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Our Vietnam

The War 1954-1975

About The Book

Winner of the Overseas Press Club's Cornelius J. Ryan Award for Best Nonfiction Book, the Commonwealth Club of California's Gold Medal for Nonfiction, and the PEN Center West Award for Best Research Nonfiction

Twenty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, historian and journalist A. J. Langguth delivers an authoritative account of the war based on official documents not available earlier and on new reporting from both the American and Vietnamese perspectives. In Our Vietnam, Langguth takes us inside the waffling and deceitful White Houses of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; documents the ineptness and corruption of our South Vietnamese allies; and recounts the bravery of soldiers on both sides of the war. With its broad sweep and keen insights, Our Vietnam brings together the kaleidoscopic events and personalities of the war into one engrossing and unforgettable narrative.


Chapter One: Kennedy And Ho


Dwight Eisenhower was a minute or two early walking out the front door of the White House because he wanted to greet his successor as soon as he arrived. It was the morning of December 6, 1960, four weeks after the presidential election, and Eisenhower had interrupted a vacation in Georgia to come back to Washington for his first meeting with the president-elect, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The crowd gathering on Pennsylvania Avenue agreed that Ike looked ruddy and beaming, but his staff understood that his public smile, while it won elections, did not always reflect his mood. Eisenhower was fretting as he waited, concerned that Kennedy would pull up in a car filled with smug young aides still congratulating themselves on beating the Republicans.

During the recent campaign, Kennedy had spared the president direct attacks, but Eisenhower saw no reason to be grateful. Ike might have been seventy, the oldest man ever to hold the presidency and the victim of a heart attack, ileitis and a stroke. Yet he knew that if the Twenty-second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had not barred him from a third term and he had chosen to run again, he could have beaten Kennedy or any other Democrat. Kennedy's sharpest criticism had come in a campaign promise to "get the country moving again." Eisenhower might have resented the implication of stagnation and drift, but both he and Kennedy remembered the rancor between transition teams when Eisenhower succeeded Harry Truman in the White House and were determined to avoid any public show of hostility.

Jack Kennedy arrived promptly at 9 A.M. and made a good first impression by showing up with only a driver at the wheel of his cream-colored Lincoln. And he came hat in hand. Kennedy generally avoided headgear since none improved his appearance more than his own thatch of reddish-brown hair. Today, however, to show respect for the president, he was carrying a narrow-brimmed gray felt.

Kennedy climbed the six steps and shook Eisenhower's hand. To Ike's cordial welcome, he replied quietly, "It's good to be here." Although Kennedy, at forty-three, was the youngest man ever to win the presidency, Ike detected no youthful arrogance as they toured the White House kitchens and the swimming pool. When they settled down to talk in the Oval Office, the president had to admit that Kennedy displayed an impressive mastery of the topics they had agreed to cover.

Their agenda had been prepared by George Ball, a State Department veteran, who had drafted a version for Kennedy and then revised it after the White House sent over its list of subjects Eisenhower wanted to discuss. Ike proposed nine items, opening with the question of sharing nuclear weapons with America's European allies. Laos, a small but irksome country in Southeast Asia, ranked second on the Eisenhower agenda. It hadn't appeared on Ball's list at all.

One key to Jack Kennedy's political effectiveness was his ability to listen attentively to an argument, ask probing questions and conclude a meeting by conveying his pleasure in the conversation -- all the while giving no hint of what he might decide. It was a reserve that had protected him as a sickly youngster growing up in a household that celebrated rude good health. Kennedy had shielded his sensitivity from Joseph Kennedy, his overwhelming father, and young Joe, his older brother, until his reticence had become ingrained. By the time Jack Kennedy ran for president, he was adept at maintaining options and resisting decisions. Early in the 1960 campaign, he had called on a group of Harvard professors to develop platform promises that would win him votes without tying his hands once he was elected.

In private conversation, Kennedy could rely on an indefinable aura -- journalists were labeling it "charisma," Greek for a power conferred by the gods -- that left his companions convinced that an enduring bond had been forged. Older men took his close attention for deference; men of every age came to feel real affection for this rather remote young millionaire.

With women, his combination of detachment and ruffled good looks served Jack Kennedy even better. During the recent campaign, Eleanor Roosevelt had expressed misgivings about Kennedy's youth and about the influence of his father, whose isolationist views had alienated a generation of Roosevelt liberals. But even the Democrats' beloved dowager had paused in her attack to grant that young Kennedy had "an enormous amount of charm."

Kennedy's charm was working that morning on Dwight Eisenhower. After an hour and a half together, they were joined by Eisenhower's top cabinet officers for further discussion. Later in the day, Ike noted in his diary that his successor seemed to be "a serious, earnest seeker for information." But he couldn't be sure that this inexperienced Democrat was taking seriously enough Eisenhower's gravest concern -- the drain on America's gold supply from too much overseas spending. "I pray he understands it," Ike wrote.

Working with Eisenhower's staff, a fifty-two-year-old Washington attorney named Clark Clifford was handling day-to-day matters for Kennedy's transition team. With the wavy blond hair and bland good looks of a minor movie actor, Clifford had come from St. Louis to transform himself into a Washington insider -- arranging Harry Truman's weekly poker games, serving as an Eisenhower commissioner, defending a Republican secretary of the army against Joseph McCarthy. Although Clifford had backed a fellow Missourian, Stuart Symington, in the recent Democratic primary elections, Jack Kennedy continued to use him as his personal lawyer. After the election, Clifford urged Kennedy in a memorandum to stress publicly that he was going to appoint only those men with the highest qualifications for government service; he made no mention of female candidates. But Kennedy was having trouble assembling that first-rate cabinet. Moving through the salons of Georgetown, the president-elect lamented that for four years he had spent so much time seeking out people who could help him become president that he had met very few who could help him be president.

As his first appointments, Kennedy asked J. Edgar Hoover to continue as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Allen Dulles to remain director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Liberal Democrats deplored that gesture of continuity and detected the influence of Kennedy's conservative father. But Hoover was too entrenched at the FBI to be fired by a new president who had been elected by a nationwide margin of only 120,000 votes -- many of those disputed. Although Dulles kept his job for much the same reason, he was also an old friend. When Kennedy was recovering from serious back surgery in Palm Beach in 1958, Dulles often dropped by his bedside to pass the time with tales of international espionage. In return, the senator's wife, Jacqueline, introduced Dulles to the fictional hero of To Russia with Love, British agent James Bond. From then on, America's spymaster was always one of the first to buy Ian Fleming's latest thriller.

Besides striving for excellence in his appointments, Kennedy intended to reward those politicians whose early support had been vital to his victory. Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic nominee, could have bartered successfully for secretary of state had he been willing to endorse Kennedy before the crucial spring primaries. But he had hesitated, hoping that the Democratic presidential nomination -- worth something now that Eisenhower would not be running -- might be thrust upon him for a third time. Stevenson's last chance for State vanished on the July evening at the Los Angeles Sports Arena when he let his name be placed in nomination for the presidency. The ensuing tumult saw Senator Hubert Humphrey lead a war dance around the convention floor, less on behalf of Stevenson than as revenge for Kennedy's shabby campaign against Humphrey in the West Virginia primary. There the Kennedy forces had brutally contrasted Humphrey's failure to serve in World War II with Jack Kennedy's heroism in the South Pacific.

But when the whooping died away and the Stevenson signs were hauled down, the nominee had been Jack Kennedy. Even Stevenson loyalists understood that if they wanted to win this time, the convention had made the right choice.

As Jack Kennedy prepared for his inauguration, a frail seventy-year-old leader of an impoverished peasant nation watched from halfway around the world, wondering what the election of this young Democrat would mean for his country. From Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman, Ho Chi Minh had seldom succeeded in engaging Washington's sympathies. Now, frustrated but determined, he had just delivered a speech in Hanoi that amounted to a declaration of war against the United States. Eisenhower's policy-makers, preparing to leave office, found Ho's challenge easy to dismiss as the last cry of an old revolutionary. But had they looked past his stooped shoulders, they would have seen eyes that still glittered with visions of a united and independent Vietnam.

Ho was saddened that late in life he should be fighting America, since for decades it was France that had been his enemy. Not long before Ho's birth in 1890, the French had succeeded in a thirty-year campaign to claim all of Indochina as their colony. The conquerors set little value on Laos or Cambodia, the two other kingdoms that made up the Indochinese peninsula. It was Vietnam, with its fine seaports and a lively population, that became the center of French rule. Vietnam itself was made up of three territories -- to the north, Tonkin, with Hanoi as its capital; to the south, Cochin China, with Saigon the capital. Ho had grown up in the middle sector, called Annam and governed by French appointees from the city of Hue.

But centuries before France coveted Indochina, China had already conquered Tonkin. Invading from the north in 111 b.c., the Chinese held the land for more than a thousand years. Viet was the Chinese word for a tribe of barbarians who had moved to the south -- or nam -- side of the Yangtze River. During their rule, the Chinese introduced the plow and other farming tools to the Red River Delta, where the city of Hanoi would one day rise. The delta's rich land was washed out each year by monsoon rains that flooded the rice paddies and ruined the crops. To survive, the Vietnamese built thousands of miles of dikes along the Red River and its tributaries. Besides its fertile soil, Vietnam had such luster that its poets claimed they could identify where China began by the heightened sheen to their side of the border. The shades of green alone seemed infinite -- rice paddies of a green that melted across the horizon into a yellow haze. Sea-green palms rising above apple-green grasses, and rubber trees spreading oval leaves of pea-pod green. On distant hills, pine trees shimmered with needles that changed with the light from blue-green to the green that was almost black.

The Vietnamese themselves were smaller and more lithe than the Chinese, and yet the Chinese never succeeded either in absorbing or quelling them. Children of Ho's generation were taught about his nation's many uprisings for independence. As early as 39 a.d., the Trung sisters gathered enough troops to overwhelm the Chinese governor's residence and, for a brief time, proclaim themselves Vietnam's queens. After a dozen more failed rebellions, a revolt succeeded in the year 939. Except for brief returns of Chinese rule in the fifteenth century and again late in the 1700s, Vietnam struggled along, independent, under several native dynasties -- the Ngo, the Dinh, the Le. But the country was often convulsed by civil war until north and south were finally unified in 1802 under the Nguyen family. It was the Nguyens who resisted the French up to the day that Vietnam officially became a French protectorate in 1883.

With France's victory, a new class of Frenchmen arrived to run the country, taking over many of the positions that had been held by those Vietnamese public officials called mandarins. For centuries, education had been the path for an ambitious Vietnamese to escape from his village. Examinations were given every three years, and the few who passed and became mandarins were provided an official residence, state-paid servants and the gilded trappings worthy of agents of their Imperial Majesty.

Ho's father had achieved mandarin status, even though he had been born to a second wife rather than a first. That misfortune usually restricted a man's opportunities. But while tending water buffalo on a farm, he impressed the landowner with his intelligence and hard work and was allowed to marry a daughter of the household. She brought to the marriage the highly prized dowry of a rice paddy -- the Chinese word for "happiness" included the symbol for a rice field. In heavily populated regions of Vietnam, entire families supported themselves on the yield from one-eighth of an acre.

With his new prosperity, Ho's father undertook studies to better himself. He moved the family to Hue for the mandarin examinations but was serving in a distant province when he learned that his wife had died. Ho, a grieving ten-year-old, went to live with his mother's family. Although his father seldom saw his son, he followed tradition by sending him a new adult name. Ho would keep only the very common surname of Nguyen; otherwise, the boy born Nguyen Sinh Cung became Nguyen Tat Thanh -- "he who will succeed."

Entering the mandarin class, Ho's father was appointed secretary to a government minister in Hue. Mandarins were no longer serving their Vietnamese emperor, however, and he chafed at being nothing more than France's educated lackey. "Being a mandarin," Ho's father complained, "is the ultimate form of slavery."

The degree of his contempt was exposed when he was discovered shielding Vietnamese who had broken French law. Removed from his post, he roamed throughout southern Vietnam and Cambodia for the next twenty years, until his death in 1930, earning his keep by writing letters for illiterate farmers. Although they were separated from him, their father's bitter courage inspired all three children. Ho's sister was suspected by the police of harboring dissidents who had rioted against the French, and Ho's brother, kicked by a French official, fought back and was sent to prison for treasonous activities.

Ho had grown up gifted in languages and greedy for books. In his mid-teens, he came to the attention of a rebellious mandarin, a man whose followers had once tried to seize control of several towns on Bastille Day, assuming that the French would be off their guard. The attempt failed, but the leader escaped and was now offering Ho a chance to study in Japan with other insurgent Vietnamese.

Ho chose instead to stay at a high school in Hue. He soon learned that his headmaster had served in the Foreign Legion and that the lessons were heavily biased toward the French. After four years of protesting that indoctrination, Ho drifted south to become a teacher himself. He ended up at a school for workers in a factory that produced nuoc mam, Vietnam's pungent fish sauce. Less than a year passed before a mutiny within the Chinese army in 1911 alarmed the French, who thought that the uprising across the border might threaten Indochina's stability. They shut down Ho's school. Since the French police already knew about Ho's political leanings, he dropped the name Thanh and sailed out of the port of Saigon on a French liner headed for Marseilles. He had become an assistant cook called Van Ba -- "third child."

During the next few years, the young man docked in ports around the Mediterranean and North Africa. His voyage to the United States in 1912 fulfilled the dream of a boy who had grown up inspired by America's revolutionary war against England. After a stop in Boston, Ho reached New York, where he was thrilled to see the Statue of Liberty, his pleasure dimmed only by the fact that it had been the French who donated it. Otherwise, Ho was awed by the marvels of New York -- the subway system; the great bridges spanning the East River; the skyline, dominated by the new Metropolitan Life Insurance Building.

Even more stirring was an excursion with a shipmate from the Hoboken docks to Chinatown, where Ho spoke in Cantonese with immigrant workers. The men told him that although they knew no English, they enjoyed equal protection under American law. Decades later, Ho could recall his trip to the United States in affectionate detail.

When the First World War broke out, Ho settled in London, shoveling snow and washing dishes, until Georges Escoffier, the chef at the Carlton House, took him on as an assistant pastry cook. Ho used his three years in the kitchens to learn English and to join an underground unit of Asian immigrants called the Overseas Workers. By the time he sailed to France, he had taken yet another name -- Nguyen Ai Quoc, Nguyen the Patriot.

In Paris, Ho supported himself as an interpreter and by painting art works that were sold as "Chinese antiquities." The demands of Chinese calligraphy had made his fingers adept at retouching photographs, and Ho ran an advertisement in a working-class newspaper: "If you would like a lifetime memento of your family, have your photos retouched at Nguyen Ai Quoc's. A lovely portrait in a lovely frame for 45 francs."

As he scrambled for a living, Ho was reading widely in the teaching of Buddha, Confucius and Jesus and finding something to admire in each faith. But the religion that touched his heart, and promised the most for his country, was Marxism. Ho's upbringing in a French colony made him intriguing to prominent writers on the Left -- Leon Blum; Karl Marx's nephew; the editors of France's Communist and Socialist journals. Before long, Ho had joined with another

Vietnamese to publish a paper they called Viet Nam Hon, the "Soul of Vietnam." At the age of twenty-seven, he wrote his first serious manifesto, denounc-ing the injustice of conscripting Vietnamese to fight for France against

Germany. sHo also assailed the French for selling distilled alcohol to his countrymen, who traditionally had drunk only small cups of rice wine. Ho argued that the resulting widespread drunkenness made liquor almost worse than opium since only 80,000 people in Vietnam used that drug, and most of them were Chinese.

