A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom by Tham Huy Vu            

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The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 marked the beginning of the worst years of the life of Tham Huy Vu, who served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. Within nine days, the victorious communists marched him into the first of six re-education camps where he would spend five years. Seven years later—on his sixth try—he escaped and found freedom for his family in the United States. Those trials highlight A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom, 1935-1987 (Xay Dung, 270 pp.; $20, paper).

Born in northern Vietnam in 1935, Vu also provides a history of his country because political  changes strongly affected his family. In his childhood, although his family was “one of the most prosperous in the village,” he says, they suffered under “the harsh rule of the French colonialists.” During World War II, Japanese soldiers destroyed his family’s crops after defeating the French. After the war, France regained control of the nation until the Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh’s communist party prevailed in the French Indochina War in 1954.

Vu’s childhood experiences foreshadowed events for the remainder of his life in Vietnam: He labored in rice fields, was exposed to gunfire when the French made his Vietminh-controlled home area a free-fire zone, witnessed the execution of a landowner by the Vietminh, and attended communist education classes. Facing the threat of the father’s death because he was a landowner, Vu’s family left everything behind in 1955 and fled to Saigon.

Drafted into the ARVN, Vu worked on rural pacification and development. He admits to being “an ordinary military officer” who was “unable to do much to improve things.” He also married and had three children.

As a prisoner of war, he defines “re-education” as revenge for having opposed communism. He shows that the re-education camps consisted of slave labor; starvation; living amid filth; inadequate medical treatment; and repetitive brainwashing classes, essay-writing, and group discussions.

Released from the camps and treated as an outcast, he determined that escape from Vietnam was his only course for a viable life. This led to intrigue and drama that Vu shared with many others desperate to escape from communism.

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Tây Ninh re-education camp, 1976 – Photo by Marc Riboud

Vu expresses eternal love for America for providing a refuge for his family. He wraps up his memoir with a cogent explanation of why the South Vietnamese people lost their freedom. His strongest argument is that American leaders “knew themselves, but knew not enough about their enemies,” combined with his belief that “most South Vietnamese did not know the truth about Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades.”

He also points out that America “did not have an appropriate strategy”; acted in its own interests; and experienced “a spasm of congressional irresponsibility” following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Vu’s “I-was-there” background and rational approach to an age-old problem refreshed my interest in the unsolvable.

—Henry Zeybel

Hiroshi’s Story by Richard Rajner

Richard Rajner’s Hiroshi’s Story: The Journals of a Japanese Soldier in Viet Nam, 1941-1968 (Austin Macauley, 500 pp., $37.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $4.95, Kindle is a massive, dense novel. Rajner does not break up the story into chapters, parts, or books. He doesn’t even use space breaks between paragraphs. The novel just begins and takes off, almost in a stream-of-consciousness form.

It’s a design that, surprisingly to me, worked with this book. At first, it seem like reading the book would be a daunting task. But once I started, I seemed to be naturally carried along by the story, with no place to rest until the end.

Rajner, who served three tours in the American war in Vietnam, offers up a fictional account of the 5,000 Japanese troops who remained in Vietnam following World War II and who became part of the Viet Cong guerrilla movement in the south.

Hiroshi Watanabe and Matome Tanaka, cousins from a small farming village, join the Imperial Japanese Army right after high school. Growing up doing farm work gave them the strength to survive fairly brutal military training when many sons of factory workers and shopkeepers fell out along the way.

Being sent immediately into the war with China, they served as part of an antiaircraft unit. Two years later, in 1941, they found themselves being shipped to Indochina. By a “peculiar” diplomatic agreement, the occupied Vichy French government allowed Japan to occupy its colonies in Southeast Asia.

The boys were excited to be assigned to an airbase 30 kilometers north of Saigon—a city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” because of its “wide variety of delights.”

Before long, they learned that Imperial Japanese forces were about to take over all of Southeast Asia. By the summer of 1944, however, things were looking much different. For the first time in 2,600 years the Japanese were about to lose a war.

A faction of the Japanese government encouraged the thousands of Japanese soldiers in occupied lands to join local resistance groups after the war to continue to fight the Americans and their allies. With no hesitation, Watanabe and Tanaka decide to fight on as “the Emperor’s soldiers” by joining the newly formed Vietnamese Army.

