Post 1990 Vietnam War Historiography

by Abigail Pfeiffer on November 15, 2011

The historiography of the Vietnam War and United States involvement has undergone several distinct changes. In the direct aftermath of the war, the immediate American historiography of the war relied heavily on Western sources, as historians constructed the historiography based on the information available. As Communist sources became available, especially in the 1990s, the historiography began to transform.

Historian Ang Cheng Guan noted three separate phases of the historiography of the Vietnam War. The first generation

Vietnam War

of scholarship largely utilized official media material and the second generation relied on documents captured or collected during the war. These captured documents gave the Communist perspective, in addition to “a critical body of North Vietnamese, Chinese and Russian primary and secondary materials in both their original languages and translation, many of which only became available in the 1990s.”[1] This led to the third generation of historical work that included the Communist voice. Another consideration to the historiography is that more anti-war Americans entered academia during the 1960s and 1970s than Americans who supported the war. Mark Moyar noted the effect on the historiography: “As a result, most academic and journalistic accounts of the war written during and shortly afterwards depicted Vietnam as a bad war that the United States should not have fought.”[2] This school of Vietnam War history is orthodox, while the converse school of thought bears the revisionist label. The changing face of the historiography raises several questions: What was the Communist perspective and how did this change the historiography of the war? How did the passage of time change the historiography of the war? How did the United States come to define their strategy against the Communists? Is there anyone to blame for American involvement? This essay examines the historiography of the Vietnam War after 1990, specifically addressing different schools of historiography, including a Communist perspective, and argues that American policy makers made a series of missteps that ultimately led to the Americanization of the war in 1965.

Orthodox Vs. Revisionist

To understand American historiography of the war, it is crucial to understand the inherent differences between orthodox and revisionist histories. Essentially, orthodox historians argue that the United States entered an unwinnable war. Moyar categorized the root of revisionist thinking to “a small group of veterans and academic historians who rejected the fundamental tenets of the antiwar movement,” and who were “producing works that became known as “revisionist.”[3] In the late 1990s, the revisionist school began to produce work that focused on the period after the Tet Offensive. This historiography claimed that by the 1970s, the strength of South Vietnam’s army increased enough that they crushed the insurgency. Moyar discussed several revisionist books, including Lewis Sorley’s book, A Better War, in which Sorely argued that as the American forces withdrew, the South Vietnamese improved and by 1972 were able successfully to defeat a North Vietnamese offensive with fourteen divisions.

Another revisionist book that Moyar addressed is B.G. Burkett’s Stolen Valor, and it “demolished most of the mythology surrounding Vietnam veterans in one fell swoop.”[4] Burkett revealed through his detailed research that several hundred Vietnam veterans in the media spotlight were frauds. He claimed these veterans appeared in the media and reported stories of physical and psychological atrocities, giving evidence to antiwar historians.  Regardless of what side a person favors, analysis of both the orthodox and revisionist scholarship provides a more complete history. War is not black and white and rarely are there clear-cut answers to the questions posed by war. The historiography of the Vietnam War continues to transform and it is beneficial to historians to study all arguments presented.

Communist Perspective

Mark Philip Bradley observed in 2000 that in the existing literature “the perceptions and policies of Vietnamese revolutionary elites remain almost completely ignored.”[5] When the Communist perspective became readily available to historians, it shed new light on the relationship between Vietnam and the United States. Yet this new perspective revealed inconsistencies within American policy. For instance, from 1961 through 1965, Hanoi attempted to reach a negotiated settlement with the South to set up a neutral coalition government. Robert McNamara, however, conveyed astonishment at Hanoi’s attempted negotiations, when in fact American officials were aware of it.[6]