Living among the French, Ho cast off any lingering sense that France might be ruling Indochina because of an innate superiority. "Whether soup salesmen or school caretakers," he wrote scornfully about the sort of Frenchmen who ended up in Vietnam, "once they get out to our colonies, our civilizers live like princes." Ho listed the battalion of Vietnamese servants a Frenchman could expect to command. "And madame enjoys: one dressmaker, one washer woman, one seamstress, one basket maker. The child has a special attendant who never leaves him."

Ho's indictment ran to 30,000 words. He railed against the fact that the rape of Vietnamese women went unpunished. He attacked French censorship of Vietnamese newspapers and branded the Catholic Church an accomplice in France's tyranny. Although his hundred-page polemic was meant to awaken his countrymen, Ho called for no specific action and the names of Marx and Lenin did not appear. Colonialism, not capitalism, was Ho's enemy.

But afterward, sitting alone in his room, Ho read for the first time Lenin's "Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions." He found the language dense and had to read passages several times, but he grasped its message -- that revolution could not be separated from the fight against colonialism. He shouted out, as though addressing hordes of countrymen: "Dear martyrs, compatriots! This is what we need! This is the path to our liberation!"

In 1919, Ho had gone with a few companions to Versailles to submit a plan for Indochina that would supplement Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. Ho's eight demands included adding Vietnamese delegates to the French Parliament and establishing freedom of the press in Vietnam and the right to free association. Although Ho had rented a morning coat for a presidential audience, his unimposing figure was lost among the other colonial representatives from Africa and the Middle East, all clamoring to meet with Wilson. Not only was Ho denied an audience but, more discouraging, his agenda was dismissed by every political faction except the Socialists. Simply by making his demands, however, Nguyen the Patriot was becoming a hero to Vietnamese at home and throughout Europe. As the Soviet Communists consolidated their control of Russia, Ho concluded that they promised more for his country than the Socialists could offer and formally joined the French Communist party.

As he turned thirty, Ho was thin and pale with skin that one French writer described as the color of tea. He was taller than most of his countrymen, and his forehead rose high above his large and glowing eyes. Meeting him, however, men most often remarked on his gentleness. An early photograph, taken by French police suspicious of his political activity, conveyed a sense of wistfulness. The hat perched on Ho's head suggested less a dangerous revolutionary than Chaplin's little tramp.

Between the world wars, Ho wrote articles, edited a journal and represented Indochina at party congresses. In 1923, he entered Russia on a passport issued by the Chinese embassy in Paris. He claimed to be a Chinese citizen heading home by way of Moscow. Once in the Soviet Union, he was introduced to leading Bolsheviks -- Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Joseph Stalin, whom Ho felt had a special sympathy for colonial causes. The next January, Ho was devastated when Lenin died before Ho could arrange a meeting, and he eulogized the Russian leader in an article for Pravda. "What are we going to do?" Ho asked. "That is the question the oppressed masses in the colonies are anxiously asking themselves...."

Ho's answer was to embrace Lenin's warning that a revolution must never begin until all conditions favored its success. Ho's temperament preferred action to delay, but he understood the virtue of waiting. In Paris, he had once used the alias Nguyen O Phap -- Nguyen Who Hates the French. Over the years, that hatred had been refined into an intellectual passion. He still denounced France's crimes against his people, but his spirit was free of resentment. Life in the Soviet Union had bestowed on him the gift of patience.

While other Communist leaders in Moscow were retreating into suspicious isolation, Ho still slept alongside his comrades on a mat on the floor, and his transparent decency won him a circle of Russian admirers. With age, Ho's manner grew only warmer, more avuncular, although some colleagues understood that his studied simplicity masked a sophisticated political mind.

The Soviets were monitoring developments in China, where a Western-educated doctor, Sun Yat-sen, was leading a revolt against the ruling dynasty. When Sun died in 1925, a young aide, Chiang Kai-shek, took up the resistance and allied his troops with China's Communists. The Russians had backed Sun's Kuomintang party and had dispatched Mikhail Borodin, a high-ranking agent, to assist Chiang. Ho went along as Borodin's interpreter. Since Ho spoke Cantonese, the Russians hoped he could organize the many Vietnamese in China's southern provinces.

In Canton, Ho met a cosmopolitan young Chinese, Zhou Enlai, whose skill in languages matched his own. He also succeeded in recruiting several of his countrymen, most notably Pham Van Dong, the intense son of a mandarin from Hue. As Ho traveled to Shanghai, Bangkok and Hong Kong, he adopted new aliases, all the while spreading the gospel of revolution. He couched his message in words both cautious and concrete since, he said, "Peasants believe in facts, not theories."

In 1930, Ho met in Hong Kong with leaders of the many feuding nationalist factions. Afterward, legend had them convening in the Kowloon stadium during a soccer match so they could caucus undetected among the cheering crowd. Since Ho had warned by letter that he would have no confidence in any people except true Communists, the delegates agreed to become the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Despite his precautions, the French authorities tracked Ho to Hong Kong and persuaded the British police to arrest him. Ho's revolutionary energy had left him looking incandescent but alarmingly thin, and his jailers diagnosed him as tubercular. A sympathetic British lawyer arranged to send him to a sanitarium in England, but immigration authorities intercepted him in Singapore and took him back to a prison hospital. There friends engineered his escape and an obliging hospital employee reported that Ho was dead. The ruse tricked the French at Hanoi's Sûreté Bureau into closing their file on Nguyen Ai Quoc with the final notation: "Died in the Hong Kong gaol, 1933."

As Jack Kennedy pondered suggestions for his cabinet, one unfamiliar name kept surfacing -- Robert Strange McNamara, a forty-seven-year-old systems analyst who had assumed the presidency of the Ford Motor Company the day after Kennedy's election. McNamara's promotion at Ford was noteworthy because he had become the company's first president who was not a member of the Ford family. Although Kennedy had never met the man, he was told that McNamara's was a mind of honed precision.

One persuasive sponsor was Robert Lovett, a Republican who had been Kennedy's first choice for secretary of the treasury. Over tea in Georgetown, Dean Acheson, Truman's acerbic secretary of state, warned Kennedy that Lovett, at sixty-five, had no interest in returning to government. But since Lovett's generation considered a direct request from a President almost a military command, Acheson predicted that Lovett would come armed with a stack of doctors' reports to prove that he was too sickly to serve.

When he and Kennedy met, Lovett did in fact produce medical affidavits that he was hemorrhaging severely and might soon face major surgery. Kennedy had to respect that excuse; neither he nor Lovett's doctors could know that their patient would live for another twenty-six years.

As consolation, Lovett put forward other cabinet candidates, with McNamara high on his list. The idea intrigued Kennedy. Like Lovett, McNamara would reassure the business and financial communities that had opposed his election. Kennedy's father often cursed the nation's business leaders but never underestimated their importance to the success of a presidency.

Five weeks after the election, Robert Kennedy, one of the president-elect's younger brothers, called McNamara to arrange a visit from a Kennedy representative. In 1946, timid and uncertain, Bobby Kennedy had entered Massachusetts politics to work on his brother's first campaign for the House of Representatives. Hearty Joe Kennedy, Jr., had not survived the war, and Bobby, almost a head shorter than either Jack or their youngest brother, Teddy, had seemed a born acolyte, a family member so accustomed to the shadows that any attention made him squirm. But during that first campaign, Bobby had taken three precincts as his sole responsibility and, away from the glare of publicity, working harder and longer than anyone else, had delivered them for Jack.

By 1952, Bobby had become the obvious choice to head Jack's uphill campaign for the U.S. Senate against the Republican incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge. The victory that followed seemed to transform him. Fighting for his brother, Bobby could demand commitments and concessions that, asking for himself, would have left him flushed and stammering. By the time of the 1960 presidential campaign, the smallest of the Kennedy men was being denounced as a ruthless political operative and reveling in it. Now, speaking to the president of Ford Motors, Bobby asked McNamara to make time that same afternoon for an appointment with a Kennedy brother-in-law named Sargent Shriver.

The financial sacrifice that Jack Kennedy would be asking of McNamara impressed the president-elect. Except for his naval service and a couple of newspaper assignments cobbled together by his father with acquaintances in publishing, Jack Kennedy had never worked and seldom carried money. Bills for his expenses were sent, like those of his sisters, directly to his father's business office. As a result, money had little reality for him. He had teased his Boston political pals about their high new White House salaries until his father reminded him that $5,000 a year wasn't so grand, since Jack himself was spending between $400,000 and $500,000 on everything from his valet to his wife's designer gowns.

To the young Kennedys, a self-made man like McNamara commanded a certain respect, as their father did. But within the family, being a captain of industry or even a distinguished college professor could not compare with being a successful politician. Kennedy's maternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald, had been mayor of Boston, and Joseph Kennedy had considered challenging Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940. Jack Kennedy had inherited or acquired a zest for the struggle and glory of elective office. The same politicians his wife, Jackie, found dreary and self-serving intrigued him. He wanted to know everything about them -- their families, their mistresses, their fiddling with campaign contributions.

Shriver arrived in Detroit about three hours after Bobby's call. During the campaign, the Kennedys had often sounded out a man about a possible appointment, arousing pleasant expectations that could be deflated later. Several midwestern governors still found it hard to believe that the vice presidential nomination had gone to Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas when Bobby Kennedy had intimated that support for his brother all but guaranteed them a place on the ticket.

In putting together the cabinet, the brothers were being equally guarded. Jack Kennedy had broached the subject of secretary of state to a liberal like Chester Bowles by asking whom Bowles would appoint as his deputy. It was heady speculation, even for a man like Bowles, who had been a U.S. senator from Connecticut. He came up immediately with the name of Dean Rusk, a former assistant secretary of state under Truman, who was currently heading the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. The amusing game had ended, however, with Bowles being thanked and sent away without an appointment.

Dealing with McNamara, Shriver dropped that coyness. He said that the president-elect was offering him the office of either secretary of the treasury or secretary of defense. Shriver added that he had been authorized to accept only a favorable reply. Otherwise, Mr. McNamara should plan to meet personally with the president-elect before he ruled out accepting a post. McNamara refused Treasury outright and seemed inclined to turn down Defense as well, but he flew to Washington the next day for an inconclusive introduction and agreed to return on Monday.

McNamara knew he did not have the international expertise for Treasury, but he had developed methods of statistical control that should transfer effectively to Defense. After studying economics at the University of California at Berkeley, McNamara got his first and only glimpse of Asia by signing on with a friend as a hand aboard the passenger ship President Hoover. His father, a severe man with an eighth-grade education, had permitted the trip because a San Francisco dock strike had been settled and the crew would not have to cross a picket line. McNamara's youthful mother, Claranell Strange, doted on her firstborn son and honored her side of the family with his middle name.

As McNamara's ship reached Shanghai, Japanese planes bombed the city and, through a pilot's error, attacked their civilian ship. Several people were wounded and the lifeboats destroyed. Throughout the action, McNamara snapped photographs, and when he arrived the next fall at the Harvard Business School, he used the fragment of a Japanese bomb casing as a paperweight.

Studying for a master's degree, McNamara first encountered the theory of statistical control, which had been developed thirty years earlier at the E. I. duPont de Nemours Powder Company. The system allowed accountants to measure the earnings of each product against its specific cost in personnel and raw material. Manufacturing companies could compare the rate of return among their divisions and assess which managers were generating the largest profits. Above all, the new approach put an end to guesswork, be it inspired or impractical. Statistical control was eminently rational, as was Bob McNamara. His professors recognized that he had a remarkable gift for using statistics to solve practical problems.

During World War II, McNamara joined Charles "Tex" Thornton in teaching the Army Air Corps how to track its men and resources. At war's end, McNamara intended to return to the Harvard Business School as a faculty member. But in 1945, both he and his wife, Margy, contracted polio. McNamara's was a mild case, Margy's so severe that doctors said she would never walk again. She defied them and recovered, but in the first bleak days when McNamara expected to be caring for an invalid wife and raising their children, he gave up his dream of teaching and joined an ingenious collective that Tex Thornton had put together. Thornton was offering himself, McNamara and eight of their army colleagues as a management team. His target was any company farsighted enough to grasp that in postwar America the hunches of an Edison or Henry Ford no longer guaranteed success. Young Henry Ford II bought his argument that business decisions should be buttressed by demonstrable fact, and he signed up Thornton's Whiz Kids.

Thornton soon left for Hughes Aircraft and later founded Litton Industries, and McNamara became the team's star exponent of statistical control. His fourteen years at Ford proved highly successful, although he found neither the company nor its president especially congenial. For his part, Henry Ford regarded McNamara as a prized possession, a dependable performer crammed with data that Ford himself could not be bothered to remember. Ford had been generous in rewarding McNamara's efficiency, nicely set off as it was by his touches of deference. On becoming company president, McNamara's salary had risen to $410,000 a year. The job of Secretary of Defense paid $25,000.

Despite that disparity, the prospect of being sprung from Detroit's gilded confines appealed to McNamara. Polling Margy and their children, he found them willing to abide by his decision. After the years of adroit obeisance to Henry Ford, however, McNamara intended to insist on one ironclad condition before accepting the offer. He wrote it out and left a place for Kennedy's signature: McNamara must be guaranteed the freedom to appoint his own undersecretaries without political interference.

And yet, leaving Ford was a momentous decision. McNamara had been scheduled to meet Kennedy in Washington the following Monday. To buy time, he called Palm Beach to say that he had mailed off a letter with his terms. McNamara also explained that he could not reach the capital on Monday because a snowstorm in Michigan made flying impossible. Both were fibs. McNamara had not sent the letter, and air traffic had not been disrupted.

Kennedy was unperturbed by the delay. Fine, he said. Shall we make it Tuesday?

In his role as an automobile executive, McNamara had slicked back his hair until, with his blunt features, he looked rather like a snub-nosed bullet, and his clear-rimmed glasses could seem more a shield against the world than an aid to understanding it. In his private life at Ford, McNamara had set himself apart from the other executives with a relatively ascetic style of living that some colleagues took as a calculated reproach. He might strive mightily for power within the company, but McNamara still considered himself an idealist. That explained why he had been stirred by Jack Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, a nonfiction history of several uncompromising moments in the U.S. Senate. Kennedy had produced the book in Palm Beach in the mid-1950s during his long convalescence from back surgery. McNamara, a master of the art of gruff ingratiation, flew off for his second interview with Kennedy ready to pronounce Profiles in Courage the best book he had read in the last ten years.

Like most ambitious automobile men in Detroit, McNamara was a registered Republican. But studying at Harvard in 1940, he had voted in a straw poll for Franklin Roosevelt over Wendell Willkie -- and then fretted that his conservative professors might trace the maverick vote to him. Twenty years later, he had voted for Kennedy in 1960, had even sent in a contribution, although nothing large enough to jeopardize his position at Ford or have come to the Kennedys' attention.

When McNamara arrived, Bobby was waiting with his brother in Jack's living room to size up his potential. If McNamara faltered, the Kennedys had considered asking Thomas Gates, Eisenhower's defense secretary, to stay on, with Bobby as his deputy. But McNamara had come to Georgetown wanting to be courted, not to be taken for granted. Opening the conversation with the skeptical belligerence he had perfected at board meetings, McNamara revived the rumor that Profiles in Courage, his favorite book, had been the work of a ghostwriter.