Revenge is their sole motivation—a desire to punish the Western powers for defeating Japan. They consider themselves instruments of retribution. Specifically, they would  fight until the Vietnamese people had become fully independent.

While fighting against the French colonial government, Watanabe and Tanaka become weakened from combat wounds and disease and are allowed to become farmers, morphing into a soldier-farmer role. They marry Vietnamese women, and raise families.

When the French are defeated in 1954, however, Vietnam remained a divided nation due to a “poorly negotiated” peace treaty. So the two men continue in their roles as soldier-farmers. They dream of someday returning to their homeland, taking their families with them.

But soon they’re fighting against the Saigon government, which they’ve been told is propped up by Western powers. It’s a fight the two will continue to be a part of until it ends for them in 1968.

Rajner’s story, after 500 pages, ends without having built to a climax. It ends, appropriately, as if to say this is the way things are, as they always have been, and as they always will be.

Hiroshi’s Story is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

—Bill McCloud

The Third Force in the Vietnam War by Sophie Quinn-Judge

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In September 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, U.S. Army Major Allison Thomas turned to the leader of the Vietnamese guerrillas he had led in training with one question: was he a communist?  “Yes,” replied Ho Chi Minh, “but we can still be friends, can’t we?”  Unfortunately for the Vietnamese people, the answer to that query turned out to be a resounding no.

Sophie Quinn-Judge in her book, The Third Force in the Vietnam War: The Elusive Search for Peace, 1954-1975 (I.B. Tauris, 336 pp., $110, hardcover; $29, Kindle) probes an often overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War: Was there a neutral coalition of Vietnamese citizens that could have brought peace to that country?

Quinn-Judge, the author Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, concludes that a neutral coalition was active in South Vietnam and would have been able to either avoid the war, or bring it to a peaceful conclusion once the violence had started—if it had been given legitimacy.  t best, members of this Third Force were ignored or marginalized by autocratic South Vietnamese political leaders and American policy makers; at worst, they were exiled or imprisoned as communists or communist sympathizers.

Quinn-Judge rejects the claim made by both sides that war was inevitable. The Vietnamese had a legitimate stake in their nation; they were not mere pawns in a global war between Sino-Soviet communism and American democracy. She introduces a myriad of South Vietnamese political and religious leaders who organized around the idea of a neutral South Vietnam, and a peaceful conclusion to the war. Though the American public—and most American policymakers—viewed communism as an evil monolith, Quinn-Judge reveals the evolutionary nature of North Vietnamese communism and the varying degrees of Soviet and Chinese influence over the long course of the conflict.

She uses utilizes state archives from more than eight countries and draws upon her own experience as a volunteer in Vietnam with the American Friends Service Committee from 1973-75.  The early history of French colonialism in Vietnam, the rise of the communist party in North Vietnam, and the split of the country in 1954 as a result of the Geneva Accords, are summarized succinctly. The book then follows two parallel narratives, that of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, and the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, concluding with North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon in April 1975.

Although the book is entitled “The Third Force” implying a military solution, Quinn-Judge quickly discards that term for “Third Way” or “Third Segment,” reasoning that a military solution for peace was disabused as early as 1956. It is curious for the book’s title to be discarded so early in the narrative.

In South Vietnam, Quinn-Judge focuses on the “non-violent political and social forces that attempted to play the role of intermediaries.” However, she admits that this group is difficult to define, because a tactic of the North Vietnamese communists was infiltration into South Vietnamese political, social, and religious groups. Though Quinn-Judge describes individuals espousing South Vietnamese neutralism, she struggles with a definition for neutralism, before defining it as the embodiment of “a concept of Third World spiritual exceptionalism.”

It is uncertain if “neutralism” here meant an independent, Democratic South Vietnam, or an eventual reunification with the North Vietnamese.  It is clear what many neutralists were advocating against; at times, it is unclear what they were fighting for.

Quinn-Judge does a skillful job summarizing the transforming Vietnamese nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. She cites communism as an aspect of the quest for change and identity, but only a facet of the broader cultural, political ,and religious shifts in society.

