Guest appearance on Daniele Bolelli’s “History on Fire”

Over the summer, I was invited to join a project called Ripples of History, hosted by Daniele Bolelli, the creator of the podcast History on Fire. Daniele manages, somehow, to be a professor, author, martial artist, and dad on top of producing two podcasts (the second is the philosophical The Drunken Taoist) — the kind of person whose productivity provokes awe and not a little envy.

History on Fire

Ripples of History is a collaboration between some of the best long-form history podcasters. Each of us chose an event that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but which ended up having long-term significance beyond what those at the time could have foreseen.

I chose Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (or if you prefer the more combative original title, “Resistance to Civil Government”). It’s a dense little tract, written by a proto-hippie survivalist after spending a single night in jail in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s cantankerous, individualist, anti-authoritarian, yet sheer diversity of movements that have looked to this text is, frankly, weird. Libertarians and tax resisters like it — but so did leaders of mass movements like Gandhi and MLK. Pacifists like Gandhi were inspired by its message — but so were Danish resistance fighters who blew up Nazi infrastructure. In my segment, I take a close look at Thoreau’s ideas to understand why this essay, unknown when it first appeared in the 1840s, has had such an outsized influence on world history.

Other segments of Ripples of History tackle Bacon’s Rebellion, The Iliad, and the origin of suicide bombing. What’s not to like about that?

You can listen on Itunes here or PlayerFM here. I’ll add other listening options as they become available.

Episode 14: The Diem Experiment (Part Five)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

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In November 1963, a faction of South Vietnamese generals overthrew and assassinated Ngo Dinh Diem with the support of the Kennedy administration. In the final part of this series, we’ll explore how infighting, ambition, and miscommunication sealed the fate of the Diem Experiment and set South Vietnam on the path to disaster.

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.


Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003)

Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (New York: Holt McDougal, 1977)

Monique Demery, Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu (New York: Public Affairs, 2013)

Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2014)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Thoughts on “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975” by Max Hastings

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 is the most disappointing book I read this year.

Hastings’s book is the most recent entry in a long tradition of giant books on Vietnam written by Western journalists. The best-known is Vietnam: A History, written by American journalist Stanley Karnow, but there have been plenty of others, too, by writers like John Prados, Frances Fitzgerald, and David Halberstam. These books were mostly written in the 1960s-80s, and Hastings’s book is likely to be the last in this tradition. Many of them mixed personal recollections with the broader story of the French and American wars in Indochina. Hastings, who was a young correspondent during the American phase of the war, is smart to not succumb to this temptation. He gets a couple of personal stories out of the way in the introduction and gets on with the show.


Hastings establishes two key ideas in the introduction. First is the idea that the war was “primarily an Asian tragedy”; 40 Vietnamese died for every American who fell on the battlefield. Second is the idea that the American War from 1965-73 was an ugly, amoral struggle without good guys. “No side had a monopoly on virtue,” Hastings says.

I find the second point especially interesting because much the historiography of the American War is full of white-hot moral arguments. In Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald or The Vietnam Wars by Marilyn Young, the National Liberation Front are the good guys while the Americans wage an evil counter-revolutionary war. The moral values are reversed in revisionist histories like Triumph Forsaken by Mark Moyar or The Necessary War by Michael Lind. In these books, Ho Chi Minh is a stooge bent on furthering the plan for communist world domination. I was genuinely interested, even excited, to see Hastings follow through on his idea that nobody really “deserved” to win this war.

Hastings needed to do a couple of things to achieve his objectives. First, he would put Vietnamese (and Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong, etc.) experiences front and center, keeping the narrative focused on the places where the war actually happened. This is an easier task than it was when, say, Karnow was writing the first big pop-history rendition of the war. Vietnamese, Soviet, and Chinese archives have all opened to various extents since the 1980s. In the past 20 years, a new generation of historians has produced dozens of books based on these materials. Second, it would look in depth at the aims and conduct of all sides to support the claim that there was no “right side” in the war.

But Hastings really doesn’t center Asian experiences or sources — although, to his credit, he includes a decent sprinkling of Vietnamese perspectivesThe chapters on 1973-75 do a good job of mostly telling the story from their points of view, and the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army are fairly well represented throughout the book.

