Victory has 100 fathers," John F. Kennedy said in 1961, "and defeat is an orphan." Although he was speaking about the Bay of Pigs fiasco, JFK could have just as easily been referring to the Vietnam War, which was beginning to spin out of control just as he was assassinated. Vietnam has become an orphan of an American war, a war that neither hawk nor dove, 26 years after its end, can embrace. In fact, the recent poignant comments by former Senator Bob Kerrey on his traumatizing Vietnam experiences pinpointed how painful the national trauma continues to be.
America's ambivalent relationship with the Vietnam War was even more apparent when the most recent tribute to veterans of World War II kicked off on Memorial Day weekend with the premier of the movie Pearl Harbor. Strangely disquieting among all the tribulations to the men of the second World War was that there was hardly any mention of two other, less-popular subsequent wars, Korea and Vietnam. World War II will always be "the Good War," for America was attacked, but Korea was a stalemate and Vietnam was a loser for all involved.
Given the success of Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation and like-minded paeans to the fighting men of WWII PW decided it was time to take a look a the literature that emanated from America's last prolonged war—Vietnam—and the results were both surprising and reassuring.
The granddaddy of all Vietnam books is probably David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest. In September, Modern Library will be reissuing a 30th-anniversary edition, with a new introduction by Sen. John McCain. Also, Halberstam's new book, War in a Time of Peace, which he describes as "the young sibling to The Best and the Brightest, " will be published in September by Scribner. The new tome shows how the Vietnam war has shaped American politics and policy makers. PW decided to go to the source and ask the outspoken Halberstam why Vietnam still had it's peculiar, conflicted grip on the American psyche after all these years. "I was once on the Charlie Rose Show," recalled Halberstam, "and the question came up, 'Why does Vietnam have such a hold on us?' And I said off the top of my head that it was like the second American Civil War, that it wasn't so much us against the Vietnamese as it was us against us, ourselves. It ran through every aspect of our society. In addition to everything else it was a fratricidal struggle."
As everyone in publishing knows, Civil War books sell and America's orphan war is no exception. The question is why?
"Books on the Vietnam War will continue to sell as the United States seeks to redeem the generation it reviled," said Christopher Evans, editor for military titles at Ballantine Books. "Almost all veterans of the Vietnam War committed no greater sin than to serve the country they loved. They deserve better. As these veterans grow old the need—not just desire—to hear their stories will increase as newer generations search for an understanding, and a reckoning, a process we are experiencing now with the remaining survivors of the second World War."
"Perhaps counter-intuitively," observed Philip Turner, executive editor at Carroll & Graf, "I believe that the war's very divisiveness accounts for the continuing interest in it, and the hunger for books on it. One-time hawks and doves feel the need to continue the debates that were not settled long ago."
This year has produced more than a handful of quality books on the Vietnam conflict. Perhaps it would be wise to begin at the end of Vietnam with The Last Battle: The Mayaguez Incident and the End of the Vietnam War by Ralph Wetterhahn, just published by Carroll & Graf. "I found that the Mayaguez incident was probably the most significant military and political act of Vietnam,". Wetterhahn told PW. "It serves as a metaphor for the whole war." The Mayaguez was an American merchant steamship that was seized by Khmer Rouge forces just after the American evacuation of Saigon. Although the crew was released, the Marines were sent in. In The Last Battle Wetterhahn reveals for the first time that three Marines were left behind when the American forces left. A military cover-up ensued that even kept President Ford in the dark about the three missing Marines. Carroll & Graf will send Wetterhahn on tour, including a stop at C-SPAN, which is becoming a promotional fixture for Vietnam titles.
One of the heroes/goats—depending on your point of view—of the Vietnam conflict is Daniel Ellsberg, author of The Pentagon Papers. In Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg (Palgrave/St. Martin's), Tom Wells has written a biography that is causing almost as much debate as Ellsberg himself did in his day. "The portrait of Ellsberg that emerges shows him as a product of that turbulent era and not as some one-dimensional cipher in a simplistic narrative," explained Michael Flamini, v-p/editorial director at Palgrave. The June 13 publication had a first printing of 25,000 , and Wells will be doing readings and signings backed by advertising and the compulsory appearance on C-SPAN.
The name Kissinger is as inflammatory today as it was during the time of Vietnam, and there are three books weighing in on the Nobel Peace Prize winner. "We signed Larry Berman for No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam because he is one of the best historians on the war, and because he uncovered a crucial new piece of the puzzle," said Bruce Nichols, v-p/senior editor at the Free Press. "He discovered Vietnamese and new American sources that fully reveal the peace process, including detailed accounts of every secret negotiation between Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterparts. It's a part of the story that has never been told." The Free Press is planning a national publicity and ad campaign for its August publication. C-SPAN has already devoted a two-hour segment to the book's research.
The Kissinger title making the most waves right now is TheTrial of Henry Kissinger by media bad-boy Christopher Hitchens. Verso already has 25,000 copies in print and the personal vendetta between Kissinger and Hitchens is getting down-right ugly as Kissinger has already cancelled two bookstore appearances where he and Hitchens were scheduled to appear. Adding a little napalm to the fire, the New York Post recently reported that "Hitchens is vowing to sue Henry Kissinger if the former secretary of state persists in calling him a Holocaust-denier."
With all the negative publicity Kissinger has garnered in association with those books, it was only a matter of time before he told his side of the story. His Vietnam: A Personal History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War will be published in January by Touchstone. An original trade paperback, according to the publisher, Kissinger's book promises "a single in-depth inside view of the Vietnam War, personally collected, annotated, revised, and updated from his own bestselling memoirs."
War is a natural when it comes to establishing a dramatic setting for novelists, and Vietnam is no exception. For Rouenna by Sigrid Nuñez (FSG) will be published on Veterans Day, in November. It's a novel about a nurse and the aftereffects of her Vietnam service. "Novels and poetry give voice to the human dimensions of history," said Jonathan Galassi, Nuñez's editor and publisher. "They can deal with nuanced feeling in the most complex and reverberating of ways."
Hyperion East is an imprint dedicated to publishing works of literature in translation from Asian countries, and in January it will publish Beyond Illusions by Duong Thu Huong, whose novels are still banned in her native Vietnam because of her criticism of the government. "I believe she is one of the world's great writers," said Will Schwalbe, v-p and editor-in-chief of Hyperion. "This is her first novel and is both beautifully written and historically important."
What does the future hold for the Vietnam book? "I expect we'll see more books with revelations from the late stages of the war, as declassifications continue," said the Free Press's Nicols. "Also, we need books that help America come to terms with its veterans."
Ballantine's Evans observed: "The newfound interest in the heroism and sacrifice of the 'greatest generation' is serving to refocus attention on the Vietnam conflict. I think we'll see a gradual move toward honoring the heroism and sacrifice of those who served and fought during the Vietnam War."