The new turn back to the French and American war periods is of signal importance. Works such as Pat Pelley's Postcolonial Vietnam and Kim N. B. Ninh's A World Transformed give us for the first time real insight into dimensions of northern Vietnamese policy after 1950, from above and below. And Lien-Hang Thi Nguyen's work on northern and southern diplomacy in the late 1960s and early 1970s—drawing for the first time on Vietnamese archival and printed sources—promises to recast our understanding of the final years of the war. Southern Vietnamese politics are emerging in more complex ways, too, in Bob Brigham's pathbreaking study of National Liberation Front (NLF) diplomacy and in his current work on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the South Vietnamese state. Ed Miller's important new work on the Ngo Dinh Diem period succeeds in making Diem and his regime three-dimensional while remaining sharply critical of him. Again the use of Vietnamese archives, particularly the newly opened Ho Chi Minh City–based National Archives with materials on the South Vietnamese state, are important to these revisionist accounts. But strikingly, their work also draws on Vietnamese-language materials that have been available for some time. We can for the first time say we are beginning to understand the complexities of both North Vietnamese decision making and the contestations of power in South Vietnam in the wartime period. 2
On the American side, I am struck by the importance of several kinds of new work. One takes seriously the linkages between culture and diplomacy. I think especially here of Seth Jacobs's America's Miracle Man in Vietnam, which examines American policy toward Diem against the domestic racial and religious climate of the 1950s, and a recent thesis by Michael Allen that recasts the pow/mia (prisoner of war/missing in action) story as one about the tensions between Vietnam policies in Richard M. Nixon's era and the complicated cultural politics of grass-roots conservative activists. Equally impressive is the global turn in Mark Lawrence's excellent Assuming the Burden, which fundamentally reconsiders Harry S. Truman's decision to support the French in 1950. Mark draws on British and French sources, the latter used almost as infrequently as Vietnamese sources by American historians of the war, to argue that American decision making was shaped in powerful ways by transnational conversations among like-minded conservative elites in Washington, London, and Paris. Finally I think of Fred Logevall's Choosing War, which opened up the notion of contingency in the making of American policy toward Vietnam. I don't always agree with Fred's conclusions, but after countless books and essays in which the quagmire or containment "made them do it," his fluid and refreshing efforts to reexamine decision making by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson are terrific. 3
While I am enthusiastic about those works, much of the seemingly endless and voluminous literature about the war in Vietnam strikes me as repetitive and excessively narrow. If one more editor lets one more former war correspondent, veteran, or policy maker tell his (and usually it is his) story about Vietnam, I may not be able to cope! But of more concern is the way too much American work on the war detaches Vietnam from larger and newer narratives of domestic and international history that are reshaping our understanding of the United States in the world after 1960. The works I mention here strike me as important exceptions, and I look forward to seeing more. On both the Vietnamese and American sides, I think there is a tremendous need to "normalize" the war if we are to understand not only its particularities but also its significance in the history of the twentieth century.
Patrick Hagopian: My own interests lie largely in the domestic repercussions of the war in the postwar United States: the "lesson learning" process, commemorations, and the way Americans came to terms (or did not) with the war's moral and political entailments.
The most important recent work from this point of view is the research by journalists at the Toledo Blade, published in a series of reports beginning October 19, 2003, about atrocities committed by the U.S. Tiger Force in 1967 and the U.S. Army's flawed investigation of those crimes in 1971. This establishes a widespread pattern of war crimes that some (such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War) have charged and that many more suspected or wondered about—and the cover-up the journalists document may also explain why the charges remain controversial. 4
Two posters in the War Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam, show North Vietnamese artists' ongoing anger at the United States over the war and their sense of triumph at having defeated both the United States and China. The poster above was created by Huynh Van Gum and printed in 1965. The flag attached to the bayonet is the flag of the North Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF). The top half is red, representing Communism, and the bottom half is blue, the color of brotherhood, referring to the NLF fighters' ties to their "brothers" in South Vietnam. The caption to the poster on the facing page (date unknown) reads, "The Vietnamese Army defeated the Chinese during the war." Vietnam and China fought a brief war in early 1979, in response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. Photos by Ted Engelmann. Courtesy Ted Engelmann.
