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HS 111 — Vietnam: America’s War at Home and Abroad
U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia may be the most argued about topic in recent history. This course does not overcome the many hazards that confront a search for truth about the Vietnam War—as if establishing a definitive account were even possible. Rather, my goal is to give students a panoramic view of the literature. I am confident that each student will find at least one text hard to abide.
by Marilyn Young (1991)
New York University historian Young can fairly be said to represent the far-left position on Vietnam. She lacks Mark Bradley’s command of Asian languages, which abetted the archival research for his study (Vietnam at War), and she’s not as dogmatic as Gabriel Kolko (Anatomy of a War), as shrill as Loren Baritz (Backfire), or as self-righteous as Noam Chomsky (too many publications to list), but no one will ever accuse her of pulling her punches. She is equally conversant with home-front and battlefield details, and her views, however extreme, are buttressed by an investigative thoroughness that commands respect. Plus, she writes like blazes.
According to Young, had 1950s policymakers, including Harry Truman, not been hypnotized by the “zero-sum game called the Cold War,” they would have understood that the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, although a communist, “had no known direct ties to the Soviet Union” and wanted to establish an independent country on good terms with Washington. Instead, Truman chose to bankroll France in its doomed military effort to reassert control over a former colony.
Young pays particular attention to the several ways that Washington—once France was out of the picture—circumvented the 1954 Geneva Accords, which partitioned Vietnam until elections could be held in 1956. The United States, she says, created an illegitimate entity called “South Vietnam”; extended the security provisions of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to cover this nonstate; and installed the “inept,” “autocratic” Ngo Dinh Diem to lead it (and to block elections). The puppets who followed Diem governed as he did, “through terror.”
In Young’s view, what ensued was as predictable as it was tragic: Americans could “drop napalm, defoliate crops, transform the landscape with bomb craters. . . . But they could not make the South Vietnamese love the government the United States had brought to power.” Young leaves readers with the conclusion that, for all the suffering that the Vietnam War caused, at least the right country won.
by Guenter Lewy (1978)
Lewy’s book is an example of what historians call Vietnam War revisionism. It may seem an odd choice. Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken attracted greater public and academic attention, and no one defends the rectitude of American intervention with more élan than Norman Podhoretz in Why We Were in Vietnam. But Moyar covers the war only to 1965, and Podhoretz’s book is out of print. Lewy, an emeritus professor of political science at UMass-Amherst, writes with a purposive dispassion that makes him a gentler sparring partner for Young. Even so, he stresses most of the revisionist themes: that America’s defeat was hardly inevitable; that the U.S. military’s conduct was, in the main, proper; and that the “attempt to prevent a communist domination of [Southeast Asia] was not without moral justification.”
Lewy contends that Washington could have foiled Hanoi’s effort to overrun South Vietnam had it dropped fewer bombs and devoted more attention to hearts and minds and community development projects. However, he deplores the oft-repeated assertion that the United States committed war crimes in Vietnam, arguing that in most instances the military acted in accord with international agreements that constitute “the law of war.” In counterpoint, he indicts South Vietnamese insurgents (the Viet Cong) and North Vietnamese soldiers for a strategy of intimidation keyed to the “systematic” and “intentional” murder of noncombatants. That communist atrocities “took place well hidden from the eyes and cameras of journalists” ought not to distract historians from a central truth: Americans were in South Vietnam to prevent such evil.
by George Herring (2001)
In this book—chosen because it is poised between Young’s and Lewy’s on the dove-hawk spectrum—Herring tries valiantly to keep sentiment from skewing his analysis. He doesn’t succeed entirely, but no historian ever does.
Herring began his academic career (at the University of Kentucky, where he is now a professor emeritus) at the height of the Vietnam War, and was skeptical early on about American prospects. Time has not altered his view. Here he declares, “I do not believe that the war could have been won in any meaningful sense, or at a moral or material cost that most Americans would—and should—have found acceptable.” South Vietnam was “doomed from the start,” he says, because of the strength of Vietnamese nationalism. Nothing short of dropping H-bombs on Hanoi—an unconscionable tactic that Lyndon Johnson rightly ruled out—would have yielded a different result.
Still, this historian strives for objectivity, presenting as empathetically as possible the motives and circumstances of U.S. policymakers and arguing, pace Lewy, the difference between ignorance and malice. The domino theory—which held that if one nation went communist, surrounding countries would follow—may have been flawed, Herring writes, but American statesmen accepted it as an article of faith; they did not deploy it to mask baser motives for intervention. Johnson emerges from Herring’s account as a prudent, well-intentioned leader devoted to the cause of domestic reform and fearful that Republicans and southern Democrats would torpedo his Great Society programs if he lost, in Herring’s words, “additional Asian real estate” to communism.
edited by Robert J. McMahon (2007)
This is the best Vietnam War anthology available, edging out even Andrew Rotter’s Light at the End of the Tunnel. McMahon, a historian at Ohio State University, skillfully draws from secondary and primary sources (e.g., the 1945 Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, and a 1967 CIA assessment of the U.S. bombing campaign), gives both hawks and doves their say, and concludes each chapter with a detailed (but not intimidating) list of further readings. His own voice barely intrudes. He allows his material to speak for itself and his readers to make up their own minds—a splendid illustration of the difference between education and indoctrination.
by Lynda Van Devanter (2001)
For many Americans who served in Vietnam, the home front was as harrowing as the combat zone. Van Devanter graphically documents how, after completing her one-year tour of duty, she returned to the United States physically and emotionally scarred, only to discover that her fellow Americans did not appreciate her sacrifice. Quite the contrary: In her Army uniform, she was shunned, spat on, vilified. What’s more, in the book’s most famous scene, she was barred from participating in a veterans’ antiwar march, because, the organizers told her, she wasn’t “really” a veteran. No grunt ever composed a braver, truer memoir.
by Bao Ninh (1993)
Ranked by European and American critics alongside All Quiet on the Western Front as one of the great war novels of the 20th century, Ninh’s shattering book was photocopied and widely circulated in Vietnam but did not receive formal publication there in its original language until a decade after the English edition appeared. Government censors found its mocking portrayal of anti-imperialist struggle unacceptable. At last report (in 2006) Ninh was living in Hanoi and editing a literary weekly. He had finished another novel but did not intend to publish it.
Sorrow‘s narrator and protagonist is Kien, who survives the war with guile, dumb luck, and booze. His friends die ignominiously. His sweetheart becomes a prostitute. The village of his childhood is turned into “a heap of ash and corpses.” Although he despises North Vietnam’s leaders “with their Marxist theories,” he keeps fighting for them, because his “only skills are firing submachine guns and collecting bodies.”
Readers may not like Kien much, but the gut-punch vehemence of Ninh’s prose succeeds in humanizing an adversary whom many Westerners saw only in caricature. The Sorrow of War dissolves the narrow focus on U.S. interests that still pervades most American writing on the Vietnam War.
Seth Jacobs is an associate professor of history and the author of America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia (2005). His latest book, published by Cornell University Press this year, is The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos.