The era that shaped us


Last updated 7/11/2023 at 9:37am

The Vietnam War shaped all of our lives.

I have friends who fought in that war and friends who demonstrated against it. The war, in large measure, set the course of their lives. But even people only tangentially affected by the fighting and the protests — and people unborn when Saigon fell in 1975 — live in an America whose contours were mapped by the conflict in Southeast Asia 50 and more years ago.

In Vietnam was born the distrust of institutions that is the hallmark of our current national culture. That distrust was earned: Our government systematically lied to the American people about how we got into the conflict, what we were doing there, the prospects for “victory,” and the consequences of “exit.” The trust that was broken then has never been restored — doubt and skepticism has metastasized.

The lack of faith is only made worse by failure to learn the lessons of Vietnam. We watched the same sad story play out in Afghanistan, where the fall of Kabul evoked the very same grotesque images of chaos and failure as the fall of Saigon.

I am currently deeply immersed in Max Hastings’ magisterial “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975.” If it is possible for a single volume to offer the definitive history of that complex conflict, this is a strong candidate. Not only is it brilliantly researched, including hours of interviews with a vast cast of Vietnamese, French and Americans — whose stories humanize a war that threatens to grow abstract with time — it is also wonderfully well-written. It’s a heavy lift at 861 pages, but it doesn’t feel like it — it’s downright propulsive reading.

Hastings is clear-eyed in his assessments, which don’t allow for a simplistic white hats/black hats version of history. He has no patience with the mythology that the anti-war left promulgated around North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and his movement, that they were nationalists first and fell into the arms of Communism due mostly to American intransigence and mishandling of their aspirations.

The Viet Minh who threw out the French in the epic bloodbath of the First Indochina War 1945-54 were committed Communists from the beginning — of the particularly brutal Stalinist variety. The North Vietnamese leadership and the National Liberation Front in the south, better known as the Viet Cong, drifted over time toward China, but that hardly softened their approach. Savage repression of dissent was their hallmark, and Ho and General Vo Nguyen Giap had absolutely no qualms about piling up mountains of corpses of their own people as long as they could climb to the heights of power in a hard-core Communist state.

The brutal repression of the North Vietnamese state was not apparent in the 1960s and ’70s — because the Communist government tightly controlled information. A true picture is only now emerging.

In contrast, the authoritarianism, corruption and brutality of the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem was on clear display, thanks to an international press that operated with few restrictions. The venality, cruelty, and incompetence of the South Vietnamese government, and a growing American commitment to destroying swaths of the country in order to save it, made the war hard to stomach in the West. Many who opposed the war fell prey to a naïve — and sometimes sinister — belief that if the American war was wrong, the North Vietnamese war must be right.

As Hastings notes: “The triumph of Hanoi’s propaganda was that hundreds of millions of people around the world, including more than a few Americans, believed that the impending North Vietnamese victory represented a just outcome.”

The epic tragedy that Hastings depicts so magnificently lies in the harsh reality that there could be no just outcome in the fetid swamp of imperial hubris, ideological fanaticism and venal corruption that characterized Vietnam’s three decades and more of war. He asserts that no side morally “deserved” to win.

And Hastings reminds us that, while Vietnam was a tragedy for America, it was most of all a tragedy for the Vietnamese. The U.S. lost 58,200 killed in Vietnam; as many as 40 Vietnamese died for every American life lost, for the prize of living under a totalitarian regime.

It may be that knowing history cannot save us — but Hastings gives us a fighting chance, if we pay heed to this fine work that every American should read.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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