The Chronicles of the Great Opposition. Review of the book “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975” by M. Hastings

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The review is given on the book “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975” by the English historian and publicist Max Hastings. The author builds the history of the struggle of the Vietnamese people against the French colonialists and American imperialists based on extensive factual evidence. Anti-communist beliefs do not allow the author to fully appreciate the role of the Viet Minh front and the Vietnamese communists in the victory over the French, but he recognizes the enormous authority of Ho Chi Minh. Objectively depicting the anti-national character of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam and the American “aid”, the English journalist confirms with his book the main lesson of the Vietnam War, which proves that the internal political problems of another country cannot be solved by an outside invasion.

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Max Hastings. Vietnam. A History of Tragedy 1945–1975.


Half a century after the end of the war in Indochina “Vietnamese Syndrome” constantly gives expression to itself in the social and political life of the United States, although, as the political practice of the United States shows, no proper conclusions were made from the lessons that the war of the Vietnamese people for national liberation, and then against the US aggression, taught the world. The controversy between scientists, politicians, and journalists, both in the United States and in Vietnam surrounding the events of those years remains unabated. These controversies have attracted the attention of many historians and other countries around the world, as address the nature of the war and the important lessons of the US defeat in Vietnam. A great many books, memoirs, and scientific articles have already been published on this subject, as well as many documentaries have been produced. Among them, the fundamental work of the English historian and publicist Max Hastings “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975” perfectly translated into Russian and published in Moscow by the publishing house “Alpina Non-fiction” rightly attracts attention.

Max Hastings skillfully uses the vast evident material accumulated before his research but at the same time his method of presenting facts, analyzing specific events, assessing the activities of political figures of that time differ significantly from the widespread opinions and positions of other authors both in the United States and in the official publications of Vietnam. This work is hardly scientific at all. Much of it is described more as an essay, through the stories and fates of individuals – both prominent people and simple peasants.

Not every reader will have the patience to read the entire 800-page epic of the 30-year history of Vietnam, full of the most complex events of the Cold War of two irreconcilable camps – the West and the East till the end. As a witness and, to a certain extent, a participant in this confrontation the author of the review finds a great part of this work of a British journalist and scholar important, objective, and worthy of attention. But there are still some things that provoke objections.

First of all, this refers to the often uncritical reproduction of tendentious reporting by some American journalists from Vietnam as well as to his insistence on equating the policies and practices of French colonizers, and then the American politicians and their henchmen who came to replace them in South Vietnam, on the one hand, and on the other hand the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. The description of the events of 1945–1946 in Vietnam raises a lot of doubts. Hastings’ anti-Soviet and anti-communist convictions are strongly felt. But with all this, he admits that no other potential Vietnamese leader has enjoyed even a fraction of the popular love that Ho Chi Minh was able to win (p. 47).

The author of the book interprets Viet Minh’s policy in a highly subjective way, which he had no difficulty understanding. He perceives as “indisputably proven” facts of excessive cruelty on both sides, forgetting who is responsible for the decades of war imposed on the Vietnamese people, for the deaths of millions of civilians under bombs and chemical weapons, for the monstrous destruction of many cities and towns. Nevertheless, it becomes clear from his account of events why many more Vietnamese felt very differently and supported the revolutionary movement, which declared its goal not only the elimination of the colonial regime but also of the class of large landowners who ruthlessly exploited the peasantry for several generations (p. 65).

The colonial rule of France, according to the author, was doomed against the background of the national liberation struggle of the masses with an explicit communist leadership and coupled with the weakness of non-communist political forces in the country. Like many other scholars in the West, the author attributes the victory of the 1945 August Revolution in Vietnam to a “historical accident” that created a “power vacuum” in Vietnam. He completely ignores the role and skillful leadership of the Communist Party of Indochina, led by Ho Chi Minh, which did not allow any “power vacuum” in Vietnam. The Viet Minh Front, through the use of the favorable international situation, eliminated step by step the power of the French and Japanese on the ground. At the crucial moment of the revolutionary situation, he managed to win the support of the people and weaken the positions of other nationalist forces. The author called the outbreak of the 30-year war for the independence and unity of the country “a tragedy”, but, as mentioned above, he stays quiet about who bears the real historical responsibility for it. Moreover, he clearly assigns it rather to the Viet Minh front and personally to Ho Chi Minh, who allegedly did not at all reckon with the deaths of tens of thousands of their fellow citizens in this war.