Ho Chi Minh, who is mainly a figurehead in Quinn-Judge’s telling of the tale, led the formation of the Viet Minh during World War I, and received help from the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Though Quinn-Judge points out that the relationship was severed as a result of the United States’ backing of France’s colonial aspirations after the war, Ho’s unapologetic allegiance to communism was at least as responsible.

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Ho Chi Minh in 1951

She correctly discloses the fluctuating nature and influence of the Chinese and Soviets on the North Vietnamese. China aggressively espoused an armed a revolt against the West, while the Soviets believed in revisionism, or the peaceful co-existence with capitalism and an eventual end to the class struggle.

In the summer of 1963, the Americans seemingly listened to what the South Vietnamese people were telling them. They replaced Ambassador Frederick Nolting, who was sympathetic to President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Lodge wimmediately distanced himself from Diem, demanded that Nhu be removed from power, and openly sided with the oppressed Buddhists. Diem was soon replaced in a violent coup by the moderate and popular Duong Van Minh.

However, in this critical time period, the North Vietnamese were most influenced by the Chinese, and advocating for peace or revisionism was a crime. That left any Third Segment in the South without a partner in the North. But the North as a peace partner is discounted, as Quinn-Judge argues that by 1964, “the decisions leading to war had already been made in Washington.”

Though they have a minor role in her book, Quinn-Judge saves most of her vitriol for American politicians and policymakers, saying that “crushed” peace campaigns. She sympathizes with some of the communists, whom she believes were closer in their “ideological outlook” to a Third Segment than to Stalinism or Maoism.

However, even if some Vietnamese communists desired peace, neither their rhetoric nor their actions matched that sentiment. She notes, for example, that as early as January 1959, the 15th Plenum of the Communist Party espoused a “violent struggle” as the path to revolution in South Vietnam.

Quinn-Judge places great importance in the 1968 Paris Peace Accords, which were perhaps known best for the long argument over the shape of the conference table. She blames Presidential candidate Richard Nixon for illegally interfering with the talks, though historian Robert Dallek wrote Nixon’s actions “probably made no difference.”

She also points out that the majority of the scholarship on the “missed opportunities” for peace in Vietnam is from a Western perspective.  n that regard, Quinn-Judge’s work—along with recent scholarship from Jessica Chapman, Philip Caton, and Edward Miller—is an important one in understanding the efforts of the Vietnamese people who desired peace.

Nguyen Manh Ha, a noncommunist Catholic who served in Ho Chi Minh’s government; Ngo Ba Thanh, an attorney educated in America; and Tran Ngoc Chan, the Secretary General of the Lower House, are among the many leaders that are too briefly portrayed. Duong Van Minh, the leader of 1963 coup, is the veritable Forest Gump of South Vietnamese society—present at most every important event, including assuming leadership before the unconditional surrender of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1975.

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Sophie Quinn-Judge

Was he a leader or a survivor? A patriot or an opportunist?  Quinn-Judge does not explore those questions.

It is disheartening that Quinn-Judge believes that by the 1966, just over a year after the entry of American ground forces, the Third Segment had eroded. Quinn-Judge does not analyze the apparent lack of leadership or organizing principle among the Third Segment, and she laments that neutralists had no Western sponsor, which belies the central tenet of her work.

Nevertheless, The Third Force in Vietnam is a worthwhile contribution to the field, providing an understanding of the desire for peace of many Vietnamese.

–Dan Hart

French Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent by Martin Windrow

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In 1954, Penn State ROTC instructors taught me that France had been wrong to attempt to maintain its colonies in Indochina following World War II.  Thereafter, the writings of Bernard Fall and Jean Larteguy influenced my thinking about the warfare between the French Army and the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Their books made me sympathetic toward the French, while at the same time I admired the determination of the Vietnamese.

Then I took part in the American war in Vietnam and stopped caring about what had happened to the French because we had our own problems in Southeast Asia.

Now, Martin Windrow has revitalized my thinking on the topic with French Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent: North Vietnam, 1948-52 (Osprey, 80 pp. $20, paper; $16, e book). Windrow is an authority on the French Foreign Legion and has written other books on Indochina. This slim volume is packed with facts. Oddly, though, the bibliography does not include any books by Fall or Lartéguy.

