Elliott writes, “This pitiful cache of arms [is] remembered as a major event in My Tho’s revolutionary history.” Le Duan, who went on to become a powerful leader in Hanoi, was a strong advocate of discipline and organization, and he unified what had been a fragmented southern movement. “On the national scale,” Elliott writes, “the Communist party’s leadership of the independence movement in 1945 created a deep reservoir of political legitimacy that sustained the revolution through hard times for the next three decades.”

By the time of their victory over the French in 1954 the Vietminh had shown considerable military skill. They also took advantage of the political weaknesses of the French. Their political and military abilities were ignored by later American planners or remained unknown to them. Throughout the Sixties the Americans tried anything that could be given a hopeful label: pacification, “winning hearts and minds,” strategic hamlets. Some young American officers carried Chinese military classics in their rucksacks together with collections of Mao’s writings.

Throughout his book Elliott deals with forty years of revolutionary terror in My Tho. The French, the Saigon government, and the US used Communist terror as a justification for opposing the revolution. And as Elliott shows, the Communist terror often took especially horrible forms, including decapitation and torture, and was frequently used against victims regarded as innocent by local Vietnamese. Hundreds of thousands fled Vietnam after the final Communist victory, many of them because they feared the brutality of the new regime. But Elliott points out that during the war, while for most Vietnamese the possibility of punishment by terror was present, it was not the principal cause of support for the revolutionary movement. During the years between 1930 and 1975 in My Tho, and probably in rural southern Vietnam generally, the National Liberation Front was admired and supported by most of the population, even though many episodes of revolutionary terror horrified and disgusted ordinary people. Most people, Elliott writes, thought the French, the Saigon government, and the Americans were worse.

In the years of the anti-French uprising, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, Elliott says, the main targets of assassination and other terrorist activity “had been those who worked for the Saigon government, or more often, their nonofficial henchmen.” From its earliest years, he observes, the beleaguered Communists’ passion for secrecy reinforced their tendency to authoritarianism, but without condoning the terror, he suggests that the revolutionaries

responded in kind to the suppression directed against them. In the face of French colonial repression [including mobile guillotines], this style of politics was necessary for their survival.

In 1940, for example, the French captured three thousand people in My Tho, roughly half of those arrested in all of Vietnam, and hundreds were killed in a single month. Some Vietminh defected or were suspected of defecting to the French. Because of these defections, some revolutionary forces suffered heavy military losses. One interviewee recalled that there were “many arrests and killings that created turmoil in our ranks for an extended period.” Others claimed that some assassinations were used to settle personal scores. But Elliott says that

the alternative to the revolution proved to be worse in the eyes of many people in My Tho…. [French] atrocities were far more widespread and arbitrary than the more precisely targeted Viet Minh reprisals.

As the war intensified, and the revolutionaries’ losses in the countryside increased, even local leaders lost heart. Rural people often left the areas held by the Vietcong to seek refuge from Saigon and American shelling and bombing. Others left because they objected to Vietcong control and threw in their lot with Saigon. This increased the burdens of taxation and recruitment imposed by the revolution on those who remained in the villages and prompted cadres to resort to yet harsher methods. In revolutionary tribunals guilt or innocence became even less important than they had been previously. Nor was evidence of guilt or innocence decisive. What was required from the population was their acceptance of “the Party’s power to define guilt as the situation demanded, and in a political context.” Elliott cites many passages from interviews which express horror at the incidents of torture, decapitations, and other kinds of execution of those regarded as no more than “suspicious.” It was clear in many of the “trials” after which the accused were executed that the verdict preceded the trial.

In the late Fifties the Diem government used violent methods to intimidate the rural population and deter them from cooperating with former Vietminh fighters. When the government’s counterinsurgency accelerated between 1959 and 1960, the revolutionary leaders used brutal methods in their efforts to tip the “balance of terror” against the Diem government. This, Elliott suggests, made rural people even more afraid of the revolutionaries than they were of the Saigon authorities. Sympathizers were encouraged to support the uprising while non-sympathizers were coerced to do so. When the US entered the war as a fighting force, the issue of terrorism was submerged by the dramatic escalation in the overall level of violence in the countryside. The Americans were viewed by many rural Vietnamese as successors to the French and the power behind the Saigon regime, as they clearly were.

