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They are among the most haunting images of our times: the whirling rotors of helicopters over brilliant-green jungle; sheets of flame from exploding napalm; screaming and terrified children; stressed-out GIs in helmets and flak jackets emptying M16 rifles into the yonder.

The 1960s Vietnam conflict was by far the most influential clash of arms that has taken place since World War II. as never since its 19th-century civil war, destroyed one president and contributed to the downfall of another.

Suddenly, there is the violent explosion of a booby-trap that, if a man is lucky, merely blows off his leg.

Or a burst of fire from an invisible enemy precipitates a small battle that may last three minutes or three hours, but always ends with men dead and wounded.

This was what often provoked Americans to do terrible things, to shoot down innocent civilians: the fact that these people had allowed their buddies to walk into the arms of death, without lifting a finger to warn them.

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Eisenhower was willing to act but only if the British would come in too.

Following a tense, bitter Geneva summit conference chaired by Britain and France, a deal was struck whereby Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th Parallel.

The communists were left to do as they chose in North Vietnam, which meant killing landlords and ‘class enemies’ with a ruthlessness that accords ill with the foolish popular image of a benign ‘Uncle Ho’.

The French went home, leaving South Vietnam in the hands of their appointed ruler, the puppet emperor Bao Dai, who appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as prime minister.

Diem made himself a dictator, though his people were never reduced to anything like the same depth of hunger as Ho Chi Minh’s. Many wise people saw from an early stage that for all the horrors of Ho’s rule, his victory over the French had given him an unchallengeable claim to become the voice of the Vietnamese people. President Lyndon Johnson urged, cajoled, bludgeoned British Prime Minister Harold Wilson to send even a token contingent of soldiers to support the Americans — ‘a company of Gurkhas would be enough’ — but arguably the best service Wilson ever rendered was stubbornly to refuse.

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