I picked up a used copy of Vietnam by Stanley Karnow to help with my current book project, The U.S. War Against Asia. I found the book to be well written, but focussed on history in the context of what we call in the United States the War in Vietnam. In my generation that was frequently just called The War.
There is a general history of Vietnam leading up to the French colonial period that emphasizes the various independence struggles in the area we now call Vietnam. If you want a cultural history of Vietnam, or a detailed look at Vietnam before 1500, this book does not cover that adequately.
If you want to understand the motives of the Vietnamese independence movement and major players like France, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, this book is great. Karnow views everyone with an eye that is capable of both compassionate understanding and a hard gaze. He does not gloss over any parties attrocities or stupidities. On the whole it seems like a fair, balanced, factually-based book.
Karnow shows that there were times when France and the United States came quite close to at least a temporary defeat of the Vietnamese communists. In a sense the book supports the hypothesis that America lost the war because of its lack of intelligence (that is, spying capabilities). It creates a strange symmetry with the War against Japan (part of World War II) in which it is fair to say that the U.S. won the war because it had better intelligence capabilities. In Japan's case, the U.S. broke Japan's encryption, and simply new everything Japan would do in advance. In Vietnam encryption was not an issue: on the Vietnamese end it was a low-tech war, and intelligence was provided mostly by sympathisers inside the domestic establishments of the South Vietnamese regime and the American invaders.
We tend to see the war as a two-sided affair, with the communists on one side and the U.S. and its local allies on the other. But in fact is was extremely complicated, with many groups trying to maintain an independence from both the U.S. and the communists. In a civil war groups and individuals flip sides; the winner is usually the group that is best at gaining the support of formerly neutral groups.
The effects of politics in the United States are well-documented. President Eisenhower, a Republican, tried to avoid involvement in Vietnam largely in reaction to Truman's policy in Korea, which itself was in reaction to accusations that President Truman lost China to the communists. President Kennedy greatly increased involvement in Vietnam. A member of one of the most successful capitalist families in the United States, he lacked Eisenhower's gravitas and allowed himself to be pressured by the Pentagon. Lyndon Johnson inherited the war and felt the Republicans and his enemies in the Democratic Party, in particular Robert Kennedy, would crucify him if he lost Vietnam. Richard Nixon actually started pulling troops out of Vietnam soon after his election in 1968 and was still in office after they were all withdrawn, yet the liberal establishment still insists on blaming Nixon and the Republicans, rather than themselves and the Democrats, for the war.
The French come out looking badly as well. When Hitler conquered France and set up the Catholic, nationalist, racist Vichy regime, the French colonial structure in Vietnam simply agreed to follow orders from Japan. So the Japanese did little fighting in Vietnam in World War II. To the extent there was fighting, it was with the Vietnamese resistance movement that was already fighting the French. The U.S. encouraged the resistance even though it was dominated by communists (we were allied with the communists in World War II) and implied Vietnam would become independent when Japan was defeated. Of course Vietnam was handed back to the French just as Britain was given Hong Kong and the U.S. and Russia divided up Korea.
This book is probably the single best book on the Vietnam War. It was fascinating to read. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Vietnam or in U.S. history.
This book should be generally available in libraries and used book stores, but you could also pick up a copy of Vietnam at Amazon.com.