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The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): Histories of the War: Background and New Directions

By Jerry Lembcke

Histories of the War: Background and New Directions

Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, editor Marvin Gettleman et al.’s Vietnam and America: A Documented History, and Jean-Jacques Malo and editor Tony Williams’s filmography Vietnam War Films, which appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, remain the standard reference works for undergraduate libraries.  For new titles, there is nothing comparable to Christian Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides.  Appy compiled short segments of 150 interviews with, and biographical sketches of, US and Vietnamese veterans of the war, military leaders on both sides (US General William Westmoreland and North Vietnam’s strategist Võ Nguyên Giáp among them), and leaders of the antiwar movement, such as Todd Gitlin and novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O›Brien.  John Prados, a senior fellow of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, accessed documents and newly available presidential tapes for Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, a chronology covering 1945 to 1975.

Books on the Vietnam War going to press after 2000 were conceived as the United States was just entering conflicts in the Middle East, making it unsurprising that comparisons with “how we got into Vietnam” spawned new books on the subject.  Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam is a historically deep account of France’s years in Indochina between World War I and its 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu, years that laid the groundwork for US involvement.  Gareth Porter’s Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam picks up the story from there with fresh documentation on the escalation of US involvement.  Porter’s material is organized into thematic chapters delineated with subheads to make it accessible for undergraduate reading.  He challenges conventional accounts that overplay the importance of global Cold War factors for US entry to the war, showing instead that the US stepped into a stew of village-level conflicts between pro-French groups and independence-minded rebels largely oblivious to the ideological camps of East and West.

Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province, originally published in 1972 and reissued in 2010 in an updated and expanded edition, with a new foreword by Robert Brigham, remains the starting point for studies of the grassroots struggles in Vietnam’s south prior to the formation of the communist National Liberation Front (NLF) and escalation of the US war in 1960.  Philip E. Catton keeps the focus on this early period with Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam.  Catton uses new materials he translated from Vietnamese archives that take readers into the countryside where the plans of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem to resettle peasants into “agrovilles” to expedite socioeconomic development, and “strategic hamlets” for political and military control, met indigenous resistance that provided momentum and cut the trail for the NLF.  Catton’s book indicates a metanarrative of Vietnam’s wars serving as developmental pangs within which the anticolonialist/imperialist liberation movements unfolded.  In Fragments of the Present: Searching for Modernity in Vietnam’s South, Australian anthropologist Philip Taylor provides support for that search-for-modernity narrative as an alternative to the Cold War paradigm that dominates US memory of what its war in Vietnam was all about.  Readers at all levels will find fascinating Taylor’s account of the Vietnamese Communist Party justification for its 1980s turn away from central planning (doi moi) as a return to free-market practices that were indigenous to the southern Mekong Delta region (Nam Bo)—i.e., the party was not abandoning its mission to walk a socialist path to modernity, but enlisting deeply rooted traditions in service to the mission.

David Hunt uses a set of interviews done by the RAND Corporation in the late 1960s to ply the biographies of Viet Cong prisoners and deserters for insights into the realities of peasant life that moved them from resistance to revolution.  His Vietnam’s Southern Revolution: From Peasant Insurrection to Total War fits reading lists in ethnography, sociology, and history, as well as policy-oriented studies seeking know-your-enemy lessons from Vietnam that are applicable to twenty-first-century conflicts.  Robert Brigham’s ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army complements Hunt’s work with a look inside the families and military lives of soldiers fighting for the Saigon government.  Brigham finds the ARVN to have fought more bravely than common accounts have it, but that the central government’s disrespect for it led to demoralization that undercut its performance in the field.  In The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966, Robert J. Topmiller shines light on the Buddhist push for a “neutralist” government in Saigon that would have provided the United States an exit from Vietnam in 1966.  When pro-war hawks in Washington squelched that initiative, anticommunist hard-liners within the South Vietnamese Army cracked down on their “accommodationist” rivals, briefly bringing ARVN units into conflict with one another and bringing US troops to the brink of battle with ARVN units.  Topmiller also usefully introduces Buddhist thought that will benefit undergraduates.  Jonathan Neale’s A People’s History of the Vietnam War puts light on the ordinary people, Vietnamese and American, who fought in and against the war.

David Maraniss and Nick Turse have used research methods so innovative (Maraniss) and resourceful (Turse) that the how of their studies is as important as the what of their findings.  For They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967, Maraniss used letters written home by soldiers in Vietnam and students at the University of Wisconsin in 1967 to tell the parallel stories enveloping them in October 1967: west of Saigon near Loc Ninh, the American First Infantry Division was getting chewed up by the enemy North Vietnamese at the same time that confrontations between protesters and the police had shut down the Madison campus.  Besides the obvious relevance of these events to today’s students, historians of military strategy and tactics will have additional appreciation for the insight Maraniss offers into why the United States would eventually lose the war.  For Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, Turse traveled to the former South Vietnam to visit villages like My Lai, where a US infantry unit massacred hundreds of civilians in 1968.  In those settings, Turse met the people whose ancestors were killed by US ground forces and combined what he learned from them with newly available documents to push out the boundaries of what is known about US military leaders’ culpability for those atrocities.

More advanced students will benefit from the fourth edition of Robert J. McMahon’s edited Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War.  McMahon gathers primary documents on the policy decisions and challenges of military strategy and tactics that faced each US presidential administration, the North Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi, and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam, and he groups the materials accordingly.  Each set of documents is paired with a set of essays, many written by academic scholars.

Works Cited