- Hardcover: 640 pages
- Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 5, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0307700259
- ISBN-13: 978-0307700254
- Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 1.6 x 11.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 111 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #67,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Vietnam War: An Intimate History Hardcover – September 5, 2017
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"The companion volume to Burns’ Vietnam War documentary series on PBS, the book stands alone as a powerful summary of the whole conflict. It tells the story of the war from every conceivable angle, including that of the young Vietnamese fighters. It’s extraordinarily well-reported and written, and filled with memorable photographs and illustrations—a reminder that the war was, perhaps for the first time, shaped as much by powerful images as written reports."
—Lancaster Online, Mark Bowden's "Ten Favorite Books on the Vietnam War"
"A vivid and often captivating volume…a valuable resource."
—David Greenberg, The New York Times Book Review
"Once again Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns deliver the grand historical goods in this feast of a book. For those too young to remember the Vietnam War, this is the essential primer. For those old enough to have Vietnam flashbacks or battle scars, read it and weep. Highly recommended!!"
"A sweeping, richly illustrated narrative of a conflict fast retreating in memory... As they have done in numerous collaborations, Ward and Burns take a vast topic and personalize it... Of particular value is the inclusion of Vietnamese voices on both sides of the conflict, most of whom agree more than four decades later that the question of who won or lost is less important than the fact that no one really prevailed... The text is accompanied by more than 500 photographs, some of them immediately recognizable...many others fresh... Accompanying the PBS series to be aired in September 2017, this is an outstanding, indispensable survey of the Vietnam War."
—Kirkus, (starred review)
"Lucid, flowing, and dramatic… Robustly detailed writing… Eye-opening… Powerful in its own right… In their new ‘intimate’ yet capacious history, the award-winning, audience-enthralling duo of historian and screenwriter Ward and documentarian extraordinaire Burns investigate the complex, divisive, and tragic Vietnam War from a unique plurality of perspectives… This is a vivid, affecting, definitive, and essential illustrated history."
—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"Lavishly illustrated…. Well-written and deeply researched, this history covers virtually every aspect of the French and American wars in Vietnam from 1945-1975, focusing mainly on military, diplomatic, and political issues…. Anyone looking for an expansive overview of the Vietnam War will find much to admire here."
About the Author
GEOFFREY C. WARD, historian and screenwriter, is the author of nineteen books, including A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has written or cowritten many documentary films, including The War, The Civil War, Baseball, The West, Mark Twain, Not for Ourselves Alone, and Jazz.
KEN BURNS, the producer and director of numerous film series, including Vietnam, The Roosevelts, and The War, founded his own documentary film company, Florentine Films, in 1976. His landmark film The Civil War was the highest-rated series in the history of American public television, and his work has won numerous prizes, including the Emmy and Peabody Awards, and two Academy Award nominations. He lives in Walpole, New Hampshire.
LYNN NOVICK's previous directing credits include Prohibition, a three part series on the rise, rule, and fall of the 18th Amendment; Frank Lloyd Wright, a two part biography of the architect; and The Tenth Inning, a four hour sequel to Burns's Baseball, which Novick produced. She also produced his 20 hour series, Jazz. She has received Peabody and Emmy awards.
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=== The Good Stuff ===
* If a picture is worth a thousand words, Ward and Burns are the people to supply those words. The book is full of an incredible collection of photographs, some familiar, some not, and excellent commentary built around many of them. If you look at the serious expression in the eyes of a young Ho Chi Minh in Paris in 1918, you can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Woodrow Wilson ever read the petition he so badly wanted to deliver. How can you not shake your head at a 1941 photo of an American OSS officer training Viet Minh soldiers how to fire rifle grenade?
* The text is quite easy to read and well written, but be prepared for a long book. The book covers a lot of ground, but it not what I would consider a detailed and complete history of the war. Rather it seeks to capture, in detail, small segments of the war, concentrating on individual characters and their motivations and actions. In various segments, the authors concentrate on US soldiers, US military leadership, Vietnamese military and civilian leaders, antiwar protestors, US politics, and any number of other viewpoints. In the end, the sum of all the parts gives a pretty complete look at what happened.