Yet in most chapters, these perspectives are swamped by a flood of stories about American soldiers. We learn far more about US adviser and POW Doug Ramsay or Marine Walt Boomer than we do about any Vietnamese. An example: Chapter 25, which focuses on Operation Linebacker and the final phases of the Paris peace negotiations, devotes 11 1/2 pages to the experiences of B-52 aircrew and less than 2 to the experiences of North Vietnamese, primarily soldiers manning SAM sites. Even the chapter title — “Big Ugly Fat Fellers,” a nickname for the B-52 — emphasizes US equipment rather than the lives of people on the receiving end of the bombs. This disparity is present in other chapters on 1965-73.

On top of problems with emphasis are problems of omission. Foremost are Hastings’s skimping of the war in Laos and Cambodia — really inexcusable if he wants to portray the war as “an Asian tragedy” first and foremost. Hastings makes a few too many gross claims about these places. I was floored to read that Laotians “giggled through the war” and that Cambodia was an “erratic, eccentric little country.” For all Hastings’s research and interviews with survivors of the war, statements like these suggest a lack of curiosity about, and even callousness towards, what these places went through.

Another unacceptable omission is the role of South Korea, which contributed some 300,000 troops to the American War. Meanwhile, Hastings devotes over ten pages to Australia, which sent 60,000 men. Hastings establishes Australian political context and waxes lyrical about the skills of the Australian SAS, while South Korea receives a passing mention on a single page.

Worst of all, civilian perspectives are almost nowhere to be found. While Hastings claims to be keen on reconstructing “what the war was like,” in practice this only applies to military personnel. There’s no reason for these omissions in a book of this size.

There are other frustrating claims in Vietnam, too, chief among them Hastings’s assertion that racial strife in the US military after 1968 was primarily caused by the Black Power movement. This is emblematic of a deeper problem: Hastings is a military historian first and foremost, and Vietnam is disappointingly light on the social, cultural, and political (apart from high-level dealing) dimensions of the war. Because politics and war were so intertwined in this conflict, any book that focuses primarily on its military dimensions is going to feel unsatisfactory. Passages on Vietnamese village life and culture feel slapped-together, like Hastings is compiling a few facts in lieu of deeper knowledge or understanding. The antiwar movement receives no attention apart from a few brief jabs at the naivete of some protesters towards the NLF. We learn far more about the mechanical failures of the M-16 rifle or bombing tactics during Rolling Thunder than we do about the evolution of the antiwar movement in the US or how the giant US military presence changed the social and economic fabric of South Vietnam. It’s also annoying to see Hastings totally fail to engage with 20 years of new scholarship on the Diem regime; his one-dimensional screed could have been written by David Halberstam in 1963.

So much for focusing on the war as “an Asian tragedy.” What about the author’s second objective, the Vietnam War as a war without good guys?

Well, Hastings has a habit of undercutting this claim, too. In fact, there are lots of good guys in An Epic Tragedy, and they are the dutiful soldiers on all sides trying to do their best in an awful conflict. Fair enough! Even in the worst war, some people will keep their moral compass and try to do the right thing. Yet Hastings never really assesses the merits of the causes all these good soldiers were fighting for. In just war theory, half the equation is just cause. If the cause isn’t just, it doesn’t matter how good the conduct of your soldiers is.

The closest Hastings comes to assessing the merits of a cause is when he talks about the DRV. He emphasizes NLF and NVA atrocities, as well as those of the Hanoi government against their own population. American and ARVN atrocities are mentioned, too, but Hastings never passes up a chance to remind the reader, just in case you’ve forgotten, that the communists were just as bad if not worse. He does not reverse the reminders when discussing American or ARVN atrocities. Combined with Hastings’s persistent attacks on liberal US journalists for misreporting the war, I really do suspect that he thinks that his audience are a bunch of ’60s radicals with NLF flags in the closet and chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win” ringing in the back of their minds. It’s honestly strange seeing an author take such great pains in a 2018 book to show that, yes, the communists committed atrocities in Vietnam, too. The discourse has moved on, Max! It’s not 1970 any more.

But hey, it ain’t all bad. When he’s taking us knee deep in the big muddy alongside the troops, Hastings’s ability to describe combat is unmatched. His renditions of the US combat experience are especially powerful, and I appreciate that he included some lesser-known perspectives, like Chinese and Soviet support personnel who helped turn North Vietnam into the most heavily-defended airspace on the planet. These passages can be incredibly gripping.

