Vietnam reconsidered in a number of new books

If there is a collective American unconscious, one of the things floating around in it for the last 20 years has been the specter of the Vietnam war. And now, after a therapeutic somnolence, a renewed interest in the war is emerging in the form of serious research and analysis by academics, journalists, and military specialists.

Unlike early postwar literature, which often reflected sad, bitter resignation, recent Vietnam writings are invigorated, profoundly curious, and challenging. No longer are painful assumptions to be left unexamined, nor even the question of whether we ''won'' or ''lost'' to be passively accepted. America seems ready, perhaps eager, to emerge from her dark night of the soul.

For this political autopsy to occur at all bodes well for the durability of America's constitutional fabric. But that there is a rapidly growing audience for this rigorous introspection may be a significant indicator of America's restorative powers. The book-buying public is avidly consuming the dozens of new titles, and bookstores are allocating prominent tables for Vietnam literature, recycling older, previously unsold volumes.

The emotional needs of readers appear synchronized with those of the authors. For the most part eyewitnesses to Vietnam, both authors and readers express a kaleidoscope of human emotions. Some wish to discover ''lessons,'' with the hope never to relive such trauma. Some appear driven by a measure of revenge, often against United States policymakers and the military, as an expression of frustrated rage. Some are exhibitionists, content with self-congratulation, exulting in an I-told-you-so braggadoccio. they see few new lessons to be learned. Others are remorseful, seeking exculpation either for the US or merely for themselves.

In reexperiencing the Vietnam war, most reflect a base need for spiritual healing. Whether through historical analysis, journalistic reportage, memoirs, or novels, the struggle to reconcile American dreams with the Vietnam nightmare has achieved legitimate visibility. But, as always, responsible readers must listen closely for the sometimes subtle, underlying voices of recent books, wary of dulcet prose muffling the grinding of axes.

The most seasoned journalism belongs to Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History (Viking Press, 750 pp., $20). Karnow's book, a companion to the 13-part PBS documentary on Vietnam, is controlled, comprehensive, and clear. Its strength lies not only in research and analysis, but in Karnow's actual process of thinking itself.

Karnow, who covered Vietnam as a journalist, beginning in 1959, is one eyewitness who strives to learn from the war. But for the most part, he is too much the scholar to violate his journalistic integrity. He presents an impressive array of facts and history, much of it never before published in English texts. But he deliberately stops short of conclusions.

Karnow begins with the 18th-century French presence in Indochina, extensively detailing the important chauvinistic roles played by the Roman Catholic Church, the merchant class, the military, media, public opinion, and, of course, various French governments, which occupied the Elysee with revolving-door frequency. Within the first 200 pages, Karnow offers at least 40 parallels between the French and American experiences - ranging from disastrous decisionmaking based on faulty intelligence to domestic credibility gaps through which marched a plethora of heads of state, ushered by whatever fluctuating public opinion prevailed at the time.

Was France's hubris in exporting its culture to ''backward'' peoples - its avowed mission civilatrice - substantively different from the American presumption to export democracy to every corner of the globe by ''winning hearts and minds''? Did both France (despite three centuries of excursions into Vietnamese culture and politics) and the US overestimate their power and influence, while consistently underestimating Vietnamese nationalism? Was France any more astute in assessing the political possibilities indicated by its limited success in creating a hybrid Franco-Catholic-Confucian Vietnam than was the US in maintaining that Vietnam could become a true Western-styled democracy merely by holding democratic elections? Karnow serves scholarship as much by the framing of questions, posed in appropriate contexts, as by providing answers.

The scope of ''Vietnam: A History'' permits Karnow to examine both the first Indochina war between France and the Vietminh and the second Indochina war between North and South Vietnam. He supplements his rigorous research with extensive interviewing of hundreds of participants in the war, including a number of present-day Communist leaders. In so doing, Karnow corroborates many closely held perceptions, but explodes others - to his credit, even his own. (One example: the Phoenix program, a CIA-sponsored attempt to train South Vietnamese agents to penetrate the rural Viet Cong apparatus, was not the debacle Karnow believed. It was an effective, albeit flawed operation that destroyed many Viet Cong bases and compelled many Communist cadres to retreat to Cambodia.)

When Karnow's critical eye shifts to the evolution of US involvement in Vietnam and, in particular, to what he perceives as the inordinate and untoward influence exerted by individual players, a markedly angry tone suddenly intrudes into his writing.

Few books accord a prominent decisionmaking position to Henry Cabot Lodge, but Karnow attributes a Byzantine deviousness to Lodge, appointed ambassador to Vietnam by John F. Kennedy. Karnow states flatly that Kennedy remanded final judgment on President Ngo Dinh Diem's overthrow to Lodge, who ''had, of course, made up his mind long before.'' According to Karnow, Lodge withheld important intelligence issued by the White House, reflecting the President's hesitancy to permit a coup, from the would-be mutineer-generals in order to ''fit (Lodge's) own concept of 'nation building.' ''

More. ''Lodge, who had no intention of missing the spectacle (of Diem's ouster), found a pretext to postpone his trip. . . .'' ''He, Lodge, would alone steer U.S. policy in Vietnam.'' ''Even Lodge, who could be as devious as any Vietnamese, leaked information aimed at tarnishing Diem's image.''

And so on. Such charges are shocking, even to the most cynical readers, but all the more because, damning as they are, Karnow does not footnote, and instead offers only a general section on chapter sources. While he presumes to know and impugn Lodge's motives, we cannot be assured that Karnow, or his source, has not introduced a bias.

Having dispensed with Lodge, Karnow switches to a less disdainful tone. Yet the voice of the dispassionate historian never quite reappears, and the remainder of the text becomes a kind of worst-and-dullest cast of characters. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor comes across as something of a benighted buffoon in his dealings with Vietnamese ruling generals, and Lyndon Johnson's White House aides as cowering yes-men.

Which is not to say Karnow loses credibility. One surmises that one of Karnow's best sources is his own skilled, personal observation. Karnow is particularly adept in sketching the personal histories and mind-sets of several personages, suggesting that their actions often are little more than predictable , self-fulfilling prophesy.

''Vietnam: A History'' is a major achievement, an important contribution, and a meaningful foundation for further research.

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