Despite fourteen years in public life, Jack Kennedy's poise could occasionally be shaken. When Profiles first appeared, questions about its authorship had infuriated him enough that he threatened to sue anyone who raised them. But two decades earlier, when Kennedy published another book -- based on his Harvard undergraduate thesis and called Why England Slept -- it had been clear

that a New York Times columnist named Arthur Krock had done more than cosmetic editing of the manuscript. Whatever the contributions to Profiles by Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's talented Senate aide from Nebraska, the book had won the Pulitzer Prize for history, and by the time McNamara belatedly raised the issue, Kennedy had perfected his bland assurances of authorship.

Less easily resolved was McNamara's demand that he pick his own deputies. Certainly, that seemed to remove Bobby from consideration as his deputy. McNamara claimed to understand that potential employees did not bargain with the president of the United States but then went on to spell out his demands. The financial sacrifice he would be making allowed him to deal from strength, and Kennedy, not yet his boss, was fair game for bullying. McNamara pulled from his pocket a copy of the letter he said he had mailed from Michigan.

Later that day, David Bell, an economist being interviewed for the job of budget director, was left alone briefly in Kennedy's living room and saw McNamara's one-page letter lying open on a coffee table. Bell couldn't resist reading it and was struck by McNamara's confident tone. Not only did he set down his conditions, he ended with a pledge that if he and Kennedy reached an agreement, he would remain in Washington as long as Kennedy wished him to stay. Under Eisenhower, the Defense post had become a revolving door for businessmen willing to sacrifice only a year or two to the job. McNamara was signing on for the duration.

As they spoke, Kennedy did not respond directly to McNamara's contract but seemed more amused than offended by it. He said candidly that his campaign obligations were very heavy. A number of people had helped to elect him, and he would do his best to repay those obligations. But, he added, for three departments -- State, Defense and Treasury -- he was going to get the best Americans he could find, regardless of party or politics. With that, the deal was struck. McNamara would be returning to Detroit to tell his domineering boss, with carefully masked glee, that after a mere five weeks as president of Ford, he had accepted a higher calling.

First, though, Kennedy wanted to show off McNamara to the reporters waiting outside his townhouse. From their questions, members of the press were awed by the financial sacrifice McNamara would be making to come to Washington. Pressed for a dollar figure, McNamara finally estimated that over the next few years he would be losing at least $3 million dollars in salary and stock options.

He was adamant, though, in refusing to answer a different question: "Could you tell us whether you voted for Mr. Kennedy?"

Possibly, McNamara didn't want to confirm his apostasy to hostile colleagues back home. Perhaps he thought that telling the truth would look as though he were toadying to the president-elect. Or he may simply have resented the reporters' license to badger him.

Whatever his reason, McNamara replied, "I think my vote is my own affair."

Filling the Treasury spot went smoothly. Douglas Dillon had been Eisenhower's undersecretary of state for economic affairs, and if he was not so well-known as Lovett, he had supported Richard Nixon in the campaign and would deflect criticism from the financial community. For his three priority appointments, Kennedy had now chosen two registered Republicans. He had taken soundings for the State Department with candidates like Bowles, but privately he was saying that he didn't want a Secretary as independent as John Foster Dulles had been under Eisenhower. Owing no political debt to Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy could ignore the fervent telegrams from Democrats across the country urging that he bestow State upon that most eloquent of liberals. Instead, Kennedy offered Stevenson the ambassadorship to the United Nations. After an hour of hand-wringing in the parlor of Walter Lippmann, Washington's foremost columnist, Stevenson choked back his very great disappointment and accepted.

From serving together in the Senate, Kennedy already knew J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, and for a time Kennedy seemed prepared to overlook the segregationist votes that Fulbright regularly cast to mollify white voters at home. Finally, however, the president-elect decided not to jeopardize the winning coalition that Robert Kennedy had forged with Negroes and southern whites, an alliance as diverse as Franklin Roosevelt's but far more fragile. During the campaign, Bobby had developed genuine affection for such unreconstructed southerners as James Eastland, and neither of the Kennedy brothers felt any urgency about extending civil rights legislation. But Kennedy's staff had pushed him to express concern over the jailing of a young Negro minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., and in Illinois the vote of King's grateful supporters had been as significant as any manipulation of ballots by the Chicago Democratic machine. Weighing Fulbright's liabilities once again, Kennedy decided they were simply too great.

When Kennedy called on Lippmann for other suggestions, the columnist floated an unlikely name -- McGeorge Bundy, dean of the faculty at Harvard. Kennedy was aware of the man's nimble mind, which skipped where others plodded, but Bundy was barely past forty. Being young himself, the president-elect wanted to surround himself with grayer hair and longer résumés. He brought Bundy into the White House instead as his national security adviser, a job he kept deliberately amorphous. Bundy's range and influence would depend on how effectively the State Department functioned under whoever became its secretary.

Early in December, Dean Rusk, the Rockefeller Foundation president, was meeting with his board of directors in Williamsburg, Virginia, when he got an urgent invitation to have breakfast with John Kennedy the next morning in Washington. Rusk had published an article in Foreign Affairs titled "The President" that called for a strong U.S. chief executive, served by a secretary of state who was content with an advisory role. The piece could be read as a reproach to Rusk's friend, Foster Dulles, now safely dead. Chester Bowles saw in it a troubling emphasis on routine procedure over creative thinking. As it happened, Rusk was spending the night as the guest of Bowles and his wife, and Bowles realized that Kennedy's call meant that he himself would not be tapped as Secretary. He managed to act enthusiastic on behalf of his protégé, however, and made Rusk promise to call him and report on the breakfast.

At ten-thirty the next morning, Rusk rang up with unexpected news. "I'm not going to become secretary of state," he announced, "because Kennedy and I simply found it impossible to communicate. He didn't understand me, and I didn't understand him."

Apparently, the two men, courteous and accomplished listeners, had sat with some awkwardness, each awaiting an initiative from the other. When Kennedy did speak, he still sounded prepared to offer the job to Fulbright. Rusk endorsed that idea. The conversation limped to a halt.

Bowles thought that Rusk hardly sounded disappointed. He was building a new house outside New York City, and he had been counting on his $60,000 Rockefeller salary to finance it. Like Defense, State paid $25,000. Friends had to assure him that his experience as Secretary of State would make him even more employable the next time he left government.

Another consideration was harder to resolve. Rusk had once served in the State Department and knew its political risks. Even Secretaries as self-assured as George Marshall and Dean Acheson had been vilified as weak in dealing with the Communists. Rather than confront his doubts about his judgment or self-confidence, Rusk told himself that he was somehow too young for the job. But since, at fifty-one, he was eight years older than the president-elect, that argument would scarcely persuade Kennedy. He might have been reassured to learn that, whoever got the job, Kennedy intended to act as his own secretary of state. Whatever his official title, Rusk would be expected to serve as the number-two man -- the role that Bowles had envisioned for him.

Despite the unpromising breakfast in Georgetown, Kennedy called the next day to offer Rusk the job. Rusk insisted on a second meeting. He flew to West Palm Beach with a list of his misgivings, to which he added the fact that he had supported Stevenson at the Los Angeles convention. At that confession, Kennedy just laughed. In the end, Rusk succumbed, still fretting that the position was "so complex and so demanding."

McNamara soon tested Kennedy over their agreement on appointments when the president-elect rang up to ask whether McNamara was considering Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., as secretary of the navy. It was the post that had once launched Roosevelt's father on the national scene, and it was the younger Roosevelt's one request as repayment for his campaigning in West Virginia.

"I have heard his name mentioned," McNamara said, "but he's a playboy and totally unqualified."

"Well, have you met him?"

When McNamara admitted that he had not, Kennedy seized the high ground: "Don't you think you should meet him before coming to a final judgment?"

Trapped, McNamara agreed. Kennedy may have thought that Roosevelt's charm would soften any heart, but for McNamara more was at stake than this one appointment. He summoned Roosevelt, then working in Washington as a Fiat dealer, conducted a perfunctory interview and reported to Kennedy that he stood by his first impression.

Kennedy tried a ploy of his own: "Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., played a major role in my victory."

"Well, he's still not qualified to be Secretary of the Navy."

Kennedy said nothing. A pause that long and significant might have led another man to reverse himself. McNamara waited out his new boss.

At last, Kennedy sighed and said, "I guess I'll have to take care of him some other way."

Sixteen years before Kennedy's election, a Chinese Communist named Mao Zedong had once angled for an invitation to Franklin Roosevelt's White House. The Roosevelt administration had not responded to Mao then, and he did not expect Kennedy to be more hospitable now. At sixty-seven, Mao was three years younger than Ho Chi Minh, and Ho enjoyed greater seniority within the Communist Party. But in the years since Washington's rebuff, Mao had grown in stature as leader of the mainland Chinese. His only rival in the Communist world was Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor in Moscow.

In his youth, Mao had seemed an unlikely candidate for world prominence. Tall but slack and ill-coordinated, he was an esthetic provincial with a limp handshake, a high-pitched voice and an appetite for hot peppers and young women. Born in December 1893 on a three-acre farm in Hunan province, China's rice bowl, he had been named poetically Zedong, or "Anoint the East." But Mao, the family name, was the prosaic word for "hair," and the dissonance in his name pointed up contradictions in the boy's upbringing. Mao's mother was gentle and loving, his father a miserly brute. "The first capitalist I struggled against," Mao recalled, "was my father."

Like Ho, Mao loved books and poetry from an early age and was equally impressed by the American Revolution, especially George Washington's hard years of struggle against the British. But Mao harbored a fantastical strain different from Ho's intense practicality. When the headmaster of his school tried to convince the sixteen-year-old that his favorite book of Chinese history was romantic fiction and not the literal truth, Mao petitioned the mayor to have the man sacked.

Mao had been only a year old when Sun Yat-sen wrote his first revolutionary petition against the Manchu dynasty. By 1911, however, when Sun launched open warfare in Hankow, Mao was ready to join his revolutionary army. But in his eagerness to raise himself above his father's class, he disdained his fellow recruits as uncouth and dirty peasants and balked at doing the normal army chores. In time, he came to appreciate the strength and simplicity of his illiterate comrades and blamed his snobbery on the bourgeois education he had once admired.

Internal struggles wracked the Chinese revolution, and Sun Yat-sen fled to exile in Japan. Mao left the army and, rudderless, dropped in and out of schools -- a police academy, a business course, law school, instruction in soap making. With a friend, he hiked across Hunan province, roughly the size of France, eating one sparse meal a day and toughening his body for the combat he saw coming. By age twenty-five, Mao was living in Beijing, reading the newly translated Communist Manifesto and pondering where the Chinese peasant fit into Marx's theory of capitalists and workers. He became an organizer and set up a cell of Communist revolutionaries devoted to turning China into a classless society. Although scrutiny by the secret police forced Mao underground, he managed to marry a professor's daughter and father two children.

The Moscow Comintern was dismayed by China's competing Communist cells -- including one organized in Paris by Zhou Enlai -- and sent a Dutch agent to meld them into one national party. Recruitment was slow, however, especially within the working class. By 1922, only thirty of the three hundred Chinese Communist Party members worked with their hands; the rest were writers and teachers.

When Sun Yat-sen died, Mao disapproved of a decision by Stalin and Mikhail Borodin, his agent in China, to make Chiang Kai-shek the generalissimo of all revolutionary forces, but he agreed to support Chiang against China's competing warlords. When the inevitable rupture came, Mao retreated to the countryside. There he received word that his wife, Yang Kaihui, and his younger sister had been executed by Chiang's nationalist party, the Kuomintang, in Changsha in 1930.

As Mao's forces grew in rural areas, Marxists in the cities denounced his reliance on the peasantry. Mao argued that the peasants might be ignorant and dirt-poor but they made up 70 percent of China's population. When they sneezed, Mao said, the other 30 percent of the people would be blown away.

After the Japanese seized Manchuria in 1931, Chiang Kai-shek's popularity fell sharply. Uncommitted Chinese wanted him to wage war against the Japanese rather than against China's Communists. Mao held his own convention and became the first chairman of a new rival government -- the Chinese Soviet Republic. Because delegates trained in Moscow still considered Mao's theories too romantic, too dependent on the peasantry's raw courage, they named Zhou Enlai as the Red Army's political commissar. But their flag was Mao's design -- a hammer and sickle within a red star.

For several years, Mao's forces recruited strenuously, but Chiang was not idle. Adopting tactics from a new German military adviser, Chiang surrounded Mao's forces in the south of Jiangxi province with a million troops and began to tighten the noose. He seemed on the verge of wiping out the entire Red Army. In desperation, Mao sent out suicide squads as a distraction and led his troops on a nighttime escape along forest trails. On October 16, 1934, with no fixed destination, some 86,000 men and a few hundred women set out on the march. Because Mao allowed only children old enough to walk, he had to abandon two infant sons born to him by his second wife, He Zizhen.

With Chiang's Nationalists in pursuit, Mao's soldiers hiked across 6,000 miles of China's roughest terrain. They crossed twenty-four rivers and -- by Mao's poetic estimate -- a thousand mountains. Wasted by fever, his matted hair hanging to his shoulders, Mao collapsed twice from malaria and had to be carried in a sedan chair. But as his troops passed through farms and villages, Mao insisted that they teach the peasants the six Chinese characters that meant "Divide the land."

One year after they began, a scant 4,000 survivors reached a sanctuary in Shanxi province, five hundred miles southwest of Beijing. It was only after the trek had ended -- and was being compared in rigor and daring to Hannibal crossing the Alps -- that it was called the Long March. Hannibal had been on the attack against Rome, Mao was in retreat, and yet from his new base in the ancient city of Yanan, Mao laid out a strategy for aggressive peasant warfare. Traditional Communist thinking still called for seizing cities. Mao's approach was more flexible. "Enemy advances, we retreat," he wrote. "Enemy halts, we harass. Enemy tires, we attack. Enemy retreats, we pursue."

In speeches and in Basic Tactics, his manual for officers, Mao set out maxims easy for his men to remember: "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun." And, to contrast with the looting and rape of other occupying armies, his Communist soldiers would live among the people "as fish lived in the water." Mao's command post was a cave in Yanan, a hole carved into a hill, with little more than a bed, a desk and -- his one indulgence -- a wooden bathtub. From his cave, Mao entertained a succession of Western writers who came away impressed with his vision for a reformed China. In Red Star over China, Edgar Snow, a journalist from Missouri, turned Mao into a heroic figure, not only for leftists in Europe and America but -- in translation -- for Chinese who had barely known Mao's name.

Speaking at an art academy during that period, Mao met a vivid young actress whose name translated as Blue Apple. To the dismay of the Chinese Central Committee, he put aside He Zizhen, the heroine of the Long March who had given him five children, to live with his new mistress. To mark their union, Blue Apple changed her name to Jiang Qing -- Pure Waters.


Ho Chi Minh, navigating among the rival factions of international Communism, had traveled surreptitiously to China, but he found that Chiang Kai-shek had betrayed his former allies and instructed his secret police to round up the Communists. Ho slipped into Moscow, where his reception was not what he expected, either. Stalin's Comintern accused him of two offenses: he was more Nationalist than Communist, and he could only have been freed in Hong Kong by becoming a British agent.

