Reading List: Vietnam A History

“Vietnam: A History”: by Stanley Karnow.

This is a second book about the Vietnam War I have read from American journalists. Compared with the “Bright Shining Lie”: by Neil Sheehan, this book covered more about the internal politics among American leaders; the book is also more journalistic. Sheehan’s book has a fictional feel and covers much more in details the actions in ground.

Karnow gave a very good summary of the French colony period. He started from the very early efforts introducing Christianity into the country, and under that cover the French and foreign merchants sponsored the priests conducting activities undermining the Vietnamese monarchy.  One point Karnow seems to emphasized from this part, IMHO, is the the development of the Vietnamese nationalism. Vietnam as the independent country had a very long history; it was formed as early as the England was formed. Karnow and many other authors pointed out that both the French and the Americans underestimated this point and thought they could impose on the populace client governments.

While this book is a good source to understand the war, it is a book written by American journalist. By that, I mean it is nowhere near non-bias. The bias nature happens at many levels. For example, the author literally said twice in the book that Vietnam war (or American war as the Vietnamese call it) was a civil war in which Americans tried to support the democratic government in the South against the communist force from the North. However, the whole book (of course written by the same author) showed exactly the opposite. It was the war created by the American government, initiated right after the WWII when they funded the French effort to recapture the colony. The South Vietnam government was built mostly through CIA activities. All the details are well presented in the book. A lot people countered this point by saying that the North Vietnam government was a client state of Russia and China. Though the North was heavily influenced by Russia and China because they depended on them for the supplies, but they are nowhere near a client state. During the French war, Viet Minh was the only force has mass political support and the strength to fight the French. Russia and China did not and could not dictate who would be the next president of the North Vietnam.

The author was bias in the way he described actions of both sides. While talking about the crimes committed by Americans during the war, Karnow tended to describe them at abstract levels. For example, he described very little about the My Lai massacre, the bombing of the South Vietnam, the bombing of the North Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos. He did mentioned in his book the event which B52 wiped out the whole Kham Thien street in Hanoi, however it was described as a mistake a collateral damage. In contrast, he went into details about the Hue massacre, told a lot of personal stories of several victims.

As human we cannot completely be non-bias, however as a professional journalist, I supposed Karnow should have tried to be more neutral. Obviously, he did not manage to do so in this book, or maybe he really think that was the way things went. Whatever the reason, be aware of this mental model bias when reading any political works.

I was surprised at the number of grammar errors in the book. The Vietnamese names are comprised of seperate words, so “Hai Phong” is the name of the city in the North. The Western authors usually wrote as Haiphong which is not considered a correct way In Vietnamese. Regardless of which way you want to use, you should use it consistently. Karnow sometimes write Hai Phong, sometimes Haiphong. And many times, he just got names wrongly. For example, on page 200, a town called Lao Cai was written as Laokay.

Having said all these, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the war. Just be aware of the limitations.

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