The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, by Geoffrey C. Ward

Nine stars

As a reader who loves history, I turned to this book by Geoffrey C. Ward about the Vietnam War, an indelible mark on the American psyche. Pulled from some of the notes on a massive television documentary, Ward explores the war in new and engaging ways. His primary thesis, that Americans still argue and fight over the facts the war, shows that the largest military embarrassment in US history to date is highly divisive and multi-faceted. Ward takes an extremely detailed look at the war through the lenses of military campaigns, politics, and social reaction to provide the reader with something well worth the time invested. While I am no expert, I can say that I was enthralled with much of what Ward had to say, lapping it up and adding to my knowledge of events surrounding this time in American history. A superb piece that covers many of the bases for the history buff.

Ward chooses to explore the Vietnam skirmish, not only from the time that American entered the war, but rather the kernel of the issue in the region. He explores the French presence in the area, as well as how the Southern Asian actors all played their own role in building up tension. Vietnam was a Japanese plaything by the Second World War and soon became a hotbed of Cold War tensions, pitting the Communist North against the democratic South. The Americans saw an opening to push back the Red Wave and began pouring weapons and soldiers into the area. As Ward explores, those supporting the North did so with their own weapons and military prowess, but kept troop numbers to a minimum. Using talk of military decisions throughout, Ward shows how the Americans sought to treat this as another Korea, seeking a quick strike to make an impact, which failed miserably. This was not to be another swift battle, but rather one in a part of the world soldiers were not used to fighting. This was a new and unique military approach, which could have gone south on many occasions.

Exploring the Vietnam War through the political lens, it was a hot potato issue for the Americans that would simply not settle. As mentioned above, there was a significant push to make this another quick strike to quash Communist sentiments in Asia, a Cold War clash to flex political muscle. However, things were not as cut and dry, as Ward explores. The war served as a lodestone for many American politicians, especially presidents from Kennedy through to Ford, all of whom saw it as a thorn in their sides. Ward explores detailed decisions and sentiments made by those in the political arena, many of whom sought to distance themselves from the growing animosity the electorate had of the war. What might have been a ‘saving mission’ soon turned sour and there was no turning back, which only created more animosity. Ward effectively shows how things in Asia turned the tables repeatedly and left politicians to scramble to find the right side, which would connect them with the growing resentment of the public.

Ward’s greatest exploration throughout the book would have to be the social fallout. What began as a ‘war on the other side of the world’ soon became a means of dividing the American populace. The deeper the America investment in the war, the more resentment rose by the American people, particularly the young, who were on the list to draft. While it is no shock that the country’s fabric was torn apart by the war, Ward really gets to the root of the matter with repeated discussion around the blowback by the people, through marches, protests, outright defiance, and violence. The social divide was not only found within US borders, but there was a larger reaction around the world, as Ward mentions throughout. As the world watches on, many shake their heads.

While it is hard to synthesise such a subject in a short review, I would be remiss if I did not try to offer some sentiments that arose as a reader. Geoffrey Ward draws on so many sources to really make a difference as he explores the nuances and blunt reactions about the war. He offers sensational analysis and commentary, with first-hand accounts from those who were there or spoke as members of the media. The strains in the political realm became a constant theme of the book, showing just how troublesome things became, as politicians scrambled to cobble together support when their name appeared on a ballot. Impossible to compartmentalise, the Vietnam War would be a real blight for America and, it would seem by the details of the narrative, that it remains an issue four decades later.

To write something like this, Geoffrey C. Ward surely had to open the floodgates to offer a well-rounded piece. His narrative is full of well-documented sentiments on both sides of the arguments, without offering up too much on any single point. The detail provides a guide for how to following the detailed history that led to strong divisions within the American psyche. Long, thorough chapters provide the impetus for the reader to see just how much there was to consider, without getting too tied down into minutiae. I needed this depth to give me a better sense of what was taking place and how American truly well into an abyss, both political and social, with trying to show that their military might had not been decimated. While I have read a few books on the subject matter, I was unable to pull myself away from this book, lapping up everything that Ward had to offer. I will have to see what else he’s penned, both on this subject and others, to see if I might feel the same sense of education and entertainment in equal measure.

Kudos, Mr. Ward, for this stunning tome. I hope others take the time to educate themselves on such an important subject matter from the latter part of the 20th century.