Customer Reviews: Vietnam: A History
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"Vietnam: A History" is a masterfully written history of America's involvement in Vietnam - certainly one of the two best single-volume histories (along with "A Bright Shining Lie," by Neil Sheehan) of America's most regrettable war that I've read. Written by Stanley Karnow, a former Southeast Asian correspondent for "Time" and "Life" magazines, and "The Washington Post," this book is a comprehensive and fascinating look at the Vietnam war, from its underlying causes at the end of World War II, to the final takeover of South Vietnam by its Communist neighbor, North Vietnam, in April 1975.

Karnow delivers with crisp and precise prose an account of the Vietnam War which is both fair and objective. He analyzes the conflict from both the political and military standpoint, and is unsparing in his criticism of errors made by political and military leaders on all sides of the conflict. Three areas of this book were especially interesting to me: first, the author's account of the conflict between the French and Viet Minh, and how the French were defeated at Dienbienphu in 1954; second, how the U.S. government formulated its Vietnam policy under the Kennedy administration, and how that policy ultimately failed; and third, how Richard Nixon, upon becoming President in 1969, changed America's Vietnam policy and began the process of "Vietnamizing" the war. (Karnow's candid description of how the Kennedy administration initially supported South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, then tacitly approved of the 1963 coup d'etat which resulted in Diem's murder is fascinating.)

"Vietnam: A History" is an essential book for the reader interested in gaining a good understanding of the war and its causes. Highly recommendable reading!
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on December 5, 2001
Should you buy this book???
It depends what you are looking for...Karnow was in 'Nam as a reporter for 25 years and is probably the most qualified writer alive to write about it. He met with all of the top officials in the south and north Vietnamese Govts and had informants in our own govt to help with details. So if you are looking for a Political history of the war, 'the why we were there and what kept us there' kind of topics, then this is a five star must read. But if you are looking for details on the fighting and on individual battles then look elsewhere because this book has little to none of that. You will find out why and when soldiers were first sent to nam but you will not find out what they did or felt once they were there.
Political history = 5 stars
Military history = 1 star
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on September 10, 2002
This book has many merits: It is comprehensive, it attempts to explain Vietnamese history, and it is full of on the spot interviews and remembrances. This remains the basic history text of record on American involvement in Vietnam. There is a breadth of perspective here that is lacking in many accounts of this most up-close and personal of wars.

Despite these advantages, the book has some real limitations. The writing is pedestrian, the characterizations (if one can say that about history) tend to be thin, and Karnow fails to convey a sense of wholeness in many chapters. The book at times feels more like a collection of dispatches from a reporter in the field (which Karnow was in Vietnam) rather than the work of a historian who has integrated fact and theory based on deep understanding and research. As comprehensive as the book tries to be, Karow's reach may have exeeded his grasp with his project.

The book also suffers from a real bias against American involvement and the American establishment, Republican and Democratic. When "Uncle Ho" commits murders in the thousands the book makes one feel like this is a natural outpouring of exuburant nationalism rather than good old fashioned absolutism. But when the admittedly corrupt and inept Diem regime or confused ARVN or American soldiers commit atrocities, the condemnation is acid and biting. Communists are presented as "golden," or "tough," while Southerners or Amercians are usually charactured as "greedy," or "arrogant."

There is also an irony in the book's approach. Karnow should be complemented for attempting to fit American involvement in Vietnam into the wider context of Vietnam's history. However, Vietnam's history is presented mostly through lense of Western or Colonial contact. There is little sense of Vietnam as a nation, and its people, religion and history are merely players on the stage of American Imperialism. In suggesting that the policy of containment as expressed in the Vietnam war was a misjudgment of Vietnamese Nationalism (which is now common wisdom), Karnow ironically describes that nation as through an American TV camera, rather than a Vietnamese watercolor.

Now, almost 20 years after it was written, the Vietnam: A History still has valuable perspective and information. But be forewarned: This is a myopic document of American journalistic self-analysis.
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on May 12, 2003
This book is an excellent factual overview of the American experience in Vietnam. Stanley Karnow was there, as a reporter, and this book has become a staple in the vast collection of American Vietnam War books.
This is an excellent primer for those looking for a basic chronological understanding of the events of the war. Unlike so many of the more recent volumes on the subject, this book contains almost no speculation. This book is well researched, well written, and pretty safe, in that you can rely on the factual veracity of its contents.
If you're looking for complex political theories, you'll need to dive deeper into the subject, such as Logevall's Choosing War, or Kaiser's American Tragedy.
This book also contains some excellent, if standard, photographs, a basic chronology, and a very brief `cast of characters' that are all of use to the beginner. If you are said beginner, you also want to tackle Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie.
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on September 5, 2006
Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History," provides a decent overview of the history of this country -- dominated for so long by China and then France -- as well as the Vietnam War, and the quagmire that the U.S. involvement became. One reason for Karnow's unique perspective is his involvement as a reporter before, during and after the war, and his incredible access to some of the principles, including North Vietnamese. For someone like me, who was woefully ignorant about this embarassing but fascinating part of our history, I learned quite a bit about Vietnam in general, and the war in particular. And yet, I still feel like I know so little about it.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the first chapter in which Karnow discusses the impact of the war over future foreign policy, and presents diverse opinions of military specialists who do some monday morning quarterbacking. Obviously, the easy answer is that the U.S. should never have gotten involved in this part of the world at all. But the best and the brightest, at that point in history, unwaveringly believed in the so-called "domino theory," where one country after another would be over taken by Communism. A stand had to be made, according to almost all of these experts (with almost unanimous agreement in Congress), in South Vietnam. Also, the best military minds were of the opinion that sustained air strikes and a policy of "escalation" would eventually bring the North to their knees, which turned out to be one of the most militarily and societally costly mistakes the U.S. ever made. So one question which must be asked, which Karnow covers in chapter one, is how we could have prevailed. It certainly didn't help matters that the South Vietnamese, mostly comprised of uneducated peasants (same as the North) were heavily infitrated by the Viet Cong, and didn't really seem to have their heart in the fight.

I agree with some other reviewers that Karnow often seems to root for the North Vietnamese, although he does write about their atrocities. I have to believe that ultimately, the South Vietnamese would have been a heck of alot better off if the North had been defeated, or, at least discouraged from conquering the South after a bogus peace agreement was reached, but, of course, it's hard to say.

The major short-coming of "Vietnam: A History," is the short thrift it gives to so many topics. For instance, Karnow mentions in a few sentences that when Ho Chi Min took over the North in 1945, two million North Vietnamese died from famine. This sounds like it could be an entire book in itself. Karnow covers the atrocities at Mylai and the consequential Court Martial of Lt. Calley in less than two pages. The horrors suffered by prisoners of war, including at the "Hanoi Hilton," are mentioned in a cursory manner. I still don't think I know or understand much about the elusive Ho Chi Min, or, for that matter, the equally elusive Henry Kissinger. I'm sure the ramifications of Nixon's decision to secretly bomb Cambodia could only adequately be presented in a much longer treatment than given here. Karnow covers the Vietnam protests, but never mentions Woodstock or the California based hippy drug culture, which centered itself politically on opposition to the war and the draft. In fact, the draft itself is barely discussed.