Despite the Communists’ brutality and the increasingly heavy taxes they imposed, along with conscription, and even when the guerrillas were condemned for attracting American fire onto increasingly depopulated villages, it was the Americans who were seen as the enemy in the late 1960s. Some details from the Rand Corporation interviews help to explain why. In one hamlet, we learn, “70 percent of the women in the hamlet [were] widowed. Many people died in the American counteroffensive [after Tet in 1968].” In another hamlet “there are 100 widows…; the widows are all in the age bracket 20–30. The older men don’t get killed off, so you don’t have older widows.” Inquiring why many Vietnamese preferred the revolutionaries, Elliott found that considerable numbers of the poor had benefited from Communist land distribution. Moreover, the peasants were historically patriotic. The Rand Corporation’s subjects regarded the Saigon government as corrupt, oppressive, and as the puppets of foreigners; the Americans, who were wrecking the villages, were remembered for having allied themselves with the French.

Here some questions arise. Of the approximately four hundred prisoners and defectors who were interviewed by Rand, some 277 were either very poor or poor peasants, 83 were “middle peasants,” 2 were rich peasants, 2 were landlords, and 16 were “petit bourgeois.” We get relatively little sense of the views of Vietnamese in cities such as Saigon and Hue, and in other parts of the country, who were critical of the Saigon government but feared that Communist victory would bring greater disaster. Still, Elliott draws on many other sources besides interviews to give a convincing explanation of the American defeat.

The supreme American commander, William Westmoreland, Elliott recalls, decided to “dry up the water” in which the revolutionary “fish” swam. In 1968, Westmoreland’s successor, Creighton Abrams, directed an operation called Speedy Express. Building on Westmoreland’s concept, the US 9th Division killed more than ten thousand suspected Vietcong in only six months. Most of these, Elliott writes, were civilians. At My Lai, Elliott observes, while a few rogue officers gave the orders to massacre civilians, “the civilian casualties [resulting from] Speedy Express were a consequence of official policy.” An American admiral commented that one 9th Division brigade commander was “psychologically…unbalanced. He was a super fanatic on body count…. You could almost see the saliva dripping out of the corners of his mouth. An awful lot of the bodies were civilians.”


It was during these years that Daniel Ellsberg, who also worked for the Rand Corporation, turned against the war. Ellsberg was a great success at most things he attempted. Secrets traces his career from his boyhood in Detroit, through his years as a brilliant undergraduate and doctoral student at Harvard, his three years as a Marine lieutenant and two years as a State Department analyst in Vietnam. Armed and dressed like a soldier, he liked taking part in small-unit actions and enjoyed the friendship of the daredevil John Paul Vann, who was later to be exposed as a fantasist and a liar in Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. Ellsberg says hardly anything about how, during his many years in Vietnam, Vann enthusiastically—as I noticed in 1965 and 1967—took part in violent attacks on civilians before he was killed in 1972.

Apart from Ellsberg’s time in Vietnam, where he realized the US was unlikely to win—although he wanted it to at the time—much of his memoir is taken up with his years in the Defense Department, where he was special assistant to Assistant Secretary of State John McNaughton, and at Rand, leading finally to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Secrets ends with the judge dismissing the case against Ellsberg on May 11, 1971. His trial for stealing secret documents was terminated when it was revealed that Nixon’s agents broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, hoping to find materials that would smear him. They were acting on Nixon’s orders to “get that son of a bitch…. Just get everything out…. We want to destroy him in the press. Is that clear?”

Secrets includes the minutiae of stealing, duplicating, and transporting the papers around the country in Ellsberg’s effort to get members of the Senate, including the liberal Democrats William Fulbright and George McGovern, to hold public hearings on them. They refused because they were secret. Many of the details of this part of Ellsberg’s story are available in Tom Wells’s Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg.7

Where Secrets is revealing—indeed, it should be required reading in the aftermath of the Iraq War—is in its frequent disclosures of high-level deception. Ellsberg points out that the strength and legitimacy of the Vietnamese anti-French guerrillas had been known in Washington since the late 1940s. In 1951, when Senator John Kennedy was in Vietnam for one day, he asked the US consul, Edmund Gullion, about the Vietminh, the opponents of the French, whom the Americans were already backing. Gullion replied:

We’re going nowhere out here. The French have lost. If we come in here and do the same thing we will lose, too, for the same reason. There’s no will or support for this kind of war back in Paris. The home front is lost. The same thing would happen to us.

