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review 2017-05-26 01:24
MADAME NHU: SOUTH VIETNAM'S MARIE ANTOINETTE?
Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu - Monique Brinson Demery

I came to this book in a rather indirect way. Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with the author, Monique Brinson Demery, in which she described her ongoing efforts to meet the mysterious Madame Nhu (1924-2011) and earn her trust. It was a fascinating story. One that stimulated some part of my memory that contained a scrap of knowledge as to whom Madame Nhu was and her role in the leadership of South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963.

The Vietnam War, though the American phase of it largely took place within my lifetime, I knew little about. Nor did I for many years have an interest in trying to understand that war. I was but an infant when LBJ first committed U.S. military forces to South Vietnam in March 1965. And by the time our POWs had been repatriated from North Vietnam and the U.S. had washed its hands of Vietnam, I was in elementary school. Another couple of decades would pass before I began to look into the factors, personalities, and events that led to Vietnam being engulfed in what was a civil war between 1945 (when the French - the former colonial master - returned, intent on reasserting its authority in Indochina) and 1975, when the Communists triumphed and reunified the country. Reading "The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam in the mid 1990s was my starting point.

Demery tells a story that gives the reader access into the life of Madame Nhu, her family (who had long figured prominently in Vietnamese history), Demery's own relationship with Madame Nhu (who could be both kind and intransigent when it suited her), and the history of Vietnam from the late 19th century to November 1, 1963 (when both Madame Nhu's husband and her brother-in-law the President of the Republic of Vietnam were murdered in a coup).

For anyone curious to know why Vietnam continues to impact itself upon the American psyche, this is a book well worth reading.

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review 2017-05-16 02:07
ODYSSEY OF A PHOENIX
One Trip Too Many: A pilot's memoirs of 38 months in combat over Laos and Vietnam - Wayne A. Warner

"ONE TRIP TOO MANY" is a memoir that will appeal to both the thrill-seeker and fan of human interest stories. The author - who grew up in the U.S. Midwest during the 1940s and 1950s - shares with the reader his determination to become a pilot, which leads to him winning a competitive appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1959. He graduated from the Academy in June 1963 as a freshly minted Second Lieutenant, having earned his degree and a handshake from President Kennedy himself.

Later, following advanced flight training, Warner is sent to Vietnam, where he experiences combat from the earliest days of the American involvement in 1965. Warner proved to be a highly skilled pilot, adept at flying both multi-engined and single-engine aircraft. Indeed, Warner would return to Vietnam on 2 different combat tours. From late 1967 through the summer of 1968, he flew 121 combat missions in the sleek F-105 'Thunderchief' fighter-bomber, known affectionately as the 'Thud.' At least 16 of those missions entailed deep penetration raids into North Vietnam as far as Hanoi, braving anti-aircraft fire, radar guided SAMs (i.e. surface-to-air missiles), and enemy MiG jet fighters. These missions, designated Pack Six sorties, were extremely hazardous as losses to enemy action over North Vietnam tended to be extremely high.

Warner would go on to return to Southeast Asia in early 1969, after having trained to fly the A-1 Skyraider attack/search & rescue aircraft. Unfortunately, Warner would meet with tragedy in the Skyraider in March of that year.

There is much more to this inspiring and uplifting story, which I leave for the reader to discover.

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review 2014-01-16 01:02
Ho Chi Minh: A Life - William J. Duiker

A very detailed look into the life and times of one of the most influential- although often overlooked and underrated- individuals of the twentieth century. Sadly, it is not as personal as I had hoped it would be; by this, I mean that it offered much less a description of his personal life, as in interests, activities, etc. as it did the overarching political situation facing Ho Chi Minh in his struggle to both free and unite Vietnam. However, this disappointment may be unavoidable; sources on Ho Chi Minh's life are often lacking, and when in existence, are often very biased, particularly considering the near deified status he has been given in Vietnam, where many of the surviving records exist. After reading this book, I tend to think that Ho Chi Minh may have liked it this way. He would have preferred to have himself remembered less as an individual than as a symbol of communism and Vietnamese nationalism; in other words, that people would not look at him, but would look instead at the movements and beliefs that he stood for. In the end, I think Ho Chi Minh was a complex and misunderstood man. He was not a radical communist as many of his critics insist; but neither was he entirely a nationalist who merely embraced communism out of convenience. The main driving force in his life, however, was most definitely nationalistic. Although he was certainly no saint, as the Vietnamese government makes him out to be, he was certainly not the opposite either. There is much to respect in Ho Chi Minh; a man who gave everything in the cause of his country's freedom and unification. That is how Ho Chi Minh should be remembered- a flawed man, yet with much to respect. Overall, a very good read.

