The French began to establish their control of Indochina (southeast Asia) in the 1850s as part of their Second Empire created by Emperor Louis Napoleon. It took decades before complete French control was established, and that control survived World War I. With the French defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1940 and the ensuing occupation of Indochina by the Japanese, a nationalist resistance movement (the Viet Minh) arose against the Japanese. The resistance movement also supported Vietnamese independence after the war. One of the leaders of the movement was Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969). The movement was not overtly communist at the start, but communists were part of the movement.
Chaos ensued at the end of the Second World War. In that confusion, on 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared the creation of an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. During this short "August revolution," the Viet Minh took power across Vietnam, and they used weapons gathered from the Japanese. The great powers, however, declared that France should reassert its control over the area. In an increasingly confusing situation, the French were able to reestablish their regime by the end of 1947. The Viet Minh turned to guerrilla operations against the French. Once the Chinese communists had won the civil war in China by October 1949, they were able to get supplies to communists in Viet Nam.
To simplify the tragedy that became the Vietnam War:
The Viet Minh guerrilla resistance, organized by General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013), proved to be a courageous and stubborn foe of the French. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu marked the end for the French in Indochina when the French forces surrendered on 7 May 1954. The French wanted out, but who wanted in?
Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the seventeenth parallel, and per the Geneva Accords (1954), elections to create a new government were to be held in 1956. The elections were never held because there was little chance that the "democratic" government of Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963) in the south would win the elections.
The period from 1955 to 1965 was the height of the Cold War. Americans hysterically feared communism, and Russians hysterically feared Americans. The US government kept talking about a "domino theory, If one country became communist, then another, and another, gradually all the countries of the world, like dominoes would fall to communist. If South Vietnam was taken over by the communists, then the other countries of Southeast Asia would become communist. This, in essence, became the rationalization for American involvement in the region. There was no other reason to be there.
At first, the United States only sent military advisers to South Vietnam to fight the Viet Minh insurgency, but when South Vietnamese troops continued to perform badly, American military leaders felt that combat troops needed to be sent to South Vietnam if the country was going to survive as a "free" and "democratic" country. The murky August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the initial justification for sending American troops. Over time, US forces deployed to South Vietnam rose from 16,500 in 1964 to 200,000 in 1965 to more than 550,000 by 1969.
The January 1968 Tet Offensive, although beaten back effectively by American troops after the initial surprise, showed that the war was going to continue for a long time. By this time, there was mounting opposition to the war in the United States. The war was seen on nightly television, and American newspapers printed casualty reports on their front pages. Americans became weary of seeing the casualties and the dead wrapped in body bags. Richard Nixon, in his presidential campaign of 1968, promised to end the war, but he had no plan to do so, and when he became president, he ended up actually expanding the conflict to neighboring Cambodia with massive B-52 bombings.
The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 provided for the withdrawal of US forces from South Vietnam. Two years later, on 30 April 1975 Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces, and the country was unified under communist control. The United States had been involved for about twenty years. That led to 52,286 killed (wiki). Casualties for North and South Vietnam are difficult to pin down with any degree of accuracy: maybe 1.2 million North Vietnamese civilians and soldiers and for South Vietnam maybe a total of 700 to 800,000--this does not include casualties from the struggle between the Viet Minh and the French.
Bao Ninh writes of the war from the perspective of a North Vietnamese soldier (the "enemy"). The book very much reminds me of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, which told about a German (the "enemy") in World War I. While you might argue that Bao Ninh's account is far more graphic than Remarque's, you should realize that when Remarque's book was published in the 1920s, his account was considered extremely graphic. Indeed, both authors bring a degree of realism to their novels that was usually missing in contemporary accounts of war. And, when reading Bao Ninh, as with Remarque, one forgets that the book's main character is the "enemy"; one is just struck with the universal experience of the soldier in war.
The impact of more than thirty years of war (1945-1975) on Viet Nam was appalling, beyond the physical destruction of much of what was both South and North Vietnam (much of the north had been leveled by massive B-52 bombing raids), millions died. There is very little available in Western languages that examines the war closely from the Vietnamese point-of-view. There is little in Vietnamese either, as the regime has always been more interested in publicizing the glorious victory rather than dwelling on the human costs of the war and the experiences of the soldiers who fought. Bao Ninh provides that explanation of the human costs.
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