Vietnam - War Protests

A Review of The Hidden History of the Vietnam War
by John Prados

Author Biography

After being born in New York City and studying history and international relations at Columbia University, John Prados went on to become a leading historian of national security affairs, intelligence operations, and international security concerns. He is well-versed in modern history and has written many books, particularly on the conflicts in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He lives in New York City with his wife and children.

It is a mark of the incongruity between people and their government that though ironically serving as a unifying force, the Vietnam War also brought to light the scandalous relationships between the government and socially accepted morals and principles. Without a doubt the government concealed information from the American public, though in times of war this is understandable; what truly added the air of mystique to the proceedings were the numerous falsifications made about American troop movements and the decisions that ultimately led up to the war. “Something happened in the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964, but not precisely what the administration claimed.”1 In The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, John Prados describes the unreliability of the word of the government and alludes to the embarrassment in store for the administration once the public discovers the truth about what has been going on. Prados addresses these and other issues about the Vietnamese conflict, including the outpouring of resentment and protest that today defines our view of the past public opinion about the war. With great alacrity Prados cuts to the heart of the truth and lays bare the hidden history for all to see.

What makes this book so compelling is its unorthodox way of dividing subject matter. Instead of chronologically covering the events of the war and delivering his opinions on insufficient data, Prados examines the war as a whole and divides his chapters by events in order of importance. Every chapter is a separately written essay covering its own particular subject in the war. This allows the reader to fully comprehend the impact of the way certain events impacted the war and the war effort. The first chapters deal with the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War, everything from when the war actually started to the eastern reaction and how we handled the civilians. “While there are many possible answers to the question of the origins of the American involvement, and myriad explanations for why presidents made the decisions they did, in terms of dates it is undeniable that Harry Truman, by initiating U.S. military to Indochina in May 1950, took a giant step toward an American war in Vietnam.”2 Prados speculates on the controversial topic of when the war actually started. The greatest mysteries however, are all interconnected to one certain incident, the Tonkin Gulf. In one chapter, Prados devotes all his time to uncovering and exposing six mysteries of the Tonkin Gulf, including what United States military ships were actually doing in the far east and whether or not they were actually attacked by the Vietminh. As it was the Tonkin Gulf that served as the initial spark that allowed Lyndon B. Johnson to send troops to Vietnam, it is interesting to think that there may not have even been an attack, or perhaps the attack was wholly instigated by the United States in order to get media support for entry into a war against Vietnam.

Even more so than the previous chapters, the next ones home in extensively on military tactics and the lengths the United States went to in order to drive back their numerous enemies. Due to the terrain of Vietnam, heavy artillery such as tanks were hugely ineffective and this forced the United States into a ground troops battle that was a stalemate for most of the war, though with only one possible outcome. The United States was outnumbered and their enemy knew the terrain far better than they did; there was never a hope at a quick lightning war, instead it would have to be drawn out with heavy casualties on both sides. The Tet offensive also took place during this time, and produced the same results.

It quickly became evident that though the United States was horribly outmatched in ground combat, their Air force could provide an aerial threat so tangible that rather than stay to be massacred, the troops would often retreat, giving the ground troops much more ground than they could have gained on their own. Though planes were used in the war, it is commonly thought that in Vietnam helicopters were the weapons of choice. Not only could they take off from literally anywhere, they could also hover in one area, pelting the ground with machinegun fire. Despite this, Air power was the undoing of the United States in Vietnam. “In 1961, in Vietnam, the air power theorists were back, this time with the expectation that Southeast Asia could be made a laboratory for the development of techniques for tactical air warfare. Ten years later Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the United States stood, defeated, amid the shambles of the most destructive war in history.”3 So though airpower could have tactically given the United States an advantage and even the upper hand in the war, it didn’t. Was the end of the hope for victory in Vietnam caused because airpower was largely ineffective, or because the United States did not deploy its aerial units effectively? Prados says neither, but alludes to the possibility that with its technology at the time, any aerial war was extremely limited and therefore ineffective or even detrimental to the war.

Prados lends the next quarter of the book to the details of military tactics and decisions that were the turning points of the war against the United States. He also explains in detail the politics in the area around Vietnam and how they were affected by U.S. involvement. One of the most tragic things to come out of the war was the religious sect of Buddhism, “Finally, it proved tragic for the Vietnamese people that the Buddhist revival occurred at a moment in history which swept it into a maelstrom of conflict and ultimately led to religious oppression greater than what had existed before.”4 Prados illustrates the depths to which Buddhism is forced to sink due to the war; Buddhist monks even resorted to burning themselves alive in the streets to spark propaganda and get rid of the prejudice against them. One of the arguably most brilliant propaganda lies was also concocted in this era. In order to engender an emotional attachment to the war for the average American, newspapers began printing fake accounts of the amount killed on both sides. Newspapers got so carried away that by the end of the war the amount of people killed on one side was larger than the amount of both armies combined.