Yet for all the blood and gore, and all the years of misery and suffering in its many, many pages, Vietnam feels like a lightweight Dad History book. At the end, I felt like my understanding of the social, political, and cultural dimensions of the war hadn’t improved. Among the one-volume histories of the war, the best I’ve read Vietnam: A Concise International History, by Mark Lawrence. In about 200 pages, Lawrence covers the important political and military stuff while also covering topics like the development of the US antiwar movement and even finds time to talk about war memory. If you want visceral personal stories, there’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides by Christian Appy, which covers a much more diverse range of perspectives than Hastings. Read these two books together. Combined, they’re as long as An Epic Tragedy, and you’ll learn more.

Oh, PS … what’s up with starting the book with the viewer discretion warning from the Ken Burns series? Did Sir Max write a 750-page book to cash in on its popularity?


Inward Empire summer reading list, 2019

For the curious, here’s what I’m (aspiring to) read this summer. I’ll be posting reflections on these as I go.

Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

Walter Lafeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America

Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Clay Risen, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

Daniel Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present

and, just for kicks…

Stephen King, 11/22/63

Gaming the domino theory in Twilight Struggle

“… a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France …” – Dean Acheson

“If Southeast Asia is also swept by Communism, we shall have suffered a major political rout the repercussions of which will be felt throughout the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East and in a then critically exposed Australia.” – NSC 48/1

“Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” – President Eisenhower

Image result for twilight struggle

Recently I’ve become totally addicted to Twilight Struggle, a Cold War-themed board game (also available in an excellent digital version). The more I play, the more impressed I am with how the game models the domino theory, one of the fundamental ideas in US foreign policy during our half-decade struggle with the Soviet Union.

American statesmen developed the domino theory in the late 1940s and early ’50s, a time when communist movements were spreading rapidly around the world. As the quotations above make clear, these statesmen believed that communists in places like Greece or China would try to spread their movements to neighboring countries and regions. A communist regime, even in a tiny country that posed no direct threat to America, could destabilize an entire region if left unchecked. Therefore, it was vital for the US to contain communism wherever it popped up.

The mechanics of Twilight Struggle simulate this theory beautifully. It’s a two-player game (one player is the US, one is the USSR), and the board is divided into nations and regions. Players take turns placing influence around the board, and can win the game by scoring points based on controlling different regions (there are other paths to victory, too, like winning the space race).

So where’s the domino theory? It comes with a brilliantly simple twist: players can only place influence in a nation where they already have it, or in neighboring nations. Just like Acheson and Ike said, influence spreads in a linear fashion from one country to the next, and players who ignore enemy moves will find an entire region slipping swiftly into their opponent’s camp.

The one exception to the linear spread of influence comes with cards, which the US and USSR take turns playing. Each card represents a real-life event from 1945-89: Nasser taking power in Egypt, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the OPEC embargo, Kruschev declaring “We Will Bury You!”, and so on. Cards allow players to break the rules of how influence spreads by suddenly opening up new fronts around the world. The USSR, for example, starts the game with no influence in Latin America or the Caribbean, but playing the “Fidel” card allows them to take control of Cuba.

The cards make for fantastic and nail-biting twists and turns in each game of TS, but they also contribute to the game’s simulation of American ideas in the era of the domino theory.  For much of the Cold War, US policy-makers tended to view communist movements in the “Third World” as fronts of a single global movement led by Moscow. This is exactly the way it is in TS: it’s the USSR that decides when Vietnam revolts, when Nasser or Fidel take power, or when communist agitation sweeps South Africa. The same goes for events that favor the US. It’s up to the players when pro-democracy agitation breaks out in Eastern Europe, for example.                                 Image result for twilight struggle fidel

The card mechanic sacrifices historical accuracy while hewing more closely to the imagined dynamics of the domino theory. As the game’s creators say in their design notes:
Twilight Struggle basically accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false. Therefore, the only relationships that matter in this game are those between a nation and the superpowers. The world provides a convenient chess board for US and Soviet ambitions, but all other nations are mere pawns (with perhaps the occasional bishop) in that game. Even China is abstracted down to a card that is passed between the two countries. Furthermore, not only does the domino theory work, it is a prerequisite for extending influence into a region. Historians would rightly dispute all of these assumptions, but in keeping with the design philosophy, we think they make a better game.”

In reality, Soviet and American leaders struggled to control movements around the world. Leaders from Venezuela to Vietnam had their own agendas, and popular movements (even massive ones, like the revolutions of 1989) often caught American and Soviet leaders off-guard. TS simulates this lack of total control to an extent by randomizing the cards players hold each round. It also frequently forces players into situations where they have to play a card that favors their opponent. Still, it’s the superpowers that decide when, and sometimes if, these events take place.

