How are young historians rewriting the history of Vietnam?

Historians in the News
tags: Vietnam War, war



Ronald Spector, professor of history and international relations at George Washington University, is the author of After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam and two other books on the Indochina wars. He served with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam in 1968-69.

... One of the most influential books about Vietnam is David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. (Steve Bannon was reading it in February 2017, the New York Times has reported.) Though he had spent a good deal of time as a reporter in Vietnam during the early 1960s, Halberstam took the same American-centered, Washington-centered, history-from-the top approach as [H.R.] McMaster and dozens of other writers. Among the more recent examples is Frederic Logevall’s Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Logevall argues that everything would have turned out differently had President Johnson just made different decisions and not lost the “chance for peace” in Vietnam. The book received rave reviews. As I argued back in 1997, books of this kind exhibit the same ethnocentrism, the same belief in American omnipotence for which Kennedy, Johnson and their advisers are often pilloried. In war, the enemy always gets a vote.

So what has changed since McMaster’s book [Dereliction of Duty] was published in 1997? I think a great deal. For one thing we now have a new generation of scholars who read Vietnamese, Chinese and Russian and have been able use the limited archival sources in Hanoi and Saigon as well the flood of new historical material from Eastern Europe, China and the former Soviet Union that became available with the end of the Cold War. These writers have moved away from the preoccupation with the Vietnam War as something that happened to the United States. “The Vietnam War was a Vietnamese war,” the historian Edward Miller has aptly observed.

These younger historians also reject the monolithic view of the Vietnam Wars popularized by authors like Francis Fitzgerald in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Fire in the Lake. Fitzgerald viewed Vietnamese history in linear terms. She perceived a strait line stretching from the long history of Vietnamese resistance to Chinese domination in the first millennium to the rise of Vietnamese anti-colonialism in the 19th and 20th century to Ho Chi Minh and the pro-independence coalition he led, the Viet Minh. Ho, she argued, was the true embodiment of this long tradition of resistance to foreign domination and invasion. The French, the Americans and the Vietnamese who sided with them were simply on the wrong side of history.

Using Vietnamese, French and American sources, historians such as Miller, Christopher Goscha, Francois Guillemot, Sophie Quinn-Judge, Charles Keith, Lien-Hang Nguyen and Keith Taylor, have thoroughly shredded this monolithic view of Vietnam’s long history. These writers have reminded us that a unified state on the territory of the modern Socialist Republic of Vietnam existed only for about 60 years after 1802. For centuries beforehand, Vietnamese rulers had shared the territory with powerful Cham and Khmer kingdoms and increasingly with regional strongmen and warlords as they expanded south. They have also shown that Vietnamese anti-colonialism developed in many different ways and that the predominance of the communists was far from inevitable. Finally, they have demonstrated that the two Vietnam wars cannot be understood as simply a duel between communists and anti-communists. Many individuals and groups in Vietnam played a varied role. Catholics, monarchists, members of the southern politico-religious movements, highland minority communities, writers, artists and intellectuals all pursued their own aims and ambitions. No group unanimously or consistently supported one warring side against the other, and loyalties often shifted during the long years of war. Lien-Hang Nguyen, whose prize-winning book Hanoi’s War has been a major source of enlightenment about North Vietnamese policies, strategies and personalities, expressed the new view most succinctly. The wars in Vietnam, she observed, long thought about in terms of black and white—colonialists vs. insurgents, communists vs. anti-communists, north vs. south— can better be understood in terms of various shades of technicolor. ...




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