In summary, "Vietnam: A History," though a decent overview, left me hungry for much more about this fascinating and complex period of U.S. history, the effects of which we are still clearly feeling. Just look at how many times the situation in Iraq has been compared to the quagmire of Vietnam, as only one instance where the Vietnam war still lives with us.
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on August 20, 2000
As is related in the beginning of this book, Vietnam: A History is well read in Vietnam today--probablly due to the fact-based, unbiased, reporting style the author uses.
The book is split into two divisions. The first, containing a vast history of Vietnam, which can be laborious to get through, yet for history buffs, worth the effort. Second, the Vietnam War.
It is the second part of the book which will leave the readers awed by the ineptness and corruption of U.S. & South Vietnamese leadership--both military and political, especially at top levels--angry by the uninformedness of the American people, and shocked by the great cost in lives and property to two warring groups, whose involvement and happening was entirely preventable.
Probably no other person was, or is better qualified to write the Vietnam story than Stanley Karnow, who lived in Paris in the 1950's, as a U.S. foreign news correspondent during France's fight for dominance in Vietnam. He also interviewed numerous key participants. He dug into once classifed U.S. documents to reveal unknown information, and he researched and reported on the recollections of high-level polticians, dignataries, military leaders, and the soldiers, men, and women who fought on both sides.
An outstanding work!
I'd recommed reading "Paris in the Fifties" by the same author as a primer to this book.
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on October 31, 2001
It is difficult to imagine a better one-volume history of the Vietnam War. Karnow provides not only a clear narrative of events, but also excellent background on Vietnamese history and culture, US and world politics, and the personalities involved, so that the reader comes away with a deep understanding of both what happened and why it happened (insofar as the "why" is knowable). Karnow, a correspondent who covered Vietnam during the crucial period, smoothly weaves into the story his own experiences and interviews, without making himself the center of attention. In addition, he writes much more fluidly than the typical journalist-turned-historian. The book also contains numerous photos, maps (which could have used more detail), and a helpful chronology and short biographies of key figures.
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on August 16, 1999
This massive work manages to convey both the broader sense of history that many other books lack and an excellent history of the war itself.UNderstanding the country's history is crucial to understanding the folly of our involvement there and the author carefully portrays both the roots of the country's nationalism and its long history of tragedy and conflict.Karnow also goes to great pains to remain objective about the war and for this reason this is the best factual account of the war itself. He does not have an axe to grind as do many of the book's successors. All other books must compare themselves to this one, and all historians of the war must read Karnow's book. However, Karnow's objectivity makes this book read like a textbook, it is difficult to plow through at times, though the work is well worth it. For pure histroy, read it, but if you are also interested in a more passionate account of the war, read A Bright Shining Lie or The Best and the Brightest. Those books will have you in tears by the end, this book will merely increase your knowledge of this seminal event.
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on January 17, 2007
Part-history book, part-personal memoir, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stanley Karnow does a superb job of telling the story of the biggest American foreign policy disaster of the 20th century. Vietnam was his beat from the death of the first American soldier there in 1959 until after the 1973 ceasefire that ended U.S. involvement. He interviewed almost all of the major players in the war and was there while the story unfolded.

This book isn't a complete history of Vietnam (history, culture, economics, sociology, etc.). Instead it covers in great detail the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, plus the origins of Vietnamese nationalism, which stems from their many battles with Chinese and French colonialism throughout the centuries.

Although I consider myself a history buff, Karnow surprised me with new details about the war. For example, the Tet Offensive of 1968 decimated the Vietcong and didn't affect U.S. public opinion nearly as much as people would have you believe. Also, the notorious Christmas bombing of 1972 largely spared urban areas of Hanoi and Haiphong--it wasn't the second Hiroshima I'd been led to believe. And JFK wasn't the first U.S. president to get America involved in Vietnam...that was Harry Truman's fault, although FDR got his fingers dirty a little bit.

Contrary to some of the other reviewers, I didn't find this book to be pro-Communist. Karnow gives a fair portrayal of both sides. He spends more time discussing North Vietnam's "insane" economic policies and the Communist massacre of civilians at Hué in 1968 than he does any U.S. atrocities (e.g., My Lai). And I was impressed by his descriptions of bravery on both sides of the conflict. This is no mean feat for someone that was placed on Richard Nixon's "enemies list" (as Karnow was).

If Karnow spends a lot of time discussing the arrogance and naivete of U.S. politicians and generals as well as the rampant corruption and incompetence of South Vietnam's leaders...well those were big reasons the Communists won, folks. And the parallels to Iraq today are striking.

Two last things:

1. Have a dictionary handy when reading this book.

2. This book is a little out-of-date: John McCain and John Kerry are described as "two members of Congress with impeccable war records." Ladies and gents, meet Karl Rove!
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on July 15, 2001
This noted book on Vietnam foregoes detailed accounts of battle and instead provides an often compelling and complete account of the political forces that led to America's tragic commitment to a brutal, futile war.
Pages 55-200 drag a bit with detailed, textbookish information about Vietnam's past monarchs and years under French colonial rule. There's an endless barrage of short Asian and long French names to get through and forget. While historical perspective is needed, this section should have been structured in a better narrative, and condensed.
From the Kennedy years on, however, the book is a page turner, a fascinating account of how America's so-called "best and brightest" government officials and awesome military power were no match for an enemy whose persistence, patience and capacity for suffering knew no bounds.
It wasn't that America wasn't warned. In the 1940s, Ho Chi Minh, the revered communist leader and nationalist, told the French: "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."
How right he was in regard to America's involvement later: 60,000 American dead - 600,000 Vietnamese dead - victory for the communists.
The scar of Vietnam seems to be branded on the American conscience.
At least relatively objective accounts (and Vietnam/A History thus qualifies) of the web we wove and suffocated in will, perhaps, offer a lesson for future generations.
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