In France, Windrow says, a legal bar prevented most conscripts from being deployed to the colonies. Therefore, volunteers from “some 40 nationalities bore the main burden of the war.” In Indochina, the Legion was “about 50 percent German—men with no skills to sell except military experience from World War II.”

He characterizes the Viet Minh as “a general revolutionary organization of the civilian population.” Motivated toward patriotism by communist indoctrination, “mostly illiterate 18-20-year-olds” who lived “among the rice paddies” served with the Viet Minh, as Windrow puts it.

In other words, a Legionnaire felt allegiance toward his fellow soldiers, and a Viet Minh fought for his nation’s independence.

Windrow also compares French and Viet Minh leadership, communications, training and morale, logistics, armament, and tactics. The two armies slogged through jungles and rice paddies trying to outwit each other, much like the U.S. Army’s search-and-destroy strategy against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, but without helicopter support and significant airborne firepower.

The French were “hamstrung from the outset by a failure either to recognize the type of enemy they faced or to formulate a coherent plan for defeating them,” Windrow says. With most fighting occurring in remote areas, expediency prevailed. Legionnaires with serious head or gut wounds routinely received a “merciful overdose of morphine.” The Viet Minh leaders ruthlessly “regarded the individual as cannon fodder.” The French aimed to win with firepower while the Viet Minh relied on manpower.

In the book Windrow highlights three battles fought in Tonkin, the far northeast region of Vietnam: Phu Tong Hoa (July 25, 1948), Dong Khe (September 16-18, 1950), and Na San (November 23-December 2, 1952).

Although the Viet Minh breached the Legion defenses at Phu Tong Hoa, the French retained control of their base. The following month they abandoned the site, which ceded almost the entire northeastern part of Vietnam to the Viet Minh.

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French survivors of the 1948 Battle of Phu Tong Hog  (photo: Musée de la Légion)

At Dong Khe, the Viet Minh fielded 10,000 men against 267 Legionnaires and captured the Citadel. Viet Minh casualties numbered perhaps 2,000 with 500 killed, Windrow says. Twenty Legionnaires escaped, but all the others were killed or taken prisoner. After the French tried but failed to recapture Dong Khe, they suffered repeated defeats and retreated from the area. Of 7,409 Legionnaires, 5,987 were killed or went missing, Windrow says.

The Viet Minh attack on Na San resulted from a haphazard decision by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and failed because of logistical mistakes. The well-fortified French positions and the length of the encounter demanded more supplies than Giap had anticipated. The loss taught him lessons that paid dividends at the pivotal May 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

It appears that Windrow selected these battles to illustrate how Giap learned strategy on the job. Giap’s basic maneuver of employing massive numbers of men required greater logistical support—particularly with artillery and ammunition—than he had anticipated before Na San.

Based on this book, one might wonder how much Giap’s realization about logistics affected the decision to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail to supply North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam.

Following Osprey’s classic design, Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent contains excellent artwork, photographs, and maps. Illustrator John Shumate rendered his vivid work in Adobe Photoshop using a Cintiq monitor.

—Henry Zeybel

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History (DK, 360 pp., $40) is a coffee-table book that probably is not “the definitive” history of the war in words and pictures–but it comes close. Long on photos and other images (more than 500) and relatively short on words, the book (written by a group of historians in association with the Smithsonian Institution) concisely covers just about every political and military event associated with the Vietnam conflict from the French War in the 1950s to Indochina in the 21st century.

In between, chronologically presented, concisely written, profusely illustrated chapters zero in virtually every conceivable component of the war. Most of the short chapters deal with military and political history. But there also are images of war hardware (infantry weapons, artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles), along with diagrams and maps.

Near the end there’s a two-page chapter, “American Homecoming,” that looks at Vietnam veterans’ homecoming. As is the case with the book’s other chapters, this one is concise and accurate. It includes a picture of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair panhandling, an image of the Purple Heart, an iconic shot of the big crowd at The Wall in Washington when it was dedicated in 1992, and a picture of a Desert Storm victory parade.

And this closing sentence:

“Vietnam veterans today stand alongside those who have served in the various theaters of the war on terrorism as worthy heroes—however shocking the new mantra of “Thank you for your service” may be to Vietnam veterans who experienced a totally different reception when they came home.”

