The “Politically Incorrect Guides” were a thing in the early 2000s – a right-wing variation on the “For Dummies” media brand of instructional guides that was designed to provide an ideologically correct spin on their subjects. A little under two dozen of them were produced on various historical and hot-button topics, most of them bravely railing against various straw men in an effort to show why the right’s interpretation of events was always the correct one.
Philip Jennings’s contribution on the Vietnam War is a representative example of the series. The bullet points on the cover make a series of daring claims, such as that 1) contrary to what you may have heard, the U.S. actually won the Vietnam War, only for that victory to be undermined by liberal congressmen, 2) contrary to the popular view that body counts were gross exaggerations, the U.S. killed more of the enemy than they gave themselves credit for, 3) Ho Chi Minh was not a nationalist but a “hard core Communist,” and so on. Take that, conventional wisdom!
Such bold assertions call for extensive documentation to support them, and if one were to go by his bibliography Jennings has indeed read widely on the conflict. Most of his chapters, though, are grounded in a very narrow selection of works from that bibliography, favoring heavily the ones that support his antagonistic viewpoints and ignoring any pesky details that run counter to them. This happens from the start, when he stresses the benevolent aspects of French colonial rule and ignores the brutal methods they employed over the decades to maintain their control. In Jennings’s view, the Vietnamese never had it so good as they did when the French were in charge.
But if that were true, then why did the Vietnamese rebel? Enter the sinister figure of Ho Chi Minh, the bète noire of Jennings’s tale. Jennings never misses an opportunity to denigrate Ho, taking particular delight in mocking his early job as a pastry chef, even claiming that he was trained by the famous chef Auguste Escoffier. That there is no evidence that Ho ever trained under Escoffier highlights another problem with Jennings’s book, which is that he never allows the absence of evidence to get in the way of a snide point. Nor does he provide much in the way of detail; the anti-colonial war against the French becomes something that just happens, though Jennings is sure that the Communists are to blame somehow.
Jennings is particularly determined to play up Ho’s Communist bona fides as a way of justifying America’s intervention in Vietnam. This meant supporting Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of the newly-created South Vietnam and the hero of Jennings’s version of Vietnamese history. Whereas Jennings’s accepts any derogatory detail about Ho no matter how spurious his portrait of Diem goes to great lengths to defend him by excusing his authoritarian government (Diem’s pro-Catholic bias goes unmentioned, his rigging of his own election is presented as a necessary show of strength, and his persecution of Buddhists is treated as a clash against a militant fringe) and arguing that his regime was far more successful than it was credited. Nevertheless, Diem’s removal in a coup, in Jennings’s estimation, removed the one true national leader in South Vietnam, thus necessitating American intervention.
What follows is a highly selective narrative of American involvement in the war, one focused mainly on the various air campaigns launched against the North Vietnamese. Absent from his book are the daily patrols that made up such a large part of military activity for American soldiers, along with the difficulties they encountered. Instead Jennings spends pages excoriating the various opponents of the war, as everyone from liberal Democrats to the media serve as targets for his ire. For the most part it’s less pointed criticism than it is irate venting that can’t cover up the hollowness of many of his arguments. As for the evidence that the U.S. won the war, Jennings refers to that discredited metric of the body count, arguing that all the U.S. needed to do after Nixon withdrew American forces (because the U.S. had killed so many Communists, right?) was to keep supplying air and naval support and South Vietnam would be with us today.
All of this makes for a book that is less a primer on the war than a collection of assorted rants about it. Even at its modest size it feels padded with superfluous material, from potted reviews of books and movies about the war to an "interview" with two characters from a novel Jennings wrote that may well be the most insular exchange ever printed. It all makes for a lousy work that fails in its goal by its very cheapness – if there is an argument to be made for the Vietnam War as a secret success, Jennings fails to make it in his tendentious and partisan text.