Well, everybody: Vietnam is done, finished, over. Now, I am just crossing my fingers that when you all get to see it in the autumn, you find the story as fascinating as I do.
I travelled exhaustingly across both the US and Vietnam, interviewing scores of both Vietnamese and American veterans. My Russian and Chinese researchers have added some fascinating stories of their countries’ roles. I have read thousands of pages of translated Vietnamese material, telling human stories from both sides.
In Boulder City, Nevada, for instance, I saw a wonderful man named Doug Ramsey- a US Foreign Service officer who spent seven years in a bamboo cage in the jungle between 1966 and 1973, as a prisoner of the Vietcong. His account of his experiences- and he describes them with a wonderful sympathy for the Vietnamese people and lack of anger towards his captors- was one of the most fascinating interviews I have ever conducted.
Likewise, in California among many Vietnamese exiles I met Kieu Chinh, once Vietnam’s most famous film star and still wonderfully beautiful, who told me the tale of her flights first, from Hanoi in 1954, then from Saigon in 1975. I met countless soldiers, of course, including former North Vietnamese soldier Bao Ninh, who wrote a deeply moving memoir of his combat time, The Sorrow of War, and also such Americans as former infantry medical corpsman Dave Rogers, whose account of his service held me gripped for three hours. Dan Hickman, once a star Huey helicopter pilot, described for me what it was like to fight and fly often at zero feet over Vietnam, aged twenty-one, while former South Vietnamese officers described not only battles but also terrible experiences in Hanoi’s re-education camps, after the 1975 communist victory.
I have never written a book for which I found so many fascinating human stories. Much of the agony of putting it all together came from having to decide what to leave out- if we had published my first uncut draft, the book would have filled about 1200 pages- as my wife said, far too many to hold up in bed ! David Elliott, an American scholar who knew Vietnam intimately in the 1960s, and has devoted much of his life- like that of his wife Mai- to writing about the war era and its aftermath, has given me extensive assistance. He is kind enough to say that he does not know a previous book on the war which has pulled together such a range of sources.
With the aid of HarperCollins’ editorial wizards in both London and New York, I shall spend the spring and summer assembling photographs and maps, massaging the text, hoping that when publication comes in the autumn we shall be able to give you one of the most comprehensive accounts of the whole war ever attempted. It will be for you, the readers who keep me in socks and shoe-leather, to judge how far I have succeeded. I shall be breathlessly awaiting your verdict- together with that of the hundreds of people who have helped write the story of one of the great tragic sagas of the 20th Century.
MAX HASTINGS, February 2018