America's Longest War

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George C. Herring. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. 1979. 4th ed., Boston : McGraw-Hill, c2002. xvi, 368 pp. $42.81

Contents

Summary

Herring begins his overview of the Vietnam War with a helpful examination of the history of the Vietnamese people and its continuous struggle against foreign conquest, going all the way back to its occupation by the Chinese over 2,000 years ago, its struggle to gain independence from that powerful nation and finally, the French colonization and conquest of the country. With its history as such, one can better understand Vietnam’s mistrust and dislike of foreign intervention and manipulation. Continuing down this path, the author next examines the rise to power of Ho Chi Minh and his attempt at the end of World War II to proclaim Vietnam free from French control. If not for the ensuing Cold War crisis and Ho’s communist background, Vietnam’s dream of independence from foreign control may possibly have become a reality. Instead, the United States allowed France recapture its colonies in Southeast Asia that it had lost to the Japanese during the war. Fearing that a communist-controlled Southeast Asia would threaten the integrity of Japan, America helped in the financing of the French defense of her colonies in the region, fearful that if American troops assisted in the fighting that the wrong signal would be sent out to other emerging colonial nations of the Third World.

Throughout the body of the book, Herring examines the particular aspects of each president’s position and actions in relation to the Vietnam War. Beginning with Kennedy’s decision to increase aid and support to Vietnam along with looking the other way as Diem and Nhu were assassinated and continuing through Nixon and Ford’s withdrawal of American troops, Herring provides to the reader an excellent overview of the main situations and points that each presidency had to deal with. However, this information is lacking in depth, a natural outcome of an overview summary textbook. Each of these topics in themselves can have a separate book written about them; Herring is simply attempting to hit on the main aspects that he believes are important to achieve a better understanding of the Vietnam War.

Another important aspect of this book is the use of maps, pictures and charts to reinforce the topics that Herring has chosen to review. These items are significant for the reader in that most people do not know a tremendous amount about the outlay and landscape of Vietnam; yet it is the layout of Vietnam that caused America its biggest problems. The providing of these tools by Herring is an invaluable tool for a better understanding of the situation itself.

Finally, Herring does an excellent job in examining every aspect of the war. Not one topic received more examination than another did. Further, Herring looks at the war from every side, including America, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Europe, the Soviet Union and China. This is an important idea to understand. By providing these various points of view, the reader truly gets a feel for just how complex this topic is. This was not just an American war; the United States and the policy that it developed towards the war was being influenced by many factors both inside and outside of America. Not one individual made Vietnam policy. This is an important thought that many other books on the war seem to lose site of. John Kennedy did not cause the war; Lyndon Johnson was not solely responsible for the escalation of the war; Richard Nixon did not bring about the end of the conflict.

Commentary

Tom Demharter, fall 2005

When deciding how to write about the Vietnam conflict, most historians attack the war from a particular perspective and exhaust the information available on that topic. However, due to the length and scope of the Vietnam War, a comprehensive overview done properly could take up volumes while still missing a number of points. Finding a comprehensive, yet manageable text on the war is a difficult task. However, George C. Herring has done just this. In his textbook America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, Herring attempts to provide the reader with a comprehensive overview of the war that does not get bogged down by particular details and perspectives. While the book does allow the reader to develop a general perspective of the conflict, it is also limiting because of its lack of depth. Each chapter seems to leave you wanting for more. While this problem is one that any overview of the Vietnam War faces, Herring does his best to limit the effect that this has on his work.

Unfortunately, Herring's book has one major problem – it is only a general survey of the Vietnam War. While it does provide a tremendous amount of information, this information only scratches the surface of the topic. Little depth is provided, as would be expected in a survey book. A reader should not expect to find in-depth discussions of particular topics or individuals within this book. This leads to the examination of the value of this book for classroom use. I feel that this book needs to be used in any survey course in American History or the Vietnam War. It provides the exact amount of information that is needed for an excellent foundation to be laid for a better understanding of the conflict. I even believe that the book could be used in an AP US History class in High School. The book is not written at a level that is too difficult to understand and would provide for an excellent base. Unfortunately, I believe that the book is too simplistic for a graduate level class. All of the information that is examined should be known by the time the graduate level is achieved. Review of this book would be an excellent way to select a topic for further study but would provide little additional information to a graduate student. --Tdemharter 12:28, 8 Nov 2005 (EST)


Lisa Harry, Spring 2007

This book is an extremely well written, extensively researched, general overview of the Vietnam War. One of Herring's overriding themes is the idea that South Vietnam was too dependent on aid from the United States to function and survive without it even if the North Vietnamese were out of the picture. The United States wanted to plant a government that could eventually run on democratic principles. However, the foundation for this plan was so fragile from the beginning because in order for the governement to function properly it would need to be able to provide economic security for its people. Unfortunately, this was never possible. The United States had to keep funneling money into the the South Vietnamese economy to keep it afloat. The United States government did not provide a means for the South Vietnamese to take over and provide for themselves. Instead, the government fostered a very dependent society.

Herring asserts that "more than any other single factor, American aid enabled South Vietnam to survive the first few critical years after independence and by the late 1950s the new nation was flourishing."(61)However, appearances were deceptive because the American aid program had at best mixed results."(61) Herring argues that "although U.S. aid prevented an economic collapse and served to maintain a high standard of living in Saigon, it did little to promote economic development or to improve living conditions in the villages where more than 90% of South Vietnam's population resided."(62) However, the massive infusion of aid did keep South Vietnam alive, "but it fostered dependency rather than laying the foundation for a genuinely independent nation."(63) South Vietnam relied very heavily on imports to maintain its standard of living and on American money to pay for them. Herring asserts that "Vietnamese and Americans alike agreed that a cutback or termination of Amreican assistance would [have brought] economic and political collapse."(63)

Another important issue addressed by Herring deals with the role Kennedy played or would have played in the war. He asserts that many people believe hte notion that if President Kennedy had not been assasinated in November 1963 the United States would have been able to extricate itself from Vietnam without the excessive commitment later undertaken during President Johnson's term in office. Herring argues that "the record suggests otherwise."(106) In a speech that Kennedy was set to give on the day he died "he conceded that commitments in third-world nations could be painful, risky, and costly, but warned that we dare not weary of the test."(107)

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