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Hearts and minds
This is a good time to be a Vietnam War historian.
Scholarship on the war is undergoing a renaissance comparable to that touched off in the 1980s by the first wave of declassified U.S. government documents. Then, researchers such as Georgia State University’s Larry Berman and the late George Kahin established that pretty much everything Americans thought they knew about Lyndon Johnson as commander-in-chief was false. Far from being a trigger-happy hawk, LBJ emerged in Berman’s Planning a Tragedy (1983) and Kahin’s Intervention (1986) as having grave misgivings about escalation. He nonetheless chose to deepen the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam in a tacit bargain with congressional conservatives—of both parties— to protect his Great Society programs. Conspiracy theorists also had to abandon their claim that Johnson deliberately deceived Congress about purported North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, in August 1964. LBJ, it turned out, was convinced that both incidents had occurred, and his request for the functional equivalent of a declaration of war was, if ill-considered, sincere.
Nowadays, the surprises mostly come from the other side of the iron and bamboo curtains. Although Chinese and Russian wartime records remain far from open, Beijing and Moscow have released thousands of pages of military, political, and diplomatic papers, enabling, for example, Auburn University’s Qiang Zhai to prove that Mao Zedong’s threats to commit combat forces if U.S. soldiers crossed the 17th parallel into North Vietnam were no bluff. China’s assistance exceeded U.S. estimates. Until the Cultural Revolution obliged Mao to curtail foreign engagements, almost 300,000 Chinese technicians served in North Vietnam, building roads and railways and repairing bombed facilities, and Beijing supplied Hanoi with tens of millions of dollars worth of military hardware. Historians have discovered fewer smoking guns in Russia, but Confronting Vietnam (2003), by Ilya Gaiduk of the Russian Academy of Sciences, illuminates the diplomatic role the Soviets played in Vietnam’s unification.
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, whose archives were off-limits into the 21st century, has granted access to a few persistent American researchers, and the results have been revelatory. Lien-Hang Nguyen’s blockbuster 2012 monograph Hanoi’s War, for instance, demonstrates that Ho Chi Minh, the face of Vietnamese communism and the focus of U.S. analyses, was not in fact the principal figure in the North Vietnamese Politburo; that distinction belonged to General Secretary Lê Duan, a ruthless behind-the-scenes strategist during the “American War” who overruled higher-profile officials like Ho to launch major offensives in 1964, 1968, and 1972. Nguyen, a historian at the University of Kentucky, also puts to rest a question that vexed historians for decades: What was the relationship between the northern-based Communist Party and the southern National Liberation Front? American hawks, it seems, were correct in branding the front a puppet of Hanoi, although the difficulty communicating along Vietnam’s one thousand miles of often harsh terrain gave NLF members a measure of autonomy.
Scholars who lack the linguistic skills to exploit Chinese, Russian, or Vietnamese repositories (or the document troves of France, South Korea, and Thailand) are enhancing our knowledge of the war fought on the home front. Some draw from private papers—those of the antiwar activist Benjamin Spock; Oleo Strut (the Texas coffeehouse near Fort Hood—named for a helicopter part—that became a base of operations for protesting GIs); and the American Friends of Vietnam, a U.S. lobby organized to burnish South Vietnamese President Ngô Dình Diêm’s image. Other researchers, caught up in diplomatic history’s trending “cultural turn,” deploy prisms of race, gender, and religion to explain why and how U.S. statesmen sought to create an anticommunist bastion out of a former French colony on the other side of the world. A campaign for postmodernist analysis has not been far behind (see the 2013 essay by the University of Akron’s Walter Hixson, “Viet Nam and ‘Vietnam’ in American History and Memory”).
All this ferment is propitious for those of us who study the Vietnam War for a living. But something important can be lost when America’s most divisive foreign conflict is sublimated into the rarefied air of the ivory tower. The burly veteran who told me at the Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., last June that “you professors don’t know a goddamned thing about Vietnam” was justified in his anger, as was his son, who helped the nearly sightless man locate names cut into the polished black granite. This war, which academics like me debate, was a vast human tragedy, not an intellectual exercise. Zachary Jason’s story—pitched to the heart—begins here.
Seth Jacobs is an associate professor of history and the author of The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (2012).