The Best Histories of the Vietnam War
from The Water's Edge

The Best Histories of the Vietnam War

Vietnam War Books
Vietnam War Books

Next Sunday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the first American combat troops in Vietnam. It wasn’t a decision that President Lyndon Johnson had planned on making. True, the previous August had seen the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which prompted a near unanimous Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution supporting Johnson’s determination ”to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression. But three months later Johnson was still insisting: “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

What changed Johnson’s mind was Viet Cong attacks on U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam in February 1965. He decided to retaliate by launching Operation Rolling Thunder, an air war on North Vietnam that would last until 1968. With large numbers of U.S. aircraft and personnel on the ground in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command in the country, wanted the protection of U.S. combat troops. On March 8, 1965, two Marine battalions landed on the beach near the U.S. air base at Da Nang. They were welcomed by Vietnamese girls handing out leis.

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Wars and Conflict

Johnson was confident the United States would prevail. In April 1965 he told the nation: “We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.” He was wrong. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he had set in motion a war that would destroy his presidency, divide the country, and reshape American foreign policy for a generation.

All this week, I will be marking the fiftieth anniversary of those Marines going ashore at Da Nang by posting my favorite Vietnam War books, memoirs, novels, movies, photos, and songs. To start off, here are a baker’s dozen of the best histories of the Vietnam War:

Rick Atkinson, The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 (1989). Atkinson, at the time a Washington Post reporter, recounts the experiences of the West Point class of 1966 over a quarter century. By telling the story of their training as cadets, their years in Vietnam, and what they experienced when they returned (for those who did) from the battlefield, Atkinson paints a vivid portrait of the consequences that Vietnam had not just on individual soldiers but also on the U.S. Army.

Bernard Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1966). President Johnson wasn’t the first Western leader confident his country could suppress insurgents in Vietnam. The French took on the same task fifteen years earlier and met an ignominious end at the battle for Dien Bien Phu. Fall, an acclaimed war correspondent, tells the story of the French forces who fell to the Viet Minh. Fall, who also wrote Street Without Joy about the French experience in Indochina, was killed in 1967 by a mine planted on the very street he used as a book title.

Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam(1972). FitzGerald won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award by highlighting American misconceptions about Vietnam and arguing that the U.S. intervention was doomed from the start. The National Review described Fire in the Lake as “gospel for the anti-war movement.”

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Wars and Conflict

David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972). Halberstam, a New York Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam, gave the English language a new catchphrase with his portrayal of how America’s “best and brightest” got it wrong in Vietnam. The book paints a picture of hubris and self-deception as policymakers refused to learn from the past and produced an epic disaster that split a nation.

George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975(2001). Herring, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky, provides a concise yet thorough history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He traces the military, diplomatic, and political factors behind the Vietnam War and America’s failure to win it.

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History(1983). Karnow draws on his experience covering the war for Time, the Washington Post, and NBC News to provide what may be the most comprehensive history thus far written of the war. PBS produced an Emmy-winning television series, Vietnam: A Television History, to accompany the book’s release.

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam (1988). Krepinevich argues that the U.S. Army was grossly unprepared to fight the enemy it encountered in Vietnam. Intent on using the warfighting methods they had honed in Europe in World War II, U.S. generals stubbornly failed to change their tactics to defeat a different kind of enemy.

Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (2012). Logevall won the Pulitzer Prize for history with his magisterial telling of the backstory to America’s war in Vietnam. He begins in 1919 with the Paris Peace Conference’s rejection of Ho Chi Minh’s petition for Vietnam’s independence and ends in 1959 with a Viet Cong raid that killed Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand of Copperas Cove, Texas and Major Dale Buis of Imperial Beach, California. Theirs are the first two names listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (1997). McMaster’s argument is straightforward: “The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, DC.” While McMaster faults President Johnson and his advisors, he has equally sharp things to say about the willingness of senior military leaders to go along with a deeply flawed policy.

Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once....And Young: Ia Drang—the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam (1992). Moore, then a colonel in the army, and Galloway, a reporter on the ground in Vietnam, vividly reconstruct the bloody fighting they both witnessed at Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the first major battle of the war. The heavy casualties that U.S. forces suffered there led Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to write a secret memo to President Johnson predicting that the U.S. casualty rate in Vietnam was about to increase sharply and that the dispatch of more troops “will not guarantee success.”

Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam(1988). Sheehan, who covered the Vietnam War for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for chronicling the unusual story of John Paul Vann. Vann retired from the army in 1963 after failing to persuade his superiors to change U.S. strategy in South Vietnam, only to return to the country two years later as a civilian U.S. official. He eventually accumulated enough power and respect that he effectively became a “civilian general.” Vann died in 1972 in a helicopter crash shortly after helping lead South Vietnamese forces to victory at the Battle of Kontum

Harry G. Summers, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982). Summers, a U.S. army colonel who fought in Vietnam, applies the insights of Germany strategist Claus von Clausewitz to analyze why the United States failed in Vietnam. He contends that the United States erred in targeting the Viet Cong rather than the real enemy, the North Vietnamese Army.

Robert Timberg, The Nightingale’s Song (1998). Timberg, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who was badly wounded in Vietnam and eventually became a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, tells the story of five of his fellow Naval Academy graduates: John McCain, Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Jim Webb. The result is a fascinating look at the consequences the Vietnam War had not just on the men who fought it, but also on American society and politics.

These thirteen books are by no means the only Vietnam histories worth reading. Many, many books and articles have been written on the topic. If you don’t see one of your favorites listed here, please mention it in the comments.

For more suggested resources on the Vietnam War, check out the other posts in this series:

• “The Ten Best Memoirs of the Vietnam War

• “Top Ten Vietnam War Movies

• “The Twenty Best Vietnam Protest Songs

• “Ten Vietnam War Novels to Read

• “Iconic Images of the Vietnam War

• “TWE Remembers: The First U.S. Combat Troops Arrive in Vietnam