I’ll be heading for Hanoi later this fall. On my early trips to Vietnam, beginning in the mid-1990s, I was mostly interested in the American War & it’s effects on the country. I read a lot of history. But you can’t really understand the war without understanding Vietnam whole. (This is certainly true of any country & makes writing history in the conventional sense impossible, I suppose.) Still, it is possible to work one’s way backward in time & outward in space (both physical & cultural) from the war. All the while hurtling into the future. After that early study of history, I mostly wanted to forget the war–or at least to quit framing the place I had come to love–in terms of the war. I forget the exact figure, but I think something like 70% of the population of Vietnam has been born since 1975 when the war ended & the country was unified.
Over the last couple of weeks, though, I have listened to the audiobook versions of two books about the war, one I’ve read more than once & have used as a text when teaching a course on Vietnam, the other new to me: Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History , and Lien-Hang T. Nguyễn’s recent (2013) Hanoi’s War. Neither book is a “straight history”–Karnow’s is a journalist;s history, with frequent first-person interjections into the narrative; nor is Karnow’s book a history of Vietnam: it spends part of its first chapter sketching in the long, long history of the country, but its focus is the twentieth century wars in Vietnam. Nguyễn’s volume covers essentially the same period, with even more focus on the American phase of the war, with the additional narrowing that a specifically diplomatic history requires.
Note: Before going further, I want to remark on that narration of these two audiobooks. Karnow’s text is narrated by Edward Holland, Nguyễn’s by Hillary Huber. Holland is a fine narrator, with good tone, pacing, and timbre, whereas Huber has few of these qualities. Still, Huber is the superior narrator because she took an hour or two to learn how to pronounce Vietnamese–not perfectly, but adequately. It was very difficult to listen to Holland pronounce “Ngô Đình Diệm” as “No Din Dee-em” some 500 times. There is a difference between a barred Đ and an unbarred D: the first is pronounced as in English, but the unbarred D is pronounced more like Z. This is only the most egregious of the narrator’s errors, which accumulate until anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Vietnamese will be tempted to stop listening. This is not the snobbery of one who has learned a little Vietnamese–I would not expect either narrator to try to pronounce the tones of Vietnamese, but basic phonetics is, well, basic.
The two books complement each other. Karnow’s account has helped to shape the conventional wisdom about the war while Nguyễn’s account self-consciously sets about to revise that same conventional wisdom. Karnow relies on interviews & journalistic sources for the most part while Nguyen makes extensive use of Vietnamese archives that have only recently become available. The conventional view of the war is that Hồ Chí Minh directed the North’s efforts until perhaps a year before his death in 1969. Nguyễn’s research makes clear that Hồ Chí Minh & his general Võ Nguyên Giáp were largely sidelined in the early 1960s by Lê Duẩn & Lê Đức Thọ (the “brothers Lê”). Furthermore, Nguyen argues persuasively that Hồ Chí Minh & Võ Nguyên Giáp were, at least within their peculiar historical context, moderates who might have shortened the war by negotiating with the US years before Lê Duẩn was prepared to make that move. Continue reading