These two books take on a familiar topic but manage to be original and thought provoking—and very different from each other. Hastings covers the war from the Communists’ uprising against the French in 1945 to their victory over the South in 1975. As a foreign correspondent, he was one of the last to leave Saigon. In this masterly and engrossing account, he uses the same techniques that have served him well in his histories of the two world wars, exploring the war from the bottom up as well as the top down. He is scathing about delusionary U.S. decision-making and the hopeless efforts to compensate for the South’s political weakness by military means. But he is also harsh in his depiction of the callous North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. The strengths of the book lie in Hastings’ ability to describe, with extensive use of diaries, memoirs, and interviews, the chaos of battle in a war of ambushes and without obvious frontlines.
VanDeMark is returning to a story he has told before, notably in partnership with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, but now with new material. He sticks largely to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and focuses on the question of how smart men could have not only misread the conflict so badly but also refused to change course when their mistakes became evident. He opens with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1961, in Cuba, which might have served as warning enough of how schemes that sound great in a briefing can go horribly wrong in practice. He then moves through the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S. bombing campaign, the Tet Offensive, and the first tentative peace negotiations. Throughout, he shows how little the key players in Washington understood what was happening on the ground. VanDeMark’s extensive use of research on the psychology of decision-making can be interesting, although it sometimes interrupts the flow of his narrative. The sense of introspection it provides adds poignancy to the records of meetings and field trips by U.S. civilian and military leaders, who never quite came to grips with the unfolding tragedy.