Vietnam: A History

Being about to teach a class of Year 11s some Vietnamese history, I thought I should know a bit about it. Thankfully, we went to visit my family, and they may well have one of the world’s largest personal collections of books on Vietnam (Dad was a Vietnam veteran, and had a great interest in it). Well, that’s what it feels like, anyway. So I got Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, since what I really wanted was an overview of everything leading up to US involvement – I’m going to be teaching the French war, basically, up to the Geneva Conference in 1954. I’m not sure where to start; I’d like to do at least one lesson on China’s 1000-year occupation of Vietnam, as very relevant background…

Anyway, the book: it’s very good. I learnt an enormous amount just reading the first 4-5 chapters. I reallised I knew basically nothing about this area, and what it had gone through. For starters, I always just assumed that Ho Chi Minh was this scary Communist guy – and maybe later on he got really nasty, I’m not sure, I haven’t read that far – but from what I have read, I have the impression that he was far more of a nationalist than a Communist: no matter that he really did believe in the Communist ideas he was far more interested in getting Vietnam free of French rule, and avoiding American overlordship as well. He did, in fact, approach the US for help, but they didn’t want to get involved in Indochina – and they wanted to keep the French happy. Plus I guess they were already worried about the ‘domino effect’ of Communism…

As an historian I am fully aware of the impossibility of writing objective history, but Karnow seems to have had a good stab at it. He’s certainly not out to lionise the US, but neither does he paint a portrait of the poor suffering Vietnamese who only want to be left in peace. He seems quite fair to both sides, and seems to have gone to great lengths to be so – being a journo helped, of course, since as a reporter he got access to important people and has included many of their comments on various aspects of the history he’s writing.

This is a very good book, as an overview of Vietnam’s colonisation history. I think I might be able to use bits of it when I teach – maybe not this time, because I’m not sure what my supervisor will think about me not using the textbook – but when I’m out by myself (ack).

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