When Kennedy became president, however, he became enmeshed in Vietnam, too. As he later admitted, “If I tried to pull out completely now, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands.”

In 1961, Kennedy asked General Maxwell Taylor to survey the Vietnamese situation for him. When Taylor returned he advised the President that for the US to prevail in Vietnam would require the immediate injection of 8,000 combat troops, and up to 205,000 men later, even though Hanoi and possibly China might enter the war. In the end there were more than 600,000. (Kennedy rejected the idea of a large force, and no combat troops were sent for three years.) The public was told, as a cover story, that Taylor had recommended only a small force of “advisers,” who accompanied South Vietnamese forces. Ten years later when Ellsberg heard Taylor, by then long retired, state that he had never suggested combat battalions, he said to himself, “The president’s men think they have a license to lie that never expires.”

Secrets begins with a detailed account of Ellsberg’s first day at the Defense Department, on August 4, 1964. He read all the radio traffic between the Pentagon and the commander of a two-destroyer flotilla in the Tonkin Gulf. At first the commander reported that they were under attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. This caused great alarm in Washington. But after two hours the commander admitted that his first reports had been unreliable. “Within a few days,” says Ellsberg, “it came to seem less likely that any attack had occurred.”8 But by then President Johnson had announced the attacks, McNamara had briefed the press, and Johnson had ordered the first bombings of North Vietnam. Not long after listening to the President and McNamara use words like “naked aggression” and “unprovoked,” Ellsberg “knew that each one of these assurances was false.”9 When Christian Appy interviewed James Thomson of the National Security Council staff, Thomson recalled that after the alleged attack on Tonkin, he heard Walt Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser, say:

“You know the wonderful thing is, we don’t even know if this thing happened at all. Boy, it gives us the chance really to go for broke on the bombing. The evidence is unclear, but our golden opportunity is at hand.” This was crazy and deceitful policy making.

Journalists, Ellsberg states, “had no idea, no clue, even the best of them, just how often and how egregiously they were lied to.”

In 1969, after years of lying to others and deceiving himself, and finally aware of the realities in Vietnam, Ellsberg called a friend, a high-ranking Democratic official, and suggested that Nixon be told publicly that the war was the responsibility of both Democrats and Republicans, and that it was time to get out. His friend replied: “Dan, if we did what you suggest, there’d be a political bloodbath such as you’ve never seen. And that means you and me, Dan.”

Ellsberg describes how he first concocted lies himself. One afternoon in 1964 a US drone crashed in China. Ellsberg’s boss, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, received a call from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. McNaughton told Ellsberg, “Bob is seeing the press at eight-thirty. We have ten minutes to write six alternative lies for him.” The two men worked fast for ten minutes and sent the lies to McNamara, who these days presents himself as a deeply moral being: “Bob liked these,” McNaughton tells Ellsberg. “He wants four more. We have five minutes.”

There was, Ellsberg writes,

an abundance of people who, like John and me, could and did meet those requirements [to lie] adequately. The result was an apparatus of secrecy.

Unlike much other classified information, most of these secrets, Ellsberg tells us, did not leak to the public.

Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all knew enough about Vietnam not to pursue a war there if their real intention had been to beat the Vietminh. Their diplomats, advisers, and intelligence operatives told them so. Each president, from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, had the same reason for going ahead: the Communists must not win during their presidency. On May 4, 1972, Nixon said:

Whatever happens to South Vietnam we are going to cream North Vietnam…. For once, we’ve got to use the maximum power of this country…against this shit-ass little country: to win the war.

Such was policymaking by presidents from Truman to Nixon, aided by men who, like Ellsberg himself, kept their knowledge and doubt to themselves in exchange for power and access. Ellsberg was the most outspoken and daring of the Ameri-can insiders who saw that a disaster was taking place and changed their minds.

In the face of current American rhetoric about the need for American forces to “prevail,” David Elliott’s characterizations of the Vietnamese revolutionaries are instructive and cautionary: “Whatever one’s view of the outcome,” he writes, “in the end it was fundamentally decided by the Vietnamese themselves, bringing to a close 100 years of foreign intervention.”

This Issue

October 9, 2003