Even Ho's association with Borodin worked against him since Stalin had ordered the man killed for being too ideological. But that does not describe me, Ho protested; I use theory only to achieve practical ends. Stalin remained suspicious, and although Ho escaped punishment, he could get no work. When he pleaded for a job, Soviet functionaries suggested manual labor. At last, he was entrusted with an assignment to lecture on Vietnamese history at the Institute for the Study of National and Colonial Questions. To make his lessons easier to remember, Ho wrote them in verse.

Ho would never speak of his ordeal in the Soviet Union and a surveillance that had seemed like house arrest. International Communism remained the best hope for liberating his people, and Moscow was its center. He might never feel the same warmth toward the Russians, but that would not stop him from using them when he must.

In the late thirties, Ho returned to more active organizing, and in 1940, disguised as a Mr. Tran, he went to a Chinese provincial capital near the border of Burma and Vietnam. He hoped to renew contact with Pham Van Dong, who had been arrested by the French for political activities but set free when Léon Blum's coalition government came to power in Paris. Ho also expected to meet for the first time a history teacher from Hanoi named Vo Nguyen Giap.

By January 1961, with his team in place, Kennedy welcomed a suggestion from Dwight Eisenhower that the two men meet once again before the inaugural, this time with Kennedy's chief cabinet officers. Ike seemed to be enjoying his final

days in office and was preparing a farewell address to the nation for 8:30 P.M. on January 17. Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature and a prominent campaigner against nuclear weaponry, had suggested that Eisenhower's final speech be a sweeping challenge to his countrymen. The idea

appealed strongly to Eisenhower since George Washington had been his childhood hero, as much for his valedictory as for his victories at Princeton and Trenton. Eisenhower assigned the speech to his best writers, and the result was a warning that perhaps only a five-star general could make.

Eisenhower told his radio audience that the nation's military establishment, swollen to huge proportions by the Second World War, had joined with a thriving industry of arms manufacturers to create a force that was new to the American experience. "The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual," Ike went on, "is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government."

To spell out the danger, Eisenhower employed a phrase that would resound long after he retired to his farm at Gettysburg: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

The next day, savoring the acclaim for his speech, Eisenhower held his last presidential news conference. The sessions were always filmed, then edited for later viewing on television. Even so, they had exposed Eisenhower to taunts from the White House press corps because of his tendency to answer questions with false starts and digressions that defied parsing. For eight years, Eisenhower had suffered the suggestion that his erratic grammar proved him to be something of a dolt. On this last day, he took his revenge.

Robert Spivack, a columnist, tried to probe Eisenhower's mood by asking whether reporters had been fair to him over the years.

Ike treated the press corps to the grin that spoke so eloquently and meant so little.

"Well, when you come down to it," Ike said, "I don't see what a reporter could do much to a President, do you?"

At 9 A.M. on Thursday, January 19, John Kennedy arrived again at the White House. The schedule called for him to spend forty-five minutes alone with Eisenhower reviewing emergency military procedures. Then they would join cabinet members and aides to discuss the country's urgent problems. Kennedy was pleased to be seeing Eisenhower a second time, since the American public would be reassured by further evidence that the transition was harmonious. He also wanted to pursue the question of Laos. How would Eisenhower handle the problem and how prepared had Ike been to intervene militarily?

Ike's aide, General Wilton Persons, escorted Kennedy to the President. At his desk, Eisenhower impressed Kennedy as fit, pink-cheeked and unharassed, even though Eisenhower complained that he felt busier now, on his way out, than he had on entering the job. Ike was keen to show Kennedy how quickly the Oval Office could be evacuated. He called for his naval aide, picked up a telephone and said, "Opal Drill Three." The aide left, boarded a helicopter, circled overhead and returned just three minutes later. With that demonstration ended, Eisenhower urged Kennedy to name a top staff man to function the way Persons had done. "Only the tough problems get to you," Eisenhower said. Kennedy listened courteously but had already decided to immerse himself far earlier in the decision-making than Ike had done.

Eisenhower led Kennedy to the Cabinet Room where six White House officials, past and future, awaited them. Kennedy saw that Christian Herter, who had become secretary of state when Foster Dulles died, would do most of the talking. Taking up a crisis of leadership in Laos, Herter said that a negotiated settlement would bring Communists into the Lao government and they would end up controlling it.

A treaty signed in Geneva in 1954 had banned outside forces from Laos, but Herter claimed that an American military assistance group -- called MAG -- could be sent there without violating the agreement. Kennedy asked directly whether the United States should intervene if the unstable Lao government asked for protection. Yes, Herter said, and he provided one of the early metaphors for the strategic importance of Southeast Asia: Laos was the cork in the bottle.

Kennedy asked both Eisenhower and Thomas Gates, the outgoing secretary of defense, about the likely Communist response to U.S. action in Laos. Would they strike back with even greater force? Eisenhower speculated that the Chinese Communists did not want to provoke a major war but were playing poker with tough stakes. Gates cited a Pentagon survey that the United States might not be able to fight on two fronts around the world but could certainly handle one. With the right aircraft, the United States could cut the time it would take to move 12,000 troops to Laos to seventeen days, possibly even twelve. Deployment would be even quicker if the men came from Pacific bases and from Marine units based in Okinawa.

The conversation turned briefly to Cuba. Eisenhower said his administration was training guerrillas in Guatemala who opposed Fidel Castro. He urged that support for them be accelerated. Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson then spoke about stanching the flow of U.S. gold out of the country.

As the pragmatic discussions wound down, Eisenhower raised the only abstract question. When Herter remarked that morale was low among America's allies in the Royal Laotian Army, Ike broke in with a puzzled reflection: Why was it that the Communist soldiers in such countries always seem to have better morale than the soldiers representing democracy? Was there something about the Communist philosophy that gave their supporters a certain inspiration and dedication? The questions hung in the air as the meeting adjourned.

Immediately upon returning from the White House, Kennedy dictated his recollections of the session and asked his new cabinet officers to do the same. Impressed by Herter's urgency, Kennedy quoted him directly: "If Laos fell, then Thailand, the Philippines, and of course Chiang Kai Shek would go."

At that point, Kennedy had turned to Eisenhower for collaboration. Robert McNamara reported that Ike had disagreed with Herter about a coalition in Laos, suggesting that, even if it included Communists, such a government might be sustained indefinitely.

Clark Clifford had turned down an official appointment but had been present as a trusted aide, and his memorandum was the longest and most thorough. He recalled that Herter had explained that some U.S. allies considered the war in Laos a mere internecine battle among the Lao royal family and not the result of outside aggression. According to Herter, the British and French had both made it clear that they did not want to commit themselves to Laos. But Clifford also wrote that Eisenhower had been rigidly against including Communists in any future government, and he quoted Ike's glum conclusion that he would be willing "as a last desperate hope to intervene unilaterally."

None of the conflicting memoranda from the meeting referred to Laos's eastern neighbor. With his inauguration the next day, Kennedy would be inheriting America's problems around the globe, but apparently South Vietnam was not one of them.

Vo Nguyen Giap, the man Ho expected to meet at the Chinese border in 1940, had been primed early to join Vietnam's struggle for independence. He had been born to a poor mandarin family in August 1911, in a village in Annam near the 17th parallel; the name Giap meant "armor." He was eight years old when his father was arrested for subversion and died in a French prison. Soon afterward, an older sister died the same way.

At fourteen, Giap read a pamphlet, Colonialism on Trial, by Nguyen Ai Quoc, the revolutionary leader living in Paris. That thrilling denunciation of colonial rule filled Giap with hatred for the French. A friend passed along a picture of Nguyen the Patriot wearing a fur hat, and the photograph was blurry enough that Giap imagined that his hero was hardly older than himself.

Giap studied at a Hue lycée run by a Catholic mandarin whose own son, Ngo Dinh Diem, had studied there ten years earlier. Although Giap's teachers found the boy pleasant and tractable in the classroom, his membership in a Vietnamese nationalist group led the French Sûreté to open a file on him. Arrested at eighteen for organizing a student demonstration, Giap was sentenced to three years in prison but released after a few months and allowed to transfer to a national academy in Hanoi to study philosophy and law. In 1937, Giap, at twenty-six, joined Ho's Indochinese Communist Party.

Political activities interfered with his law studies, and he failed to take the examination. By then, he was married to the daughter of a well-known Vietnamese writer. To support her and their infant girl, he began teaching history at a private school in Hanoi. One of his students, a well-born youth named Bui Diem, was transfixed by Giap's intensity. On the first day of class, Giap announced that he would not follow the course guide, which covered France from 1789 to the middle of the nineteenth century. "Look, there are a lot of books about this stuff," Giap said, as he paced in front of his students. "If you want to know about it, you can look it up. I'm only going to tell you about two things -- the French Revolution and Napoleon."

Giap described Marie Antoinette's heedless indulgences with a scorn that made her fate seem justified, and Bui Diem delighted in his passionate accounts of the Paris Commune, the life of Robespierre, the death of Danton. Most engrossing of all were Giap's recreations of every one of Napoleon's campaigns. The class sat hypnotized as he described tactics, right down to skirmishes with dragoons and the Imperial Guard. To Bui Diem, Giap's lectures glowed with love and envy of Napoleon's career.

The sixteen-year-old was hardly a usual student himself. His father, Bui Ky, a leading poet, was working with his brother on a definitive history of Vietnam. Both father and uncle favored independence but lacked the temperament of revolutionaries. Bui Diem was the same. When Giap urged him to read Marx's Das Kapital in French and other Socialist tracts, they did not stir his soul.

Following the 1939 nonaggression pact between Stalin and Hitler, the Communist Party was banned in France and her colonies. Under a pseudonym, Giap wrote a two-volume guide to Communist policy for Vietnam's farmers. The French discovered the books and burned them. French agents in Hanoi identified Giap's wife and his sister-in-law as party members. Fleeing to Vinh with Giap's young daughter, the women were caught, put on trial and convicted of conspiracy. The sister-in-law was shot. Despite harsh pressure, Giap's wife did not betray the identity of another prisoner, Le Duan from central Vietnam, who had been a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party. Sentenced to fifteen years in prison, Giap's wife died there in 1941; her child also did not survive.

It was after Giap escaped with Pham Van Dong to China that he finally met Nguyen the Patriot. Despite Ho's Western suit and gray felt hat, Giap instantly identified the slender older man as the renowned Paris revolutionary. At fifty, Ho was stooped and frail and called "Uncle" as a mark of respect. But his eyes shone with revolutionary fervor, and as they walked along a riverbank, Giap was captivated by conversation that was much livelier than he had anticipated from the hunching of Ho's shoulders.

Although Giap and Pham Van Dong had been ordered to study military tactics at a Chinese institute, their primitive bus broke down, and they stayed on with Ho at the border to evaluate the latest political developments. Hitler had crushed the French army, and Japanese soldiers were pouring into Indochina. For at least a decade, Japan had aspired to rule Asia, and as early as 1936, Japanese commanders had allied themselves with Germany against the Soviet Union. The next year, Japan invaded China's northern provinces. With the onset of World War II, the first Japanese troops landed in Indochina. Then Japan's attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, drew America into Asia's wars.

In that turmoil, Vietnamese nationalists waged uprisings in several areas of their country, including Ho's own province. He considered the rebellions premature, and yet there was the danger that if the French colonial rule collapsed, Japanese warlords would replace it. The time had come to return home. Taking the name Ho Chi Minh, he passed himself off as a Chinese journalist -- Ho was a traditional Chinese name and Chi Minh could be translated as "Bringing Enlightenment." Slipping across the border by sampan, Ho set foot on Vietnamese soil for the first time in thirty years.

At a border area called Pac Bo, Ho set up headquarters in a limestone cave hung with stalactites. From there, in May 1941, he convened the Eighth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Indochinese Communist Party. Delegates sat on blocks of wood while Ho outlined a broad national front that would embrace not only workers but also farmers and even patriotic landowners. He called his movement Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, the League for Vietnamese Independence. To make the name easier to remember, he shortened it to Vietminh.

Using a flat rock as his desk, surrounded at all times by bodyguards, Ho wrote a series of pamphlets and manifestos about guerrilla warfare. First, the Vietminh would purge the country of the Japanese fascists and French imperialists. Then they would form the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ho already had its flag -- one gold star on a red field.

Each day, Ho woke early on his bed of leaves and branches to rouse the others. His cave was cold, the mountain stream colder still, but Ho bathed there every morning. When he was not writing, he weeded the garden, gathered firewood, taught children to read and cooked meals of maize, wild bananas, and fish fresh from the river. At bedtime, Ho spun tales of Vietnam's past wars and revolutions. He predicted that in four or five years this war would enter a decisive phase and then Vietnam could once again be free. Around the campfire, his men listened night after night as Ho spoke their dream aloud.

The Vietminh training course began to draw 50 or 60 recruits each month. As the camp expanded, the men cleared more ground for dormitories, dining room, lecture hall and a field that could hold hundreds of trainees. To reach beyond Pac Bo, Ho lithographed a small newspaper, Independent Vietnam, that reported news of the movement and denounced crimes by the French and Japanese. Ho charged cash for his newspaper since, he said, "he who pays for it will love it."

The paper was an immediate success, partly because Ho set a strict limit of fifty to a hundred words per article. Once Giap sent lengthy dispatches from an outlying area, and Ho chided him when he returned: "I didn't read them, and neither did the other comrades," Ho said, smiling. "Usually, they were long and unintelligible."

Stirred by rumors of a movement for Vietnam's independence, a twelve-year-old provincial boy ran away from home with a bundle of clothes and food, determined to join Ho's crusade. His distraught mother appealed to the local Japanese commander, who alerted his men. When they found the child, Nguyen Cao Ky, hiding in a ditch, the Japanese officer scolded him and sent him home. "You are a very naughty boy," the officer said. "You made your mother cry."

Ho left Pac Bo to cross back into China, expecting that Chiang Kai-shek would now welcome the Vietminh as allies against the Japanese. He walked the thirty miles to the Chinese frontier, where he was promptly arrested as a spy. For the next fourteen months, Ho was marched in chains from one to another of

Chiang's prison camps. Any free time he spent composing poems -- scraps of his impressions, lyrical tributes to the landscape. To reassure his jailers, he wrote in the classical Chinese, which they could read, rather than in Vietnamese.

After Wendell Willkie lost the 1940 U.S. presidential election to Franklin Roosevelt, he passed through China as Roosevelt's envoy to allied wartime leaders. Hearing that Willkie was being feted by the Chinese at a state dinner, Ho wrote a rueful poem from his cell:

Like you, I'm a visiting delegate.

Why then is the difference in treatment so great?

At other times, Ho consoled himself that his misery must have a purpose:

Under the pestle how terribly the rice suffers!

But it comes out of the pounding as white as cotton.

The same thing to a man in this world occurs:

Hard trials turn him into a polished diamond.

In Ho's absence, Giap studied guerrilla warfare at a Chinese military school in Yanan. Employing the tactics he learned fighting the Japanese, Giap continued to recruit and train a Vietminh army until it had grown to 10,000 soldiers. Then, at the Vietminh base camp, Giap got word that this time a report of Ho's death was no hoax. He had truly died in China. Like his comrades, Giap was all but paralyzed by grief, but he rallied to stage a memorial service.

A few months later, a scout smuggled a scrap of paper across the border, a five-line poem that ended, "I am thinking of my friends." His men recognized Ho's writing, and their joy swept through Pac Bo.

