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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: September 2017

2 - The Vietnam War as a World Event

from Part I - Globalism and Crisis
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The Cambridge History of Communism
  • Online ISBN: 9781316471821
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New political histories of the Vietnam War now appear with regularity, as scholars gain access to more archives of the US State Department, some from the Pentagon and written by official Armed Forces historians, as well as collections of presidential papers and tapes in the libraries of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. A few examples: books by Logevall, Fredrik, The Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2012), and Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), Lawrence, Mark A., Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to the War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), Bradley, Mark Philip, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919–1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), and Rust, William J., Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), all provide valuable context and multiarchival scholarship on the origins of the US war. Halberstam, David’s The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972) is one of several excellent books by journalists about the failures of US policymaking for Vietnam. Several scholars have utilized Nixon’s White House papers and tapes to write on the final years of the war, including Kimball, Jeffrey in Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998).

For general US histories of the war, from its origins up to 1975 and beyond, one can single out Herring, George’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979) as a concise and objective study; Young, Marilyn B.’s The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) covers all three Indochina Wars with great thoroughness and a strong critique of US policy. Essential eyewitness accounts of the way the war was fought include the two books by Schell, Jonathan, The Village of Ben Suc and The Military Half, now combined in one paperback volume entitled The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988). For in-depth scholarly research, Elliott, David provides a two-volume work on the communists (known as the Viet Cong by the US military) in the Mekong delta: The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003). Elliott, Mai, who worked with David for the Rand Corporation, has contributed a study of Rand in Southeast Asia: A History of Vietnam War Era (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2010). Rand, a contractor to the US military, was responsible for much of US government analysis, and as Mai Elliott shows, in the early days it was strongly influenced by one analyst who saw the bombing of the DRV as the key to winning the war. His ideas later lost favor.

“International history” of the Vietnam War, covering all the state actors with a major influence on the war, is a genre pioneered by British scholar Smith, Ralph B.. His three-volume An International History of the Vietnam War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1984, 1986, 1991) is still the most in-depth work of this type, using the BBC Monitoring service and the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service as basic sources for the communist bloc. His inclusion of economic analysis keeps his study relevant, even though he wrote without the archival information on Soviet and Chinese policies that would become available in the 1990s. His successors include Singaporean scholar Guan, Ang Cheng, who completed the Smith opus with a final volume entitled International History of the Vietnam War: The Denouement, 1967–1975 (London: Routledge, 2011).

More recent international histories using Hanoi archives by Asselin, Pierre, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), and Nguyen, Lien-Hang T., Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), purport to be the final word on Hanoi’s role and thinking regarding the war. However, both authors take a revisionist view that puts strong emphasis on Hanoi’s actions without providing a balanced view of US war planning. The old issue of whether the Vietnamese had the right to fight to unify their country after the failure of the Geneva Agreements goes unaddressed.

Studies based on communist archives: The partial opening of archives in China, Eastern Europe and Russia during the 1990s has provided a deeper understanding of attitudes within the socialist bloc to the Vietnam War. For China, Jian, Chen, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), and Zhai, Qiang, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), have set the pace with their overviews. Gaiduk, Ilya, a Russian historian, has written two books using the Soviet archives: The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996) and Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy Toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954–1963 (Washington, DC, and Stanford: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2003). Norwegian scholar Olsen, Mari has also contributed a study based on the Soviet Foreign Ministry archive: Soviet–Vietnam Relations and the Role of China, 1949–1964: Changing Alliances (London: Routledge, 2006). All of these studies confirm the reluctance of the USSR to become involved in the second Vietnam War, until 1965.

The anti-war movement, in the United States and worldwide: We recommend the exhaustive bibliography established by Ed Moise on this topic (, but will select a few examples, specifically on the world movement: Ali, Tariq and Watkins, Susan, 1968: Marching in the Streets (London: Bloomsbury/New York: Free Press, 1998), is heavily illustrated and covers protest demonstrations in many countries. Goscha, Christoper and Vaïsse, Maurice (eds.), La guerre du Vietnam et l’Europe (1963–1973) (Brussels and Paris: Bruylant/LGDJ, 2003), is a collection of papers, some in French and some in English. Among the ones dealing with the anti-war movement are: Jost Dülffer, “The Anti-Vietnam War Movement in West Germany,” 287–305; Nadine Lubelski-Bernard, “L’opposition à la guerre du Vietnam en Belgique (1963–1973),” 307–26; and Kim Saloman, “The Anti-Vietnam War Movement in Sweden,” 327–37.

Reports from the sessions of the International War Crimes Tribunal (founded by Bertrand Russell) are online at The complete transcripts of the Winter Soldier Investigation are available at This includes the introduction by Senator Mark Hatfield, when he presented the testimonies to the Senate on 5 April 1971. The three-day event was organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, on 31 January, 1 February and 2 February 1971.

Two other sources on US war crimes are books by German writer Greiner, Bernd, War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [2007]); and Turse, Nick, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013). Both use the Pentagon’s own investigations into reported war crimes, after the My Lai massacre came to light.

On the anti-war movement within the US armed forces, Cortright, David’s Soldiers in Revolt, 1975 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2005) is an excellent source by a participant-observer.