Before I began reading Michael Hayes’ What’s Going On: A History of the Vietnam Era (Tine Day, 139 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) I wondered how it would be possible for Hayes to approach such a complex time in America’s history in such a short book. The U.S. was undergoing great turmoil over major and unresolved social issues in the midst of the Cold War. Incredibly, the United States then entered into a war in Vietnam that further fractured American society and intensified the fires of domestic discontent. Would it be possible to do justice in a short book to a very complicated era?
Hayes offers an abridged summary of the historical background to the Vietnam War with references to domestic social issues in the United States and key personalities. He flavors this overview with vignettes in the words of those who experienced the war and the era and with his own words illustrating personal incidents showing the divisions within American society and the abuse of power by those supposedly protecting the public.
Hayes—who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and has taught U.S. history at the collegiate level—only briefly summarizes complicated events and issues. He often does this without the benefit of balance, when in many cases these topics are controversial. Perhaps he found this necessary in order to keep his book brief, but with an awareness that those issues warrant much greater clarification and amplification, perhaps in a lengthier book.
The book is written in a style intended for an audience of readers younger than anyone with first-hand memories of the war and the social disunity of that period. The target audience is young adults, who are separated by a half century from that incredible time and are most likely uninformed about the pivotal events of their parents’ and grandparents’ world. Hayes has given them, in most cases, the bare essentials to minimally grasp what issues the American public—particularly war veterans—were confronting during that time of intense combat in Vietnam and serious social and political divisions at home.
What’s Going On, then, is a sort of primer to whet the appetite of someone with little or no knowledge of the war or the era, and provides the basis for pursuing more comprehensive scholarship. To that end, Hayes provides in end notes and a three-page bibliography with recommended sources for further reading.
A minor criticism is the author’s occasionally one-sided account of history. I say this as a war veteran and activist who remains highly critical of the war, but who seeks impartiality in any discussion of it. Hayes, for instance, reminds readers how the Vietnamese people were subjugated by France’s imperialist policies, but never mentions that the Vietnamese were in their own right imperialists who subjugated non-Vietnamese people (the Chams, Montagnards, and Khmers).
He also describes the heavy-handed policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, while failing to note the North’s brutal suppression of opposition groups. In today’s political climate objectivity is of key importance.
That said, this book is a good starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the Vietnam War and its milieu.