Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
26 October 2011
Review by Gregory A. Daddis, US Military Academy, West Point
The Columbia History of the Vietnam War
Ed. David L. Anderson
New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 429. ISBN 978–0–231–13480–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 20th Century, Vietnam War Print Version

A volume composed of contributions by fourteen authors runs the risk of inconsistency. On the contentious topic of the Vietnam War, further hazards may arise when revisionist and orthodox historians champion their idées fixes. In this light, it is astonishing that the general editor of The Columbia History of the Vietnam War and its individual contributors manage to present a coherent, high-quality, balanced account of such a historically controversial subject. Their book is an exemplar of scholarly collaboration that exceeds its ambitious stated aim of providing "a reliable historical perspective on the Vietnam War to advance accurate scholarship and sound policymaking" (x).

David L. Anderson (California State Univ., Monterey Bay), himself an accomplished Vietnam historian, has assembled an A-list team of military and diplomatic scholars to deliver one of the very best accounts (if not the best account) of the Vietnam War and its ramifications. This comprehensive collection of essays is arranged in three parts: "Chronological Perspectives," "Topical Perspectives," and "Postwar Perspectives." Anderson argues that the United States' recent forays into Iraq and Afghanistan make study of the Vietnam War increasingly relevant: the "history of the American war in Vietnam is not a remote academic subject" (1), but should, he writes, be integral to political and public discourse on the role of American power abroad. Members of the scholarly community—both undergraduates and specialists alike—will be well served by this fine work.

Anderson opens with an eighty-page introductory essay, "The Vietnam War and Its Enduring Historical Relevance." Besides setting up the contributors' subsequent chapters, he presents a synopsis of the war, highlighting many of the historiographical debates surrounding it. He starts by examining the historical character of the Vietnamese people, who, though possessing a distinct sense of identity, had failed over the centuries to unify themselves as a nation. The division of Vietnam in the aftermath of the French-Indochina War worsened this problem and ultimately left the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) a dependent nation requiring external "life-sustaining support" (31). As Anderson rightly notes, this circumstance confronted both President Ngo Dinh Diem and his American sponsors with a grave dilemma: "The Saigon government needed to build trust and loyalty among the South Vietnamese population but was well aware that it faced many internal enemies who could be ruthless in their opposition" (31).

This tension between democratic governance and ensuring the security of the population is a major theme of Anderson's summary of the war's American phase. As the United States gradually escalated the use of force in Vietnam throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, civilian and military leaders in Washington and Saigon found that the "geographical and political environment" proved frustratingly unresponsive to American power (44). Echoing recent astute commentaries on the limits of power,[1] Anderson underscores the drawbacks of a US strategy that too often misapplied military force in hopes of expediting democratization in other countries. While the United States failed to realize its goals, however ill-defined, in Vietnam, it "was not a defeated nation. Its power and interests were still global in scope, and it remained certain that its leaders would again face the decision of when, where, and how to intervene militarily in other conflicts in the world" (72).

Part I gathers six outstanding essays offering a chronological narrative of the Vietnam War. In chapter 1, "Setting the Stage: Vietnamese Revolutionary Nationalism and the First Vietnam War," Mark Philip Bradley treats the interrelationships between Vietnamese nationalism and revolutionary politics. He accentuates the global nature of Vietnam's twentieth-century history, when Marxist and Leninist theories helped to "universalize the Vietnamese colonial experience" (98) and to provide a framework for both social revolution and imperial resistance.

The results of the French colonial war, coupled with the effects of post-World War II decolonization, had tremendous implications early in the Cold War era. Yet, as Richard H. Immerman argues in chapter 2, "'Dealing with a Government of Madmen': Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Ngo Dinh Diem," historians have overplayed the distinctions between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations' understanding of the Vietnam problem. He suggests that both presidents grasped the implications of military intervention and shared a complicated, ambivalent perception of Ngo Dinh Diem. More generally, "Americans assumed that democracy was a universal value toward which the Vietnamese would naturally gravitate, but civil society had to develop and stabilize first" (131).

Despite these assumptions, as Gary R. Hess relates in chapter 3, "South Vietnam under Siege, 1961–1965: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Question of Escalation or Disengagement," JFK and his successor had to deal with fundamental questions about escalation and disengagement. His essay, somewhat more historiographical in nature than others in the book, outlines the process of a deepening American commitment and convincingly argues that "looking at U.S. involvement as a series of steps that took the nation gradually to war suggests that the process had a certain inevitability" (146).

One of the most contentious steps in the escalation process was the decision to bomb North Vietnam, a topic that Lloyd C. Gardner handles skillfully in chapter 4, "Lyndon Johnson and the Bombing of Vietnam: Politics and Military Choices." Gardner demonstrates that the initial purpose of the bombing campaign "was not to destroy Hanoi's war-making or defense capacity, but to improve stability in Saigon so that other actions against the Vietcong (National Liberation Front) guerrillas could then rest on a firmer political foundation" (171). Hopes that an air campaign in the North might bring political stability in the South were never realized. Nor were the aspirations of American military commanders who viewed the 1968 Tet offensive as an opportunity for greater success in South Vietnam.

