‘The Vietnam War’ revisited: Books to counteract historical narratives

Oct. 30, 2017, 12:18 p.m.
'The Vietnam War' revisited: Books to counteract historical narratives
A still from Ken Burns’ new documentary series “The Vietnam War.” (Courtesy of PBS)

A few days ago, the Stanford Review published an article by Andrew Friedman entitled “Burns’s ‘Vietnam’ Recites a Leftist Consensus.” This article was a review of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s recent 18-hour “The Vietnam War,” a television documentary which aired last month. The article criticized how the documentary simply repeated the commonly taught analyses that the United State’s intervention in the war was a complete failure and argued that the United States was far more successful than activists believe. It concludes claiming that the documentary “offers not insight, but lazy politicization” much like modern activist groups of Stanford. It is therefore quite ironic that “lazy politicization” is exactly how I would classify this article. I’d like to list some of my favorite books exploring the history and historiography (the body of historical literature surrounding a topic) of the Vietnam War in hopes of rectifying the inaccuracies presented by that article.


“PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam” by Douglas Pike

This 1986 text written by Vietnam expert Douglas Pike was one of the first to explore the People’s Army itself. In fact, Friedman discussed quotes from this book when claiming how the United States won every major battle during their excursion into Vietnam. He neglects, however, to mention that one of Pike’s main arguments was that battles were irrelevant: no matter how many battles the United States won, the North Vietnamese forces were fighting in a manner unknown and undefeatable by the United States forces in the long run. While it is quite frustrating to see Pike’s arguments twisted to fit a political agenda, this book still remains a seminal text in the development of the historiography of the Vietnam War.


“The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam” by James William Gibson

With a title like that, how could this book not make the list? Written by historian and sociologist James William Gibson, this 1986 book is another text that argues that the United States was on the path to failure throughout the Vietnam War. Citing a massive list of documents (and showing how many were forged or altered by military officials), Gibson argues that the United States was fighting a  “technowar:” a war where the goal is to completely eliminate the opposing side through any means necessary with a focus only on raw numbers and efficiency. However, despite the technological advancement of the “mechanized anti-communist” forces, Gibson argues that this method proved useless against the Northern Vietnamese forces and in fact strengthened their ideological motivations. This text questions the very foundations of our understanding of war, showing that war cannot simply be won through raw military effectiveness.


“Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965” by Mark Moyar

A break from orthodox history, revisionist historian Mark Moyar’s 2006 “Triumph Forsaken” argues that America had the potential to win the Vietnam War (revisionist here refers to the challenging of orthodox history and is not derogatory). A historian at Stanford’s own Hoover Institute, Moyar claims that the United States had the potential to win the Vietnam War but ended up losing due to its attempts to protect the South Vietnamese government. While it slightly struggles to defend such a large claim, Moyar’s book overall still provides an important counterpoint to the orthodox view and is very well written. However, Moyar also argues that the American intervention in Vietnam would not prevent the spread of communism à la the domino theory, a controversial and widely discredited theory that Friedman fully supports in his article.


“Vietnam: A View from the Front Lines” by Andrew Wiest

Written and edited in 2012 by historian Andrew Wiest, this text is a collection of various interviews with American veterans of the Vietnam War. Drawing from their oral histories, it shows how those fighting on the front lines felt alienated from the American cause and suggests that the realities of the war had a lasting effect on many veterans. This text provides insight into the Americans who fought on the front lines for a cause many did not believe in or understand.


“Vietnam at War” by Mark Philip Bradley

Mark Philip Bradley’s 2009 “Vietnam at War” examines the Vietnam War from the point of view of the Vietnamese themselves — an unfortunately rare perspective in the historiography of the war in Western academia. It examines the rising path to civil war and the motivations behind different Vietnamese factions by analyzing recently released Vietnamese documents. While Friedman claims that the North Vietnamese forces were fighting for the spread of international communism, Bradley suggests there was no single unifying force behind the North Vietnamese forces. Instead, he analyzes a myriad of forces such as communism, nationalism, anti-colonialism, pre-existing conflicts with South Vietnam and the desire for self-government.


“War Without Fronts: the USA in Vietnam” by Bernd Greiner

Written by historian Bernd Greiner in 2007, “War Without Fronts” chronicles the atrocities and excessive violence performed by both the American and the Vietnamese forces during the war. While Friedman waves away the rape and murder of innocent Vietnamese civilians as a “mistake,” this text portrays these events as they actually were: calculated acts of force performed by willing and conscious perpetrators. Furthermore, “War Without Fronts” explores how such acts of violence were not rare events but rather a constant reality of the war for Vietnamese civilians. This text can be difficult to read, but an understanding of the violence and rape performed by American forces in Vietnam is necessary to understand the war as a whole. They cannot be treated as mere footnotes.

These are just part of a vast historiography of this unforgettable war. The Vietnam War was and remains a complex beast with no clear solution. Historical arguments are a vital part of historiography, for the Vietnam War in particular. However, that does not make it acceptable to twist and distort historical realities to fit a political agenda. Instead, we should read these books and others like them in order to grapple with the past — both the comfortable and the uncomfortable — in order to make informed decisions for the future.


Contact Benjamin Maldonado at bmaldona ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Ben Maldonado studies history. His column "Eugenics on the Farm" will be appearing every odd week of winter quarter.

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