Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975
By Max Hastings

As a military historian, Max Hastings makes an excellent attempt at understanding the Vietnam War in “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy.” He points to the lack of a strategy to win the war as the reason for the U.S. failure there. Counterinsurgency is the most difficult sort of conflict, in part because the enemy is native to the battlefield and therefore has better intelligence and, more important, a better understanding of it than the occupier does. The most eager recruits for the South Vietnamese army were insurgents who gave the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese superb strategic intelligence about the intentions of the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The Americans, fighting in a foreign country, were at a strategic disadvantage.

In all organizations, when initial confidence gives way to mounting evidence of failure, there’s a tendency toward denial. Hastings’ strength is in unraveling the confusion and denial of the Americans. This is at the heart of the history he presents. According to him, the United States knew it had to intervene in Vietnam but simply assumed that the North Vietnamese would end the fighting out of fear of U.S. involvement in the conflict. But the North Vietnamese weren’t frightened, and, from that point on, the U.S. didn’t know what to do.

Looking back, Hastings is shocked at the American decision to go to war, and this I think is the biggest weakness in his book. It fails to understand the strategic context that forced the U.S. into Vietnam. The primary U.S. strategy in the Cold War was to contain the Soviets. The Soviets didn’t smash through this containment; they went around it. As the European empires collapsed, the Soviets sought to create pro-Soviet regimes within them. The key decisions on Vietnam happened between 1962 and 1964, around the same time that the U.S. faced a Soviet feint at Berlin, a struggle for the Congo, rising Soviet influence in the Arab world, and a tilt in India and Indonesia toward the Soviets. There was a swirling covert war going on, and the United States believed, with some reason, that it was losing.

At the same time, French President Charles de Gaulle questioned the U.S. strategy in Europe. He believed it was absurd to think the U.S. would launch a nuclear response to a Soviet invasion on the Continent. The U.S. would not trade Chicago for Kiev. It would not defend Europe against overwhelming Soviet conventional power. So he advocated that Europe should try to reach accommodation with the Soviets.

The essential issue was credibility. The entire U.S. alliance structure and struggle in the developing world revolved around whether the U.S. was genuinely committed to fighting communism. Vietnam wasn’t seen as a distinct problem but part of a series of traps the Soviets had laid, and failing to respond would weaken the fabric of American power. To understand the pressures the U.S. faced, therefore, we need to immerse ourselves in the sense of vulnerability the U.S. felt at the time and the fear of the cost of not going into Vietnam.

The irrational strategy that followed arose from the fact that the U.S. failed to take the war seriously, and this is where Hastings is superb. The U.S. could not defeat an insurgency, but it could win a conventional war. The strategy of the North Vietnamese depended on supplies flowing through Laos to South Vietnam. The U.S. tried to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail from the air but was ultimately ineffective. If the U.S. had to go into Vietnam, it had to redefine the conflict as a conventional war.

But the war there was like the old story of the boiling frog. If you put a frog in boiling water, it’ll jump out. If you place it in cool water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog won’t know that it’s slowly dying. The U.S. couldn’t imagine that its strategy wasn’t working because it couldn’t imagine that more than half a million troops would be sent to Vietnam only to be pulled out five years later.

The key failure in Vietnam, then, was not understanding that counterinsurgency is the hardest sort of war. It’s almost impossible to win the hearts and minds of people intermingled with the enemy. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq revealed that this lesson has yet to be learned. Hastings grasps how the U.S. strategy failed, though not the strategic danger the U.S. thought it was facing and the global defeat it might suffer by not going into Vietnam. This itself was an illusion, but it seemed quite real to those living it.

George Friedman, founder and chairman


Adults in the Room: My Battle With the European and American Deep Establishment
By Yanis Varoufakis

It would be reasonable to expect that one of the people with the closest view of the Greek financial crisis would support Brexit –that is, until you read his book. “Adults in the Room” is former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis’ inside account of the Greek crisis and of Athens’ battle with Brussels in 2015. He explains how and why Berlin, Paris and Brussels crushed the Greek state in the years after the global recession. And he explains, meticulously and repeatedly, what he intends to do about it. His argument about the problems is convincing, even if the viability of his strategy is dubious. (Two of its major elements apparently would have violated EU treaties, while a third hinged on spurring the German Constitutional Court to challenge the European Central Bank.) Had his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, not capitulated, Varoufakis’ course of action probably would have ended in Greece’s expulsion from the eurozone – which, it must be said, was not at all his desired outcome.

But alas, it’s much easier to be a revolutionary on the outside, where words have little consequence. During his election campaign, Tsipras promised things he could not or never intended to deliver. Once in office, he found himself leading a country against a far larger entity with far more resources. Greece was never going to win; at best, it was going to careen off a cliff and find that the landing hadn’t killed it – maybe with its pride left intact. Rare are the politicians who would cause such chaos for their citizens and, in the process, extinguish their own political careers.

Varoufakis presents himself as the sort of heroic outsider who could have been an exception, but that’s hardly surprising. Despite his best efforts, his charges that the European Union is undemocratic fall flat after reading about his associations with a political party that knowingly and repeatedly lied to its own people. I have no doubt that he had good intentions, but the negotiators on the other side were looking out for their people’s interests as well.

So what can Varoufakis’ book teach us about Brexit? More than could fit in this space. My biggest takeaway, though, would be that, when its leaders believe its survival may be at stake, the EU can be a fierce actor (military matters notwithstanding) that must be taken seriously. Defeating it in negotiations is not as simple as dividing its member states.

Ryan Bridges, analyst