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February 17, 2005

John Maxwell Hamilton: Vietnam fights for liberty after WWII

I take great pride in being the first one to bring this best seller novel to the world through my blog (January 14 2005) and now the world is talking about it!

Published on Sunday, January 30, 2005 by John Maxwell Hamilton Special to The Plain Dealer. Hamilton is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University.

Write about what you know." No one better exemplifies the wisdom of this admonition to writers than veteran newsman Seymour Topping.

The setting of Topping's historical novel is Vietnam at the end of World War II, not long before he became the first American correspondent stationed in the country. The central issue is the fate of the Vietnamese people, who yearn for independence rather than a return to French control.

Fatal Crossroads: A Novel of Vietnam 1945 by Seymour Topping Book.JPG

The French and Vietnamese, both of whom have vying factions, are not the only ones to figure in this fateful story. The defeated Japanese, who have yet to completely surrender in Vietnam, do not want to see Westerners rule an Asian country. The British, whose job it is to disarm the Japanese, favor preserving colonization. The Chinese commu- nists and the Soviets have their interests -- and intrigues. And there is the United States, which in the end fails by not playing a strong enough role at this "Fatal Crossroads" in history. Topping's tragic hero is Travis Duncan, a U.S. foreign-service officer who is detailed to the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, the wartime forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency. Duncan's mission is to link up with nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh, who is hiding in the countryside, and report back on his aspirations. Duncan's mission is complicated -- and abetted -- by love interests with a Vietnamese woman he had known when stationed in Saigon in the 1930s and with a Frenchwoman who works for France's M.5 intelligence service while posing as a journalist.

Duncan finds Ho a contradictory figure, at once unwilling to rein in his brutal general, Vo Nguyen Giap, and yet interested in democratic ideals. Ho asks Duncan for a copy of the Declaration of Independence and incorporates language from it in the speech he gives upon entering Hanoi.

"I'm first a nationalist and then a member of the Communist Party," Ho tells Duncan. "Independence is my paramount goal." Accordingly Duncan argues the United States should press France's new leader, Charles De Gaulle, to establish phased-in independence for the Vietnamese.

Our hero maintains this point of view despite the danger of being labeled soft on communism, an issue that is becoming political at home. He is equally courageous when sent to Saigon ostensibly to repatriate American prisoners held by the Japanese. In reality, he is there to work behind the scenes to avert a French takeover, which he correctly foresees leading to protracted bloody fighting.

Duncan's French lover is also disillusioned with her country's Vietnam policy. When the British declare him persona non grata and he must leave Saigon, Duncan and his lover agree to reunite soon. That is not to be.

Topping, whose career includes stints abroad for The New York Times, for which he served as managing editor, is one of our country's most distinguished journalists. OSS involvement with Ho, which Topping learned about while a correspondent in Saigon, has been substantiated in memoirs that he has drawn upon. This is Topping's second historical novel and an engaging story that is well told. After years of reporting, Topping's strength quite naturally comes more in providing facts than, say, in writing clever dialog. In fact, he uses every inch of the story, including much of his characters' conversations, to fill in facts related to this complicated history. The virtue of this historically careful approach is that it delivers more than a good story. Duncan vividly and poignantly personifies what could have been right with U.S. policy but was not.

Vietnam did not command much attention from American policymakers in those fateful years. Consumed with countering the threat of the Soviet Union in Europe and not wanting to alienate De Gaulle, U.S. policymakers ignored Ho's overtures. As Topping suggests, more attention could have prevented the tragic war that consumed so many American lives.

Hamilton is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University.

February 17, 2005 in Books, Columnists | Permalink


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I've read this book and while you learn a lot and all that, it is a page-turner and a really good read. Just the right length and full of adventure with a touch of romance, set in an exotic background with a becoming sense of inevitable tragedy to come, it has something for everybody -- spies, fighting, danger, beautiful women, a brave and intelligent hero, Governmental short-sightedness, and plenty of History in the background.

Posted by: Judith | Feb 17, 2005 9:20:27 AM

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