The entire war of France for the return of its colonial possessions in Indochina is generally described from the standpoint of a Western journalist who supports this war, which in the public opinion of many countries of the world is justly called a “dirty war”. The leitmotif that passes through all the stories and sketches about this war runs through his idea that “both sides were equal to each other in ruthlessness” (p. 46–54).

The author paid much attention to the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneve Conference. These chapters can be considered the best in the whole work.

They are created with great journalistic skill and allow the reader to fully imagine those events. The author showed in detail how the operation launched by the French troops with the aim of creating an advantage over the liberation forces and preventing them from reaching the border with the PRC ended in the complete defeat of the French.

According to the author, this can only be explained by the “shocking collective incompetence of the French command”. Here, as they say, he clearly fancies himself a strategist, seeing the battle from the side. Of course, there were a lot of mistakes and nonsense from the part of coming and leaving French commanders. But he is forced to admit that the VNA command, led by General of the Army Vo Nguyen Giap, relied on the commitment and courage of the soldiers, as well as on the help received from the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries, came off as the winner in this key battle of the entire war.

The course of the Geneve conference is described in a quite truthful way, as well as the sinister role of the US representative A. Dulles, who did everything possible to prevent an agreement. And when, against all the odds, an agreement was reached, it was greeted as a clear success of the peace-loving forces and the national liberation movement of the peoples of Indochina. Therefore, the author’s assertions that “most of the world community was depressed by the results of the Geneve conference” (p. 134) do not correspond to reality.

Equally interesting and detailed are the author’s descriptions of all subsequent events. The regime of Ngo Dinh Diem created in South Vietnam is shown fairly objectively. The author convincingly demonstrates that the populace in the South was not just unhappy with Diem’s ​​policies and institutions. They abhorred the very “face” of the regime – the Ngo family, which had settled in power, with its cruelties, guillotine executions, incompetence, and Catholicism.

The Vietnamese Buddhist clergy, as the author shows, was among the most dissatisfied with the dominance of Catholics in power as well as the open favoritism of the Ngo family towards their fellow believers. Since 1961, American strategists have come to the conclusion that the Vietnam problem can only be solved by sending the great part of their advisers and weapons to South Vietnam. And for 34 months, the Kennedy administration did exactly that. With their material gifts, the author writes, the Americans could not win the gratitude of the local population. The main thing that the Americans soon learned about Vietnam, according to the author, is how little they know about it (p. 179).

The author dwells in detail on the outbreak of the political crisis in the White House. Following from a number of documents that have become available, he reveals the content of the positions and assessments of a number of leading US political figures of that time. Some of them still remain significant in our time. They confirm the main lesson of the Vietnam war, which proves that the internal political problems of another country cannot be solved by an invasion from the outside, as well as that in the second half of the twentieth-century war has already ceased to be a continuation of politics, even if by other means.

The weirdest fact of this war, the author believes, is the American people themselves and their legislators, who, with almost no objection, for a long time agreed to large-scale military intervention in a distant country, while the rest of the world, including the US allies, considered their policies unacceptable and lawless. It has been said that the only thing that history teaches us is that it never teaches us anything. However, as many facts show, including the well-described US aggression in Vietnam by the author, she severely punishes those who ignore her lessons.

Thus, despite the indicated erroneous opinions of the author and other rather controversial conclusions and assessments, this detailed literary and artistic description of the struggle of the Vietnamese people for national independence and the unity of their homeland, published in Russian, deserves the highest praise.


About the authors

Grigory M. Lokshin

Institute of Far Eastern Studies RAS

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0002-6362-7463

Ph.D. (History), Leading Researcher, Center for Vietnam and ASEAN Studies

Russian Federation, Moscow


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1. Max Hastings. Vietnam. A History of Tragedy 1945–1975.

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