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How US policymakers in the '40s set the stage for Vietnam; Why Vietnam? Prelude to America's Albatross, by Archimedes L. A. Patti. Berkeley: University of California Press. $19.95

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At a time when there is a tendency to revert to simplistic thinking about Vietnam, this book serves a useful purpose. Archimedes L. A. Patti reminds us of the illusions that helped bring the United States into Vietnam on the side of the French after World War II. He supports the view, not original with him, of course, that Ho Chi Minh was more of a nationalist than a Communist. Ho, he argues, was willing, early on at least, to develop a longterm, cooperative relationship with the United States.

If Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh revolutionary movement had half the popular support which Patti argues that it had, it is little wonder that the French and later the Americans had such a terrible time of it in Vietnam.

This is not the first time that a Westerner has attempted to give us a portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Books about the wily Vietnamese leader by David Halberstam and Jean Lacouture provide more detail than Patti's history does. But Patti adds to the picture by describing the overtures Ho made to the US, sometimes by way of Patti himself, before it came to war.

Ho knew of the American Declaration of Independence and slipped a few lines from it into his own revolutionaries' declaration of independence. He knew of President Franklin Roosevelt's commitment to the principle of self-determination for colonial peoples. But he was to be disappointed. Fearful of the Soviets and eager to make France part of the US alliance with Western Europe, the Americans ended up helping the French to reconquer Vietnam.

Aside from Patti and a few others, most Americans never really knew whom they were up against, at least at the beginning of the Vietnam conflict. One might argue that Patti's portrait of Ho Chi Minh is overly generous, but it is clear that Ho was more complex a figure than many of the black-and- white images of Vietnam which are presented by both the American left and right would allow. This is helpful at a time when films like "The Deerhunter" and "Apocalypse Now" depict the Vietnamese -- not just the Vietnamese communists but all Vietnamese -- as inhuman stick figures. In those films, the Vietnamese provide little more than a backdrop for the agony of Americans.

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