Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Vietnam War” by Chris McNab

Like the analogously named books about World War I and World War II, this small book on the Vietnam War is replete with excellent maps, great photos, fascinating fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics.

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As the author writes:

“The Vietnam War was one of the longest conflicts in the history of the United States. America began sending small numbers of military advisors to the war in the 1950s, but by 1968 there were more than 500,000 soldiers in South Vietnam. The very last Americans did not leave there until 1975, by which time 58,286 U.S. troops were dead. But the war was far more devastating to Vietnam and its people. In total, the war may have cost up to one and a half million Vietnamese lives.”

I was pleased to see that the author included an explanation of “The Domino Theory” that was used to justify intervention in the region, although a bit more could have been said about why the U.S. found communism to be so abhorrent.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was central to the escalation of the war, but here quite underplayed. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was enacted by Congress on August 7, 1964 in response to an alleged attack by the North Vietnamese Navy. The act gave President Lyndon Johnson authorization to do whatever he thought necessary in Vietnam. A report in 2005 admitted that no attack happened. But the big text on the page in this book makes it appear as if the provocations were genuine. It is only in a small box in the corner that we get an intimation that nothing really happened, and no indication whatsoever that Johnson knew this, but disseminated the false “intelligence” in order to be able to send ground troops to fight in Vietnam.

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The use of napalm bombing was also glossed over. Napalm is liquid fire, a sort of jellied gasoline, that melts the flesh upon human contact. In Vietnam, the first televised war, viewers began to see horrific images of the civilian casualties – especially those of children – caused by napalm bombs, and these photos were brandished by students who protested the war.

To the author’s credit, there is at least a little box on the deleterious health effects of Agent Orange (herbicide defoliants sprayed by American aircraft over South and North Vietnam), but no mention of the fact that the use of Agent Orange was later determined to be in violation of the Geneva Convention.

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During the ten years (1961-1971) of aerial chemical warfare in Vietnam, US warplanes sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in an operation code-named Ranch Hand. By the end of the war, nearly five million Vietnamese had been exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities and a half million children born with birth defects, according to the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report for the National Cancer Institute. [Agent Orange manufacturer Dow Chemical Company knew as early as 1965 that the dioxin contaminant in the defoliant was “one of the most toxic materials known …” ] This information also was excluded, as was information on the effects U.S. Veterans suffered as well. (See, for example, this story from the New York Times.)

There is also a small box on the My Lai Massacre, in which between 300 to 500 mostly unarmed women, children, and elderly were massacred by U.S. soldiers on March 16, 1968. None of the victims were members of the enemy forces. Not included in the very little blurb was the fact that infants were among the victims; that some of the women were gang-raped by the Americans and their bodies mutilated; and that Lieutenant William Calley Jr., the leader of the platoon who ordered the action, was convicted but served only three and a half years under house arrest. None of the other military men initially charged were ever convicted. [For almost 16 months after the incident at My Lai, the American public remained unaware of what had happened until reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story in 30 U.S. newspapers.]

There is hardly anything about General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968 and is regarded by many to be “The General Who Lost Vietnam.”

And in a shocking omission, there is not one word about The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a 2-acre national memorial in Washington, DC. The beautiful memorial, designed by American architect Maya Lin, receives around 3 million visitors each year.

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Nevertheless, there are lots of positives about this book. The author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject and a lot of information on the military hardware used during the war. Importantly, given the mix of pictures, text boxes, and maps, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

Evaluation:  This book does a very good job at introducing the subject of the Vietnam War to students. All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear. Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics. A brief “who’s who” photo gallery and glossary are at the back of the book.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2016

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4 Responses to Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Vietnam War” by Chris McNab

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I was young during the Vietnam War and didn’t always know what was going on. I have read a few books since then about the US involvement. On a side note, my nephew graduated from college with Lt. Calley’s son and no one (besides me) seemed to be aware of who he was.

  2. Since I lived through that era, and, in fact, joined the Army Reserves to avoid being drafted (my lottery number was 152), I would probably find this to be pretty interesting.

  3. Harvee Lau says:

    What a painful period of time. I have met those affected on both sides.

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