According to Frederick Logevall, in his book Changing War, not only were policy makers aware of it, but Washington policy makers tried desperately to avoid negotiations.[7] Before American hostilities escalated in 1964 and 1965, Hanoi’s immediate short-term objective did not include the unification of Vietnam; instead, their focus included the neutralization of the south and the elimination of Diem and the American presence.[8] In 1962, Pham Van Dong and other leading Hanoi officials refused to take any military action in the South because they did not want to give the Americans a reason for military intervention in North Vietnam.[9] Dong believed that if Hanoi exercised patience and restraint, then “American weariness would compel them to withdraw.” Hanoi officials understood the need for patience and both Dong and Ho foresaw a protracted struggle, and history showed that they were right.[10]

Vietnam War Memorial

Historians can look at the immediate period after the deaths of Diem and Kennedy and see that the Lao Dong Party Central Committee convened its Ninth Plenum, and from this, historians can clearly see the priorities of the Vietnamese Communists. This Plenum contained three sessions and concluded that the task of the international communist movement existed to guard the purity of Marxism and Leninism while strengthening the unity in the socialist camp and the fighting strength of the party.[11]

Vietnamese officials passed a resolution at the end of the Plenum that “called on all to remember the international responsibility of the Party, to protect the North and to do their utmost to achieve victory in the South.”[12] After this resolution, war preparations increased in the three areas identified as priorities: northern protection, intensifying the insurgency in the South, and supporting the Laotian revolution.[13] Analysis of Vietnamese sources demonstrated the difference between how the United States viewed the divisions within Vietnam and how Hanoi viewed these differences.

A common misconception about the Vietnam War contended that the hostilities were between two independent nations, North and South Vietnam, when really it “was always a conflict between Vietnamese communists from all parts of Vietnam and anticommunists, also from all parts of Vietnam but located geographically in the nation’s southern half.”[14] This misconception led many to believe that America lost the war in Vietnam because the North Vietnamese conquered the South with conventional tactics. The American news media helped to perpetuate this myth with the footage from the 1975 fall of Saigon.

Images are very powerful in war, and this image is no exception. American viewers saw the communist regular forces

Fall of Saigon

descend upon Saigon and the Presidential Palace with tanks; a scene that looked more like WWII than a people’s war. Perhaps this myth helped to ease bruised American egos, because Americans were unaccustomed to losing wars, especially to an Eastern country under Communist rule. The moral superiority that abounded in the policymaking at the time found it hard to accept that the strong American military could lose to a county considered inferior. The propagation of the myth that North Vietnam ultimately won with conventional methods eased the minds of American policy makers and their concern with United States prestige.

Moral Superiority

Moral superiority served as a key motivator in the Vietnam War, as in many wars in American history. David Milne discussed Walt Rostow’s contribution to the eventual bombing of North Vietnam. Rostow “contributed profoundly to a conflict that tore gaping holes in America’s societal fabric, undermined trust in the government, and prematurely ended a presidency.”[15] Milne argued that Rostow’s economic determinism led to his recommendations to bomb North Vietnam. Rostow theorized that countries passed through five stages of economic growth, and communism could not serve as the fifth stage.

Instead, he referred to communism as a “parasitic, if troublesome, infection.” Rostow’s theory of economic determinism included undertones of American superiority. Rostow argued, “that America alone possessed the capacity to guide developing countries towards the liberal-capitalist endpoint…”[16] The problem with Rostow’s theory is that it ignored the human condition and instead contended that leaders only considered their economic health in peace and war. But, how did a theory of economic determinism lead to a recommendation to bomb North Vietnam?  Contemporary history assumed that poorer countries strove to reach Western levels of wealth. Naturally, this led to the belief that to coerce a nation to the will of the United States included threats to the enemy’s economy.[17] To justify his belief of bombing North Vietnam, Rostow told Dean Rusk: “Ho [Chi Minh] has an industrial complex to protect: he is no longer a guerilla fighter with nothing to lose.”[18]

The Blame Game

A theme of Vietnam War historiography is blame, specifically who to blame for the “escalation and mismanagement” of American involvement.  Lyndon Johnson often served as the focus of blame.[19] Nicole Anslover observed that historical scholarship needs new perspective on the motivations of Vietnam policy decisions. Anslover argued that Johnson’s decisions were a result of continuity to earlier presidents, especially John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower. She stated, “Johnson sought approval from Dwight Eisenhower and attempted to prove cohesion with his policies, too.”[20] When Johnson took over the presidency, he assumed the country wanted him to carry out Kennedy’s policies. For that, history cannot blame Johnson.

Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert McNamara

Kennedy inspired the American public and his death certainly produced shock waves throughout the country. Johnson was never a part of Kennedy’s inner circle and that made it hard for him to establish Kennedy’s policies, so he attempted to demonstrate cohesion with Eisenhower’s policies as well. History has demonstrated that despite Johnson’s assurances, he did in fact escalate American involvement in Vietnam. To exhibit his continuity with the Kennedy administration, Johnson kept many of Kennedy’s advisors in his administration. Not surprisingly, these advisors also stressed the importance of continuity. After all, their jobs were at stake if Johnson decided not to concern himself with continuity and instead forged his own path in the Vietnam conflict. Notably, he kept Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy. The historiography has shown that all three of these advisors influenced the Americanization of the war.

Honor

American policy makers made many mistakes in regards to the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara, in his autobiography In Retrospect, famously wrote, “we were wrong, terribly wrong.”[21] That leads to the question of what factors led a group of intelligent, educated men to make such wrong decisions, repeatedly. Lawrence Freedman argued that “face” or “honor” distorted American policy.[22] He wrote that, “Concerns over ‘face’ or ‘honour’ can readily distort policy-making when used as an argument for persevering with a failed policy.”[23] Freedman labeled John McNaughton, a close advisor of McNamara, as the “disillusioned strategist” of the Johnson administration.

McNaughton believed that South Vietnam weaknesses could trap the United States, and that “the availability of options would allow Washington to maintain an illusion of control even though none of the various measures available, from bombing to sending in ground troops, could make a decisive difference.”[24] Mistakes made by the United States during the Vietnam War should include analysis through the lens of the Cold War. A major concern of the United States included the concern of Chinese and Russian involvement. Chen Jian noted the substantial aid given to Hanoi by the Chinese government to “show their comrades in Hanoi their solidarity.”[25] Even before the Americanization of the war in 1965, the Chinese provided Hanoi with aid totaling 320 million yuan. American policy makers based many of their decisions, especially their strategy on graduated pressure, on this fear of Soviet and Chinese intervention.

Conclusion

For four decades, historians contributed to the historiography of the Vietnam War. Distinct schools of thought emerged, such as orthodox and revisionist. While each side believed their historiography is correct, historians must understand that history is open to interpretation. Each side can benefit from analysis of different viewpoints, as this adds to historical scholarship. In the immediate post war period, historians did not enjoy open access to Communist sources. This negatively affected historians because no historiography is complete without the view of each side.

This essay certainly cannot do justice to the entire historiography of the Vietnam War, but if anything, the historiography demonstrated the negative effects of the United States attempts to create other countries in their image. There is nothing wrong to believe in your own superiority, but it is ethically wrong to use that superiority as an excuse to wage war. Rostow’s thesis and Cold War tensions showed that American policymakers based much of their strategy on ideological fears and a twentieth century version of manifest destiny. Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese wanted a unified Vietnam and the freedom to choose how to govern. The United States wanted Southeast Asia to be free of Communism, and they feared the domino effect if Vietnam became a Communist country. One question the historiography has not yet answered, but may answer in the future, is if the United States had the right to dictate how another country governs itself.

Bibliography

Anslover, Nicole. “It’s Not Enough to Say We’re in Viet-Nam Simply Because Ike Got us There”: Lyndon Johnson and the Constraints of Continuity in Vietnam Policymaking.” White House Studies, 9, no. 3:233-244.

