There have been several histories of the US war in Vietnam by US writers. Very few of them have stood the test of time. Marilyn Young’s Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 and Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy stand out in my mind as two that have, even though their approach and focus differ greatly. Other texts on the subject have their highs and lows and certainly deserve to be read by those who have the time. In addition, there are books that cover specific elements of that historical period. Some cover the antiwar movement and others cover the military aspects of the war from both sides. Others look at what the war was like for soldiers in the US military and others look at life as a member of the NLF or northern Vietnamese forces.
Into this heady and well populated milieu steps Joe Allen’s recently published Vietnam: The (Last) War the US Lost. This book is a comprehensive history of the US movement against the war in Vietnam, the revolutionary upsurge that sprang up in the wake of that movement’s growth and Washington’s refusal to end the war, and the eventual end of the war and the movement against it. Utilizing a multitude of sources, Allen’s history is unique in its methodology in that it takes the war, its conduct by the US military, and the antiwar movement as an interconnected whole. While definitely written from a perspective that not only considered the war to be wrong, but also as part of a foreign policy that can be described only as imperialism, Allen’s book is not a diatribe. Instead, it is a reasoned and researched description of the US involvement in the French attempts to maintain its empire, the eventual assumption of the French role by Washington for its own reasons, and the development of the largest and most effective movement against war in US history.
With an ear attuned to the shifting nature of western empires in the wake of World War Two and the important struggles of the period by peoples seeking their independence from those empires, the reader of Vietnam: The (Last) War the US Lost is taken from the battlefield of Dien Bienphu to the streets of Washington, DC and provided a narrative that saliently connects the resistance to US imperialism in both venues. Many liberal histories of the period do their best to obfuscate any connections between the antiwar and civil rights movements in the United States. Allen does the opposite, not only proving the clear links that existed between the two phenomenon, but clearly explaining why the connection was historically impossible to avoid.
Besides addressing the interconnectedness of the US struggles against the war and for civil rights and black liberation in the US, Allen places the US antiwar movement within the international movement against US imperialism and for revolutionary nationalism. In addition, Allen takes a look at the prevailing myths about the US working class and the war and argues persuasively that the popular perception of the white working class’s reactionary and prowar stance is at best a half-truth. Citing various polling data and actions undertaken by union locals and individuals, Allen makes a case that by 1969 members of the white working class were more solidly against the war than almost any other demographic in the US outside of blacks and college students.
Although Allen does not mention the current US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the book’s last chapter, it is difficult to read Vietnam: The (Last) War the US Lost without thinking about those quagmires. Both countries have an occupation government propped up by the US that have at times talked with opposition groups and individuals in the hopes that their government will survive; both are badgered by a US government intent on staying in the country despite even the puppet government’s opposition to the idea. To top it off, both occupations have also featured US GIs refusing to go on missions because in their understanding they have no real reason to be doing what they are doing. Yet, Washington continues to prevail, bankrupting the US national treasury and leaving death in its wake. Furthermore, the once thriving US antiwar movement has become a collection of groups waging occasionally noisy protests while too much of its leadership kisses the Democratic Party’s ass, futilely hoping that its elected representatives will vote against Washington’s interests without being pushed against the wall. (A note of hope does exist in the upcoming National Assembly to End the War in Iraq—Ron).
Writing history is a challenge. Given the aversion of so many people to reading it, the historian begins their task with the question as to how they can make their final work inviting enough to reach those with an aversion to history texts. Joe Allen succeeds with Vietnam: The (Last) War the US Lost. It is accessible where so many other books on the subject have not been. Furthermore, its comprehensiveness helps make sense of an often confusing historical period. Friends of mine who teach history to high school and college undergraduates often bemoan the lack of texts on this period that are written so that their students will read them. With Allen’s new release, I think they have found their book. Of course, this recommendation does not preclude those not in school from reading this perceptive and unique history.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org