So while TS isn’t a great simulation of the dynamics of the real Cold War, it is stone-cold brilliant at depicting the way US policy-makers imagined the conflict. On top of that, it’s a phenomenal strategy game. A glance at the Twilight Strategy fan page shows its daunting depth. If you have even a passing interest in the Cold War or in historical strategy titles, I strongly recommend picking up a copy. And if you don’t mind dealing with a neophyte player, let me know — I’m hungry for some competition online!

Episode 10: The Diem Experiment (Part One)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

For nine years at the height of the Cold War, America’s global crusade against communism rested on the shoulders of Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Hailed as a “miracle man” who brought the blessings of democracy and development to South Vietnam, Diem became a celebrity. But his miracles had a steep price. As his regime soaked up millions of dollars in American aid and military support, it ruthlessly suppressed its enemies, devastated villages, and failed to cope with a rising communist insurgency. As the Diem experiment began to absorb US prestige, money, and lives, Americans began to question whether their adventure in Southeast Asia was worth the cost…

Part one of this series explores Diem’s rise to power and the origins of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Diem tries to chart a “third way” between the rocks of communism and empire; French, Japanese, and Americans vie for influence; and Vietnamese factions battle for the future of their country as a hapless emperor watches.

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.

Image result for ngo dinh diem


Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy (New York: Harper, 2018)

George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2014)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Mark Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2013)

Edward Miller, “Vision, Power, and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945-54,” in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35 (3), pp 433-458

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)

Episode 8: Soldiers of Capital (Part One)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was 19th-century America’s premier private police force, the leader of a flourishing industry that offered solutions to the chaos and corruption of the nation’s law enforcement. But the Pinkertons were more than just detectives. By the 1890s, they were a private army-on-call for powerful corporations. In the first episode of this two-part series, we’ll chart the birth and evolution of the Agency — from its founding by a radical immigrant in the 1850s to its bloody pursuit of outlaws and Irish labor groups in the decades after the Civil War.

Inward Empire theme by Stephen Spencer.

pinkerton logo2


Pamela Bedore, Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Frank Morn, The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)

S. Paul O’Hara, Inventing the Pinkertons, or, Spies, Sleuths, Mercenaries, and Thugs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)

Allan Pinkerton, General Principles and Rules of Pinkerton’s National Police Agency (Chicago: George H. Fergus, 1867)

——————– The Expressman and the Detective (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1875)

——————– The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1877)

——————– Thirty Years a Detective: A Thorough and Complete Expose of Criminal Practices of All Grades and Classes (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1884)

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by G.R. Thompson (New York: Harper & Roe, 1970), 272-313

Beau Riffenburgh, Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2013)

Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003)

Francois Eugene Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime, trans. Edwin Gile Rich (Edinburgh: AK Press / Nabat, 2003, originally published 1828)

Ambrose Bierce and Ernst Junger on the Fascination of Wartime Death

Ambrose Bierce, What I Saw of Shiloh, 1881:

“I obtained leave to go down into the valley of death and gratify a reprehensible curiosity. …

“The fire had swept every superficial foot of [the battlefield], and at every step I sank into ashes to the ankle. … Along a line … lay the bodies, half buried in ashes; some in the unlovely looseness of attitude denoting sudden death by the bullet, but by far the greater number in postures of agony that told of the tormenting flame. Their clothing was half burnt away – their hair and beard entirely; the rain had come too late to save their nails. Some were swollen to double girth; others shriveled to manikins. According to degree of exposure, their faces were bloated and black or yellow and shrunken. The contraction of muscles which had given them claws for hands had cursed each countenance with a hideous grin. Faugh! I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for.”

Ernst Junger, The Storm of Steel, 1920:

“[I would] like to say a word or two about this first glimpse of horrors. It is a moment so important in the experience of war. The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war. A long period of law and order, such as our generation had behind it, produces a real craving for the abnormal … Among other questions that occupied us was this: what does it look like when there are dead lying about? …

“And now at our first glance of horror we had a feeling that is difficult to describe … In the case of something quite unknown the eye alone can make nothing of it. So it was that we had to stare again and again at these things that we had never seen before, without being able to give them any meaning. It was too entirely unfamiliar. We looked at all these dead with dislocated limbs, distorted faces, and the hideous colours of decay, as though we walked in a dream through a garden full of strange plants, and we could not realize at first what we had all round us.”