Studying the Vietnam War

By Lawrence, Mark Atwood | Humanities, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Studying the Vietnam War


Lawrence, Mark Atwood, Humanities


THESE ARE BOOM TIMES for historians of the Vietnam War. One reason is resurgent public interest in a topic that had lost some of its salience in American life during the 1990s. At that time, the end of the Cold War and surging confidence about U.S. power seemed to diminish the relevance of long ago controversies and the need to draw lessons from America's lost war. But then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: grueling conflicts that, in key respects, resembled the war in Southeast Asia three decades earlier. Critics complained that George W. Bush had mired the nation in "another Vietnam," and military strategists focused anew on the earlier war for clues about fighting insurgents in distant, inhospitable places. For their part, historians seized the opportunity to reinterpret Vietnam for a younger generation and, especially, to compare and contrast the Vietnam conflict with America's new embroilments.

More recently, intense public interest in the war has been sustained by fiftieth anniversaries of the war's most harrowing years for the United States. Publishers have used these occasions to release high-profile histories, including Mark Bowden's widely reviewed Hue 1968, a sprawling account of the largest battle between U.S. and Communist forces during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The media are taking part as well. During 2017 and early 2018, the New York Times is publishing an online series of approximately 130 op-eds focused on the events of 1967. The biggest moment of all is due in late September: the premiere of the much anticipated 18-hour documentary on the war from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, an event certain to inspire new waves of commentary about Vietnam and to rekindle debate in living rooms across the nation.

But there is another, less noticed reason for renewed attention to the Vietnam War: Spectacular new source material has transformed the possibilities for writing about the subject. Some of this new documentation has emerged from U.S. archives as a result of declassification in the last decade or so. Records from the Nixon and Ford presidencies (1969-1977), especially, are making it possible for historians to write with more confidence and in greater detail about the final stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, long a relatively neglected era of the war.

Indeed, the last phase of U.S. military operations has recently spawned an especially contentious debate on one of the most fundamental controversies about Vietnam: Could the United States and its South Vietnamese allies have won the war if the American public had not turned against it? Provocative new works by Lewis Sorley and Gregory Daddis lead the way in arguing for and against, respectively, the notion that the U.S. military could have secured overall victory, if not for crumbling political support within the United States.

Meanwhile, writing about every phase of American decision-making has been enhanced by the release of audio recordings that U.S. presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon made of important meetings, telephone conversations, or both. Because these often convey the mood and emotions of senior policymakers, they are invaluable in helping historians gain a richer understanding of the motives that underlay decision-making about the war. It is now possible, for example, to hear Lyndon Johnson's anguish about escalating the U.S. role in 1964 and 1965. LBJ's doubts, along with his obvious awareness of the problems that would beset U.S. forces if he escalated the war in Vietnam, have led many historians to scrap the once dominant idea that leaders in Washington, ignorant of Vietnamese politics and blinded by Cold War assumptions about the dangers of communism, walked step-by-step into a "quagmire" that no one had anticipated. The old question-How could Americans have been so ignorant?-has been replaced by a new one: Why did U.S. leaders commit the nation to war despite abundant doubts and accurate knowledge of the obstacles they would confront? …

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