In chapter 5, "Turning Point: The Vietnam War's Pivotal Year, November 1967–November 1968," Robert J. McMahon reconsiders whether 1968 was the war's decisive year, drawing attention to the bonds between military assessments, public opinion, and political estimations of an increasingly costly war. Quoting then Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, he notes that, after Tet, President Johnson's closest advisors no longer found the price of Vietnam to be "commensurate with the goal" (206). McMahon finds that Tet was in fact the clear turning point of the war. Thus, President Nixon was left to disengage from Vietnam while yet preserving American honor at home and abroad.

In the final chronological chapter, "Richard M. Nixon and the Vietnam War: The Paradox of Disengagement with Escalation," Jeffrey P. Kimball expertly details the paradoxes of Nixon's approach—escalating the war in Southeast Asia while withdrawing US forces from South Vietnam. Though Nixon's policy goals had changed little from those of his predecessor, the strategy of combining de-Americanization with Vietnamization and military escalation was a failure. Changes in strategy could not compensate for systemic weaknesses inside South Vietnam.

The primacy of strategy is evident in the first two topical-perspective essays, both of which advocate more work in this area to achieve a truer understanding of American involvement in Vietnam. (Regrettably, North Vietnamese strategy is not considered in this collection.) John Prados, in chapter 7, "American Strategy in the Vietnam War," tackles popular conceptions of attrition and rightly claims that American strategy, from early on, encompassed "parallel initiatives" directed toward more than just killing the enemy.

In a superb essay on "The Village War in Vietnam, 1965–1973" (chapter 8), Eric M. Bergerud takes Prados's point even further. Dissatisfied with conventional labels for William Westmoreland's strategic imperatives—"search and destroy," "war of attrition," "the big unit war"— the author of The Dynamics of Defeat[2] proposes that "a better description of MACV[Military Assistance Command, Vietnam]'s mode of operations would be the 'parallel wars concept'" (278). Both Prados and Bergerud believe historians have exaggerated the differences between Westmoreland's approach and Creighton Abrams's "one war" concept. Bergerud, however, does expose the inadequacies of American strategy in rallying popular support among the villages of South Vietnam.

Helen E. Anderson turns to an important social aspect of the war in chapter 9: "Fighting for Family: Vietnamese Women and the American War." But readers will learn more from David Hunt’s treatment of the that subject in his recent book-length social history of the southern revolution.[3]

Robert K. Brigham's contribution on "Vietnamese Society at War" (chapter 10) is an exceptional piece of scholarship based partially on his interviews with wartime participants. A concern with socioeconomic dislocation and forced urbanization of the rural population underpins this imaginative essay, which argues that, as the war intensified, "it became increasingly difficult to farm traditional family and village plots. The necessary move to the cities was also a move away from a rural culture that had dominated Vietnamese life for centuries, even if it was not steeped in Confucianism" (326).

Melvin Small, in chapter 11, "'Hey, Hey, LBJ!': American Domestic Politics and the Vietnam War," also finds a society torn asunder by the war, though he concentrates on the American home front and links between domestic politics and the antiwar movement: "Few wars in U.S. history have been so affected by domestic politics, few wars have so affected domestic politics, and few wars have had such a lasting impact on all aspects of American life for so many years after the last American soldier left the field of combat" (354).

After an introspective synopsis of "Cambodia and Laos in the Vietnam War" (chapter 12) by Kenton Clymer, comes a discussion of the lasting postwar effects of the Vietnam War in the last two chapters of the book's final part. Robert D. Schulzinger examines the political and diplomatic "Legacy of the Vietnam War" (chapter 13), as regards US relations with Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union, the role of American POWs in diplomatic negotiations with Hanoi, and the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ("The Wall") in Washington. He reminds us that, as the United States and the Socialist RVN "proceeded from hostility to reconciliation over twenty years, Vietnam veterans struggled to readjust to life in the United States and find public acceptance" (398).

In his fitting conclusion to the volume, chapter 14: "The Vietnam Syndrome," George C. Herring cogently reasons that the United States still continues to struggle with the Vietnam War: thus, when US forces became "bogged down" in an inconclusive struggle with Iraqi insurgents in 2003–2004, the "Vietnam War again became a reference point for Americans" (409). For Herring, however, anxieties about repeating Vietnam hold special import: the political meaning of the syndrome—a hesitancy, even unwillingness, to commit military force to a seemingly unwinnable war—has influenced (not always positively) the development and conduct of American foreign policy for more than three decades.

Herring's conclusions support editor Anderson's claim that Vietnam holds "continuing significance" (xi) in American domestic and foreign policies. More importantly, the war resonates for everyone concerned about the role of American power at home and abroad. How should the United States balance its security interests with the ideals of national self-determination? Can (indeed, should) military force be used to foster democratization in foreign countries? What precisely is victory in a war with no easily discerned end-state? Study of the Vietnam War may not answer satisfactorily such weighty questions, but a deeper understanding of the war and the American role in it will benefit both military and civilian leaders and policymakers. The Columbia History of the Vietnam War is an excellent place for them to start.

[1] See James H. Lebovic, The Limits of U.S. Military Capability: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Pr, 2010) and Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (NY: Metropolitan, 2008).

[2] Subtitle: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (Boulder, CO: Westview Pr, 1991).

[3] "Modern Girls and New Women," in Vietnam's Southern Revolution: From Peasant Insurrection to Total War (Amherst: U Mass Pr, 2008).

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