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The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): Biographies and Autobiographies of Wartime Experiences

By Jerry Lembcke

Biographies and Autobiographies of Wartime Experiences

Memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies are natural centerpieces of remembrance studies.  Those that follow life courses from the war years and into the present also double as contributions to the legacy studies discussed below.

Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam is an intense but well-organized and readable inquiry into the role played by Bundy as national security adviser for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.  Goldstein uses interviews with Bundy, selections from Bundy’s memoirs, and secondary sources to reveal the thinking of those presidents that formed turning points in the war, such as the Tonkin Gulf Affair and the 1965 decision to “Americanize” the war.  Bundy’s policy nemeses counted among themselves a group of senators including Ernest Gruening, who cast one of two votes in the Senate against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and George McGovern, who opposed the war throughout.  Randall B. Woods, in his Vietnam and the American Political Tradition: The Politics of Dissent, provides chapter-length biographical sketches of those and five other senators who dared to challenge establishmentarians like Bundy.

John Kerry’s prominence as a decorated veteran of the war and a leading figure in the veterans’ antiwar movement, and in his later political roles as senator from Massachusetts and secretary of state in the Obama administration, calls for libraries to hold Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.  In The Vietnam War from the Rear Echelon: An Intelligence Officer’s Memoir, 1972-1973, Timothy J. Lomperis provides a rare view from the inside of US intelligence of the very last days of the war as the US military departed and the Saigon regime collapsed.  Even more remarkable for its uniqueness is Larry Berman’s The Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An.  An spent 1954-75 as a double agent: a communist spy within the government of South Vietnam, using his work as a reporter for Time magazine as his cover.  Berman uses documents and an array of interviews with An and his associates (from all sides) to recount An’s life while telling plenty about the unknown off-screen war, and bringing into focus the ethical dilemmas arising at the intersection of political and professional commitments.  The authors of War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam contribute ten chapter-length memoirs that broaden reading lists in this category with easy reading.

The most teaching-friendly entry on the memoir list is The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara by James Blight and Janet Lang.  McNamara was the secretary of defense for seven years during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  Blight and Lang’s book, based on Errol Morris’s acclaimed 2003 film The Fog of War, is part viewer’s guide to the film and part instructor’s manual for teaching the film.  Loaded with how-to lessons for doing oral history and interpreting historical material, it is most of all a comprehensive biography of McNamara, one of the most important figures of the Vietnam War.

With three million Americans having served in Vietnam and the war remaining a national preoccupation, the catalog of biographical material grows thicker each day, though many entries with a “true story” subtitle suggest anything but.  With myth and legend coursing through the genre, it is all the more incumbent upon undergraduate holdings to include titles able to hone student skills in discerning authenticity in biographical material.  Gary Kulik’s War Stories: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers is a suitable learner’s manual for that task.  To move students beyond the quotidian true/not-true binary to the challenge of discerning (in Foucault’s words) “what was being said in what was said,” a more scholarly orientation is desirable.  Best suited for that is editors Paul Budra and Michael Zeitlin’s Soldier Talk: The Vietnam War in Oral Narrative, wherein the authors suggest approaching war stories in a new manner they call “oral narrative.”