Ho never explained how he came to be released by the Chinese. He may have bribed his way out. But by mid-1944, he was back in Vietnam, where France's wartime government was sinking further into disarray. Even so, Ho warned Giap that a massive insurrection would be premature. "Stealth, continual stealth," Ho advised the Vietminh. "Never attack except by surprise. Retire before the enemy has a chance to strike back...."

During the months of Mao's Long March, Stalin had offered him no assistance. For that matter, Mao had not endured years of hardship in order to surrender his movement to foreigners, especially not to the Russians on his northern border. With the beginning of the Second World War, however, Mao looked for Western support in the common campaign against the Japanese. Although the United States seemed pledged to Chiang, Mao took heart from watching a sympathetic portrayal of America's destitute farmers in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath.

And the war did bring limited American attention to both Mao and Ho. The Vietminh rescued a Lieutenant Shaw, an American pilot shot down over the jungle, and sheltered him from the Japanese and their French collaborators. Ho traded on that good deed to ask for an audience with General Claire Chennault, the head of the U.S. Army Air Force in Asia. Chennault was famous for leading the Flying Tigers, volunteer American pilots who had turned back Japan's air attacks against China. Ho asked an American contact, Charles Fenn, to set up a meeting. Fenn worked for the Office of Strategic Services, which had been founded in 1942 to collect intelligence and support Allied resistance groups. The head of the OSS, William J. Donovan, had won the nickname "Wild Bill" during World War I for a succession of nervy schemes, including a proposal that the Allies end the war by kidnapping Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm.

Fenn said he would arrange a meeting with Chennault if Ho promised not to ask for anything. Ho agreed and, to make himself presentable, sewed a missing button on his sand-colored jacket. Chennault kept Ho waiting a mere five minutes before receiving him in a dress uniform laden with medals and seated behind a desk the size of a double bed. After listening to Chennault's exploits with the Flying Tigers, Ho reneged enough on his promise to beg one small favor: might he have a photograph of the general? Chennault had learned to anticipate that request. He opened a file with a choice of poses. "Take your pick," he said.

From then on, the photograph served Ho better than any visa. Brandishing it at Chinese officials and U.S. intelligence agents, Ho could prove that he enjoyed a close relationship with America. After all, the photo was signed, "Yours Sincerely, Claire L. Chennault."

Given his lifelong admiration for Americans, Ho had reason to expect sympathetic support from Chennault's countrymen. And, in fact, when Franklin Roosevelt spoke with his son early in the war about Indochina, it was with an outrage that he usually masked with his thrusting smile. Unless the French pledged eventual independence for her colonies, Roosevelt said, the United States would not be justified in returning them "at all, ever." He added, "Don't think for a moment, Elliot, that Americans would be dying in the Pacific tonight if it hadn't been for the short-sighted greed of the French and the British and the Dutch."

Roosevelt expected that when China emerged from the war it would join a postwar United Nations organization as one of the world's four major powers -- along with the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union. But so far, China's military performance had been disappointing, and the latest U.S. strategy of bombing Japan into submission was reducing the importance of China's contribution still further. When Winston Churchill met with Roosevelt for private talks on how to carve up the world when the war ended, he promised support for Roosevelt's China policy only if Britain was allowed to retain India.

Roosevelt sent out Major General Patrick Hurley, his swaggering ambassador to China, to meet with Mao and Zhou Enlai in Yanan and attempt to weld them into a united front with Chiang Kai-shek. Mao found Hurley something of a clown but agreed to integrate his Red Army on equal terms with Chiang's forces. When Chiang balked, however, Hurley returned to Washington and threw his backing to the generalissimo.

From Europe, the Free French were sending urgent requests that they be allowed to join the war in Asia. Roosevelt hoped to see Indochina become a postwar trusteeship and kept stalling. His warnings to Charles de Gaulle, the Free French leader, were couched in racial terms: the white man, Roosevelt said, must grant the yellow races their independence.

De Gaulle was not listening. In December 1943, he had gravely disappointed Ho and the Vietminh by asserting that France expected to reestablish her Indochinese colonies after the war. Meantime, if an Allied attack were to be launched in Southeast Asia, de Gaulle was determined that French troops fight and die there. "French blood shed on the soil of Indochina," he noted, "would constitute an impressive claim."

Roosevelt's rebuttal was terse. "France has milked it for one hundred years," he told his secretary of state. "The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that."

Despite the president's personal feelings, the U.S. government was issuing contradictory statements about Indochina's future, even pledging that France's sovereignty would be restored to any territory or colony "over which flew the French flag in 1939." And Roosevelt himself seemed to prefer setting aside the troublesome issue until after the war had been won.

To stand beside him at his fourth inaugural in January 1945, the president called another of his sons home from active duty. James Roosevelt arrived to find his father haggard and drawn. The only subject that could rouse him from his crushing fatigue was a meeting with Churchill and Stalin scheduled for two weeks later at Yalta, a spa on the Black Sea. James Roosevelt returned to duty convinced that his sixty-three-year-old father would soon be dead.

The Roosevelt advisers who prepared his briefing papers for Yalta could not agree on Indochina. The secretaries of war and the navy argued that France must be treated once again as a great power and not penalized for her current weakness. From the State Department's Asian desk came a memorandum more attuned to Roosevelt's wishes. It urged that an attempt be made to persuade the colonial powers to behave as the United States had done in setting a firm date for liberating the Philippines. But internal politics within State prevented that paper from reaching Yalta.

At the conference, Roosevelt raised the question of Indochina, denounced French colonials for not improving life for the Indochinese, and proposed trusteeships for both Indochina and Korea. He got little support from Stalin, who contented himself with remarking that Indochina was a very important area.

Two days later, with Churchill present, Roosevelt tried again. Churchill said flatly that he would never "consent to forty or fifty nations thrusting interfering fingers into the life's existence of the British Empire." Afterward, speaking off-the-record to reporters, Roosevelt said Chiang Kai-shek and Stalin might agree to an Indochina trusteeship but "dear old Winston will never learn."

Like de Gaulle, Churchill did not have to bend. Within two months, the American president was dead. His successor, Harry Truman, pledged to follow Roosevelt's policies but accepted instead an interpretation of the Yalta agreements that permitted the French to control Indochina's fate. The new president's advisers saw America's priorities as the rebuilding of Europe and the curbing of Soviet influence. If stability in France required the return of her colonies, that price was not too high.

As the Second World War wound down, a twenty-year-old Vietnamese dandy named Bui Tuong Minh traveled south from Hanoi in the spring of 1945 at the invitation of his emperor. Bui had joined the Dai Viets upon their founding six years earlier. They were a political party that supported the emperor, called for independence from France and committed members to fight Communism. The Dai Viet founder -- unlike Ho -- had aligned himself with the Japanese occupation forces and against the United States and her allies.

At college, Bui had studied mathematics. But his passion was for American movies, especially Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His parents divorced when he was twelve, and he went to live with his mother, the dean of a Vietnamese high school for girls. Bui's father, a prominent Hanoi lawyer, was friendly with the man who became minister of youth under the Japanese. He was putting together an ambitious scheme to train postwar administrators: Vietnam's emperor would ask forty outstanding young men to join him at an academy in Hue, where they would be groomed for leadership. Vietnam would then be divided into forty provinces, and each cadet -- trained, energetic and loyal to the emperor -- would be sent to govern them.

That this cadre might be very young did not trouble their emperor since he had been only twelve when his father died and he assumed the throne as the latest heir to the Nguyen dynasty of 1802. The French allowed Vietnam's emperors to occupy their ceremonial palaces so long as they answered to Paris, and the boy had been educated there. Now, at thirty-two, Prince Nguyen Vinh Thuy was back to rule for himself under the name he had chosen -- Bao Dai, Protector of Grandeur.

When Bui got to Hue, he sized up the emperor as a typical tay con, the dismissive Vietnamese phrase for a Frenchified countryman -- literally, "a little European guy." Bui wondered whether Bao Dai even spoke Vietnamese. Still, he knew that the emperor had consistently pressed the French for greater independence for Vietnam, and the fact that France had refused him was hardly Bao Dai's fault. Bui was impressed, too, by the brilliance of his fellow cadets, although he and one classmate were the only Dai Viet members among them. The rest were Vietminh.

During those same last days of World War II, Archimedes Patti, an American agent from the Office of Strategic Services, heard about Vo Nguyen Giap from a U.S. Army major named Thomas. The OSS had not given the Vietminh much in the way of weapons until Japan took over Vietnam in March 1945. At that time, Major Thomas and a small contingent of Americans began to train two hundred elite Vietminh troops in using the machine guns, bazookas and mortars that were being dropped to Giap by air. Thomas had also met Giap's commander and praised the man's amiability, although in his reports he identified Ho Chi Minh variously as "Hoe" and "Hoo."

Patti watched the Americans working with Vietnamese units until the day that the Vietminh marched off to confront the Japanese. As they left, Patti had a premonition. Some day, he told himself, our American training and weapons may be used against the French.

Although Ho Chi Minh could not compete in influence with de Gaulle, he could exploit his fresh opportunity at home. Soon after the Yalta conference, the Japanese had tightened their grip on Vietnam, but elsewhere in the Pacific their forces were collapsing. Ho was ready to gamble that if his Vietminh could wrest Hanoi from the Japanese, that victory would entitle him to a seat at future peace talks.

Chiang Kai-shek was tepidly endorsing the idea of Asian trusteeships, but he was distracted by his own battles with Mao's Red Army for control of China and seemed willing to let Indochina revert to the French. In mid-July 1945, President Truman met for the first time with the other Allied leaders at Potsdam, southwest of Berlin. Without telling the French, the Allies had already divided Vietnam into two sectors to prepare for whatever fighting with the Japanese might lie ahead. China would be responsible for Vietnam's north, Britain for the south.

Thirteen days after the Potsdam conference ended -- and a week after America's atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the Japanese surrendered. The Vietminh responded quickly with a manifesto that reflected Ho's patience. The French would be welcomed back to Indochina only as trading partners, it said, but a French governor could serve as president of Vietnam until the country was granted full independence "within no less than five years and no more than 10 years."

In a separate document, Ho and his colleagues called on the United States "as a champion of democracy" to keep the French colonists out of Indochina and to rein in the Chinese troops in the north. The statement also endorsed a ban on opium and appeared to expect U.S. economic aid.

With Ho's revolution poised to triumph, he knew he owed his victory to the nationalists in his ranks. The Vietminh had grown so quickly that its control by the Communists had been critically weakened. Accepting that reality, Ho decreed that his government would not be limited to Communists or even to Vietminh cadres. Instead, he would reach out to a broad coalition of patriots. As Giap's troops marched toward the gates of Hanoi, they were calling themselves "the Viet-American Army." Along the Red River, Japanese sentinels did not fire on them as they swarmed over the largest bridge and prepared to take the city.

But inside Hanoi, young Vietminh were not waiting for Giap's army to arrive. As the defeated Japanese met in a final conclave on August 17, teenagers outside their meeting hall pulled down the government flag and ran up the revolutionary colors. Seventeen-year-old Nguyen Khac Huynh had dropped out of school in Hue earlier in the year to join the resistance in Hanoi. His heart leapt as he saw the banner of independence flying for the first time above the capital.

Two days later, Giap's troops made their victory official, and in a rush of patriotic fervor Huynh raced through the city, not eating, not sleeping, determined to remember every minute of the glorious day.

For Bui Tuong Minh, the emperor's academy during the final weeks of the Japanese occupation had been a waste of time, nothing more than a lot of horseback riding and superficial courses in first aid. With the Japanese surrendering, and the French intending to come back, the academy was abruptly shut down. It was then that Bao Dai accepted an unlikely offer.

Through an emissary, Ho sent a message to the emperor: come to Hanoi and be the supreme adviser to my government. To the shock of his friends, Bao Dai accepted. He had no choice, he explained. He had studied French history and knew the fate of Louis XVI. Ho Chi Minh must either recruit me, the emperor said, or kill me.

By September 2, 1945, Ho's August Revolution was complete. In huge rallies, the people hailed Vietnam's independence with a rejoicing that was peaceful everywhere but in Saigon. There, the Vietminh did not have the same hold over the population that Ho exercised in Hanoi, and shooting broke out during a demonstration. The ensuing riot left a score of Vietnamese and Frenchmen dead. Ten days later, the first British and French troops arrived to enforce France's claim to the chaotic South.

In the North, however, Ho began an eloquent victory speech by invoking America's revolution of 1776. "All men are created equal," Ho said, quoting from the Declaration of Independence. "They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." At that moment, Ho's supporters were claiming that his victory had been won with little bloodshed, although soon afterward numbers of his anti-Communist rivals were rounded up and executed.

As Ho set about building his nation, he counted on friendships he had forged within the OSS. He wrote to one OSS agent: "The war is finished. It is good for everybody. I feel only sorry that all our American friends have to leave us so soon."

Dean Rusk had never met Ho Chi Minh, but he had been one of the Americans to aid Ho against the Japanese. As a deputy to General Joseph Stilwell in the China-Burma-India theater, Rusk authorized an air drop of U.S. arms and cigarettes to Ho's guerrillas. At the time, Rusk didn't care whether Ho was a nationalist or a Communist so long as he was trying to kill Japanese. And OSS agents like Patti were reporting enthusiastically about the Vietminh.

David Dean Rusk had grown up in Georgia, son of a man who had hoped to be a preacher but ended up delivering the mail. The boy hustled his way through Davidson College in North Carolina and during the early 1930s went to Oxford for three years as a Rhodes Scholar. Cecil Rhodes, the diamond merchant who endowed the scholarships, believed that the more the world was inhabited by Anglo-Saxons, the better for the human race. If Rusk never fully accepted that judgment, he did agree that the English seemed to have a special talent for leadership, a bias that later served him well among the Anglophiles in the State Department.

In his twenties, Rusk dropped his first name. As a result, before the Second World War, when he joined the administration at Mills, a women's college on the San Francisco Bay, he became Dean Dean Rusk. At Mills, Rusk broke the rules by courting a student who had concluded from his imposing forehead and high principles that Rusk was in his forties. Virginia Foisie discovered that he was only a very serious twenty-five, and the two were married three years later.

Besides his glancing contact with Vietnam, Rusk played a role in shaping postwar Korea. For centuries, China and Russia each coveted the peninsula, but it was the Japanese who annexed it in 1910. During World War II, America and her allies had reached a vague agreement to set Korea free, possibly after several years of trusteeship. But when Japan abruptly surrendered, the Pentagon recommended that the United States accept the surrender on behalf of the southern part of Korea and let the Russians accept for the northern sector. Colonel Rusk, recently returned from his Asian posting, persuaded his military superiors that the 38th parallel would make a convenient division. As a result, Korea, like Vietnam, was divided into two nations. Kim Il Sung, a Communist trained in Moscow, was installed as head of a people's republic in the North. Syngman Rhee, educated in the United States, became president in the South.

With the war's end, Ho was quickly learning that he had few foreign friends. The Chinese troops, sent to supervise the Japanese withdrawal from North Vietnam, were ousting the Vietminh and plundering the countryside. To restore order in the south, Britain's commanding general was siding with the French -- and even with the Japanese survivors -- against the Vietminh. Amid growing disorder, the commander shut down all Vietnamese newspapers and imposed martial law.