* The authors mostly try to maintain a neutral viewpoint, but they find it harder and harder as the book progresses. I can’t speak for the authors, but I suspect their opinion would be along the lines of “How on earth did we ever get ourselves into that mess?” And while they may be officially neutral, they can not help but note that the “stakes” we were playing for in no way matched the costs.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* I hate to disagree with historians of the stature of the authors, but I will anyway. I think that they are looking back at events in Vietnam with too much benefit of hindsight. Sure, from 2017, the whole domino theory and the importance given to a 100 mile wide strip of jungle seems absurd. But in 1966, you couldn’t get elected dog-catcher if you weren’t “tough on communism”. Likewise, blaming politicians for getting all caught up in the hysteria is also a bit unfair. Presidents and Congressmen aren’t going to take any viewpoints that the majority of their constituents don’t already support.
* I realize it is not the author’s style to engage in this kind of analysis, but after reading a few hundred pages, it would have been nice to get a “professional opinion” on what we got for the trillion dollars and 60,000 casualties.
=== Summary ===
The book was long and sometimes the content was a bit tough to read- it didn’t always catch Americans at our best. But in the end it provided a look at the war from many different viewpoints, and examined the price paid by many of the participants. While the text is well written and quite informative, it was the pictures that really made the book for me. Probably the most powerful photos were a few near the end, where former enemies from the US and Vietnam are reunited, and you can’t but notice the look in their eyes of “Why?”
I would recommend the book for anyone with an interest in this period of history, although some who have lived through it may find some of the viewpoints and content a bit upsetting.
=== Disclaimer ===
I was able to read an advance copy through the courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.
In some respects the book gives a better account of the developing history than the film it is a “companion” to. The reader will get a much better understanding of the changing Vietnamese government as the French desperately attempted to establish some sort of legitimacy within Vietnam and the transition of that government into the Republic of Vietnam under Diem.
I think this book will become a standard text on the history of the Vietnam War but I do have a criticism. My quibble is with a relatively small portion of the text and it really has nothing to do with the story. That is my quibble…
“Kennedy and What Might Have Been.” Why is this chapter included in this book? I find it interesting that after reviewing the diverse panoply of historiography Burns and Ward could not stay away from one of the counterfactual, what-if, perspectives that seems to be a real favorite among some historians: Kennedy would not have gone full and outright war on Vietnam. He was too smart, he was too good a guy, Camelot and all that. Well Kennedy might have inherited the war from Truman and Eisenhower but he is the one who began to Americanize the war. He is the one who sent something like seventeen thousand American military personal to operate as advisors to the RVNAF. He sent helicopter companies with the necessary pilots and crews. Americans were now directly involved in combat operations. Americans were dying in Vietnam and Kennedy kept all that secret from the American public. That is a big commitment to walk away from. American prestige was on the line and Kennedy had made several eloquent speeches proclaiming that America would “pay any price” to defend against communist aggression. After Truman, many Americans automatically believed that Democrats were reflexively soft on communism; it was in their political DNA. For Kennedy to walk away from Vietnam after ramping up the military commitment and eliminating Diem would have raised a big political ruckus. He would have had some explaining to do. History would also have viewed him harshly after supporting the coup and murder of Diem and his brother only to walk away from the mess that policy created. Diem’s blood is on Kennedy’s hands. I do happen to think Kennedy to have been a good president: the Peace Corps, commitment to land a man on the moon and bring him home alive; but please stop with the Kennedy was too pure, good and foresighted enough to involve America in a shooting war in Asia. This chapter is nothing more than fantasy. It is not history, it is fable. And, my only criticism of Mr Burns work: this is an example of ax-grinding, not the impartial umpire calling balls and strikes (two metaphors Burns frequently used during the speaking tour, in the run-up to release of the film, to characterize his approach). Truman, made a tremendous mistake by supporting French colonialism. Eisenhower supported that same mistake then went all-in with Diem. Johnson sent in the ground troops and ramped up the death and destruction. But we should give ol’ Kennedy a pass because he would have…We don’t know what he would have done! We know what he did and it was an exponential increase over what his predecessors had allowed. He gets no pass from me.
Since this is really not part of the story it can be ignored and does not change my rating of this monumental work.
The Vietnam War was a tragic mistake of enormous proportions. The death and destruction wrought, ending in failure, allows very little redeeming consequence. We did learn some important lessons but those lessons are easily forgotten. Ken Burns and his partner Lynn Novick would like to start a new conversation about the war. I think that can only be a good thing. I really hope it happens, even if on a small scale. We need to review the lessons to be learned from that awful war.
I am glad of one thing. We seem to have thoroughly learned to not blame our valiant warriors for the blunders of our leaders.