One of the most important legacies of the war was the U.S. armed forces' and government's failure to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes in Vietnam rigorously and exhaustively. Many were convinced that William Calley, found guilty for killings at My Lai, was a scapegoat. They felt that responsibility also lay with others higher up the chain of command. Vietnam veterans for years felt tainted by the stigma of unallocated blame because of the failure to prosecute the guilty, no matter how numerous or high ranking. The eventual, unsatisfactory "resolution" was for the public to "welcome home" veterans who had been in many cases unjustly stigmatized. That resolution has sunk public understanding of the Vietnam War into a moral void. Although at one time there were plenty of voices—historians' and others'—who challenged the legality of American troops' conduct in Vietnam, this now seems passé, irrelevant, and hardly considered by scholars. Is this because we share the shame that tinges these questions, reminded of our own impotence in the face of a U.S. government that daily continues to flout international law?
The Toledo Blade journalists break into this vacuum and allow us to glimpse the possibility of living as moral beings. But the reaction by historians has been negligible, and I wonder why. Every month brings news of investigations into the truth of Japanese atrocities during the Asian wars of the 1930s and 1940s; Turkish admission into the European Union seems to hinge in part on that nation's acknowledgment of twentieth-century crimes; investigators continue to hunt down the last surviving perpetrators of Nazi crimes against humanity. There is no shortage of tribunals and commissions covering events on almost every continent since the 1980s. Yet about United States–perpetrated crimes in Vietnam, there is still an embarrassed silence.
I am interested to know what influence these historical events and moral problems have in the recent historiography to which Mark refers. Are they all old news, or do they have any currency? Am I the last crank fighting forgotten political battles of an earlier age against ghostly antagonists who have now sensibly moved on? If so, why? How did that happen?
Of other recent work, Gerald Nicosia's Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement is extraordinary in its breadth and in the extensiveness of its research. It embraces Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the emergence of post–traumatic stress disorder (ptsd), and the Agent Orange trials, and it brings them together in a coherent way as few other works do. A recent work that is interesting in approach is David Maraniss'sThey Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967. It winds its narrative around events in Wisconsin, Washington, and Vietnam during a particular period, and this "slice of time" narrative approach is unusual. It relates, as an interestingly quirky kind of narrative, to Paul Hendrickson's The Living and the Dead, which also defamiliarizes a seemingly well-worn subject—Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's agonies about the war in the context of the fighting and the "war at home"—in that it weaves several strands of the story around one another. Those works are not by academic historians. I am not certain what that signifies. Some historical works appear to indicate that we are at a synthetic moment, gathering and assimilating existing knowledge; others burrow away along familiar lines of inquiry; Mark Bradley's post indicates that there are still gaps in scholarship and that we have not yet reached a plateau where we can simply take stock of where we are. The works that I cite add that this is just as true of the war at home as it is of international events and the political and military struggles in Vietnam. 5
Christian Appy: My first thoughts connect those of Mark and Patrick. As Mark indicates, we have an astonishingly impressive body of work about the war in a wide variety of fields—history, fiction, poetry, art, film (especially documentary). And more and more of it comes from Vietnamese sources and includes international perspectives. Yet, as Patrick suggests, depressingly little of this work has made its way into the broadest channels of American public memory. Of course, this is a complaint that might well be made by scholars in any field, but there is no denying the ample evidence of willful amnesia that has effectively erased, excluded, or distorted a vast range of Vietnam War experience.
Patrick is right, I think, to suggest that we have not come close to confronting the topic of American war crimes in Vietnam. Indeed, perhaps the most important criticism to be made of the Toledo Blade series (valuable as it was) is that it claimed the Tiger Force was a "rogue unit" whose atrocities were largely exceptional. Every time one of these revelations comes out, as with the news about former senator Bob Kerrey's SEAL team (U. S. Navy Sea, Air, and Land Team) killings, there is an almost-habitual "We're shocked, we're shocked" reaction followed by an impulse to isolate the subject by failing to connect it to other examples or to broader American policies (free-fire zones, for example) or to the responsibilities of top civilian and military officials.