The final quarter of the book is given over to the discussion of the domestic fronts of both countries. Whereas the Vietnamese people had no other alternative but to watch their villages burned and their friends killed, the Americans brought their own discontent upon themselves. While it would have been difficult to find people against a war in the defense of their country in Vietnam, seemingly everybody in the United States spoke out against the aggressive interference in another country. One of the ways the president attempted to alleviate the concern of the nation regarding the success and cause of the war was to give a propaganda-laden speech to the people and attempt to appeal to reason and to show them that everything was going according to plan. “The Cambodian operation ignited a firestorm of antiwar opposition, including massive demonstrations, campus shutdowns, and killings at Kent State and Jackson State universities.”5 This showed the hypocrisy that the government was entrenched in for much of the war, they talked about peace yet each time they would start a war and the American public eventually got tired of it.

The government of the United States during the Vietnam War withheld information from the public, and because of this they were allowed greater freedom from the normal constraints of what is deemed “right” and “wrong” by society. Because of this, many atrocities that would normally be condemned and therefore ceased if the public had known what was going on, were allowed to keep going and gain momentum until they became the very evil that was supposed to be prevented. “When the power of love surpasses the love of power we will have peace,” said Jimi Hendrix, and this was a statement keeping in time with the rhythm of the day. With the public transitioning from the fear of communism to the resentment of their own government, the general paranoia that had been worked up by so many worked against the cause of the administration. It’s tough to fight a war when no one wants to fight, and that was the difference in the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese were fighting to save their land, for what they believed in, whereas the United States soldiers were simply going through the motions and getting killed for it. “There is no such thing as a winner in a war,” said Remarque, and in hindsight you can see that this is very true. Essentially no good came politically from the Vietnam War; however, it is quite the opposite culturally. Where loss and suffering engender resentment against the leaders, the very same misfortunes teach wisdom and caution. This was the case with the American people, who gained a pacifistic nature yet condemned their government for getting them into a war in the first place. If one burns his hand on the stove, he will make sure that it isn’t on the next time he reaches to touch it. Though the war is in most respects a failure, it sparked (much as the other great wars before it - WWI, WWI) a relative renaissance for literature and movies. The great wars lead all involved to become visceral machines oblivious to many of the joys of life, creating a “lost generation.” Traditionally, members of lost generations after wars have created the greatest works of literature of their time, knowledge of true pain allows an author to evoke emotions that are otherwise impossible to convey without a first hand experience of them. As a result of the outbreak of Vietnam hysteria during and after the war, Vietnam War movies were in hot demand, creating an air of superficiality about the war with whole generations pledging themselves to patriotism.

The Hidden History of the Vietnam War carries with it (as most Vietnam histories do) an undercurrent of skepticism about the type of government that would allow a country to emulate villains of the past. Weren’t Hitler and Mussolini simply trying to spread their own influence through war just as we were? This book is lined with accusations of hypocrisy and though it justifies many of the actions taken in the war, there are some that can’t be defended. It is perhaps a byproduct of the military action¾taking place in Bosnia-Herzegovina¾during the writing of this book that caused such a negative spin against a large nation warring with a smaller one. In Bosnia-Herzegovina the Serbs under the command of General Ratko Mladic systematically selected and then slaughtered nearly 8,000 men and boys between the ages of twelve and sixty¾the worst mass murder in Europe since World War II. Prados’ knowledge of these tragedies is perhaps why he defends actions leading the United States to the defense of smaller countries, yet leads him to condemn any war made simply because of ethnicity or political alliance. Prados also speaks out against the use of wisdom gained in the Vietnam War to justify a war elsewhere. “The issues raised here are of enduring and legitimate concern. The ‘lessons’ of Vietnam are frequently invoked everywhere America is engaged abroad. In U.S. interventions in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and Haiti in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as in would-be interventions like that in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, we are constantly reminded that the lessons of Vietnam require America to act a certain way. What if the ‘lessons’ are wrong, or misunderstood? Can lessons of Vietnam be valid for another place and time? There has been too much assertion of purported lessons, and not enough focused analysis of the basis of those claims. Here we try to use history to reveal some of the flaws in conventional wisdom.”6

The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, though extremely informative, is also extremely complex; it is not a book that someone could simply pick up and read. The book was written with an audience in mind: the historians of the war. Prados writes this book with the idea that the reader will already know the basics of the war and is looking for something to propel their mental imaginings to a different level. Leaving its daunting writing style and looking past the thousands of facts packed so closely together, it is possible to see the myriad of different takes it offers on the war. There is nothing left for the reader to ponder except the morality of the issues portrayed. Prados gives the reader the facts and then offers his own opinion, he does not reserve judgment, everything that happens is influenced by his own opinion, but he does not leave out that though there are many facts in the book there are still many left to be uncovered, and it is through his unflinching condemnation of uplifting glorification of each decision purportedly executed by the military, the government, or society, that he colors the war not the red tint of communism, or the star-spangled color of patriotism, or even the gray drudgery of defeat, but a multitude of all colors reflected in a truth-revealing mirror and the lies and the heroics and the lives of all those affected are judged not as good or evil, but as true. And truth is what Prados hopes to define.

review by Sean Fortier

  1. Prados, John. The Hidden History of the Vietnam War. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995, 48.
  2. Prados, John 3.
  3. Prados, John 180.
  4. Prados, John 88.
  5. Prados, John 235.
  6. Prados, John preface.

© 2006 Irvine High School

Optimized for viewing in Mozilla Firefox, 1024x768