Freedman, Lawrence. “Vietnam and the Disillusioned Strategist.” International Affairs, 72, no. 1 (Jan., 1996): 133-151.

Gates, John M.  “People’s War in Vietnam.” The Journal of Military History, 54, no. 3 (Jul. 1990): 325-344.

Guan, Ang Chen. “The Vietnam War, 1962-64: The Vietnamese Communist Perspective.” Journal of Contemporary History, 35, no. 4 (Oct. 2000): 601-618.

Jian, Chen. “China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-69.” The China Quarterly, no 142 (Jun., 1995): 356-387.

Logevall, Frederick. “Bringing in the “Other Side”: New Scholarship on the Vietnam Wars.” Journal of Cold War Studies, 3, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 77-93.

Milne, David. “Our Equivalent of Guerilla Warfare”: Walt Rostow and the Bombing of North Vietnam,” The Journal of Military History, 71, no. 1 (Jan., 2007): 169-203.

Moyar, Mark. “Vietnam: Historians at War.” Academic Quest, Vol. 21 (2008): 37-50.

Oliver, Kendrick. “Towards a New Moral History of the Vietnam War?” The Historical Journal, 47, no. 3 (2004): 757-774.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

jaylenn scott May 16, 2012 at 6:17 pm

Should the united states have entered the Vietnam war and why ?

Anna September 29, 2012 at 4:25 am

Thanks for this well-researched and interesting piece! This was very helpful in compiling historiography details for an exam I am studying for. Thanks again!

Abigail Pfeiffer October 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Hi Anna,

Thank you! I’m glad that my work was helpful for you. Are you interested in Vietnam War history or are you forced to study it at school? :)

Abigail Pfeiffer October 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Sorry for the late response….trying to get caught up on everything! That’s a very broad question you have asked…..I think there are two very valid arguments to each side, but in my opinion, America did not need to enter the Vietnam War. However, hindsight is 20/20. What is your opinion?

kenneth albert September 24, 2013 at 4:37 pm

my uncle was an historian stationed in Saigon during the war. when he was there he found a journal and had it translated. it was buried in my mother’s closet. after his death I found it and published it on amazon titled the journal of an unknown north viet cong battalion leader. this is the war seen from the eyes of a soldier of the other side. it will change the way we think of that war.

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Brian October 14, 2013 at 5:50 am

Your essay is of major use for me. I am in the process of researching my MA Thesis, in which I look at the CPUSA and their press coverage of the war. You provide great secondary sources on the Vietnam War for me to uncover the evolving historiography, and place my own work in the current trend of the “communist perspective.” Thank you.

Abigail Pfeiffer October 14, 2013 at 6:51 am

Brian, I’m glad it was of use to you! Your MA thesis sounds very interesting! If you remember, send me a copy after you finish it….I would love to read it. I wrote my thesis about the Korean War and Vietnam War POWs. Good luck with your MA!

Austin Raphael November 13, 2013 at 6:14 pm

I believe the book that you are referring to by Fredrick Logevall is Choosing War, not Changing War.

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jack October 21, 2014 at 2:05 am

this is a load of shit!!!!!!!!

Abigail Pfeiffer October 21, 2014 at 5:15 am

Thank you for your eloquent comment. You clearly have a dizzying intellect. Please, elaborate more on what was shit? You do understand what historiography is, correct?

Mary March 11, 2015 at 9:37 pm

Thank you so much for a current and well written outline of this historiography. Hess and Divine offer great insights but there have been changes since their discussion of Vietnam War historiography. This is a wonderful article will be of great use in discussing different theories in an upcoming historiographical essay of the antiwar movements of the Vietnam War. Thanks again!

Shawn Warswick March 27, 2016 at 5:14 pm

As others have noted, thank you for this. I’m currently working on a synthetic paper covering the war and this has helped me with my research.

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