The Vietnamese war has become so complex that a critical understanding of the situation and its possible solutions is impossible without extensive research. Jean Lacouture's book, Vietnam: Between Two Truces, crams most of the vital background information into a single volume.
The English translation of the book is probably neither as precise nor as eloquent as the original French. In my borrowed hardback copy, for instance, Mr. Lacouture had to write in several corrections. But the few errors are trivial; and the concise historical narrative, perceptive analysis, and original imagery more than compensate for the difficulties of the translation.
Most books written on topics in the headlines suffer from poor research. The author has to slap together his book before the news stories line the ash-cans. But Lacouture's book is far more than a piece d'occasion. Because he has been in and out of Vietnam as a soldier and reporter for twenty years, he had had a lot of time to formulate his conclusions.
Just as Vietnam: Between Two Truces is unusual in its in-depth research, it is also exceptional as history. Other scholars are as well acquainted with the facts, but Lacouture has personal experience with the subject. His advantage over other historians is that he knows the people who made the events. When he mentions Ho Chi Minh or Premier Ky, he recalls his personal interviews with them, sometimes transcribing the conversations verbatim. The reader shares the insider's viewpoint and impressions.
But it is not only the synthesis of thorough historical research and journalistic immediacy which make Vietnam: Between Two Truces a valuable book. The critical analysis shows Lacouture at his best, in both perceptive thinking and clear writing.
Lacouture is a polite, but persistent critic of the way the United States is conducting the war. He sympathizes with America's dilemma, and for the most part he respects this nation's leaders. But he thinks they are making the same mistakes the French made and that neither country could be master of its fate in Vietnam.
The bombing in the North, Lacouture believes, is ineffective and aggravates a system of reprisals: We bomb; they infiltrate and terrorize. The settlement of the Vietnamese conflict, which is rooted in local issues, can only be approached through direct negotiation with local revolutionary elements.
By this, he doesn't mean formal recognition of the National Liberation Front; but it should participate in talks and in any South Vietnamese government. In addition, the United States should seize every opportunity to help reestablish constitutional legitimacy in South Vietnam.
Lacouture thinks that the North can't negotiate for the NLF, because the Front prizes too highly its desire for independence. What the United States should do is to try to isolate the NLF and try to integrate it into a South Vietnamese coalition. American bombing and the refusal to deal directly with the Front solidify an unnatural union with the North.
One of the most timely chapters in Lacouture's book asks, "What do the Buddhists want?" The Buddhist organization has attempted to eliminate from the country all influences foreign to it such as Catholicism and materialism. They want to have Buddhism proclaimed the state religion and religious leaders like Tri Quang, the "conscience" of the future South Vietnam.
Ideologically, the Buddhists oppose the National Liberation Front, with its predominantly Marxist beliefs. But the Buddhists have given aid to the NLF because it represents the people's armed revolt against foreigners. When peace finally comes, they intend to replace the NLF and become the pacifying agents.
The villain who emerges from the book is not the Viet Cong, but the Diem regime. Beginning in 1956 and particularly with the legislation of 1959, the Diem "witch hunt" left no choice to those in opposition except prison, exile, or joining the guerillas. Moreover, Lacouture accuses Diem of haughtily rejecting all Hanoi overtures for the unification foreseen by the 1954 Geneva agreements and cutting short all attempts for closer relations with the North.
It is the Diem legacy which has turned Vietnam into a sort of ruptured appendix hanging from the belly of Asia. If the U.S. doesn't want to install another Diem in Saigon, it will have to let the Vietnamese people choose their own government. To seek a solution by crushing the revolutionary forces in the South is to start the Diem tragedy again. It would be far better to recognize the revolutionaries' legitimate appeals and to integrate them into a new Vietnam, neither Chinese nor American.
If you have time to read only one book about Vietnam, this should be it