Nor, in his isolation, could Ho expect support from the international Communist Party. Moscow ignored his struggle and would not grant official recognition to his government. In France, even Communist voices were raised against him: "We cannot trust Ho," said the party's chief. "He is a Trotskyite at heart."

When Bao Dai arrived in Hanoi, Ho received him with an elaborate show of respect. But the emperor's very presence guaranteed tension from his supporters. After street demonstrators demanded Bao Dai's return to power, Ho looked for a way to get rid of him.

He asked whether the emperor would consent to undertake a special mission to China. General George Marshall was in Chungking, Ho explained, and it was vital that the Hanoi government contact him. Ho had sent repeated letters of friendship to President Truman and was getting no response. Would the emperor deliver in person another plea to Marshall for an alliance with the United States?

Aware of Ho's dilemma, Bao Dai was also looking for a way to resolve his status and invited young Bui Tuong Minh and Bui's father to accompany him to China. Bao Dai's wife, the Catholic daughter of wealthy landowners, preferred to remain in Hue. On the trip, Bui had a chance to study the emperor more closely and had to admit that his character had its attractive side. Years of pampered ease had left Bao Dai sheltered and naïve, but knowing that every political faction was trying to use him had also bred a cynicism and selfishness. Only his innate shyness saved him from arrogance. Bui found in the stars an explanation for what he saw as the emperor's tendency toward self-destruction. In Chinese astrology, Bao Dai was a Buffalo; in the West, a Scorpio.

Since their trip was an impromptu affair, neither Bui nor Bao Dai had any sort of papers. All the same, when they reached Chungking, General Marshall granted the emperor an audience and accepted Ho's latest overture. "I will take your letter to my government," Marshall said. "But I must tell you that I was assigned a different mission."

With that, Bui's father returned to Hanoi, but Bao Dai decided to take up residence in Hong Kong. Reports from North Vietnam indicated that the Communists were cracking down on Dai Viet Party members, and Bui's mother had disappeared into police custody. Bui decided to accompany Bao Dai and help in any way he could. The emperor might not be Hollywood royalty, but to a bored young man he exerted an irresistible combination of glamor and helplessness.

In March 1946, the French eased the Chinese out of northern Vietnam by giving up their claim to prewar leases in China. That same month, the British left the South, turning it over entirely to French troops. Ho felt he had no choice but to reach a settlement with France. He would retain control of Vietnam to a southern boundary at the 16th parallel, while the French would hold Cochin China -- South Vietnam -- the richest third of the country, with its rubber plantations, fertile rice fields and several gold mines. The French promised a referendum in the future that would allow the southerners to vote on unifying with Hanoi. To his associates, Ho drew on his barnyard upbringing to explain his willingness to compromise: "It is better to sniff French shit" -- he used the Vietnamese word cut -- "for a while than to eat Chinese shit all our lives."

As Ho was accepting those terms, the French negotiator, Jean Sainteny, expressed his pleasure that they had prevented fighting between their forces. Ho said, "You know very well that I wanted more than this. Still," he added, "I realize one can't have everything overnight."

Ho's capitulation set off a wave of anger throughout North Vietnam. Getting the people to accept the agreement took all of Ho's pleading and prestige. With tears in his eyes, he addressed 100,000 Vietnamese in front of Hanoi's municipal theater and assured them that he would sooner die than sell out their country. "I swear I have not betrayed you," Ho said.

Giap found the settlement at least as galling. The French were responsible for the deaths of his wife, child and sister-in-law. But he, too, bowed to reality. Vietnam was not strong enough to wage a long war, and France was too strong to make it a short one. Speaking at the same rally, Giap called on the Vietnamese to submit.

Ho had acted in good faith and now, as president of his half of Vietnam, he flew to Paris to ratify the treaty. In the air over Damascus, however, he learned from the plane's radio that the rules had changed once again. A French admiral serving as high commissioner in Saigon -- a former priest who regarded Ho as France's satanic enemy -- had declared South Vietnam to be an entirely independent state within the French Union, "the Republic of Cochin China."

Ho protested that there must be a misunderstanding. The decree not only ignored the recent negotiations but would make uniting Vietnam all but impossible. By the time Ho's plane landed at Biarritz, he knew the report was accurate. His instinct was to fly home at once to protest the French high-handedness. Instead, he stayed on in the resort town to await the formation of a new French government. Nearly three weeks passed before Ho was allowed to proceed to Paris. Once there, he found the flags of France and Vietnam flying side by side above the throng that had turned out to hail this Asian ascetic as a modern-day Confucius or Buddha.

Ho saw himself more as Vietnam's Gandhi. His simple manner, his sandals and plain brown tunic, his artless answers, all combined to fascinate Parisian society in the way that Benjamin Franklin had once conquered the city. But Ho had paid a sterner price than Franklin for his revolution. When reporters asked whether he had been imprisoned long in his lifetime, Ho replied, "Time spent in jail is always long."

And he expected the same sacrifice from his countrymen. To a French government minister, Ho outlined the scenario if they could not avert war: "You would kill ten of my men for every one I killed of yours. But even at that rate, you would be unable to hold out, and victory would go to me...."

When the conference was shifted from Paris to Fontainebleau, Ho was taken to live with the family of Raymond Aubrac, a young French official. Ho praised Aubrac's modest house and charmed his three children. But as negotiations continued, Ho learned that he could not reverse the decree of independence for South Vietnam. At most, the French would agree to a vague future settlement. On the Left, Communist leaders in Paris expected power to fall to them very soon and seemed no more interested than the capitalists in shearing off France's lucrative colonies.

"Don't let me go back empty-handed," Ho pleaded. He said he needed a concession to shield his moderate policies from the extremists in his own movement. But by the time he returned to Vietnam, it was Ho who had given all the ground. Giap prepared for the inevitable war to come by raising the strength of the Vietminh army to 100,000 men.

At the North Vietnamese harbor of Haiphong on November 20, 1946, a French ship seized a Chinese junk, claiming it was carrying contraband arms. The Vietminh militia retaliated by boarding the French ship and taking prisoner its three-man crew. Fighting broke out around the harbor, which prompted the French high command to order that the North Vietnamese be taught "a harsh lesson." A French general traveled to Haiphong to spell out that lesson for the local French commanders: "If these dirty peasants want a fight," he said, "they shall have it."

A barrage of French artillery, tanks and naval guns killed about 1,000 civilians, but France went on to lose the propaganda war. When the Vietminh claimed that 20,000 Vietnamese had died, a French admiral countered by calling their figure inflated; it had been a mere 6,000, he said. Ho broadcast an appeal for calm, but turmoil wracked the country. In Saigon, the man who had been France's candidate as the first Vietnamese president of South Vietnam hanged himself from shame at collaborating with the French. Reluctantly, Ho accepted Giap's judgment that they must go back to waging war.

On the evening of December 19, 1946, the Vietminh seized the offensive by attacking French barracks and civilian neighborhoods. The next afternoon, French troops surrounded Ho's residence, but Ho, Giap and their closest advisers had escaped to a rice field. Ho was suffering from a high fever and yet, hiding in the paddy, he drafted a vigorous call to the Vietnamese to fight for their country.

"Our resistance will be long and painful," Ho warned, "but whatever the sacrifices, however long the struggle, we shall fight to the end, until Vietnam is fully independent and reunified."

Ho's dream of achieving a peaceful independence had lasted little more than fifteen months.

George Marshall's mission in China was clearly failing. Truman had sent him as his special envoy to fashion a truce between China's two factions, and Marshall seemed to expect that his Yankee integrity would somehow bind the two rivals together. Since his prestige had preceded him, both Chiang and Zhou Enlai, who represented Mao, paid tribute to Marshall's high character. But behind his back, Chiang criticized Marshall for his "policy of appeasement" toward Mao. In turn, Mao resented the American military aid to Chiang's forces. Marshall's shaky compromise soon broke down when Chiang sent his men to march against a Red Army stronghold. With Madame Chiang translating, an outraged Marshall accused the generalissimo of repeated bad faith and broken promises. "People have said you were a modern George Washington," Marshall concluded. "But after these things, they will never say it again."

Marshall left Asia as disillusioned with Chiang as Dean Rusk's commander, Vinegar Joe Stilwell, had been during his earlier service in China. Stilwell had referred to Chiang as "the Peanut" and suggested that the best way to cure China's corrupt and repressive regime might be to shoot him.

Marshall was flying home to become secretary of state in an administration committed to resisting the spread of Communism, and whatever his personal misgivings Marshall's State Department backed Chiang against Mao. Throughout the next four years of civil war, however, Mao's People's Liberation Army regularly outfought Chiang's Kuomintang army. The Communists destroyed thirty of Chiang's best divisions. In Manchuria alone, fifty of Chiang's generals and their troops defected to Mao. As the Red Army captured American-made jeeps, tanks and artillery, Mao laughed and called Chiang "our quartermaster."

With a Communist victory looking inevitable, Stalin worried that Truman might dispatch divisions of American troops to China, who might then push on to occupy the Soviet Union. To protect himself, Stalin urged Mao to be satisfied with the territory he already held. Insulted and infuriated, Mao complained that Stalin had never given the Chinese Communists anything but dull lectures and bad advice. Mao negotiated the surrender of Beijing and sent his troops on to decisive battles in Nanking and Shanghai.

Chiang escaped from the mainland with the remnant of his army and established a government in Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong, chairman of the new People's Republic of China stood at the podium above the Gate of Heavenly Peace and greeted the hundreds of thousands who had jammed into vast Tiananmen Square. Three million Chinese were dead, victims of the civil war. The survivors sang to Mao their marching song of victory:

The Sun is rising red in the East,

China has brought forth a Mao Zedong.

As Mao was pushing toward victory, Colonel Rusk followed George Marshall out of the army and into the State Department as head of the Office of Special Political Affairs, which oversaw the United Nations delegation in New York. At State, Rusk supported the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe and backed a ban on all nuclear weapons. When the question arose of recognizing the state of Israel, Rusk clashed with Truman's legal counsel, Clark Clifford, who won the argument and persuaded the president to recognize the new nation. Marshall had also opposed recognition, but when friends urged him to resign on principle, he explained that a cabinet officer did not resign when the man with the constitutional responsibility to make a decision decided to exercise it. Rusk agreed with him and sometimes quoted Truman's blunt description of his powers: "The President makes foreign policy."

When Dean Acheson replaced Marshall in 1949, he named Rusk his undersecretary of state. But Rusk decided that he was the department's senior Asian expert and requested a demotion to overseeing State's Far Eastern affairs desk.

Rusk subscribed to the Washington consensus that World War II might have been avoided if the Allies had acted against the Japanese when they marched on Manchuria or against Hitler when he occupied the Rhineland. Now he saw the Soviet Union as an antagonist rather than as a former ally, and he shared the president's dislike of Mao -- Truman called him "Mousie Dung." Rusk considered Chiang Kai-shek's defeat that year a tragedy for China, but he admitted that

Chiang's cause had become hopeless and approved of Truman's decision not to challenge Mao's victory by landing U.S. troops on the Chinese mainland.

In his third-tier job, Rusk was quiet and uncontentious. He leaned toward Roosevelt's conclusion that colonialism was dead and the United States would be wrong to try to revive it. But Acheson, an avowed North Atlantic man, was committed to the ambitious and expensive Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe, which also meant allowing France back into Vietnam. When Acheson told Rusk to muzzle his views, Rusk reminded himself who was the boss and shut up.

Not that Truman was showing much interest in Vietnam, even after the French began diverting Marshall Plan money to finance their colonial presence there. Despite the promises made to Ho in 1946, France's forces in Vietnam had gradually risen from the agreed-upon 20,000 troops to 150,000 -- a third of France's postwar army. But the French soldiers controlled only Vietnam's cities; the countryside belonged to the Vietminh. Ho reproached the pessimists in his ranks with a prediction: "Today the locust fights the elephant," he said. "But tomorrow the elephant will be disemboweled."

In the Mekong Delta in the mid-1940s, a dreamy schoolgirl, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Dung, saddened her mother by running away to join the resistance movement against the returning French. "Going to the jungle," the rebels called it, though they were only camping out in marshland near a fruit grove. Miss Dung's name was written without a bar through the D, which caused it to be pronounced "Zung," just as the name of Le Duan, emerging these days as the top Vietminh leader in the South, became "Le Zwan."

Young Miss Dung had first been converted to the revolution by a song, not a manifesto. Studying at a French school in Saigon, she heard fellow students singing about their ancestors' war against the Chinese and realized that her own education had been designed to ensure her loyalty to the French. She asked herself bitterly why she should be studying Charlemagne while she was being deceived about her own history.

When Dung joined the resistance and was sent to the countryside, her romantic spirit soared. It was her first time away from the comforts of city life, and she was hearing stories from farmers in the villages of Kim Son and Long Hung about parents who had died in Poulo Condore prison and their bodies tossed into the sea. To Dung, the poverty of peasant life was a revelation. These were people who had nothing and yet seemed happy to give her the best of what little they did have.

Since Miss Dung was a Vietminh and her hosts often were not, she felt obliged to make sure they understood the danger in harboring her. "Why do you let me stay?" she asked one old woman. "I don't care about the risks," the woman said. "A lot of people have been killed here, and I thought that meant the end of the revolution. But seeing you, I see that the revolution goes on."

The woman's passion surprised and shamed Dung, who had seen herself as the educated liberator come to instill moral values. Then, when she joined the village women in going barefoot, she couldn't walk after an hour or two. She didn't know how to chop wood or cook a meal, and she shrank from the sight of earthworms in the dirt. But Dung persevered, going out with Vietminh women at night to dig up a road until it was impassable for the French soldiers. Ho had written that since the French had the use of cars, the people must make them blind and lame. If no one told the French where the Vietminh were hiding, they could not find them. Since their cars required roads, if the roads were cut, the French would be left limping. And if each farmer contributed a mere handful of rice to a common village barrel, the result would be enough to feed the Vietminh hiding nearby. Ho said that every villager could support the revolution in one of three campaigns -- against illiteracy, against hunger, against foreign invaders.

Dung opened reading classes. She worried that if the others knew she spoke French, they would hate her, and she told no one. But her class in Vietnamese was an instant success among the village women and children. After working all day in the fields, the women lighted coconut palm leaves as torches to guide them through the marshes and across the monkey bridges. They showed up at class each night eager to learn, often with a baby under their arm, and studied under rows of poon, a fruit with a flammable oil that they strung together and burned for light. Since the classes were also a social event, the women insisted on singing before they settled down to study. Miss Dung taught them "Who Loves Ho Chi Minh More Than Children?" But her students knew Ho only by name, and Dung couldn't supply many details about him. She had only read Ho's writing about the cynical way the French kept 90 percent of the people in their colonies illiterate and persuaded the rest to be grateful to France for bringing civilization to Vietnam, an accusation that her own experience bore out.

Dung first learned about Ho as a man on the day at a Vietminh provincial camp when she found artisans using a wooden board to make lithographs of his face. When they gave her one, Dung was impressed by Ho's high forehead but had not expected his wispy goatee. She took the picture back to the villagers and found that they venerated it.

When the house next door to Dung's family in My Tho was commandeered as a French jail, her mother began to hear the cries of men and women being tortured. All four sons, like Dung, had joined the Vietminh, and their mother prayed to Buddha for them and became a vegetarian, hoping that her sacrifice might somehow spare their lives.