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review 2011-07-07 00:00
Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 - Pierre Brocheux,Daniel Hémery,Ly Lan Dill-Klein The authors immediately got my attention by summing up what makes the region fascinating to me: “Although geography does not create history, it does condition it . . . and this was one of the world’s great historical frontiers, along which contacts and exchanges occurred among material cultures, myths and religions, various writing systems, and of course, empires. It was within this complex region of intermingling civilizations that imperialist France constructed Indochina.” (1)

The complexities include colorful characters and conflicting agendas on all sides, such as those resulting in a couple hundred Vietnamese uprisings from 1802 to 1883 during the reigns of the emperors Gia Long and Tu Duc. France got seriously involved in the 1840s, first setting its sights on China and hoping to best the British by dominating “the vast hinterland” between China and India. The plan was to assume “exclusive, therefore colonial, control of the mouths of the Mekong and Red Rivers” as well as the shores of the South China Sea. From 1859 to 1879 the French Navy appropriated and ran Cochinchina; Saigon Harbor would rank second only to Marseilles in the “global network of bases able to provide coal, wood and supplies” to the imperial fleet in what became known as “the era of the admirals.” (21)

Economics and related quantitative data take more pages than I’d like, but the fact that I skimmed does not make those details less important. I learned a lot about the influence of French industry and banking but most enjoyed chapters exploring the geography and detailing colonial society.

The emphasis throughout is on Vietnam, where the first dynasty of historical record commenced in 2879 B.C. I recommend also reading Understanding Vietnam by Neil Jamieson, A Short History of Vietnam by Nguyen Van Thai and Nguyen Van Mung, and Overturned Chariot: The Autobiography of Phan Boi Chau, translated by Vinh Sinh and Nicholas Wickenden. Together the books provide an engaging exploration of the oft-slighted (in western accounts) intellectual and cultural brilliance of Vietnamese history and nationalism.

Originally published in France in 1995, Brocheux's first English edition was released in 2009. Before reading it I checked a review of the translation, and the review was not glowing. The language lacks finesse and is often awkward, occasionally slighting the finer points, not to mention it makes the going even slower through already dense material. Nevertheless, the general academic consensus has ruled this “a groundbreaking historical synthesis” that “fully explores the ambiguity of the French colonial period."

For readers wanting more specifics about what they're getting into, the conclusion sums up the main points as follows, and the text is mostly verbatim here, though the numbering is mine.

1. French Indochina was first and foremost an enterprise of political domination aiming for economic exploitation, and its establishment was incredibly violent.

2. Colonialism presented itself as the historical vector of modernization and everything the word signified at that time: industry, science, wage labor, machines, and a market economy.

3. The initially great success of Indochinese colonization was fundamentally determined by its promoters: plantations and mines, banks and trading firms.

4. Through most of the 20th century, Laos and to a lesser degree Cambodia would be considered territorial reserves of an Indochina thought of as fundamentally Vietnamese.

5. The colonial regime could not function without securing a partnership, however fragile, with the dominant native classes and the colonized elites, who hoped to use modernization for their own ends, which were in the long run anticolonial.

6. French Indochina was constructed on the evolutionary convergence of solidarities and antagonisms between the dominant and the dominated. It was until the 1930s a provisional compromise, strongly unequal of course, but not fictional, to such an extent that some Vietnamese defined themselves, at least for a time, as French Indochinese.

7. Most Vietnamese intellectuals considered modernization a means of resisting colonization and promoting political democracy.

