by Neil Sheehan
In 1989, a year after publication of A Bright Shining Lie, his Pulitzer-prizewinning account of America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, Sheehan returned to the country where he had been a war correspondent in the ’60s. What Sheehan found he records here in just 131 pages, albeit with the same diligence and insight he brought to his massive, earlier study.
Whether he is visiting Hanoi’s understaffed, outdated hospitals or touring the last site of the once-secret Communist headquarters in the south—thatched huts that housed 500 to 600 intelligence and operations people—the facts accrete to give haunting resonance to the question Sheehan first asks upon his return: “Why in the name of God had we bombed a country as poor as this?”
At first surprised to find “a lack of animosity everywhere we went in the North,” Sheehan learns through his talks with peasants, politicians and his own guide-interpreter that this friendliness has less to do with America than with Vietnam’s long-standing conflicts with China. While both France and the United States have left indelible marks on the country, it is China that Vietnamese regard as the ultimate threat to their independence.
In the south, Sheehan’s most compelling interview is with Nguyen Van Linh, the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Often referred to as Vietnam’s Gorbachev, Linh has steered the country toward economic reform since 1986. Now in his late 70s. he survived imprisonment under the French, manhunts in the south during the American conflict and postwar political struggles. His very existence seems living testament In a people whose ingenuity, guile and resoluteness forced a superpower into a painful reexamination of itself.
Convinced when he first arrived in Vietnam nearly 30 years ago that “we were in the right war in the right place,” Sheehan on his return seems continually struck by a sense of wonder that he could ever have held that once-cherished conviction. (Random House, $17)