The book’s inside covers are made up of collages of more than a hundred photos of photos submitted by Vietnam veterans.

—Marc Leepson

At Home in the World by Thich Nhat Hanh

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Thich Nhat Hanh, the noted Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen teacher, philosopher, and peace activist, has written more than a hundred books in his ninety years. His latest, At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life (Parallax Press, 192 pp., $24.95, paper; $16.99, e book), is a memoir that offers an eyewitness account of both the French and American wars in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about events that took place in Saigon, Paris, Washington, D.C , and the North Vietnamese province where he was raised.

In one typical section of the book, he writes about working at the School of Youth for Social Service near Tra Loc in Quang Tri Province, which was built by monks in 1964. Tra Loc, which was just below the DMZ, was bombed out three times and yet the school decided to rebuilt the village a fourth time because, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “if we gave up hope, we would be overcome by despair.”

Time passed slowly during his boyhood years. “When I was four years old, my mother used to bring me a cookie every time she returned from the market,” he writes. “I would go to the front yard and take my time eating it, sometimes taking half an hour or forty-five minutes. A birthday party, a poetry reading, or the anniversary of a family member’s death would last all day.”

Creature comforts were primitive. Hanh was occasionally asked about his simple life as a monk, which included scrubbing bathrooms. He answered: “But in fact we’re lucky to have a toilet to clean. When I was a novice monk in Vietnam, we didn’t have any toilets at all.”

Hanh’s recollections of Vietnamese folklore, such as celebrating the blooming of the cherry tree, may seem unimportant to foreigners, yet Hanh writes, “taking time to create a special moment to drink tea or eat a meal together with joy, beauty, and simplicity can initiate your children into a spiritual life.”

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The young monk in 1942

Perhaps sharing these customs during the war years could have brought peace sooner had more troops had an opportunity along the lines of what happened to one twenty-year-old French soldier in 1946. Daniel Marty happened on the temple where Hanh lived. Sharing their family stories led to a strong friendship.

“I gave him the spiritual name Thanh Luong, meaning ‘pure and refreshing peaceful life,’” Hanh writes.

The monk and the soldier spent many days in the temple until Daniel Marty was sent to Algeria. Although they lost contact, Hanh writes “when I last saw him, he was at peace.”

—Curt Nelson

Vietnam’s High Ground by J.P. Harris

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Clarifying the fine points of exactly how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War might keep historians busy forever. Of course, the Domino Theory offers an obvious answer—one nation falls to communism and that pushes over others. But that choice resembles a conclusion such as “Joe committed suicide after growing tired of living” without examining Joe’s broken marriages, job losses, PTSD, and Agent Orange symptoms.

In other words, examining underlying details reveals reasons for the war that are far more interesting.

In 2015, Charles R. Shrader published A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 in which he described the First Indochina War—fought by the French in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin—as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” Research proved his conclusion in the sense that poor logistical support can (and, in this case, did) defeat an army. Schrader based his argument on what he found in declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material, as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies.

In Vietnam’s High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965 (University Press of Kansas, 552 pp. $45, hardcover; $27.99, Kindle), J.P. Harris provides a fitting continuation to Shrader’s history. Harris—a senior lecturer in war studies at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England—moves the action southward and makes large-scale use of Vietnamese communist sources and American archives. His research examines the evolution of military action in Vietnam’s Central Highlands from subversion, insurgency, and counterinsurgency through the major battles of 1965.

Despite the dates in its subtitle, Vietnam’s High Ground focuses on military action in the 1960s with the last half of the book devoted to 1965. Concluding his accounts of fighting that was costly to both sides in the Ia Drang Valley, Harris says, “It would have taken a reckless pundit to pick a winner at this stage.”

Harris’ book is formidable. Opening it to any page provides a wealth of facts and explanations on major and minor events of the time and area. All of it offers perspectives of actions from all participants. Excellent maps, photographs, and forty-five pages of notes perfectly complement the text.
Reading the book made me feel humble. Harris covers all that I was familiar with about the early fighting in the Highlands. Well beyond that, though, he delves into actions that were unknown to me. His depth of investigation presents a stand-alone education about that phase of warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s High Ground adds valuable insight to The University Press of Kansas’s Modern War Studies Series.

—Henry Zeybel