Review by Rick Martin
Many Westerners have vivid memories of the Vietnam War period but little knowledge of Vietnam itself. Understanding Vietnam is a scholarly work that endeavors to explain that country's history and social fabric from the Vietnamese perspective. After briefly highlighting the long history of foreign domination, the book focuses principally on the maelstrom of events surrounding the collapse of colonialism and the subsequent conflict ultimately leading to unification and independence.
Author Neil Jamieson, who was an American civilian in Vietnam during
the War and has spent much time there since, uses Vietnamese poetry to
describe the political and social changes that swept the country during
the 20th century. He describes a society so used to external control that
it is seemingly adrift with the end of effective French colonial rule
in the early 1940s. The resulting chaos and political awakening puts Vietnam
onto a path that ultimately pits the two dominant factions against one
another. Jamieson portrays the South Vietnamese government as capable
but unable to engender enthusiasm among the populace for their cause.
In the end, superior organization and effective propaganda (such as the
presentation of Ho Chi Minh as kindly 'Uncle Ho') permitted the Communists
to overcome the massive U.S. military build up to win control of the entire
While originally a doctoral dissertation, the casual reader should not be put off by the depth and detail of Understanding Vietnam. A great deal of insight into Vietnam today may be gained by selective reading of this book.
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