If it's any consolation, Patrick, you're not the only crank. I recently read a thousand-page dissertation, produced by Nicholas Turse at Columbia University, called "'Kill Anything That Moves': U.S. War Crimes and Atrocities in Vietnam, 1965–1973." Though recent books like David Anderson's Facing My Lai have kept the topic alive in important ways (and introduced many students to it), Turse makes clear how far we've come since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when books on war crimes were pouring out. Some of them have been deservedly forgotten or discredited, but many important ones have long been out of print and ignored. 6
That said, we also need to think about how to make better use of the historical memories that have survived both in educating ourselves and in finding new ways to communicate to students. I'm often surprised by how important historical "information" of one kind or another leaks through to the present in ways I wish I were more aware of and better able to understand. Let me offer just one example. The other day in class almost all of my sixty students said that they had seen the 1963 image of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolating himself in Saigon. What surprised me was not the familiarity with the image—I had noticed it reappearing in high school textbooks after a long hiatus in the 1980s—but the source of their familiarity. Many knew of it from the cover of a 1992 CD (compact disc) by Rage Against the Machine. That does not mean students had learned from the CD how to interpret the image historically, but they may have learned something equally valuable from lines like this:
The teacher stands in front of the class
But the lesson plan he can't recall
The student's eyes don't perceive the lies
Bouncing off every fucking wall
His composure is well kept
I guess he fears playing the fool
The complacent students sit and listen to the
Bullshit that he learned in school. 7
Why did it take me thirteen years to see that this CD might relate to my lesson plans?
Robert K. Brigham: For me, one interesting development has been the growing number of young scholars who have the language skills and interest to conduct research on the Vietnam War from the Viet perspective. For far too long, scholarly literature focused exclusively on high policy in Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi. We now have some fascinating new studies that look at Vietnam's modern revolution from a variety of vantage points. 8
It is exciting to attend scholarly conferences and see panels drawing on Vietnamese-language sources.
Another significant development has been work by senior scholars who have only recently focused on the war proper. I think specifically of David Elliott's two-volume history, The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta. The use of microhistory to tell the story of the war is particularly attractive. 9
As young scholars begin to revise our understanding of issues, I am sure that there will be a period of great uncertainty. Every revisionist work is going to be under close scrutiny. Is this an apology for the war? Is this work too sympathetic to the Saigon government? Does this author believe that the war could have been won if the United States focused on pacification earlier? We have to revise the current narrative substantially, but revisionism does not mean triumphalism or acceptance. This is a very interesting time to be writing about the war. For example, I have just finished a book on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. It is a social history that looks at the lives of ordinary enlisted men outside the field of battle. After ten years of research, it seems clear to me that the ARVN is one of the most misunderstood armies in history. I wish that many people who write on the war could see the source material, diaries, letters, etc., that I found in Vietnam and the States. This army's history tells us much about the declining influence of Confucianism (revising Paul Mus and Frances FitzGerald) in the village, but the increasing importance of family ties. It also helps us understand the problems associated with nation building (a good lesson for Iraq) and the negative racial stereotyping that helped Americans frame the ARVN in a particular way. 10
Marilyn B. Young: Mark, I'd like to hear more about what you mean by normalizing the war—in what sense, or maybe in whose sense, of normal? Normalize in the sense of assimilating to the war that preceded it in Korea, rather than retaining the sense of Vietnam being aberrational, sure. But is that what you mean?
