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Our Vietnam

The War 1954-1975



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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. Ho 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.
Copyright & copy; 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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Raves and Reviews

"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."

– Los Angeles Times

"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."

– The Christian Science Monitor

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

– The Washington Post Book World

"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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