8. Imperial France was overtaken in Indochina by a largely unforeseen national and international communist revolution, but regardless of politics, by 1945 colonization had become intolerable to all Indochinese.

9. As early as 1911, Jean Jaures was sounding the alarm: “If we carry on, we will reap nothing from these lands but hatred and disappointment.”
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review 2011-07-07 00:00
Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 - Pierre Brocheux,Daniel Hémery,Ly Lan Dill-Klein The authors immediately got my attention by summing up what makes the region fascinating to me: “Although geography does not create history, it does condition it . . . and this was one of the world’s great historical frontiers, along which contacts and exchanges occurred among material cultures, myths and religions, various writing systems, and of course, empires. It was within this complex region of intermingling civilizations that imperialist France constructed Indochina.” (1)

The complexities include colorful characters and conflicting agendas on all sides, such as those resulting in a couple hundred Vietnamese uprisings from 1802 to 1883 during the reigns of the emperors Gia Long and Tu Duc. France got seriously involved in the 1840s, first setting its sights on China and hoping to best the British by dominating “the vast hinterland” between China and India. The plan was to assume “exclusive, therefore colonial, control of the mouths of the Mekong and Red Rivers” as well as the shores of the South China Sea. From 1859 to 1879 the French Navy appropriated and ran Cochinchina; Saigon Harbor would rank second only to Marseilles in the “global network of bases able to provide coal, wood and supplies” to the imperial fleet in what became known as “the era of the admirals.” (21)

Economics and related quantitative data take more pages than I’d like, but the fact that I skimmed does not make those details less important. I learned a lot about the influence of French industry and banking but most enjoyed chapters exploring the geography and detailing colonial society.

The emphasis throughout is on Vietnam, where the first dynasty of historical record commenced in 2879 B.C. I recommend also reading Understanding Vietnam by Neil Jamieson, A Short History of Vietnam by Nguyen Van Thai and Nguyen Van Mung, and Overturned Chariot: The Autobiography of Phan Boi Chau, translated by Vinh Sinh and Nicholas Wickenden. Together the books provide an engaging exploration of the oft-slighted (in western accounts) intellectual and cultural brilliance of Vietnamese history and nationalism.

Originally published in France in 1995, Brocheux's first English edition was released in 2009. Before reading it I checked a review of the translation, and the review was not glowing. The language lacks finesse and is often awkward, occasionally slighting the finer points, not to mention it makes the going even slower through already dense material. Nevertheless, the general academic consensus has ruled this “a groundbreaking historical synthesis” that “fully explores the ambiguity of the French colonial period."

For readers wanting more specifics about what they're getting into, the conclusion sums up the main points as follows, and the text is mostly verbatim here, though the numbering is mine.

1. French Indochina was first and foremost an enterprise of political domination aiming for economic exploitation, and its establishment was incredibly violent.

2. Colonialism presented itself as the historical vector of modernization and everything the word signified at that time: industry, science, wage labor, machines, and a market economy.

3. The initially great success of Indochinese colonization was fundamentally determined by its promoters: plantations and mines, banks and trading firms.

4. Through most of the 20th century, Laos and to a lesser degree Cambodia would be considered territorial reserves of an Indochina thought of as fundamentally Vietnamese.

5. The colonial regime could not function without securing a partnership, however fragile, with the dominant native classes and the colonized elites, who hoped to use modernization for their own ends, which were in the long run anticolonial.

6. French Indochina was constructed on the evolutionary convergence of solidarities and antagonisms between the dominant and the dominated. It was until the 1930s a provisional compromise, strongly unequal of course, but not fictional, to such an extent that some Vietnamese defined themselves, at least for a time, as French Indochinese.

7. Most Vietnamese intellectuals considered modernization a means of resisting colonization and promoting political democracy.

8. Imperial France was overtaken in Indochina by a largely unforeseen national and international communist revolution, but regardless of politics, by 1945 colonization had become intolerable to all Indochinese.

9. As early as 1911, Jean Jaures was sounding the alarm: “If we carry on, we will reap nothing from these lands but hatred and disappointment.”
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