Bob, I want to underline what you hint at, that new histories may run the risk of apologia because of what they take to be the polemical, knee-jerk, political thrust of earlier works. And I think apologetic histories of the war are not only bad history but, of equal concern, dangerously misleading about the present. Despite some comparisons to El Salvador, the war in Vietnam remains the prime comparison (on all sides) for the current war. So how Vietnam is remembered, by whom, and why is vitally important. In this regard, Patrick's work (and also Chris's) is terribly important. And yes, the way U.S. war crimes—there never was a single prosecution for a war crime during or after the war, by the way; that is not what Calley was charged with—remained unaccounted for during and after the war continues to haunt the country. 11
Bradley: Be assured, Marilyn, I don't mean to call up a Nixonian notion of normalization. As your comment suggests, equating Vietnam with any sense of normality has vexed connotations. What I don't mean to convey is an approach that makes the war normal by making it a noble cause. This is the kind of revisionism I think Bob's post alludes to: the recent reprise of claims that Vietnam was a good war, essential to the larger American goal of containing Communism; that our South Vietnamese allies offered a stable and democratic alternative to Ho Chi Minh's Communism; and that the U.S. military won in the field but was undermined at home with the valor of American soldiers stolen by the media, politicians, and antiwar activists. Whatever the limits of an earlier generation of Vietnam War scholarship, one would have hoped its informed critiques of American wartime decision making would have long put those fantastical claims to rest. That they continue to resonate is both distressing and dispiriting, though perhaps not so surprising given the ongoing war in Iraq. The fact that they are again being argued with renewed vigor, and that they require strong and reasoned refutation, frustratingly crowds out the space for the kind of normalization I have in mind.
In part, I do mean putting Korea and Vietnam into the same frame, but I mean more than that. One of the most important implications of seeing the war from a variety of Vietnamese perspectives is the possibility that it will allow us to approach its American dimensions from different starting points and with different questions. My book Imagining Vietnam and America began as an effort to explore the origins of the Cold War in Vietnam, particularly from the perspective of Vietnamese actors largely absent in the existing scholarly literature. But in retrospect, while the Vietnamese dimension was new, I was embarking on a relatively conventional Cold War history project. I began by seeing Vietnamese and Americans as inhabiting largely hermetically sealed worlds; when these worlds collided in the spheres of ideas or power politics, as they certainly did, I assumed the central actors on both sides talked past one another rather than in any kind of shared dialogue. 12
That I saw the Vietnamese-American encounter in this way initially is no surprise given the ways American exceptionalism, undergirded by conceptions of post-1945 American hegemony, have structured so much of the writing on American diplomacy. In these works, the United States is not just portrayed as different from other state actors but somehow remains fundamentally apart from the historical relationships and processes that surround it and shape the states and peoples with which it interacts. Many existing accounts of American relations with Vietnam and Southeast Asia after 1945 had seen the period as a virtual tabula rasa. In them, the Cold War forms an almost axiomatic starting point, and local actors are quickly subsumed in the escalating global rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States.
I should also add that historians of Vietnam have their own forms of exceptionalism. While the works of historians of colonial and postcolonial Southeast Asia have been centrally concerned with indigenous actors, their predominant focus until recently has been on univocal, national, and—like the accounts by their American counterparts—sometimes triumphal narratives in which the significance of local and global interactions for the area's past plays a marginal role, if any.
As I began the research that formed the empirical base of Imagining Vietnam and America and worked my way through Vietnamese-language primary source material in Hanoi, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris as well as American archival materials, I began to see that the evidence didn't really fit the well-established national narratives and their exceptionalist assumptions. Instead, it was clear that Vietnamese and American perceptions of one another and visions of postcolonial Vietnam drew on a common transnational vocabulary in which notions of social Darwinism, civilization, and modernity were just as resonant in Vietnam as they were in America, even if actors on the two sides appropriated and transformed them in different ways. And in the American case, where historical actors and historians alike have often been insistent on the exceptionalism of the United States as a colonial power, it was striking to discover how closely American discourse and policy on Vietnam paralleled perception and behavior by European colonial actors. Whether or not the claims I put forward in Imagining are fully persuasive, they would never have emerged without my having first immersed myself in Vietnamese source material. It was in trying to come to terms with what I discovered there that I was able to approach both Vietnamese and American history in a more expansive frame.