As the years wore on, the family returned to a semblance of normal life. The brothers married, and Miss Dung helped their wives get to a Vietminh stronghold in Dong Thap province where the French could never penetrate. In that fastness, the Vietminh built thatched houses that allowed families to live together and where the sick or wounded could come to recover. Dung's older sisters also came to the base, and a younger sister became a midwife to the revolutionaries. In 1950, Dung married a former student at the Polytechnic in Hue who had been imprisoned in Poulo Condore for anti-French activities, then released with Le Duan in 1945. Giving birth to three children in the early 1950s, Dung had to surrender them almost at once. Each infant was sent away from the rebel camp, to be raised by a sister in My Tho.

A few months after Rusk moved to the Far Eastern affairs desk at State, Acheson tried to convince reporters at the National Press Club that it was not leftists in Washington who had lost China to Mao. He explained that a political vacuum had opened and that the Red Army had ridden to power on a new revolutionary spirit. Then, in an omission he would regret, Acheson defined the U.S. defensive perimeter across the Pacific in a way that seemed to omit South Korea.

In North Korea, Kim Il Sung was twenty-two years younger than Ho and far less patient. Unwilling to wait for an eventual unification of the two Koreas, Kim went to Moscow in 1949 and received Stalin's approval for an invasion across

the 38th parallel and into the South. But Stalin proved to be a duplicitous ally. Before the scheduled invasion, he ordered all Russian advisers removed from North Korea's army divisions. Stalin knew those withdrawals would weaken Kim's capability, but he did not want to give the United States proof of Soviet involvement.

About that time, Ho also fell victim in a minor way to Stalin's sly self-preservation. At a conference in Moscow, Ho took a Soviet magazine from his briefcase and asked Stalin to autograph it. Stalin obliged him but sent his secret police to steal the magazine back from Ho's quarters. More suspicious than Chennault, Stalin didn't want his signature brandished around Vietnam to show Ho's intimacy with the leader of world Communism.

During that secret trip to Moscow, Ho also asked that the Soviet Union officially recognize his government and supply arms and other aid. Stalin agreed to diplomatic ties but otherwise treated Ho rather disdainfully. When Ho asked for quinine to fight malaria among his troops, Stalin outraged his own aides by directing them to send only half a ton. They took his miserliness as a sign that Stalin expected Ho to fail.

On June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung launched his attack on South Korea and plowed easily through the countryside to seize its capital at Seoul. But when the southerners made a stand near Pusan, Kim's soldiers could not clinch their victory. Across the Pacific, Harry Truman thought he saw history repeating a recent lesson. He told a Boy Scout jamboree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, that the Communist imperialists now were behaving like Hitler and Mussolini. With that, Truman led the United States into war, pledging to unify Korea under a United Nations flag.

At first, all went well for the West. Douglas MacArthur, hero of the war against Japan, retook Seoul, and Truman gave him permission to lead U.N. troops drawn from eighteen countries across the parallel and into the North, as far as the Yalu River, which divided Korea from China. At a meeting on Wake Island in October 1950, MacArthur assured Truman that the Chinese would not enter the fray. As for the Russians, an American general told reporters, "If the Russkies come down, we'll fight the Russkies."

The U.N. forces drove the North Koreans back above the 38th parallel, and in retreat Kim became hysterical, sobbing that the Americans would end up occupying all of his country. But the Chinese had massed a reserve army of half a million men along their Korean border. China's leaders were convinced that the United States intended to use Kim's adventure as a pretext for invading China. Their own victory was scarcely a year old, and Mao's council knew that the China Lobby in the United States -- conservatives led by Senator William Knowland of California -- were arguing that China should be returned to Chiang Kai-shek.

Mao's Communist leadership was nervous enough to launch a preemptive strike. While Stalin remained aloof, 300,000 Chinese crossed over into Korea and sent the United Nations's forces flying. For the second time in six months, Kim's men held Seoul.

MacArthur asked Truman for twenty or thirty nuclear bombs to drop on targets inside China. But G-2, the Army's intelligence office, advised Truman that atomic bombs would be taken as a sign of desperation and would weaken U.S. support among other Asian allies. When the president refused MacArthur's request, the five-star general challenged Truman's policy of containment and, in April 1951, was very publicly relieved of his command.

Truman's action intensified the debate at home. He got support from General Omar Bradley, who called carrying the war into China "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy." MacArthur's backing came from the China Lobby, from Henry Luce's Time and Life magazines and, for one bizarre evening, from Dean Rusk. In May 1951, Foster Dulles invited Rusk to join him and Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, both strongly committed to MacArthur, at a dinner given by like-minded members of the China Institute. Rusk perhaps did not count on the publicity his appearance would receive. Despite his guarded language, columnists read the text, which Rusk had not cleared with the department, as a commitment to overthrow Mao's government. Walter Lippmann, in a column titled "Bradley vs. Rusk," wrote that Rusk seemed to be ruling out a negotiated settlement in Korea and was announcing instead that the American terms in the conflict were unconditional surrender. Acheson was forced to hold a news conference to deny that the Truman administration had shifted from its limited aims in Korea.

Foster Dulles came to Rusk's rescue. Later in the year, he used his position as chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation to get Rusk hired as its president.

With the Korean War dragging on, a third-term Congressman paid a fleeting visit that same year to Indochina. Since Representative John Kennedy intended to run for the Senate in 1952, a familiarity with foreign policy would enhance his credentials, and he was making the trip with his brother, Bobby, and their sister, Patricia. During a stopover in Japan, however, Kennedy ran a fever so high that he was flown to a U.S. hospital in Okinawa. His entourage passed off the episode as a recurrence of the malaria they said he had contracted as a naval officer in the South Pacific. In fact, Kennedy had been diagnosed as suffering from Addison's disease, which could be fatal -- to the victim and to his political aspirations.

When Kennedy recovered and resumed his fact-finding tour, he spent time in Vietnam with Edmund Gullion, an American embassy official who believed that only an independent Vietnam government could withstand the Vietminh. Kennedy also stopped by the Saigon apartment of Seymour Topping, the Associated Press's first reporter in Vietnam. He wanted to talk over the war with Topping and his wife, the daughter of Chester Ronning, a Canadian diplomat based in China. Audrey Topping was a day away from giving birth to her first child, and Kennedy brightened her spirits by comparing her to a Botticelli madonna. After two hours of absorbing the Toppings' pessimism about French prospects in Vietnam, Kennedy said he intended to raise the issue when he got home. But he predicted that it would give him trouble with his constituents.

Back in the United States, Kennedy challenged Truman's Vietnam policy, telling a national radio audience, "In Indochina, we have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of Empire." Kennedy warned against sending U.S. soldiers to fight alongside the French in Vietnam. Perhaps, he suggested, "some people of colored origin" could be recruited, since the Communists were capitalizing on the history of white Frenchmen oppressing the Vietnamese. But Kennedy added that the true answer was for the West to recognize "that every country is entitled to its independence."

The congressman's attitude represented a surprising reversal for him over the past two years. When Mao gained control of China, Kennedy had risen in the House of Representatives to excoriate the policies of his fellow Democrat in the White House. Blaming two China experts by name -- Owen Lattimore and John Fairbank -- Kennedy had called on Congress to prevent "the onrushing tide of Communism from engulfing all of Asia." Now Kennedy's latest speech caused a different rumbling in foreign policy circles; Dean Acheson considered his criticism of France an unwarranted attack on America's oldest ally.

By then, however, Acheson was engaged in a more explosive battle. Already troubled by Mao's takeover in China, the American public was becoming impatient with the long negotiations over Korea. Despite the 33,000 American deaths, any treaty seemed likely to do no more than restore the prewar border along the 38th parallel. Truman's policy of containing Communism was being attacked by politicians who urged that the West retake China and Eastern Europe, possibly even the Soviet Union. To avoid the appearance of weakness, Acheson's diplomatic language grew harsh. He denounced "Soviet imperialism" while he increased Marshall Plan aid to the point that France could finance her Indochinese war openly. Even so, Acheson remained vulnerable to attacks from the Republicans, especially a claim by Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin that Acheson was shielding government officials who were either outright Communists or friendly to Communist causes. Investigations and purges within the government were aimed at discrediting several leading Asia experts -- John Service, John Paton Davies, O. Edmund Clubb. One of the men Congressman Kennedy had singled out, Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins University, was also attacked, even though Lattimore had never served in the State Department.

Acheson's Ivy League hauteur made him an irresistible target for fervid anti-Communists from farm states and the West Coast. Even though the various hearings had uncovered no Communists in government, many Americans were concluding that where there was smoke there must be fire. When Acheson joked that serving in the navy had taught him that where there was smoke, there was usually a smoke machine, the quip was cited as one more proof that he was not taking the Communist threat seriously.

As cries of treason rang out across the country, a State Department official named Alger Hiss was accused of spying for the Soviets in the 1930s. Hiss was protected by the statute of limitations, but when he denied the charge under oath, he was convicted of perjury. Richard Nixon, the California senator running in 1952 as Dwight Eisenhower's vice presidential candidate, fashioned a campaign phrase that played on voter distrust of Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson's erudition and their frustration with merely holding the line against Communism, not defeating it decisively. "Stevenson," Nixon told a Los Angeles audience, "holds a Ph.D. degree from Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment."

After Eisenhower's election, Washington's hostility toward the Communist bloc became even more unrelenting. Republican gains in the Congress resulted in McCarthy being named chairman of a Senate investigative subcommittee, and Foster Dulles was bringing to his appointment as secretary of state a religious sense of mission. He gave the world to understand that there could be no compromise between virtue -- represented by the United States -- and the wickedness of the Soviet Union and its allies. To Dulles, such nationalist leaders as Pandit Nehru of India became even more suspect, and Ho Chi Minh's ties to China automatically branded him as an enemy. Eisenhower, vividly recalling his party's campaign slogans, warned his new cabinet officers that they must prevent the Democrats from retaliating with the cry "Who lost Vietnam?"

Vice President Nixon shared Dulles's zeal. During an Asian trip in 1953, Nixon saw at first hand the French contempt for their Vietnamese subjects but remained convinced that France must fight on. Toasting his French hosts in Hanoi, Nixon pledged continued U.S. aid and predicted France's eventual victory against the Vietminh.

Once home, Nixon spoke out against any attempt to convene an Indochina peace conference. Explaining the war to the American public, he borrowed a metaphor that both Eisenhower and Dulles had already embraced: South Vietnam was the first in a line of dominoes, Nixon said. If it fell to Communism, the rest of Asia would soon be lost. He added that both the French and the British might soon seek peace in Vietnam -- "unfortunately" -- since their defection would leave the duty of saving Asia squarely with the United States. Privately, Nixon argued that if success in Vietnam required the use of nuclear weapons, so be it.

Upon Eisenhower's election, Dean Rusk had left the State Department, but he had known Service and Davies from his days with Stilwell and testified, to no avail, at their loyalty hearings. Rusk also assured colleagues that he could recall no instance of Alger Hiss trying to subvert his staff. Rusk's friendship with Foster Dulles spared him a congressional investigation of his own.

Rusk had learned from the China Institute episode that speaking out, whether from the Left or the Right, could jeopardize a man's career. When Virginia Rusk said that her husband had developed an "infinite capacity to adjust to the inevitable," Rusk took her remark as a compliment.

During Ho's years of inconclusive battles with the French, he issued regular communiqués from a hut deep in the Vietnam jungle, exhorting his countrymen to fight on while he and his international supporters -- Nehru of India was one of the few -- pressed for a new peace treaty. Ho understood that Vice President Nixon and others were urging the French to resist a conference because a coalition government was sure to mean Vietminh participation. But French public opinion had turned against the war. A thirty-seven-year-old deputy, François Mitterrand, complained in a speech, "We have granted Vietnam 'full indepen-dence' eighteen times since 1949. Isn't it about time we did it just once, but for good?"

By January 1954, international pressure had forced a meeting in Berlin that included delegates from the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France. They agreed to a spring conference in Geneva that would try, at last, to reach an accord on Korea and Indochina. But Foster Dulles still opposed a Vietnam treaty. When a reporter asked if he planned to meet with the Chinese delegates in Switzerland, Dulles replied, "Not unless our automobiles collide."

Then, as the date approached, France's bargaining position was dramatically undercut. According to alarming reports from Vietnam, 13,000 French soldiers were trapped under siege by General Giap's troops at a mountain outpost called Dien Bien Phu.

While Giap was fighting the Japanese in 1944, Ho named him commander in chief of the army. Giap, then thirty-two, was young enough to be Ho's son, was almost certainly his heir and, during Ho's fruitless talks with the French at Fontainebleau, had become the unofficial head of state. At about that time, Archimedes Patti, the OSS officer, finally met Giap face-to-face and found him self-confident but deadly serious. Giap had appeared good-humored in his youth. Now smiling seemed to come hard to him.

As Giap fought the French throughout the early 1950s, he had pursued his four-step theory of war -- maneuver, large movement, positioning, victory. In a notable example of maneuvering, he thwarted French strategy by moving his troops to the Laotian border, covering 180 miles in six weeks. To outsiders, that rate of progress might have seemed leisurely except that Giap forbade his men to travel on the exposed roads. Lacking both vans and trucks, he ordered three divisions of Vietminh to hack their way on foot through jungle that was all but impenetrable.

In 1953, Giap launched his second stage by marching through Laos to the royal capital of Luang Prabang, where he installed a leftist prince named Souphanouvong as his deputy and declared creation of the Government of the Free Laotian, the Pathet Lao.

In France, Giap's successes were provoking shuffles in the military high command. When the latest French commander, General Henri Navarre, arrived in Vietnam, he came with the full backing of Foster Dulles and a surefire plan for victory. But Navarre also confronted the prospect of peace talks, which were starting to look inevitable. Since he could not let Giap go on picking off small pockets of French soldiers at will, Navarre decided he would provoke a full-scale battle sometime in 1954. The French would either crush the Vietminh or fight them to such an obvious stalemate that France could negotiate an honorable peace.

Dien Bien Phu, three hundred miles west of Hanoi in mountains along the Laotian border, seemed the right place to mass enough French soldiers to disrupt the Vietminh supply routes from China and Laos. In November 1953, Navarre sent in elite battalions of French paratroopers to seize the large plain -- eleven miles long and about five miles wide. Navarre calculated that, to fire on his camp, Vietminh gunners would have to move into exposed positions, where his own guns and planes could wipe them out. Expecting to annihilate the Vietminh main force, Navarre promised Paris victory by the end of 1955.

The French counted on supplying their troops by land, even though many roads were not secure from guerrilla attack. The only other option was to provide reinforcements and supplies by air, which would require skirting a mountain rim that dominated the plain. But the need for that alternative seemed unlikely. An American general, John "Iron Mike" O'Daniel, inspected Dien Bien Phu and agreed with Navarre that it was impregnable.

A classic Chinese military manual might have changed their minds. "Never fight on a terrain which looks like a tortoise turned upside down," a Chinese tactician had once written. "Never camp there for long." Giap had anticipated Navarre's strategy and expected the French to occupy the plain when the rainy season ended in late October. Before that time, Giap had begun moving a Vietminh division toward Dien Bien Phu.

For the past four years, modern-day Chinese strategists had been traveling to Vietnam to offer advice. From his own war in Korea, Mao had diverted thousands of tons of 75-millimeter Russian and Chinese cannon, ammunition and hand grenades, along with tens of thousands of Skoda rifles.

As Giap prepared for a showdown, Ho flew secretly to Beijing, where he stayed at the house of one of Mao's ablest commanders, Chen Geng, who had advised the Vietminh four years earlier during their northern border campaign. Ho requested even more Chinese help to blunt the expected French offensive, and Mao sent Chen to Vietnam with six hundred trucks, many driven by Chinese soldiers.

To those reinforcements, Giap added tens of thousands of Vietnamese porters. Transporting equipment on the backs of ponies or of the Vietminh themselves, Giap forged a ring of destruction. Heavy guns and rocket launchers would make it impossible to escape from the camp and turn resupplying by air into a lethal gamble. And Navarre had been wrong in calculating the range of Giap's artillery. They could hit the French airfield from hills only three miles away.

On the western side of the mountains, Tran Quang Co, a twenty-six-year-old Vietminh, was assigned to the camp where Giap intended to house his prisoners of war. By enrolling with the resistance in 1945, Co had followed a family tradition. His parents were dead, but his five older brothers had already joined Giap. Co's own motive was simple. "I don't want to be a slave," he had said then, and he reminded himself of that sentiment whenever he regretted the fact that he was trained for nothing but warfare.

For five months, Co waited with his propaganda unit while other of Giap's troops broke down their artillery into pieces small enough to carry up the mountainside. Co knew the work was grueling but exhilarating since the French remained unaware of the range of Vietminh artillery that could be arrayed along the mountain crest. The job was scarcely done, however, when Giap delayed the attack, and the artillery had to be broken down again and lugged back to safety. Then, mere days before the siege, the whole grinding chore was repeated. From his vantage point, Co admired Giap's logistics and marveled at the way one man on a small bicycle could pedal over the trails balancing large stores of food.

A city boy, Co hated the constant rain and the leeches that sucked blood from his legs. Waiting for the battle to begin, Co's unit received only a few stray prisoners picked up by Vietminh patrols, usually Africans from Morocco, Tunis and Angola. Co tried to make them realize that they should not be fighting against Ho. "You are mercenaries," he lectured them. "We are all victims of the French colonists, but we are trying to emancipate our people. When you go home, you must do the same."

On the fighting side of the mountain, another young Vietminh, Dang Vu Hiep, was also impatient for the attack to begin. Like Co, Hiep had joined the Vietminh in 1945, right out of secondary school, in a town north of Hanoi. For the next seven years, he had emerged unscathed from occasional skirmishes, but during a battle in 1952, he had been lightly wounded in the thigh and arm by a French shell.

Men and women like Co, who would have pursued some other career in peacetime, made up the majority of Vietminh recruits, with the result that the bravest soldiers might have a poet's soft hands. That was not true of Hiep, whose blunt and determined features were those of a soldier from any age or culture. When his colleagues were sent for military training to China, Hiep was kept at home to study political lessons. Beginning at the company level, each Vietminh unit had a political officer who shared command with the military officer and was expected to know equally as much about command and tactics. By 1954, Hiep had become the political officer for the 102nd Regiment of the Vietminh's 308th Division. Although he himself had joined the Communist Party the year after he entered the Vietminh, Hiep's lectures to the men played down Marxism. He reminded them instead why they were fighting and assured them that patriotism was a noble virtue, a religion. He drilled into them a need to respect the local population, which would sharpen the contrast between the Vietminh and the supercilious French.

Soldiers spent the dry season from October to April in tactical training, and Hiep sometimes heard the men of his regiment worrying that they did not have enough experience for the battle they were facing. They had fought well so far against the French but had never conducted a siege. As they waited, Hiep kept them studying Giap's plan until they were clear and confident about its goal. "We must be determined," Hiep reminded them. "If we have doubts, we cannot fight."

From November through February, Giap had been launching diversionary attacks around Vietnam, forcing Navarre to tie up his troops in minor skirmishes. The French, impatient for a showdown, dropped leaflets over the roads around Dien Bien Phu with a taunting challenge: "What are you waiting for? Why don't you attack if you are not cowards? We are waiting for you."

By holding back, Giap had amassed 800 Russian trucks, each capable of carrying two-and-a-half tons, and the Chinese had scraped together for him another 200 U.S. trucks of the same size, built by General Motors and captured in Korea.

A major engineering feat was widening a mule track into a stretch of road for thirty-five miles, from Dien Bien Phu back to the Vietminh supply dump. For the job, Giap conscripted two engineer regiments, an infantry regiment, 7,000 army recruits and 10,000 civilian farmers. By now, Giap's combat troops at Dien Bien Phu were approaching 50,000. He estimated the French total at 16,000.

On Saturday, March 13, 1954, Giap sprang his trap.

Vietminh commandos slipped onto the Dien Bien Phu air base, poured water into the fuel tanks of the fighter planes, set off explosive charges to tear up the landing strip, and left behind pamphlets written in French and German: "Dien Bien Phu will be your grave." At 5 P.M., enough Vietminh artillery rained down to shake the floors of the French command posts and send earth flying into the trenches. The camp's lights went out, the telephone lines were cut. A French chaplain began to count the incoming shells -- fifteen to eighteen per minute.

Giap calculated that the French troops had enough supplies on hand to last eight days. After that, they would require a daily minimum of 200 tons of food and ammunition. As the siege continued, aircraft -- including U.S. planes from the CIA -- began dodging through the treetops to drop parachutes with supply canisters. Each day, French soldiers crawled out from the camp under Giap's machine-gun and cannon fire to drag in the containers.

Giap's own supply problems were at least as vexing. French planes were showering the area with "butterfly bombs," small grenades slowed in their descent by a pair of wings. Touching down lightly, they exploded when stepped on. Their targets were the thousands of Vietnamese men, women and children who were stretched through the underbrush in a human chain and made contact only by tiny oil lamps that glimmered through the heavy curtain of trees and vines.

The Vietminh and their supporters had redoubled their efforts since the Communist Party announced a new policy of land reform with the slogan "Land to the Tillers." Along narrow paths, sheltered by the jungle canopy, the Vietnamese passed ammunition from hand to hand. The only food was rice. On that human conveyer belt, men and women ate nine-tenths of the rice as they moved shells and equipment. The final tenth was saved for the Vietminh troops manning the guns.

Vietminh near Giap's base knew that Chinese soldiers had joined the battle wearing North Vietnamese insignia, but they did not hear the bickering over strategy between Giap and General Chen. Even at this climactic moment, Giap could not forget the threat that China had once posed, and he reminded himself that the Vietnamese had beaten back three massive invasions from the north, always against greater odds than they faced now.

Given that history, Giap felt confident that he could ignore Chen's advice that he send his troops against the French fortress in a vast human wave, a tactic called "Pointed Head, Long Tail." It required a great massing of troops for the first assault and then extended ranks of soldiers to continue the battle. Giap disapproved of the number of casualties that the Chinese had been willing to sustain in Korea and decided that using their tactic would lead to unacceptable losses. He intended to save lives by digging tunnels to move his troops and to cover his bunkers with undetectable camouflage.

Chen complained to Mao's high command that not only was Giap an inept tactician, he was also hogging the credit that should go to his Chinese allies. In Beijing, however, Chen's superiors understood the damaging international repercussions if their presence in Vietnam could be proved. Chen was told that since the battle of Dien Bien Phu was being fought on Vietnamese soil, Giap must be seen as the victor.

As France's position became untenable, the Eisenhower administration was weighing the use of atomic bombs to save the garrison. Throughout the month of April, Vice President Nixon recommended rescuing the French troops with two or three atomic bombs, and several of Eisenhower's military advisers agreed. But General Matthew Ridgway, MacArthur's replacement as commander in Korea and now representing the army among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that intervention would lead to the sending of U.S. ground troops and a stalemate like the one in Korea. Ridgway was an articulate exponent of what the Pentagon was calling the "Never Again Club" -- officers who resisted any attempt to commit American troops to a land war in Asia.

For eight years, under both Truman and Eisenhower, the United States had accepted French assurances that their war was going well. Now Eisenhower refused to pay a further installment on the American investment. To French pleas that he send U.S. troops, Ike said he would commit them only with congressional approval -- and that, he knew, he would never get. Too many senators were insisting there be no more Koreas.

Ike was also sensitive to the scant time that had passed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He lashed out at hard-line advocates like Air Force Chief of Staff Nathan Twining and Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "You boys must be crazy," Eisenhower said. "We can't use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God!"

To pressure Washington, the French claimed that the Chinese were about to march on Vietnam, and Foster Dulles urged Ike to announce that such an invasion would be the equivalent of a declaration of war against the United States. Eisenhower responded by raising the stakes: if he were going to war against China, he said, he should ask Congress for the authority to go to war against Russia as well.

The president challenged his Joint Chiefs to picture the result of a preventive nuclear strike. "I want you to carry this question home with you. Gain such a victory, and what do you do with it? Here would be a great area from Elbe to Vladivostok...torn up and destroyed, without government, without its communications, just an area of starvation and disaster. I ask you what would the civilized world do about it? I repeat, there is no victory except through our imaginations."

For eight weeks, two hundred Vietminh big guns pounded down on the French camp. As the French artillery emplacements were destroyed, so was the French will to fight on. On the afternoon of May 7, Giap ordered an all-out attack and watched as white flags sprung up at several French outposts. From Hanoi, Navarre told a deputy to reach the camp's command headquarters by phone and order that its white flag be hauled down. "Look, man," General Christian de Castries was told, "naturally you've got to call it quits. But one thing is certain is that everything you've done so far is superb. You mustn't spoil it all now by hoisting the white flag. You're overwhelmed, but there must be no surrender, no white flag."

At 5:30 P.M., Giap's men overran the headquarters building and captured its officers. That night the Vietminh charged the one garrison still holding out and took prisoner its last 2,000 soldiers.

Vo Nguyen Giap had reversed three hundred years of military history. For the first time in the annals of Western colonialism, Asian troops in fixed battle had defeated a European army.

When the fighting ended, Dang Vu Hiep emerged unscathed, but in his fastness on the Lao side of the mountain Tran Quang Co's skull had been grazed by a bomb fragment. He dismissed it as a mere nick and went on processing the flood of prisoners driven into his camp by the final battle. "You see, the French can be beaten," Co told the newly arriving Africans. "Go home and do the same."

In Thanh Hoa province, south of Dien Bien Phu, Nguyen Khac Huynh, the teenager who had thrilled in 1945 to the raising of Vietminh colors in Hanoi, was now a twenty-six-year-old company commander. By radio, Huynh got the news that Giap's forces had prevailed. Over the past nine years, Huynh had learned considerably more about Karl Marx than when his only motive had been to drive the foreigners from his country. But independence had remained his sacred goal, and today had finally brought it.

Because communication was unreliable, Huynh ran from unit to unit to report that the French fortress had fallen, telling himself over and over that this was another great day in his life.

If Ho's only enemy had been France, his delegation to the Geneva conference might have dictated terms that would force the French to slink away. But Ho understood that the fist within the French puppet force was American and that any settlement must appease the United States.

In Beijing, China's leadership was proving at least as cautious as Eisenhower had been, and when Zhou Enlai went to Geneva, it was to represent his own country's interests, not Ho's. Partitioning Vietnam and giving Ho only the northern sector might ensure that U.S. troops would never again be massed along the Chinese border. Dining with a French delegate, Zhou remarked that he had come to Geneva to make peace, not to back the Vietminh.

Nor did the Soviets want Ho to press hard at Geneva. America's intervention in Korea had ended up strengthening Chinese authority in Southeast Asia. A wider war in Vietnam might lead to Russia's tenuous influence in the region evaporating altogether. With both the Russians and Chinese backing away from direct confrontation with the United States, the Vietminh, despite holding four-fifths of the country, arrived in Geneva once again as supplicants.

Zhou's maneuvering produced a general agreement that Vietnam should be divided, and dickering began over which parallel should serve as the border. Intent on salvaging what he could, Pham Van Dong, Vietnam's chief negotiator, suggested the 13th parallel. That would draw the line at Qui Nhon in central Vietnam and give the Vietminh two-thirds of the country.

The French called for a border at the 18th parallel, about eighty miles south of Vinh. The eventual compromise settled for the 17th parallel. The two Vietnams would be roughly the same size -- 63,360 square miles in the North, 65,726 in the South -- and each would have a population estimated at 15 million.

The French had fared better as negotiators than as warriors. Under the terms of the agreement, neither the Pathet Lao nor the Cambodian resistance movement retained control over any territory in their countries. And an election aimed at unifying the two halves of Vietnam would be deferred for two years -- not held within six months, as Pham Van Dong had urged. To preside over South Vietnam, the Vietminh were forced to accept the return of Bao Dai, their former emperor.

Officially, the treaty was no more than a cease-fire, and France and Ho's government were the only two signatories. But Britain and the Soviet Union, as cochairs of the conference, assumed responsibility for upholding the partition of Vietnam, pending the 1956 elections. Other nations at the conference -- China, Laos and Cambodia -- endorsed the conditions verbally. An international commission was set up to monitor violations of the agreement, with Canada representing the West, Poland the Communists and India the neutral nations. They were to guarantee that the French withdrew from the south, that the Vietminh went north and that no outside powers interfered in the region.

By underwriting more than 75 percent of France's military expenses, the United States had spent as much as $2 billion to keep the French in Indochina. All the same, Foster Dulles would not sign the treaty. He agreed only to "note" its terms. Dulles committed the United States to diplomatic relations with Bao Dai's government in the south but refused the same recognition to Ho. And he made headlines around the world by refusing to shake the hand extended to him by Zhou Enlai.

The Vietminh delegates looked on sourly, aware that Dulles should have grasped Zhou's hand and wrung it in gratitude. Pham Van Dong summed up their view of Zhou's performance at Geneva: "He has double crossed us."

Copyright © 2000 by A. J. Langguth

About The Author

Photo Credit: David Sobel

A. J. Langguth (1933–2014) was the author of eight books of nonfiction and three novels. After Lincoln marks his fourth book in a series that began in 1988 with Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. He served as a Saigon bureau chief for the New York Times, after covering the Civil Rights movement for the newspaper. Langguth taught for three decades at the University of Southern California and retired in 2003 as emeritus professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 12, 2002)
  • Length: 768 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743212311

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"The most complete and compelling narrative on the war."

– The Economist

"A magisterial narrative history. Brilliantly recaptures the hopes, illusions, fears, suspicions, frustrations, and disappointments of these tumultuous years."

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"A history that will be admired and studied by scholars and journalists, [and] a collection of character portraits and relationships that beats most bestselling fiction."

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"The best book yet on our perverse crusade to make Vietnam safe for democracy."

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"Having interviewed a cast of characters worthy of Dickens, with a story line to match, Jack Langguth's history brings a new and sharper focus on the American century's enduring enigma: What were we doing in Vietnam?"

– H.D.S. Greenway, editor, The Boston Globe

"Employing new sources and up-to-date scholarship, Jack Langguth has written an excellent and accessible history of the war in Vietnam. His fast-paced narrative and his vivid portraits of the central characters will allow new generations of Americans to understand the drama of the war and the intensity of the emotions on both sides. The book is a major achievement."

– Frances FitzGerald, author of Fire in the Lake and Way Out There in the Blue

"If you thought there was nothing more to add to our knowledge of the Vietnam War, Jack Langguth's graphic narrative contains a wealth of new information and keen analysis. It is bound to take its place among the best books on the tragic conflict."

– Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History

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